Alcuin Library, 2836 Abbey Plaza, Collegeville, Minnesota

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Alcuin Library

Alcuin Library Before New Addition
Address: 2835 Abbey Plaza
Neighborhood/s: Saint John's University Campus, Collegeville, Minnesota
City/locality-
State/province
Collegeville, Minnesota
County-
State/province:
Stearns County, Minnesota
State/province: Minnesota
Country: United States
Year built: 1964-1966
Primary Style: Modern
Additions: Alcuin Library Learning Commons, opening January 2017
Major Alterations: Altered
Historic Function: Library
Historic Function: Seminar Rooms, Auditoriums, Typing Room, Smoking Room, Audio-Visual Collections
Other Historic Function: Seminar Rooms, Auditoriums, Typing Room, Smoking Room, Audio-Visual Collections
Current Function: Library
Current Function: Classrooms, Offices, Bible Gallery, Auditorium, Reading Rooms
Other Current Function: Classrooms, Offices, Bible Gallery, Auditorium, Reading Rooms
Architect or source of design: Marcel Breuer
Material of Exterior Wall Covering: Concrete
Part of the Site: {{{site_name}}}

Saint John's University Campus Collegeville Stearns County

Alcuin Library, 2836 Abbey Plaza, Collegeville, Minnesota
(45.581341° N, 94.391824° WLatitude: 45°34′52.828″N
Longitude: 94°23′30.566″W
)


Contents


Context: Marcel Breuer's Contribution to Modernism on Saint John's Campus

The original master plan for Saint John’s University was based upon a list of needs identified by Saint John’s monastic and educational constituents in the 1950s. After defining their vision for the school, Abbot Dworschak requested the proposals of twelve renowned architects, and picked Marcel Breuer. Among the list of architects considered were Water Gropius, Pietro Belluschi, Eero Saarinen, and Richard Neutra. All of these architects were profoundly modernist. Abbot Dworschak and his colleagues felt that in order to push the limits of the Benedictine organization, they needed to select a modern architect. According to an article in Architecture MN (January/February 2008, Vol. 34, No. 01), Abbot Dworschak said, “We feel that the modern architect, with his orientation towards functionalism and honest use of materials, is uniquely qualified to produce a Catholic work.” The first master plan was completed by Breuer in 1954, and included around twenty buildings to be constructed over the period of a century. By 1964, five buildings had already been completed. A total of ten buildings and one sculpture were completed from the original masterplan by Breuer and his associates. Marcel Breuer’s architecture at Saint John’s University:

  • Breuer Monastic Wing, 1955
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas Hall, 1959
  • Abbey and University Church, 1961
  • Alcuin Library, 1964, dedicated 1966
  • Peter Engel Science Center, 1965
  • Saint Bernard Hall, 1967
  • Saint Patrick Hall, 1967
  • Saint Boniface Hall, 1967
  • The Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, 1968
  • Bush Center for the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, 1975
  • “The Athlete,” sculpture, Warner Palaestra Recreation Center

History and Original Design Intent

The Alcuin Library is a landmark on the campus of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The primary objective of the library was to provide for a space that was open and modern at a time of great change and optimism for the university. The program was designed to create large volumes of space that are subdivided by furnishings to create nooks for various activities. Marcel Breuer effortlessly broke up the main volumes by introducing concrete columns that branch out like trees, and a central staircase. The beauty of the design comes from expression of materials and structure. While concrete is a dominant material in the original building, plaster walls, wood paneling, steel book stacks, polished granite, and carpet make appearances in the interior design. According to a publication entitled, “The Library of Saint John’s University,” from Saint John’s Library (Box 1692 Folder 6, http://cdm.csbsju.edu/cdm/ref/collection/SJUArchives/id/28303), the windows were designed to make “significant contributions to the character of the space.” The same article states that the decision to cover the windows with layered hollow-tile chimney flues stemmed from the belief that “one does not go into a library in order to look out of it.” The windows were then seen as an opportunity to use materials in a new way to create interesting lighting design. Perhaps the most telling quote from the 1966 article, “The Library of Saint John’s University,” is this:

“One raises his eyes from books and furniture and people and is not in turn distracted by passing figures or opposing structures outside. Instead, a glimpse of sky and trees refreshes and liberates the spirit. The spaciousness of the building is itself reduced to more human proportions by the greater spaciousness of the world, and nature itself tempers the straight lines of human construction (Box 1692 Folder 6, http://cdm.csbsju.edu/cdm/ref/collection/SJUArchives/id/28303).”

Significance of 1960s Library

The original Alcuin Library designed by Marcel Breuer is incredibly significant to the modern architectural movement in the United States, and the larger movement towards modernization of college campuses throughout the country. Breuer’s use of concrete as a primary building material and play with both rectilinear and curvilinear structural forms brought a new aesthetic to Saint John’s University campus. Character-defining features of the original Alcuin Library:

  • Window covers- Breuer created a textured façade by layering hollow-tile chimney flues over the windows on the exterior. During the day, the window covers create interesting patterns of light on the interior of the library.
  • Concrete Columns- Two concrete columns branch out inside the library, defining the main open spaces of the library. This expression of structure characterized the work of the architectural master. They have often been described as “concrete trees.”
  • Exposed Concrete Waffle Slabs
  • Auditorium Seating and Sloped Concrete Floor

Learning Commons Addition

Construction on a new addition to the Alcuin Library began in May 2016, and is expected to be completed in January 2017. The new addition will be called the “Alcuin Library Learning Commons.” According to the school, the objective of this new construction is to develop “students as critical thinkers.” The administrators behind the addition believe they are transitioning the former library into a new student-oriented building in the center of Saint John’s campus. However, this comes at the expense of the physical destruction of part of the original Marcel Breuer masterpiece, and subsequent obliteration of the design intent as a whole.

The new 25-million-dollar addition will add roughly 22,000 square feet of space, and will remove original book shelves in order to “free up floor space.” A major change that directly impacts the intended function of the space is the adaptation of one of the auditorium spaces into the “Saint John’s Bible Gallery.” This new incompatible use of the space required the raked auditorium floor to be leveled and the fixed auditorium seating to be removed.

Architect:

    • Gregory M. Friesen, FAIA
    • CSNA Architects, Colorado Springs

Contractor:

    • McGough
    • Saint Paul, MN

Impacts of Addition

The student community views the new addition as a loss of their beloved library. While the library will open again, it will never be the same. The library is losing many of its character-defining features, its functions, and a major exterior wall. In the words of Fr. Eric Hollas, OSB, the wall “blocked” the view of the Abbey church (https://monkschronicle.wordpress.com/favorite-links/the-renovation-of-alcuin-library-a-progress-gallery/). Seeing as the building was designed and erected years after the church, it seems that Breuer never intended the church to be viewed from inside the library. Contrary, the above quotes about the design of the church from the 1960s says Breuer specifically intended to limit direct views in favor of student introspection. The architects who designed the addition, CSNA Architects, are under the impression that Marcel Breuer himself would have made a view of the church if the technology for larger panes of glass was available at the time. However, it seems that if Breuer had ever intended this view, he would have accomplished it through other means. While the holistic design and much physical material of the Alcuin Library has forever been lost, it is the hope that the design’s intent will live on through increased publication, documentation, discourse, and most importantly, memory.

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