In the 1950’s, Marcel Breuer began work on a master plan for the Benedictine monastic community at Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville. During the subsequent twenty years, Breuer designed ten buildings that were to be constructed largely of cast-in-place concrete.
The majority of the projects were completed, but an important part of Breuer’s master plan – the Abbey Guesthouse – was never designed. One of the 17 recipients of the 2009 AIA Housing Awards, this elegant project pays tribute to Breuer's original master plan.
In developing the program for the new Guesthouse, the Abbey requested that it provide up to fifty short and long term residents with a direct experience of monastic life in accordance with a modern interpretation of principles of the Benedictine Rule, written in the 6th century. Guest retreatants follow the same traditional daily rhythms of study, work, and meditation as the monks, with similar levels of privacy and solitude.
Sited directly on Lake Sagatagan and adjacent to the existing monastery, the new Guesthouse combines conference and meeting areas, a library, a meditation room, dining facilities, and administrative offices with the thirty guest rooms. In order to maintain distinct separations and a sense of seclusion, the most active public spaces were consolidated on the mid-level, with the private retreatant rooms placed on the lower level and the family oriented guest rooms and suites situated on the upper level.
Environmental Strategies and the Rule of Benedict
The project uses ideas found within the Rule of Benedict to guide sustainable strategies. Criteria for environmental stewardship, integrity and durability, frugality, hospitality and comfort, and balance were reframed in sustainable and quantitative terms and applied through the siting of the building, the conservation of the natural landscape, the selection of materials, the construction of furnishings by the monastery, and the design of mechanical and
electrical systems for the project.
Courtyard trees were located to provide summer shade. Tree planting was proposed for the north elevation to protect the entry from the wind and the monastery placed a series of smaller spruce trees to correspond with their campus-wide landscaping plan. Guest rooms are heated and cooled by a hydronic valance convector system that uses significantly less energy than traditional fan coil units. This convective heating and cooling is complemented by the thermal mass in the pre-cast concrete plank ceiling, which provides additional radiant surfaces. In addition to access to natural light in each of the spaces, supplemental artificial lighting is controlled by the building management system and motion detectors to further conserve energy.
The Guesthouse form is comprised of two overlapping L–shaped groupings of rooms that wrap around a mid-level courtyard garden overlooking the lake and surrounding forest.
The upper level “guest” zone includes ten guest rooms, four guest suites, and areas for families and non-retreatants to meet. The lower level “retreatant” zone includes sixteen rooms and discreet access to the mid-level meditation room, dining area, and small parlors for private conversations.
Each room maintains direct views of the lake and allows guests to control temperature and the extent of natural ventilation in their room. The orientation of the upper level L–shape is used to block the extreme winter winds while optimizing access to natural light. The upper level corridor windows and the lower level corridor light well allow each zone of guest rooms to receive daylight from both sides.
Constructed economically of 1’x2’ pre-cast concrete block, pre-cast concrete plank, and channel glass, the materials in the project draw from Breuer’s austere and textural use of a simple material palette readily apparent throughout the campus. Custom pre-cast concrete screen blocks were designed to allow light to pass between spaces while limiting views. At night, they act as lanterns to the exterior spaces.
The Jury for the 2009 AIA Housing Awards had the following comments:
"Within this defined context, the project pays homage to Breuer’s original master plan and is a serene compliment to both the Breuer campus and to the philosophies that rule the Benedictine order."
"A wall in the meditation room of concrete blocks establishes soft ambient light—an interesting combination of mass and light in one element—austere, simple and rich."
Owner: St. John's Abbey
Engineer: BKBM Engineers
General Contractor: Knutson Construction Services
Landscape Architect: Oslund and Associates
Other: Engineering Design Initiative
Photo Credit: © Paul Crosby Architectural Photography
Project description and illustrations provided by the AIA, courtesy of the architect.