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Saturday, July 21, 2012
Please join Yale Union (YU) for a visit to Alvar Aalto’s Mt. Angel Abbey Library in St. Benedict, Oregon. A selection of documents will be on view from the Aalto records held at the Library Archives.
Unlike the groupies, who have seen all of Alvar Aalto’s buildings and can confidently separate the lesser goods from the greater goods, we have only seen, with our eager, amateur’s love, one slice of what his life constructed. The library at Mt. Angel Abbey, then, can’t be our idea of his best building, but it can be our idea of the one we like the best.
Architecturally, we want you to notice the details: the arrangement of close attention, the bent woods, the flushness of joints, the shifting levels, the controlled views. Fan-shaped in plan, the library affords slotted views from the circulation desk through the stacks, into the carrels, and out through framed vistas of the Willamette Valley. And the light. This building is rightfully regaled for its harvesting of natural light, an Aalto obsession that dates at least to his archetypal Viipuri Library in Finland (1927–1935; now Vyborg in Russia). But too much architectural description clogs the senses and undoes some of the grace beheld, so here we defer to Aalto himself when he said, politely refusing to attend the Mt. Angel Library’s dedication ceremony, “The main thing is that my building is. Let my building speak to you.”
What the building doesn’t speak is the story of its conception: the unlikely result of the combination of the Benedictine tradition of scholarship, Vatican II reforms in the Catholic Church, and the triumph of modernist form at the middle of the 20th century.
Monks from the Swiss Abbey of Engelberg founded Mt. Angel in 1882 after fleeing persecution from powerful anti-clerical reformers in Europe. Since its founding in the sixth century, the Benedictine order has privileged scholarship as a spiritual pursuit, and the library has played a central role as the spiritual hub of the monastery. Mt. Angel was no exception. The first contingent of monastic colonists to arrive in Oregon unpacked several crates of books to establish the first institutional library in the Pacific Northwest (which also served as a tailor’s and cobbler’s shop during the daytime). By 1962, the abbey had 50,000 books and no suitable library building.
1962 was also the first year of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Sweeping internal reforms intended to reinvigorate the Church’s relevancy and modernize its public image led to a revolution in Catholic Church design. A sudden proliferation of modernist churches sprang into being, and would prevail stylistically for the rest of the twentieth century.
The record doesn’t tell us how Father Barnabas Reasoner first encountered the architecture of Alvar Aalto, but it does leave a paper trail of the eight-year correspondence between these two and the anticipation, elation, anxiety, disappointment, compromises, promises (broken and un-), impatience, and conciliatory gestures that constitute the architect-client relationship. When Father Barnabas wrote cold to Aalto in 1963, he said simply, “We need you.” Aalto was meanwhile engaged in the multi-million dollar revitalization of the Helsinki city center, a contribution to the United Nations complex in New York, and Nordic House cultural center in Reykjavik. It was unlikely that a rural Oregon Benedictine monastery, which isn’t a trophy and couldn’t offer princely salaries, would have a fighting chance for claiming Aalto as its architect, but Aalto wrote back two months later, “I am very interested in your suggestion as libraries are my favorite projects.”
The project was beset with six years of technical difficulties, fiscal shortage, bad health, and doubt, and Father Barnabas’ 1967 telegram to Aalto thinly conceals all the jubilation and desperation inherent in his toil: TODAY RECEIVED GIFT OF ONE MILLION STOP LIBRARY PROCEED WITH ALL HASTE. The donation from Tektronix co-founder Howard Vollum and his wife Jean enabled ground to be broken in 1968 and the dedication ceremony to take place in 1970.
Loud thanks to the American Institute of Architects and Victoria Ertelt, Library Administrator at Mt. Angel Library.