For many visitors and certainly for our alumni, Saint John’s has a special sense of place. It is a rare combination of the natural setting of woods, lakes and prairie. That setting is enhanced by the built spaces of handmade red bricks and brilliant Marcel Breuer architecture. Finally, all this interacts with the people who live in Collegeville — the timeless stability of the monastic community, our deeply committed faculty and staff, and the youthful energy of each generation of students. This magical mix makes so many Johnnies call Collegeville “home” long after they have graduated. It is also a blend that we are careful not to tamper with.
This sense of place was certainly foremost in the mind of architect Gregory Friesen when he was tasked with the renovation of the iconic Alcuin Library and the design of the learning commons at Saint John’s. While he certainly felt a strong obligation to preserve the spirit and design of Marcel Breuer, he also was aware of the need to have the renovated Alcuin and new Br. Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons fit into the sense of place that is so central to Saint John’s.
To achieve this nuanced charge, while also making the academic space thoroughly 21st-century, Friesen went back to Breuer’s original conception, which was tied directly to Benedictine and Catholic history. The University’s central space and focal point is Abbey Plaza, where the Abbey and University church stands on the south side of the mall and Alcuin Library on the north, with open green space in between. Faith and reason are represented together and in conversation with each other, as has been central to Catholic teaching and preserved by the Benedictines for centuries. There is no more succinct and beautiful manifestation of the mission of a Catholic, Benedictine university. And Friesen is making it even better.
Anyone who has visited Alcuin Library knows it is a beautiful and innovative structure, with its two massive, concrete trees of knowledge gracing and supporting the building on the upper level. There is certainly natural light in that space, but the need to have load-bearing concrete walls required the windows to be relatively small and near the ceiling. Fifty years of construction innovation have given Friesen options that Breuer did not have, and the outcome will be stunning. The new design will open up the interior space, in part because most of the books will move to compact shelving in the lower levels. But most striking will be the natural light that will illuminate the interior, as glass replaces some of the concrete walls. A big part of the south wall will now be glass, and that will allow visitors and students to look out at the Abbey and University church across the mall.
As the picture shows, even in the midst of construction, the interior has a very different look and feel. Yet it is completely in keeping with Breuer’s vision and that of the monks who bravely commissioned this dream over fifty years ago.
The renovated Alcuin and new Learning Commons (which will offer similar views of the church), will daily remind everyone that Saint John’s University is a place where faith and reason not only coexist but actively enhance one another. Here is a place where learning and the search for meaning are inextricably intertwined in a great liberal arts education.
[Editor’s note: Like so many of the beautiful spaces at Saint John’s, this project is made possible by alumni and friends who care deeply about our sense of place. If you would like to help in this project, please feel free to contact a member of the Office of Institutional Advancement.]