Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Design History: Marcel Breuer

Front and back views of Saint Francis de Sales Parish, Muskegon, Michigan, which was designed by Marcel Breuer and Associates and dedicated in 1966. Photographs by David Versluis © 2009.

It’s amazing when one encounters twentieth century modern architecture in smaller cities in the middle of the United States, especially, buildings designed by Bauhaus trained and internationally known architects. This is the case with the Saint Francis de Sales Parish of the Roman Catholic Church in Muskegon, Michigan that was designed by “functionalist” Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) in the early 1960s. In addition to being a practicing architect Breuer was, perhaps, better known for his pioneering furniture designs, particularly the Bauhaus tubular metal chair known as model no. B3, the Wassily (Kandinsky) chair (1925). And also his subsequent modern bent plywood furniture designs.

In the 1930s Breuer left Germany and joined Walter Gropius as a professor at Harvard University School of Design (1937).

In the reference book, Design in the 20th Century, Charlotte & Peter Fiell explain, “He founded Marcel Breuer and Associates in New York in 1956, and around that time, like Le Corbusier, made concrete his material of choice. He used this medium in a highly sculptural and innovative way for his design of the monumental Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1966)” (pages 138-139).

Like the Whitney, the church in Muskegon is constructed with site-cast concrete in molds. In spite of a later addition, in front, the original impact of the church building is still very evident. One of the most striking features of this building is it’s mathematical, hyperbolic paraboloid form, which builds a structure constructed of entirely straight lines but the visual effect creates a curve. In other words, the back is opposite the front and the sides result in a curved surface. Other compelling features include the cantilevered belfry and the massive sculptured-relief cross beneath it.

As a side note:
Another example of Christian church architecture, by Breuer, is the St John’s Abbey Church located in Collegeville, Minnesota.

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