A Modest Masterpiece

Blogger: Dale "Gene" Graff, Senior Project Designer | Princeton, NJ, USA
September 26, 2011

Ever since I was an architecture student back in the early 1980s, I have admired the work of the great Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto. As one of the 'Modern Masters' of the twentieth century, his work and his ideas about making architecture struck me as unique because of the importance he gave to how people would use and experience his buildings.

Back in 2006, I had a rare opportunity to visit one of the very few projects he built here in the United States, the Mount Angel Abbey Library in St. Benedict, Oregon.

While on a family vacation to visit my brother in Redmond, OR, I convinced my family to endure an extra 2-1/2 hours of driving so we could stop and visit the building. When we arrived at the Mount Angel Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery located on top of a hill outside the small town of St. Benedict, we pulled up in front of the library, and my teenage daughter captured everyone's first reaction: "We came all this way to see this?" 

Like many of Aalto's buildings, which tend to be restrained and low-key in appearance, the exterior of the Mount Angel Abbey Library is very modest; a one-story, brick façade facing the central Quadrangle of the Monastery with a wood trellis serving as an entrance canopy.

Step inside, however, and the building's sculptural, day-lit interior takes your breath away and draws you into the three-story heart of the building. Despite the very limited budget (Aalto is reported to have accepted the commission for a very small fee), Aalto's careful orchestration of movement, views and human experience is clearly evident as are his trademark "touch me" details and sensitive use of materials. All of these elements work together harmoniously to create spaces that are warm and inviting but also peaceful, calm and introspective to support the mission of the library as a place for reflection and scholarly research.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the original, Aalto-designed light fixtures and furniture were still in use throughout the building (my daughter really liked the zebra-skinned Aalto chairs outside of the Director's office!). In fact, I noticed that even after 36 years of use, the building seemed to be in completely unchanged and in remarkably good condition.

I spoke with the librarian for a few minutes and asked how she and the users felt about the building. Her response was one of great love, care and appreciation and the excitement in her voice told me she welcomed the chance to talk about the library. She pointed out that the carpet had been replaced a couple of times and a discreet handicapped accessible ramp was installed to allow access to the special collections room, but aside from the usual roof maintenance and painting, the building is in its original condition. The librarian proudly remarked that the building functioned very well as a library and is thoroughly enjoyed by the students, faculty and scholars who use it.

I often think about my visit to the Mount Angel Abbey Library and remind myself what a wonderful experience it was to see and experience this modest little building. To learn how it has enriched the lives of the many people who have used it and to sense the deep care and respect they have for the facility and the architect who designed it for them.

For me, it serves as a powerful lesson and a reminder that even in our 21st century world of technology, information and pushing the architectural limits of form and typology, the human experience remains as a critically important part of making architecture.

Images of the Mount Angel Abbey Library courtesy of Gene Graff

Reader Comments (3)


     Your description of the outwardly simple library is beautiful.  Then, looking at the well done photos, it completes the process of bringing this wonderful architecture to life.  I admire your talent.

:-)  DeeDee

Wow, is all I can think of to say, your description of the building, is really beautifull!!! As your best couisin, and fellow montanan, I am glad to see in your picture, that you have retained some of your hometown roots HA!!!  Love Danette

Wow! That interior space is a glorious surprise, given the humble entry approach. As hard as it is to impress a blase teenager, I'll bet the genius of Aalto at least sparked some interest...! Long ago, I reviewed a couple of books by Goran Schildt on Aalto for Arch Record, but I didn't remember this U.S. project. Wonderful to hear that it's so well preserved, and thanks for sharing this treasure with those of us who haven't made the trip to Oregon, let alone St. Benedict. "Worth the detour," right?

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