Architecture Minnesota
The Magazine of AIA Minnesota

January - February 2008
Vol. 34 No. 1
Editor's Note

A Special Place


On a blustery cold day in early November, I drove up to Collegeville to tour St. John’s Abbey and University with longtime campus architect and planner Lee Tollefson, FAIA, of RRTL Architects. I’d visited St. John’s before, on a weekend motorcycle ride, but of course walking the campus with someone so intimately acquainted with its design heritage was an altogether different, and much richer, experience. Lee’s projects at St. John’s include the student center, several residence halls, and numerous renovations. I had lots of questions for him.

First up: What about this place has made the deepest impression on you as an architect? Lee doesn’t have to think long. “The Benedictines have a way of looking at their environment and what they’re building over a period of 400 years rather than 40 years,” he says. “So they place a high priority on quality and also on good stewardship of buildings and the land. What I love about the abbey church, in particular, is how the high quality of its sparing yet monumental design creates a sense of permanence.”

But if words like quality, stewardship, and permanence have you imagining the St. John’s monks as a sober, reserved bunch, think again. Lee lauds their desire to have “significant involvement in the design process. They’re so interested in art, architecture, and their environment that you end up having a lot more meetings with them than you would with another university client.” A lot more meetings? Hmmm, I think I detected a hint of a wry smile there. Then again, Lee almost always has a mischievous gleam in his eye.

We got around most of the campus that gray afternoon; Lee and Father Hilary Thimmesh, a past university president, even took me down to see the 34 private, individually designed altars in the crypt of the abbey church (the large number of altars allows each monk in the St. John’s community to celebrate Mass daily). Lee had great insight into the Marcel Breuer buildings (page 26), where my eyes and fingertips kept alighting on the board-formed concrete. Its visual texture is somehow provocative and quieting at the same time.

Lee, it turns out, has had lengthy encounters with three of the four great craftsmen of concrete (page 21). He was taught by Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania, has curated Breuer’s St. John’s architecture for nearly a quarter-century now, and worked closely with Tadao Ando on a St. John’s project. In his travels, he’s also toured Notre Dame du Haut and other landmark concrete buildings by the fourth master, Le Corbusier. “In studying the work of these four architects, I learned that the form of concrete and its expression come from the way the artist conceives of pouring it and manipulating it—it’s a very plastic material,” Lee explains. His close study of Breuer’s specifications and of how he did the formwork made it possible for RRTL to do a nearly seamless addition to the Peter Engel Science Center with CSNA Architects.

Funny stories? Lee’s favorite involves the late landscape designer Dan Kiley (page 29). “There was talk of evaluating the buildings on campus,” Lee says, “and I remember Kiley telling the building committee and the university president, ‘Don’t worry too much about that because I have these pills called uppers and downers. If a building isn’t quite what we had in mind, we’ll just plant vines along the ground and I’ll give them uppers and the vines will completely cover the building. For the good buildings, we’ll use the downers.’ He had a way of being very entertaining.”

It’s easy to envy Lee his long, productive relationship with St. John’s. “Many people who know sacred architecture will tell you that the abbey church is the most significant modern church in the world,” he says. “When I travel and other architects find out that I work at St. John’s, they make that comment.”

Christopher Hudson
Architecture Minnesota