Modern on the Range insites

In 1997, I discovered an article in a 1966 issue of Deutsche Bauzeitung about a priory in North Dakota designed by Marcel Breuer. What a surprise to learn that an example of high modern architecture existed in our region. When I first visited the priory in September, 1998, a white hearse was parked at the base of the bell tower, winds were driving clouds of mist up from the Missouri River across the high and exposed site, and two men stood braced against the weather with a white casket roughly wrapped in clear plastic sheet between them. Bells in the 100 high concrete bell tower chimed ominously. The scene was bizarre and disorienting: there I was, overwhelmed by the wind and space and distance. In September, 1963, Hamilton Smith, Breuer’s associate architect, wrote “the land has an almost primitive beauty–low hills worn smooth by the wind with few trees on the exposed slopes. A great sense of space and distance predominates.”

That he was visiting the “middle of nowhere” must have crossed Breuer’s mind as he packed his bags for a first trip to North Dakota. The geographical centre of North America is actually 120 miles to the north and east. But landscapes have psycho-perceptual coordinates as well. A metaphysical approach across the Great Plains to Bismarck is recorded in Fargo, the movie that PBS talk-show host Charlie Rose described as the dark side of Prairie Home Companion. Follow Jerry Lundegaard in his surreal trek across pale winter land–from his stone-dumb car salesman life; through his botched kidnap plot; to his eventual capture in a motel on the outskirts of Bismarck. This landscape is redolent of the strangeness associated with seldom-visited, sparsely populated places, and strangeness begets strangeness. Headline news after the film’s release told of a tourist from Tokyo who, mistaking fiction for truth, died looking for the film story’s million-dollar ransom buried in a snowdrift along an endless barbed wire fence stretching to the horizon. Given this unforgiving climate and surreal landscape, perhaps my discovery of a work of sophisticated architecture in the middle-of-nowhere frontier is uncanny–like seeing a UFO.

Annual precipitation, crime rates, and populations thin out here, and Modernism’s impact is also seriously diluted 6,000 miles from Dessau. Marcel Breuer came to work with the Sisters of St. Benedict in 1954. The site for his first proposal on the Green River was abandoned, and he transplanted the original scheme to a site south of Bismarck on a land overlooking the Missouri River. In two phases, Breuer designed a priory, a preparatory boarding school and dormitory for girls, a refectory, administrative offices, and two chapels. The complex was constituted as a village: a wide internal main crosswalk spans the project from east to west. Balanced in its proportions, material selection, and means of construction, the complex matches the austerity of its surroundings. “We just wanted plain and simple materials that were to be used in the building,” recalls Sister Edith.

The priory’s low profile accepts the horizontal force of its surroundings. As befits a remote outpost, the materials are simple, crude and largely derived from the land. The inhabited residential walls–with bold abstract patterning derived from black shade screens–shelter the cloistered rituals of the order. Breuer privileged light–an abundant western resource–to anchor the project. Sunlight falls through the cruciform void in the bell tower on the solstice, and the shape of a cross is projected in light on the south wall of the chapel. This incident of synchronization hearkens back to ancient orders of sacred architecture and their primordial function: to align us with the spiritual forces that transcend our corporeal existence.

Breuer conceived of the building as a backdrop for the black habits of the nuns, and colour is most evident in the two chapels. Horizontal east/west light flows into the Chapel of Our Lady of Annunciation. Beams of blue, purple, red, yellow, amber and gold light pierce the concrete shell of the sanctuary through ‘boulders’ of one-inch thick Dalles (or slab) glass by Willet Glass of Philadelphia. Breuer is walking in the footsteps of Josef Albers. The transept of light is contrasted with terra cotta floor tiles and black stained birch pews. The chapel roof is a hyperbolic-paraboloid concrete shell, white washed on the interior. The reredos screen of the altar platform is mosaic tile covered in gold leaf. This theme is reiterated in the second and smaller Chapel of Our Lady of the Word, where a curved skylight re-directs daylight against a gold leaf wall, a symbol of the Heavenly Jerusalem. In this chapel–the more delicate and serene of the two–Chinese red, gold, and brown-black dominate.

Was Breuer’s 100-year strategy for the project a transplanted ideal? Was he chasing the hope of permanence after a turbulent century? Or was he in step with the history of the region? In 1802 Thomas Jefferson initiated plans to explore the wild country he acquired from Napoleon. He defined the extent of his Louisiana Purchase as “the highlands inclosing all the waters which run into the Mississippi and the Missouri directly or indirectly.” The intent of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition was to find the limits of this new acquisition. In the winter of 1804-05, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark hunkered down at Fort Mandan across the Missouri from the Priory site to wait for spring. They conscripted the 15-year old Shoshone (snake) woman, Sacagawea, to guide them to the headwaters of the Missouri. In 1877, the year that Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India, Crazy Horse, the famed chief of the Oglala, was killed for resisting the enforced resettlement of his band. And 1890 was marked first by the death of Sitting Bull at Standing Rock, and then Big Foot at Wounded Knee.

The priory cemetery, with its Breuer-designed headstones, is balanced on the continent’s east/west threshold high above Missouri breaks. An erect concrete cross is mounted on this archetypal edge of western expansion, marking the conquest of death and landscape. On the opposite shoreline, 90 miles south near Mobridge, the monuments to Sitting Bull and Sacagawea–unadorned except for small offerings of Tobacco and coins–stand untended. A mere 65 years after Sitting Bull’s death, Marcel Breuer climbed up on a bluff overlooking the Missouri to survey the site, and laid down his best plans for the Benedictine missionaries.

“The building will be designed to withstand the wind,” he assured his new clients.

Herb Enns is Professor of Architecture at the University of Manitoba and a Contributing Editor at Canadian Architect. He is organizing a symposium and exhibition of Breuer’s Great Plains and Canadian Shield projects in collaboration with Dr. Oliver Botar of the School of Art at the University of Manitoba. Photography by Herb Enns except where noted.