Study stations affirm the library as a place for deep reading in an atmosphere of sacred silence.
A new campus building is always cause for celebration, but the 1970 dedication of the library at Mount Angel Seminary was a celebration par excellence. Jazz legend Duke Ellington and his band performed and distinguished Oxford historian Richard W. Southern delivered a lecture on monastic libraries, while noted architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable covered the event in The New York Times. Only an extraordinary building could have drawn such luminaries to a rural hilltop nearly 40 miles south of Portland, Oregon, and this building fit the bill: it is one of just a few in the United States designed by the renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
“Mr. Aalto takes only those commissions that please him,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning Huxtable wrote in the Times on May 30, 1970. “When a letter came to Helsinki in 1963, quite out of the blue, from Father Barnabas Reasoner, O.S.B., postmarked St. Benedict, Ore., asking him ‘to give us a building that will fill our needs in a beautiful and intelligent way,’ Mr. Aalto agreed to do the job. It was an act of faith on both sides.”
After a 1926 fire destroyed Mount Angel’s original library, the monks relied on makeshift spaces to house their growing second collection. Eventually it became clear they needed a dedicated library building, and Reasoner, the library director, decided to shoot for the stars. As he’d hoped (and intended), his letter sparked Aalto’s interest.
Mezzanine view to a portion of the Alvar Aalto Library collection.
“I was told that libraries are his pets,” Reasoner later wrote, noting that international critics “are in wonderment about his distant Oregon project” on an Oregon hilltop.
Father Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B., was a student when the library was being built and now serves in the elected position of Mount Angel’s abbot.
“There was a beautiful and tremendous kind of buzz about the whole thing,” Driscoll said at the Reynolds Symposium conference at the library last May. Driscoll attended the dedication, where he was one of about 10 seminarian singers to accompany Ellington’s band on music commissioned for the event, and where he clearly remembers Richard Southern challenging the Mount Angel community to develop a library in the mode of great monastic libraries.
Expansive windows above the atrium allow natural light to illuminate the interior.
In the subsequent decades, Driscoll’s time in the Alvar Aalto library has given him a few profound realizations about the building itself – mainly, that its excellence has rubbed off on the scholars who use it, the collection inside it, and the campus around it.
“The building slowly elicited from me excellence in my own work,” he said, and acknowledged that the community redoubled its efforts to improve its holdings once members realized that their collection was not “at the level of the building.” And the library “raised the level of the subsequent buildings that were built here,” Driscoll said, praising Aalto’s gift of situating a landmark building among average buildings without embarrassing them – and noting that later campus architects were eager to have their work adjacent to an Aalto.
Graceful curvature creates broad fields of vision from the circulation desk.
The library also has served as a site for architectural symposia. As a student, Driscoll would strike up conversations with symposia participants. During one, Driscoll stood with a visiting architect who, looking up into the skylight, proclaimed, “This is one of the greatest spaces to be found in America.”
Huxtable’s assessment of the library was similarly enthusiastic. “Aalto architecture continues to teach basic truths about space, light and function,” she wrote in the Times. “Beyond the facts, there is a kind of architecture that is elegant, humane and full of sophisticated skills. These skills never date. Vintage Aalto and 1970 Aalto are the same – subtle, sensuous, full of wisdom about the environment and man.”
Video of Duke Ellington and his Band performing at the 1970 dedication can be viewed on vimeo.com