In 1954 the monks of Saint John’s Abbey, including art professor Frank Kacmarcik, chose Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer to design their campus and church in Collegeville, Minnesota. Eight years later, Breuer, whose prior projects included the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and later the Whitney Museum of American Art, took time from his busy schedule filled with international clients to design a small private home for Kacmarcik out of his sincere respect for the Saint Paul artist and monk. The still-occupied house is a living example of the pure austere beauty Breuer mastered. No detail of the house or the landscape it frames on the bluffs of the Mississippi River above Saint Paul escaped Breuer’s notice. The design is as elegant as the materials are modest, suited to an artist monk’s home. The richness lies in the perfect balance of every element in Breuer’s design for living as it weds indoor spaces to outdoor areas.
Saint Paul native Chris Larson will construct a full-scale replica of Kacmarcik’s 1,800 square foot Breuer house on a wooden frame clad in paper and cardboard. Despite its ephemeral materials, Larson’s model will evoke the restrained cinderblock of the original and will reiterate the elegance of the split-levels that Breuer created to hug the property above the Mississippi. Larson’s split-level piece will be elevated on stilts at Union Depot in downtown Saint Paul, where just before dawn on June 9 it will be set on fire.
Larson, whose sculptural-architectural work has been exhibited at the Walker Art Center and museums worldwide, has an abiding love for the Kacmarcik home and conceived Celebration/Love/Loss as a commemoration of its fiftieth anniversary. Breuer’s architectural purity and perfection in design seem an end point rather than the point of artistic departure. The question of how to proceed after High Modernism concerns many artists, especially since the new millennium. Larson’s response, like a prairie fire that allows new seeds to germinate, is to honor the original home with a meticulous re-creation and then ignite it, allowing fire to consume its pure, clean lines. Fire will initially follow these pure forms before they are engulfed completely by flame in a stunning conflagration.
Burning the Breuer replica is not an act of mourning. Rather than a funeral pyre, it represents hope. The spectacular flame prevents melancholy arising from the loss of Modernist purity and rationality. Ruinous beauty burns to reveal new possibility—seeing through the high point of man-made perfection to the potentialities wrought through its destruction. The burned house persists not as a blank page but as an erased page, a palimpsest, a way to begin again. Architects always glean hope from ruination—to build on old foundations but to build anew. Value is in the fire, the spectacle of ruin, and the release of potentiality. Therein resides hope.
— Gretchen Gasterland-Gustafsson