Mount Angel Abbey Library
One Abbey Drive
St Benedict (Mount Angel)
Oregon 97373
USA

Alvar Aalto 1970

Mount Angel Abbey Library was built by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto for the monks of the Benedictine abbey, who approached him in the early 1960s. Aalto had already built five other libraries in his native Finland, was intrigued by the site and accepted the commission after being personally visited in Switzerland by friars from the Oregon monastery.

The library building is sited on the north side of the hill the abbey sits on. Viewed from the main entrance, the building seems short, small and unassuming, disappearing amongst the buildings that surround it. Once inside though, Aalto's library expands both horizontally and vertically in dramatic fashion. The building is loosely organized in an asymmetrical fan shape which radiates outward from the lobby towards the back wall of the library and down four floors to level ground further down the hill.

The back of the fan shape features large clerestory windows and, high above, the central space is ringed by skylights. These let in a soft, pleasing light which permeates the library. Scattered throughout the building you’ll discover openings in the outer wall, beyond which are framed views of the surrounding valley and mountains past that. Aalto uses the techniques of Modernist architecture and the International Style, but they’re given a very organic, personal touch throughout. The lobby will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s been in a modern building, but directly adjacent to that is a sensual, wave-shaped, wooden auditorium that could hardly contrast with it more.

Mount Angel Abbey Library has plenty of delightful surprises in store for visitors. From the shock of the initial unexpected expansion of the interior space to the superbly crafted details (like the door handles and light fixtures), furniture (he designed all the stacks, study carrels, chairs and stools) and masterful use of wood and brick throughout, the space is pure Aalto.

 

And why not? The architect was at an advanced stage in his career when he designed Mount Angel, and it benefits from his years of experience working with similar buildings, materials and climate; the light, weather and landscape in the Pacific Northwest are not unlike that of Finland. Its true genius lies in the way it effortlessly harnesses the conditions and materials of the external landscape to support the internal landscape of spirituality and knowledge embodied in a monastery library.

Some critics have dismissed it as a lesser work in his oeuvre, while others praise it as one of his best. Regardless, it’s one of only two buildings in North America by Aalto – the only one on the West Coast – and therefore, unless you plan on visiting Finland, offers a rare chance to actually experience the work of this great master. And this is a building that simply must be experienced first hand…

Mart Schaefer 2005

 


How to visit

Mount Angel Abbey Library is located approximately 40 miles south of Portland, Oregon. Take I-5 south to the Woodburn exit (exit 271) and head east. Follow the signs for 99E and then turn south to 214. Turn east to the town of Mount Angel. The abbey and library are about one mile east of town off College Street.

This is a working library and is open to the public. It is generally open seven days a week, but observes a variety of holiday, seasonal, school and weekend hours, so it’s imperative you call ahead (+1 503 845 3030) or visit their website at www.mtangel.edu/library/main/library.htm. They do not offer guided tours, but a small brochure is available for free to guide you through the public areas of the building.

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