Gyo Obata's Abbey Church: A Modernist Masterpiece in West St. Louis County

Categories: Architecture

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The Abbey Church, Gyo Obata's Modernist masterpiece rising up from the hillside.
Contrary to popular opinion, St. Louis County holds many architectural gems, particularly from the heady years after World War II when the population of the city spread out into the suburbs. Modernist architecture filled the needs of the rapidly growing county, creating a new vision that was distinct from the traditional architecture of the city. Gyo Obata's 1962 Abbey Church of St. Mary and St. Louis, commonly (if somewhat incorrectly) referred to as the Priory, demonstrates the beauty and innovation of Modernist architecture in midcentury St. Louis.

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The trademark parabolic arched windows of the church.

Gyo Obata's masterpiece might never have existed without the Japanese American architect's drive, ingenuity and ability to overcome great adversity. Obata was born in 1923 in San Francisco; during World War II his family was uprooted from their home and placed in an internment camp. Gyo would have faced the same discrimination had he not left California to attend Washington University, the only school to accept Japanese Americans at the time.

After graduation, Obata worked with some of the leading names in Modernist architecture: Eero Saarinen, the architect of the Gateway Arch; Skidmore Owings and Merrill, architects of the Sears Tower in Chicago; and even Minoru Yamasaki, the ill-fated architect of both St. Louis' Pruit Igoe Housing Project and the World Trade Center in New York.

While all of those architects have a place in American architectural history, Obata pushed Modernism in new directions with the Abbey Church.

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The belfry crowning the top of the Abbey Church.
Nestled among the rolling hills of the west-county suburb of Creve Coeur, the Abbey Church sits upon a low ridge line, surrounded by valleys. The main road into the grounds of the church snakes around the hills, offering quick glimpses before arriving at the doors of this dramatic building. The church's circular ground plan harkens back to ancient Christian temples, while its leaping parabolic-shaped windows (similar in shape to the Gateway Arch) suggest a Gothic cathedral's windows. The nod to tradition ends there.

A 1964 documentary features an interview with the Prior of the abbey, who talks about the architecture:

Continue to read more about Obata's masterpiece.



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23 comments
rj1002
rj1002

A little over a year ago I took some visiting friends to the cathedral basilica, I'd never been and apart from our applied arts educations, we're all lapsed catholics of varying degrees. I thought it might be nice to go see some architecture.

I nearly face-palmed as I heard all of these same complaints whispered from them as we made our way around the sanctuary. "Meh meh money… meh meh poor." I see this as an overly simplistic argument and it aggravated me that they couldn't just enjoy it for what it is.

The function for building a large sacred space is to make the believer feel small. A towering structure that reaches for the heavens evokes an emotional response and suggests a kind of strength and perpetuity that you don't get from a strip mall space that used to house a pizza parlor.

Andrew Jovanovic
Andrew Jovanovic

I don't know about valuable responses,but it was a good one. It still is a waste in my opinion. You don't need a big building to help people. Just a community.

Richard Head
Richard Head

If only the poor could sing like the monks

jaco1175
jaco1175 topcommenter

That building is hideous. Couple that with the fact that it houses a modern day cult and you make a case for bulldozing it.

Alexandra Lugger
Alexandra Lugger

Oh, I get that. I'm a fan of architecture and all, but I am completely gobsmacked when I think of the enormity of the Vatican, Cathedral Basilica or Lakewood Bible Church as well. That being said, this place was built 52 years ago and what's done is done. Now it's a meeting place for people who (for the most part) just want to organize, worship and improve their community. I hardly see the point of making snarky comments about something half a century old when it would be so much more helpful to get your hands dirty. If everyone who felt strongly enough about something to complain on Facebook also felt strongly enough to truly engage, there would be a lot less problems. As far as how Jesus felt about walls: Christ recognized the importance of a temple in the community, He just didn't care for the commercialization and thievery that exists in SOME temples.

Andrew Jovanovic
Andrew Jovanovic

I hear ya Alexandra but churches, in general, are getting too (physically) big. Like Neil said, if they really wanted to feed the poor they should spend more on function rather than creating bigger and bigger churches. If Jesus was alive today, he would probably be flabbergasted at what his followers have done. You don't need a big and exotic-looking church with the latest technology to feed the poor. You need people who want to help, food, and people who need it. Helping others, not building walls was what I thought Jesus was all about.

Julie Angelica
Julie Angelica

What a valuable response. Worth every pound of brain power it took you to type that. Well done.

Neil Aimaro
Neil Aimaro

Church is Scam Sister. If they really wanted to feed the world they would.

Neil Aimaro
Neil Aimaro

Andrew you are responding to an idiot. Don't waste your time.

Neil Aimaro
Neil Aimaro

I wonder how many homeless people could live there? I wonder how many people could have been fed with the money they spent to build this church? I wonder if Jesus (Someone who championed the poor and demonized the rich) would like this?

Neil Aimaro
Neil Aimaro

Yea cause Missouri does not have enough Churches. Tranquil? Yea I bet you're tranquil.

Alexandra Lugger
Alexandra Lugger

Oh Sanctiyogi lol. Yes, churches are buildings and some cost money to create, but brother I assure you that through the work and tithing of the people inside of those buildings comes a lot of great works. Whether it's missionaries overseas or locally, housing free soup kitchens and food banks, adopting families during Christmas to provide them with a holiday meal and presents for the children, and operating shelters for women escaping sexual slavery. Just because you haven't seen it, doesn't mean it doesn't exist :-) If you feel strongly about the matter, we could always use donations for missionaries at WCC and Harvester CC is always in need of things like dry good, granola bars and canned produce. Matter of fact, here's a great local mission group (they're from a church with a building as well but it should be okay) they could use your time and passion http://www.missionstl.org/ p.s. Were you happy that Bianca won Drag Race? I was thrilled but my hubby was rooting for Adore. He's got some weird crush or something lol

Andrew Jovanovic
Andrew Jovanovic

You could try and compare yoga and a religious institution that is supposedly meant for the poor and less fortunate but than you would be disappointed in the turn out. And yes, yoga, in general, does help the less fortunate. There are tons of free classes and the benefits of yoga are plentiful and do not require a building to be constructed to do so.

Blake Beck
Blake Beck

Well, if you want to go that route, you could say that about so many things. I'm sure being a yoga teacher at Club Fitness really helps out the less fortunate.

Julie Angelica
Julie Angelica

It's a beautiful, tranquil landmark and the property also holds a school and a monastery. You should check out a service, if for nothing else than to hear the monks sing in that setting - breathtaking!

Jessica Hoemann
Jessica Hoemann

Didn't realize the significance .. I drive by that all the time on the way to the dr

Andrew Jovanovic
Andrew Jovanovic

And how many poor go hungry. How much of the money funded for that project could of helped the 'less fortunate'?

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