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

Categories: Architecture

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The Interior of the Abbey Church, showing its unique and revolutionary design.

Obata replaces traditional walls with large, fiberglass windows framed by huge, concrete arches that leap up into the air. On top of the first row of parabolic archways, he places yet another gallery of windows that seem to float effortlessly above the first. Crowning the top of the church is a belfry. While the viewer knows, logically, that the building is made from tons of concrete, Obata creates the illusion of cascading white waterfalls that seem to gush out of a giant fountain.

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The oculus at the apex of the interior.

The visual beauty of the church continues once inside. Amazingly, the interior is free from obstructing supports; visitors realize the great parabolic dome of the church supports itself through hidden steel structures concealed in the white concrete. In this great, unencumbered space, a scarcity of furnishings allows the form of the church to shine. The large windows, so prominent on the exterior, bring in just enough light to emphasize the simplicity of the interior. The church works so beautifully because of the versatility of its materials: Thousands of tons of concrete and steel combine to create a seemingly weightless structure.

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The delicate stained glass screens of the interior.

The Abbey Church foreshadowed a stunning career for Obata, who, along with George Hellmuth and George Kassabaum, founded HOK, the largest architectural firm in the world with 1,800 employees. HOK defined the skyline of St. Louis in the 20th century, designing most of downtown's tallest office buildings, including the Metropolitan Square Building, home to the firm's offices. As Obata's career continues on, the Abbey Church remains as one of the great moments in Modernism anywhere in the world.

Chris Naffziger writes about architecture at St. Louis Patina. Contact him via e-mail at naffziger@gmail.com


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