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At Northern Spark Festival, a burning respect for a modernist master

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Breuer house
Artist Chris Larson, with help from Ben Steckelberg and carpenter Forest Lewis, left to right, line up a plywood deck that will support Larson's full size replica of a St. Paul Marcel Breuer house Thursday, June 6, 2013 near Union Depot in downtown St. Paul. The replica, made of lumber and cardboard, will be burned down at 2 a.m. Sunday morning during Northern Spark.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Building a house is a big job, even when it's constructed to purposely burn it down.

When attendees gather at 2 a.m. Sunday at the Northern Spark Festival in St. Paul to celebrate the work of Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, the commemoration will culminate by burning to the ground a full-size replica of a Breuer building.

• Click on the slideshow link for more images

In his studio last weekend, Chris Larson and a colleague, Forest Lewis, were putting the finishing touches to the full-size wood and cardboard replica of a house originally designed in the late 1950s.

Breuer, an icon of architecture's modernist movement, came to Minnesota to build the St. John's Abbey Church in Collegeville. He befriended brother Frank Kacmarcik, the arts professor at St. John's University. After the completion of the iconic church in 1961, Kacmarcik received an unexpected present, Larson said.

"As I understand it, as a gift from Marcel to the monk, Frank, gave him a gift of the designs for the house," Larson said.

At the time, Breuer was one of the most famous architects in the world, and it is a mark of their friendship that he set aside time for this project. Breuer even came to St. Paul to survey the wooded site on the bluffs above Pigs Eye Lake where Kacmarcik built the house in 1962.

The Breuer replica in Chris Larson's studio
The initial construction of the Breuer house replica was in Chris Larson's St Paul studio. This is the view of the front of the house, which was designed to fit into a hillside lot. As a result the front is higher than the rest of the house and has to be supported on trestles. The house was later dismantled for reassembly on the Northern Spark site next to the St Paul Union Depot where it will be burned.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Larson, an internationally known artist and University of Minnesota instructor, learned of the house a few years back. It stands just three miles from his studio, but few people know of its existence, he said. The design is very simple, but elegant -- four rooms in an "L" shape tucked into the hillside, he said.

"Basically three materials: It's the cinder block, the cypress on the ceiling and the tile," Larson said.

From the front, the building looks like a bunker, with the front door as the only opening. But the ends of the "L" shape are large windows to offer views across the lake and to downtown St. Paul.

Larson's reproduction of the Breuer house is full-size and accurate. The current owner gave them copies of the original blueprints. Kacmarcik filled his home with rare books and art. Walking through the empty replica, Larson said it is easy to understand the design.

"You get a stripped-down vision of what Marcel wanted; your body relationship and the views that he has set up in the house. You completely understand this," Larson said as he stood in what would be the living room.

And in a way that's why Larson plans to burn the replica down. Lewis talked about how back when all books were handwritten, paper was so precious it was often cleaned and reused.

The living room of the Breuer-designed home.
The living room of the Breuer-designed home. While the front of the house was windowless, the sides of the house open up to huge picture windows overlooking the Pigs Eye Lake and downtown St Paul.
Image courtesy of Arca Artium, Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, St Johns. Photo Warren Reynoldes

"You can see previous elements of old texts underneath the new text," Lewis said.

Seeing the old text through the new was called a palimpsest, and Larson says, as with scripts, so with buildings.

"After this is burned, we are left with the remnants of this magnificent Bauhaus piece of architecture," he said. "But now we are left with something new to begin from with that."

Northern Spark artistic director Steve Dietz likens the event to when the young Robert Rauschenberg knocked on the door of Willem de Kooning and asked for a drawing that he could destroy. De Kooning agreed and Rauschenberg began building his own career. Dietz did not think Larson is necessarily trying to make a break from the past.

"The re-creation to a 1-to-1 scale, down to the half inch, is really a labor of love," he said. "So it's out of respect, but at the same time, 'Now I'm going to make my mark, I'm going to do my thing,' and that's what he is doing. He is burning up the Marcel Breuer and building the Chris Larson." 

But burning the building may not be so simple.

Blueprints for the Breuer House
Artist Chris Larson received the original blueprints of the Marcel Breuer designed house from the current owner of the house. Larson says they have been invaluable as they have built the replica of the 1400 square foot house which is accurate to within half an inch.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

This week, and Larson and his crew have deconstructed and moved the Breuer house replica to open ground outside the St. Paul Union Depot.  Larson watched as the structure begins to take shape again, while keeping an eye on the weather. They refrain from building too quickly.

"If we put it up and it rains, then it will be a soggy Breuer," Larson said.

No matter the weather, the house will be torched at 2 a.m. Sunday, just one of some 70 events during the all-night activities of Northern Spark. Earlier in the evening, the public will be let through the house. Larson hopes people enjoy the space and the views of St. Paul's downtown. The house will be cleared for a pyrotechnic crew to add accelerants that will help the house burn.

The Northern Spark Festival will be 9 p.m. Saturday to 5 a.m. Sunday in downtown St. Paul, rain or shine. This is the third year for the event, which is based on the European tradition of "white night" all-night festivals.