Designed by well-known New York architect Marcel Breuer, St. Francis de Sales Church in Muskegon, Michigan is an inspirational structure that fully demonstrates the architectural potential of cast-in-place concrete construction. Built in the mid-1960s, the church has soaring hyperbolic paraboloid sidewalls that warp outward from the rear of the structure toward its front. The design is complex but fascinating, and the building's angles seem to move as you walk around the structure.
The front wall of the church is 142 feet wide at the bottom, 175 feet wide at the top, and 72 feet tall. Though the wall is flat, it leans inward and is 24 feet out of plumb. Each sidewall warps from its junction at the rear wall toward the front, giving the building its unique geometric appearance. The structure seems to taper in from bottom to top in side and rear views, yet angle out from bottom to top in front view.
Vertical rustications in the surfaces of both sidewalls fan evenly from the base to the top of the building. These rustications help conceal the vertical joints while countering the structure's strong horizontal lines.
Because of the church's unusual design, detailing of the reinforcing steel was one of the project's biggest challenges. The contractor had to develop much of the steel matrix as the job progressed. This required difficult jobsite bending of the bars, especially those that had to be curved to reinforce the church's sidewalls.
To help stabilize the parabolic curves of the sidewalls as they rose toward the roof, crews poured the walls in progression, placing the lifts for the front and rear walls first, followed by sidewall lifts.