Monastery of Novy Dvur
House & Garden (UK)
There is an entertaining but sadly apocryphal story that a group of Cistercian monks was wandering the streets of Manhattan and stumbled, lost, into the Calvin Klein flagship store. Liking the architecture but considering it to be wasted on clothes, the monks approached the architect with the commission to design a new monastery for them in Bohemia. There may have been no monks on Madison Avenue, but the rest is true. In 1999 I was contacted by the abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Sept-Fons in Burgundy, after he saw pictures of my work in a book.
It will be a while before I can look back on the work of the past few years with the benefit of hindsight and appreciate the impact this extraordinary project has had on me. That collaboration with the monks has brought creative and spiritual enrichment is without question. It has also provided me with a very particular archive of memories - of the small deputation of monks who visited my own house in London early on in the lifecycle of the project and worried that my work might be a little austere for them, of my first experience of clients praying before presentation of a design and of the time when I was away on site for my wife’s birthday and the monks sang ‘happy birthday’ to her via the telephone. In a different category altogether is my memory of the comfort and support I was offered by the community in the difficult days and weeks which followed a car-crash in rural India, when a fellow passenger – a man who was both a client and a friend - was killed.
The new Cistercian monastery of Novy Dvur is one of the less documented consequences of the fall of communism in former Czechoslovakia. For those with religious vocations the Velvet Revolution of 1989 brought not only political freedom, but the chance to travel abroad in pursuit of a contemplative way of life which no longer existed at home. A number of these migrating individuals were received as novices at the abbey in Burgundy. Ten years on and with the community at Sept-Fons numbering seventy-five - including a dozen Czech brothers - the project to establish a new monastery was born. Various properties were considered, before the monks settled on one hundred acres of land about half an hour’s drive from Plzen.
The site I first visited four years ago comprised a baroque manor house with runs of agricultural buildings framing a courtyard. It was the abbot, characteristically, who found the right words when he observed of the place that, ‘even in ruins, it is very beautiful, it has soul, it is true’. An air of aesthetic decay could not, however, obscure the serious dereliction of the structures. After rigorous examination of the alternatives, the decision was taken to renovate the manor house, but replace the other buildings with entirely new architecture. The challenge would be not only to find the correct form for these new structures, but also to determine the relationship between contemporary and existing elements.
For me the practice of architecture is about creating spaces where people feel comfortable and where a particular set of actions feels natural. I approached the many challenges of the Novy Dvur project with the idea that a monastery is essentially a series of domestic spaces with a number of specialised territories which are not part of a typical family house. The success of monastic architecture rests as much on the way it accommodates the rituals of life - eating, sleeping, bathing, dressing - as it does the rituals of religion, a fact reflected in a brief the size of a telephone directory which included specifications for temperatures in different parts of the monastery and a request for measures to address the problem of snoring brothers.
As part of my preparation for the design work I spent time in the motherhouse in Burgundy. For several days I shared the rhythm of a life shaped around seven daily offices, rising before dawn and taking my meals in silence. There is something very attractive in the quiet life of the monks - a life constructed around simple rituals, repetition and an absence of what is not necessary. I came to understand that it was not simply knowledge of a particular set of religious rituals which I had to acquire. Monastic life takes the everyday rituals of life and formalises them, harnessing the potential for gravitas in the simplest of actions. It was crucial that the details of the architecture would support these details of behaviour.
In addition to this practical immersion in the lives of the monks, the early stages of the work also involved going back directly to St Bernard’s twelfth century architectural model for the Cistercian Order, with its emphasis on the quality of light and proportion, on simple, pared down elevations and detailing and on the spatial clarity which is the essence of the state of minimum. Some of the vocabulary of Novy Dvur may be new – the cantilevered cloister, for instance, has no literal precedent in Cistercian architectural history – but my aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the twelfth century blueprint, to express the Cistercian spirit with absolute precision, in a language free from pastiche and charged with poetry.
Work began on site in the winter of 2000 and is due to complete next year. In August last year progress was sufficiently advanced for the first monks to move in. A quiet ceremony marked the moment when a work of architecture, as yet unfinished, became a monastery. I have returned several times since. Of course it is always exciting to watch the slow translation of a vision which once existed only in the form of plans and sketches into physical space. It is often the tiny details, however, which stay in the mind: the name markers identifying the individual occupants of cubicles, the row of towels on pegs. The power of these apparently insignificant signs of occupation lies in the way that they serve as reminders that a monastery is, quite apart from anything else, a home.