The Monastery of Novy Dvur
The new Cistercian monastery of Novy Dvur is one of the more unlikely 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, amongst them the vicar general of the diocese of Brno, were received as novices at the Cistercian monastery of Sept-Fons in Burgundy. Ten years on and with the Burgundian community numbering seventy-five - including a dozen Czech brothers - the project to establish a new monastery was born. Various sites were considered, before the monks settled on one hundred acres of land in Bohemia, about half an hour’s drive from Plzen. As well as a site, the monks also acquired an architect: John Pawson, pictures of whose work had caught the eye of the abbot.
There is remarkably little evidence of human intervention in this remote corner of Bohemia: a solitary telecommunications mast, the odd fence, trails from planes that quickly merge with the clouds. If you know where to look, you can just make out a tiled roof on the ridge across the valley. This is gentle landscape which bears scant evidence of the hand of man. Other than birdsong, the whirring of an early bee and the sporadic grinding of a concrete mixer – Lilliputian against the vast hull of the monastery’s church – the air is quiet. It is a context in which any notion of the wider world seems instantly irrelevant and where even the confirmed agnostic can begin to understand the draw of a cloistered, contemplative life. In such a place it is tempting to wonder whether the real challenge would not be the effort of detachment, but the will to remain attached in any meaningful sense to anything beyond one’s literal field of vision: how does one continue to care and pray for a world which feels so remote?
The site John Pawson first visited in 1999 comprised a baroque manor house with runs of agricultural buildings framing a courtyard. Uninhabited for decades, an air of aesthetic decay could not 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. While some of Pawson’s vocabulary is new - the cantilevered cloister, for example, is without literal precedent - his design remains true to the spirit of St Bernard’s twelfth century architectural blueprint for the Order, with its emphasis on the quality of light and proportion, on simple, pared down elevations and detailing.
From the time when the monks made contact with Pawson, through the initial site visits, the presentations and the inauguration of work on site, to the day last August when the first monks moved in, four years have passed. Walking round it is apparent that while much has already been accomplished, many months of work remain. Work on the later phases of the project, including a guest house and provision for industry – the current plan is for the monks to manufacture hand-cream – has yet to begin, with the handsome timber-framed barn which will be converted to receive visitors standing in a state of suspended animation. In what will be the cowl room, my eye was caught by a butterfly which had hatched too early, still attached to its immaculate deathbed of cold, smooth plaster. The monastery has certainly not suffered the butterfly’s fate of premature birth. Its life has been wrought slowly, the processes measured. The French thinker Pascal famously ended a letter with an apology for its unusual length, excusing himself on the grounds that he didn’t have time to make it shorter. This is one of the things which clients of John Pawson are paying for – ‘the long while to make it short’. It is this time which allows the physical reality of the architecture to retain the abstract quality of thought.
The painstaking renovation of the baroque manor house is now virtually complete and everywhere here and in the south wing there are signs of the monks’ makeshift occupation: the whiteboard at the front of one of the classrooms bears traces of the previous lesson, a dozen or so of the cells in the dormitory bear name markers identifying their occupants and, passing through areas of construction site, one is suddenly surprised by a line of tea towels or socks hanging up to dry. The monastery’s church, by contrast, is still a shell. In April a small ceremony marked the topping-out of the roof, but work has yet to begin on the interior. Even full of scaffolding, it is possible to get an impressive sense of the volume, of the dramatic effects of light and of a promising acoustic. Elsewhere, most of the main structures which make up the cloister are now in place, although gaps between elements remain. Even though many of the surfaces have not received their finishes, there is a profound sense of harmony, smoothness and seamlessness of intention which the occasional rough workmanship cannot compromise. A quiet rigour is manifest at every junction, in the precision with which glass meets stone, stone meets stone and curve encounters plane. One of the most dramatic effects is actually an unforeseen one which became apparent only after the first section of the cloister ceiling had been painted. Looking up, it is impossible to read the cantilevered contour you know is there, the eye registers only whiteness without shape or limit. It is an experience which is simultaneously disconcerting and exhilarating.
The monks’ lives are highly structured, each day ordered around a sequence of seven services and the rising and setting of the sun. In an environment in which the rhythms of daylight reacquire their significance, it is appropriate that light becomes part of the fabric of the architecture. When I slipped like a thief through the dormitories and washrooms – by prior arrangement with the abbot, while the monks were celebrating vespers and there was therefore no possibility of awkward encounters – the sun was already low in the sky. Rhythmic bands of light striped the passages either side of the double row of cells. Pools of light spilled across staircases. The rays of the setting sun gave a sculptural quality to the curves of the deep window embrasures. In one room under construction, there was water lying on the floor. For a few moments a pair of light shafts entered diagonally from above, reflecting in the water and thus appearing to continue through the floor. The effect was pure Barragán, albeit in a muted palette of greys and ochres.
Longstanding familiarity with the models does not prepare one for the reality of Novy Dvur. One of the things which you can’t get from the models is the way that the scale of the various elements seems constantly to shift. The church offers the most dramatic example of this, appearing as modest chapel or monumental cathedral according to the vantage point. Another surprise is the way in which, while you are walking around, the powerful human instinct to draw comparisons seems to fall away. There is something profoundly fitting in the fact that the monastery is not a place which particularly makes you think of anywhere else.
Before my visit, I had wondered whether the monastic complex might sit rather uneasily in its green context. In the event what I experienced was a sense of incredible rightness. The architecture rests lightly on the land, moulding itself to the retained contours of its sloping site. One of the many great achievements of the design is the relationship it synthesises between built forms and landscape, so that each serves to release the power of the other. This is an effect which will only grow more intense as the work nears completion at which point, doubtless, there will be another series of agonised analyses in the architectural press examining where in some hypothesised lifecycle of minimalism we currently stand. Is minimalism dead, dying or in the throes of resurrection? It is difficult not to feel such arguments rather miss the point. The perennial hunger to identify the next new thing is just that: the desperate search for new forms. Fashion tends to deal in commodities and some categories of space cannot readily be broken into their constituent parts and sold. People often call the studio in London wanting to find out where they can buy the Pawson sink. The sink is an undeniably beautiful thing, but in isolation it is no more than that: a beautiful sink, susceptible to the whims of fashion. It is the vision of space for which it was conceived which both signifies and endures. This vision is Pawson’s legacy for the monks of Novy Dvur.
On the way back to London, I spent twenty-four hours in Prague, where I had lived for several happy months one sweltering summer twelve years ago, shortly after Vaclav Havel was elected president of a newly democratic Czechoslovakia. It was not an altogether satisfactory re-encounter. Despite possessing many of the familiar trappings of a European capital, the Prague of my memory was profoundly strange. In the course of the last decade it has become a place which is superficially quirky but also deeply ordinary. It made me think again about the monastery and how easy it would have been to produce something quirky but fundamentally ordinary, lacking any underlying spirituality. It is a fate well escaped. But then what has been achieved lies at the very heart of minimalism, in the quality of the relationship which is made possible between the profound and the everyday.