Simplicity of the cloister
11 September 2004
When the Cistercians wanted a new monastery, they chose the minimalist architect, John Pawson, to design it. The opening offered a rare glimpse within its walls.
Bohemia is anything but bohemian. The fields are neat, the forests straightedged, the towns orderly in this fertile, forgotten part of the European heartland. It is within the cool walls of the new Cistercian monastery of Novy Dvur, a 40-minute drive from the Czech beer capital of Pilsen, however, that conformity is most evident This is a world governed by a rule complete in its hold upon those who live there. Each hour, each half-hour, is given purpose and that purpose is to focus the minds of its inhabitants upon the mystery and wonder of the divine and on the spiritual and emotional welfare of their brothers. Wasting time - the time we in the outside would contrive to fill with specious entertainments - is anathema.
It seems, in hindsight, logical that the Cistercians should have commissioned the British architect and designer John Pawson to design the monastery, although five years ago the pairing of minimalism's celebrated high-priest and the publicity-shy Cistercians was anything but obvious. Pawson's work is characterised by a firm but gentle discipline, one in which results are achieved through a reductive design process that sheds the extraneous, the decorative, the intrusive to arrive at something so simple that the architectural involvement seems almost indecently casual. This absence of presence, of course, is what has endeared Pawson to a legion of well-groomed, well-moneyed clients around the world, a smart set too knowing to indulge in showy architecture, for whom discretion in design is as vital as their subtlety in collecting art, arranging their wardrobe and managing their tax liabilities.
Just like the monks, the smart set was instantly recognisable on 2 September, the day the monastery was consecrated. Black was, as ever, the prevailing theme, with a marked preference on the part of the men for shapeless, squishy black leather shoes - crude edge-stitching details adding that artisan touch — and thin, spiky heels for the women. The monks came in all shapes and sizes and Central Casting should have signed them on the spot. But for all the theatre - led by Cardinal Vik, the procession wound its slow way around the monastery walls, the relics sent from the mother monastery at Sept-Fons in France held aloft on a gilded stretcher - the solemn, celebratory mood was real.
More than 3,000 people had come to witness this moment, the like of which Novy Dvur will never see again, with coaches coming from Italy and France, private jets from London, Japan and America. Elderly Czech women dressed in traditional high-shouldered floral blouses and aprons sat bolt upright on rows of chairs lined up in the ruined orchard in front of video screens that enabled them to follow every nuance of the ceremonies. Dandelion seed heads floated tenderly through the crowd. Bells tinkled softly and the sound of chanting from inside the monastery church was caught on the breeze. A soft sigh and a watery amen arose when the monastery's cream walls were splashed with holy water. The monks guiding the queues of religious waiting to enter the church were expert diplomats, admitting monks and nuns in equal measure. More eminent ecclesiastics would pointedly move aside to let others through first until, mildly protesting, they were ushered through.
For those of Pawson's fan club who had come from abroad, the day was singularly strange. These are not people used to waiting for hours in the hot sun. The more entrepreneurial - let's not say impatient - among them sought to breach the closed monastery walls before the appointed hour of 3 o'clock by entering via unguarded service doorways, only to find themselves ejected by a rotund monk who waved them out like errant chickens. This day wasn't about them, anyway. I'd seen the faces of the monks - some seemed as young as 18 and their excitement was palpable. Never again, perhaps, would they be part of such a momentous occasion. Some of Pawson's guests were quite put out by the lack of any direct welcome from the abbot and one big-league philanthropist told me later that he had decided not to donate the large cash gift he had come to Novy Dvur with, so dejected was he at what he felt was monkish arrogance. "It's not about bad organisation. It's about ordinary compassion," he muttered
For me, however, this was just a consequence of the unusual and difficult encounter "- clash of civilisations is too strong a term that such a day brings. The Cistercians are an order that deliberately seeks seclusion, but the world is not sure whether they have a right to it The paradox is that monasteries fascinate people more today than perhaps they have ever done. As our lives become more and more complicated and our yearning to escape our worldly pressures increases, so the allure of the monastic life brightens on our mental horizon.
Once inside the monastery, it was possible for us all to appreciate even more vividly how such dreams can be realised A third of the complex consists of a former ruined manor house that had been upgraded during the eighteenth century. Czech Government funding enabled this charming but derelict building to be fully restored. Pawson's challenge was to graft his building on to its eastern facade, forming a large courtyard with two wings - one of which houses the substantial church, the other the refectory and dormitory above - that are joined by a third. Externally, the new architecture is discreet, silent and substantial - Pawson is famous for his interior spaces, after all but the architect is keen to point out the simple but exquisite external details, such as the lifting wave of the church's exterior facade that offers visitors a massive shoulder under which to shelter.
Inside, Pawson's genius is evident everywhere, from the umbra and penumbra of the cloister ceilings, onto which plays of reflected light will be cast by the running aqueduct edging the entire cloister windows, to the stem-edged cuts in the church's nave walls that let light filter through to the shadowed space beneath. Surprises are given generously: sudden vistas to the outside world, small courtyards that appear unbidden as part of the circulatory rhythm of the monastery. Human needs are accommodated in simple and unintentionally humorous ways: some of the roofs of the individual cells enclosed by the vast pitched roof dormitory space are covered by plastic sheeting so that certain known heavy snorers don't keep the other monks awake at night.
Pierre Saalburg, project architect, admits that the well-known delicacy of the practice's work had to adjust to the robust manners of the monks, for whom design niceties and pristine surfaces had been irrelevant. Both monks and architects argued their points assertively, but both parties have arrived at a pleasing and practical result There have been criticisms of the £6m. total cost of the project but Dom Patrick Olive, Abbot of Sept-Fons, articulated the purpose of building the monastery and the reasons for choosing such an architect, in a letter to Pawson in March 2000: 'The foundation in the Czech Republic is a necessity that objective circumstances have forced upon us: young volunteers have come to us ... and their desire to return to their home country is very legitimate. The actual project of construction, in spite of its amplitude, stays within the limits of the functional needs of a group of cloistered men, A beautiful construction does not cost more than an unsightly one and, what is more, thanks to your comprehension, certainly a lot less... If we were not monks, we would probably build something falsely 'baroque', or uselessly and expensively "modern*. Poverty, when understood correctly, far from being contradictory with the present project, has no better means to express itself, I think, than through it, except for not building at all".
My own thoughts about the purpose of such a life and the value of Pawson's work at Novy Dvur are ambivalent, a mix of admiration at the rigorous application of the monks to their lives together, recognition of the obvious serenity such a life impresses upon them, and a certain frustration at the seeming lack of connectedness between them and the world outside, which is in so much need of direct succour and grace I even found myself jealous of their calling, of the opportunity to discover and to lose oneself, while recognising that their life would never be for me.
For Pawson, these issues are nothing new. In his speech during the consecration, he talked about Novy Dvur being the project of a lifetime. Later, in London, he told me that he meant this in more ways than one.<<! want to maintain my relationship with the monastery throughout my life," he said. Working on the five-year project - it may take a further three years to complete, with guest houses, the landscaping of the central courtyard and other areas yet to be realised-has clearly left him a changed man. Pawson narrowly escaped death in a car accident two years ago and the monks, he says, "helped me through that". The project, he says, "has given me the chance to realise a type of building I hadn't done before. More importantly, it's taught me something about how they face death. They're not afraid of it. Their infirmary faces the cemetery and they all have their plots selected. It's this serenity I find so extraordinary."