Friday, June 13, 2008

Novy Dvur Monastery by John Pawson

The monastic cloister has been likened to an enclosed city, its many sub-programmes typically including the functions of church, home, office, school, workshop, guesthouse, hospital and farm. Not only is a monastery’s programme demanding, its patterns of use are intricate. Monks lead highly structured lives, with each day ordered around a repeating sequence of services and the rising and setting of the sun. The success of monastic architecture rests as much in the way it accommodates the everyday rituals of the body as it does the rituals of religion: a monastery is both a house of God and house for men.

In 1999 the abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Sept-Fons in Burgundy commissioned John Pawson to design a monastery for a new community of forty Trappist monks in Bohemia. The location for this the first monastery to be built in the Czech Republic since the fall of communism was a remote 100-acre site set in woodland and incorporating a dilapidated baroque manor house with runs of derelict agricultural buildings framing a courtyard.

John Pawson’s scheme had a number of powerful contexts to negotiate, ranging from the existing structures on the site to historically based ideas of what a Cistercian monastery should look like. Key early questions centred on issues of where to break new ground and where to work within existing frameworks. The first task was to identify the functional and aesthetic values which define the core of Cistercian monastic life and then to generate the best possible expression of these core qualities, given the time, the place and the available means – the turn of the millennium, an abandoned farm with baroque components in rural Bohemia and the monks’ restricted budget.

The remarkable consistency of the Cistercian Order’s building programme is the result of a comprehensive blueprint drawn up in the twelfth century by St Bernard of Clairvaux. This blueprint not only laid out the various territories of the monastery, but was also specific its aesthetic requirements, placing emphasis on the quality of light and proportion, on simple, pared down elevations, restrained detailing and spatial clarity.

Pawson’s aim has been to remain true to the spirit of St Bernard’s programme, expressing the Cistercian spirit with absolute precision, in a language free from pastiche, while introducing some new and distinctive vocabulary - the cantilevered cloister, for example, which has no precedent in Cistercian architectural history.

The many challenges of the Novy Dvur project reflect the truth that authentically simple environments are almost inevitably the outcome of complex architectural processes. Pawson’s scheme retains and restores the baroque manor house and creates three wings of entirely new architecture on the footprint of the old. The material palette is characteristically restrained, with plaster, concrete, timber and glass predominating. A quiet rigour is manifest at every junction, in the exactness with which glass meets stone, curve encounters plane and views are framed. In keeping with Cistercian aesthetic preoccupations, effects of light read as essential components of the fabric of the architecture, being used variously to add precision, drama and a sense of mystery to the experience of the spaces.

(text via: John Pawson)

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