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80 monks, an architect and a shared taste for austerity

The choice of John Pawson as architect of the monastery at Novy Dvur was on the face of it incongruous. Famous for the Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue and the Cathay-Pacific lounge in the Hong Kong airport, Pawson counts as friends and clients celebrities such as Klein and Martha Stewart, whose house in the East Hamptons he helped design and who featured Pawson in an issue of her magazine. But the guru of modern minimalism lives a famously austere lifestyle. His home in London has been frequently featured in articles and on television as a showcase for his work. It features calm, monumental spaces devoid of ornament or even common artifacts for that matter. A recent article in The New York Times notes that even Pawson’s telephone is tucked out of sight, behind a cupboard door.

A tongue-in-cheek profile in the London newspaper The Guardian suggests Pawson’s apparent triumph over the detritus of daily life is not so much about paring down possessions as acquiring better closet space. Still, Pawson likes to say that he lives much as the Sept-Fons monks do, with an emphasis on simplicity. For their part, the monks were attracted to the Zen-like minimalist décor Pawson offered clients. Br. Thomas, 36, himself an architect, read Pawson’s book, Minimum, and passed it on to the abbot, who subsequently contacted Pawson.

Pawson describes the initial meeting as nerve-wracking for both architect and clients.

“They [the monks] had decided they wanted to use me. What they were nervous about is whether I would take it, and I was nervous that they wouldn’t give it to me. So it was quite a funny day.”

Once the commission was offered and accepted, Pawson visited the abbey at Sept-Fons so he could learn more about the monks’ life, joining them in the chapel for daily offices, even rising at 3:30 a.m. for the first service of the day. The monks at Sept-Fons live in silence, communicating with each other only when essential, but they suspended their usual silence to talk to Pawson about the project.

“I’ve never presented to 80 clients before in one go. They prayed before I presented to them,” Pawson recalled.

Every step along the way the monks have been involved in the design, providing Pawson with “an amazingly detailed brief” that extended right down to the desired temperature in the monastery: 12 degrees Celsius in the cloister and 15 degrees Celsius in the dormitories.

“They have firsthand experience of what they need and they have a lot of time to think about it,” Pawson said.

Counting the existing manor house and the three wings that will be added to it, the total project will consist of about 60,000 square feet, which works out to about 1,500 square feet per monk. Monks have the same needs as other men, but because the monks never leave the property, Pawson noted that more space, not less, is necessary.

Cistercians emphasize communal life, which may account for why the Trappists live in silence.

“There’s a relation between silence and the common life. Our common life is very strict, and since we are always together, if we weren’t silent it would be hell,” Abbot Dom Patrick said.

The Sept-Fons monks not only eat together, they sleep together in a common dormitory with partitions between the monks for privacy. Pawson, who is designing every aspect of the project, down to the furniture, the cutlery and the crosses for the church, is planning special glass tops in the new dormitory for the handful of monks who keep others awake with their snores.

Pawson’s design for the cloister at Novy Dvur calls for a contemporary-looking barrel-vaulted cloister without columns three sides around a grassy courtyard. Columns are a staple of monastic architecture; without them, the barrel vault forms a smooth uninterrupted curve. All of the major parts of the monastery -- scriptorium, church, refectory, library, infirmary and Chapter House -- will offer access to the cloister. One of its unusual features will be that because Novy Dvur is located on a hill but the cloister is constructed on a single level, a monk may enter one side of the cloister at ground level and by the time he completes the tour around the cloister he’ll be on the first floor.

The seven liturgical offices that mark monastic life mean 14 processions through the cloister, a fact Pawson is very conscious of. “When you’re traveling through the cloister, you want to feel all sorts of emotions. You want it to be calm, but also beautiful,” Pawson said.

Pawson is depending on scale, proportion and, above all, light to achieve the effect of sublimity he wants. A canal will run the length of the cloister and will reflect the play of light on the water onto the white plastered ceiling. The church, which will be built last, after the monks move in, is a vaulted rectangular nave ending in a semicircular apse. No exterior windows will be used, but two light boxes will diffuse the light. The light will fall such that at certain times of day the altar will appear to float in a hazy luminescence, said the architect. Only the guesthouse and the church will be open to visitors.

For Pawson, as for the monks, it was important that Novy Dvur should reflect the simplicity of Cistercian architecture but nonetheless be rooted in its own time.

“I was resolved to produce something which wasn’t a pastiche of previous architectural solutions, but I was equally determined to remain true to the Cistercian spirit,” said Pawson, who has been a longtime admirer of Cistercian architecture, particularly the 12th-century abbey of Le Thoronet in Provence, France, which he has made frequent trips to for many years. Other influences on his aesthetic are the 19th-century industrial buildings of his native Halifax in Britain and 16th-century Japanese art and architecture. Pawson, who is just as apt to design furniture, bowls and cutlery as buildings, spent four years teaching in Japan.

--Margot Patterson

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001