Re: Re: reorganisation and destruction of irish catholic churches

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An article on the monastery of Novy Dvur from the blog Always Distinguish(ed).
ab ambiguitate ad claritatem. :

The Renewal of Religious Life and Architecture
Monday, March 16th, 2009
So, it’s been a while… again. But, here’s a bit of a subject that I have neglected for a bit. That is, until I discovered this gem on an architecture blog (I forget which one). The “gem” is English minimalist architect John Pawson’s (b. 1949) Cistercian Monastery of Novy Dvur in Bohemia in the Czech Republic—the monastery’s website can be seen here.

Give it a look see, but lest you complain that it is too austere or blank, remember that’s the way the Cistercians do it.

Be sure, also, if you are still intrigued after viewing the photos, to read Pawson’s essay about the design of the monastery. This, I think, tells you more about the design than the pictures will.

 Now, to the main topic swimming around in your minds. Does he (meaning I, myself) like this?

Well, you knew, I hope, it wasn’t going to be that easy… (Never deny…)

With that said, I can hear the objections now to the picture I chose to show here: it looks like something from Star Trek, like some inter-galactic council about to meet. Where are the Christian symbols, for instance?

“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.”

The “Cistercian spirit” is not for everyone, nor is minimalism. But, as Pawson points out so concisely, in life as well as architecture, there is a beauty in simplicity that is unmatched by the crowding of superfluities and ornamentation. One could easily contrast the austerity of Pawson’s minimalism with the extravagance of the Baroque. One might also be tempted to choose between them, to say “I prefer” one to the other. One might also be led to believe that simplicity in design is really proof of a lack of imagination or skill. However, as many an architect will attest, and perhaps first among them Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, simple architectural details are often more difficult to realize than complicated ones. Why? Consider the complexities of construction, the delays, the inefficiency, the myriad professions on the jobsite that must be coordinated, the intricacies of accurate measurement, the difficulty of “getting it just right” and making things line up… for all the technology we have these days, making a truly straight line is still nearly impossible in construction. Further inspection into minimalist design reveals the real driving force behind the forms and materials: the play of light and space. This is of the essence of architecture—to create space and to illuminate it. In such an environment the tiniest of subtleties become massive design elements. The shape of a corner, the detail of how a wall meets the floor, all fill roles with which they are not commonly associated.

So, you might be saying “That’s great… you mean to tell me that these minimalist designs are actually the most complex and beautiful of them all, surpassing even the baroque in attention to detail? And, of course, all of this is lost on the lay observer.” Well, to a certain extent, yes! I couldn’t appreciate the delicacy of Vivaldi’s Requiem Mass as well as some of my more musically inclined brothers can. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect them to immediately take delight in the simplicities of Pawson’s architecture.

What’s my personal verdict. Well, it is a critique as any architectural critique goes: Pawson is a master at minimalism, without a doubt, but he is also an architectural force to be reckoned with. Though one could not fully appreciate (or abhor) the full reality of the monastery at Novy Dvur without experiencing it in person, I believe it is safe to say from the material presented that Pawson exhibits a deft hand at design and with respect to the building as a monastery (aesthetics ‘aside’) has succeeded in creating a space well-proportioned to the life of a Christian monk. Is it beautiful? Without a doubt it expresses with clarity and precision the truths of monastic life and spirituality. Is it tasteful?  I don’t deny that I would have liked it to be clearer about what it is… but this is the language of symbols, something that architecture has struggled with for the past century. In that respect, I have some compassion for the design and Pawson, because I think that he has attempted to incorporate Christian symbolism in what is undeniably a very rigorist modern tendency to avoid what is classified as ‘pastiche’. Now, every architect might have his own notion of what consists of pastiche, but it is the contemporary problem par excellence in my opinion. The question is: how much can it look like the past without being unoriginal? It is the deadly flaw of modernism: the unswerving and uncompromising desire for originality.

And the subject line of the post? The Renewal of Religious Life? I thought it would be important to highlight that a project like this can’t come to pass without a few things in place first, most importantly, monks to live in the monastery. You look at the pictures and you notice quite a few young men. On the monastery website there are a few photos of what looks like a profession of vows or reception of the habit taking place in the chapter room (with the Patroness of the Americas and the unborn, Our Lady of Guadalupe, conspicuously watching over).

Pawson writes in his essay:

“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.”

It seems that a particular Cistercian Abbey in Burgundy by the turn of the century (that is, 2000) had admitted a dozen or so monks from the Czech Republic after the fall of Communism. The wealth of vocations led the abbey to consider what one might call a “monastery plant” back in Bohemia.

The only way we will see a renewal of Catholic architecture is with a prior renewal of Catholic vocations (of all kinds, religious, sacerdotal, and familial). Only with a renewed and reformed Catholic culture will Catholic architecture be able to follow a still rather undetermined path towards a brighter, richer, more beautiful future.

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