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Designing a contemporary abbey: silence of words!

by Mandana Bafghinia, published 2017-09-18
Coalition between koinos bios (life in the community) and monos bios (an inner life) is the life of a monk in the heart of an abbey. The competition of the Cistercian Abbey of Val-Notre Dame exposes the issues of the Cistercian idyllic model; a tension between the historical nostalgia of an enclosed form and the contemporary manifesto of a form opening up to nature.

Launched by the monks of the Cistercian abbey of Oka in 2004, the two-stage competition aimed for a new abbey in Saint-Jean-de-Matha. The building is now happily situated in the Lanaudière region between the Assumption River and a road by the name of Montagne Coupée, meaning a cut mountain. Since the first construction in 1881, which has been destroyed three times by fire, Notre-dame-du-lac has sheltered 178 monks. At the dawn of the 21st century, Montreal’s urban sprawl is accelerating and the number of monks is reduced to 30, giving reason for a relocation.

In the first stage of the competition, 59 competitors submitted their proposals. Consisting of architects, historians (architecture and geography), a theologian, and representatives of the Cistercian community of Oka, the jury selected four teams for a second stage:
• Pierre Thibault,
• Manon Asselin architect + Louis Brillant architect,
• Atelier BRAQ,
• Human nature / Aedifica.
Two mentions were granted to the teams: MEDIUM + Anne Bordeleau, Croft Pelletier.
The monks defined a challenging program through three parameters: a contemporary architecture (design and materials and acoustics) that respects the traditional principles of an abbey, a union between spiritual life and public life, and finally an external/internal contemplation on the surrounding environment.

It should be noted that, at first, the judges were undecided between the proposals by Naturehumaine and Pierre Thibault, in the end choosing the latter.

While the competition called for new approaches to religious heritage, the answers strangely shared one element: the image of a square, inducing the expression of a main promenade around an empty space, a courtyard. A volumetric analysis of the four projects reveals two categories. The first is characterized by a monolithic roof that circulates on a surface, keeping the simplicity of a single geometric level. The second consists of a volumetric game of different levels around a central square that evokes a museum, which can be perceived in the BRAQ project. For their part, Manon Asselin and Louis Brillant propose a project at the junction of the two categories: a monolithic approach and a play between different levels. As for Pierre Thibault’s project, while maintaining the same height, the proposed solution offers a light roof floating on piles that separate the public space, the hotel, the church, the library from the monastic space. As for the atelier Naturehumaine, the project justifies the square form with a quote from Saint Bernard: “God is quadruple, He is length, height, breadth and depth.”

A monastic life in Manon Asselin and Louis Brilliant’s project is distinguished by a meditation on nature, water and stone. This poetic presentation focuses on the gardens within the courtyard. As for the integration of the building within its context, the jury reports are unanimous on the project by Pierre Thibault, claiming that the outer envelope is the key element of harmonization with the landscape. While the other three other finalists did not meet this criterion, it was the watercolor boards and the perceivable movement culminating in the church that had the strongest influence on the jury’s decision.

Let us now take a step back to locate the questions raised by this competition within their historical context, the long typological trajectory of the monasteries. Irrespective of their specificities—Benedictine, Augustinian and Cistercian—the abbeys are centered on a church articulating the whole conventual life, a dormitory, the cloister and other elements. In a classical order, the main characters of the Cistercian type are simplicity, sobriety, and a low central tower. In the end, each abbey, according to its rule, carries an architecture and a filiation linking it to a “type” from which the monks who founded it are born. If we walk through the traces of this long history, before changing its knots, we must acquire a good understanding of its nature in order to ensure that what we are building will make us achieve an objective of change. Since Le Corbusier and the Convent of La Tourette in 1955-60, a new perspective has changed the classic image of the abbey. The treatment of this project marks innovative ideas in terms of light, sitting, with a new architecture on stilts and an inverted pyramid. At La Tourette, Le Corbusier worked with Iannis Xenakis, composer and architect, on three distinct subjects: individual life, collective life and spiritual life, as well as three functions: living, studying, and praying. The church has been detached from the rest of the buildings and the minimal religious symbolism has remained evident: the cloister, passages rising, descending and crossing the spaces, a harmonic facade through the structure of undulating glass panes, vertical glass panes in geometric panels. The cells were acoustically isolated to allow meditation.

The abbey thus reveals itself above all as a peaceful place for its inhabitants: the monks. The very object of monastic life must remain predominant and must be treated with delicacy. Built for more than a decade by Pierre Thibault, this project seemingly maintains the quality of finishes, the pleasant effects between light and space, and a beautiful tectonic language: An architecture conceived apart from the digital culture despite being so dominant. From a bird’s eye view, a massive gray form stands out from the landscape instead of anchoring the monastic complex in nature. On the horizontal plane, the overall simple and controlled design is clearly discernible upon arrival, by the periphery of the complex; a road that crosses a steep topography and reaches at the parking area, a less attractive part of the project.
According to Ricardo L. Castro in an article published in Canadian Architect (published in 2010): “ … this winning project encouragingly reflects the state of architecture in Quebec during the first decade of the 21st century.” However, one question remains, how can we ensure coherence between the typology of the abbey and the reality of the site? The abbey of Notre Dame du Lac can be presented in the way that Hegel defines architecture: techniques and devices that represent the reality of a historical context. The expression of a building may also work as a metaphor, in this case a linguistic metaphor, as a means of talking. In this case, in silence to communicate the meaning of what can be called a “Talking architecture.”
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