Minimalism is a style that allows the very rich to transcend vulgar consumption. It also allows the monks in a John Pawson-designed monastery to live with nothingby Mark Irving / October 23, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
Who chooses to be poor? For us in the west, living in a time of plenty, the question invites an incredulous response. Poverty, like illness and death, is something we prefer to see – if at all – mediated by television, turned into a story about unfortunate things happening to other people. For the monks of Novy Dvur, however, poverty is a chosen way of life. On 2nd September, Novy Dvur, a mere pinprick set in the neat rolling hills of Bohemia and a 45-minute drive from the Czech beer capital of Plzen, was the centre of the architecture and design world. More than 3,000 people had turned up to witness the formal consecration of the new monastery, a dazzling building designed by the British architect John Pawson. Monks of all shapes and sizes were there, together with coachloads of Cistercian groupies from France and Italy. The smart design set had flown in from as far afield as Japan and the US, and were identifiable by their uniform taste for black and grey. Unused to waiting, they found themselves at 9am in the ruined orchard outside the monastery standing shoulder to shoulder with local farmers and elderly Czech women in their traditional blouses and lace-edged floral aprons (designer Paul Smith was seen photographing these with interest). Eight hours of Latin service followed, punctuated for visitors by a picnic lunch of thick-skinned sausages and heavy wine served in a circus top in the corn-stubble field nearby. Full access to the monastery was allowed only at 5pm.
The choice of Pawson, the pioneering minimalist and the creator of celebrated commercial projects such as the Calvin Klein store in Manhattan, is an intriguing one. What connection is there between the tastes of international moneyed types and a nascent monastic order? I suppose it comes down to the distinction that minimalism offers, with its reductive organisation of space, erasure of clutter, and sober use of light and tone in a world where vulgar consumption is evident everywhere. For the very rich, minimalism is a stealth-wealth strategy that demonstrates a route beyond mere accumulation to a state that suggests the acquisition of something more significant: a professed sense of self-knowledge.
The monks of Novy Dvur know they are living in a £6m minimalist masterpiece, but if this is what it takes to achieve the home they require in which to lead their lives, then so be it. In a letter to John Pawson dated 22nd March 2000, Dom Patrick Olive, the abbot of Sept-Fons, the mother monastery in France, insisted that “a beautiful construction does not cost more than an unsightly one and, what is more, thanks to your comprehension, certainly a lot less. Necessity, utility, simplicity, the lowest possible prices: these standards are in harmony with the professed poverty of monks.”
For me, the success of Pawson’s project has been the way the spaces inside the building focus the mind through their simplicity while stimulating it by providing opportunities for contemplation throughout the monastery. Walking through the dramatic cloister edging the large internal courtyard, for example, you are given sudden vistas out to the fertile countryside through archways that, in partially encircling the view, present the world as a subject already fit for contemplation. A cast concrete gulley runs along the outside of the large sheet-glass cloister windows, and this, once filled with water, will cast flickering reflections upon the curved cloister ceilings. It is in the little things of nature that our wonder at the world is perhaps best found.
The monks themselves are a species apart. Some look as young as 18 and you wonder about what it takes at such a tender age to make such a profound decision about the way in which you wish to lead your life. Others wear their age, not wearily, but with a serene acceptance that I have seen only in the faces of gardeners and musicians: people who find joy in creative experiences, not just in themselves. For these monks, the view from the monastery infirmary to the cemetery outside is nothing to be afraid of. Part of me envies the monks, for the space and time in which they feel out their path through life, inch by inch, prayer by prayer; another part of me recognises that their life is not for me. But what are monks for?
An answer is found in another letter from Dom Patrick to Pawson: “I think that we can say that a monk’s purpose is to reveal what is most essential for every man, so essential that it is sometimes hidden from his own eyes: the possibility to resolve the following which is apparently contradictory – man is limited but he carries within himself certain desires which are not limited. A man tries to render concrete such infinite desires through his work, his achievements, his offspring, and especially through his love, but he encounters certain limits which can be a source of great pain in proportion to his sensitivity. A monk is one who accepts to satisfy his thirst for infinity without using such means. Voluntarily, he restricts his needs and the satisfaction of his most legitimate desires. The reason is that he believes that only a personal encounter with God can fulfil him.”
This, then, is the kind of man who chooses poverty. But it is not, a choice without its rewards.