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 th…