The monks who wanted a Calvin Klein touch

From a speech given by the British architect John Pawson for the Design & Art Directors Association president's lecture series
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Legend has it that a group of Cistercian monks, having lost their way in New York, wandered into Calvin Klein's flagship store. They loved the architecture, but considered it wasted on clothes. It's a good story. In reality, the monks saw my designs in a book. The rest - the bit about the architecture being wasted on clothes - is true.

Legend has it that a group of Cistercian monks, having lost their way in New York, wandered into Calvin Klein's flagship store. They loved the architecture, but considered it wasted on clothes. It's a good story. In reality, the monks saw my designs in a book. The rest - the bit about the architecture being wasted on clothes - is true.

The monks were from the abbey at Sept-Fons in Burgundy. They were looking to commission an architect for a new monastery in the Czech Republic. This monastery was to house Czech brothers who had entered Sept-Fons as novices in the wake of the Velvet Revolution in former Czechoslovakia, and who now wanted to return to their homeland.

A site had been acquired in Bohemia, south-west of Prague. On the strength of the pictures of the Calvin Klein store, I was invited to visit. It may seem curious to find the architect of a temple of consumerism - the Calvin Klein store in Manhattan - approached to design a new Cistercian monastery, but the commission has always seemed to me to be entirely natural. Calvin Klein sought to create a temporary sanctuary from the busy urban context of Madison Avenue; the monks sought total sanctuary from the world. Each looked for an architectural solution based on the aesthetic of simplicity, what I have elsewhere defined as "the minimum" - the perfection something achieves when it can no longer be improved by subtraction.

Of course, when people say that they are curious about the commission, it is generally the issue of money which bothers them - they can't reconcile the vow of poverty with a John Pawson monastery. The abbot of Sept-Fons had a very good answer to this, stating that the vow of poverty "is not a constraining destitution (working men who spend money only for their basic needs are not indigent), but a decision to avoid the superfluous, the artificial, the complicated".

There is something strikingly familiar and contemporary in the quiet architecture of the Cistercian movement, the model for which was established in the 12th century, with its emphasis on simple elevations, detailing and materials.The commission to design a new Cistercian monastery represents, for me, the opportunity of a lifetime.

The brief was the most exhaustive. To help me to understand the demands the monks would be making of this home they would never leave, I made several visits to the mother-house in France during the design process, rising with the community at 3.30am and following the brothers through their daily routine of seven services.

The site in Bohemia consisted of a Baroque manor house and farm buildings arranged around a courtyard, set in 100 acres of remote farmland and wooded hills. The complex had been uninhabited for more than 40 years and was in a state of some dereliction, although, as the abbot rightly observed: "Even in ruins, it is very beautiful. It has soul; it is true."

The basic configuration of the site will be retained, the courtyard becoming the cloister garden. I wanted to fuse together new and old in a way which was not totally seamless, but which did not over-dramatise the junctions.

The Baroque manor house will be painstakingly restored. Its main floor will form the administrative heart of the new community, with the noviciate, classrooms, washrooms and quarters for visiting abbots located on the upper floor. The remains of the barns running along the north side will, however, be demolished to make way for the church. Work on site is still at a very early stage.

The past year has been one spent immersed in monastic architecture. My wife Catherine was apparently worried that I might not return from working retreats in Sept-Fons, that I might succumb to the attractions of life as a white monk.

It hasn't happened yet.

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