Art and the Church
The Netherlands: Design of a Carthusian Monastery
Ard Hoksbergen: Design of a Carthusian Monastery
A Robust Beauty
by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker
In 2012 the young Dutch architect Ard Hoksbergen won the prestigious Archiprix award for the best graduation project among architecture students in The Netherlands. He designed a Carthusian monastery for Tubbergen in the eastern Netherlands. Fifty years earlier there had been plans to establish a charterhouse there. Eventually the order decided against it and the monastery never materialized. No design, including Hoksbergen’s, has ever been carried out.
The character of charterhouses is aimed at the ascetic lifestyle of the monks and nuns living in seclusion. Like the desert fathers in the early centuries of Christianity they withdraw into silence to escape the temptations of the world. The Carthusians are known to be the most rigorous monastic order. They spend three-quarter of the day alone in their cells. Three times a day they come together to sing and pray, also several hours in the middle of the night, and only once a week they are allowed to speak together during a communal walk.
The Carthusian order was founded by Bruno of Cologne (ca. 1030-1101) in Chartreuse, in the mountains near Grenoble, France. The name Carthusians comes from Cartusia, the Latin name for Chartreuse. Nowadays the order, which has never been very large, consists of about 350 monks and 70 nuns.
The monks and nuns live in seclusion in their cells in order to focus completely on God. In their mystical search for their Creator they attempt to cleanse their hearts from every impurity and desire for distraction. A Carthusian wrote about their contemplative life: ‘Contemplation is the act of the soul forgetting itself, standing motionless for something that is much broader and bigger than itself.’ Whoever has watched the filmInto Great Silence (2005) by Philip GrÓ§ning has seen their silent life of hardship, penance, contemplation and prayer pass by. Still I wonder if this movie is able to penetrate to the essence of their lives, as the real life of the hermits takes place inwardly and cannot be discerned outwardly, let alone participated in or understood. A monk testified: ‘What peace, what divine joy the solitude and silence bring to those who value them! This is only known by those who have experienced them.’
Carthusian monasteries usually consist of two courtyards surrounded by a number of buildings such as a the church, refectory and library. The courtyards are made up of a square cloister with a garden in the middle and at the outside the cells of the monks or nuns. But to Hoksbergen this was not fitting. ‘This design was taken over from the Benedictines, where cloisters also have a social function. They have for instance benches in them where the monks can converse with each other. Carthusians use the corridor only to walk through.
For this reason he breaks the square open. The cloister becomes one elongated ribbon with two twists in it, so that three straight stretches emerge that each give entrance to one of the three sections of the monastery. The first part (in the foreground of the model above) adjoins the section where the prior and lay-brothers live who take care of the recluses. Then the corridor makes a bend to the left and you enter the part with communal buildings placed in clearings in the forest with the dining hall and kitchen with vegetable garden, the chapter house with beehives next to it, the library with a fish pond, and the church with cemetery. Opposite each building a small private chapel juts out from the other side of the monastery wall. After the last bend you walk into the secluded section of the monastery with nine cells, each with their own garden and view of the woods.
Because of this innovative charterhouse design Ard Hoksbergen was awarded the Archiprix. Yet he was curious what the Carthusians would think of it themselves and therefore he contacted the prior of the mother monastery the Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble. The prior considered the resulting interdependence of the life of the monks and the surrounding landscape a splendid idea. In his words: ‘Nature is to us God and the world; the horizontal should lead us to the vertical and from there again to the widened horizontal.’
The interaction between a horizontal and a vertical orientation was a second important pillar of Hoksbergen’s design. The cloister is horizontal in its orientation, while the clearings in the forest are oriented vertically. Inside the buildings a similar effect occurs, as in the sober confined spaces the daylight coming in through high windows leads the eye upwards.
Hoksbergen aimed for an architectural style that would fit the way of life of the Carthusian order. The cells and buildings display a rural simplicity and a tough sobriety. Hoksbergen also opted for an honest building style. ‘I wanted what I build to be visible. When a concrete beam above the door is necessary to uphold the bricks, that must be seen. I was looking for an authenticity that matches the lifestyle of the Carthusians.’ Two materials keep on coming back: wood and clay walls that are one meter thick. ‘Wood and clay are natural materials, so that the buildings would also become durable.’
Yet Hoksbergen’s design exceeds a mere functional minimalism. The roof constructions are born by butterfly trusses that are an ode to his favourite Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. ‘Those butterfly trusses are not really necessary, but are ornaments radiating sheer joy and merriment.’
The robust beauty of Ard Hoksbergen’s design immediately reminded me of the monasteries by the Dutch Catholic architect Dom Hans van der Laan. Hoksbergen admits the influence: ‘Van der Laan was indeed one of my sources of inspiration and maybe even the reason why I wanted to graduate on a monastery design.’ If the charterhouse by Hoksbergen could ever be built, the resulting good of this living environment would definitely give the monastic inhabitants much comfort and encouragement in their lives of devotion to God, who after all is the Creator of beauty.
Ard Hoksbergen (b. 1981) studied architecture at the Academy of Architecture in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. After having worked for several years in a number of leading architectural firms in Amsterdam, he started his own firm in the city’s centre. The bureau aims for a clear and technically sound approach. ‘Things that are well made always contribute to the wellbeing of the user.’ www.ardhoksbergen.nl
Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is ArtWay’s editor-in-chief.