Bayon Arquitectós have designed an extension to a monastery in Spain which, like its historic ancestor, has a powerful sense of weight, gravtias and timelessness. Photography by Roland Halbe
In an ironic role reversal, it’s often the dubious fate of former monasteries or convents to be repurposed as luxury hotels. The Four Seasons in Milan, for instance, was originally a convent dating from the 15th century, complete with historic frescoes. And in one of the more memorable additions to the genre, Eduardo Souto de Moura transformed the ruins of a former monastery just north of Braga in Portugal into a luxury resort (AR July 1998). The building now forms part of Portugal’s network of posadas (converted historic monuments), with architectural tourists accounting for a large proportion of the building’s new devotees.
So at first sight this building by Mariano Bayón might seem a predictable segue from the sacred to the secular, as another ancient centre of piety and contemplation succumbs to accommodate the quite different demands of high-end tourism. But though Bayón’s new addition to the monastery of Poblet in Catalonia bears all the hallmarks of an elegant modern hotel, with its fashionably stripped geometry and honey coloured stone, this is no upscale resort. Rather it’s a hostel in a still functioning monastery for visitors of a different kind, those who want to study or temporarily join the monastic community for meditation and prayer. Restating and reconnecting with the site’s original purpose, it’s a place to salve the soul rather than the body.
Originally founded in 1151 by French Cistercian monks, the Monastery of Poblet was the first of three monasteries known as the Cistercian triangle that combined to consolidate the order’s power in Catalonia during the 12th century. It was closed down in 1835, but refounded again in 1940 by a group of Italian Cistercians. Today Poblet’s monastic community numbers just over 30 and even has its own website. Known as the ‘white monks’ for their undyed wool habits, Cistercians pursue an especially austere regime of prayer, manual labour and self sufficiency. At the order’s heart is a literal observance to the Rule of Saint Benedict (480-547AD), which attempts to reproduce conditions as they were in the saint’s time.
Bayón won the commission as the result of a competition held in 1998 and the project was finally completed in July of this year. Though this might sound a suspiciously long time frame for a contemporary building, in the context of the centuries-old history of the monastery, it’s a mere blip. ‘It has been a strengthening process,’ says Bayón, ‘which allowed us to focus very intensely on the relationship between old and new, as well as the precise nature of details and materials. We wanted to absorb the physical and spiritual qualities of the site and the harmonies of silence accumulated there.’
Set at the western edge of the monastery grounds, the new building adopts a simple L-shaped plan that docks on to the small existing chapel of Santa Catalina. A tall cloister runs around its longer edge, overlooking a courtyard planted with olive trees. The ground floor contains the communal areas for dining and socialising, with two storeys of monastic cells above.
Like its historic ancestor, the new building has a powerful sense of weight, gravitas and timelessness. Stone from La Floresta, a nearby quarry that supplied the stone to the original monastery, was used for its construction, and in places, the smooth jointed facades are interspersed with sections of random rubble. Internally, white-walled Cistercian austerity prevails, but is tempered by being brought into a dialogue with new materials such as concrete and dark, polished wood. It is a highly compelling and sensitive piece of architecture, yet perhaps just as importantly, in adding to Poblet’s historic continuum, Bayón shows that ancient places of spiritual energy and contemplation can have a future beyond the world of Hip Hotels.