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Modern monasteries

The magnificent ruin of St Peter’s Cardross has recently been thrown a lifeline after decades of neglect, but many other significant buildings commissioned by religious orders remain under threat

St Peter’s Cardross opened in 1966 to widespread applause – ‘Scotland’s answer to La Tourette’ – and some local consternation. But as the number of seminarians declined it was abandoned, and over the intervening decades the decaying monument drew tourists eager for a fix of ruin-porn from across the globe. Rowan Moore recently described the building, designed by Gillespie Kidd & Coia’s Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein, as ‘a mud-wrestle of culture and nature’, as graffiti and rhododendrons vie for prominent crags of rain-soaked concrete. One of the best modern buildings in Britain, the seminary was apparently doomed. But now Angus Farquhar, creative director of the Glasgow-based cultural organisation NVA, is offering a lifeline to this holy ruin: he’s raised £7 million to transform the site into a place where the arts can flourish. This will not be a full restoration: ‘we’re taking it back from full ruination to something in between,’ he told The National. ‘The building will have a strange skeletal structure gradually going back to how it looked in the 1960s. The north end of the site will remain consolidated, almost like castle battlements, while the south end, where the seminary chapel was, will be fully restored and will have the main, 600-capacity covered auditorium.’ At the time of writing, work has begun on site, and Farquhar hopes the complex will open in time for the building’s fiftieth anniversary.

Marcel Breuer, Abbey of Saint John the Baptist, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1953-61

Marcel Breuer, Abbey of Saint John the Baptist, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1953-61

How different this is from the Abbey of Saint John the Baptist in Collegeville, Minnesota, the largest Benedictine abbey in the world and the subject of a new book by Victoria Young. Between 1953 and 1961, the brethren worked with the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer on a radical new architectural proclamation of modern theology and liturgy. In its scale and use of materials, it declared a new religious architectural vitality that was part of a wider Modern Movement in theology and design that culminated in Vatican II. Breuer wanted his former Bauhaus classmate Josef Albers to design the glass. Though Albers did design the White Cross window in the Abbot’s private chapel, the commission for the vast north wall – comprised of 430 glass hexagons and nearly 180 feet wide – went to the Polish artist Bronislaw Bak. Young notes that this decision remains controversial, and that Albers’ windows ‘glowing their brightest orange and yellow at high noon, provide an intriguing clue of what the northern window might have been’. Bak produced the window on site, inviting the monks to join him in the workshop over the 18 months it took to produce. The architect and patrons envisioned a one-hundred-year timescale for the project overall. When the building work began, Time magazine reported, ‘Abbot Baldwin and his black-cowled brothers are in no mad rush. “After all,” he said last week, “what are a few generations to the Benedictines?”’ Collegeville still stands, and Breuer’s contribution to sacred architecture remains, like Le Corbusier’s, canonical.

Marcel Breuer, Abbey of Saint John the Baptist, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1953-61

Marcel Breuer, Abbey of Saint John the Baptist, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1953-61

Architectural time, human time, and God’s time all run at seemingly different rates. Poet and critic John Betjeman’s ‘Felixstowe or The Last of Her Order’ was written in the 1950s. It expresses a melancholy withdrawal of an unusual and culturally significant way of life that had grown exponentially and then receded swiftly within the span of a couple of modern generations.

In eighteen ninety-four when we were founded,
Counting our Reverend Mother we were six,
How full of hope we were and prayer-surrounded
‘The Little Sisters of the Hanging Pyx’.
We built our orphanage. We ran our school.
Now only I am left to keep the rule.

From the mid-19th century until the mid-20th, Britain underwent a religious revolution. Monks and nuns populated the land in their thousands. They built houses and chapels, establishing groups who worked to heal the sick, feed the poor, and shelter the vulnerable. Becoming a member of a religious order, whether Roman Catholic or Anglican, was a high-risk decision that went against the grain of dominant ideals of family life and conventional Church of England identities. But these organisations were not retreating to a distant and romantic medieval past; they were striving for a future world in which a life dedicated to God could provide urgently needed social care for people of a wide variety of sacred traditions. Many nuns were highly skilled artists and designers with international reputations, and as architectural historians including Kate Jordan, Robert Proctor and Timothy Brittain-Catlin have shown, these women had a great deal of control and strong vision as patrons to architects including AWN Pugin, his son EW Pugin, GE Street, and Giles Gilbert Scott. They continue that tradition in projects like the Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin in Oxfordshire. Shortlisted for the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize, it was designed for the site’s Anglican theological college and the convent Community of St John the Baptist, which was founded by the formidable Harriet Monsell near Windsor in 1852.

Ninian Comper, All Saint's, London Colney, 1924

Ninian Comper, All Saint’s, London Colney, 1924

Many communities worked with the same architect across long decades of change and expansion. The Anglican Society of All Saints Sisters of the Poor (ASSP) began with Harriet Brownlow Byron leading a small number of women in Butterfield’s spiky Gothic Revival stronghold of All Saints, Margaret Street in London in the 1850s. ASSP worked closely with Ninian Comper from the first years of the 20th century and he designed the chapel for their St John’s Home in Oxford in 1907. By the 1920s the Society’s motherhouse had been relocated to London Colney in Hertfordshire and the money for a new chapel had been raised. The Mother Superior, Emily Chatterton Legg, chose Comper to design it, and the 1924 building contract features a decisive stroke of the pen through the phrase ‘his architect’, and Legg’s strong cursive ‘her architect’ in its place. The chapel is a mix of brick, stone dressings, and reinforced concrete for the floor, walls and doorways. In its collegiate aesthetic, bright stained glass and steady Gothic rhythms, it’s simultaneously reminiscent of medieval King’s College Chapel and Victorian Queens’ College Chapel in Cambridge. Since 2012 it has been under threat and its future remains uncertain, while the grade II*-listed building continues to be seriously neglected. Leonard Stokes’ adjacent Edwardian convent complex with its Arts and Crafts sculptural frieze by Henry Wilson is earmarked for redevelopment as luxury flats. In 2002 the Historic Chapels Trust began caring for the Roman Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, a grade II*-listed building designed by Francis Xavier Velarde in 1955 that features a jewel-box of a blue and gold interior and monumental relief sculpture by David John. Might the HCT come to London Colney’s rescue too?

St Mary's Abbey, West Malling

St Mary’s Abbey, West Malling. The conical-roofed chapel to the left was built by Maguire and Murray in 1966

In its precariousness, London Colney is part of a wider phenomenon that puts daily pressure on modern monastic architecture throughout the UK. As communities dwindle in number, move, and close their doors, their built environments hang in the balance as the lights go out and the paint peels. Some are converted into luxury flats (like George Edmund Street’s buildings for the Society of St Margaret at East Grinstead), some become wedding venues and the like, while others lie silent, waiting for new forms of life to take hold within them. Online projects including Historic England’s ‘Taking Stock’ database and the recently updated Twentieth Century Society’s gazetteer of churches feature monastic architecture prominently, from the intricately Neo-Byzantine to the boldly Brutalist, and offer stimulating points of departure for urgently needed new research and preservation strategies. There are a cluster of modern convents and monasteries like Maguire and Murray’s chapel at West Malling in Kent and the contrasting combinations of Gothic and Modern at Downside Abbey where, despite relatively small numbers of monks and nuns, the buildings are well loved, prominent in the public eye, and in good repair. However, as Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society continue to demonstrate, hundreds of unique monastic spaces declaring a risk-taking modern way of life, so misunderstood and so unfashionable now, await an uncertain fate.

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