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Val Notre-Dame Abbey by Atelier Pierre Thibault, Saint-Jean-De-Martha, Quebec, Canada

The changing landscape, light, and even passing wildlife become the focus of the monks’ daily offices of prayer. Photography by Alain Laforest

First featured in these pages at project stage (AR April 2005), Pierre Thibault’s new abbey for a community of Cistercian monks in rural Quebec is now complete. With the traditional cloistered courtyard as his point of departure, Thibault subtly reinterprets this powerful historical archetype through considerations of light, space, materiality and the relationship of the complex to its wider surroundings.

In what are now increasingly rare opportunities to design buildings for religious orders, architects have not only the weight of history but also more modern spectres with which to contend. Perhaps the most tangible is La Tourette (AR June 1961), Corb’s vision of French Dominican monastic life as a béton brut megastructure triumphantly grafted on to a hillside. Historically, the Cistercians tend to be less demonstrative.

Underscored by a literal adherence to the 6th century Rule of St Benedict, the ‘white monks’ follow a credo of medieval austerity and asceticism that finds itself unintentionally en vogue, as manifest, for instance, by John Pawson’s work for a Czech community at Novy Dvur (AR April 2004). More recently, Bayón Arquitectos remodelled and extended an ancient Cistercian monastery in Catalonia with quiet panache (AR October 2010).

Here, in a familiar diminishing of the role of monastic life in the modern world, the Quebec community of Notre-Dame du Lac Abbey was beset by falling numbers, down from 150 at its height to 30 at the turn of the millennium. The remaining monks found themselves rattling around in a building dating from the late 19th century that no longer met their practical or contemplative needs. While the order has a tradition of hospitality, it also emphasises seclusion and the need to be set apart from the distractions of modern life, so it was decided to relocate from Oka, in suburban Montreal, to a wooded rural site at Saint-Jean-de-Matha, some 80 miles to the north-east. A competition was held in 2004 and though the community was apparently amenable to proposals that broke with historic precedent, Thibault’s winning design of a low rise structure embedded in the forest keeps faith with the traditional relationship between cloister and church.

Precisely aligned on an east-west axis, the two-storey cloister with its sunken garden is the exclusive domain of the monks. The church and a guest wing attached to the cloister’s northern edge are shared with the lay community and a gatehouse mediates between public and private realms. The cloister’s lower floor is given over to communal spaces such as the refectory, scriptorium, library and offices, with the monks’ cells above, single loaded around an inner spinal corridor.

Though predictably compact, each cell faces outwards over the surrounding woodland, and this connection with nature is restated in the church with its great apse wall of clear glass that floods the austere space with a soft light. The changing landscape, light, and even passing wildlife thus become the focus of the monks’ seven daily offices of prayer beginning at 4am. Walkways, paths and corridors also convey the shifts and moods of the seasons.

Underscored by a concern for sobriety, simplicity and economy, the architectural language has a strong Scandinavian inflection. Various sorts of timber are employed both inside and out, giving the complex a gentle rustic air that helps to ease it into the landscape. However, this is neither a hermetic bastion of piety, nor some happy-clappy retreat, but a nuanced and mature affirmation of the spiritual. And though it has an evident contemporary resonance, it also speaks of timelessness, embodied by humanity’s immemorial relationship with both the powers of nature and the divine.

Architect Atelier Pierre Thibault, Quebec City, Canada
Project team Pierre Thibault, Jean-François Mercier, André Limoges, Vadim Siegel
Structural engineer Knoll
Landscape design Atelier Pierre Thibault

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