Night at the Monastery
Written by Tooba Jalal
Sainte Marie de La Tourette, Éveux, France
March 16th, 2019
During Graduate school I decided to partake in an Architecture Residency program based in a small Swiss village bordering Lake Como. Part of the charm of spending a semester in Europe, other than eating gelato daily, is that every corner you turn is like a page out of an Architecture textbook. One such experience for me was when I got to spend a night at La Tourette. The day started out with us visiting Ronchamp. After marvelling at this monstrous concrete beauty by Le Corbusier we eventually made our way to our lodging for the night. Our bus drove through the bucolic hills and down the winding roads of the quintessential French countryside when suddenly it came to a quick halt. All of us looked up and the driver told us that the hill is too steep for our bulky vehicle, and it would be better if we just walked up to the convent. We all got out and started reluctantly dragging our suitcases up the incline. One thing I learned that day was that Corbusier had a true flair for the dramatics. After all, he resurrected the concept of the famous ‘Promenade Architecturale’. As we walked towards our destination, the bell tower of the iconic chapel started to appear in the frame like a build-up shot from a movie. Slowly and steadily as we made our way up the stony path, the brutalist beast started to emerge. A great technique to utilize the site’s topography to create anticipation and intrigue as you approach the building. Finally, we reached the top of the hill. Here we were greeted by a sign that read ‘Entrée Du Couvent – Espace de Silence’. This was an unexpected curveball. Apparently, we had chosen to stay during the week when the friars were observing silence. Which meant that twenty-two architecture students, who were all geeking out on every detail of this building, had to keep quiet at all times in public spaces. A great day to practice our sign language skills!
We made our way towards the building and in true Corbu fashion were made to pass through a concrete threshold to enter. Everything about this monastery is a living, breathing example of Corbusier’s manifesto. Upon checking in we were informed that each of us will get our very own room. This was particularly exciting because these are the cells designed for the Dominican monks who live in the monastery. The rooms are dimensioned on the exact proportions of the ‘Modulor’. The monastery was inaugurated in 1950 with a total of 90 monks in residence which has now reduced to a mere 20 friars. Funnily enough many of the building’s inhabitants found the brutalist treatment far too harsh and decided to move out. What is one monk’s loss is perhaps another architect’s gain.
The rooms are narrow but long. They are as wide as a 6 feet tall man’s wingspan. Each room comes furnished with a single bed, one small desk, a chair, a table lamp, a coat rack / storage which acts as a headboard on one side and a partition from the wash basin on the other. The room has access to a balcony which is the only surface with colour in this grey work of architecture. The walls of the room are made up of the most anti tactile texture. They are rough, bumpy and if one were to roll over while sleeping, there is a good chance that they will wake up with minor lacerations on their face. After we settled in, it was soon time for supper. We were all asked to make our way to the refectory, which is where all the meals are served in a communal setting. The menu is predetermined and showcases the more rustic side of French cuisine. That night we were served Quenelles – fish dumplings in a creamy lobster sauce. For dessert we had some questionably furry bleu cheese with some apple sauce. The best part of communal dining was to interact with the other visitors who were also lodging at the monastery. But as we were observing silence, the whole conversation was like a very confusing game of dumb charades. Nevertheless, a truly unique experience.
After our meal was over, we were informed that there is a prayer session in the chapel and if we remain quiet, we can be a part of the service. We made our way down the corridor which is flanked by the musically inspired rhythmic glazing by L annis Xenakis. The gentle slope of the ramp pulls you towards the huge bronze door of the chapel. The door swings open as it is on a pivot and perfectly aligns with the horizontal coloured window behind it, forming a crucifix. The chapel is a solemn space only lit by natural light brought inside via varying devices concocted by the architect like the light cannons, lights guns etc. These interventions are usually painted in a primary colour which casts a soft glow in the place of worship and warms up the frigid looking concrete. Each part of the complex is deeply reliant on time. You cannot appreciate the chapel if you do not stop and see the light change during the day. The service was in French and undecipherable to us yet the message of God seems to have the same power and effect in any language.
By the time the service ended, the sun was slowly starting to set behind the rolling hills. All the activities of the day come to a stop at sundown and everyone retreats back to their cells. In this one day we were asked to embrace the life of quiet, with no internet and no communication. We ate our meals together but in silence, we prayed with the friars but remained in silence, we slept in our cells alone and yet again in silence. A beautiful ritual that is repeated each day, yet it never seems to be the same. I think the life of quiet suits me and I would very much like to go back again one day.
About the author
Tooba Jalal is a Washington, DC based Architect and holds an M.Arch from Virginia Tech. Originally from Karachi, Tooba, is also an IVS Alumna. Outside of work, she is the incoming Mentorship Advisor for the AIA DC Emerging Architects Committee as well as an active member of the AIA Women In Architecture Committee. In her spare time, she likes to brush up on her pastry making skills and sketch with her local Urban Sketchers group.