A Monastic Life

PROJECT Val Notre-Dame Abbey, St-Jean-de-Matha
ARCHITECTS Pierre Thibault Architecte
TEXT Ricardo L. Castro
PHOTOS Alain Laforest

The Quebec Oka Monastery (1881-2008) was among nearly two dozen Cistercian complexes erected in North America since the 18th century. During its peak in the 1950s, it housed a community of 179 monks. In recent times, due to the diminished size of the community–currently 28 monks–and the less than ideal situation of a large building complex on a site which had deteriorated environmentally, the monks opted to build smaller quarters in a more suitable context. Oka was the predecessor of the new Val Notre-Dame Abbey, located northeast of Montreal in St-Jean-de-Matha. The new monastery, which subtly incorporates some of the latest technical developments, mechanical services and environmental controls, resulted from a long process that began with an architectural competition in 2004, continued with its design and subsequent building activity, and culminated with its inauguration last spring. Pierre Thibault was selected as the winning architect of this competition, in which 60 Quebec architectural firms participated.

Thibault is a Quebec architect with a remarkable artistic and building trajectory. His work, unlike that of so many designers nowadays, has been characterized by an emphasis on quality rather than quantity. His personal art projects and the architectural commissions that his office has undertaken seem to have become challenges and opportunities for deep reflection on tectonics, construction, place-making, topography, and symbolism. His recent commission for the design of the Val Notre-Dame Abbey is no exception.

Rigorous spatial hierarchies, skillfully choreographed through the handling of movement, silence and light, make up part of the elusive parameters which Thibault has addressed in the design of the new monastic complex. The simple and controlled overall design of the architecture is clearly discernible upon first inspection after arriving at the outskirts of the complex via a road that traverses an abrupt topography, and which culminates in a parking lot. Unfortunately, this is the least alluring part of the project, but the lot does overlook the simple rectilinear composition of the building in the distance.

An artificial clearing located on a flat wooded area above a valley was made to accommodate the abbey. It is not too distant from the meandering Rivire l’Assomption that, several metres below, runs through the dell, becoming an ideal site on which to anchor the monastic complex to nature. Emerging from the main complex, a pavilion projects towards the road; this is the residential guest house for visitors and pilgrims. Its laminated post-and-beam structure, slate flooring, and the striking ochre of the cedar surfaces greet guests and announce the palette of exterior finishes that are evident throughout the whole complex. Moving parallel to the pavilion, one arrives at an area that constitutes the spatial hub of the project, which provides access to the church as well as to the guest quarters, reception, and behind, the cloistered dependencies. All of these spaces are aligned along an axis that runs from the west, terminating at the large and distinct volume of the church in the east. This imaginary axis tacitly indicates the orientation of the church according to traditional liturgy, which culminates even further east on an important topographical feature known as the Montagne Coupe or the Cut Mountain.

The importance of the hub is also indicated by the canopy that shelters the whole space, a consequence of extending the aluminum roof of the church towards the west. The church is undoubtedly the tour de force of the complex. Its austere white stucco exterior contrasts with an interior that has been beautifully articulated with cherry wood panelling and dark slate flooring. Along the axis, Thibault engages interior with exterior, framing the landscape beyond, borrowing views as it were, a recurrent motif throughout the complex. A wall of glass, which allows natural daylight to penetrate the church’s interior, continually celebrates the movement of sunlight, and has replaced the historical blind apse.

If the church is the vertical focal element, the cloister around which the various dependencies such as the library, refectory, scriptorium and cells are gathered, becomes a subtle counterpoint. In Val Notre-Dame, this cloister–a traditional hortus conclusus (enclosed garden)–acquires full contemporary expression, paradoxically excluding the landscape but simultaneously bringing it into evidence. The traditional courtyard–surrounded by a peripheral gallery for ambulation and meditation–is sunken. This feature is the happy result of the landscape conditions that encouraged Thibault to site the complex at a higher level to compensate for the inconveniences of a high water table, and which enabled him to maintain the existing vegetation within the cloister.

This new interpretation of a paradigmatic building type is undoubtedly a welcome addition to the contemporary repertoire of significant Canadian architecture. It also serves as a reminder of the importance of architectural competitions; this winning project encouragingly reflects the state of architecture in Quebec during the first decade of the 21st century. CA

Ricardo L. Castro is currently the Associate Director of the M. Arch. Professional Program at the McGill School of Architecture where he has been teaching since 1982.

Monks on the Move

TEXT Jason Zuidema

Religious traditions are frequently judged on the basis of their commitment to the principles of love, peace, beauty, joy and justice. In the Christian tradition, these ideals can be supported through works of human creativity such as the long and rich history of architecture created by and for Christian communities. However, over time, certain structures that might have fulfilled their original intentions may no longer hold relevance. The story of the Cistercian monastic community, which recently moved from a century-old abbey near Oka, Quebec to a new structure near St-Jean-de-Matha, underscores the effect that a building can have on a religious community. Since the old structure could no longer convincingly inspire the monks who lived there, a new abbey, designed by Quebec City-based architect Pierre Thibault is eminently functional and modern, but also deeply respectful of its resident community.

In 1881, eight Cistercian monks of the Strict Observance left the Abbey near Bellefontaine, France to begin a new foundation in Canada where the Sulpicians of Montreal had offered them a narrow strip of land–their seigneurie–near Oka. The departure from France was a flight of sorts–these Cistercians faced increasing anticlericalism and feared that the government of France would repress all monastic communities in the coming years. Even though this never occurred, the new community remained in Canada where it flourished. The Cistercian monks were welcomed by the Catholic faithful, as their vision for a consecrated life fit well with the ultramontane piety of late-19th-century French-Canadian culture.

The monks at Oka were not the only religious community to settle in Quebec. In the last few decades of the 19th century alone, more than 10 new monastic communities settled in the province. Most were involved in either pastoral duties–such as the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception, the Redemptorists, the Capuchins, the Fathers of the Very Holy Sacrament–or education, like the Brothers of Christian Instruction, the Brothers of Saint Gabriel, and the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. The Trappists, however, were one of the few monastic communities.

Naming the property in Oka “La Trappe” after Soligny-la-Trappe in France, where the
beginnings of reform in the order had taken place in 1662, the monks established their monastery and, soon after, the Oka Agricultural Institute was formed. Although each monk spent a great deal of time in meditation and silence, this type of monastic life also encouraged daily physical labour. Each monastery needed to produce food for its members while supporting itself financially by selling products. As anyone who has heard of the Oka monastery knows, its most popular product is cheese. However, the creation and sale of these products was not just about money but also about preserving the active lifestyle of the monks. After all, written in the 6th century AD, the Rule of St. Benedict–the foundational document for the community–states that “Idleness is the enemy of the soul.”

Although the monastery housed more than 175 monks during its peak in the 20th century, by the beginning of the 21st century, only about 30 remained. Labour-intensive activities like cheese-making were passed on to more secular institutions nearby, and the small community that still resided within the massive original structures was increasingly surrounded by urban sprawl. The community felt lost and trapped–lost in the buildings designed to be used by a community more than six times its size and trapped in the frenetic, consumerist lifestyle of a secular society that was rapidly closing in.

By the 1990s, the Abbot of the Oka monastery at that time, Yvon-Joseph Moreau, was faced with a difficult situation. He would either encourage the monks to support a major renovation of their original monastery, or begin the process of designing a completely new facility that would more appropriately reflect their needs. Abbot Moreau had to consider not just whether a new building made sense financially, but whether it made sense according to the spiritual vision of his order. In 2003, a decision was made: a new location would become the proper spiritual home of the community.

Fortunately, the monks had the financial resources to enable them to consider a new facility that would not only serve their daily needs but stand as a highly engaging and elegant example of contemporary architecture. An hour’s drive northeast of Montreal, a new parcel of land was purchased in a quiet valley off Highway 131 near St-Jean-de-Matha. Through the assistance of Philippe Drolet’s firm PHD Architecture in Montreal, a preliminary design brief and competition was launched and eventually won by Pierre Thibault. There were many merits to Thibault’s design, but the most significant was the masterful attention paid to the monastery’s environment and his understanding of the special relationship between a monastery’s institutional programmatic requirements and the need for a contemplative space where religious men will spend their entire lives. Three key details were resolved in Thibault’s design and siting for the monastery: local materials, simplicity, and above all, the presence of light.

It is a fact that the presence of light in Cistercian life has been significantly explored in Cistercian architectural history. Saint Bernard, the most significant theologian in this field of study, discouraged superfluous decoration in interiors, but he did encourage the presence of light. And although Bernard considered colour a distraction, light inspired the soul to deeper spiritual contemplations. Consequently, one of the most important elements in the new facility is the way in which light helps sculpt and define the new architecture. Since the monks spend much of the day in worship (seven extended prayer times spread out from early morning until early evening), it was especially important to have a well-lit chapel in the new building. Each monk’s cell also has a large window overlooking the surrounding landscape and a floor-to-ceiling glazed passageway encircling the inner courtyard, which gives the monks a sensation of being outside year-round. For those monks who had lived for a considerable time at the former monastery (more than 50 years for some), the new monastery has had a positive effect on their daily routines and on their spiritual experience.

The new Abbot, Andr Barbeau, is clear in his intentions for the community: it will not be a priority to recruit more monks and return to bygone days. Rather, Barbeau believes that it is important to promote a rich consecrated life in a setting that is more suitable to the current number of monks at the new facility, thereby ensuring that their new building will remain vital and intimate.

Thibault’s monastery is extraordinary, garnering considerable media attention. The attention to detail and the gravity with which every decision was made allows this project an intimate link between function and beauty. In a culture that increasingly assumes that religious communities like the Cistercian monks are relics from the past, this new monastery is proof that a religious community can lead into the future, in this instance by successfully commissioning vibrant and contemporary architecture that supports their religious and cultural traditions. CA

Jason Zuidema is a Lecturer in Christian Spirituality at Concordia University in Montreal.

Client Communaut de l’Abbaye Val Notre-Dame
Architect Team Pierre Thibault, Jean-Franois Mercier, Andr Limoges, Vadim Siegel, Joseph-Marie Tremblay
Structural Nicolet, Chartrand, Knoll
Mechanical/Electrical Dupras Ledoux
Landscape Atelier Pierre Thibault
Interiors Atelier Pierre Thibault
Contractor Bernard Malo Inc.
Area 5,800 m2
Budget withheld
Completion October 2009