August 25, 2017
by Garth Norbraten
From the exterior, the 2,200-square-metre building is an enigma. Surrounded by the grid of prairie fields, it is an austere, somewhat Corbusian, rectangular volume, set beside neatly ordered but absolutely ordinary barns and outbuildings. Today, its façade is partially hidden by 40-year-old trees: tan-coloured, clad in brick and rough stucco, with a staccato scattering of rectangular windows and some deeply cut openings, as well as a few geometric projections beyond the perimeter walls and protruding above its parapet.
The rigorously composed complex is shown in a postcard. Prairie Agri Photo, Carmen, Manitoba. Courtesy of Trappist Monks of Our Lady of The Prairies
The building’s story dates back to the mid 1970s, when the expansion of Winnipeg’s southern suburbs threatened the seclusion of the Trappist farmer-monks at St. Norbert. The brothers made the decision to move to a large farm an hour east, near Holland, Manitoba. Unsure how to engage an architect, the cloistered, French-speaking monks sought advice from the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Architecture. They were introduced to one of the school’s professors—French born and trained Jacques Collin (1921-2001)—a gifted teacher and superbly talented designer, but an architect who had built relatively little.
Completed in 1978 with Smith Carter as architect of record, Collin’s remarkable building remains largely undocumented and unpublished. Despite the modernist abstraction of the exterior, Our Lady of The Prairies faithfully adheres to 11th century planning principles, as set out by the first Cisterian monks (from whom the Trappists descend). This monastic tradition called for durable architecture that is simply detailed, unadorned, and constructed of local materials.
Accordingly, the abbey is largely made
of ordinary, local wood frame construction. But it is in the careful attention to the materials and modular logic of this type of construction that Collin made something extraordinary.
A view of the barn-like chapel. Image by Garth Norbraten
The entire complex is organized on a rigorous 8’ x 8’ square grid, with walls sitting on the grid or on 2’ and 4’ subdivisons of it. All openings are related to the grid and ordered by the standard 8”, 12” and 16” modules of frame construction.
On the upper floor, which houses the chapels, chapter house, library and refectory, materials are left in their natural state, with only oak millwork and doors clear-coated. Walls are rough, unpainted cement plaster, floors are concrete, porcelain tile or linoleum, window frames are clear anodized aluminum, with fittings in stainless steel. Yet the importance of these spaces
is highlighted in the precise detailing of the wood ceilings and exposed roof framing. These elements are carefully crafted from unfinished, fir shiplap and dimension lumber, with exposed galvanized joist hangers and cross bridging.
Throughout the building, Collin draws
on local agricultural building types and barely abstracts them. The beautiful main chapel
is a paraphrase of a barn or a grain elevator, the space flooded with light from high clerestories supported on rough, built-up 2” x 12” columns and diagonal beams that cast shadows of the cross
on the walls. The dormitory wing that projects from behind the main body of the building
is almost literally a cattle barn with stalls, like those just across the road: an extruded volume with a 4-in-12 slope roof, cells partly lined with wood salvaged from the old barns at St. Norbert.
Our Lady of the Prairies is a work of great subtly and poetry, where the ordinary has been made extraordinary, set down in quiet isolation on the Canadian prairie.