L'abbaye du Thoronet

Added on by Timothy Brown.
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My research and practice preoccupations have been, for some time now, centered on the work of Mies and contemporary building enclosures. And especially how Mies’ work informed and continues to influence our thinking about building skins. But as my interest in contemporary lightweight, multi-layered enclosures tracked alongside architects’ obsession with fully glazed facades, architectural and environmental questions about the transparency mania have been harder to ignore.

A two-week stay in the south of France this summer allowed me to finally visit l’abbaye du Thoronet. It was the last building on my list of must-see/hope-to-sees. And in many ways an appropriate symbolic close to my architectural education. My first architectural epiphany occurred at Corbu’s Nôtre Dame de la Tourette while I was a grad student living in Genova. Since then I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time with significant buildings and places - thirty years of trips dedicated to seeing buildings, including a decade of full-time architectural travel while I was at IIT. So my visit to Thoronet was a remarkable sort of double full circle in light of Corbu’s deep interest in the abbey when he was working on la Tourette. 

I’ve written of the pleasures of teaching masonry, especially to beginning students. Some of the wonder found in stone and brick is in their ability to speak so profoundly of place - of the local stone or nearby claybank. Today our masonry products ride in on the back of the warped economies of the building industry’s global logistics, meaning it can be cheaper to use stone from India than to use what’s available the next county over. But local masonry has an inherent capacity for tying a building to place - which seems to me one of the baseline objectives of what we do as architects. And an architecture of multi-wythe masonry is an architecture of mass. Mass as opposed to the multiple thin and differently performative layers of current wall systems. And an architecture of mass has in it the nearly forgotten space of poché.

So while one part of my practice interests are in thin-ness, the other is in Stanley Tigerman’s idea of material butter - the same inside as outside. Material all the way through the wall, the monolithic. The very idea seems helplessly retrograde. Although stacking and carving operations are fascinating as a building technique and the hand-sized units of masonry introduce possibilities for texture and variation, I find the technical simplicity of massive construction most compelling. And an architecture of mass tends to be inflexible; rapid reconfiguration of elements usually isn’t a design feature. I’m not making an argument for stability, fixity, or timelessness. I like that, though buildings can be loaded with sensors and actuators trying to react to my movements or anticipate my desire for a new carton of milk on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, there may be buildings to which, due to their intransigence, I have to react. Variously and continuously. Differently by season and over time.

It’s common to design lighting that has countless scenarios pre-programmed across a bunch of luminaires, controlled by a simple remote. But as I grow into architecture I find myself more enthralled by the ways sunlight through a window in the studio structures where I do what I do, throughout the day, and by season. I’ve found that I prefer engaging with the building rather than being in a building reacting to my caprices by flashing LEDS at me or making sounds.

I’m utterly unable to inhabit the world as an eleventh century Cistercian monk. Their world is unavailable to me so the way of living in and using the complex of the abbaye is also unavailable. Today the abbaye is a French monument national and considered a historical site of cultural significance and could be seen as in caesura. Stilled by the power of the State. Outside the quotidian flux of the world. So we come to the remnants, the pieces that survived or were restored as people from another world entirely but people still capable of responding to the stone, the colors, the articulations of surface, and the light and its shadows. Absent the daily rhythms of occupation by the Cistercians and finding only a portion of the abbaye relatively intact, we’re left with a kind of stripped down, reductive version. Not pure and not essential - just minimized. But the reduction does eliminate a certain degree of static. Understanding the heaviness and thickness seems elemental, a kind of architectural lesson on fundamentals. 

In a reversal that nicely doubles the circular nature of the visit, I came to the abbey via La Tourette whereas La Tourette, circuitously, arrived via Thoronet. During my time in Montepulciano I spent a lot of time at l’abbazia di Sant’Antimo, a Benedictine monastery below Montalcino in the val d’Orcia, so my expectations of Thoronet were informed. Somewhat. But I’ve spent weeks in La Tourette (much more time than I spent in Mies’ chapel at IIT) and it may be one of the buildings I know best. So Corbu’s translations of Thoronet were the frame of my visit. I essentially came to l’abbaye du Thoronet carrying with me a 1950’s Dominican friary.

The project for le couvent Sainte Marie de la Tourette came to Le Corbusier via his relationship with le Révérend Père Marie-Alain Couturier Le Corbusier and after the project for Sainte Baume and the construction of the chapel at Ronchamp. Couturier wrote Corbu encouraging him to visit Thoronet. “Il me semble qu’il y a là l’essence même de ce que doit être un monastère à quelque époque qu’on le bâtisse…” Corbu visited the abbaye and though the specific relationships between his design for la Tourette and le Thoronet are unclear, it nonetheless carried immense weight in the development of the project. 

Having dreamt of visiting Thoronet for so long, my visit wasn’t particularly easy. Arriving preoccupied with other concerns and, as always, being hemmed in by limited time and the exigencies of heavily visited tourist sites made for a hard segue from world to abbaye. After taking a few deep breaths, adjusting to the heat, settling into the landscape and making a slow walk around the abbaye time slowed. As occasionally happens, I never opened my sketchbook. The difficulty of climbing into that place right then was all I could manage. But simply moving through the spaces alternately hot and cool accompanied by the scent of lavender and the omnipresent sound of cicadas was a pure and ineffable experience only architecture affords. It was transcendent. And what has remained with me is the way in which the stone, monolithic and mostly unadorned, massive and heavy, vaporous and featherlight, cool from its weight and luminous as a surface, seemed to do everything at once. Enclosed, defined, enfolded, embodied massiveness, and held the secrets of void and hollow. In the end, confounding.