Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Monks with Mental Problems

The weird and migraine-inducing Monastery of La Tourette, in Beaujolais, France.

Hey guys, I'm back from Portugal! - and very enriching and restful it was. And cheap. Anyway I shall post about it later - maybe a bit later, as I've just learnt that I'm off to Montreal, Canada, tomorrow - but in the meantine here is a piece of mine that appeared in the Guardian while I was away. Whaddaya mean you don't read the Guardian?!

The piece is all about my trip last August to this eerie modernist priory near Lyon. Excited?

The Concrete Cloisters of La Tourette

Staying in a monastery is not everybody's idea of holiday fun. What with the prayers and the silence and the getting up at 2am and of course the total lack of a swim-up bar, it can be an education in austerity. But at least you get to meditate in a stress-free environment, while surrounded by gorgeous old architecture - right?

Not if you stay in the Monastery of La Tourette. Built by the famous (some say infamous) French Swiss architect Le Corbusier, this modernist monastery looks like a cross between a multi-storey car park in Bracknell and, well, another multi-storey car par in Bracknell. And yet, a few nights here can provide the most remarkable spiritual experience of a lifetime. And you don't get many of those in Bracknell.

The Couvent sits in the middle of the rolling Beaujolais region of the wide and vasty Rhone Valley, about eighty miles and two autoroute hours from the fleshpots, brasseries, chemical works, Baroque churches, Renaissance mansions and rain-stained housing blocks of Lyon.

The region itself has a quiet charm. Cherry orchards sit by lavish green vineyards, big blue skies arch over narcoleptic stone villages. The only sound to disturb the scene is the distant roar of the Provence-bound TGV, which speeds past castles and meadows like its got a bad case of the trots and the only toilet is in Nice. After that, tranquil quietness steals across the valleys once more.

Somewhere in the middle of all this rurality is La Tourette. The place isn't easy to find. The best and only signposted route is down a winding lane that leads from the pretty little town of L'Arbresle. You can either drive your car all the way along the lane, or park in the village and walk. You can also take a train from Lyon and get a cab. But whatever your route, as you negotiate the lane you will find yourself threading through oakwoods, rubbernecking over vineyards, and dog-legging past a disused wine chateau. Quintessential France, in other words.

Then, at the last, the lane gives out onto a wide sweeping meadow, fringed by trees. And in the centre of this nice sunny greenery sits this.... thing.

It is truly bizarre. For a start it is almost uniformly grey. Greyer than grey; as grey as the ghost of Lady Jane Grey. The only colour comes from the various big windows, designed for proper appreciation of the Rhone Valley views. These windows have bright red and orange curtains; the clash with the penitential drabness of the rest of the building is peculiar.

Look a bit longer and other curious aspects come into view. A concrete pyramid juts from the centre of the building. From the outside some corridors seem to slope, drunkenly. The whole foursquare building is supported on one side by a bank of grass, and on the other by spindly and irregular concrete legs.

Inside, it's even eerier. The monastery is inhabited by twenty Dominican monks. This is down from the original ninety who assumed control of the monastery in the 1950s, once Corbusier had finished his work. This attrition is apparently a result of the building itself: many of the original brothers found the concrete construction so oppressive they had nervous breakdowns.

Entrance is gained to La Tourette at a square and concrete box to the rear. From here daily visitors start their guided tours; likewise, if you have opted to stay for one or more nights, this is where the monks will meet you before escorting you to your allotted bedroom.

These cells are seriously claustrophobic. The beds are narrow, as are the windows. Moreover, due to some quirk in the concrete fabric, every sound in La Tourette is massively amplified: listen carefully at night and you can hear a friar chuckling over his laptop (these monks are quite worldly) from about seven floors away.

Such is the total silence it is refreshing to get out of your room and wander. In fact this is encouraged by the remaining non-neurotic monks, who are seriously proud of their building. And it's when you wander that you begin to see what an amazing place this is.

A visitor's first stop should be the top of the monastery. Le Corbusier had a predilection for designing flat roofs. The particular attraction of the Tourette roof is that it is lavishly grassed over. Standing on the lofty lawn, staring at the toothsome views of vineyards and forests, is a bit like being in a garden unexpectedly close to God.

Another attraction is the refectory. All meals at La Tourette are served in one place, to visitors, guests and monks alike (and the price of meals is included in your daily fee). The food is good, the local wine is delicious. What's more, chances are your fellow diners will be a varied and intriguing lot: with its status as a modernist icon, La Tourette gets visitors from across the world, so you may have a smattering of architecture students, religious mystics, writers on retreat, and strange Polish ladies with a hidden past, all sharing your table.

But still, you're not here to hobnob and gourmandise, you're here for that intense spiritual experience. And for that you must go right down to the bottom of La Tourette, to the religious and emotional core of the building.

The chapel of La Tourette is approached by one of those sloping corridors. As you stroll along, the huge bronze door of the chapel swings open, until its metal spine forms a crucifix with a bright lateral window beyond. It's a spine-tingling effect.

Inside the chapel itself, there are regular masses, conducted in mellifluous French. While the ritual proceeds, soft light filters through curious long slots in the wall. Close your eyes and the whispered prayers become hypnotic. It's all so tranquil it's a shock when the mass comes to a sudden end.

From the side of the chapel a short final staircase leads down. When the monks are in the mood, you can descend these stairs to the most extraordinary and intense room of all, the Lower Crypt. Here, the light is sepulchral. At one side, a concrete wall curves sinuously away, like the torso of a sleeping woman. On the other side, seven white concrete altars ascend the gently sloping floor. Above it all, three coloured windows seem to float in the darkness, like UFOs hovering over a silent tomb.

Remarkably, this most modernist of rooms achieves a sense of venerable holiness, a spellbinding piety. Here, in fact, you can begin to understand the famous words of the Domincans' own and honoured founder, St Augustine: 'Late have I loved thee, beauty so ancient, and so new.'

Which isn't bad for a building that looks like a multistorey car park
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Anonymous said...

I came across your post after googling this place while reading "Marks of Cain" by Tom Knox. His description is yours almost word-for-word:
"More unusual aspects came into view. A surreal concrete pyramid jutted primly from the centre. Several grey corridors seemed to be angled haphazardly. The whole edifice was supported on one side by a bank of grass, and on the other by spindly, irregular concrete legs" (pp. 263-264, Harper paperback).
A bit of plagiarism, methinks. I haven't read much further so there may be more in the descriptions of the lower parts of the monastery.

Anonymous said...

Ha - of course you could BE Tom Knox !