Withdrawing from society is a tradition of many religions. And in areas around the eastern Mediterranean, a practice developed of withdrawing into the desert alone with limited food and water in an effort to grow in faith by withstanding the devil’s temptations.
The practice gradually evolved into isolated permanent settlements and finally into formal monasteries. In touring great architectural landmarks in Europe and the Middle East I have often visited monasteries. They are often beautiful, and while many of them are active, their original purpose usually seems greatly diminished. They can seem like more a relic of history than a thriving community. One is left to imagine what a life of quiet contemplation must have been like.
Having wondered about that more than once, it was intriguing to hear of an active monastery where you can stay and get a taste of what has been experienced across the centuries by those who have chosen the monastic life. What a great opportunity!
Sainte Marie de La Tourette is a monastery just outside the city of Lyon. It was designed by famed architect Le Corbusier, one of the main proponents of the movement in architecture that we now refer to as “Modern”. In the 1950s, towards the end of his life, Le Corbusier took on this commission for the Monks of the Dominican order. So, it is doubly interesting to also be able to spend the night in one of architecture’s modern classics. In July 2016, the building and several other works by Le Corbusier were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
I emailed the monastery and booked rooms for two nights. Though still a functioning monastery for a reduced population of friars, La Tourette has become something of a pilgrimage site for students and aficionados of architecture. The priory allows overnight stays in the unused cells except during summer holidays in July and August. Fees for the rooms go to the maintenance of the priory. Each friar “cell” is outfitted with a single bed, so it’s one room per person when you book.
The design of the building began in May 1953 and was completed in 1961. The committee that established the building program determined that the primary duty of the monastery should be to foster a spiritual awakening, especially for the local community. Dominicans are well known for their intellectual pursuits, having produced many leading theologians, historians, and philosophers, which may explain how a religious order came to commission such a progressive architect to help fulfill their mission. Several of the friars at La Tourette today are art historians and spend their days doing research. What a perfect place to study art history!
Containing many of Le Corbusier’s design trademarks – stilts, a free-floating facade, horizontal windows and a roof-top garden – the concrete structure is grouped around an inner courtyard in the manner of a traditional monastery. Within its walls is a series of interconnected spaces, providing its inhabitants the opportunity for personal, community and spiritual life — the three pillars of human life.
The cells are small and basic, but also cozy and efficient. Each room contains four distinct spaces delineated by their unique light source and activity: an entry with hand-basin and clothes storage; a bed with reading light; a desk with chair; and a private balcony with a little nook for candlelight. At the door to the balcony, louvers enable cross ventilation.
One of Le Corbusier’s design principles was to proportion all his architecture based on a human scale. His model was the average French man, 1.75 meters (5′ 8″) tall. This proportion is best experienced in the cells.
Assuming you are this average size, standing in the middle of the room with arms outstretched, your arms exactly span the width of the room. By raising your arms you can just touch the ceiling. The room is small by the standards of today’s homes, but the feeling is remarkably cozy and conducive to quiet contemplation. Paired down to its essentials, this modest room facilitates the full gamut of a monk’s day-to-day living: rest, reflection, privacy and contact with the outdoors.
The sanctuary is a magical space. We spent hours there watching the changing light, which Le Corbusier manipulates with carefully placed openings in the walls and ceiling. Big circular tubes let vertical light flood into the church, painted in bright colors, red, pink, yellow and blue. The character of the space changes depending on the time of day and color of the light outdoors.
Make sure you take in one of the daily services held by the friars. They wear white linen regalia and their chanting can be heard echoing throughout the monastery.
To manage expectations, you should keep a few things in mind. The monastery’s sleeping arrangements are basic: each cell comes with a single bed, bed linens, and a blanket. You make your own bed, there’s no WiFi, and good manners dictate silence for most of the day. The rules are strict but it’s a wonderful place to unwind and clear your head. Showers and toilets are communal – one for men, another for women.
You can join the friars for meals in the large communal dining room. Breakfast is included, and for a small fee you can choose to also participate in lunch and dinner. Many of the visitors are architects, which makes for some lively conversation about the experience. Our dinner companions were architects from South Korea, a family from Girona, Spain, the father an architect, a young couple studying to become architects, and a young local painter from Lyon who just wanted some solitude to paint. You would be hard-pressed to arrange a more interesting and diverse group for a dinner party. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer magnificent views over the hills and across the valley.
This is a truly unique experience, well worth the trip to Lyon.
For details and directions, go to; www.couventdelatourette.fr
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger
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