Follow the progression from outside to inside, and then towards the cloister garden, as a hortus conclusus the most inner space and yet again an outside. Quotes are taken from the 9 Letters that Dom van der Laan wrote to the Marian Sisters of St-Francis.
Without days, weeks and seasons, the year is not comprehensible and we lack any conscious contact with time. The order of all the sizes in the whole building similarly give us contact with the space in which we life. This is the effective source of the great peace that emanates from the building. Everything one sees, windows, doors, columns, halls, galleries, gardens and outer forecourt, constantly re-establishes us in the space in which we live, and that is true dwelling: mastery over space.
It will be necessary to somewhat radically alter the everyday use of tables, and especially chairs, in order for these pieces of furniture, in their articulation and proportion, to speak the language of the architecture as well. Had you attached too great a value to existing customs and to the mere comfort of modern furniture, it would not have been possible for us to maintain the great unity of the building down to the details of the furniture.
It is the ‘hortus conclusus’ of the Song of Songs, not an outside garden but an enclosed garden. This courtyard must therefore also be completely different from the outside garden, and I would like to keep it as austere as possible. and each façade rules its own garden.
‘Solid forms with vertical surfaces are produced which correspond to each other in such a way that they generate a self-contained space. This space is distinct from the earth’s surface, and provided it is large enough, we could live in it.’ (AS I.11)
The Berlin photographer Friederike von Rauch resident at Roosenberg Abbey spring 2015.
In 1975, Dom Hans van der Laan wrote nine letters to the community of the Marian Sisters of St.-Francis, who were about to move into their new abbey. The letters reveal his process of decision making during the design of Roosenberg Abbey, not only as an architect, but also as a Benedictine monk, as such offering an in-depth reading on why this building is the way it is.
I recall recording the initial ideas for your abbey with my brother before I had even seen the site.
At the time I knew only that it was flanked by woods on three sides, that it was situated in an elevated spot and that its fourth side looked out over a lower plain with a little river.
That side, moreover, was to the south. I envisioned that site at the time as the ideal image of natural loins from which the abbey would have to be born. We knew its measurements, as well as the orientation of the woods surrounding it, and I remember you were particularly concerned about the view of the valley being fully enjoyed throughout the abbey building itself. I was more focused on the intimacy of the site, enclosed by the edges of those three woods, and it seemed to me that these two aspects of enclosed and open views beautifully matched and provided, as it were, the basic chord for the composition of your abbey, which even with a greater enclosure would still need to be adequately open to its surroundings.
Yet if the situation in which we build is right, nature has already provided the initial template for this inside and outside. This is what immediately appealed to the Director when he was first given a tour of this site.1 This fusion of enclosure and open views to him seemed to fulfil the idea of the monastic life the building would accommodate, the broad outlines of which were already set in his mind as well as in yours.
I therefore immediately endeavoured to nestle the building in those natural loins of the grounds, so that these two aspects would again converge; and as I have already told you, the abbey evolved, step by step, as a sort of symphony of enclosed and open views, of inside and outside.
In the house itself, I have again and again related spaces to each other whereby one space is always an inside in relation to another space.
This play of inside and outside is not merely play, for it is strictly grounded in the requirements you stipulated for the building. Your programme was beautifully elaborated, and I consider this one of the principal reasons for the success of the building. Initially, details and personal preferences were not discussed; you provided merely a broad outline. On the ground floor a number of halls; upstairs 12 rooms for the sisters and 24 for guests, and a chapel or church to dominate the whole. The size and number of the halls on the ground floor resulted in each hall downstairs corresponding to six rooms upstairs.
Accordingly we made wooden blocks whose volumes corresponded to these spaces. We were able to give these blocks the proportions of a kind of ground form, as derived from our studies of architecture in Den Bosch, and composed the entire building based on this ground form. Eventually, when all is completed, the altar, with this same ground form, will stand in the centre of the church. No complications arose during the more specific design of the halls and rooms; by adhering to the initial plan, we were able to attribute every space its required size and place.
When it came to situating the building on the grounds, it was a great surprise that the shape of the building was able to correspond so precisely to that of the site.
The building is solidly seated, as it were, against the Ortegat wood and its side rests against the Lovinfosse wood. It offers a private view of the side garden on the east side and a panoramic view toward the south.
I tried to repeat the building’s solid orientation on the site in its internal spaces, on a smaller scale. In each hall I allowed the space to lean against a closed side to insure its enclosure, and provided an open side for the view. This is of course different for each hall, according to its location in the building and its intended use. The most private is the conference hall. The guest refectory has been given an additional window with a panoramic view. The sisters’ ‘living room’ has the grandest views, but a small window to the side offers an intimate view of the terrace. Finally, the church has no view at all, but it is entirely open at the top. I shall always be grateful that you eliminated the downstairs windows there. This is precisely what gives the church, in relation to the other spaces of the abbey, its entirely unique and eminent value. In this way, we will take a few more walks through the house together, so that I can tell you what was going through our minds as we designed it.
Once we had arranged the diversity of spaces with identically shaped wooden blocks into a definite plan, so that each space had its place in the building and the building as a whole had its place on the site, the actual architectural work began.
I recall that at the meeting at which the general scheme was approved, architect De Vloed brought along a sample of the brick we were supposed to use. It is interesting to consider that, while the general scheme started from the site, this brick was to be the point of departure for the actual architectural design.
Space and wall together consequently form the building. In Den Bosch we learned to always consider two things simultaneously: not just the building, but the building in relation to its site; that is to say, not just the inside of the building, but the inside together with the outside, from which it is separated by walls. Similarly, we do not merely value the halls for the space they provide; we always consider that space in relation to the shape of the walls and the columns, of which we expose the thickness with great care. As such, an interplay emerges between the form of the space and that of the walls. In the building, this interaction between space and mass then reveals to us a representation of the greater interaction between building and site. We continue this play of forms between space and mass once more in the walls themselves, with the columns and the space between the columns, and with the windows and the wall sections between the window openings.
In the same way, we also carried the play of inside and outside through in the interior by relating one space as a sort of outside to another space as an inside. This is why I called your abbey a symphony of inside and outside: I could also have called it a symphony of open and closed, for different window arrangements and column spacings are present throughout. The windows of the workshops along the terrace are entirely different from those of the ‘living room’ as well as from those of the cloister.
The column spacing of the inner forecourt is also entirely different from that of the church and the great halls. And because we matched the different kinds of ‘inside’, that is to say the rhythm of inside and outside of the different spaces, to the shape of the walls, that is to say to their rhythm of open and closed, the house takes on a highly fascinating quality. Without the forms, all of which are extremely sober, displaying anything ostentatious, one experiences this harmony as something beneficent.
So we constantly consider the inside together with the outside, and within that inside, the shape of the wall in conjunction with the shape of the space. Moreover, we consider the totality of spaces in relation to the totality of forms.
Later, I must tell you about the harmony of the measurements, for in a good building space, form and measure must join into one great whole.
And just as mind, sensory perception and physical experience for us coincide into a single being, these three worlds of space, form and measure must form a single great harmony in the building. This is more or less the secret of the way we build, and we do our utmost to truly realize this.
So we can walk through the house in three ways: the first way is by paying particular attention to the spaces we enter and traverse; another way is by looking at the forms of walls, columns and windows and in so acquiring impressions of the forms of the spaces; a final way is to absorb the ratios of the measurements. We tried to use colour nuances to reinforce all these impressions. Regarding the first way, I would immediately draw your attention to the closed front façade with which the building begins. This was done with great consideration. This front façade is entirely different from, for example, that of the workshops lining the terrace. That open façade, flanked by the church and the protruding wing of the sisters’ residence, transforms the outside space, the sisters’ garden, into an inner courtyard, as it were. The contrast between inside and outside is very weak here, whereas with the front façade this contrast is very pronounced. Because the building is set amid the woods, a visitor proceeding along the entrance drive already feels drawn into an inside. Therefore the outer forecourt had to be made into a clear exterior by means of the blank wall and the asphalt on the ground. In order to reinforce the beneficent effect of entering the building, therefore, the outer forecourt has been treated as a severe outside and the inner forecourt as a welcoming inside.
However, the outer forecourt has been made slightly more appealing thanks to the projecting canopy and the two lamp posts flanking the entrance, as well as the open portico of the garage. (This is the reason I always wanted to give the rectory an open portico.)
Even the Spanish balcony of the corridor opening upstairs contributes to tempering the overly severe outside character of the outer forecourt. However, it is principally the dome of the church visible above the front façade that elicits a yearning for the inside, and that is precisely what is needed. Despite all the loveliness of open nature, we must want to go inside. The rest is for another time.
In the last few days I found a text I must have copied from Dom Guéranger a long time ago: ‘la réflection ordonnée et suivie replace notre intelligence en possession de notions oubliées’ (orderly and sustained reflection enables our intelligence to recall forgotten notions). This applies most particularly to the work we have done in Den Bosch in the past 30 years, which was devoted to architecture. Gradually, the great fundaments of architecture have revealed themselves, and thanks to your great faith in that work we were given the opportunity to let these fundaments find expression in a complete building.
The house, with everything necessary for everyday life, seemed to naturally find its place on the site. It was as if that open terrain that the Director discovered on the fortunate evening after his visit to the chapel of the Holy Virgin had been predestined for such a building, in size as well as shape. The orientation, too, is exactly right. One enters the grounds from the Oude Heirweg on the northside and sees that marvellous view toward the south. As a result the church received its east-west orientation naturally and the dimensions required for the building left just enough garden.
This view really enraptured us in the beginning, so much so that we thought of keeping the building open in that direction and not closing off the inner courtyard on that side.
But in the process of designing it, the opposite soon proved true. Had it been meant as a holiday home, a place to enjoy the natural setting and achieve physical recovery, this might have been an evident choice, and since in the worldly sphere consideration is virtually given solely to physical well-being, we too have a tendency to place too great an emphasis on that aspect of life. This quest for physical well-being for its own sake, incidentally, is a great illusion, for we are not created for such a purpose. That is for animals. Our well-being lies in a correct balance between spiritual and physical satisfaction.
Yet a house is also needed for the body, and in our climate especially this must meet many requirements. This, however, is more of a necessary evil; where nature falls short, we must supplement it with houses. But for our mind and spirit a confined internal space is absolutely necessary, and not as a necessary evil.
Even Paradise was an enclosed garden from which Adam and Eve could be expelled, and we must regard every enclosed space we build today as a restored Paradise. It was therefore not right to open the inner courtyard, so essential to any abbey, on one side because of the view, and already you can experience the beneficent effect of the inner courtyard, which forms the heart of the house as a true hortus conclusus. In this way the mind is constantly directed towards that for which it inwardly strives.
First there is the doorstep, then the vestibule, the hall, the reception room; in this way, one slowly penetrates the intimacy of the house. Each time, one is inside, but not quite completely. Inside the vestibule one is still outside the hall and inside the hall outside the room. All these steps from inside and outside are much more clearly perceptible in a house the size of a monastery, and therefore much more instructive for the mind. And if one asks me why sisters would not be better off living in an apartment, the answer is that an apartment cannot show us how to find our innermost soul.
Because of its open views, an apartment building can teach us how to distract ourselves, that is to say to scatter ourselves outward, but not how to collect ourselves inward, toward the great union with the divine presence in our soul. A monastery must teach us to turn inward sevenfold — that is to say, again and again. The garden-outside serves as a place from which to go inside and discover each inside space.
That is why I am so happy with the atrium, which we enter from the outer forecourt. It must teach us the beneficence of being inside: a new piece of nature, but one entirely adapted to our mind and spirit. In nature a vast quantity of trees, innumerable, but in the atrium only ten columns, distributed on four sides. The trees with their innumerable leaves; each column with a capital of a few small round foils. Yet in the atrium one is still entirely outside, and this is because it is open at the top and has no roof. One looks for the portico of the abbey, because only then will one be truly inside. I thought it was right to keep this vestibule severe and dark, in order to turn it into a preparation for the light inside of the abbey building — in other words a kind of novitiate. The rest for another time.
It was once again a delight to see the building approaching its completion. Now that the space around the abbey is beginning to take on its definitive shape, the exterior architecture, too, is getting better. Because the building does not have a singular form, but is composed of four separate wings around a courtyard, the four façades of the house are also clearly distinct from one another. They are therefore not the four sides of a single building, as is the case in a villa, which is usually set free-standing in a garden that surrounds the house.
Photographs in which two façades are simultaneously visible should therefore be avoided. This is acceptable for a small house but not for an abbey. The front façade faces the outer forecourt; the garden façade with a tower faces the large guests’ garden. This façade makes this garden, as it were, and as you later stroll along the paths around this field you will always remain in contact with this façade. The façade along the Lovinfosse wood has a totally different character again, because it flanks only a long strip of lawn. In order to separate this façade from the garden façade with the tower, I would like to plant a screen of birch trees along the large field, aligned with the façade along the wood. From the lane behind this row of birches one then has a view of that long side façade and the strip of lawn. Also on the other side a screen of birches should separate the guests’ garden from the sisters’ garden, which is entirely organized by the low façade with the terrace. That birch screen should be aligned precisely with the plane of the façade with the tower. In this way four gardens are actually created: two strips, the outer forecourt and the strip of lawn along the Lovinfosse, separated by a low wall, and then the two fields, the large field for the guests on the south side and a small field for the sisters on the east side. The evening stroll with the Director around the site, especially now that the piles of sand and the necessary trees have been removed, confirmed all of this for me.
The fact that your garden is so solidly attached to the house allows it to fully benefit from the architecture, and it will need little to thrive. Its layout can therefore be of the utmost simplicity, so that it will require little maintenance. The austere architecture itself asks, as a counterpoint, for a garden that is not too clean, but rather contains the volatile forms that God’s nature provides. It is so beautiful to see the work of our hands, with its unvarying rectangular shapes, standing out against the infinitely varied, supple forms of nature, the work of the Creator.
Close to the perimeter of the house everything can still be somewhat austere, but closer to the woods it all should be surrendered to nature. The courtyard is a different story altogether, of course; this space must be completely different from that of the garden. The courtyard is not an outside space around the house, but an outside enclosed by the house. This creates an entirely new outside, not the original outside of nature in which the house is built, but a constructed outside created anew within the house and is therefore a beautiful representation of the supernatural life we carry hidden within our heart.
It is not a garden with trees and flowers, but a garden that arises from the gallery around it, born, as it were, from these galleries. The discovery of this courtyard must be the greatest effect of your abbey; the small inner forecourt is merely its foretaste, a novitiate; but once one has truly entered the abbey, in the reception hall, one must instinctively be driven toward the large opening that grants access to the cloister. There was a great temptation to fully illuminate the stairwell from above through the four windows on the upper floor, but this would have ruined the orientation of the stairwell toward the courtyard. That is why there is that blank wall in front of the stairs: it makes the entrance of the house severe, but the discovery of the inner courtyard all the more enchanting.
Once in the galleries around the courtyard, everything changes. It is from here that one will visit all the other spaces. Stairwells and porticos can be entered at every corner, and beyond those stairwells and porticos are the halls and rooms.
Moreover, one enters every hall through a kind of gallery, a part separated by some columns, which gives the hall its measure and assures its intimacy no matter its size. Beyond these halls there is nothing more; one is truly within the intimacy of the house, an intimacy accessed not directly from the nature outside, but from the created outside of the inner courtyard.
And as such, through a small entrance portico, we arrive at last inside the church, the last and most beautiful hall in the house, the aula Dei. Here a kind of gallery runs around the octagonal space, with the altar in the middle. The other halls had the galleries on one side and the light on the other. This great hall has the gallery all around its perimeter and the light coming from above. Here we are in the heart of the house, which is what it must actually be. Those who enter the church from the outside and the inner forecourt will never experience this like those who enter the church from the inner cloister. Everything is designed to make this entering into the church a delight: ‘Ego autem in multitudine misericordiae tuae, introibo in domum tuam, Domine, et adorabo ad templum sanctum tuum.’ (But I, by your great love, can come into your house, Lord; in reverence I bow down toward your holy temple.) We were taught to recite this verse from Psalm 5 upon entering church for divine office. I can write all of this to you because we built this house together. It was always our intention to build not merely a house in which prayers are said, but a house to pray.
‘… of my father’s palace, where every step had a purpose.
It was a spacious abode, with its wing reserved for women and the enclosed courtyard where the fountain sang. (And I command that the house be given a heart in this way so that one can walk to as well as away from something. So that one can enter as well as exit it. For otherwise one is nowhere. And it does not mean that one is free, if one is not.)
There were also barns and stables. And it happened that the barns were empty and the stables unoccupied. And my father resisted the idea of using one for the purpose of the other: “The barn,” he said, “is a barn first and foremost, and you do not live in a house if you no longer know where you are.”
“It does not take much at all,” he also said, “for the use of something to be more or less fruitful.”
“Mankind is not livestock to be fattened, and love matters more to him than profitable use. You cannot love a house that has no face and in which steps have no direction.”
There was the hall reserved for the great envoys and where the sun was only let in on the days that the sandy dust rose, kicked up by the horsemen, on the horizon lined with great banners among which the wind blew as on the sea. It was left empty when little princes of no importance came. There was the hall were justice was exercised and the hall to which the dead were carried. There was the empty room, the purpose of which no one ever knew; perhaps it had no purpose, or it must have been to teach the meaning of mystery and the fact that not all things can be fathomed. And the slaves, who trotted along the corridors laden with their burdens, carried heavy carpets that hung limp from their shoulders. They climbed stairs, pushed against doors and descended more stairs, and depending on whether they were closer to or further away from the fountain in the centre, they would grow more or less silent, becoming timid as shadows near the women’s domain, where an unguarded glance would have cost them their lives. And the women themselves: calm, arrogant or secretive, depending on their place in the house.
I hear the voice of fools: “What a waste of space, what untapped riches, what discontent caused by neglect! Those useless walls should be torn down and those stairs levelled; all they do is make walking difficult. Then man will be free.” And I reply: “Then men will become like livestock in the city square, and out of fear of boredom they will invent stupid games that will be dominated by rules anyway, but rules without grandeur.
For the palace can foster poetry. But what kind of poem can one write about the futility of the dice they cast? They will likely live on for a long time from the shadow of the walls, the poems of which will inspire their nostalgia; then the shadow itself will fade and they will no longer understand them.”
And where then would they find joy?
So would it be with a man, lost in a week without days or in a year without days of celebration, that shows no face. So would it be with the man without hierarchy, who envies his neighbour and who, when the latter bests him in some way, endeavours to bring him down to his own level. What joy could they then still draw from the dead pool they would collectively form?’
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Citadelle III
For you this is not about a fictional palace but about a real house, which I truly believe has a special ‘face’, a face that will hold one’s interest to such an extent that one will not, out of boredom, seek diversion in other things. A stay in such a monastery should in itself awaken the passion for monastic life, and then, as a result of such an interaction, the inner life can only flourish.
Exupéry’s comparison of architecture to liturgy is also most felicitous.
Through its consecration the building acquires the same sanctifying power as the liturgy with which it identifies, but this consecration must be grounded in clearly visible forms.
Last time I wrote you about the great distinction between architectural and natural forms. When I last paid you a visit and strolled around the garden with the Director, or rather around the grounds that are to become the garden, I was struck by how different laying down a garden is from building a house. In the garden nothing more is needed than to refine forms provided by nature: a few trees removed here, a few birches added there to mitigate the transition between the artificial forms of the building and the natural forms of trees and surroundings. In nature there is an inscrutable variety of forms; in architecture a few clear forms, all rectangular and defined by a few exact measurements. I particularly recall the huge stacks, square stacks of hundreds of square bricks all in the same format, whereas in nature no two forms are the same and never the same size.
It is from those small uniform bricks that the limited variations of your house were created quite consciously. You saw them ‘grow’ up: the piers of the halls, the walls with the open windows, the rows of piers of the inner courtyard and the frieze of the upper windows, all the same square forms, one a bit longer, another a bit thicker or a bit flatter.
And what is true of the piers and the walls is equally true of the spaces: bar-shaped corridors, block-shaped stairwells, slab-shaped halls; and these forms too are very limited. They are defined by the ratios between length, width and height, and these ratios are always seven in number, just as music has an octave of clearly distinct notes.
With minor variations, the same forms recur throughout the house; one learns to recognize them as the forms of this house. They give it its own face, which will come to be loved.
Although the play of forms, that of the columns and window openings as well as that of the spaces themselves, is much more varied downstairs than upstairs, you still find a lovely horizontal slab shape for the stairwell, long bar forms for the corridor and above all the purely balanced shape of the cells.
As one continues to move through these spaces, they eventually harmonize into a spatial melody. The more simply your house is furnished and decorated, the more clearly perceptible these ground motifs will be.
We experience all of this more than we see it; this in no way diminishes its impact. This is even more true of the harmony of measurements, about which I will tell you in one of my next letters.
Now that the garden is being laid down and the furniture is being put into place, immediately something of the great unity that will mark the whole is emerging. From the small planks used to make the furniture, all with the same width and thickness, to the great vastness of the entire domain, there exists one great connection between all the spaces, forms and measures: a small world of created things in the midst of the vast world of nature. In nature all within an irretraceable variety and multiplicity, and yet with great unity and harmony.
It is to the glory of God when we replicate this in our own way, within the limitations of our human intellect. The more straightforward we do this, the better we can attain that same unity and harmony. A few straight paths in the garden in our created world do what the beautiful trunks and branches of the acacia trees do in nature. Similarly, the furniture that comes in such direct contact with the natural forms of our body needs only a few simple forms in order for us to turn them into a unified whole. This is also why we have minimalised the natural forms of the wood grain and its natural nuances of colour with a thin layer of paint. Yet the colours of the house and of the furniture are not uniform: there too we sought, with great care, a limited gamut of colours.
Mr van Hooff balanced these colours with great patience, and I am very happy that you afforded him the opportunity to do so. In the process we were able to construct our own little world of spaces, forms, colours and measures, one entirely adapted to our limited intellect and capacity to comprehend. In regard to nature, our work is like that of children, but it fits our existence.
Little children are given milk and are satisfied. A house that is properly adapted to our capabilities is like milk for the mind. Also the ironwork for the candlesticks and the silver for the chalices and monstrance were fashioned in the same spirit. The forms are reduced to their most simple form, and the proportions purely reflect the limited gamut we explored in Den Bosch.
Now just a few more words about the windows and façades. You will have noticed that the windows of the halls downstairs are not square like those of the rooms upstairs.
The length and width of the halls relate to each other, in almost every case, as four to three, and this is also the ratio between the height and width of the windows.
Upstairs, however, the rooms are nearly square, and this is also true of the windows. But there is yet another difference between the windows of the halls downstairs and those of the rooms upstairs. In the halls the windows are cut out of the walls, while upstairs the windows are not made as holes: instead the wall piers and the in-between columns are made, and the windows naturally come into being between those wall sections. This gives the façades of the house a unique character: downstairs a solid wall pierced with holes, upstairs an open frieze of windows with piers and small columns at regular intervals. As a result this row of windows becomes an ornament, a crowning for the façade.
The façade of the terrace is composed like the upper section of the other façades. This turns this façade into an ornament for the entire house.
In the tower you again find the same composition as that of the two long façades: an open upper section for the bells and a solid lower section.
This provides the basic chord for the composition of the façades.
After all the letters about the construction of your abbey, now one specifically about the church. The Church does not issue specifications for the construction of a monastic abbey.
However, our Pope Paul, just as Pius XII used to, repeatedly emphasizes that monastic buildings should express great simplicity and poverty, in order to reflect the true monastic life. In the new Institution of the General Roman Missal the church building is discussed in the same spirit, as well as everything it must contain.
The same simple rectangular forms recur throughout and everything is made of brick, concrete and plain wood.
However, for the interior of the church, clear guidelines are given, and the first is the central place the altar must occupy. When the altar first comes up in the description of the offertorium, it is immediately called ‘the centre of the entire Eucharistic service’ (no. 49). And when the altar itself is discussed (219), it says again: ‘The altar is the centre of the thanksgiving offered by the Eucharist.’ And finally, no. 262 gives the following complete description: ‘The high altar must be built freestanding, so that one can easily circulate around it and so that the service can take place toward the people. It must be positioned so that it is truly the centre upon which the whole congregation of the faithful naturally focuses its attention.’ This stipulation has significant consequences for the disposition of abbey churches. In the past there was a separate space reserved in our churches for the choir stalls, between the chancel and the space for the faithful. As a result the churches were long and the faithful far removed from the altar. In order to give the altar the central place required by the Institution, the church space must be folded together, as it were. The chancel is then situated on one side of the altar, ending at the presider’s chair for the priest, who must stand facing the people at the leading end of the chancel (271), and the faithful are then positioned on the other side of the altar, so that the choir benches must be set along the other two sides of the altar.
To accommodate this disposition of the altar between the choral benches, the church must be quite wide, with the result that when the size of the congregation is small, as it will be in your case, the church must take on a square form. For your church I have chosen an octagon, but in order to give this space the necessary orientation, so that the presiding priest will actually be positioned at the leading end of the space, the octagon is contained within a more longitudinal framing. Behind the presider’s chair there is a space left over for attending to the altar, and on the other side a space for a larger number of congregants on feast days.
The high altar is entirely made of natural stone and as a result stands out prominently in the simple space. Under the table is an enclosed cavity in which the relic of Saint Modestus M. can be placed. The relic is contained in a leaden box along with the consecration charter, and this box is set in a wooden shrine placed on a small riser under the altar table. The final keystones are then to be cemented at the consecration of the altar. The leaden envelope with the authentications from 1750 then sits next to the relic.
For the keeping of the Blessed Sacrament, the Institution stipulates a preference for a separate chapel, suitable for silent prayer and worship by the faithful (276), but this was difficult to achieve in this abbey church. Given the small number of sisters and congregants, the church does not need to be large; therefore this church does not consist, like a large church, of a principal space and ancillary spaces. A side chapel for the Blessed Sacrament, in this case, would entail a second church.
The tabernacle, however, cannot be set on the high altar, where Mass is celebrated facing the people. It is also preferred that the Blessed Sacrament not be kept on an altar upon which the Holy Mass is celebrated. The text of the new Ritual for Holy Communion is clear on this point. (De Sacra Communione et de cultu mysterii eucharistici extra missam: no. 6). In it we read: ‘On the grounds of the sign value, it is more in keeping with the nature of the celebration that, through reservation of the sacrament in the tabernacle, Christ not be present Eucharistically from the beginning on the altar where Mass is celebrated. That presence is the effect of the consecration and should appear as such.’
A separate ‘altar’ has therefore been built for the tabernacle, placed in an apse behind the presider’s chair, yet sufficiently removed from it to allow some kneeling benches to be placed for prayer directly in front of the tabernacle. The sacrament altar is made of the same stone and in the same style as the high altar, so that it is clear they are connected. Its surface is somewhat smaller than that of the high altar, and it is somewhat higher. It is placed on two steps, so that the tabernacle, which stands on the rear half of this altar, can be seen from anywhere in the church, beyond the presider’s chair. As a result the entire church can be used for the worship of the Blessed Sacrament outside Mass.
However, because during Mass all attention must be focused on the high altar (Institution, 262), a stone ciborium has been built around the tabernacle, so that its front can be closed during Mass, hiding the tabernacle from view. When it is open, on the other hand, the tabernacle is framed by the ciborium in such a way that it particularly stands out.
The fact that this ciborium makes the altar itself less suitable for the celebration of Holy Mass seems to me not in the least objectionable, since in the circumstances this altar will not be used for this purpose. The high altar and the tabernacle altar form a unit in this church, so that the high altar is used for Mass.
The Institution provides very specific instructions for the position of the faithful. They must stand during part of the Mass, sit during another and kneel during Consecration. Although the time spent kneeling is brief, the benches have been carefully designed to facilitate kneeling, since the church, outside Mass, serves as a substitute for a separate Sacrament chapel, which must accommodate kneeling worship of the Blessed Sacrament.
It is a pleasure to see how careful adherence to the new Institution of the General Roman Missal has resulted in a well-ordered whole, which testifies to the great wisdom with which these guidelines were established.
There are still two things I must write to you about with respect to your abbey, and then I will have told you everything I had resolved to say.
The first concerns the size of your building, the measures we gave it in relation to the entire site, and the measures of its elements: the size of the halls, the galleries, the columns, the windows, right down to the thickness of the walls. We very deliberately established a connection among all these sizes. It is the secret to the great sense of peace that your abbey exerts upon all its visitors. Although it is difficult to say something about this, I will nonetheless attempt to do so.
The second subject, to which I will devote a final letter, is that of the furniture and the colours that complete the house.
In terms of colour, especially, your house is an experiment, for our group of architects had not hitherto done it this way. They mostly based their selections on the colours of our own abbey. Yet the architects from my brother’s practice, who paid you a visit on Wednesday, reacted very positively. The impetus for this experiment clearly came from you, and until now I do not regret it.
When the position of the abbey had to be slightly altered at the start of construction, the result was that the sisters’ garden lost too much depth, because the edge of the wood on the east side was too close to the building. Buying that wood solved that problem, however, and we were even able to give the garden better dimensions than we had originally planned.
Coming from the cloister through the broad passage to the terrace, one has a subconscious awareness of the breadth of the inner courtyard, and it is against this that one measures the depth and the size of the garden. The same thing happens when one exits through the guest vestibule containing Niel Steenbergen’s Madonna. There too one subconsciously has the length of the inner courtyard in mind, especially since it can be clearly estimated from the view onto the church dome. It is again based on this length that one appreciates the depth of the guests’ garden. These two measures too are in perfect harmony.
The depth of the guests’ garden exceeds that of the sisters’ garden to exactly the same extent that the length of the inner courtyard exceeds its width. This provides the basic chord of the composition of the entire abbey, for this ratio will now recur in all of its parts.
Along the length of the entire site, measured from north to south, the width of the outer forecourt is the smallest measure and therefore serves as the unit in this order of size. The site is approximately 175 m in depth and the outer forecourt is about 25 m wide, so this is 1/7 part. The same applies along the width from west to east: the strip along the Lovinfosse wood is also 1/7 part of the total width of the site. What the width of the forecourt constitutes for the whole square with the building and garden, the widths of the corridors constitute for the halls within the house. This corridor width is in turn one seventh part of the width of the outer forecourt, or 3.5 m, and this is also the width of each hall’s rear gallery. With this unit the entire house is measured, and we find it again in the paths of the large gardens, which are also 3.5 m wide. In the corridors and halls, however, we find yet a smaller measure, and that is the thickness of the walls. Again, this is 1/7 part of the corridor width, or 50 cm. This is the smallest unit of measure in your house, which recurs everywhere in the measurements of the floor tiles. The measurements of the windows and doors are based on this smallest unit.
As such you see the great interplay of three orders of size: first that of the walls with its windows and doors, then that of the corridors and halls and finally that of the outer forecourt and the whole building and gardens.
This can all best be compared to the great division of the year into
seasons, weeks and days. The day is the smallest unit with which we count down the weeks; using weeks we count down the periods of Easter, Lent and Christmas, and finally we use those periods to measure the whole year. In this way each day gets its proper place along the year, and in the same way the wall thickness, which in relation to the entire domain is after all tiny, nonetheless gets its explicit value in the whole composition.
I could tell you a great deal more about all the subordinate proportions with which we endeavoured to repeat with great care, in small, the basic chord linking the house and the domain as a whole. This ratio recurs like an echo everywhere, between corridors and halls, between wall piers and windows, between façade frieze and façade height, between bell chamber and tower, between closed and open sections of the window frieze. These are the things we have learned in the studies of my brother Nico’s course in Den Bosch and were able to achieve as never before in your house. The free deployment of this entire gamut of measures was nowhere inhibited by exaggerated demands for comfort or economy, and as a result the building is able to exude its spiritual light everywhere, and, as an encore, has turned out to be economical and comfortable anyway. For this I am as grateful as you.
To fulfil my promise, look here, just before the big day, one last letter about the furniture. From everything I have written you it must have become clear that in Den Bosch we have learned above all not to confine ourselves in architecture to the purely practical aspect of design. ‘Man does not live by bread alone’ and a house that offers only a safe place for our body, only attuned to a comfortable use, is not sufficient for us men. Our mind and spirit must also be sustained from outside, and the house plays a major role in this. You need only consider the influence of the parental home on the awakening intellect of a child.
And if this is true of any house, how much more so for an abbey, where the life of the mind and spirit takes precedence. Just as mind and body cannot be divided in ourselves, these two aspects of architecture cannot be separated. It is precisely the physical function of the house that must inform the mind through its forms and dimensions.
Just as in everyday life too great an emphasis on the care of the body can suppress the care of mind and spirit, so in architecture can an excess of physical comfort be a detriment to the expressive power of space and form. A healthy asceticism manages to respect the body without forgetting the mind and spirit. ‘Sic transeamus per bona temporalia ut non amittamus aeterna.’ (That we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.)
In the past we still knew too little of the ways to make architectonic forms express their function, and we constantly had to violate their proportions in order to make the building properly usable; either that or we had to sacrifice usability, here and there, in favour of correct proportions.
Gradually we have penetrated the possibilities of expressivity to such a degree that we are able, with a certain ease, to do justice to both aspects of the building.
The practical demands you stipulated in commissioning the building, moreover, made it easy for us to order every space, form and measure in such a way that the building is able to speak its language, a language that proves able to touch everyone.
It is extremely difficult to adapt furniture that comes into direct contact with the body, and in which comfort, especially today, plays such an important role, to an architecture, whose spiritual value takes such precedence.
On the other hand, I am convinced that the insights we have attained about the expressive power of architecture are adequate to do justice to the usability of buildings, but that they are still insufficient for furniture in which usability plays such a determinant role.
We did do everything we could to make the chairs comfortable to sit on, and to simplify their maintenance, but in practice there will certainly be some difficulties to overcome.
I therefore rely on a willingness to sacrifice lower concerns for higher ones, such as must so frequently be the case in spiritual life. And that higher concern is above all the great unity of furniture and space, and the peace that this communicates to the mind and spirit. We constantly considered this kind of furniture in relation to the space in which it stands and which it completes, and in such a way that we consistently matched its colours to those of the space. Mr van Hooff coloured this furniture, as it were, using the shadow tones of the walls, as was done for the doors in your house. This also happened in our church. But your furniture, in its colours and in the way it was painted, has been made clearly distinct from its architectural setting.
It forms a world of its own, with its own gamut of colours. The colours of the floors and ceilings already introduce this gamut to a certain extent; the chairs and benches do not quite stand out, but the tables have their own pronounced colour. It is the interaction among the colours, and not the colours themselves, that link the furniture to the architecture. The spaces now seem inhabited before anyone has been in them, which lends a certain gentleness to the severe forms of the house. In the corridors and stairwells, which are devoid of furniture, the architecture retains its severe dominance, which further reinforces the rhythm of inside and outside I told you about in my initial letters.
Upstairs in particular, when from the severe stairwell one accedes the rooms, which are so entirely fitted through this kind of furniture, one undergoes this rhythm most strongly. As a result one can be completely at peace inside the rooms, and I hope that the experience of the guests, but especially that of the sisters, will confirm this.
With this I have now written up everything I intended to tell you about the house, and thus this task too has been completed on the 6th of August, at the same time as that of the construction of your abbey.
Father H. van der Laan
Mamelis Vaals Abbey