• The excavation image shows the true form of the crypt, whose orientation runs perpendicular to the existing Abbey chapel’s dominant axis. PHOTO BY JAMES F. WILSON

Cunningham Architects has been part of not one but two notable additions over the past few years, both of which were recognized with an AIA Dallas Design Award in the fall of 2018. The first was an expansion of Temple Emanu-El, which is regarded as one of architect Howard Meyer’s master works. Here, Cunningham, alongside landscape architect Hocker Design Group, created a seamless addition to the existing plan, continuing a language of openings and materials that celebrate the building’s exterior gardens. The expansion increased the project’s footprint significantly.

The other expansion project, the crypt at Cistercian, takes a different approach to that of its existing campus. Such a departure became an element of discussion during the design awards deliberation. “Was it designed by the same architect?” juror Sánchez asked the crowd during the ceremony. The jury, convinced that the same details were used in the skylights and reveals of the adjacent chapel, assumed that it was. As the project team came forward to accept the award, they relieved the jury of its uncertainty: Yes, the same details were used, thanks to Cunningham’s position as a campus architect for Cistercian. And the inside track is what makes such a departure work — at any level of detail.

An early (1972) graduate of the Cistercian Preparatory School in Irving, Gary Cunningham experienced the campus from its very roots during the years of O’Neil Ford’s influence on architecture and campus planning. Through Cunningham’s contributions since the early ’90s, Cistercian has become a place where his work comes to life in distinctive ways — from renovations, to entirely new built work. Most notably, the chapel, built 25 years ago as a counterpoint to the existing monastery, is a masterwork of masonry in design and yet also a testament to Cistercians’ stable, ascetic vows.

The completion of the crypt in 2017 marked the return to campus of the remains of 20 deceased Cistercian Monks, originally interred in Calvary Hill in Dallas. This was a significant accomplishment, as Cistercians take a vow of stability that commits them to one place to the end of their lives and, whenever possible, after their passing. Buried beneath the hill between the chapel and the School, the crypt is the heart of the campus in many respects, placing emphasis on the legacy that set the foundation for the congregation itself. “The hill is a high point,” Cunningham says. “It serves as a place of calm nature mediating between the school and the monastery.” The landscape, designed by Hocker Design Group, celebrates the prairie that once dominated the countryside, and makes the hill seem as if it had been there from the very beginning. A long skylight is the only reminder of the crypt beneath the grass.

The crypt’s discreet entry on the chapel’s northern colonnade leads visitors into a room, suffused with the skylight’s natural light that bounces off cast-in-place concrete. On each burial chamber’s marble front is delicately etched the name of the monk who is buried inside: The Cistercians’ crypt is a place at once simple and reverent.

Michael Friebele, Assoc. AIA, is an associate at CallisonRTKL in Dallas.

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