“Architecture is cladding on two sides of a cavity.” So said one of my professors, distilling the essence of modern architecture into this tidy little axiom. It generally holds true for how we approach the creation of buildings today. Some might say that architecture is about concealment, deception — you see the walls and ceilings, but they are usually thin veneers masking the actual structure beneath. Add code-required layers of weather-resistant barriers, continuous insulation, and so on, and you have an inevitably complex assembly. There is no (relatively) recent building I am aware of that more pleasantly defies these modern sensibilities than the deceptively simple yet sublimely refined Cistercian Abbey Church. This building provides a wildly compelling counterpoint to the way we make buildings today and reminds us of a different way — an ancient way — of creating architecture.
“It’s the most important building I’ll ever do,” says the building’s architect, Gary Cunningham, FAIA, as we approach the facade of the stone church. As an alumnus of the Cistercian Prepartory School run by the monks on the site of the abbey, he understands the significance of both the building and the community that utilizes it. This group includes not only the monks but also the students (past and present), the students’ families, and those who attend the Mass held regularly at the church.
Many of us in the design community are well aware of this building and its significance as a beautiful piece of architecture — and we might appreciate it solely from this lens. But it is a living building, used each and every day while continuing to live out its function quite remarkably. As the abbot Father Peter Verhalen remarks: “There’s something beautiful as we’re praying. The church does a wonderful job of reminding us who we are.”
The building process began when two of the preparatory school’s alumni (class of ’74) spearheaded fundraising for the construction of a church, as the abbey had originally been built without one. As an alumnus, Cunningham was selected to be the building’s architect. After a slow start to the design, a trip to Europe with the late abbot Father Denis Farkasfalvy — as well as the fortuitous offer (made by a student’s parent) of free stone from a quarry in West Texas — led to the conception of the church as it is today. The design was intended to reflect the Cistercians’ values and was conceived as a modern interpretation of the Romanesque style, which was inspired by a visit to a particularly striking church in Bélapátfalva, Hungary.
The Cistercian Abbey Church is refreshingly honest, with each visual element performing the function one would expect. The stone became the defining element, anchoring the building to the earth and to the rich tradition and history of the Cistercians — and to liturgical architecture more broadly. The solid 6’x 3’x 2’ stone blocks (of which there are 427) form the load-bearing system as well as the interior and exterior finish surfaces. The stones require no vertical reinforcement: Their sheer weight provides all the necessary stability.
The other primary interior element is the wood roof — a simple gable supported by heavy timber beams spanned by structural wood decking. Together with the stone, the wood creates a warm and welcoming space that is rough, yet modern; simple, yet sophisticated; solid, yet transcendent. The restraint with which the space was crafted, as well as the celebration of a few simple materials, imbues the building with an elegance often sought but seldom achieved.
The narrow yet profoundly impactful skylights, which separate the roof structure from the heavily rusticated walls, usher in a bright yet gentle luminance that cascades down the face of the stone at all hours of the day. It is this introduction of daylight into the nave that causes the handsome, disparate elements of this building to coalesce into an inseparable whole.
While Cunningham has received many accolades for this project, he explains that “100 percent of the success of this building is because of the client.” Yes, the monks wanted a well-designed church, but they did not place any emphasis on its wild success. As Cunningham notes, “Their priorities are elsewhere.” So, because of the heavenly focus, there was less at stake from the client’s perspective, perhaps allowing Cunningham to be inventive and work without the stress of typical ROI-focused, deadline-driven commercial projects. “They were very chilled out about it,” Cunningham remembers.
Many of those involved in the creation of the building felt a deep personal and spiritual connection to the project, spurring them to give either time, expertise, or money to the realization of the building. A parent of one of the students, who was not able to contribute financially, built the pews.
For Cunningham, it was a very hands-on experience, as he and his collaborators fabricated many of the elements themselves. Whereas one could spend hours searching for the right product to specify for a handrail or a pew or a door, each of these items was carefully crafted specifically for this project. Cunningham even set the cross on the west facade himself!
When I asked Father Peter about his experience of essentially living in the church (the monks conduct Mass and prayers daily in the church), he said: “One of the beautiful things about the space is that it communicates transcendence. I am pleased to see, in the middle of the day, people coming in just to pray. And not necessarily Christians. People come in and find peace in the space. They feel safe, opened. The space opens you up.”
Contemplating the idea that an assemblage of stone, concrete, and wood, however masterfully composed, can encourage or facilitate transcendence is a humbling experience, indeed, for an architect. Possibly, this is why Cunningham considers the church the most important building he will ever build. When asked which Cistercian values the church reflects, Father Peter replies, “Simplicity, honesty, beauty, and solidity.” I can’t think of a more succinct description of the building, or of the community it facilitates.
Andrew Barnes, AIA, is the founder of Agent Architecture in Dallas.