The next stop on the journey took me to a small town about a 45 minute train ride outside of Lyon, France. The town in question is home to the Monastery of La Tourette, designed by the architect Le Corbusier. It is one of his most well known works and has been undergoing extensive renovation work since 2005. I didn’t have phone at the train station I arrived at and was unable to call a car, so I commenced walking the 2 miles or so to the monastery, all the while followed by a very loud and talkative roll-behind suitcase. If it had of been my dad telling the story I would have said I had walked 5 miles barefoot, uphill both ways, in the snow, but alas, my oratory skills are not as developed by experience as his. I finally arrived at the convent [they call it a convent in France, even though it houses monks, not sure about the translation] with fifteen minutes to spare before they closed up shop. Since renovation was still going on at the convent, I had been under the assumption I was going to stay at the “castle” about five minutes away from the convent that houses the refractory and current living quarters for the monks and guests. By the way, the receptionist kept referring to it as a castle, but in nowhere in the wildest imaginations of any 5 year old child could that be said to be true. I would describe it as a run-down estate. Anyway I was told by the receptionist that I was to be staying at the convent by myself for the two nights I was there, which was quite a pleasant surprise! It is the architectural equivalent to a sugar starved child in a candy store. So I got my keys and headed up the walk to the convent to put my things down. Dinner with the Monks and what I was told to be the rest of the students was in about 20 minutes, so I had time to freshen up from a day and a half of straight train travel before heading down to eat. Walking into the refractory a few minutes early I met the “convent mom” [I guess that is the best way to describe her?]. She spoke not a lick of English and I had even less French at my disposal. So after a few failed and frustrating attempts at conversing on both sides we resolved to smile and nod at each other while we waited. An older bearded monk was the next to come and join, which made it three constantly nodding heads, though he didn’t join in the smiling.
Finally after what seemed to be an eternity the rest of the monks [there were 4 total that night] and the students came down to eat. Since my previous futile attempts at striking up conversation with the house mother had crashed and burned, I resigned to give them my best “bonjour” I had and then quietly sulked at the end of the table. They carried on speaking nervous French for a while as I tried to understand how the three girls there were on their way to becoming monks. About fifteen minutes passed with me being unable to understand the conversation, but coming to the determined conclusion that it was a difference of custom about who could be let into a monastery in France. The day also happened to be my birthday, and since I had just graced a quarter of a century, I decided I would try my failed luck at talking again, even just to hear myself talk. The dark haired girl sitting across from me looked to be a good target so I threw her a soft pitch and asked her if she was a student studying at the convent. She replied that yes she was a student, but not studying to become a monk, in near perfect English. After I got over my amazement in having sat in relative silence for the first two courses I was able to find out that the people at the table were French business students, not monks in training, and spending a week at the monastery in order to study for a big exam. It’s apparently a not so uncommon tradition for college and high school students in France. They go to a monastery to study for big tests for the quiet surroundings and not having to cook for themselves. Makes a lot of sense, and now I wonder why we don’t jump on the boat back in the States. Anyway, dinner after that was a much changed event and I had a great time talking to Charlotte about French customs and repeatedly asking what the monks were talking about. Not surprisingly, it was usually God, but the second night the conversation almost jumped to gossip as they were talking about a monk friend of theirs that apparently went mad.
After dinner I took my lonely lightless stroll back to the monastery where I was staying. Not much that I had read could really prepare me for the amount of creativity and design applied to every surface of that building. My room, like all the rest of the monastic quarters, was about 24 feet long and 8 wide with the back wall being mostly all glass and radiator and leading out to the small private balcony. All of the details were extremely minimal and there was a distinct humbleness to all of the materials and finishes. All of the wood was naturally stained, with a deep green painted floor and rough white plastered walls. The only pieces of furniture in the room were a storage unit [wardrobe on one side and doubled as a bedside lamp/table on the other], a sink, a surprisingly comfortable bed, and a simple wooden table and chair. The table was placed in the middle of the window facing the wall as not to be distracted I would guess, with the glass door leading to the balcony on the right and a narrow vent door to the left. The radiator was concealed beneath the table and was good for warming your feet when scribbling away late at night. The door to the outside corridor also had a narrow vent opening [about 8 inches] that could be opened for cross ventilation in the summer but not big enough for someone to be able to climb through. As soon as you walk in the door from the outside was the wardrobe and sink/shelf to separate it visually from the rest of the room. I am still surprised by the narrow proportion of the room and the low ceilings, but it never felt claustrophobic, and mostly always had plenty of natural light due to the white walls and large glass. On the outside balcony was a projecting square of concrete that could be used as a small storage shelf for books or candles. I could never figure out how Corb constructed the door frames until the last day I was leaving. The frames were yellow painted wood with no visible fasteners into the concrete from the outside. Thanks to a piece of chipped wall next to a door I was able to ascertain that the wooden frames were the same ones that were used as the formwork for the concrete, with nails being driven diagonally halfway into the back of the wood to hold it in place when the concrete was curing. The wood would then be presumably sanded down and painted with no connections to be seen.
I stayed at La Tourette for a total of 3 days and had time to get acquainted with the daily rituals as well as the time in between. Most of my hours were spent sketching and writing and it was a nice change of pace from the frantic travel schedule. I started questioning the isolation of the monastery and came to realize that it would not be possible to exist anywhere. I mean that in the sense of being separated from the sounds of a busy city and actually allowing itself to develop a silence. Imagine a monastery in a rushed and noisy urban center. Would it even be possible to function? You could argue there are other ways to cut off the auditory noise and so forth, but the fact remains that much of what La Tourette is able to achieve emotionally and environmentally is due to its location. It exists in a small village with mostly neighboring farmland and woods. At night there are no lights but the recently installed automatic one at the entry, other than that it is totally dark and still. To further provide for spaces of reflection there are two courtyards on the interior of the monastery which subdivide the spaces yet again. The door to the innermost sanctuary is a huge steel pivoting contraption that when closed shuts off the inside from the rest of the world. The compartmentalization of the spaces is achieved in way to go deeper and deeper into stillness and silence. Even in regards to circulation, the private prayer altars for the monks [before they were allowed to have a communal mass] are accessed by going underneath the central chapel by way of the necromonically named crypts. Rooms in the public view, such as the oratory in the courtyard, are gotten to by narrow corridors and have only light sources from above and to the side, with no views to the outside, allowing them to gain a secluded world all of their own.
Just as I was leaving there came a whole troop of new inhabitants to my still space of reflection. It would have been interesting to see how more souls changed the qualities of isolation, but I had to go. The next stop is Matera, Italy to see the Sassi cave dwellings that exist in the hills across from the town. After that it’s the small town of Alberobello to stay in a “trulli” and understand more about their non-changing construction.
Thoughts on Traveling #4 : In Madrid, instead of birds chirping to tell you when to cross the street, it sounds like they are shooting lasers at you. Lasers…