The Cloister, An Appreciation
Can we say that the cloister approaches architectural perfection? What is the source of its seductive appeal? When you visit an old church do you look to see if it has a cloister? Is experiencing the cloister maybe even a little more satisfying, (spatially - this is not a discussion of faith), than the nave itself, if we’re honest? If you had to pick words to describe a cloister might some of them be
refined, tranquil, purposeful, contemplative, simple, intimate, harmonic, formal, composed?
If you sensed the rich paradoxes of the cloister, would they be expressed in terms of
public and private, open and closed, light and dark?
If we could make our own cloister, we might transform these intuitions into bone deep conviction. How do we start?
There is really only one point of departure. How wide should the ambulatory be?
We might say we want it to be wide enough for two people going in opposite directions to pass comfortably with room to spare for furniture or other objects against the inner wall.
Now we know that the ambulatory must be covered. We could have a flat covering, but that seems unnecessarily austere – how about a vault? Let’s make it a barrel vault because we value gracefulness and simplicity.
We have to set the height of the vault springing. Plenty of latitude here, but let’s again relate this decision to the best yardstick we have – ourselves! Let’s say it should be the height of the tallest person we know, plus another half of that person for comfort.
We’re well on our way. One of the essential qualities of a cloister is that it is an exceptional mediator between interior and exterior space. This would not be true if the outer wall of the ambulatory did not have openings in it. What should these be?
We are not especially clever, but after some head scratching we have an eureka moment. We could take the profile of the barrel vault, rotate it 90 degrees and trace out an arch on the outer ambulatory wall, cutting out everything within the arch and beneath. We like this so much we repeat it again and again along the wall, only stopping when we have made the wall as long as we want.
But our zeal to open up the wall has created another dilemma. We have carved away too much, and our outer ambulatory wall is at risk of collapse. More furrowing of brow. After a bit we realize that if the arches we just made are spaced apart a little we can restore enough solid material between them to reach the ground and hold up the wall. We notice that these instances of solidity – we could call them columns – occur at regular and pleasing intervals.
Bowing to etymological inevitability we know that a cloister must be enclosed. We are either lazy or efficient and slightly winded from our exertions thusfar, so we copy our work exactly 3 times and form a square. We cannot corral out thoughts entirely and wonder if there could be hexagonal or octagonal cloisters, but these would require more effort and are likely not to play so nicely with other building parts.
We have done all the heavy lifting and now we are rewarded! From this point forward the slightest gestures on our part return disproportionate effects. We project one arch back to the inner ambulatory wall, repeat for all, and create a replicating array of cross vaults. We mirror the columns of the outer ambulatory wall onto its inner wall. We discover that we have created special places in the corners of our cloister and look for ways to exploit them. After all this we still have many local problems to solve and expressive choices to make, but guided by our gathering understanding of the cloister’s genetics we can proceed with full confidence.
Time to throw the switch and engage the senses! The sun climbs into the sky, and because we have created an exterior space within an interior one, we are treated to a slow moving progression of shadow arches on the floors and walls of our ambulatories. At night, when the lamps are lit, the effect is static and reversed, and attention is drawn to the concealed, private realm within. Perhaps we should introduce a fountain into the middle (or, to be bold, not quite the middle…) of the enclosed courtyard to animate it and endow it with its own unique acoustic signature. The fountain could be built as a stack of convex volumes as counterpoint to the arched voids in the ambulatory walls...
Yes, let us do that.