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  • The Complexity of Spatial Minimum

    Spatial Installation by John Pawson in Pannonhalma

    Architect: John Pawson Text:  Zorán Vukoszávlyev Photos:  Tamás Bujnovszky

    Founded in 996, the origins of the Benedictine abbacy of Pannonhalma have been so closely associated with the era when the Hungarian state was established that the significance of the location is almost indisputable. Priding itself on a historical past, the abbecy has a grand building with contemporary architectural creations of the highest standards in its physical and spiritual centre of gravity. Now also inside its walls.  The ancient basilica had been rebuilt several times – however, the church already been converted in 1137 and remodelled in Gothic style in the 1220s cannot be identified  with its present-day design. The stylistic relations of the constructions managed by Abbot Oros in the 13th century are associated with French cathedrals – this was overwritten in the 1870s by Ferenc Stornó with great  self-confidence when in line with the idea- image of the Middle Ages prevailing during the office of Arch-Abbot  Krizosztom he reshaped the interiors with a purist approach to the protection of historical monuments whilst creating  the integral design also revealed today in the case of the monastery church and its adjacent structures by extensive demolitions and remodellings. The complex now protected as an historical monument is a result of structures that had been genuine masterpieces erected in various periods such as the Gothic ambulatory, the Baroque-style dining hall, the library from the Classicist era as well as the church tower reaching for the skies.  The reconstruction project of the  basilica had been completed by the millennial celebrations, without the facelifting of the liturgical space of the church. During the millennial celebrations of its existence the desire to take a new spatial approach was formulated in line with  the spirituality of the founders – to create a new sacred space meeting contemporary needs. Members of the  community had the feeling that the conditions of the sacred space of the basilica were no longer suited to express its spirituality. The niche of human beings in the world and its spatial projection defines the making of the harmony.  Members of the friars’ community have thus uttered the feeling of lack owing to the loss of such an equilibrium. Arch-abbot Asztrik Várszegi in 2003 established the Basilica Workshop with the task to resolve this kind of uncertainty  and to lay down the foundations of the remodelling based on the theological explanation. This team of young friars  revealed the necessity of changes ensuing from this spiritual need. They started to continuously work on mapping the spiritual relations of the architectural transformations: for the community it became obvious that the physical space  existing then (including the object- elements accummulated and adjusted through the centuries) could not be  reconciled with their approach to space demanding simplicity and clarity. The need for change seemingly could not be  identified with the interior created in the integral style by Stornó, but the genuine reason for this was not emphasized.  The community of monks actually wanted to create a space „only” to be appropriate for the spirituality of its own times – that is a medium created with minimalist aesthetics whilst leaving the architectural frames untouched and basically  preferring to rely upon the capacities of the functional components to organize and render space.

    The community of friars invited an English architect to make the designs. That was the time when in the Czech Republic the construction of a Trappist monastery has been completed after designs by John Pawson that had aesthetic  dimensions refelcting the ideas friars of Pannonhalma cherished. The end of August saw the reconsecration of the  ancient space of the basilica in Pannonhalma. The altar of the crypt now treasures relics of St. Martin of Tours, which  means the revival of the aetiological myth according to the customs held by the early Christian church. Rich in history, the architectural space is also revived – as the space of worship used by the friars: it is now the place of the communal service of God and full attention to the Word. Now we are standing in a space which is visually clean and functions  appropriately liturgically. Regarding the spatial faculties, it is now lighter, more ethereal and transparent. Its  spirituality serves the present-day needs of its users, the 1,000 year old Benedictine community, reinforcing the  utilization of space by the friars, whilst also speaking a clear language addressing the congregation about the  materialized focuses of the events of the liturgy.

    The visual complexity of the dislocated object-components has been replaced by an interpretation concentrating on the unambiguous elements. To emphasize the longitudinal axis of the space the baptistry was built beneath the western tower. The flooring of the shortened church space that can be used by the congregation now rises above the planum made higher by stairs. Among the stalls of the enlarged choir of the friars new there are two hubs: the superaltar  standing closer to the faithful and the ambon positioned in the east. It is an integral communion-space in its complexity where the Word realized in words and in body creates the compact centre of the community. In the east the spatial row  is finished by the highly elevated altar space with a ciborium to serve the liturgical space like a tabernacle – beneath  there is the undercroft with its sacred relics. The clear formula of space is an open and transparent system of spaces ranging from the adoption of Christianity to mortality. Its components are emphasized by the precious material of onyx. It is evidently the monolithic mass of the altar which has the most characteristic design. This is the densest point  of the space both liturgically and architecturally.

    There are onyx boards now filling in the glass windows of the western gate and the eastern spatial wall. Light pierces the material with a magnificent effect of mystery – these are the lightest points of the space also in the architectural sense, as they are to be explained in relation to the object components of the interior with mythical powers. The large circular window replacing that of St. Martin (with its lens-like polish) serves to let natural light illuminate more and more  powerful.ly toward the centre – however, this elementary effect is spoiled by the radial strips of light that project an  archaizing arrangement of windows onto the surface of the opening. The spiritual effect of the monolithic thickening of elements now returns to the soil of reality here. Unlike in the case of the precision of the limestone slabs from Süttő  replacing the former facework made of stone from Solnhofen: here we can experience the priority of design-attitude in a seemingly tiny detail. Based on archaic spatial dividing structures, the conception is fed by the installation-attitude. This is perfectly realized by the newly born objects: besides the liturgical spatial elements there are the stalls made with precise minimalist joint of solid walnut, pews and mobilia-chairs, items of furniture in the sacristies, beautiful standing illuminating bodies created with abstraction in the nave and their hanging variations in the side-aisles. Reflecting precise sense of proportions and noble simplicity, elements created with such a characteristic design are worthy matches of the massive historical walls and vaulting structures. The spatial installation thus born can be rated as  perfect owing to a beautiful spatial reading of the contemporary space-perception of the community existing since the beginnings of Christianity in Hungary. Thus the space is complete.

    design architect: John Pawson
    project architects: Anna von der Schulenburg, Stefan Dold – John Pawson Ltd., London
    liturgical and theological concept: Pannonhalmi Főapátság Bazilika-műhely
    architect in charge:  Zsolt Gunther
    project architects: Tamás Tavaszi,  Orsolya Pataj– 3h architecture
    structural engineer: dr. András Vándor
    mechanical engineer:  Imre Benkő– ÉGTI 2003 Kft.
    electrical engineer:  György Sleiner – Ohm-Plan Bt.
    audio engineer:  Tamás Andor Fürjes– aQrate Kft.
    lighting design: Mark Major, Philip Rose – Speirs+Major, London
    site architect:  Sándor Beck– É.S. Beck Kft
    main contractor: „RENESZÁNSZ” Kőfaragó ZRt.