I am a camera - Prinknash Abbey

In the glamorous world of contemporary architecture ecclesiastical buildings lack the media appeal of the more spectacular art galleries, museums and concert halls. But despite this low profile recent years have seen the creation of some very exciting new churches, and Le Corbusier's monastery at La Tourette with its detailing by Iannis Xenakis, and Egon Eiermann's Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin have already featured in these pages. Both these magnificent buildings were the result of well funded commissions to high profile architects, but not all projects are as fortunate. I have already featured the inspirational Church of Reconciliation at Taizé built to a very limited budget in 1962 by the German organisation Sühnezeichen, a group of architects formed after the Second World War to build symbols of reconciliation in places of war-time suffering. And here today, in my words and pictures, is the story of another sacred building which was completed triumphantly against the odds, and which we visited this week.

The story of Prinknash Abbey starts on an island off the South Wales coast which has been a refuge for monks and hermits for 1500 years. In 1928 the Benedictine community on the island were forced to abandon their monastery to seek a more hospitable home at Prinknash on the slopes of the River Severn in Gloucestershire looking across to Elgar's beloved Malvern Hills. The community moved into a 16th century manor house in Prinknash which they eventually outgrew, and in 1939 the foundation stone for a monastery was laid, but almost immediately the Second World War intervened.

When work was restarted after the War it was found that the designs by the architect H.S. Goodhart-Rende were impractical. (In a strange link with La Tourette and Xenakis Goodhart-Rendel studied music at Trinity College, Cambridge and was a minor composer and writer as well as architect). A second architect, F. G. Broadbent, was appointed with a brief to create a more practical plan. Even though the monks now had a usable design their problems were not at an end as they were struggling to build the new monastery themselves while working to a very limited budget. Salvation came in the form of a gift from the original architect H.S. Goodhart-Rendel. He donated a painting, "The Flight into Egypt" by Jacopo Bassano , which was originally thought to be worth about £10,000, to the community. But the painting sold at auction for £360,000 in the 1960's. This allowed a specialist building firm to complete the Abbey in 1972 - 33 years after the foundation stone was laid. To complete the happy ending the Bassano's The Flight into Egypt is now on public display in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

As my photos show function most definitely takes precedence over form in the completed Prinknash Abbey. The architects clearly had to work within the twin constraints of a spectacular but sloping site, and a tight budget. (The limited funds meant the organ was built by one of the Brothers). The resulting design is very unusual for a Benedictine monastery as it is does not use the traditional floor plan centred around a cloister, and the Abbey Church has the High Altar at the western end. The stone clad exterior may resemble a crenallated office building, but this is a building built to serve the needs of a contemporary monastic community, and it does so triumphantly. My photograph below shows the apse, while the interior shots show how stained glass and natural light are used in the Abbey Church to transcend practical limitations and produce a space which is truly awe-inspiring.

Now playing - Compline and other chant sung by the monks of Prinknash Abbey and the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey. The evening office of Compline is a divine marriage of ritual and art which renders religous dogma irrelevant, and the plainsong Salve Regina is one of the peaks of Western music. In this recording the monks of Prinknash sing Compline in Latin, while the nuns from their sister convent offer an English version. This CD is on the Saydisc label and they have other treasures well worth exploring. With Christmas approaching I recommend the Christmas Chants sung by the same forces and featuring the dawn and midnight masses and other Latin plainsong for the festive season. As well as their musical value these performances also offer demonstration quality sound despite (or because of?) their 1980s vintage. Recorded in the superb acoustics of the Chapter House of Gloucester Cathedral and Stanbrook Abbey they benefit from simple microphone set-ups with the Christmas disc using AKG C414s in crossed hypercardioid configuration. This gives a sense of space and depth that is often lacking in the musically definitive chant recordings from Solesmes. Saydisc's wide range of recordings also includes an extensive catalogue of World Music.

* Visit Prinknash Abbey's website via this link, and Stanbrook Abbey's via this link.

It may not be contemporary architecture but the story of the rebuilding of Dresden's Frauenkirche is truly inspirational.
All photographs taken by Pliable on 1st November 2006, and copyright On an Overgrown Path. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Unknown said…
Since this post was made, Prinknash Abbey has closed, and this hideous blot on the landscape is destined for imminent demolition. The monks, now far fewer in number, have retreated back to St Peter's Grange. Stanbrook has gone too - converted to flats after the nuns moved to Yorkshire. The church itself remains intact as an event space, however.

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