A Different Kind of Place

Volume 52, Issue 1 :: Frances Halsband, FAIA

The chapel at Holy Cross Monastery

The chapel at Holy Cross Monastery.
Photo: Matthew Leaycraft

A retreat is a time, and a place.

A religious retreat is a withdrawal from daily life for the purpose of approaching a more meaningful existence. It is a temporary respite from clamor and chaos in exchange for peace and simplicity. It is a separation for the purpose of transformation, getting closer to spiritual truth. Leaving our normal routine and comfort zone prepares us to be more open to new experiences and insights. Retreats are not necessarily escapes, but rather journeys to new places to seek spiritual change.

The ultimate place of retreat is a monastery, where one commits a lifetime to attain a close relationship with one’s God. Monasteries have always welcomed guests, short-term or long-term visitors looking for hospitality or searching for a way forward. Visitors are self-selected, diverse in many ways, but they share common goals. For visitors, a retreat is a “mini monk” experience.

Shared Needs Across Faith Communities

Examining the physical spaces of three different retreat centers based upon Episcopal, Zen Buddhist, and Jewish spiritual life reveals common themes that are strikingly similar. Activities and events form similar patterns, and their architectural expressions (though different in style) are also related. A list of characteristics and requirements emerges from looking at all three.

Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York is an Anglican Monastery based upon The Rule of Saint Benedict. From the beginning, its mission was providing for gatherings of laity and clergy in retreats and conferences as a “place for spiritual retirement and renewal.” The site is 26 acres on a high bluff overlooking the Hudson River. In 1902 the monastery building was designed by Henry Vaughan and in 1921 a chapel and cloister were designed by Ralph Adams Cram—two important church architects of the time. In 1965 a refectory and new monks’ quarters were added by Hirsch & Cassetti Architects and the original monks’ quarters were turned over to monastery guests.

Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York began in 1980 as the Zen Arts Center, but was quickly reorganized in a more rigorous Buddhist monastery format. The site includes 230 acres of forest on Tremper Mountain. A Catholic church, built in 1936 in a Norwegian Arts and Crafts style serves as the main house, with meditation hall, dining hall, kitchen, lounge, and dormitories for visiting practitioners on upper floors. Monks live in simple A-frame cottages built in the 1950s to house a boys’ camp on the site. The Sangha House, designed in 2012 by our firm, includes a performance hall, multipurpose practice room, gallery, library, art studio, welcome center, offices, and monastery shop. Gardens and a cemetery complete the site.

The Isabella Freeman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Massachusetts includes 400 acres at the foot of the Berkshires. It was constructed in 1956 as a summer retreat for The Jewish Working Girls Society. The institution has evolved, joined with other organizations, and emerged recently as a center for Jewish spiritual teaching and environmental sustainability. A master plan by Metcalfe Design, completed last year, envisions phased growth to accommodate this new vision.

Following an Ancient Pattern

Plan of Isabella Freeman Jewish Retreat Center

Conceptual programming plan for the Isabella Freeman Jewish Retreat Center uses the lake as a centerpiece.
Drawing Courtesy of Metcalfe Architecture & Design

The design of each of these places follows a pattern set more than a thousand years ago. The Rule of Saint Benedict, a 6th-century treatise, provided a definition of the essentials of coenobitic life, appropriate behavior, and the practical ordering of that life. The goal was to enable a state in which one’s own inner turmoil is quieted so that one can listen to the spirit within. St. Benedict described three principal activities of a typical day: prayer, reading/meditating (lectio), and work. Though originally meant to provide guidance for Catholic orders, the governing principles have influenced directly, or by association, all three retreat centers.

Proposed Great Hall and Library at the Isabella Freeman Jewish Retreat Center

Proposed Great Hall and Library at the Isabella Freeman Jewish Retreat Center.
Drawing Courtesy of Metcalfe Architecture & Design

Site is significant. Settings of extraordinary natural beauty, sweeping views, and vast open skies inspire new ways of thinking. Holy Cross is on a high bluff overlooking the Hudson River. Open porticos frame views of distant landscapes and inspire moments of deep reflection. The site is in the region that inspired the Hudson River School of 19th-century painters. The Zen monastery occupies 200 acres of forests on the side of a mountain, at the confluence of two rivers and a lake. It is part of the Mountains and Rivers Order, and the site selection (they would say the site “found them”) is an integral part of the practice. Hiking, camping, and environmental studies are key aspects of their spiritual goals. The Zen monastery practitioners want to be one with nature. The Freeman Jewish Center community is arranged around a lake, with 400 acres of land. Farming is a significant central focus of this community, from a spiritual and practical point of view.

A portal, a gate, or a threshold marks the entrance to these sites. Moving through the portal one enters a new world. Cars, parking, and traffic are left behind. At the Zen monastery car parking is hidden behind a wooden fence, and visitors traverse a long stone path crossing a wide lawn to the Sangha House welcome center—deliberately slowing down upon arrival and distancing the outside world. The new master plan of the Freeman Center calls for removing several buildings so that the first thing visitors see upon entering is the calm lakefront vista.

Monks and visitors file by the Sangha House

Monks and visitors file by the Sangha House at the Zen Mountain Monastery.
Photo by Kliment Halsband Architects

The built environment should, above all, be beautiful. As the everyday is left behind, every detail, every new experience, is intensely focused and more deeply felt. Daily routines involve group activities and solitary moments, fellowship, and time alone. Prayers accompany meals. Work and play are intertwined; for example, canoeing might be meditation or sport. Gardening might be work or play.

Simplicity is a theme. Retreats are an escape from too much stimulation, too much information, too much Internet, too much news. Eliminating complexity, paring down to the essentials is a spatial and spiritual theme. Mindfulness influences every detail. The Zen monastery is built of wood and native stone. Holy Cross has exposed brick interior walls. It might be difficult to recognize simplicity in a 100-year-old classically styled building. Here is the description of Holy Cross at the time of its construction, as quoted by architectural historian William Morgan in his book about Vaughan:

…a building unmistakably of today… Those who would have predicted picturesque extravagance, find a compact and economically planned American edifice…Those who expect a kind of volunteer prison find a home which smiles through open archways, well proportioned doors and windows, and shows them an array of comfortable chimneys, gables and dormers…all queer, picturesque and theatrical expectations have been so successfully disappointed.

Sustainability is a theme. Increasingly, religious thought encompasses stewardship of the planet as an important responsibility. Materials are recognizable as natural and real. Woods with delicate natural aromas, stone, and masonry abound. Spaces with natural light and natural ventilation are the goal. Net Zero will have an impact on the next generation of retreat centers. Efficient mechanical systems are essential, but choices are influenced by particular aesthetic and environmental goals. Wind power brings with it the high-frequency hum of wind turbines. Geothermal wells do not pay for themselves if buildings are not air-conditioned. Solar panels answer many needs.

Wellness is a theme. Natural light and views maintain a sense of place, while the retreat experience in enhanced by eating healthily and sleeping comfortably. Incorporating movement appropriately into daily activities is part of an aesthetic that addresses all the senses. Incorporating all-gender bathrooms is obvious, as is universal accessibility.

Spaces for Spiritual Reflection

Welcome center at the Zen Mountain Monastery.

Sangha House functions as the welcome center at the Zen Mountain Monastery.
Photo by Peter Mauss

Spaces for communal worship and prayer are the heart and soul of these communities. Most of these spaces are almost completely devoid of ornament. Bare white walls support ceilings that reveal the structure. Light enters from high places above eye level. Occasional glimpses of sky or treetops are the only indication of the world beyond. A different kind of light suffuses these spaces. All three sites feature multiple worship spaces of varying sizes. The smaller ones also serve as places of individual reflection and meditation. Holy Cross incudes a crypt-like space at the lower level. The Freeman Center plans call for a the spiritual center including a large worship space for 150 people, a Beit Rinah (House of Song), and an outdoor prayer space and firepit. The Zen monastery has a zendo, a multipurpose performance space, and a tea house and hermitages for individual meditation. All three centers include libraries for lectio and meditation. The surrounding landscapes provide additional opportunities for solitary reflection.

Art, Nourishment, and Rest

Boots on shelves

Storage for gardening boots at the Zen Mountain Monastery.
Photo by Kliment Halsband Architects

Participation in the arts as a spiritual practice is a common theme. Manual labor, physical activities, and arts practice are part of the daily experience. Workshop retreats focus on an extraordinary variety of practices including painting, Celtic art, raku, poetry, pottery, woodworking, knitting, stitching, singing, dance and yoga, qigong, and archery. Spaces must be furnished to accommodate an expanding range of activities and related storage.

Dining together is an essential aspect of all three programs. Moments of fellowship around food are important. Food preparation is a big part of retreat life at the Zen monastery—a rotating, shared manual task. At the Freeman Center, working on the farm, producing and making specialty foods, and understanding the annual cycle of farm life is an integral part of the teachings.

Sleeping rooms provide space for single persons, but shared sleeping accommodations for groups (dormitory style) are also found at the Zen monastery. A simple, modest approach to accommodations is the theme. Soundproofing is essential. Retreatants frequently arrive with CPAP breathing machines, which can be disruptive.

Retreat life does not reveal itself to casual visitors. However, these retreat centers are eager to connect to the surrounding community. Visitors are welcomed to specific events and celebrations. Gift shops are stocked with books, mementos, and products made on site.

Each of these miniature campuses contains all of the elements for a well-ordered spiritual life. Each in its own way is a model for an examined life to continue beyond their gates.

The author is a founding partner of Kliment Halsband Architects in New York, New York, and a frequent contributor to Faith & Form. She wishes to thank Matthew Leaycraft, a retreat leader and spiritual director based at St James Church in New York City, for his help.