For hundreds of years, hermits made do with caves, or perhaps a good hole in the ground, as places to retreat from the world and contemplate God. Later on, they were granted small huts near monasteries. Arguably the most famous latter-day monk, Thomas Merton, lived in a mini-rambler on the grounds of a monastery in Kentucky until his death in 1968.
It’s high time for a reinvention of the form—religious institutions, after all, are one of the more interesting frontiers of modern architecture. And a hermitage, usually a one-room building with just the barest of amenities, is the perfect starter project for somebody just learning the craft.
So for Father Jeremy Harrington, the habited guardian of Washington D.C.’s Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, it made perfect sense to reach out to the Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning just down the road for a new hermitage typology. Harrington had long wanted to use the university’s wooded hillside for small retreats, and Catholic’s design collaborative is always in search of demonstration projects for its students to take on.
The process began in 2010. Fourteen students were charged with designing a 350-square-foot cabin to house not just monks, but anybody who wanted to withdraw from this world of perpetual connectedness. (Eventually, the Fransciscans want to build as many as four modern hermitages on their grounds to rent out, for one week at a time.) As a preliminary exercise, instructor Bill Jelen asked the students to turn off their various electronic implements for an hour and just sit by themselves. “It’s amazing how many people couldn’t do that,” Jelen says.
In concept, the students kept their design rooted in a spiritual aesthetic. Patrick Keeney, Assoc. AIA, the hermitage’s project manager who was later hired by RTKL Architects after graduation last year—explains that a green mass “wraps around” the building’s main cavity in order to symbolize the concept of the “sacred and the profane” spirituality pervading everyday life. The building is designed with windows strategically placed for contemplative moments—while sitting on the single bed or working at a small desk.
Creativity also came on the more earthly elements of construction. Students initially came up with all sorts of whiz-bang ideas: Geothermal heating! Composting toilets! Sheep-wool insulation! “Students would’ve preferred to do something that was radically pushing the envelope,” Jelen says.
But designing for an actual client, with a tricky site and just $200,000 to spend, turned out to be a highly practical exercise. First of all, it couldn’t be totally off the grid—since the structure technically qualifies as a single-family house, the city required that it have all the necessary plumbing and electrical connections of a dwelling five times the size. That, along with the grade of the hillside and a ramp for wheelchair access, required quite a bit of site work that ate into the budget. Then, the design had to go through value engineering that cut out some of the more gourmet ingredients; the outside will be clad in concrete-based siding and a relatively economical brand of kiln-dried poplar.
Of course, using plebeian materials is appropriate for a kind of dwelling that has historically housed ascetics, and the students did want to maintain some sense of the primitive. Accordingly, they used poured concrete and lumber from an old barn for the floor. And the shower, two-burner stove, and light fixtures won’t be fancy.
Along with regulatory and financial limitations, the students had one more constraint: the desires of the Custos of the Holy Land himself, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who heard about the project from Harrington, and thought it would be wonderful if it didn’t disturb too much of the existing vegetation. “My boss in Jerusalem said, ‘You’re not going to take out any trees, right?’ Harrington says.
Obediently, the students shifted the building’s orientation, and the trees were saved.
This post has been updated.