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‘Unwrapping the Cloister’ : Fairfield Benedictine Monastery

Part 2 Project 2011
Matthew Gisbey
University of Kent, UK
Fairfield Church sits alone on Romney Marsh, where the windswept isolation and ever-changing silent landscape guides the mind to spiritual contemplation. Fairfield Benedictine Monastery hopes to restore the religious heritage of the surrounding marshes, and to re-vitalise the inter-relationship between clergy and laity. Those seeking retreat in a monastic lifestyle have the opportunity to join the brothers at Fairfield. Residents of the monastery will take responsibility in the running and maintenance of the existing church at Fairfield, with the intention of re-introducing it back into everyday use by the people of Romney Marsh.

“The disciple’s role is to be silent and to listen”


Provision for the austere and regimented lifestyle of a monk was a primary concern for the design. Scale, access and existing use of the site have also been taken into consideration in order for the monastery to sit comfortably in its proposed location.
On entering the site, one’s quest begins in the West, across the marsh through the system of dikes which meander through the landscape. Exposure to the elements adds to the sense of separation from everything. The idea of a journey is reiterated in the architectural experience and the form of the proposed monastery, representing the hardships of everyday life, a novice’s hardships of monastic living, and a monk’s hardships in service to God. One’s quest is complete in the Chapel to the East.

As the proposed monastery and existing church would be working side by side, vigorous analysis was required to understand who would be coming to, and staying on the marsh, and how their interests and activities differed.

The idea of ‘unwrapping the cloister’ stretched the typically ‘cloistral’ arrangement of spaces into a line which followed the site’s existing footpath. This action brought many challenges, but the resulting architecture was a multi-layered domain of access, lighting and privacy, which enabled three different building users to live and work in parallel.

Establishing what conditions were required in each function has consequently transformed the original square boxes into unique environments, through the implementation of complex facades, varying structural openings and atrium spaces.

Matthew Gisbey


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