Meandering in the City of God

Thesis: The 21st Century Monastery In NYC

Finalist award in undergraduate thesis
Fall 2019 - Spring 2020 
Professor: Hilary Bryon
Site: Brooklyn, NYC
Individual Work 

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      God’s city, a Benedictine monastery, unfolds itself through the map, where a hierarchy of lines, arrows, signs, and shapes orchestrate dynamic yet structured sequences of spatial experiences. For the monks, the city of God is ordered by the restrictive routine of prayer and silence as detailed in the Rule of St. Benedict, but in this thesis, also by an idea of urban life. This city’s map facilitates superimposed and autonomous experiences for both the devout community of monks and the city dweller. Spatial sequences and picturesque experiences, whether heedless or heedful, straight or wavering, processing or strolling, are underpinned by conscious principles of order tuned to the role of the ambulant observer. Meandering, in any city, reveals the city’s spirit and essence in a perspectival view; one is pulled through space by elements at all scales and accompanied by sounds, smells, touch, and perceptions. The monastery’s plan frames views for both the inhabitant and the visitor.


    By situating the Benedictine monastery both as an urban environment and in an urban environment, the project aims to order and orchestrate the movement of three moving spectators: the monks on their hourly processions, the neighborhood congregants visiting each Sunday for mass, and the ferry-riding public traversing Manhattan and Brooklyn.

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    The Benedictine monastery has been seen as a utopia providing a self-sufficient system for monks to live, pray and work under the Rule of St. Benedict. The plan of St. Gall is an ideal plan to demonstrate this medieval Carolingian order. The typical monastic programs, such as cells, refectory, the tower can be compared with the urban typologies of living, entertaining, working, etc. Like the circulations of St.Gall reserved for different orders, the routes between spaces are shared by a diversity group of people are creating the urban typography.

Monastic Typology versus Urban Typology

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The similarities between a monastery and a city can be found in relating a monk’s restricted schedule for prayer and a typical city dweller’s daily routine. According to the Rule of St. Benedict, the monks awake around five a.m. followed by the first service of Vigils to break the darkness. At eight p.m., the monks conclude the day with the final service of Compline. Also, driven by the rules of the society, city dwellers follow a daily regimen. Most of the city’s inhabitants awake at a fixed hour between six to eight a.m.. After getting ready for the day, sometimes they rush for work without having breakfast. Daily work activities for urban inhabitants varies, but it is often regulated and recurring in support of their particular job. After work, they close the day with a meal with family or friends, or with a commute to their place of rest.

Monks’ Schedule versus City Dwellers’ Schedule 

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The site is an open lot with approximately 7 acres adjacent to the East River in Brooklyn, and it is part of the existing grid urban structure. Surrounded by a mix-use of commercial and residential buildings with low profiles, the site is a pleasant scale for pedestrians; there is less activity and reduced noise compared to Manhattan on the opposing side of the river.

People traverse between Brooklyn and Manhattan through the site, either taking a ferry to cross the river or hopping a bus to connect with the subway. By embracing the exigencies of the site comprehensively, the project aims to integrate with the urban context. 

The Site in New York City

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    Dec. 04, 2019

Investigating the compositions of the overall layout with circulated path navigating between each part.

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Mar. 05, 2020

Adjustment of the design to the surroundings with explorations of boundary conditions, entrance positions, and the circulation within and outside the complex’s perimeter.

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Jan. 24, 2020 

Integration of the design of the section with the plan and exploring the spatial experience through light and silence.

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Mar. 15, 2020 

Studies here juxtapose the circulation of three meandering groups: the monks, the ferry riders, and the neighborhood congregants, which is best seen in the design of the cloister, the church, and the dormitory.

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Feb. 12, 2020 

Development of each space and questioning the relationship between parts and whole, private and public, seeing and being seen.

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Mar. 27, 2020 

Rearrangement of the circulation paths within the cloister and the church, with an aim to reveal both a divine order and a city order, as well as environmental forces, and as framed by the architecture.

Mapping the Plan

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The monastery’s program contains:
• A cloister supporting the daily, meditative processions of the monks, grasped of views for the neighborhood worshippers, and moments of pausing for visitors to and from Manhattan
• Ninety-six cells for monks, lay brothers, and visitors
• A church serving the monks as well as the neighborhood 
• A chapter-house for meetings of the monastic community
• A refectory for contemplative dining at lunch and dinner
• A library with classroom and workshops
• A Sunday school for the neighborhood
•A reception house to receive visitors
•A gateway entrance and path welcoming and guiding the neighbors for Sunday mass

The design starts by systematically using a 12 by 12-foot grid as the underlying order for the overall layout. And each program contains a courtyard that engages with nature. Within the perimeter boundary walls, measuring 360 feet at each side, the complex is carefully arranged around a central cloister (or courtyard) that engages the programs, contexts, and people living within or passing through the complex. The dormitory and church dominate the west and south sides of the monastery, respectively, while the other smaller-scale programs interweave and link smaller courtyards across the site. By studying the juxtapositions between private and public, as well as repeating and singular architectural elements, with examining the relationship between parts to the whole, the monastery aims for a unified totality acting like a city, as well as a part of existing urban contexts. 

Through pausing, walking, processing, gathering, etc., the monks spend their days of prayers and silence within the walls of their sanctuary around the central cloister. Commuters to and from Manhattan or occasional visitors cross the river and engage the monastery as a threshold. These visitors slip into the cloister below-grade, circle its boundary, entering or leaving the complex through the main Brooklyn gate or the East River portal.

The monastery also welcomes its neighbors in Brooklyn every Sunday for mass. The worshipers share the space of the church with the monks, yet they while have a discrete path towards their own seating area.  A screen of rotating doors separates the two groups and is another form of  play with the idea of visual interaction through seeing and being seen. The three user groups and their discrete rationale behind their movement uniquely informed the design of the cloister and church. The differently orchestrated architectural sequences and spaces engage the law of meander, with its requisite elements of path, destination, successive views, and topographical variation, as a basic idea to call forth the city-ness of the monastery. 

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South Elevation

The south elevation clads the monks’ dormitory and the church. This facade is not often seen.  Order is established through regular window slits and the modulated housing units comprising the dormitory.  

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West Elevation

The western boundary, largely dominated by the dormitory, faces the east river. The housing volumes are shielded with a translucent glass screen-wall, which reflects the natural environment and frames Manhattan across the river. 

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North Elevation

The visitors arriving by ferry from Manhattan approach the monastery at the northern corner of the site and the initial view presents a composition of spaces at different scales and depths. In contrast with solid wall planes, the voids between the repeated columns and framing grids form the boundary and soften the edge condition so as to offer a welcoming gesture to the visitors.

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East Elevation

The eastern boundary adjacent to the neighborhood is the main entry facade as it receives most of the population arriving at the site. This elevation wall contains a bus stop adjacent to the church entrance, as well as a monastery entrance portal facing the road. The bounding wall is also the perimeter walls of the Sunday school and church. Combining solid walls, column screens, and translucent glass, this facade creates a dialogue between private and public. 

Meandering in the City of God

The Cells - Meandering as One 

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The dormitory housing-cells are located on the western side of the monastery facing the East River and the farthest away from the public street. Each cell is identical a loft space of twenty-one feet long by twelve feet wide by eighteen feet tall; there are two layers of cells on each lot. Every four cells share a spiral staircase leading towards a small communal courtyard. Within the sacred space constructed with limited materials, including light, concrete, and water, each monk is able to practice their relationship with God as an individual within the larger commune.

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Primitive Life I

Primitive Life II

Primitive Life III

Light and Compositions of the Cell

Light and Compositions of the Cell

The Window Slits of the Cell 

Sketches in question of the cell

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Plan of Cells

Section AA'

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The Shared Courtyards for Monks with Path Navigating through

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The Tranquil Cell Created through Light and Boundary

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By thinking about the scales of urban streets, the circulation of the dormitory aims to achieve a hierarchical system that facilitates differentiated relationship between private and public, the individual and the collective--similar to a city.

Axonometric Drawing Showing the Arrangement of the Dormitory

Meandering in the City of God

The Church - Meandering as the Dialogue

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    The church dominates the south side of the monastery and accommodates each monks’ daily celebration of mass, plus the neighborhood congregants for each Sunday mass. Light and order is an essential component in constructing and differentiating the activity within. The church follows tradition and is sited along with an east and west orientation. Inside, the spatial experience includes diffused light for the pews, reflective light from the wall, an illuminated column at the altar, and directional light in the hallway.

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Peek into the Church 

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Repetitive Side-rooms and Slits

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Diffused Space at the Gathering 

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Reflective Light at the Altar

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Altar, Gathering, Side Rooms

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Light Aperture at the Gathering 

Light Apertures Model

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The Entrance 

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The Seatings

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The Altar

Section Diagrams

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The Church Hallway Constructed with Light and Repetition

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Plan of the Church

indicating the spatial arrangements of the entrance, the altar, and the seatings

The Altar, Seating, and Light

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Seating for the Neighborhood Penetrated with Skylights

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Perspective Section

revealing the distinctive light conditions across the space 

Meandering in the City of God

The Cloister - Meandering Within and Through

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Constructed with architectural elements and natural features, the circular cloister engages two levels and frames the intertwining yet separate movement of three observers ambulating within and through the monastery. Each group of spectators has a discrete, scenographically planned path toward a destination, yet one’s meandering path does not intervene directly with the meandering route of other occupants. The intertwining juxtapositions of paths create interesting visual scenes unique to each spectator’s destination. 

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Peek into the Church 

Repetitive Side-rooms and Slits

Diffused Space at the Gathering 

Reflective Light at the Altar

Altar, Gathering, Side Rooms

Light Aperture at the Gathering 

Abstract Composition Drawings

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The Path for Visitors Leading towards the Below-grade Cloister

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The Path for Monks' Procession Leading towards the Church

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 The Cloister with Fountain and the Exit to the Main Street

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The Path for Visitors Providing Glimpses into the Cloister 

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 The Path Rising up to the Cloister at Street Level

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The Workshops Connecting to the Library at the walled corner

The perspective section cutting through north and south direction is trying to depict the three spectators’ movements and the arrangements within the complex. The central cloister with a path leading towards is receiving the visitors commuting from or to Manhattan. They walk down to the below grade, ambulate around the central, and then leave the monastery through the exit on the main street. It might provide them with a moment of pause for conversations while they rush for destinations or a path for strolling and meander. The space on the left of the section is indicting the gathering space in the church reserved for the neighborhood congregants on every Sunday mass. On the right is the refectory where monks gather on lunch and dinner. The arrangements between each space with the complex aims for an ideal city for monks to live and navigate through.

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Perspective Section through NS of the site