by Anmol AhujaMay 05, 2022
A house of god attains subtle groundedness when lent proportions, form, and materiality derived from a local context and way of building. The sense of spiritual connection that an architecture of this kind begets is concocted and amplified here through a pure linkage to the land and its surroundings, which itself morphs into brick to contribute and compose the monastery. Responding to a brief that couples aspects of adaptive reuse, repair, and expansive construction, all within the bounds of community building, Our Lady of Victoria Monastery by Localworks thus develops as a space for contemplation and spirituality, guided by principles in new age African architecture, merged with classical Christian and monastic design sensibilities.
The pivotal point of the design brief, also its most tangible one, was of doubling the existing dilapidated monastery to accommodate a growing community of Cistercian Trappist monks, said to have moved to Uganda in 2008 following post-election unrest in Kenya. Apart from the most distinct element among the scope of the entire intervention, Localworks’ design intent reflects well in the complex’s masterplan as well, comprising a total of four new buildings: the church, Noviciate, a Guesthouse and Gatehouse, arranged around three interconnected, semi-greened courtyards.
The overall sentimentality of the building draws heavily from an austere sense of Cistercian being - pure, distraction free, and to indulge one in a life of prayer and religious devotion. The purity and austerity manifests in the design through a clear, resolute material expression, primarily in clay bricks sustainably fired with coffee husks. The rustic earth-red soaks the structures in a hue that seems to emerge from the ground itself, forcing an intrinsic connection while also staying true to the Cistercian 'material only' adage, implying the lack of any cosmetic ornamentation.
Standing tall within the cluster of smaller structures that inconspicuously merge with the local rural setting in Kijonjo, Kyotera District, the church is an oblong, slender structure in plan, topped by a narrow and tall barrel vaulted volume - the most direct reference to classical Christian and church architecture. The team at Localworks describes the structure to be subtly inverted while being a traditional embodiment of religious architecture.
In that, instead of the church being ‘carried’ by solid masonry columns with windows in between, 'columns of light' seem to structurally support the church while enlivening the all brick interiors with a near divine light. The columns are further connected by arches made of strips of brickwork interspersed with glass bottles, and buttressed on the outside to ensure effective vertical load distribution.
The play of light is further accentuated through the glass bottles in the 'light arches', directing sunlight into the church at midday. Similar 'sun catchers' in the eastern wall are illuminated in the mornings of solstice and equinox days, while a rose window casts a circular spot of direct evening light into the church during late afternoon services. The vaulted crown at the head of the church is topped by a secondary, tropical, lightweight roof that carefully responds to the building’s context while also shading and protecting the building, collecting rainwater and providing space for a photovoltaic assembly. This metal assembly marries the brick structure beneath by way of an uneasy alliance, seeming disparate in appearance, but lent visual stability in linear continuations of the all-brick columns.
Resembling a uniform albeit rich rural settlement, the other three constructions in the monastery are modest courtyard blocks cast in alternations of opaque and semi-porous brick screens. These screens intentionally blur the line between walls and openings, while aiding the smaller structures in passive cross-ventilation. Owing to the generally waterlogged environment affecting the site, the plinths of these structures are slightly inclined using stacked clay tile strips. The perforated screens are all load bearing, supporting walkway roofs towards the courtyard. Furthermore, ventilated ceiling voids, reflective roofing material and shaded windows work toward ensuring a comfortable indoor climate for all the new buildings in this sensitively, sustainably crafted intervention.
Highly responsive to the site while formulating a distinct design brief of its own following spatial design, the landscape design of the project too forms simple, contemplative interstitial spaces for meditation and reflection by monks. While the large courtyard in front of the church acts as a buffer between the serene, simulated calm within the complex and the outside, the cloister garden on the other end is purely intended for observation. The guest courtyard, on the other hand, cordially meets with the garden space and allows for intermingling of both, the spaces and the patrons. Holistically, the monastery emerges as a sensitive representation of the vernacular imbued with spirituality, while adapting to a historically non-traditional typology of building for sub-Saharan Africa.
Name: Our Lady of Victoria Monastery
Location: Kijonjo, Kyotera District, Uganda
Program: Cistercian Monastery
Design Team: Localworks, Dudley Kasibante and Partners, The Landscape Studio, Aquila Gallery, Equatorsun Consulting Ltd.
Gross Built Area (m2/ ft2): 2000 sqm