In design, the sum of the parts frequently distinguishes the whole. This is particularly true at the bucolic campus of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Atlanta’s bedroom community of Conyers. On this 2,400-acre site, tradition and modernity unite fluidly in both landscape and structure.
While researching Atlanta’s architecture for a recurring guest column, Atlanta’s Best Architecture written by Atlanta architects for the Atlanta Business Chronicle, most of the obvious architectural icons had already been addressed. Center for Civil and Human Rights? Taken. Ponce City Market? Covered. Cannon Chapel? January 2016 issue. I began to consider other options that were just as impactful, but not so widely recognized – designs that represented a more nuanced approach. You might say that the Monastery of the Holy Spirit is an introvert among extraverts in design approach. As with people, extroverts tend to take up most of the air time in the design world, but other less acclaimed projects are frequently well worth our attention.
After initially living in a barn, followed by a construction of a “pine board monastery,” the Trappist Monks themselves built the Abbey Church in 1959 over a 15-year period. Its elegant concrete structure was heralded by Georgia Contractor Magazine as “Georgia’s Most Remarkable Concrete Building,” and it is still a standout in concrete architectural expression, with its concrete arches that unpretentiously create a soaring structure and space. Upon entering, one is struck immediately by the ethereal quality of light and the brilliant simplicity of form that create this contemplative and inspirational space.
The monks were responsible for this introspective approach after rejecting the original architect’s design as insensitive to the nature of their community. Instead, they insisted that a lack of excessive ornamentation coupled with clean lines were a better expression of monastic life. This belief that the built environment should embody the vision and ideals of the client through expressive design is one of the hallmarks of great architecture.
The more recent modifications to the site and the addition of a new Monastic Heritage Center continue to exemplify this belief that design should reflect the spirit of the physical place and the inhabitants. Completed in 2008 by Jones Pierce Architects, the new design relies on great site planning, careful composition and a variety of framed views that speak to the monk’s approach to living life simply.
The main entry to the campus immediately provides a sense of place by echoing the monk’s original cloister design with its own modern interpretation. Anchored on one end by an iconic and historic barn creatively repurposed as a museum, the design allows for a powerful expression of the barn’s agrarian nature. The nearby new gift shop and café are a quiet composition in concrete, wood and glass where attention to detail is evident, such as in the small yet graceful courtyard that adjoins the café.
In 2013, Atlanta’s PATH Foundation completed a paved trail to the monastery grounds, which provides a different yet equally memorable entrance to the property as the main courtyard entry. This winding entry that descends from a distance into the campus unintentionally reiterates the unfolding quality of space that is such a trademark of this design. For my part, I see this unfolding quality as a further symbolic representation of the Trappist monks’ understanding of their evolving faith and reverence for simplicity, including that of the natural world.
The intrinsic beauty of spiritual life coupled with the dignity of a life well, but plainly lived, is exemplified throughout this campus collective, which forms a still and serene retreat from our busy and contemporary lives. I recommend a visit when you can take time to sit, look and just be present.