Jimmy Carter
Abigail Chang
Francesco Marullo
Agata Siemionow

info at acertainkindoflife dot com

From the solitary fugues of St. Antoninus or St. Paul in the Egyptian desert to the earliest experiments of isolated communities in Thebaid, Palestine, Judea, Syria, and North Africa between the third and fourth centuries, two primary forms of monasticism developed within the history of Christianity: the eremitic, corresponding to the solitary retreat from the world in remote hermitages, and the cenobitic, or the collective attempt to live together in isolation according to an established rule, confined within an architectural enclosure.

The Carthusian monastery, or charterhouse, offers a spatial combination of both of these forms of living: an architecture that inseparably connects the individual and collective dimensions through the sheer rationality of its spaces and the specificity of its observed principles. The charterhouse strictly separates the living quarters of the monks from the church, the chapter, the workshops, and the gathering halls, combining the various rhythms of the single inhabitants into a collective soul. Both a spiritual and physical form, the charterhouse has persisted since its foundation by St. Bruno in 1084.

Nothing could be added or taken away from its layout. In the charterhouse, nothing is owned, but everything is used. Every spatial aspect is defined by the requirements of liturgy performed: the highest spirituality is attained through the strictest definition of its silent ritual, resonating everywhere in the cloisters, objects, clothes, food, chants, gestures, and activities. When visiting the Charterhouse of Ema near Florence in 1910, Le Corbusier praised its respectful and harmonic combination of privacy and commonality, through which the individual and the collective juxtapose without merging, as in an idiorrhythmic ensemble. It was from this combination that he conjectured his 1922 project for the Immeubles-villas.

The plan of the Charterhouse is generally organized into three parts: the cells of the monks surrounding a large cloister; a buffer zone with collective programs such as the church, a chapter house, and a refectory, where the daily officia and occasional events are held in common; and a public interface comprising productive facilities, services, and gathering areas—wherein a group of laymen and converse brothers live and interact with the external world, helping the Carthusian monks to preserve their autonomy from society. This part of the charterhouse adapts to the topography and specific contextual conditions, producing unique differences within the assemblage.

Each monk’s cell, or desert, provides the necessary equipment for simple living: a bed, a prie-dieu, a table for studying or eating, a lavatory, a workshop, an ambulatory for recreation, and a garden. The liturgy is what prescribes the life of the monks: it is the form-giver to their activities performed in silence and contemplation. Every single action—praying, reading, studying, working, eating, or resting—is performed in a specific space and inscribed in the plan of the cell and its equipment. From midnight to the afternoon, a series of silent collective gatherings harmonically intersects with the individual rituals in the cell.

The Cell for a Certain Individual reinterprets the Carthusian monk’s desert as a refuge from the congestion and the hectic rhythms of society. The asceticism of the cell is neither an escape nor a voluntary exodus from the world, but, on the contrary, a total immersion in it: a way to rediscover and reinvent ourselves, rendering the world at a sharper resolution. In this way, the cell turns into a mirror, a window to look at ourselves and critically reframe our daily rhythms and chores.

Based on a module of 80 centimeters, this cell is 4 by 4 by 4 meters. Larger than a mere existenzminimum, or a standard one-story dwelling unit, its layout is organized in five steps. Each one is 80 centimeters deep and progressively becomes lower in height to support a specific sequence of actions: a life distributed in vertical shelves.

In a life of work and creativity, leisure and meditation, we have considered four basic bodily necessities: sleeping, eating, washing, and excreting. Through centuries, each of these actions has been standardized, coded, symbolically loaded, and associated with social behaviors and relationships. Within this cell, each basic action is afforded its own condition and position, offering a rule for occupation that can be either followed or not.

At the lower level the possibility for clerical work and the annotation of daily thoughts and activities is provided for by a 80cm high stool and a desk. Any contemporary ascetic, willing to control life to its minute detail and gradually construct a form of living, is offered a space to write. As Foucault explains: “Writing about oneself appears clearly in its relationship of complementarity with reclusion: it palliates the dangers of solitude; it offers what one has done or thought to a possible gaze; the fact of obliging oneself to write plays the role of a companion by giving rise to the fear of disapproval and to shame.” [1]

On either side of the desk, cupboards are placed to ensure the storage of utensils. The large and long horizontal surface is positioned at a suitable height for preparing and consuming meals. Washing requires a basin of water for immersing the body. This void can either be dug into the ground, emerge from a wall, or be elevated above the floor. In the Cell for a Certain Individual, the water basin is embedded in the second shelf, which is 60cm high. On the opposite side, a defecating hole ensures a comfortable corner for squatting and emptying the bowels. In the middle of the step and the whole pavilion, the hearth permits the warming of food and water, while heating the environment inside. The third step is dedicated to forms of mediation, and leisure. Providing a space to exercise and stretch, the step sits 40cm high and allows an occupant to sit down and look through the window at the surrounding landscape.

At the top, a sleeping surface is placed. The 20cm step facilitates rest through a soft horizontal plain to lay down upon and ensures maximum bodily comfort and contact with the floor. Finally, as in many Carthusian cells, a workshop is provided below the staircase. Accessed through a ladder from inside and a doorway from outside, a high bench enables the occupant to dedicate time to practical duties and physical labor. With its position on the site of the Cartuxa de Laveiras, the Cell for a Certain Individual reestablishes an idea of collectivity through its singularity, in an attempt to bridge the lesson of the Carthusian form of living with a projective architecture for our present world.

1. Michel Foucault, “Self Writing, or Hupomnemata,” Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 207