You are here
Monastery of Christ in the Desert
Designed by Japanese-American woodworker and architect George Nakashima, the chapel of Christ in the Desert in rural Rio Arriba County brings modernism together with vernacular traditions of adobe building and medieval traditions of Benedictine monasticism. Thomas Merton, who stayed at Christ in the Desert in 1968, wrote movingly that, “The monastic church fits perfectly into its setting. Stark, lonely, stately in its simplicity, it gazes out over the sparse, irrigated fields into the widening valley. The belltower is like a watchman looking for something or someone of whom it does not speak.”
George Nakashima (1905–1989) studied architecture at the University of Washington, the École Americaine des Beaux-Arts in Fountainebleu, France, and at Massachusetts Instutute of Technology, where he received a master’s degree in architecture in 1930. In 1934, Nakashima traveled to Japan to work in the office of Antonin Raymond. After Nakashima returned to the U.S. in 1939, he abandoned architecture for furniture making. His new career was well underway when the U.S. government began incarcerating Japanese-Americans during World War II. Nakashima and his family were sent to an internment camp in Idaho, where another prisoner, Gentaro Hikagawa, taught him methods of Japanese joinery. Antonin Raymond, who had also returned to the United States in 1939, agreed to sponsor Nakashima, enabling him to leave the camp and work at Raymond’s farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. In 1945, Nakashima bought a parcel of land nearby and began building his house and studio, where he refined an approach that combined a modernist aesthetic with natural materials and Japanese influences.
In 1964, one year after Nakashima completed a furniture commission for Mount Saviour Benedictine Monastery in Elmira, New York, three monks from that monastery—Father Aelred Wall, Father Placid Cormey, and Father Basil de Pinto— departed for Rio Arriba County and founded the Christ in the Desert Monastery. Father Aelred asked Nakashima to design its chapel. Nakashima agreed and refused to charge a fee.
The chapel is a Greek cross, with four low arms and an octagonal crossing that rises thirty feet. Illuminating the crossing, four large clerestory windows above the arms are faceted into planes at an oblique angle to form two sides of the octagon. Between these windows, corner piers repeat this angle with an arris that extends from the ground to the roof. A belfry rising from the southwest pier offsets the chapel’s symmetry.
Volunteers from Abiquiú and beyond helped the monks make adobe bricks and prepare the vigas and the latillas that were laid on top of them to build the roof. Nakashima made a tabernacle to store the Eucharist and had intended to build an oak altar, but stepped aside when a monk from the order offered to create a stone altar. In keeping with Nakashima’s aesthetic, the lectern was constructed from rough-hewn wood, the pews were fabricated from split logs, and wooden candelabras lit the space. Nakashima’s friend, the artist Ben Shahn, planned two 4 x 8–foot stained glass windows for the chapel, but the windows in the main facade were closed in after Shahn suffered a heart attack while construction was still underway. The chapel’s bell came from the northern New Mexican village of Questa, and probably originated in Spain. Because the labor was largely voluntary, the monastery was able to complete the chapel for $25,000, which was donated by Father Aelred’s mother, Helen Wall.
Nakashima chose to use adobe partly because the site was remote and the earth, stone, and timber for the construction could be sourced locally. Fabricated on site, the adobes related the chapel to the cliffs that form its backdrop. The color and texture of its walls work in concert with views out the large windows to provide congregants the sense that they are intimately connected with the dramatic landscape around them. As Nakashima later explained: “Architecture and structure are not just abstract ideas; they must relate to the environment of the building and the materials available…Here we are twenty-five miles from the next town and getting materials is a big task in itself. But we have adobe in the canyons and vigas, so it’s natural to use them.”
In 1988, the monastery commissioned a master plan to guide its future expansion. The first phase of the expansion, a cloister, was completed in 1995. The second phase joined the cloister to the north and east sides of the chapel, and a third phase added a new communal kitchen, refectory, gift shop, public area, and guest-master office to the chapel’s south and east sides. Originally free-standing, the chapel now forms part of a larger structure.
The monastery can be visited during regularly scheduled hours.
Gotkin, Michael. Artists’ Handmade Houses. With photographs by Don Freeman. New York: Abrams, 2011.
Graña, Mari. Brothers of the Desert: The Story of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 2006.
Nakashima, George. The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker’s Reflections. New York: Kodansha International, 1981.
Nakashima, Mira. Nature Form & Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima. New York: Abrams, 2003.
Vascott, Janice. Personal communication, November 25, 2014.
Williamson, Leslie. Handcrafted Modern: At Home with Mid-century Designers. New York: Rizzoli, 2010.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.