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Sunlight and stone

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Architecture of Truth: The Cistercian Abbey of Le Thoronet By Lucien Herve. Phaidon, 2001. 160pp. £35

This book was first published in French, and then English, in the mid 1950s. Lucien Herve's fine black and white photographs are accompanied by a selection of short texts from the Bible, saints, and monks, arranged according to the canonical hours of prayer, from matins to compline, and introduced by a short but moving text by Le Corbusier.

Phaidon has maintained the size of pictures, but 'minimalised' the style by changing the typography - sans-serif in place of larger, Roman type. A useful short account of the Cistercian order by an anonymous monk has been added, together with an afterword by John Pawson, who is designing a Cistercian monastery in Bohemia. The quality of reproduction is comparable to the almost unobtainable original, although the blacks seem slightly less intense.

Built between 1160 and 1190, Le Thoronet was emptied of its monks 600 years later, in the wake of the French Revolution, and immediately declared a national treasure. Its subsequent preservation and restoration owe much to Prosper Merimee and Viollet-le-Duc, and after being introduced to it by Herve, Le Corbusier took this ideal community as a model for La Tourette. It also inspired Fernand Pouillon to write Les Pierres Sauvages, a vivid, fictional account of life on its medieval building site, published in 1964.

As an embodiment of Cistercian ideals, with their rejection of extraneous ornament but advocacy of fine workmanship and materials, Le Thoronet's appeal to a modern sensibility is obvious. Le Corbusier dwells on the 'economy coupled with skill' evident in the dressing of the stones and tiling of the roofs: 'the same tile, endlessly multiplied, male and female - a population of tiles'.

He does not mention, but surely admired the Cistercians' love of the right angle - in plan, only the apsidal east end and adjustments to site depart from the orthogonal rigour of Clairvaux - and Benedict's description of a monastery, adopted by St Bernard, as 'a workshop in which to practise prayer', might almost have been the inspiration for the most notorious definition in modern architecture.

Herve's photographs beautifully capture the light and shade which, as Le Corbusier puts it, 'are the loudspeakers of this architecture of truth', but they cannot convey the remarkable and, as far as I am aware, unexplained colours which sunlight conjures from the stone.

Finely jointed and variously textured - details beautifully described by Pouillon, incidentally - the hard limestone can turn from yellow to an intense orange, through green to an ethereal blue: it almost reminds you of an installation by James Turrell, but is all the more moving for being an unsolicited gift.

Surprisingly, Pawson does not mention these singular effects, although he is fulsome in his praise of 'what happens when gratuitous visual distraction is removed' and of the 'solid luminescence' which symbolises the divine.

Phaidon presumably considered that the inclusion of a short text by Pawson would both update the book and enhance its appeal to those whose shelves are already furnished with his picture-book, Minimum. What he writes is as uncontentious as it is unmemorable, but unfortunately the condescension of his opening sentence is also unforgivable: 'I first made the journey to Le Thoronet some 10 years ago, ' Pawson tells us, 'at the insistence of the writer Bruce Chatwin.'

The implication that the work of the doyen of London's designer-minimalists has something in common with this monument to medieval asceticism, or that his words could conceivably stand comparison with Le Corbusier's 18 wonderfully crafted lines, demean Herve's original, and Phaidon should have known as much.

Richard Weston is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture

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