Soaring ceilings, great arched windows, stone laid by hand centuries ago – it’s little wonder that the language of religious refuge appeals to today’s architects. Perched on hillsides and hidden away behind high walls, these sacred spaces are starting second lives as design hotels.
No stranger to ecclesiastical efforts, British architect John Pawson has masterminded careful church renovations from Bohemia to Bavaria. But those who expected a picture of sober restraint from The Jaffa, the sensational hotel he coaxed from a former monastery and hospital in the eponymous south of Tel Aviv four years ago, might have been surprised to find Damien Hirst paintings and golden ‘Botolo’ chairs by Cini Boeri beneath its stained-glass windows (from approx £429 per night).
A year later, the August hotel arrived in Antwerp, with 44 pared-back rooms and its spectacular domed ceiling painted black. Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen had finally been persuaded to turn his hand to hospitality by the promise of this abandoned 19th-century complex, once home to nuns of the Order of Saint Augustine (from approx £140 per night). It’s since been joined by new retreat Botanic Sanctuary, Antwerp’s first five-star hotel, which marks the end of an ambitious project to create 108 luxurious rooms, four restaurants and a vast eco spa on a site that has served as a place of convalescence for some 800 years (from approx £245 per night).
Sisters still live adjacent to Monastero Arx Vivendi in Arco, near Lake Garda, recently reimagined as a wellness-led retreat by Network of Architecture. Keen to preserve the ‘austere monastic spaces’ of the 17th-century sanctum, it opted to house the spa in glass pavilions within the gardens (from approx £200 per night).
For a real disappearing act, there’s Lopud 1483. With the help of Zagreb architect Rujana Bergam Marković, art collector Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza spent some 20 years restoring this Franciscan monastery on the tip of the tiny Croatian island, now filled with world-class art and furniture by Italian brand Paola Lenti. Thyssen-Bornemisza recalls a visit by the great Frank Gehry early on in the project, who dispensed some simple advice that speaks to its 500-year heritage: ‘take your time.’ (From approx £8,341 for exclusive use).