Monkey see, monkey do

The newness of the Internet’s technology calls for an authentically modern style. Farnborough Monastery’s much-vaunted website fails to ring Hugh Pearman’s bell

I have nothing against monks, or monkishness. Nor do I bear any grudge against the Benedictine Order. When I think about monks, which admittedly is not very often, Benedictines rank no higher or lower than Franciscans or Cistercians or whoever. Monks gave us some of the best architecture in Western Europe, and it’s not their fault that Umberto Eco wrote The Name of the Rose as a medieval thriller, or that Ellis Peters invented the be-habited sleuth Cadfael.

So monks are harmless creatures, then – up and about early, bothering no one, good with bees. However, I have a serious charge to level at one particular Benedictine monastery. Brothers of Farnborough Abbey, Hampshire: you are guilty of the sin of skeuomorphism.

A skeuomorph, I should really explain, is something that exhibits the retained characteristics of something earlier and different. Think of imitation stitching on plastic upholstery or book covers – the stitching was needed when it was leather, but becomes merely a naff decorative device when transferred to the heat-welded medium. Why are plates circular? Because they were originally made on a potter’s wheel. But today most plates are pressed from moulds – they could be any shape at all. And the curious architectural details of Greek temples, it is thought, derive from the jointing methods of their long-vanished timber predecessors.

The monks at Farnborough Abbey are up to their necks in skeuomorphism. You may have read in the papers that this monastery now has a website (www.farnboroughabbey.org). I urge anyone with the right kit to visit this website immediately, for it will tell you everything about the problems of communicating an old idea in the modern age.

It’s a technically proficient site. It is said to be the result of a collaboration between an illuminated manuscript expert, Dom Cuthbert, and Luke Davies of Native, a Surrey production company. A single bell tolls for compline as you reach the home page – there’s a history section, a news section, a virtual tour of the abbey complex, and so on. But, just a moment, to find out about the place, you have to click on the image of an ancient missal. The story appears in antiquified script. As you click on the “next” button, the page with its crinkled corners turns over with a crackle of vellum. Throughout the site, the headings are in a cod Lindisfarne-Gospels script. The virtual tour, in contrast, is framed within a blown-up piece of 35mm film, complete with sprocket holes. What you are looking at, of course, is digital.

Someone should point out to the monks, and to everyone else responsible for nonsense like this, that – in case they hadn’t noticed – a website is neither a book nor a piece of film. It works in a different way. And the bell – which has a specific meaning at a particular time of day in the monastic context – becomes merely a theme element on the website. But that’s just the start. This monastery was set up in the late-19th century. It has some fascinating things in it, like the family mausoleum of Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie who paid for it. But it is a product of the modern, industrial age. Its architecture, aping the abbeys of northern France, was skeuomorphic right from the start. Even then – perhaps, given the medieval nostalgia of Ruskin and Morris, one might say especially then – it was deliberately a throwback. And now, it is throwing itself back further and further.

So you are left with the paradox of a 19th century monastery using late 20th century electronic techniques to convey a medieval image of itself. It is trying to appear older, more steeped in history, than it is. None of which matters particularly – such intriguing origins make the place perfect material for Prince Edward’s production company, Ardent, to make a programme about, and it’s exactly the sort of place that Lucinda Lambton would love – so just why does it upset me so?

It’s not the place. Buildings must carry all of history with them, and the references in the architecture to the built origins of a religious movement are understandable enough. Farnborough Abbey is thus quaint and interesting, even if it is not quite what it appears to be. No, it’s that skeuomorphic blindness when it comes to communication. The assumption that merely to employ the latest technology somehow brings you into the 21st century – and never mind how you choose to present yourself within that medium. Very few people would find anything strange about crackling vellum pages on a computer screen. And that is precisely the problem.

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