By Sherin Wing and Guy Horton
Utah’s red rock country is sublime in a Martian Chronicles sort of way. Its geologic folds, wrinkles, bridges, and domes compose a forbidding yet stunningly beautiful world of rock and sky. It’s the sort of landscape John McPhee would lyrically traverse in his book Basin and Range, in what he refers to as a “physiographic province.” It is also the psychological province of vision quests, the kind of vast and mystical space that Jim Morrison might have experienced. These are just some of the images that emerge from this landscape.
The work of Imbue Design, the Salt Lake City-based, three-person firm made up of Hunter Gundersen, Matt Swindel, and Christopher Talvy, is inserted here to form a meditative retreat that rises out of what McPhee would describe as a “silent world of austere beauty” (1). The project is captivating not merely because of its form or material, but because of its program as a meditation retreat for practicing Buddhists or others seeking to enter a silent world. It’s also a home away from home.
Read the interview with the Imbue’s design team after the break
The harsh setting is so profoundly real and immediate, in similar fashion to the high terrain of Tibet, that the architecture is dominated by it. The architects would not flinch at this notion. In fact, this was partly the goal and the reason for employing gabion walls.
Though an obvious reference to Herzog & de Meuron’s iconic Dominus Winery in Napa, California, the stone-filled cage superstructure of the retreat seems perfectly placed in this singular geologic setting. It’s so perfect in this instance that the architecture seems to dematerialize into the visceral experience of rock. It’s as if the architecture itself is meditating and merging with the greater realm of mass and void in the surrounding Capitol Reef National Park.
Mediation can occur anywhere, but should ideally occur in spaces that facilitate contemplation through silence and simplicity. Perhaps minimal is too strong a descriptor minimalism can be reductionist, which is not what meditation is about. Meditative space must be simultaneously noticed yet invisible. It is a dynamism that exists between these two states. More space itself than frame.
As Michael Rotondi has said about such spaces, the architecture must step out of the way of itself. It is thus that Imbue’s design steps out of the adornment or “architecture” of the retreat and leaves behind an inviting presence. It is a modest gesture of repose in a shocking, sun-shot landscape. It beckons without making pointless statements. This is one reason the gabion walls work so well here and do not require any references.
To gain a better understanding of how this project unfolded, the team discussed their approach more in depth.
Q: You mention that this project was initially conceived as a Buddhist retreat for those seeking such a space. What was the narrative the owner shared with you and how did that shape the ultimate design as it is now?
ID: The client, an energized humanitarian and community-minded catalyst, wanted us to design and build a part-time home where she could live and work for the majority of each week away from her business headquarters. A practicing Tibetan Buddhist, she also wanted an out building for her personal meditation and that could serve as a space to offer to others in the Buddhist community for short- to long-term silent retreats. The site, just outside Torrey, Utah offered unbelievable views of Capitol Reef National Park and was perched above a serene agricultural valley. This offered a unique sense of place the client wanted to harmonize with and maintain.
That was the narrative that began an ongoing dialogue with the client that would shape the philosophy and program of the project. That dialogue continues even now as she selects the furniture for her new home.
Q: Did the idea of the space becoming a single family residence change during the course of the design development, with your conversations with the owner, or other factors?
ID: Given a modest budget and the demands of everyday life, it was immediately evident that the home would have to be compact and therefore highly efficient in its function. It needed to facilitate life’s routine activities providing the necessities required of a home as well as operate as a satellite office to her Salt Lake City-based business. It needed to seamlessly accommodate homeowner and client alike.
Q: Which leads us to the process of developing the design itself. It is no small task to understand the culture surrounding different religions in order to design a meaningful space (Here’s a link explaining what I mean by that). Moreover, there are obvious differences between designing an institutional sacred space versus one that is to be occupied by a few people. So, first, what steps did you undertake to ensure that your design accurately expressed the culture of Buddhism?
ID: Early on it was obvious that the retreat building was to be a space apart from the cacophony of busy life and in harmony with the spirit of the site and nature’s simple grandeur. It needed to be a physical and spiritual respite. It needed to be a transcendent space where, to quote the Dalia Lama, “…you are able to clear away thoughts of the past and the future, slowly beginning to get a sense of the space between the two.” A space that helps you, as he further says, “Abide in that present moment.”
For us to gain a sufficient understanding of Buddhism the client introduced us to various expert resources. This included books by the Dalai Lama, specifically one with basic Buddhist teachings titled, A Simple Path (2). We devoured this book, marked it, and made notes in it as it contained a concrete, lucid foundation of Tibetan Buddhist belief. We also had the incredible fortune of meeting Khentrul Lodro Thaye Rinpoche, Abbott of Mardo Tashi Choling Monastery in Tibet, who anQered questions about the beliefs and traditional architecture of Tibetan Buddhism. The Rinpoche’s presence and being were in themselves a physical manifestation of the Tibetan Buddhist culture and philosophy.
Q: That said, was spatially and physically expressing an ideal, or a specific type of Buddhism more important? Or was the owner’s narrative and personal understanding of Buddhism a more dominant factor?
ID: Through our research and subsequent dialogue with the client two ideas that would be fundamental to the design presented themselves. These ideas would fundamentally shape the design and the program of the home.
First, though in sync with Tibetan Buddhist teachings, the client’s own life experiences, mental disposition, and consciousness make her understanding of Buddhism a unique philosophy modeled specifically to her position within the universe. Buddhism’s teachings rest not in absolutism or nihilism, but between the two in the ‘middle way’. As taught by the Dalai Lama, Buddhism is not a set of fixed, prescribed codes that can be applied generally to all. Rather, Buddhism provides a general direction from which an individual must find her own path to enlightenment.
Second, the initial narrative assumed a separation of home and retreat subsequently separating the worldly and spiritual, the functional and phenomenal, the body and mind. According to Buddhism, this narrative was flawed in that there should be no distinction between the physical and the metaphysical; one should learn to abide in the space between the two, in the present moment, in what Buddhists call ‘emptiness’.
The principle of the ‘Middle Way’ indicated to us that philosophy guiding the design of the project should ultimately be rooted generally in Buddhism and specifically in Marci’s personal understanding of Buddhism.
Given a reasonable understanding of the Buddhist concept of ‘emptiness’ we soon realized that the home and the sacred space needed to become a single living sanctuary. It would need to not only facilitate the profane and the spiritual, but seamlessly harmonize both into one state of existence. Combining the retreat and the residence also would help to ease the strain on an already modest budget.
The principle of emptiness also informed the relationship between structure and landscape. The building would need to transcend the earth it stood on while being deeply rooted in it as to abide in the space between the two, as to suspend the act of dwelling in ‘emptiness’.
Q: What are some suggestions you have for other firms who endeavor to design sacred spaces, especially for those religions with which they are unfamiliar?
ID: Undoubtedly, designing a sacred space for an individual is very different than designing one for a group of people. However, one principle that we believe to be true in designing any kind of space, especially one of a sacred nature, is that if the design process does not produce a spiritual experience for the designer, then the owner can hardly be expected to have one herself.
Q: What are some of the practical highlights that are fundamental to this project, i.e. materials, building process, etc., both for you and for your client?
We initially presented three highly varied conceptual proposals, including floor plans and rendered images, as a means to begin a design dialogue. The client chose a proposal she felt closely suited her beliefs, stylistic sensibilities, and lifestyle from which she gave us further feedback.
The chosen concept that would ultimately drive the home’s design was quite simple: the house was to be a means of heightening the sense of living by infusing utilitarian spaces with significant, singular phenomena found in the breathtaking context. Each space would become a distinct moment for sanctifying the act of living. Whether it be framing the detail of an ancient pinion pine or extending out into the spatial expanse of a wrapping panorama, it all would come down to creating rich and diverse moments of living.
In the Buddhist Retreat materials act as the glue that fuse the functional and the sacred. Material honesty and relevance are paramount to facilitating a meaningful union between the phenomenal and the mundane of each space. Genuine materials express unique, intrinsic qualities that are palpable to all the senses. Subsequently environment, actions, and emotions create living spiritual moments.
On the exterior, the main walls supporting the meditation deck are clad in gabion cages filled with volcanic rock found on the site and in the vicinity creating a physical connection to the location as well as a means of dissipating the hot summer heat. The deck is made of ipe, a naturally durable wood that can withstand harsh desert conditions while emanating a deep, rich tone. Sleek steel standing seam offers the counterpoint to these rugged materials as well as the site’s beautifully rough nature.
On the interior, the museum white walls and dark concrete floors act as neutral canvas onto which the client will apply color through her own selection of furniture, artwork, and spiritual objects.
We gauge the success of our projects during the transition from building to dwelling. If, when the space becomes occupied, the users can make it their own, and it no longer feels like it is ours, the project is successful.
Indications of success are evident through Marci’s own interpretations of the project. The furniture and artwork– some things we never dreamed of putting into the space– and their locations are always indicative of how the project has become her own. More importantly, she now sees more connections to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs than we ever designed into the project.
(1) McPhee, John. 1981. Basin and Range. New York: Macmillan.
(2) Dalai Lama. 2000. A Simple Path: Basic Buddhist Teachings. London: Thorsons.