Geometric gymnastics and spiritual references create a sense of wonder and calm at this new temple for White Eagle Lodge in the South Downs
To understand White Eagle Lodge’s new temple near Liss in Hampshire, you should know that James Gorst Architects based the 1.1m structural grid on chakra lines identified by dowsing across the site. This is a project rich in references to the spiritual beliefs of the White Eagle Lodge.
To understand the multi-faith Lodge itself, you have to go back to 1936 when the medium Grace Cooke started channelling the spirit of White Eagle, who became her spirit guide. The teachings were shared and draw together Buddhism with its meditation practices, Christianity and astrology – or more specifically esoteric astrology. The current estate, New Lands, has been owned by the Lodge since 1945 and the latest temple builds on a 1970s one, on exactly the same sacred spot. The £5 million contract for the newbuild quoted in the local press is part-funded by the sale of a lodge in Kensington.
Walking up through the meadows of the 11.5ha estate the new temple crests the ridge. The base is a low box, a lantern of tall clerestory windows rising from it, topped with a dome. It is bright white against the greens of the grass and trees. The courtyard behind, edged by library, prayer rooms, a meeting room, kitchen and foyer, is still invisible. It gradually unfolds through rich naturalistic planting as architect Steve Wilkinson and I approach.
I am unnerved by the idea of a spiritual group but reassured by the greeting of an elderly volunteer, perched at a foyer table with her Tupperware lunch. Nipping through a side door to the loo I am knocked out by the long view past a tree to the woods of the South Downs. The space slips from the mundane to sublime. Architectural strategies ensure it is on the right side of sublime. ‘You should never enter a door to a blank wall,’ explains Wilkinson, ‘there are views through to wild flowers, to earth energies’. He uses the language of the Lodge, a place that advertises retreats exploring angelic healing, earth healing and astrology as well as special seasonal services.
Churches, temples and mosques have a long history of buildings with orientation, processional routes and conventions for prayer and worship. The team here visited Níall McLaughlin’s Bishop Edward King Chapel, Cambridge Central Mosque by Marks Barfield, Waugh Thistleton’s Bushey Cemetery, and Vajrasana Buddhist Retreat by Walters and Cohen. More explicitly, the temple here borrows from the 16th century Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar in doors at each cardinal point, each of the four are double doors and together they strengthen the perception of an axis through the centre of the temple, which is on a ley line – an ancient route with a certain power and sacredness. At ground level an onyx altar marks the centre point. Above, the whole geometry of the roof and 48 timber beams visibly radiate from it, the oculus allowing the sky above to change the temple light as clouds scud past.
The remarkable drama of the temple comes from the sheer sculptural body of concrete supporting the 10m-high dome. Four pendentive arches create an inner circle of a smooth precast that speaks to the pale sheen of the ash joinery and furniture. The best moment is coming in from the changing and initiate-interview rooms through the east door, with shadows intensifying the light playing on the curving planes of offset projecting bricks, creating an ambulatory in tandem with the concrete arch.
Back to the mundane with an acoustic and structural rationalisation of this sublime space: the bricks are laid out to break up the sound waves and offset the reflective arches – originally modelled in stone with the Stonemasonry Company, before the decision to move to precast for cost reasons. Acoustic treatment is also added through the ash veneer panelling which has tiny, almost invisible holes so the sound can be swallowed up in the bigger holes of the MDF behind. And then the structure. The arches support 48 timber columns, each taking the load down to just a 300mm triangle (though they do connect back with radial beams to the lightweight square box around them).
As one’s eye leaves the arches and oculus it rests on the doors; that to the south, divided as a stable door, opens to sky as the view drops away. The west looks through planes of glass to a sculpture in the meadows, and the north to the cloister and the rest of the temple complex. When they are closed, and the angle is just right, the handles throw a cross of light onto the floor – made as they are with four quarters of a circle of metal inset into the ash, and the tiny gap of a cross between them, representing the symbol of White Eagle Lodge.
Looking up you see the carved entablature of the 12 signs of the zodiac. In the structure, lights and even the movement joints in the polished concrete floor, it becomes clear that white – light-filled rather than related to skin colour – has a strong symbolism for White Eagle. For James Gorst Architects the white downlands, and the white Janinhoff waterstruck brick that domes from them, were a starting point – chosen for dimensions that work with the 1.1m grid. The practice has used it smooth at low levels and rough above the 2.2m datum – here with a wash to knock back the creamier colour brought out by the texture. Deep glulam columns of Siberian larch around the cloister have been digitally sorted to remove larger knots for a simpler look, and brought together with European spruce (used inside) with a layer of white Danish oil. The colour is intensified by the approach through the circular chakra gardens, each planted with their own colours and representing different spiritual centres of the body.
The structure, the lights and even the movement joints in the polished concrete emphasise the geometry
The generous, though targeted, use of precast concrete perhaps would raise alarm bells with some about the embodied carbon of this project. There is also a good environmental story here in the way that the foundations and condemned concrete of the old temple was reused in the foundation and paths. An early analysis of the embodied carbon pushed the project towards a timber structure, including on the lantern under the dome. Another strong reason to create a highly insulated and airtight building was that there was no gas on the site and only single phase electricity, so the ground around the building has been co-opted for ground source heat pumps and photovoltaics. Foul waste is dealt with on site, using micro-organisms in a Klartgaster before being fed into a drainage field. Cooling as needed comes via a shallow labyrinth below the building. The only place you might notice this is in the alcoves on the eastern outside wall of the temple where vents are disguised by benches.
Wilkinson obviously loves the site, and the close working with a wonderful small group of clients who took time to consider and reflect on decisions. Perhaps he would like some of the technical elements, the downpipes on the clerestory for example, to be more readable, but it seems right that the extreme geometric gymnastics and clever architectural moves are subsumed by the beauty of a building that repays the close attention of both architect and client.
Annual kgCO2/m² emissions 25.9
CO2eq/m² embodied/whole-life carbon (structure only) 300kg
Architect James Gorst Architects
Contractor Beard Construction
Timber frame Pacegrade
Structural engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan
Landscape architect McWilliam Studio
Service engineer Skelly & Couch
Project manager / QS Jackson Coles
Acoustic consultant Theatre Projects
Planning consultant Dowsett Mayhew
Furniture Bench Studio