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Jewels and tea in Suffolk

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Phineas Harper

Mindfulness and enlightenment characterise the building of Walters and Cohen’s Vajrasana retreat for British Buddhists

When historians of the future look back at 2016 London, what will stand out? Pokémon Go? Jeremy Corbyn? Craft Beer? More troublingly, they may see a year of spiralling mental illness as stress and depression gobble up a greater proportion of the city’s population than ever before recorded. And fair enough, this year has not been of the faint hearted. Brexit, Bowie, Zaha, Panama Papers, Isis in the East, Trump in the West... did someone say ‘housing crisis’? – We surely live in an anxiety-inducing era. It’s not surprising then that, in recent years, the practice of mindfulness has ballooned. A meditative discipline with its roots in Buddhism, mindfulness has enjoyed a remarkable rise in popularity as its proponents seek calm in a chaotic world.

Buddhism also is growing. Forbes reported in 2012 that, in percentage terms, Buddhism was the fastest growing faith in the UK with a 76% rise in followers in just six years. One small sign of this groundswell is a scheme doubling capacity at the London Buddhist Centre’s (LBC) Vajrasana retreat in Suffolk, recently completed by Walters & Cohen. 

The retreat could be read as a fairly practical distribution of basic accommodation with perfectly-judged material choices and a super-resolved plan. Yet it can simultaneously be seen as a quite a literal sculpting of Western Buddhist theology in architecture. To unlock the key moves the architect made, it’s worth understanding the outline of Triratna Buddhism which informed them.

The LBC has been a locus of Westernised Buddhist theology since it was founded by the Triratna community in 1978. ‘Westernised’ in this context should not be read as a derogatory slight – in fact the founding philosophy of Triranta (then called Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) was to forge a version of Buddhism actively engaged with fast-paced modern life. A trinity of ideas – or ‘jewels’ – are common across Buddhism but especially emphasised in Triratna: ‘Sangha’, the community, ‘Dharma’, the path to enlightenment, and ‘Buddha’, both the historical figure and the state of enlightenment. Walters & Cohen’s design reflects each jewel in a distinct space, setting up an axial geometry which mediates journeys between the domestic and spiritual.

The cloister around the main Sangha courtyard.
The cloister around the main Sangha courtyard. Credit: Dennis Gilbert

The Sangha jewel courtyard is wrapped on two sides by dormitory accommodation and to the south by a larger block of communal facilities. A double-height pitched portal frame in precast concrete forms the exposed ribcage for the main block, infilled with painted concrete masonry units under a dark zinc roof. The spaces are large but are not intended to elicit awe, instead playing host to dining, cooking, reading and seemingly perpetual tea drinking (no fewer than 15 varieties of tea are arranged in chrome flasks on the shelf). Transitions and thresholds have clearly have received a great deal of attention. ‘A lot of it’s about cups of tea and where to take your shoes off,’ says Maitrivajri, the architect-turned-Buddhist priestess and driving client behind the project.

Each adjoining dormitory contains multiple single beds with high ceilings and tall thin windows. They are Spartan but undeniably fashionable. The concrete pendant light fittings housing exposed filament bulbs could happily hold their own in the trendiest coffee joint. You can imagine a retreat-going barista, nerves shattered from brewing one too many flat whites, finding succour in the balance of monastic calm and chic flourishes. Hexagonal tiles, a familiar hallmark of hipster haunts, add muted glamour to the bathrooms. It’s a useful reminder that the architect and its client aren’t interested in cliches of detached minimalism here – the retreat may be away from the city but it is still an active participant in London culture. 

The courtyard itself is a wildflower garden designed by landscape architect BHSLA interspersed with timber decking and hefty timber benches. Surrounded by walls of charred larch-clad blocks, it sits somewhere between a medieval monastery and Peter Zumthor’s 2011 Serpentine Pavilion, meditative, sheltered and gently stimulating. There’s a big riff on cloisters here but instead of a hermetic world of introspection, the axial walkways all terminate in a large openings to the landscape. Bedrooms and communal spaces coax your view out to the rolling scenery where Suffolk’s well known vernacular of black agricultural barns reflect the dark retreat buildings.

Proceeding east we reach the Dharma jewel, a pair of courtyards either side of a covered walkway. In one sits the vast white Portuguese Limestone Stupa monument, its form abstracted from ancient Indian burial mounds. In the other, a representation of Buddha sitting in a lotus flower cast in bronze seems to float on a rectangular a pool of water. The transition from the social to ritualistic territory is marked with a distinct change in materials. From here the 3m high perforated walls are dusty oil-slick brick arranged in rhythmic courses mixing soldiers, stretchers and gaps. The trip is worth it to get up close and personal with these bricks alone: they are exquisite. Handmade for £1 apiece, each brick has a smooth front face and a back marked with rough horizontal ridges. The architect worked closely with local bricklayers to devise the course design and, rather than conceal all back faces, chose to mix rough and smooth, adding texture to each surface. It’s a trope of architectural journalism to lust over the colour-changing qualities of a material in different lighting conditions but even in the duration of my short visit the bricks seemed to take on multiple colours and characters as the sun moved. They were made in Belgium by Egernsund Tegl – get yourself a sample, you won’t regret it.

  • A Portuguese Limestone stupa sits in one of the two Dharma jewel courtyards.
    A Portuguese Limestone stupa sits in one of the two Dharma jewel courtyards.
  • Simple pitched-roof concrete portal frame for the refectory.
    Simple pitched-roof concrete portal frame for the refectory. Credit: Dennis Gilbert
  • Relationship and link to existing house.
    Relationship and link to existing house. Credit: Dennis Gilbert
  • Buddha sits on a lotus flower in one of two Dharma jewel courtyards, the Akshobhya.
    Buddha sits on a lotus flower in one of two Dharma jewel courtyards, the Akshobhya. Credit: Dennis Gilbert

Finally the Buddha jewel, a square room 13m by 13m with a 6m walls, again in ­Belgian Brick. A band of perforations well above head height admit daylight but are too high up to allow views out. It’s the only occasion in the complex where the visitor’s gaze is not drawn to the landscape but focused inward and onto the figure of Buddha himself. Lifelike apart from his exaggerated hands, long earlobes and vast scale, he sits calmly nestled in a two storey tall gold niche (a touch of bling, it seems, has its place in Triratna as much as the Abrahamic faiths). Buddha was sitting beneath a bodhi tree when he attained nirvana, something Walters & Cohen expresses architecturally in the dappled light seeping through the perforated brick like a canopy of masonry ‘leaves’. Glazing is set into the external surface of the walls so, as with Sigurd Leverentz’ chapel in Klippan, the openings appear to be made from pure sky.

  • Ground floor plan
    Ground floor plan
  • Section

It is clear the architect has made its £3.6 million budget go an impressively long way. Director Cindy Walters is keen to pay tribute to the LBC: ‘We have been extremely fortunate to work with such an enlightened client.’ She says. ‘It’s so rare to work in this culture where there’s no blame, no finger pointing. When there’s something to be done everyone just mucks in and does it. It’s a very different way of working to what we’re used to on a day-to-day basis.’ She has a point. The UK construction industry is notoriously trigger-happy in turning to litigation to apportion blame even in minor quarrels over responsibility. Her positive experience with the Triratna Buddhists is one of which all architects and clients should be, well, mindful.

The whole complex is proportioned using the golden ratio, sub-dividing into perfect squares and counterpart rectangles, which then divide again. You could plot infinite golden spirals over the plans in the manner of Giuseppe Terragni’s drawings for the unbuilt Danteum. It should feel kitsch – the literalness of three jewel theme, the axial procession from kitchen to Buddha in a few meters, unironic use of sacred geometry in a spiritual building. I’ve seen students reprimanded for proposing similar strategies, accused by their tutors of corny mysticism over serious design. Yet on a warm summer morning, the retreat is entirely convincing. The sizes of enclosure do not feel like the product of a generative game of ratios, but eloquently considered. The complex is a serious and sincere attempt to make architecture which speaks to nothing less than the soul.

The Vajrasana retreat is especially significant as it is a practically unique piece of original British Buddhist architecture. There are 500 million Buddhists worldwide and yet followers in the West enjoy little architectural identity recognisable from the street. Ask a stranger to draw what a church looks like and you might get back a spire, for a mosque you might see a minaret, a gurdwara, a dome. A buddhist temple is more likely to elicit a blank face. Contemporary Western Buddhists largely meet in repurposed secular buildings or deconsecrated spaces of other faiths. The retreat, though modest in scale, is a step forward creating an architectural language that is both modern and Buddhist.  •