I first visited the Vajrasana Buddhist Retreat Centre as a photographer. Whilst this means looking at the building closely it also means looking at it in a very specific way – looking for photographs. Surfaces, materials, forms, light and how it behaves and interacts with the materials and how this all adds up to creating an atmosphere – these are all the things that I am trying to take in. But I felt such a strong feeling of calm and serenity and a sense that time moved at a different pace here that I made a resolution to return as a visitor.
The building is beautifully designed and built. A small palette of simple materials is used to create a series of spaces made for communal living, a sangha courtyard at the centre and a strong connection/integration with the surrounding landscape. The hierarchy of materials places emphasis on the spiritual elements, living quarters are stripped back and basic but comfortable enough to not be austere. In the key spaces the use of dark brick and timber give a feel of real quality but remain modest, emphasis is on the spiritual symbols in the Stupa and Akshobhya courtyards before culminating in the imposing gold leaf buddahrupa in the shrine room.
I now remember it not for how it looks but for how it feels.... but above all I remember it for the sense of community that it nurtures and supports.
As a place for retreat it works beautifully. The architecture functions very well but has the modesty to step aside as one’s perception changes and focus shifts inward. The building seems to dissolve allowing the natural surroundings come to the fore; I now remember it not for how it looks but for how it feels. I remember it by the warmth of the timber benches, the smoothness of polished concrete underfoot and the sense of enclosure in the courtyard with the plants gently moving in the breeze. But above all I remember it for the sense of community that it nurtures and supports.
This is architecture at its best, designed to work, built to last and enhancing the experience of the people who are there. For all of these reasons I am nominating it as my favourite building, but I also choose it to represent this type of building that can easily be overlooked – simple, quiet, without fuss, carefully considered and very well made. I hope to go back.