Bringing East and West Together

Volume 48, Issue 1 :: by Been Z. Wang, AIA. Photographs by John Horner

Multiple gable forms (common in Thai temples) and a 185-foot steeple blend Eastern and Western design themes.

Multiple gable forms (common in Thai temples) and a 185-foot steeple blend Eastern and Western design themes.

Throughout my professional career, my design perspective has been influenced by my early grounding in Eastern cultures. As such, the design for the Wat Nawamintararachutis (in short “Wat Nawamin” or “NMR Meditation Center ”) – a new $60 million Thai Buddhist Temple and Meditation Center in Raynham, Massachusetts – was a wonderful opportunity to bring together Eastern and Western cultures for both design influences as well as the project team, which spanned from Massachusetts to Thailand.

The idea from the start was to design and build a welcoming place for those from all cultures seeking education, celebration, and spiritual growth. Visitors to the 55-acre campus, which opened last June, can tour the facility, take a meditation class, enjoy festive Thai holiday celebrations, walk through tranquil gardens, or attend a weekend retreat. For both children and adults, the NMR Meditation Center offers traditional Thai dancing lessons, Thai language lessons, and classical Thai music classes.

This welcoming spirit is represented in the architecture of the building, a conscious blending of influences from both the Thai Buddhist traditions found in the East and the New England architecture traditions found in the region’s gabled-roof residential and institutional buildings.

Vision and Collaboration

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The NMR Meditation Center was built to honor King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1927 while his father was studying medicine at Harvard. The first tangible inspiration for a design direction came when Abbot Phra Promwachirayan, (Board of the Council of Thai Bhikkhus, Abbot of the Royal Temple Wat Yannawa, President of Wat Nawamintararachutis, NMR Meditation Center) was searching for a site in the Boston area.

One afternoon, the abbot noticed a brick building along the Charles River, a biopharmaceutical manufacturing facility owned by Genzyme, about a mile up the river from where the King was born. He asked his driver to stop in order to get a closer look at the contextual design of the four-story industrial structure. Phra Promwachirayan’s inquiries about the architect for this project led him to our firm, ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge, and to a fascinating conversation with us about his vision for what would ultimately become the largest Thai Buddhist temple outside of Thailand.

The design process following this conversation was a most complex and collaborative journey. Beginning in 2006, our Cambridge-based team worked with Thai-based architects handpicked by the abbot to design a building that incorporates interior ornamental finishes, staircases, Buddha statues, ornate gold leaf ceilings, and royal artifacts envisioned for the Center. Although team members were 8,500 miles apart, we made multiple trips to Thailand and hosted our Thai colleagues in Cambridge to collaborate side-by-side in design workshops.

Communication obstacles went far beyond language. The entire design and construction process, including building codes, zoning laws, materials standards, and even the basic methods for producing plans and drawings, is dramatically different in each culture. For example, traditional Thai religious craftsman and designers create construction plans on a full-size, 1:1 scale. This is how they have practiced for thousands of years, and it is an essential part of their ancient craft.

The collaborative, team-based approach was inspired by Buddhist traditions, which teach us that every interaction is an opportunity to appreciate and cultivate our relationships, and to carry these strong relationships forward into the next life. Our team included Project Manager Matthew Lewis along with a unique blend of Western architects, designers, engineers, and builders with Eastern artists, craftsmen, and contractors led by Wiwatchai Prangpituk, Designer. All set aside individual self-interests and preconceptions in order to achieve a shared objective based on group needs.

The design of the NMR Meditation Center brings together Eastern and Western design influences in a New England setting.

The design of the NMR Meditation Center brings together Eastern and Western design influences in a New England setting.

Form Follows Faith

The NMR Meditation Center includes facilities for monks, a meditation center, and a cultural center for Thai arts and learning. The NMR Meditation Center also serves as a place for people of all races, nationalities, and backgrounds to benefit from Buddhist meditation and practice according to the doctrines of the Lord Buddha. We visited other Temples, in Thailand and the US, to gain a deeper understanding of function and daily routines. We asked a lot of questions about how and where the monks worshipped, meditated, dined, and socialized. One of the outcomes of this investigation was to design a multi-purpose room with the flexibility to adapt to changing needs and the space to welcome large gatherings for holiday celebrations and special events. A commercial kitchen was designed to fulfill the hospitality vision: sharing meals while hosting special events and celebrations. Lodging for monks and visitors was designed as a separate wing of the campus, and connects with landscaped flower and vegetable gardens.

Another design driver was providing the appropriate setting for the priceless artifacts and Buddha statues that are central to the visitor experience. A three-and-a-half-ton, gold-clad bronze Buddha statue was installed in the main temple, one of seven Buddha statues in this space. With its base structure, it reaches a height of 20 feet.

The building envelope design integrates design elements familiar in Thailand and New England. The original discussion was to use a brick exterior, based on the Genzyme structure and traditional buildings found in the Boston and Cambridge area. Over time, the design evolved to a four-story steel-frame building with a precast and limestone exterior. It features five gables descending in elevation on an east-west axis. In keeping with Thai Buddhist tradition, only a royal temple can use five gables.

The rooflines and exterior patterns are less ornamental than seen in Thai Buddhist temples. The building elevations were simplified to blend into the New England setting. The decorated, small windows of traditional temples are replaced with larger windows that are a central design feature throughout.

Topping the building is a 185-foot Chedi, a striking gold-colored steeple providing a deeply symbolic connection to all other Thai Buddhist temples. In the Buddhist religion there is a fundamental belief that there is no separation between oneself and the environment, therefore, creating a welcoming and natural environment within and around the Temple was a guiding design principle. Everything from daylighting and material selection within the building to the landscape and rain gardens featured outside are a reflection of the importance sustainability played in the design. The Center is expected to earn a LEED Silver Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Ubosot Hall on the third floor of the temple is the apex of the Center’s worship spaces.

Ubosot Hall on the third floor of the temple is the apex of the Center’s worship spaces.

Celebration, Hospitality, and Spiritual Fulfillment

At its grand opening celebrations over several days last June, the Wat Nawamintararachutis NMR Meditation Center welcomed 2,500 visitors from around the world. Five-hundred monks gathered to celebrate the event and guide visitors through the building and share the new library and museum dedicated to the King and his family. The central courtyard was the scene of joyful music and dance performances. Guests dined on traditional Thai cuisine and enjoyed impromptu conversations with other visitors from near and far.

During the dedication ceremony, nine granite balls adorned with gold leaf dropped from rattan scaffolds through openings within the floor and walls of the third floor temple Ubosot Hall. More than a hundred granite balls offered by donors were also buried along the sidewalk around the temple. This is a cherished dedication ritual–the dropping of the balls into the earth symbolizes the inaugural wishes for good fortune to inhabit the new temple and is a once in a lifetime experience.

A library on the ground floor faces a central courtyard.

A library on the ground floor faces a central courtyard.

Since the June 2014 opening, the NMR Center has hosted countless other visitors, all welcomed whether they are simply interested in touring the building or come to seek spiritual fulfillment and education. Response is so strong that the Center is expanding its campus to accommodate more events, meetings, and interested outside groups.

The founding idea – designing a place not only for worship and mediation, but to also bring together Eastern and Western traditions – is creating new appreciation, understanding, and joy to people of multiple cultures and religions. As a Buddhist and an architect, to see this potential realized reaches new heights of personal and professional satisfaction.

The author is a Principal of ARC/ Architectural Resources Cambridge, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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