Volume 45, Issue 1 :: by Thomas Hanrahan
The Won Dharma Center is a 30,000-square-foot meditation and spiritual retreat in Claverack, New York for a Korean Buddhist sect that emphasizes balance in daily life with a focus on nature. The retreat site is a 500-acre property on a hill with views west to the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains. The buildings for the retreat – including permanent and guest residences, an administration building, and a meditation hall – are sited as far as possible from the rural highway Route 23 to the south. The buildings are oriented west toward views of the Catskill Mountains, and south to maximize natural light.
The mission of the center is to create a place where the complexities and struggles of daily life are secondary to a meditative experience, and untouched nature is seen as an idealized state where human activity recedes in importance. Architecture is understood as a threshold to this vision of unspoiled natural beauty, while the preservation of the natural environment itself is equally important, assuming an ethical significance both in terms of design and the day-to-day practices at the Center. Virtually every aspect of the project was designed by us with these two ideas in mind: architecture as a threshold to nature and the preservation and appreciation of the surrounding natural landscapes as an expression of the Won Center’s values. The clients requested that as many natural materials as possible be used in harmony with the rural character of the region, and as a reflection of the center’s mission and its emphasis on ecological design.
The symbol of the Buddhist organization is an open circle, suggesting in conceptual terms a void without absence and infinite return, and the buildings, in turn, are organized around the formal concepts of the open frame and spiral. The open frame is associated with meditation and the Meditation Hall, the focus of the retreat experience. The spiral form is used in the design of the buildings for daily activities, but also suggests the practice of walking meditation. The spiral buildings have public corridors that return upon themselves and form a courtyard with a view to the Catskills that encourage reflection. Walking meditation outside the buildings include paths that link the retreat buildings into the site’s 350-acre nature preserve.
The five buildings of the center are organized on the site around a series of outdoor spaces of various sizes and experiences. The spaces between the buildings are large landscapes while intimate, meditative courtyards comprise the center of the four spiral buildings. The buildings are placed upon the site relative to each other in an informal, clustered arrangement on the west-facing hillside in the manner of tree and rock clusters commonly found in the Hudson River region. The buildings also have outdoor spaces in the form of screened porches that invoke this image of tree clusters while also providing wood-screened outdoor porches for meeting and quiet reflection. The interior spaces are designed explicitly as thresholds to both these porches and the landscapes beyond with a design language based upon the experience of natural light, wooden surfaces on floors, and walls and framed views to the west.
A unified vision of landscape and architecture begins with the sequence through the site. The first point of access takes visitors through a stone entrance gate. Retreat visitors are encouraged to leave their cars at the parking lot, located approximately 500 feet south of the meditation hall, and walk to the center along a winding path under the tree line. The first view of the retreat compound from the path is the grass lawn in front of the administration building and adjoining Meditation Hall. Upon arrival, the view of the Meditation Hall acts as a public gate to the retreat experience. The 3,000-square-foot Meditation Hall is a precise, rectangular void and a lightweight frame to the natural surroundings. Its wood structure is exposed on three sides to form entrance and viewing porches, while the interior offers views of the mountains from the meditation space. The administration building is linked to the Meditation Hall by a series of porches designed to accommodate formal walking from administration to meditation. These two buildings and their porches frame the outdoor lawn with views of the Catskills.
The other buildings include the residential buildings for guests and permanent residents. The designs of the residential buildings and the administration building refer to centuries-old grass-roofed Korean farm-houses. The roof shapes of each of these buildings transform in section around a spiral organization, from a simple slope in section to a complex triangulated geometry at the entrance porches. The internal organization of each courtyard building supports silent walking meditation around the inner courtyards and adjacent outdoor porches and spaces. The courtyards provide passive cooling, allowing cross ventilation. Like the Meditation Hall, all of the courtyard buildings are deeply shaded to the west and south to allow natural day-lighting without excessive heat gain. The permanent residence building is exclusively for retired ministers, and provides lodging for 24 members of the organization. The two guest residences provide lodging for up to 80 retreat visitors. Rooms are simply and elegantly furnished with specially designed furniture made from plywood and oak complementing the architectural design. All interior lights are low-voltage fluorescent or LED, while exterior lights are solar-powered fluorescent low lighting, with zero light pollution.
Locally harvested eastern cedar is used for the structural system of glue-lam beams and solid posts and framing members. The buildings are clad in cedar boards, and the porch decks are made from cedar planks. The interior floors are oak, and the wood walls are a combination of oak and pine. The entire complex is designed as a net zero-carbon footprint project. The architects designed a heating and cooling system that includes geo-thermal wells, a photovoltaic array, solar thermal roof panels, and a central bio-mass boiler. The Won Buddhists have committed to harvesting only fallen trees from their nature reserve as fuel for the boiler, resulting in a zero-carbon footprint for the heat system. The buildings employ state-of-the-art construction systems, including spray-foam insulation, low-e glass insulated windows, and a radiant in-floor heating system to minimize energy costs for year-round occupancy.
Collaborators: Interior design: Myonggi Sul Design; Lighting design: Light and Space; MEP environmental engineering: CS Arch; structural engineering: Wayman C. Wing Consulting Engineer; Site engineering: Patrick Prendergast, PE; General contracting: Heitmann Builders