Becoming A ‘Mindful Architect’

Volume 52, Issue 2 :: Sarika Bajoria

How a contemplative design process might help us to create spaces of connectivity.

Birla Mandir, Kolkata, India

Fig. 1: The “temple next door”: Birla Mandir, Kolkata, India

Every time I think about my childhood in Kolkata, India, the image that first comes to mind is that of a grand, ornate, white marble temple – the Birla Mandir – that sits at the gateway of the street on which I grew up, Queen’s Park (Fig. 1). Construction on the Birla Mandir began before I was born and for the first 15 years of my life I watched as it slowly took its magnificent form. I marveled at the sculptors perched on towering bamboo scaffolding, chipping away the stone and bringing to life what was yearning to emerge. The temple was strikingly different from its surroundings. It was taller, grander, and more beautiful. It seemed as if it could speak and had a story to tell. I felt the urge to listen. When I first entered the Birla Mandir at 15, I immediately experienced a deep sense of connection to the space, to others, to myself, and to something much larger than I ever had before. I was fully present, fully engaged, and fully alive. I was the temple and the temple was me. I was moved to tears. I reveled in experiencing a self I had not encountered before. This self was not an observer, separate and independent, but an active participant in the moment, deeply intertwined with everything and everyone. I had experienced a kind of “spirituality in place” where boundaries dissolve and space expands.

Outer Temples

Ever since that day in Kolkata when I first stepped into the “temple next door” I dreamed of becoming an architect so that I could create an “outer” world of beauty, grace, and dignity that held the potential to induce similar experiences in others that I experienced in Birla Mandir– an inner world of interconnectedness, belonging, and reverence.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2: We are unaware of the source dimension/cause of great architecture.

Why is it crucial for architects to create such “outer temples,” spaces of connection and transformation? We live in a highly connected world but, paradoxically, we suffer from growing disconnection–physical, social, cultural, emotional, and spiritual.1, 2 We seek moments of meaning and concord to break down the sense of isolation we carry. Unfortunately, the jarring flux of technological stressors, economic insecurity, and community fragmentation so prevalent in our society provides a poor foundation on which to build an edifice capable of holding the deeper happiness and sense of the transcendent that we desire.

While mindfulness methods can ameliorate feelings of alienation at a psychological, personal level, these techniques require the wherewithal to incorporate them into hectic and overburdened lives.3-6 Thus, although the increased public interest in mindfulness is a positive development, it is insufficient on its own to remedy the sense of displacement that permeates our world. In this context, the built environment’s power to serve as a place of refuge cannot be discounted. Indeed, research demonstrates that architecture that encourages contemplation and emotional connection can induce neurological patterns resembling those seen during deep meditation, with the consequent positive effects.7

If the spaces we inhabit every day can affect our emotional and physical well-being, why are outer temples so rare in the built environment? Why must a scattering of well-known sacred spaces bear the burden of transcendence, while the vast majority of buildings leave little impact and, in many instances, alienate the people who inhabit them?

Fig. 3

Fig. 3: The design process is not the creation of an object outside of the architect, but an intertwining of the object and the mind. This is truly designing from the “inside-out.”

I believe that outer temples in our built environment are rare because we, as architects, are not familiar with the instruments and tools that provide access to the conscious intention, deeper awareness, empathy, and higher-order creativity for the creation of truly transformative architecture – what I call the “inner temple.” The design process is too often an unconscious reactive process rather than a conscious creative process. What is missing from our built world reflects what is missing from the education and practice of architects—the ability to tap into and cultivate the creative intuition, imagination, and wisdom intrinsic to one’s inner temple during the design process.

The architect and theoretician Juhani Pallasmaa notes that contemporary architecture “…has often been accused of emotional coldness, restrictive aesthetics, and a distance from life. This criticism suggests that we, architects, have adopted formalist attitudes, instead of tuning our buildings with realities of life and the human mind.”8

As a practicing architect and Buddhist meditator and teacher, the idea of “tuning our buildings with the realities of life and the human mind” rings true at a foundational level. Within Buddhist philosophy, the interdependence of mind and object of mind is a paramount concept. The quality of the “result,” whatever the task, is a function of the quality of the “source”—the mind. Prior to practicing Buddhist contemplation, I accepted that meaningful architecture arises through the intentional architectural language of form, materials, light, and other physical attributes of space. I now strongly believe that, although important, these “external tools” can fulfill their full potential only when utilized as part of a design process imbued with the realization that the creation of an outer temple depends on the health and vitality of the architect’s inner temple.

Inner Temples

Fig. 4

Fig. 4: Transformation of the Ego-Architect to the Eco-Architect during the design process.

Why is it that we know a great deal about the physical attributes of great buildings (the product) and the design methodologies used to create them (the process) but very little about the mind (the cause) of the architect who designs these buildings? (Fig. 2) One possible resource to close this gap in our understanding are the oral comments and written works of architects such as Louis Kahn, whose buildings—both sacred and secular—induce profound contemplative experiences. When discussing his design process, Kahn stated: “The way I do things is private really. Intuition is your most exacting sense. It is the most reliable sense…turn to feeling and away from thought. In feeling is the psyche. The sanctuary of art—and what nature gives us is the instrument of expression which we all know as ourselves—which is like the instrument upon which the songs of the soul can be played. All institutions must commence with a firm understanding of the existence–will of that institution…What it wants to be.”9

How do we connect to intuition during the design process? How do we learn to become the “instrument upon which the songs of the soul” can be played? Although important research by Daniel Schon10 and others has described how tacit knowledge accumulated through give- and-take of theory and experience and honed through “reflection-in-action” is a critical component of mastery in a given field, these studies shed little light on the internal mechanisms that enable professionals to successfully traverse this complex, introspective course. I believe that this gulf in understanding can be bridged with a wholly new approach for a more conscious design process. As the mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote, one needs to develop and refine one’s mind and its capacities “…for seeing and knowing, for recognizing and transcending whatever motives and concepts and habits of unawareness may have generated or compounded the difficulties we find ourselves embroiled within, a mind that knows and sees in new ways, that is motivated differently.”11 The inner temple is ever present, but remains obscured and untapped. It is an unbounded “place” without form, dimension, or color. In order to reveal it and bring its remarkable power to bear on the design process, we need to familiarize ourselves with different instruments and inner technologies.

A Mindful Design Process

Fig. 5

Fig. 5: Momentary design minds: the cause and effect engine of design.

The term “mindfulness” has its roots in both the Tibetan term sgoms, which in Buddhist contemplative practice refers to “development of familiarity,” particularly familiarity with one’s mind, and in the Sanskrit term bhävana which means “causing to become” or “cultivation.”12 A mindful architect’s practice and study returns to the notion of “familiarity” and “becoming” again and again. It encompasses a meditative approach to the design of the built environment that is integrated with architectural theory and practice.

There are three overarching concepts that, when understood and enacted in concert, I have found can provide pathways to one’s inner temple during the design process:

Designing from “inside out”: form follows intention: When architects speak of designing from the “inside out,” they are usually describing a design process that begins with a rational appreciation of a building’s internal programmatic organization, which then determines the form the building takes. In contrast, a mindful architect proceeds with the understanding that the level of conscious and empathic intention one brings to the design process determines the quality of the buildings and spaces they create. By grasping that the duality between mind and object of mind is a construct and the building is both created “by” the mind and a perception “of” the mind, the architect becomes an intentional agent of the inner temple imbued with passion and compassion. (Fig. 3) In this context, intention is understood not as a future motivation or plan, but as the conscious movement of mind towards its object, which is alive in the present moment.

Fig. 6

Fig. 6: Inner temples build outer temples and, in turn, the experience of outer temples helps build inner temples.

Transformation of the Ego-Architect to the Eco-Architect: Within a contemplative design process, our relationship to our inner temple has the potential to teach us valuable lessons about ourselves that are inseparable from what we design and build. We must ask, however, which “self” do we want to know more deeply? Is it the self I call the “Ego-Architect,” who we are already very familiar with, or is it perhaps the essential “Eco-Architect,” who is the highest vision of our future self? The self of the Ego-Architect identifies with a strong sense of “me” that is independent from everything and everyone, occupies the center of a bounded project space concerned about the well-being of the self alone, and operates with an unconscious reactive mindset based on judgmental patterns of past. In contrast, the self of the Eco-Architect identifies with a strong sense of “we” that is interdependent with everything and everyone, occupies an unbounded project space where the well-being of the project and its participants takes precedence, and operates with a creative mindset where past patterns of judgment are suspended, the heart opens with empathy, and non-essential aspects are let go to bring forth the new. (Fig. 4) This profoundly shifts the architect’s relationships with clients, team, entire project space, and (most critically) herself.

Momentary design minds: the cause and effect engine of design: Within the continuity of a design process are myriad momentary, discrete, present-centered minds that are the true cause-effect engine of the creative continuum. The design process is therefore a journey constantly unfolding in a perpetual present tense of “becoming.” A mindful architect recognizes that it is at the level of these momentary minds that the trajectory of the design process, and hence the built environment that is its endpoint, can be truly directed and transformed. By investigating and gaining familiarity with the continuity of minds that arise during design processes that are in “flow” and that are “out of flow,” the architect can harness and ultimately steer these momentary minds to a zone where the inner temple is fully engaged, and transformative works of architecture can be created. (Fig. 5)

A Mindful Architect in Practice

A mindful architect understands that inner temples build outer temples and, in turn, the experience of outer temples helps build inner temples (Fig. 6). This design process is a journey, constantly unfolding in a perpetual present tense of becoming. The architect accesses the inner temple, creates a holding space for it, builds and activates it, listens to it, and finally becomes it in day-to-day design practice. When we learn to communicate from the inner temple and trust its wisdom, we begin to function as an intentional vehicle for the highest vision of the future we want to create.


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The author is principal of Sarika Bajoria Unlimited, an architecture and design practice in New York City, and has been a student and teacher of mindfulness and meditation over 10 years. She can be contacted at: