The Spiritual Practice of Architecture

Intro

As far as I can remember as a kid I have wanted to be an architect. My first recollection of expressing such an interest was in grade 6, when we were asked to write an essay about the career we imagined for ourselves, as if we were describing a typical workday. Without hesitation I put down words visualizing a client coming into my office filled with dreams and on this blank piece of paper before me I began to transform their dreams into reality – there began my dream to become an architect.  Today I have made architecture my career and established my own architecture practice with my husband, Howard, who I met in architecture school. It’s been a long journey. I could not have predicted where this path would take me nonetheless I followed my bliss - sometimes passionately, sometimes arduously, sometimes optimistically, sometimes naively, at times disillusioned, frustrated or exhausted, but always holding on to the vision of a grade 6 girl who dreamed of being an architect. I realize now that the journey of following one's own bliss in itself is the destination. As Joseph Campbell put it, "if you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track, which has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living." When we are following our bliss, it’s like our work becomes our daily spiritual practice and in it we find the exact opportunities we need for our own growth and expansion. Perhaps this is what has kept me going on this path. Over the years I have been drawn to various forms of spiritual practices - yoga, meditation, reiki, chi kung. I learned that in order to develop such practices I needed to diligently work on them, day after day. By dedicating myself to doing the ‘work’ I gradually realized that in order to have a meaningful career I also needed to approach my work as a spiritual practice, always coming from my place of truth and integrity, and constantly striving to bring out the best in me through my work. At the end of the day I see no separation between work and spiritual practice; life itself becomes the practice. In my practice, whether it be on the yoga mat, on the meditation cushion or on the drawing board, there are 8 main guiding principles I seek to follow:

1. The Principle of Unity

"The universe came into being with us together; with us, all things are one." - Chuang Tzu

In principle, all Life is one and we are one with all things. We are not separate from our environment.

Often before I start designing, I like to place myself on the building site and imagine becoming one with it. I try to understand how the sun and the wind moves across it, how the land slopes, what interesting features are present, where the views are, and how the existing elements on site interact with one another. Then I imagine the site and the building becoming integrated as one. I look at the surrounding neighbourhood and I imagine the building becoming part of its fabric. I look at an existing house and I imagine the new addition becoming an integral part of it.  I like to let solutions emerge from within the project so that in the end the design will be integral with what is already existing. No matter how empty a site may be, I don’t believe we are ever dealing with a blank slate. We are always playing within a given context, and how well our intervention is received by its context depends on how well we understand the nuances, rhythms and patterns of a site. So I take time to study the building site, the surrounding vegetation, the surrounding properties. Nobody works in a vacuum. I believe in seeking to balance our actions with the environment and approaching the project as a conversation between the building and the land that will host it.

2. The Principle of Receptivity

 Before I start designing, I like to put myself in a frame of mind where I am open to receiving - ideas, information, inspiration. I don’t believe in coming to a project with a preconceived idea of what the end product may look like. Sometimes looking at a finished building people will ask about my design process, whether I had the idea before I came to the site or whether the idea was developed in response to the site.  The answer invariably is that any idea I could have come up with before arriving at the site would not have been half as good, truthfully. This is the case because design is a two way process, the site is designing with me as much as I am designing with the site. My own design process begins with listening – I listen to what the client envisions for their project, I listen to what the site has to say about the layout and orientation of the building, I listen to the character of the surrounding neighbourhood, I listen to the bylaws, regulations and zoning for the particular area. Then I go away and I reflect on all the information I have gathered. And only then I begin to take action. To be truly receptive we must learn to step out of our own way. We must learn not to attach ourselves to particular ideas or to a predetermined outcome. We must have the courage to allow the process itself to give shape to the project. It is not something that comes easily and it does take practice. As humans we have a natural tendency to want to control the outcome of our actions and to predict or to plan our course of action. It is one thing to arrive at a site and wave the hands up in the air and say ‘this will go here’ or ‘that will go there.’ It is something else to arrive at a site and to simply take it in. Although the first approach may inspire an initial sense of confidence or security, I find the second approach lays a much stronger foundation for the project as a whole.

3. The Principle of Ease

 When executing a design I believe in following the path of least resistance. While it is necessary to push the vision of the project forward, it is counter-productive to create unnecessary struggle in a project. If a course of action is proving to be too difficult, I like to step back and consider whether another solution could be simpler, easier to build, less expensive. Usually when a solution becomes cost-prohibitive is because somewhere the design is trying to go against the flow. When we were designing the Rockhouse there was a strong desire from the beginning to enclose a portion of this beautiful rock bluff in the living room. The way we first went about the idea was to imagine the rock as the entire back wall of the house. This idea had its complications though, as there were cracks on the rock surface that would have to somehow be filled. The idea just wasn’t flowing. So we took a step back and reconsidered. Then we found a portion of the rock that was perfectly smooth and perfectly centered in the living room space. By enclosing only this portion we could create a special little alcove and make the intervention even more special, without the unnecessary complications of having to seal cracks on the rock face. In this way the rock could still drain the way it normally did to the outside without creating water ingress issues down the road. By hanging on to the vision of integrating the presence of the rock in the living room without being attached to any particular solution to that problem, we were able to work out a design solution that was a response to the existing site conditions, and thus taking the path of least resistance to execute the idea in its simplest form.

4. The Principle of Flow / Joy

This is a seed I like to nurture and cultivate in every project – the seed of Pure Joy. I believe that once the design is complete, translated into building form, and the building becomes inhabited, its experience should contain moments of joy. There should be delight and pleasure in the use of the space. Joy is a very fleeting and ephemeral quality, not something that can be pinned down in the design. Nonetheless there are moments in design where we get glimpses of it and the project becomes very exciting. I love to see our clients’ imagination take flight when they visualize living in their new space. Glancing at the tall double-height space of their living room one of our clients imagined adding a 'net' above their living space that could act as a loft, like a big hammock, where they could literally ‘hang out’ and read a book, take a nap, etc. I love these spontaneous moments and ideas that emerge in a project. Ideas like the ‘net loft’ are not about function, or necessity, or practicality, they are simply about joy. I consider these moments in the project to be of true importance. Without them, it’s like going through life without stopping to smell the flowers. I suppose we could live life that way, but why would we want to?

5. The Principle of Power / Dignity

I believe that ideas that come from a place of integrity and sincerity hold their own power. Yet for ideas to grow and to become manifest in a building form they must be given a protective space to develop, like a womb protects a child before they are ready to come into life. In this way I like to stand behind the ideas I’m putting forward with a slight maternal attitude. This is not the same as being forceful about an idea and how it comes into being. It is about holding the ground, holding the idea together until it is able to flourish and reach its full potential. When an idea is about to come into being is also the time when it is most vulnerable to being diluted by external forces, by the push and pull of needs, wants, shoulds, coulds… If an idea is strong, anything that is extraneous to it will fall away and only what is supportive of the idea will remain. It is important to let the project go through the process of sifting out what needs to go and what needs to stay. This process is like holding steady while the ground shakes beneath. From there the project will emerge stronger and with greater clarity than before, ready to stand its own ground. Unfortunately due to the pressures of time, budget, and various other external circumstances many buildings get built before reaching this stage. To me they always look ‘half-baked’ when that happens. When a project is given enough time to mature through the design process, the result is an integrated, thoughtful, and purposeful building that is perfectly suited to its site and to its inhabitants. There is nothing to add, and nothing to take away.

6. The Principle of Harmony

I believe that design should aim to reach a state of balance and harmony. In my view, balance comes from having a holistic approach towards design. Holistic to me means being all-inclusive. Balance cannot exist if there is too much of one element present or if any one element is neglected. When an ecosystem in Nature is in balance it includes everything – every creature that inhabits it, every type of habitat for all the different creatures, everything that supports life in this environment. Nothing is left out, and nothing is in excess. I think of designing a home in the same way, as an ecosystem. For people to be able to thrive in their living environment they need more than one type of space or experience – they need open spaces, cozy spaces, light spaces, dark spaces, lively spaces, quiet spaces – because all of these different spaces already exist within ourselves and they each seek expression in our external environment. As a home is a reflection of ourselves, it must be able to accommodate each and every aspect of ourselves. And yet in the end it should look simple, free of clutter, as an integrated whole that is rich in experience but clean in lines. When this delicate balance is achieved through design, the experience of the home is one of inner and outer peace and balance.

 7. The Principle of Leisure

In a consumerist culture that has become so carried away with satisfying every need and want, even leisure has become an object of consumption. But leisure in its original form is not about having, it’s about being. Or having the free time to simply be. In my day-to-day life I find it is of great importance to create the space for leisure, a time to check in and to connect with myself, even if that just means 10 minutes of meditation a day. I find that in our culture there is a deep need and longing for even just a couple of minutes of pure leisure, a time to reconnect with ourselves. It is very easy to busy ourselves at every waking moment of our lives and never pay attention to this deep longing. In doing so we end up feeling like there is never enough time for anything, we are always trying to get somewhere, trying to finish something just so we can move on to the next thing. The space for leisure must be created and cultivated. I believe that in a home it is the same, the space for leisure also needs to be created and cultivated. It could be done simply by turning a spare bedroom into a yoga room, or even just dedicating a corner of the house for meditation, or separating the TV from the living space. A space that is purposefully dedicated to leisure, or to Being, is a space that returns us back to our centre. And shouldn’t a home be a place where we can find our centre and our place of balance? The programmatic distribution of spaces in a home has evolved dramatically overtime and continues to evolve. At some point, the TV room was introduced, soon it became ubiquitous and every house design had to have one.  So would it be too far fetched to we imagine that in the coming age a ‘meditation room’ may become as ubiquitous in home design as the ‘TV room’ has been?

8. The Principle of Beauty

Finally we must address the concept of beauty in design.  Being surrounded by beauty can be of great benefit to our mental, emotional and spiritual health. I believe that our homes should be beautiful places that reflect our own inner beauty. Beauty to me is not so much something that can be imposed from the outside, and it is not something as superficial as material finishes. Beauty, in a holistic way to me, is something which naturally emerges out of the project’s own organization and principles. If the design is in harmony with its surroundings, if it is based on proper principles, and if it creates a cohesive whole, then beauty naturally results from it. The type of Beauty I describe here is not something based on the fleetingness of taste or on the latest trends, it is something much more timeless than that, and something that can be appreciated and felt by all.  It does not matter to me what type of furniture a client likes, or what wall color they prefer, to me every project can be as unique and beautiful as is each unique individual.

In Summary: Life, Work & Practice

The vocation, whether it be that of the farmer or architect,
Is a function; the exercise of this function as regards the man himself
Is the most indispensable means of spiritual development, and as regards
His relation to society the measure of his worth.” – Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

 The practice of architecture has taught me a lot more than how to design buildings. It has taught me to follow my own bliss, to fight for ideas, to let go of ideas, to respect the environment and my place within it, to be receptive, to find the flow in life and the path of least resistance, to seek harmony and balance within myself and in the outer world, to appreciate beauty. For this I am grateful for my work everyday. Work as a spiritual practice is never finite, never predictable, and always evolving.

No matter what type of work we do, when we practice from within, the external results are always more meaningful, more truthful, and more purposeful. In an age of sprawling cities, greenhouse gases and fast food, I feel it is especially important for us building professionals to start practicing from within. Through the building of our homes, our neighbourhoods, our cities, we create and shape our own reality. And we want that reality to be a reflection of what we truly are, timeless and beautiful beings.