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Shambhala Sun | September 2011
You'll find this article on page 73 of the magazine.


Building Harmony


One day early in his career, the architect Louis Kahn stumbled upon Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea. Written in the early years of the twentieth century, Okakura’s book used the tea ceremony to celebrate an aesthetic of simplicity, quiet, and harmony. It changed Kahn’s whole approach. He began to see architecture as the work of the mind made manifest in the world of structures. And he tried to make buildings that, as C.S. Lewis put it, have “insides that are bigger than their outsides.”

As a young architect, Peter Schneider, now a professor at the University of Colorado’s College of Architecture and Planning in Denver, was taken with Kahn’s approach. As a teacher of architecture, Schneider began to investigate the roots of the discipline’s ways of thinking and discovered the ancient work of Vitruvius, whose Ten Books on Architecture, Schneider says, treats the art of building as “what today we call reflection-in-action, paying attention to what you are doing while you are doing it.”

“It’s easy to do things mindlessly or because that’s the way things have been done before, but that is dangerous,” Schneider points out. “When you put up a building or put in a road or a mall complex, you’ve changed the face of the earth. It’s not going to be the same again. Knowing that, you have to approach what you do mindfully. That’s what Kahn was doing, and what Vitruvius was saying is essential to doing good architecture.”

In his studio classes for architects-in-training, one of the first things Schneider does is ask them to describe the first shelter they built for themselves as children. This helps students understand in a tangible way the deep roots that shelter building has in our psyche. When we mark out a structure as a child—a blanket stretched over chairs, cardboard boxes duct-taped together, a snowhouse, or a hideout in the spreading branches of a pine tree—we’re “linking the making of shelter with finding shelter within ourselves, a kind of meditative act,” Schneider says. “All children do it. In fact, we all do it.” This kind of exercise enables students to begin thinking about shelters and structures as not merely technologies, but environments that affect how we see the world.

From there, students move on to experiencing space and form by combining walking with quiet sitting. “I would call it ‘beholding meditation,’” he says. “You sit in a particular setting, such as a staircase or a small room that has various kinds of light. You behold the environment and then afterward you write about that experience.” Schneider uses a variety of exercises with similar themes, such as reading slowly and deliberately to slow down the apprehending mind. “It’s about the difference between looking and seeing,” he says.

Over time most of the would-be architects come to appreciate the contemplative dimension of their work. “They usually come to see,” Schneider says, “that they are in environments with layers of richness much greater than they would have imagined. They also see that they carry with them a whole history of the environment embedded within. They are not tabula rasa. Seeing that inspires more creative design thinking.”

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