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Schneider says many students have told him that they thought he was crazy at first. “But now they say, ‘I see that I’ve learned to do this work much more mindfully and consciously.’ And that is something we sorely need,” he says. “Whenever you intervene in the environment, you can’t just do it on habit. You need to pay attention and see the consequences and allow a design to emerge that responds mindfully to the site, the people, and how they want to use it.”

Kat Vlahos grew up on a ranch in Colorado that was settled by her immigrant Greek forebears. Her relationship to the land is deep. Like Schneider, she is a professor at the University of Colorado, and teaches studio courses in which students learn about “working landscapes”—places where people have worked with the land over time to create something such as a ranch, a place “where the buildings tend to be secondary to the land.” She calls her course “Dwelling Place of the Western Spirit.”

Vlahos says that when she began this work in 1999 she taught a course called “Building in the Land.” Since that time, she says, understanding of land stewardship, resources, and sustainability has increased to the point where these considerations are entering the mainstream of architecture and architecture education. Still, most of her students have grown up in urban or suburban environments, so they don’t have a strong connection to the land and its rhythms. To them, she says, the environment is an abstraction rather than “an ally and friend, one who supplies you with life and livelihood, and whose ways must be understood and counsel respected.”

An essential element in her class, Vlahos says, is taking her students on field trips, overnight if possible. “We need to go to the land and experience sun, wind, earth, and water,” she says. In Vlahos’ training, if you are considering the quality of the sun—light, heat, reflection, shadow, and so forth—you sit in the location where the building would be sited and you quietly experience the quality of the sun at different times of day. “What is the quality and the quantity of the sun as you are viewing the south?” she asks. “How does that shift when you turn to the east?” Vlahos often found that students’ designs were not sensitive to the environment and what people’s experience of the structure would be. “They would draw the same kind of window all the way round,” she says, “but maybe the openings to the east should be quite different from the openings to the west.”

Vlahos asks students to sit in sun and then to move to shade and pay attention to what happens to their bodies. In that way, she says, they begin to understand buildings as skins, systems that will have the same responses as one’s skin. From a shoji screen to a massive concrete wall, building materials are the skins that form the interface between outside and inside.

In the same vein, she asks students to contemplate water, wind, and earth: noticing how the water works on the land and trying to discover ways to use it best, thinking of how structures will affect air movement, experiencing the texture and colors of the land as a way to consider how the buildings erected there can be in a harmonious relationship with their surroundings.

Within the last five years, Vlahos says, students have begun to rethink how they approach architecture. “The more they connect with the land,” she says, “the less they want to disturb it—and architecture can be violently disruptive.” Now, rather than trying to build something as a monument to their talent, “more often than not they’re seeking ways to rehabilitate or recycle buildings to meet new uses.”

Vlahos emphasizes that her projects are never theoretical: “They deal with real people in real places. Architecture is a community act. It’s a cultural act.” To be truly mindful in architecture and planning, she says, you need to see all the forces coming together—“the land, the environment all around, all the people affected. And then your work can be sensitive and connected to the elements.”

From the September 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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