Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1995

A Temple Arises; Ajahn Amaro
Conducting the Orchestra of Form; George Sharp
Renunciation & Devotion: Stalk & Fragrance; Ajahn Munindo
Growing the Dhamma Tree; Lay Supporter
Supporting the Project; Krishna Padayachi
Sutta Class: Morality, Transformation & Liberation; Ajahn Sucitto
In Memory of Luang Por Jun: Pt. 1; Sister Sanghamitta
The temple: A space for Right Ritual; Ajahn Sucitto

Signs of Change:


Conducting the Orchestra of Form

In May this year the Temple architect, Tom Hancock, took a holiday from the drawing board. During this time, at Harnham, George Sharp talked with him about how his vision of the Temple has evolved.

[George] What are your recollections of the earliest meetings with Ajahn Sumedho and how did the concept of the temple develop?
[Tom] The reason for the form emerging as it has is based on notions I discussed with Ajahn Sumedho; one of which was that the laity and Sangha should somehow have a more convivial raltionship inside the building than has been the case in general. The gatherings would generally be quite small in numbers, and in the case of the larger gatherings, the question was how to accomplish that same intimacy without a very long nave for the laity which is usually empty, as in a cathedral. How do you have a building that is always quietly occupied even though you may have very few people in it? And when you have a lot of people it doesn't feel overwhelming? The square seemed to be the very best form for that; not only was it an implicitly interesting form, but also because you can raise roofs on it quite easily, as well as reflecting the square of the Sima area. The supporting structure itself from the earliest days had been a circle which, for reasons of structure and material, developed into an octagon.

Your very first drawings for a temple of some sort were in 1984?
1984 was an attempt to set out an understanding of Amaravati in terms of what was there. That was the first time the suggestion was made to design a Temple based on the idea of the stupa.

It's still that stupa shape isn't it?
Yes, there are strong traditions of using the stupa form as a Temple. But the form we came up with didn't really come out of an historic idea, although some of the earlier designs reflected this by indicating universal forms, i.e. circle, square etc. These geometricals do have a certain precision - you put a nail in the ground and you walk around a string - and you have a circle. Likewise, everything that you hold off the ground, say a nail and a piece of string, forms a right angle to the surface of the earth. So the right angle has an immutable perfection to the human mind.

... another thing that came out of the oak structure was the idea of the forest.

The overwhelming idea that Ajahn Sumedho wanted was this meditation space. Clearly there is no 'perfect meditation space', that is impossible to achieve because meditation is a natural, personal experience and has really not much to do with the building. But there are certain things that are conducive to meditation - the atmosphere, the quietude and so on. He wanted a cave-like feeling, and that was where we really started four years ago. And we went on from there to develop the first design of the interior dome - the central form - which was at first a circle inside the square.

This was the dome inside the pyramid idea?
Yes. When you start a building, it is in a sense, conceived of as being perfection in the mind's eye - the perfect idea. However, at some point you have to get your hands on actual materials, and it becomes quite a different thing.

When we started looking at the dome idea, the notion was to have the inner skin of the dome and then the outer skin of the pyramidal roof, which would be tiled. And there was a nice consonance because the sphere fits very well into the pyramid. But the only materials we could think of for the dome were either solid stone, concrete or plaster. When we started to think about how to make the plaster work, the acoustic report came through. This showed that the dome, which initially was about 40 foot in diameter, would be really bad for chanting. I really should have known that but I was so hung up on the perfection of the dome and the pyramid that frankly I didn't think of it.

That kind of testing was gone through on many, many parts of the building. Not only through the choice of materials but also in the way we are putting them together. The main frame of the building is not an accurate material, green oak. (This will be cut from ecologically managed English forests). What we did was to make a trawl of different structural systems. First we looked at oak frame, but we could not make that work. This became transformed into a quasi oak-and-steel composite, which in engineering terms worked well, but in terms of simplicity of construction the idea became complicated. So at this point I had to intervene and design a new structure myself, going back to the eight columned octagonal structure. As soon as I had made a model of it I asked a carpentry firm for comment. And their comments were that they wanted to build this. They're very genuine people so I took it as a compliment.

And the shape of this engineered structure in oak - did that vary from the dome shape? In my mind's eye it is still there. But of course it will be very difficult to read the dome unless you know it was once there. In retrospect, another thing that came out of the oak structure was the idea of the forest. I remember seeing the tudong monks in Thailand living in the forest with their mosquito net arrangement hanging from the branch of a tree. So the idea of the hall being like the forest I can see didn't really come out until the structure of the oak was there. The lower parts are like tree trunks which produce smaller columns, with little branches reaching to the upper levels.

And what is green oak? It is oak that has not been dried or naturally seasoned. If we used seasoned oak it would have been over twice as expensive. Green oak has a long history. Carpenters I have been talking to still understand how oak should be designed as a compression structure, i.e. all the joints are pushing downwards. The oak shrinks, but not in length. So we've chosen a material for a main structure which is imperfect, but we're using it in a way which understands that essential quality of change and plasticity. Evident cracks will emerge in the oak, and that's part of the process. So immediately we'll get a material which, after a few years, will look like its been there 100 years.

Following from that are the ideas for the floor. It was decided earlier that we'd use underfloor heating based on the experience at Harnham. We have a super-insulated building, and so the floor is an important element in terms of a radiant heat source.

It won't be a brilliantly lit building. We will have side-windows and ventilation at the top of the central open space of the building, and we do that by having four dormers so the light in the 'cave' comes from above; the light from the side windows will be very minimal. Because they're so high above the floor level the changing light throughout the day will be very fine from there; that's the reason I wanted a white floor.

What other factors determine the colour of the stone and the kind of surface required?
We want to use the floor to reflect the light, so we need a very pale tone. I was fortunate enough to know about this Vicenza limestone which my guru, Andrea Palladio, used in the 16th century. He used it for the same reason. He was doing central spaces in churches and palazzi in Italy and he wanted reflective floors to capture light coming from a great height. What I wanted to do at this stage was to use the budget and the building process to provide a shell which is long-lived and which is sensible for the purposes that Ajahn Sumedho set out. That is; a flexibility of layout and use, creating a feeling that is most conducive to meditation and a building which is what you see - what you see is what you get. There is a kind of directness about it.

You are looking forward to having what built by when?
We're able to break it down into very distinct steps: preparation of the site, the laying of the foundations, the construction of the floor slabs, then the oak frames, then the walls going up, then the tiled roof going on with all the sub-structures.

Foundations will be there by the end of July, then there will be a quiet period in August whilst the road is re-built by the highway authority.

The oak frame goes up in September. Like all medieval buildings it will be pre-assembled in the workshop and brought to the site in bits, and then re-assembled to make sure it works. This will all take quite a time because it's a fairly big structure and we have to take very great care in the detailed work. It'll be about 4-5 weeks. This is the structure that carries the entire weight of the pyramid and must withstand the wind.

The structure is capped with a pinnacle which has also gone through a number of stages.
Luang Por wanted some sort of emblem at the top of the building to demonstrate the presence of the Buddha, and he showed me stupas whose form I've tried to reflect. It's not an exotic import, but a very Hertfordshire-style capping which also, to the Buddhist eye, is legible as a stupa form. At the very tip is a finial in the shape of a flame. Bearing in mind the wind you talked about, the flame is designed to be much stronger as I'd be very concerned that at that height it's going to get a tremendous buffeting.

So Stage 1 is the completion of the main building and surrounding walls. And then later come the vestries and vestibule?
The vestibule is a very important part of the building, which is unusual because if you consider the traditional Asiatic setting, you wouldn't require these things. One of the interesting matters in transforming a building type from one world region to another is to deal with climactic circumstances. Temperature, weather, energy costs - all these things become critically important, particularly to a religion which is by nature abstemious, careful, concerned, thoughtful and mindful about these things.

It's always a balance between the materials you've got, what you actually do and of course the team that puts this together. The men on the site, the quality of their work and how committed they are to it. Right through the entire orchestra as I think of it. As though one is conducting a piece that has already been written and people have seen the score and they think, 'Aah this is wonderful,' but they've not heard the music. You can't hear the music until the building's built!

So what you're saying is that you couldn't really be expected to do that with any real sensitivity until you've got the building up and the interior is more or less finished in general?
Don't forget that Buddhism in Europe is at a very interesting stage. All aspects of the regional shift in terms of the building's design has references to the root region of Theravada Buddhism, but it also has to do with our climate and our views and our culture and our perceptions. We see things differently. And that is very interesting in terms of the main art, in terms of the sculptures and the glass and so on. I'm not saying what it should be, but I'm saying lurking, just out of sight, is a whole genre of work which is going to become more important in the future. So I feel very privileged as the architect of this building to begin this process. Other things will follow. So far the Buddhist art movement in Europe has been quite defensive. It has been using traditions from other regions which in themselves are inherently very beautiful, but very often have degenerated.

Perfection doesn't exist in art. All art is illusion, and architecture - that's an illusion too. It's just a pretty solid looking illusion for the time being! But in terms of what you're doing as an architect you must understand the illusoriness of it because you can make a room appear larger or smaller depending on the light and so on. In fact to make a big space 'read' you have to constrain it. A huge building like St. Peter's in Rome, for example, looks quite small when you're in there, but it's only when you see someone against the base of the columns that you realise it's absolutely vast. And then you take some very small church which would go into the aisle of St. Peter's. It's seems like a very beautiful big space, but it's actually quite small. It's just the illusion that's being created by the structure.

And so art, which is really just marks of things on stone, or wood, or canvas is all illusion and symbol. Analytically speaking, a painting of the Buddha is an illusion on a piece of paper or canvas.