Windhover Contemplative Center
Mind Over Matter: At Stanford University, a student retreat is also a meditation on architecture.
Palo Alto, California
The Windhover Contemplative Center at Stanford is a delightful amalgamation: neither a house of worship nor a traditional art gallery, it has an open-ended program that embraces both and more. This secular temple has a decidedly ecumenical approach, offering a space for structured meditation or just quiet observation of art and nature, a reminder that design can be transcendent.
An internationally renowned figurative painter, Oliveira joined the Stanford faculty in 1964 and taught art there for more than 30 years. He also served as a student advisor, and became concerned with the amount of stress he observed. On the occasion of his retirement in 1995, he gave a talk about his vision for a contemplative space that could provide some moments of quiet respite. In the audience was a collector of his work, Suzanne Duca, who offered to help fund the center.
It would take nearly two decades for the project to get off the ground; in addition to standard bureaucratic hurdles, its rather amorphous program didn’t fit neatly into the university structure (eventually, it would come under the wing of two offices, religious life and student affairs), and it took a while to settle on a central location that could be easily accessed by students. Oliveira was pleased by the final determination, a former parking lot bordered by a grove of old oak trees, adjacent to student housing. He died in 2012, well before Aidlin Darling Design had been selected as architect. However, his son Joe Oliveira thinks he would have been “overjoyed” by the result. “I know he would have loved the soft quality of the lighting and the calmness of the building,” he says.
Stanford’s strict architecture guidelines, which reference its historical Romanesque quadrangle, have made it difficult for contemporary architects to assert themselves. But Windhover, the Anderson Collection building by Ennead (RECORD, December 2014, page 96), and the Diller Scofidio + Renfro–designed McMurtry Art & Art History building, currently under construction, are evidence that the university is allowing more leeway for buildings designed for art.
Windhover’s long rectangular pavilion has a classic minimalism. But here the lightness of glass and aluminum is juxtaposed with the weight of rammed earth and wood siding. “The rammed-earth walls are like ruins coming out of the ground, which anchor and frame the entry sequence,” says Joshua Aidlin, principal of the San Francisco–based Aidlin Darling. When a wall meets glass, it often extends past it, creating an effortless indoor–outdoor connection; the same is true of the floor, which continues outside to form a deck. Unlike the Rothko Chapel in Houston (1971), which is probably the closest point of reference, Windhover continuously looks outward. “Nathan wanted a very organic space, not a museum but a place of contemplation that valued nature and his paintings equally,” says Aidlin. “It was a dream project—it was like an architectural thesis project, combining architecture, nature, art, and spirituality.”
From the street, it appears as a modest, opaque box, clad in vertical strips of cedar (a “non-facade,” as Aidlin describes it). The front door is set as far away from the road as possible, so visitors travel along a path that runs nearly the full length of the building. This extended entry sequence was inspired by Chinese temples, where a progression of garden walls helps the mind transition from the bustle of the world.
The building unfolds as a series of richly nuanced spaces. Once past the front door, the center’s transparency becomes apparent. Visitors gaze out through a whole wall of glass to the oak grove on the east. On the facing wall, Oliveira’s immense Diptych, depicting two outstretched wings, is naturally lit by a narrow skylight that runs the length of the painting. The dim interiors are further subdued by a plenitude of dark-stained oak, used for the flooring, slatted ceiling, and simple benches. In the main space, heavy rammed-earth walls, which range up to 2 feet in thickness, highlight the sedimentary layers of the soil that was used to form them.
In marked contrast to this weightiness, a glass-enclosed bridge leads visitors past a courtyard to the northernmost space, where the final painting, Sun Radiating, is on display. As you cross the bridge, you have the lovely feeling of floating a couple of feet above the ground plane. The bridge looks onto a courtyard, where a serene cube of a fountain (a salvaged chunk of stone from the university’s building boneyard) burbles away. “The paintings are about flight and being inspired by greater possibilities,” says Aidlin. “So we thought about how the building could begin to disengage itself from the ground.” A student coming from the dormitory next door expressed appreciation for a space designed for rejuvenation. “I was really stressed at the time,” said Jessie Cho, a senior in pre-med who took advantage of Windhover shortly after its opening. “I went in there and closed my eyes for 30 minutes, and I felt renewed.”
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