Stanford University’s proximity to the hotbed of the California technology industry drives its students to succeed; it also may be a reminder of potential failure in a competitive world. The school’s Windhover Contemplative Center, which broke ground at the end of July, aims to offer a refuge from the pressure stemming from either possibility with a building by San Francisco-based Aidlin Darling Design that is as immersive as the academic environment surrounding it. “The opportunity is to unify art, architecture, landscape, and spirituality in one environment,” says firm partner David Darling.
The center, slated for completion in the spring of 2014, will sit on land once devoted to a parking lot at the western edge of the campus. A long, narrow site was a convenient constraint; placed end to end, the building’s three rooms will house five of late Stanford art professor Nathan Oliveira’s large-scale Windhover series paintings, which range from 15 to 30 feet in length.
The architects weren’t without guidance from the artist, though he died in 2010. The building has been 17 years in the making, the brainchild of Oliveira and a devoted, anonymous patron of his art. “The patron has an incredible breadth of knowledge about what Nathan wanted the center to be,” says firm partner Joshua Aidlin. “He spoke about it being an organic space that was not a museum in any way; he talked about how textures and materiality were critical to the success of the environment.”
The physical layering of Oliveira’s monumental, abstract oil paintings was a point of departure into rammed earth architecture, a building technique Aidlin Darling has explored extensively in its work and will use again on the center. While the material premise is similar to that of concrete, the construction process uses earth from the site to create varying tonalities in the final structure, as the mix is hand-tamped into formwork. “It’s truly working with an artist to craft the appropriate density and visual layers,” says Aidlin. “The beauty is that it, in a powerful way, reconnects the architecture to the land it is growing out of. You are almost creating a ruin.”
The architects are also striving for a timeless quality in the literal sense—students may need its contemplative atmosphere most in the middle of the night when the center is closed, so the design encompasses exterior spaces that can be used around the clock. The entire interior may be viewed from the adjacent oak grove and Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden, giving even those who do not enter a connection to the paintings within.
Designed in conjunction with Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, the grounds will introduce an introspective atmosphere and feature a meditative labyrinth. Fountains in the main gallery will dampen external sounds, and a still pool and garden will reflect the center’s oak and eucalyptus trees. The entire site will function as a walking meditation path (in one proposal the architects sited a study that said walking improved student test scores). “Instead of putting the front door by the sidewalk, we draw people down a 150-foot garden path,” says Darling.
Material transitions will also signal the progression: the path begins with a cover of decomposed granite, then concrete pavers; when visitors step between two rammed earth walls, their feet find a floating wood surface. “As you navigate north through the contemplative spaces, you realize you are lifting, or the ground is dropping,” says Aidlin. Because the site slopes upward to the south, the interior floor floats almost four feet above the ground plane. This sequence reinforces a connection with the Windhover series, which was inspired by Oliveira’s walks in the Stanford hills and by his studies of kestrels and red-tailed hawks floating on air currents the sky.
The building will be acoustically isolated—nearly two-foot-thick interior walls of rammed earth paired with wood surfaces will, like the landscaping, dampen noise and inform visitors’ tactile and olfactory experiences. But it is not a cloister; in fact, Stanford’s Contemplative Center may act as a foil to monolithic spaces like Houston’s non-denominational Rothko Chapel, inspired by the mural canvases of Mark Rothko, which block away surroundings to create a meditative environment. Louvered skylights and expanses of glass will leave little need for artificial lighting in the daytime, and, whether inside or out, visitors will be immersed in the landscape around them.