A parking lot in the center of Stanford University's campus has been admirably transformed into a place of calm for students, faculty and the larger community. Aidlin darling design describes the Windhover Contemplation Center as "a unification of art, landscape and architecture to both replenish and invigorate the spirit." The San Francisco-based firm answered a few questions about the project.
What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?
The project was awarded through a multi-phased RFP/Design competition. There were 13 firms that were initially shortlisted in the first round. Five of these firms were further shortlisted to graphically and verbally communicate design attitudes relating to the programming brief. These ideas were presented to Stanford University's Design Committee in an interview format. The final stage of the selection process was a tour by Design Committee of the last two competing firms completed buildings.
Please provide an overview of the project.
The Windhover Contemplative Center is conceived of as a unification of art, landscape and architecture to both replenish and invigorate the spirit. The sanctuary is located in the heart of the campus on a former parking lot adjacent to a natural oak grove. The extended progression to the building’s entry through a long private garden, sheltered from its surroundings by a line of tall bamboo, allows members of the Stanford community to shed the outside world before entering the sanctuary. Within, the space opens fully to the oak grove to the east and the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden beyond.
Louvered skylights wash the monumental 15 to 30 foot long paintings in natural light. The remaining space is kept intentionally dark to focus the visitor’s attention on the naturally highlighted paintings and the landscape beyond. Thick rammed earth walls and wood surfaces further heighten the visitor’s sensory experience acoustically, tactilely, olfactorily, as well as visually.
Water, in conjunction with landscape, is used throughout as an aid for contemplation; fountains within the main gallery and the courtyard provide ambient sound while a still reflecting pool to the south reflects the surrounding trees. Exterior contemplation spaces are integrated into the use of the center, allowing views to the natural surroundings as well as to the paintings within. From the oak grove to the east, visitors can view the paintings glowing within the center without accessing the building, effectively creating a sanctuary for the Stanford community day and night.
What are the main ideas and inspirations influencing the design of the building?
Artist Nathan Oliveira created the Windhover series, inspired by the kestrels swooping above the Stanford foothills, to evoke the feeling of flight and detachment from the everyday; it was his wish that the paintings be displayed together in a place set aside for contemplation. Recognizing the need on campus for a space for students to relieve stress and gain a greater perspective of one's life and the world in general, Stanford University sought to create a non-denominational space for contemplation, a space that would be inspired by and display paintings from Oliveira's Windhover series. The University wanted to avoid creating a museum-like environment in search of a more organic space that engaged nature in some manner while providing a refuge from the intensity of daily life. The Contemplation Center is intended for quiet reflection throughout the day for any Stanford student, faculty, or staff member, as well as for members of the larger community.
Was the project influenced by any trends in energy-conservation, construction, or design?
Sustainable strategies were integrated from the start of the project with the intentional orientation and massing of the building towards the east and west. The design takes advantage of the existing oak grove to the east of the project to provide passive shading along the fully glazed eastern side of the building. Western massive earthen walls with minimal openings in combination with the row of tall bamboo block the intensity of the late day sun. Large roof overhangs to the east and south in conjunction with vertical fins along the eastern wall provide integral shading devices.
Skylights with motorized louvers and scrims wash the paintings and the space in diffuse indirect natural light, eliminating the need for artificial light in the building during daylight hours. Heating and cooling is achieved through a radiant floor system while outside air is brought in from the north and naturally drifts to the south of the building where it is released. This passively oriented system eliminates any mechanical noise or vibrations within the intentionally quiet sanctuary.
Finally, all materials were carefully considered for their impact on the environment and the users. In addition to providing high thermal mass for temperature stabilization, the rammed earth walls are made with soil excavated from the site, which minimizing the off hauling and reduced the amount of off site material resources. The project used stone sourced from Stanford University’s salvage yard to fabricate stone benches and the fountain sculpture. All finish materials were chosen to have low VOC and pollutant emissions.
Plan and Section Sketch
What products or materials have contributed to the success of the completed building?
The Windhover Contemplative Center incorporates rammed earth walls that provide a sense of solidity, permanence and warmth that is integral to the visitor’s experience at this retreat center. The 18 inches to 2 feet thick rammed earth walls were hand tamped pneumatically in 6-8 inch lifts, with the pressure controlled to create the variegated texture reflecting the construction process. The fabricator of the rammed earth, David Easton of Rammed Earth Works, was integral to the development of the rammed earth design for this project, creating numerous samples representing mix designs with different percentages of earth taken from the project site in order to achieve a color that complements Oliveira’s paintings. The end result is a building material that anchors the building structurally and experientially.
Email interview conducted by John Hill.