James Newton


90for90 – Vajrasana Buddhist Centre 03.22


I was recently asked to select a building as part of the Building Centre’s 90th Anniversary celebrations which brought to life a major initiative, ‘90for90’ which celebrated the last 90 years of the built environment throughout the UK.  They invited 90 leading figures from across Britain – from architects, engineers, planners and developers to actors, architectural historians, photographers, broadcasters, writers and artists – to select their favourite examples of our nation’s built environment.

Each contributor was asked to select what, for them, had a special significance, and their choices create a fascinating snapshot of the built environment over the past 90 years. Their choices ranged from theatres to public houses, refurbished industrial buildings to transport hubs, iconic structures to high tech offices, a sculpture parks to a retrofitted hospital, art galleries to sporting venues. Some of the choices are world famous, others are comparatively unknown.

I chose the Vajrasana Buddhist Centre by Walters & Cohen.

I first visited the Vajrasana Buddhist Retreat Centre as a photographer. Whilst this means looking at the building closely it also means looking at it in a very specific way – looking for photographs. Surfaces, materials, forms, light and how it behaves and interacts with the materials and how this all adds up to creating an atmosphere – these are all the things that I am trying to take in. But I felt such a strong feeling of calm and serenity and a sense that time moved at a different pace here that I made a resolution to return as a visitor.

The building is beautifully designed and built. A small palette of simple materials is used to create a series of spaces made for communal living, a sangha courtyard at the centre and a strong connection/integration with the surrounding landscape. The hierarchy of materials places emphasis on the spiritual elements, living quarters are stripped back and basic but comfortable enough to not be austere. In the key spaces the use of dark brick and timber give a feel of real quality but remain modest, emphasis is on the spiritual symbols in the Stupa and Akshobhya courtyards before culminating in the imposing gold leaf buddahrupa in the shrine room.

As a place for retreat it works beautifully. The architecture functions very well but has the modesty to step aside as one’s perception changes and focus shifts inward. The building seems to dissolve allowing the natural surroundings come to the fore; I now remember it not for how it looks but for how it feels. I remember it by the warmth of the timber benches, the smoothness of polished concrete underfoot and the sense of enclosure in the courtyard with the plants gently moving in the breeze. But above all I remember it for the sense of community that it nurtures and supports.

This is architecture at its best, designed to work, built to last and enhancing the experience of the people who are there. For all of these reasons I am nominating it as my favourite building, but I also choose it to represent this type of building that can easily be overlooked – simple, quiet, without fuss, carefully considered and very well made. I hope to go back.