A Question of Breathing
A life of many tribulations in Germany between the two wars led Swami Radha (born Sylvia Hellman) first to Canada where she encountered yoga and the spiritual culture of which it is part. After some time in India seeking a new reason for living, she returned to Canada, in 1957, setting up the Sivananda Ashram meditation center in Burnaby, near Vancouver. In 1962, Radha founded the Yasodhara Ashram center in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. Poised on the steep banks of Lake Kootenay, the Yasodhara Ashram is located in an area of great natural beauty, which although tamed by the stewardship of man is still sufficiently wild to be the ideal place for a life of contemplation and illumination. Swami Radha succeeded in building her Temple of Light in 1992, three years before her death. When it was gutted by fire in 2014, fundraising started to build a new temple on the same spot to host the center’s ever widening activities as its popularity spread beyond Canada. The new Temple of Light was inaugurated last June, and is an architectural and structural masterpiece blending a sense of the transcendental with contemporary research into parametric design. Designed by Patkau Architects of Vancouver, the structure is at the same time simple and complicated. More especially, it is logical and highly practical. Rising from the concrete foundations of the previous building, it resembles a huge white flower, a white lotus that has emerged out of the lake amidst the trees. The key requirement for the architects was to create an evocative lightweight, low-budget building catering for the center’s many activities, but also one that could be built in a short timeframe. Hence the idea of the dome, a feature of the former temple, which now has been masterfully exalted both stylistically and in terms of construction technology. The Temple of Light’s flower-shape is made up of eight sweeping petals that give a concentric movement to the whole structure. It resembles a flower bud about to blossom, the curving shape creating continuity between earth and heaven. The white skin standing out amidst the evergreen forest is itself a source of light, guiding the eye up toward the immense heavens. Inside, the curved petals create alternating curvilinear spaces that in turn set up a play of light and shadow culminating in the vast dome, which from a height of about 10 m allows direct views of the celestial vault as in an astronomical observatory. Patkau Architects designed this complex structure in part thanks to their decades of experience as an architecture practice founded by Patricia and John Patkau in 1978, and partly thanks to parametric digital modeling, which enabled the design and coordination of the non-planar, compound jointed frames. The Temple of Light is a timber building, whose glulam and laminated veneer lumber elements were fabricated and assembled off-site and then erected at the worksite. The key structural elements are the eight dome arches, each composed of a primary glulam element, a steel secondary element, and interstitial glazing. The eight arches connect to a steel ocular compression ring at the top of the dome. The Temple can be entered through the interstitial glazed area between the primary and secondary elements in each arch. Each primary arch is connected to the adjacent secondary arch by a plywood sheathed, timber framed structure comprised of eight subpanels in a pinwheel array. The eight subpanels comprising the petals are made up of perfectly straight elements, a fact that seems in total contradiction with the visual impression of a twisting structural frame given by the finished architecture. A constellation of illuminated baffle elements hang from the ocular compression ring in an inverse catenary profile to reduce acoustic reverberation and mitigate the acoustic focusing typical of concentric forms. The architects used a bespoke algorithm to define both the structure and its form, an approach that allowed the chosen form to be efficiently adjusted to comply with structural and construction requirements. The overall form is clad with a robust polymeric membrane. The Temple program provides a meditation area on the concrete base supporting the timber structure as well as an adjacent reception center. Patkau Architects dialogued at length with the Yasodhara Ashram community during all phases of the project. The limited budget was respected by using local resources like the engineered timber elements, which came from Nelson, a nearby town. Seen from above, the Temple of Light resembles a child’s pin-wheel that will start turning the minute it catches the wind. Despite its fragile appearance, however, it is a solid low energy consumption building requiring less than 280 MJ/sq. m/year thanks to high energy efficiency, efficient glazing units, and a ground source heat pump and adjacent photovoltaic system. Not only aesthetically pleasing, it is a truly holistic building in keeping with the tenets of yoga where equilibrium is all about breathing.