Silence in Architecture

My favorite buildings are the quiet ones. They are draped in solitude and wear silence as a jewel. Inside them, even a whisper has an echo. These may appear in the form of spiritual abodes or as shelters of art in the midst of an urban jungle.


I recall visiting a Hindu Ashram about ten years ago. It is a campus of multiple spiritual centers, yoga ashrams, and meditation huts. The place was packed with monks, students, tourists, and workers. People of all colors and races were moving in all directions, and the all-pedestrian hustle-bustle was similar to Central Park at NYC. Yet there was pin drop silence. All you could hear were the wind and birds. If you were to close your eyes, you’d think you were alone. As I entered a meditation hut, I felt that I was the only person alive in the world. It was surreal. Solitude can be beautiful.


What made this experience so memorable was the backdrop of composed architecture. The buildings emerged from the ground in simple forms stepping with the grade. The meditation huts provided personal space for seekers. The interiors were dimly lit with focus on a single source of light and sound that triggered the spiritual senses. Architecture became an important tool for the seeker’s journey.


I was fortunate enough to visit the hospital last month; fortunate because I got to experience something remarkable during my visit. I noticed a woman with a head scarf coming out of an unusual door. Curiosity overtook me and I found myself standing in the middle of a beautiful chapel. A man was praying in a corner. I wished for the best for all humanity and left the chapel with great content. Life is beautiful, and sometimes architecture can help make it seem even better. A hidden chapel inside a hospital – so intimate and beautiful, only good architecture can accomplish that.


Each time I travel for vacations, I spend the most amount of time inside museums. I love being surrounded by beauty and the lip-sealed people who watch this beauty with me. The culmination of art and architecture is ever so powerful, no matter the medium or scale. I miss the serenity of museums in Las Vegas; quiet museums. Peaceful and silent museums located in busy urban areas. Although the hiking opportunities here do offer the respite away from people! This reminds me of another story…


I was doing an internship at Ahmedabad with Neelkanth Chhaya and went to see one of his best projects on a Saturday – the Center for Environmental Education. At first I thought I was lost. The place was deserted and lush with overgrown trees, not something you expect in a busy city. As I moved into the seemingly dense forest, I discovered a building behind the veil of green. The walls and roof slabs were bent and cut to accommodate the existing flora. Not a single tree was cut during the construction of this project. As I meandered out of the building into the depths of growth, I was lost in the sounds of silence. Suddenly it hit me… I was afraid of another human showing up and I shuddered with fear. I got scared of a person showing up, not an animal! I ran out to the city to be surrounded by the masses again.


I realized that day that I would rather be in an urban center surrounded by people or all alone in complete solitude. If you combine both, that’s called perfection. Think of the Museum of Modern Art or the St. Patrick’s Cathedral at Manhattan, or the Institute of Contemporary Art at Boston, or Seattle Public Library, or Smithsonian Institution at DC, or the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, or Yerba Buena Center for the Arts at San Francisco. Add fog to the weather forecast, and I am in heaven.


Las Vegas region lacks this – the contrast of a quiet building within an urban center. As we come out of the recession, let us tread carefully. We faced a big loss of people moving out of Vegas in the last couple years. To make people want to live here, we need to create avenues for family life. This city can only become a livable community when we pay more attention to its large scale development with urban centers, museums, performance theatres, and parks. This is the time to find the fix while the development is slow. The problem is not all about job creation or water scarcity, the quality of life is a big part of it.