Introduction, Spaces of Serenity: Small Projects for Meditation and Contemplation
ORO Editions, August, 2015
"Wabi is to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau."
− D. T. Suzuki
"If architects…were existentially rather than “success” oriented – we would, with some regularity, see at least some architects designing progressively smaller and smaller structures as their careers developed over time."
In 1989 I moved from Connecticut back to east central Illinois to teach at the state’s flagship institution and begin a small private architectural practice. I was returning to the place where I trained a decade earlier in order to renew my fascination with the region’s seemingly limitless landscape. I wanted to explore the gestalt relationships between elemental constructed forms, the intensely horizontal ground, and the large, open sky.
Winning the commission to design the “Tribute to Olympic Athletes” in Champaign prompted this exploration of context and form. In the following years I developed ideas for twelve public memorial projects, realizing three of them. Each was an attempt to evoke the human spirit, convey the highest aspirations of our society, and root into their specific context.
Simultaneously I developed ideas for private habitation as built landscape: “Prospect and Refuge,” a study from 1991, proposes an essential dwelling in which the surrounding sloped ground merges up into the structure in a seamless composition. The following year, “House for a Subdivision” transferred this idea to a residential neighborhood. At the pinnacle of this project was a space with an extensive view, a “proto-hut,” a small space at the end of several steps, for meditation and observation.
The projects that followed have focused on small spaces designed explicitly for meditation, mindfulness, and creative contemplation. The first of these projects began when my wife, Barbara Diller-Young, moved from Connecticut to join me in Illinois. We lived in a tiny Sears mail order house in East Urbana that lacked a space for her Vipassana Meditation practice. Inspired by “A Hut of One’s Own,” Ann Cline’s philosophical hut-building chronicle, I constructed a three-tatami hut in our back garden. It has since become known known as “Meditation Hut I,” and described by Wallpaper* Magazine as “an enlightened modernist’s fairytale.”
When we moved into another Sears house closer to campus, the desire to have a special space in the new garden came with us. The result was Meditation Hut II “Le Cadeau.” The hand-cut shingles are wrapped around a simple archetypal “Monopoly” house frame. Despite its unorthodox flashing details it is still water tight and has weathered nicely over the years.
These self-initiated projects were followed by opportunities to create spaces of serenity for others: The “Victor” hut for Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope in rural Champaign County; the ongoing projects for Kamran Fallahpour and Suzanne Kazemian Falla in upstate New York; and the retreat cabin for Michael and Cathy Andrechak near the Illinois/Indiana boarder.
These projects respond to the basic human desire to identify and seek creative ways to resolve the conflicts of living in the everyday world. By carefully orchestrating built form, filtering sensory input, and paying careful attention to human scale, I began to learn firsthand how physical space can positively impact one’s emotional state. I elicit these emotional responses through the mute but materially rich medium of architecture. The art of crafting and detailing gives voice to the materials so that they express a common conceptual meaning. By carefully resolving each part of a design to create an integral whole, I construct places of introspection and serenity—private spaces that allow people to find refuge in quiet contemplation.
Of growing interest to me are two ideals central to the Japanese tea ceremony culture as it matured during the 16th century: the concepts of wabi (“refined rusticity”) and sabi (“the expression of time”). They have been the inspiration for many contemporary designers around the world who attempt to connect their work to nature and to humanity. In my projects, wabi-sabi is filtered through a lens of vernacular archetypes to evoke a materially rich regional aesthetic. Wabi-sabi is explicitly expressed through contrasts between weathering and non-weathering materials, tracking of sunlight and shadow along inside and outside surfaces, channeling water across roofs and walls and through scuppers, and framing specific views that record contextual seasonal changes. The material presence serves as the focus for reflection and is therefore essential to my exploration into spaces intended for their calming or contemplative properties.
As Ann Cline’s book inspired me to build my first hut, my greatest hope is that this small book provides some inspiration to seek quiet spaces as a refuge from the noisy, technological world. This book is dedicated to finding the serene corner, room, or building that can stimulate direct experience, serving to evoke simple reverence for humanity and nature.
Professor Jeffery S. Poss, FAIA, a design practitioner since 1989, creates places of commemoration, introspection, and meaning that evoke the human spirit‐‐public places that bring people together, or conversely, private spaces that allow people to find refuge in quiet contemplation. Through his design work he strives to articulate values and symbols that express the highest aspirations of our society: projects that act as inspirational models of design and practice both to the students under his tutelage and the people who use them. The intention is to uncover the deeply rooted qualities of specific places, while also engaging universal symbols and archetypal meanings that transcend those places.
Poss’ competition winning Tribute to Olympic Athletes weaves landscape and meaning into a singular architectural composition. An earth bermed ramp rises up to the towering gateway form, symbolizing the local athletes’ transcendent passage in the pursuit of lofty goals. The World War II Illinois Veterans Memorial features two inscribed granite walls that each chronicles the events for a theater of battle. The walls merge towards a cast globe where each event is marked with a stainless steel medallion. The magnitude of the war becomes immediately comprehensible as one moves through the site. An AIA jury described the project as “…very well conceived and executed…the elegance of the scheme warrants a level of thought by the users.”
These public memorials have coincided with a series of private spaces whose shapes are determined by location, construction detailing, and symbolic emphasis. The “butterfly” v‐shaped roof of Meditation Hut I conjures up thoughts of flight or transcendence. Wallpaper Magazine described it as an “…enlightened modernists fairytale.” Poss constructed Hut II “Le Cadeau” in the form of an archetypal house shape‐‐like a child's first attempt to represent a dwelling in drawing form, with the connotations of comfort, security, and innocence. It was selected for national recognition in the 2007 AIA Small Projects Award Program, and was described by that jury as “Beautiful, best of the bunch.” “…For a simple project, it really shows true design.”
These simple structures reflect a desire on the part of many to identify and seek out creative ways to both resolve the conflicts of living in the daily world, and their undeniable connection to other places and other times. The positive response by the public and the professional publications and awards validate his initial intentions. While Poss’ architectural skills were honed through education and practice, his desire to create meaningful spaces comes from a deeper, personal source. The collective body of work expresses these values to his patrons, his students, and the public, through the mute but materially rich medium of architecture.
Updated March 2017
Jeffery S Poss Architect has designed and completed award-winning proposals for residences, interiors, memorials, pavilions, and most recently, flat-pac and ecological architecture. His commissioned and competition work has been published in numerous journals and magazines in print and online. As a result of this recognition, he was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 2010.
Poss is a Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. He received his Master of Architecture from the university in 1980. In the years following he practiced with Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates, and Tai Soo Kim Partners.
In 1989 he returned to Urbana-Champaign to begin teaching and practicing architecture. Studio teaching has focused on the development of concept, materials, and detail into architectural design, including design-build structures, furniture design, and the exploration of whole-to-part relationships in architecture, for which he received the AIA Education Honors Award.
Poss teaches in the detail+FABRICATION Program Area in the Illinois School of Architecture.
Drawing by Delia Chang, 2017 Archon Studio