"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.