Architect Joshua Aidlin Creates a Sanctuary For The Senses on Stanford’s Campus



For architect Joshua Aidlin of San Francisco’s Aidlin Darling Design, the new Windhover Contemplative Center at Stanford was like an architectural thesis project: “a dream assignment that combined architecture, nature, art and spirituality,” he says. A project in the planning for nearly 20 years, Windhover is intended as a sanctuary for students, faculty and staff.

Just 4,000 square feet, the one-story building is a jewel box of modern architecture, rendered in glass, metal, wood and rammed earth. Its spaces are designed around four immense canvases by late Bay Area artist and Stanford professor Nathan Oliveira. Inspired by kestrels (poetically called “windhovers” for their ability to suspend midair), the paintings are part of Oliveira’s “Windhover” series.

Tucked deep within the campus next to a dormitory, the building appears from the street as a small opaque box, covered in vertical strips of stained cedar. The long path to the entrance, bordered by a bamboo hedge and rows of ginkgo trees, is deliberately lengthy in order to help the mind transition to a different place. San Francisco–based landscape architect Andrea Cochran, a 2014 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award winner, designed the serene, sculptural landscaping, elegantly pairing geometric and organic forms.

Inside, the minimally lit, minimally furnished space invites visitors to sit on benches or meditation cushions on the oak floor. Oliveira’s enormous artworks, particularly the 30-foot-long Diptych, depicting a pair of wings, are the most obvious focal points, but a grove of sprawling native oaks and a reflection pool, viewed through floor-to-ceiling glass walls, is a close second. The layout also encourages guests to walk outside into the courtyard, which is anchored by an understated cube of a fountain. “There was a tremendous opportunity to design for all the senses–visual, textural, acoustic,” says Aidlin. “Even the sense of smell comes into play, through the rammed earth and wood floors, benches and walls.”

Depending on what suits them best, meditators can focus on the deeply textured canvases, the rippling shadows created by the light bouncing off of the reflection pool, or the sound of the simple trough fountain near the entry: Each provides a unique view into the interior.

The Windhover Center is open only to Stanford students, faculty and staff, but is on view to the public during a weekly tour, Tuesdays at 10 a.m., windhover.stanford.edu.           

A version of this article appeared in the February 2015 issue of San Francisco Cottages & Gardens with the headline: A Spiritual Education.

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