Designing an 80-room dormitory on a very low budget was not in itself a daunting prospect for Cambridge, Mass., architect Peter Rose, AIA. But the mission of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, a retreat devoted to holistic healing and meditation in the atmospheric Berkshires, elevated expectations. Rose’s challenge was to express the program’s intangible goals—integrity, authenticity, serenity, self-realization—in the building. In short, he had to grapple with matter to express spirit.
The sylvan context of the dorm, a tree-lined, meadowed site with a view of a sprawling lake, certainly helped. But the existing midcentury Jesuit seminary did not. Rose had to respond to the beauty of the Berkshires while negotiating what looked like an oversize roadside motel.
The dorm is only part of Rose’s larger commission to design a master plan—aimed at segmenting the main structure to achieve what Rose calls “demassification”—and he selected a site at the end of the former seminary, positioning the new building to avoid views of the old while capturing those of the lake out front and the forest in back. To fit the program on a footprint squeezed between the existing building and a perimeter road, Rose designed a six-story block divided by a vertical wedge-shaped service core, resulting in two unequal, angled wings. A double-loaded corridor, widened at one end, runs the length of the structure; the resulting geometries were determined based on careful curation of views.
Striating the façade with strips of cypress, Rose materially aligns the dorm to the wooded site rather than to the brick seminary; the building reads from a distance as wood against the woods. Manually operated sliding window screens allow guests to modify their views and sun exposure, and the randomness animates the façade.
Inside, the cellular rooms are monastic. The strict $450 per square foot budget kept rooms at 9 feet 9 inches by 19 feet. Rose wasn’t aiming at stylistic minimalism, but was simply calculating livable minima. “It was as lean as you can make it,” he says. As a result, structure doubled as surface: the floors and piers embedded in the demising walls are exposed concrete. But this exercise in economy ended up contributing to the experience of the space. The density of the concrete in the compact rooms creates a silent sense of contemplative isolation.
The four dormitory floors rest on a podium of public space, including the entry and a glass-enclosed walkway linking to the old seminary. Groups practice yoga in a large meeting room lined with sliding windows that ensure guests see only the sky, mountain ridges and trees from their mats on the floor; the windows also allow for cross-ventilation. The simplicity of the space is not stylistic but elemental. The sprung floors are wood; the walls and ceiling are exposed concrete, with plywood panels dropped from the ceiling to mask pipes. Color is natural and integral. Rose has always been a master of material collage, and the material honesty throughout the dormitory gives the space a sense of embodied authenticity. No simulacra, only the real thing, plus tight editing to eliminate the unnecessary.
Functionally, Rose used the concrete’s thermal mass for temperature control. Embedded plenums and micro-chases for radiant heating and cooling create a spatially efficient HVAC system, which allowed for the building’s tight 90-inch floor-to-floor heights. “We activated structure as a piece of the mechanism, and concrete is a perfect medium for sustainability,” he says. The integrated climate-control strategy resulted in a projected 40 percent less energy consumption than that of a typical forced-air system.
Without wearing karma on his sleeve, Rose achieved a strong but nuanced architectural presence appropriate for yoga instruction. He knew when to stop adding and when to quit subtracting, and achieved a design conducive to ambient serenity: The architecture supports, and even assists, but does not intrude. “The architecture, like yoga itself, is full of subtlety and layers of complexity that gently improve the structure’s performance,” he says. “Light, air, using minimal means to create a calm, healing environment—it’s all about fulfilling these almost intangible requirements.”