July 20, 2015

Buddhist Temple by Poon Design

In its purest form, architecture is shelter. Architecture protects us from many things. It shelters us from the elements, like soaking rain or blistering sun. Architecture also defends—from trespassers or the relentless noise of the city.

But architecture is more than a roof over your head, more than a wall against intruders. Architecture is more than psychological armor, and more than a physical fortress. Architecture is much more than something that guards us from the negative.

In fact, architecture is a container of the positive. As a place of gathering, architecture is a vessel of experiences and events, whether for a family in a house, students in a school, or employees at a company.

Architecture is a place to rest. To learn. To grow. To connect. Architecture is also a place to retreat.

Assembly Building by Poon Design
Assembly Building by Poon Design

For a 45-acre Buddhist retreat in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia, Poon Design created three buildings, with more to come. Our buildings were designed with no agendas to win national design awards or garnish attention from the press, as did the ambitious yet curious museum in a nearby town. For Poon Design’s work with the Buddhists, I had no political thoughts to advance my career. I had no proclamations of launching a new style of design. Poon Design simply sought to create vessels for gathering.

Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, Virginia, by Randall Stout Architects (photo by
Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, Virginia, by Randall Stout Architects (photo from

To begin with, I was blessed to be selected as the personal architect to Shamar Rinpoche (1952-2014) the 14th Shamarpa and the Red Hat Lama of Tibet, one of the most central figures of Buddhism, on par with the Dalai Lama. It isn’t every day one works personally with a high Tibetan lama descended from a line of holy men going back to the 13th Century.

Being in Rinpoche’s enlightened presence intimated to me that the architecture should plainly defer. Over six years with this Buddhist foundation, Poon Design created places to simply rest, learn, grow, and connect. We designed a temple, a meditation retreat house, and an assembly building.

Meditation Retreat House by Poon Design
Meditation Retreat House by Poon Design

By being of modest design, our architecture acknowledges Buddhists teachings. Poon Design starts with vernacular language, for example a wood barn and a gable roof. When Googling “vernacular,” one finds the definition as “the language spoken by the ordinary people in a particular region,” and “architecture concerned with domestic and functional rather than monumental buildings.”

So there it is: architecture that is intentionally non-monumental. The beauty of the ordinary.

Buddhist Temple by Poon Design, blessing ceremony with Shamar Rinpoche (photo by Christine Fang)
Buddhist Temple by Poon Design, blessing ceremony with Shamar Rinpoche (photo by Christine Fang)

With the Buddhist temple, we subscribe to the vernacular–both in construction method and the stylistically neutral design. This pavilion, atop a 150-foot hill, is hand-crafted by community labor through authentic heavy timber construction methods. This methodology transforms tree trunks into extraordinary structures, without modern techniques of fabrication. The laborious carpentry from local woodworking artisans features joinery that uses scribed carpentry and pegged mortise-and-tenon connections.

The evolving master plan explores other possibilities: visitor center, museum, dormitory, cabins, administration building, and so on. When all said and done, the structures will be indeed shelter. And yes, the structures will provide a roof over one’s head. But all these projects, past and future, capture two essential aspects of architecture: to accommodate and to defer. A lesson in design, and sometimes, in life as well.

© Poon Design Inc.