The Buddhist tradition is essentially about the discipline of the mind to attain Enlightenment or transcendental wisdom, but its techniques and outlook can (and should, for the Buddhist) be applied to any task at hand, including design. The application of Buddhist thought as a non-religious, philosophical outlook to engage daily life, from psychology to literature, is generally referred to as the “Mindfulness Movement.” To be mindful is to be present here and now; to go deep into the present moment, with all its complexity and to the full extent of experience; to exercise the mind in order to be able to focus its attention. The idea is that we can live richer and happier lives if we learn to stop and appreciate fully our life experience in the here and now. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, has written extensively about mindfulness and its application to daily life (see http://www.plumvillage.org/thich-nhat-hanh.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thich_Nhat_Hanh).
It would seem, however, that mindfulness and design are just incompatible. The phrase “mindful designer” seems to be, at first glance, just another cute oxymoron. How is it possible to be mindful as a designer if a designer (landscape architect, urban designer, architect, engineer, etc.) is concerned mainly about the future, about a potential reality that is not here and now? Conversely, why would somebody bother with the hard labor of design if the present is so wonderful and rich?
I think this apparent contradiction dissolves when we look at the new ways of thinking about the design process and the role of the designer, coming mainly from landscape architecture, on one hand; and, when we look deeper at some of the basic Buddhist ideas behind mindfulness, on the other.
One of the fundamental insights of the historical Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha (563-483 BCE), is the idea that all of reality, including ourselves, is in constant flux; the idea that everything is empty of true independent being or that everything is impermanent. The practice of meditation and the techniques of mindfulness help us to focus our mind so that it is not carried away in this constant internal and external flux of events and ideas. While the mindful person recognizes the importance of dwelling in the present moment, they also learn to recognize the complexity of the world we experience as reality and the interdependence of all the “systems” that form that reality. (Despite that for the Buddhist the ultimate nature of reality can only be known to the fully enlightened mind, our mental constructs of reality can help us “bend the flux” of events to obtain different, advantageous outcomes.)
It is precisely this “systems” way of understanding reality (e.g., “the landscape”) that is at the base of over 100 years of theory and practice in landscape architecture. Other design disciplines, particularly urban design, have also turned to a systems (or ecological) approach, instead of being merely preoccupied with form and visual experience. The systems approach in design begins by recognizing that a landscape, a city, or even a building, is a complex made out of interrelated systems that are in constant flux. When the designer recognizes this simple (Buddhist and ecological) truth, the role of design completely changes from its traditional conceptualization.
The traditional view is that the designer defines a set of conditions for the construction of a building, a city or a landscape, and that those conditions will constitute a final and permanent reality. The view that has been used in landscape architecture, and in other disciplines more recently, is that the designer does not define a final reality but instead sets in motion a complex of systems that will have its own (interdependent) life and will be affected by many factors beyond the control of the designer, and even beyond the control of the “operator” of the building, city or landscape. This “setting in motion” of a complex (or bundle) of systems is equivalent to the “bending of the flux” that I mentioned above.
So, how can one be a “mindful designer” or how can one practice mindfulness in design? I propose the following characteristics of the mindful designer and elements of mindful design:
- As a designer, you never start from zero. There is something there already at the site or in the mind of your client or both. The site belongs to a place; the place has its history and history is part of the present moment – here and now; it is the way the flux passes through this point of now. Know it.
- Understand and approach landscape, city, and building as bundles of interrelated systems. Know (draw, describe, measure, inventory…) what those systems are, how they behave, how they relate to each other (build a model), and the extent to which you as designer can have influence over them (how many “degrees of freedom” you have or how much you can “bend their flux” or, more technically, what are the “tolerances” of those systems). This is nothing more than focusing the mind on the here and now; being mindful about the site in which one will intervene.
- Understand nested scales or realms of action. A model of the site should specifically address the relationship between nested scales or “hierarchy” of systems.
- Be present with your client and with the site. Camp at the site if you can. Use drawing meditation. Draw it in the morning, at midday, in the afternoon, at night…. Have a deep experience of “what is” – be it a site, a city, a region, a landscape, the client’s needs, a community, a program…
- Adopt a “naïve” approach. Don’t let previous experience impact your assessment of the site and the design problem. Don’t go to the site with preconceived ideas or “solutions.” Don’t use precedents just yet. Be open to what the client has in mind and what the site tells you. Open up to experience here and now. Don’t think you are the expert and the client or community knows nothing….
- Shed the idea that design is a single act of the mind. Design is and has to be continuous because the object of design is a complex bundle of systems in constant flux; everything is ever changing, including social and cultural norms and standards. Continuous design implies that, while initial conditions need to be defined to set in motion the bundle of systems at a site, landscape, city or building, design work is never completely done because the flux must be bent continuously to obtain the desired results in the short and medium terms.
- Don’t attempt to design for the long term. It’s useless. Don’t do “master planning.” Don’t waste your time. Focus on the here-and-now and on how can you “bend” the here-and-now to a more desirable condition in the near future. “Surgical interventions” are more effective than master planning. Believe me; I have seen it many times.
- Use modest but effective (skillful) means. The use of “skillful means” – discerning, gentle, and precise – is a hallmark of the mindful designer.
- Strive for simplicity and clarity – clarity of intention and clarity of design. The product of a focused, spacious, mind is clarity of intention and, eventually, clarity of design. Once you have an initial design strategy, then, look at precedents to see if there is something missing in your understanding of site and program or in the thoroughness with which you deal with all of the systems in the “bundle” of your site.
- Recognize the unity of all being, the connectedness of all elements of reality. This, of course, speaks of transcendental significance, but those places that are experienced as outstanding landscapes or cities or buildings always speak to the human spirit.
- Respect living organisms and the ecosystems that support them. Cause the least impact necessary. The allowable impact of a design should be less than the expected benefit for the community, never more.
- Be gentle and show compassion. Compassion – desiring that all sentient beings are free from suffering and its causes – is an important concept in Buddhism. For the designer it should be an important ideal to show compassion in design because design has an impact on many people. Even if it is a small house on a secluded site, the site is always connected through ecological processes to more than one person or living organism.
The practice of mindfulness, and the Buddhist principles it comes from, opens a lot of possibilities to the designer. It gives the designer the opportunity to approach a site and a design project with a clear, uncluttered, and pliable mind; it allows the designer to be more sensitive to the here and now, and eventually allows them to be more effective in obtaining an advantageous result. I am willing to bet that, at the end, and with sufficient practice, the mindful designer will produce ever more wonderful places in which to live, work, play, and experience the beauty of every moment, here and now.