Vale de Moses is a world-class yoga retreat located in the breathtaking, forested mountains of central Portugal. Originally a farm, the abandoned property was purchased by a British family during a year-long tour of Europe. In 2020, the owners announced a call for design proposals for their new hillside practice hall. Special attention had to be given to the very sensitive environment in order to become an example of green building practices as well as an iconic landmark in its own right.
The overarching purpose of the yoga shala is to provide an escape from our dualistic way of living. Our modern lives, primarily within urban environments, require an overwhelming amount of focused attention, causing us to experience chronic fatigue and distress. Based on Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (KART) these experiences can be relieved through finding refuge and ‘effortless attention’ within natural spaces.
How can the shala have a physical presence but still allow us to surrender to the phenomena that is the unifying forces of the surrounding nature?
On arriving at the site, the guest is being invited to detach from their past environment and the chaos circulating through their minds, traversing into an other-worldly space. This detachment is engendered through a journey of mystery and contemplation. KART states that mystery is generally preferred by humans within natural environments, and hence will be utilised to draw one into the site with further promise of awakening.
A parallel can be understood between natural spaces and ancient sacred spaces. Both of these have endured the forces of time and hence provoke us to conceptualise entities that are vaster than ourselves, consider our long-standing affinity with the earth and regard our everyday concerns as futile.
Through designing the shala as an ‘Undeliberate Monument’ echoing relics, ruins, sacred spaces, one’s attention remains effortless. Research carried out by UCL (Heritage Healing) shows that contact with heritage sites improves mood and prompts a sense of citizenship with feelings of belonging, continuity, stability and memory. With ruins having no prescribed function, they are available to be interpreted by each individual who enters the space generating a personal and engaging experience. Locally sourced natural materials immerse the guest into the present place narrating the history of Oleiros and the surrounding Schist Villages (traditional slate houses), with a prominence of ecclesiastical buildings and sites of heritage.
Contrary to the promise of ‘maintenance free’ products, the proposed architecture becomes conscious of its own life cycles
As a foundation to these ideas, the structure will encourage and enhance the local ecosystem by introducing new ground, shade and water for its biodiversity to flourish. The proposed architecture becomes conscious of its own life cycles as: materials are being utilised according to their strengths and designed for disassembly. Natural, renewable resources are being preferred wherever possible turning a minimal negative impact on the environment into a positive, regenerative one.
The wider aim of the project is to evoke a reminder for the wound caused by the catastrophic wildfires of Portugal and for the human ability to heal it; growing into an Undeliberate Monument that serves as a national precedent for future rural developments.
2. The Journey
Vale de Moses emerged as a life project of the Winter family when they decided to leave their past lives amidst busy London and settle in the undiscovered beauty of this valley. Through sharing the knowledge of ancient yogic practices and their quest towards their True Self, they reignited a dialogue between West and East, 400 years after the famous pilgrimage of local priest, Antonio de Andrade, into Tibet.
The new shala forms a continuum of this dialogue between two worlds: Western scientific thinking merges with Eastern aesthetic principles offering its guests a profound restorative journey as a preparation for their yogic practice.
In this context, the design embodies a sequence of 4 architectural moments that directly reflect the 4 states of attention introduced by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan in environmental psychology: directed attention, attention fatigue recovery, effortless attention and attention restoration.
1. Directed Attention
In this stage, the visitor’s attention is distracted by past thoughts and bits of residual information. To find clarity in this state seems impossible. The scattered stepping stones and the prevailing cork tree in front of them form an invitation to gently detach and step onto the mindful path of restoration.
2. Attention Fatigue Recovery
By crossing the first gateway of the garden, the visitor enters the second stage restoring their depleted attention back to normal. This space takes the shape of an enclosed yard. Shaded by its walls and dense vegetation, it transmits an atmosphere of safety and arrival. Various paths and lookouts slow down our visitor and remind them of the many possibilities provided by life when living in the present moment.
3. Effortless Attention
Right after the second gateway, the space opens up the view into the vastness of the valley, accompanied by the water body of the constructed wetland and the organic mycelium columns. It invites the visitor to reside in an effortless fascination of nature before entering the shala itself.
4. Attention Restoration
The last stage is being evoked by the practice of yoga, realigning mind, body and spirit. The facilitating space is defined by clear geometries and a visible structure providing a sense of stability. Earthen materials highlight the proximity to nature. Here the visitor can contemplate on their journey and envisage the path ahead by looking through the abstract pattern of the window frames into the depths of the valley.
3. The Space
Spatial design has, from a phenomenological perspective, the ability to change the way we perceive reality. The shala and its garden draws on various time-tested aesthetic elements aiming to stimulate the sensitivity of the visitor and prepare them for their yogic practice. When approaching the garden, it is possible to already recognise the shala from afar, if one discovers the thin sight line through the foliage and garden walls. This act of partially hiding architectural elements refers to the Japanese principle of Yugen, or the art of the untold. It addresses the richness found in a valley cloaked in autumn mist as it requires our imagination to complete the image beyond our first impression.
The walkway through the garden embodies the element of Michi-Yuki, the narration of travelling through a space reminding the visitor that everything is in constant motion. Snapshots through the walls into the valley or to the imminent stages of the shala reflect the Japanese concept of Icho-Go Ichi-E, the unrepeatable nature of a moment. It reminds the visitor that a moment can only be enjoyed as long as it lasts and is non repeatable.
The architectural promenade is a theme most known in Western culture through the works of Le Corbusier, but it can be dated back to much older times: for example labyrinths in medieval Christian churches or Sandō, the holy path towards a Buddhist shrine. Both have been drawn as a precedent for this project as they are capable of immersing visitors into states of contemplation and renewal.
4. The Cycle
The new yoga shala acknowledges the finite life cycle of each building component. Designed for Disassembly, materials can be replaced when their time has come and disposed organically aligning with the principles of Yoga: detachment and renewal.
A wall of cast mycelium leads the visitor through the site, gradually transforming into a traditionally built schist (Xisto) wall. Here the shala finds its place as an ‘wooden infill’ between these walls. Natural, local materials are being utilised according to their strengths: stone works as a protective layer against water and wind. Solid timber is used for the load bearing structure, making it lightweight, seismic-proof and carbon-negative.
Mycelium is being cultivated for interior insulation panels, harnessing their thermal and acoustic attributes and their ability to be regrown in case of replacement. Earth and clay provide the floor with thermal mass, its finishing layer is native Portugese cork. The roof is covered with locally sourced pine shingles and wood fiber insulation making it carbon negative and replacement friendly, too. Windows and shutters are scavenged from nearby villages and recomposed as revolving facade elements, a celebration of circular construction.
Passive design strategies are being implemented to reduce the need for mechanical technology to the bare minimum. The shala provides rain water and shade for the new species to flourish while its material waste can be converted into compost or biomass. The entire structure is composed with disassembly in mind leaving nothing but the stone walls behind encoded with the memory of what once was.