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Mindful : October 2013
Buildings for Real Places If you head southwest from Denver on Highway 9, you’ll eventually find yourself in Garo, Colorado. It’s where the road and sky meet, with mountains off in the distance. Buffalo Peaks Ranch is nearby. Estab- lished in 1863, it’s one of the oldest ranches in the state. This is one of the places Ekaterini “Kat” Vlahos takes her students. She teaches architecture at the University of Colorado in Denver, and she believes that instilling in her students a sense of the land, as well as the traditions of the people who settled there, makes for better, more conscious design. First, she asks her students to choose a spot. They sit and sketch for five minutes. Then they walk the site. They’re off by themselves, not talking to each other. “They’re doing a kind of walking meditation; they’re engrossed in the place,” says Vlahos. “Then I have them come back to the same site an hour later, and I say, ‘I want you to sit and sketch and obser ve what’s changed.’” Vlahos has her students do this several times during their site visits because even if all they’ve noticed is a change in the light, it’s valuable. “If you star t at nine in the morning and finish at three in the afternoon, the position of the sun is vastly different,” she says. “To be able to pick up on those things, and the nuances of the environ- ment, is critical. We do that by sitting quietly and observing.” Back in the classroom, the students discuss what they experienced. “Many of them want to go back multiple times,” Vlahos says. “They come up with ideas and they’ll say, ‘I need to go back and make sure I’m making the right deci- sions here. Am I being mindful of the impact I’m going to have on the people who will use what we’re planning to build?’” The result, says Vlahos, is “architecture that is sensitive and appropriate for that place.” Her students will become architects who know how to take people into account. They will also know how buildings interact with the landscape. Vlahos, 53, comes from a long line of Greek immigrants who worked the land. She was born and raised in Colorado but architecture took her to Los Angeles and Baltimore, where she helped design large urban buildings. Wanting to be back in the landscape that nur tured her, she came home to Colorado. Since she returned in the mid-’9 0s, she’s seen how much rural land is being consumed by development, with more than three million acres slated to be developed in the nex t 10 years. “Development for me is not a negative if it’s done well,” she says, “if it takes into account the region, the weather, those very basic things.” Vlahos decided that teach- ing architecture was the best way to ensure that future construction would take these fundamental elements into account. She’s also the director of the school’s Center of Pres- er vation Research, where they assemble documentation and analy ze historic sites. Ekaterini Vlahos and former student Mike Nulty, who is now a colleague at the Center of Preservation Research. “I reconnect to ever yday, ordinary places for inspira- tion,” she says. “For example, I found in these old ranches the buildings would be sided beautifully to maximize solar gain. They really understood the environment.” Her students help repur- pose older structures for clients. Recently, a couple wanted to find a new home for their 30,000 -volume library of historic books. That home will be the renovated Buffalo Peaks Ranch. Vlahos will guide her students through the design and preservation processes, how the ranch buildings will change in order to house books rather than livestock. “I use historic sites as a teaching tool,” she says. “ We try to understand what is there, to really obser ve. What I find is that the students become much more mindful about their proposals and actions because they’re tied to an actual place. We’re solving real problems for real people in real places.” ● “Students become much more mindful about their proposals and actions because they’re tied to an actual place.” Ekaterini Vlahos BE A THERMOMETER Notice hot, cold, cool, warm. Notice the movement of air. Does the temperature change? Back to regular life. Find more on Twitter @mindinterrupter OVERHEARD “I’ve been meditating for two years now. I had been leery of the new-age sensibil- ity around it, but friends talked about it in a very scientific way. It’s made a tremen- dous difference in my life.” ABC News journalist George Stephanopoulos at the Third Metric Conference 12 mindful October 2013 now PHOTOGRAPHBYJESSEKUROIWA