Feb 26, 2016

Building a Meditation Commune in Small-Town IowaWhy one rural town is full of Maharishi Vastu architecture

February 24, 2016

The Tower of Invincibility
The Tower of Invincibility
On the last few miles of the drive to Fairfield, Iowa, a two-lane blacktop, which up to this point curves, climbs, and dips through hills and dales, straightens out on a high, flat plane. You feel much closer to the sky here. The regular features of the Midwest countryside—orderly corn and soybean fields; whitewashed farmhouses with their barns, silos, and other outbuildings; copses of trees poking out of ravines—take on an almost Platonic idealness. It’s the heartland as Edward Hopper would have painted it: stark and quiet with hard, white light. It is a fitting approach to the American center of the global Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement, home of the Maharishi University of Management (MUM), the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment (MSAE), Vedic City, Utopia Park trailer park, and the largest collection of Maharishi Vastu architecture in this hemisphere.

The first Vastu building you encounter is well outside of town. Sitting far back on the west side of Highway 1, it is a large structure, almost classical in style and apparent symmetry. An east-facing, three-story central mass anchors the edifice. An orthogonal cupola tops the roof, with an exotic crown detail that resembles a miniature onion dome. From this stately center extend, north and south, two wings, punctuated by their own small cupolas and domes. A white picket fence surrounds the site.

It looks like a knock-off of a grand 19th-century hotel erected in India by the British Raj. But it’s not a hotel—it’s an office building. A sign by the highway lists the tenants: Lisco, a local internet service provider; Maharishi Ayurveda, which manufactures and sells Vedic health products; Cambridge Investment Research, a broker-dealer; two law offices; something called Prairie Hills Management; and Fortune Creating Buildings, the North American headquarters of Maharishi Vastu architecture.

Vedic City
Founded by the TM movement in 2001, Vedic City was the first newly incorporated town in Iowa in 60 years.

Maharishi Vastu, also called Maharishi Sthapatya Veda, is the architectural corollary of the practice of Transcendental Meditation. It evolved as part of the TM movement’s effort to extend its brand to cover all aspects of life. The movement and its followers have been designing and erecting Sthapatya Vedic buildings for the past 20 years, primarily in Fairfield and its environs, but also in communities throughout the world. My trip last autumn was, in part, to slake a professional curiosity—I’m an architectural journalist. My investigation also had a personal dimension. This was far from my first trip to Fairfield. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I went through one year of junior high and two years of high school at MSAE. My parents, practitioners of TM since the late 1960s, taught my brother and me to meditate when we were seven years old. We were one of many TM families who came from large cosmopolitan centers—Houston, Texas, in our case—to be part of this community of spiritual seekers located incongruously in the corn belt of Jefferson County, Iowa.

Taste of Utopia Street is the main drag of Utopia Park trailer park: affordable TM housing in the pre-Vastu era.Aaron Seward

Sthapatya Vedic architecture was only just becoming popular among TMers when I left Fairfield to go to college. Like many children of the movement, I spent the subsequent years questioning and discarding the philosophical propositions of TM, but I never completely turned my back on Fairfield. The town holds formative memories for me. It’s where I met many of my life-long friends. Some of them still live there, and it is they who have kept me informed, with a certain amount of dismay, of the rise of Vastu. Sthapatya Veda buildings looked cheap, they said. They were ugly, unsuited to the local landscape, and ignored common sense. Nonetheless, the true believers were selling their homes in town and doing whatever they could to build Vastu homes in new developments on the outskirts. The movement began to redevelop the campus of MUM to bring it in-line with Vedic principles, a process that included draining its beautiful pond and barricading the southern entrance. It also demolished several early-20th century masonry academic buildings, among them a handsome stone church, and replaced them with gold-painted timber frame structures built according to Sthapatya Vedic principles.

Architecture is a cultural phenomenon, and it reflects the consciousness of those who design and build it. The culture and consciousness of the TM movement evolved from a single source: its founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who died in 2008. Maharishi (which means "great seer") was an Indian spiritual leader who began teaching TM in the 1950s. As early as 1958, he visited the United States to promote his form of mantric meditation, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that his teachings attracted a mass audience and became a full-blown movement. At that time, Maharishi gained a number of celebrity followers—including The Beatles—and soon an entire generation of young people, dissatisfied with the world their parents had laid, were tuning in to his philosophical teachings and meditating on his mantras. The TM movement had approximately 700,000 followers in 1977, more than a million by the 1980s, and as many as five million in recent years.

Aside from the heavy tile roof and onion dome detail, this Vastu home would fit in easily among the Midwestern vernacular.Jon Lipman

While a large portion of Maharishi’s following is in India, his main focus was on expansion in the West, and his great success was in adapting Hindu spiritualism to Western sensibilities. (So dedicated to the West was he that he established his primary residence in Vlodrop, Holland, after a series of lawsuits curtailed his visits to the United States.) Western celebrities helped his cause, but his real genius was in tailoring the practice of TM to fit Western lifestyles. The elaborate mantras and invocations that make up Hindu religious practice were stripped down to a single-syllable sound—the mantra—repeated quietly to oneself for 20 minutes twice a day: once in the morning between waking and going to work or school, and once in the evening between returning from work or school and eating dinner. Far from prepping one for the loss of individuality, the practice of TM was said to help the practitioner rest, relieve stress, and achieve full potential spiritually and materially.

The men's Golden Dome, at the entrance of the MUM campus, erected in 1980, has since been renovated to bring it in-line with Vastu principles.Aaron Seward

During the practice of TM, the meditator—who "effortlessly" repeats the mantra in a sitting position with eyes closed—is said to transcend through levels of consciousness, shedding all thoughts, and all self-referential mental or physical activity, until reaching a state of "pure Being." "It is neither matter nor energy," wrote Maharishi in his 1963 book The Science of Being and Art of Living. "It is pure Being, the state of pure existence…Everything is the expression of this pure existence…which is the essential constituent of all relative life." TM only brings the practitioner into contact with pure Being for brief moments. The human mind, being a naturally restless and querulous entity, soon buoys one back up into the mess of one’s own inner life. But, through regular practice, one would be able to spend longer and longer periods of time in touch with pure Being. And eventually, after some period of time—perhaps a very long period spanning several lifetimes, depending on one’s karma—a TM practitioner might achieve cosmic consciousness, or God-consciousness: "Then is the selfishness of man the selfish end of God; the individual mind of man the cosmic mind of God; the individual breath of man the cosmic breath of God; the individual speech of man the expression of cosmic silence."

In promoting TM in that way, Maharishi bundled the seemingly opposite poles of spirituality and materialism. "…The use of his full potential would enable a man to think, speak and act in such a manner that every thought, word and action would not only accomplish the maximum in material life but would also become a means of his remaining in tune with almighty God," Maharishi wrote. It was the perfect blend to attract the generation that was then coming of age in the West.

Located on Highway 1 north of Fairfield, this grand structure looks like a knock-off of a 19th-century hotel in India, but it's a Vastu office building.Aaron Seward

As the movement grew—today, it is estimated to have a net worth of some $3.5 billion—Maharishi, the Steve Jobs of Indian gurus, released a series of branded products to satisfy all aspects of spiritual and corporeal life. He told his followers to limit themselves to only his products, which included the TM-Sidhi program, an expanded meditation practice that professes to enliven particular aspects of life and speed one’s journey to enlightenment; Maharishi Ayurveda, a system of alternative medicine that is practiced clinically and involves a line of dietary supplements; and Maharishi Gandharva Veda, music that is said to create balance in nature and peace in the world. And then there is the most visible product of all: Maharishi’s system of Vedic architecture, which, the guru promised, would "provide cosmic harmony and support to the individual for his peace, prosperity, and good health — daily life in accord with Natural Law, daily life in the evolutionary direction."

I met Jonathan Lipman, the chief architect of Maharishi Vastu, in the all-vegetarian cafeteria on the MUM campus. "Vastu, or Sthapatya Veda, is part of the Vedic literature," he explains. "It is the architecture aspect of Natural Law. ‘Sthapatya’ means to establish. One of the qualities of the structures of nature is that they are holistic and integrated into the web of nature. In the Sanskrit language, the word that means a structure should be balanced between the parts, and the whole, and the cosmos, that word is Vastu."

This Vastu office building in Fairfield, with its vaguely classical pediment and columns, has a cupola that brings daylight to the center of the building, onion dome details, and PV arrays.Aaron Seward

All of Maharishi’s products are based in Vedic literature, ancient Hindu texts that were passed down orally by generations of priests before being written down. Unlike Ayurveda and Gandharva Veda, whose precepts are well described in the literature, the texts that describe Sthapatya Veda are arcane, difficult to understand, and thus open to wide interpretation. In India there are several lineages of Sthapatis—practitioners of Sthapatya Veda—who each have their own way of doing things. To develop his system of Vedic architecture, Maharishi went through a 15-year process of interpreting the Vedic texts in consultation with the most prestigious Sthapatis. Maharishi Vastu is the result of this effort, a complete practice of architecture with well-defined rules.

The Vedic texts, which were composed untold thousands of years ago, don’t have much to say about office buildings, or hospitals, or schools.

The first of these rules is that a building should face east. "The most powerful influence of natural law on the surface of the earth is the sun," says Lipman. "It rises in the east, sets in the west, and has different qualities of energy at different times of the day. The surface of the earth is moving, it’s rotating on its access to the east at this latitude about 700 miles per hour all the time, so the sun and everything outside of the earth come at us from the east because we’re rotating that way. When we’re facing that direction, our direction of travel, we’re kind of facing natural law, and we’re receiving it, we’re more in the flow of it."

The picket fence that surrounds Vastu buildings is another way of enforcing eastern orientation and extending the positive and protective influences of the architecture through the site. While eastern entrances are favored, northern entrances are acceptable. Southern and western entrances, however, are inauspicious and are avoided. In fact, many TM followers (called "roos," short for gurus, by the locals) who live in existing houses in Fairfield closed their homes’ south entrances and opened up new entrances on the east to bring them somewhat in line with Sthapatya Veda.

The white picket fences surrounding these Vastu office buildings enforce eastern orientation and extend the architecture's positive influence throughout the site.Aaron Seward

Whenever possible, Sthapatya Vedic buildings are designed to admit light to the center. In India this is often done via a courtyard. In Iowa, where the climate isn’t conducive to courtyards, it is done through skylights and raised cupolas with clerestory windows. Daylight infused all of the Vastu buildings that I visited during my trip to Fairfield—sometimes pleasantly so, and sometimes to the point of producing an uncomfortable amount of glare.

Unlike in much contemporary architecture, where solar orientation is calculated in order to optimize building performance, in Vastu the relationship of the structure to the sun is determined by the arcane prescriptions of the Vedic source texts. For example, according to Lipman, the Veda says that the sun has different qualities of energy at different times of the day. By locating specific residential functions in particular quadrants of a plan the Sthapatya Vedic architect is said to enliven certain qualities in the residents. "The dining room is where digestion is greatest, the living room is where conviviality is promoted, a study is where our mind is clear," says Lipman.

This Vastu office building in Fairfield shows some Eastern influence in its ziggurat-like column bays and prominently featured onion dome detail.Aaron Seward

This is less true with other building types. The Vedic texts, which were composed untold thousands of years ago, don’t have much to say about office buildings, or hospitals, or schools. As a result, Maharishi Vastu doesn’t dictate the placement of rooms in these facilities. But this hasn’t stopped the movement from building these sorts of structures according to its interpretation of the Veda. "In part what we are doing is identifying how we can apply these principles to the building types that exist today," says Lipman.

Besides the sun and its influences, Vastu incorporates a Vedic system of measurement and proportioning (the smallest unit, 1 nel, is equal to 11/64ths of an inch, and all ratios are determined by multiplying or equally dividing the chosen module); prescriptions for material choices (steel, for example, is not used, as it is considered inauspicious), and site planning guidelines. ("For instance, if there was a hill to the east of a building then clearly it would block the influence of the rising sun," says Lipman. "We wouldn’t build on such a site.")

While Vastu has many rules, it does not govern the style of a building. Just as Maharishi dressed Hindu spiritualism in Western garb to promote TM in Europe and America, his system of architecture is adaptable to the prevailing tastes of a region. Most of the Vastu houses I saw in Fairfield conformed to the local or other American vernacular styles. One was even designed to resemble a mountain lodge, complete with Douglas fir logs imported from the Pacific Northwest and an impressive stone fireplace. The Vastu buildings on the Maharishi University of Management campus, however, sought to embody what Lipman called a "Vedic style": a dull golden color with hipped roofs, white pilasters and trim, and wedding cake cupolas.

The women's Golden Dome, now dusty blue in color, was also built in 1980 and has since been renovated to Vastu standards.Aaron Seward

"The Vastu principles are not really style-giving," says Lipman. "The direction the building faces, the proportions, don’t contribute to style generally, so it is compatible with almost any different style." "Almost" is the operative word. Bilateral symmetry is a key aspect of Vedic architecture, and therefore, in Lipman's words, "Zaha Hadid would be very challenged to do a Vastu building and Frank Gehry might be too, because there are certain principles of a central main mass with additional masses, and completely fluid, non-hierarchical building style would be really challenging to overlay on a Vastu building."

Another defining feature of Vastu architecture is the Brahmasthan, the geometric center of the structure, which is marked on the floor in one way or another: a polished stone, a piece of demarcating furniture, a slab of glass etched with a Mandala. If the mystical underpinnings of Vastu were not clear before, here they become undeniably so. According to the Vedic view of cosmology, the universe arises from and collapses back to a single, "unmanifest" point in an unending cycle—much the way the Big Bang theory described nature until scientists discovered that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, destined to stretch out and grow cold, probably never to contract again. In Vastu architecture, this point is acknowledged in order to bring the house and its inhabitants into harmony with the Vedic laws of nature. And the onion dome detail at the crown of the building serves as an intermediary, a junction point between the heavens and the environment below.

You can buy a t-shirt online that reads, "Fairfield, IA: 5.7 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality." It’s a play on what Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kanther once said about San Francisco, that it is 49 square miles surrounded by reality. The comparison is an apt one. Many people who moved to Fairfield for TM left the movement but stuck around to pursue other New Age spiritual practices. And many children of TM, who left for college or professional reasons, returned to raise families and start businesses.

This town of around 10,000 inhabitants smack in the middle of conservative "Silicorn Valley" has many of the markers of "up-and-coming" towns everywhere: an art gallery, an organic health food store, a performing arts and convention center, the best burger in Southeast Iowa, a cider works, a hip coffee shop, and a nightclub that books touring indie bands. The seat of Jefferson County, it is home to an impressive courthouse that is on the National Register of Historic Places. It has a town square complete with a gazebo at its center, ringed with brick buildings occupied by a variety of active storefronts housing everything from a cell phone store to something called the Divine Mother Church. There are a number of stately Victorian mansions along the main thoroughfares, and blocks and blocks of quiet, tree-lined residential streets. You can easily walk its entire length and breadth, and traffic is minimal.

This Vastu home near the MUM campus turns its back on Heavenly Lane, which is to the west of the site. The entrance is on the east side, a key precept of Vastu.Aaron Seward

Little Maharishi Vastu architecture exists in the center of Fairfield. A few commercial buildings make themselves known with eastern orientations and onion dome details. And then there is the campus of the Maharishi University of Management, with its new Vastu academic buildings, its drained pond, and the old Golden Domes, which were built in 1980 as group meditation halls, one for women, one for men. Today they are hemmed in by white picket fences, their entrances reoriented to face east, their tops crowned by onion dome details. The ground between them, as of 2007, is occupied by The Tower of Invincibility, a dull golden obelisk bearing inscriptions that glorify those who erected it and commemorate something called Invincibility Day, which is apparently helping to bring about world peace. The Tower of Invincibility has its own white picket fence to protect it from inauspicious influences.

A number of existing homes have been modified to bring them in line with Sthapatya Vedic principles, though Lipman says the movement no longer authorizes existing home retrofits. It is simply too difficult, he says, to meet the stringent requirements of Maharishi Vastu and obtain the full benefits of what the movement calls a Fortune Creating Home. So, to live in Vastu, you have to build from the ground up.

Most of the Vastu architecture being built in Fairfield today is rising in small subdivisions on the outskirts of town and in nearby Maharishi Vedic City, which was incorporated in 2001. Out there, on the tabula rasa of the Iowa cornfields, it is possible to see Vastu in unadulterated surrounds, as well as to catch a glimpse of Vedic town planning.

At first glance, there is little that distinguishes these Vastu homes from any other American contemporary residence built on a similar budget. They are almost entirely symmetrical; the same could be said for many developer tract homes throughout the country. They are composed of walls set on foundations and topped by roofs, with windows for daylight and views and doors through which to enter and leave. The materials are also, if not always standard, certainly not unique to Vastu. Most of the homes I saw were wood-framed and sided with asphalt shingle roofs and vinyl windows, though Lipman also showed me a more modern house he had designed with concrete panel cladding. He also took me to a subdivision called Abundance EcoVillage, which exists completely off the grid, where many of the homes are made with straw-bale construction. Maharishi, he pointed out, was an early proponent of solar energy, and indeed photovoltaic arrays, in addition to wind turbines, are to be seen throughout Fairfield in general.

Abundance EcoVillage, built in the middle of the cornfields, exists completely off the grid, drawing all of its power from a wind turbine and PV arrays.Jon Lipman

There is something eerie about a close collection of buildings all facing the same direction — east, in this case. The setup also creates very real urban planning impracticalities, which Lipman grappled with when the movement was laying out Vedic City. "We are engaged in a kind of experiment in introducing these principles into this culture," he says. "We are figuring some of those things out as we go along. For example, on the face of it, it would sound like you cannot lay out the blocks that compose a city if all the houses face north or east. How can you lay out a grid of blocks with houses on both sides of the streets? Several of us have really tried to figure out what the solutions are, because to say that you’re going to single-load every street means that infrastructure costs are going to be vastly higher."

Whether planners and architects are Vedic Sthapatis or Mies van der Rohe, it is the residents who ultimately decide how buildings and cities will be put to use. In laying out Vedic city, Lipman and his team did indeed create single-loaded blocks, with houses facing the backsides of the next row of houses. These single-loaded grids were placed within rings, expressed in landscaping and walkways, with several such rings surrounding a central ring. "When I moved in there, what I discovered is that once or even twice a day somebody, or a couple, will step out of their house and they’ll go for a walk around the loop. And as they walk other families will see them and they will hop out of their house and they’ll join them. They’re all just chatting and stuff, but it looks like a parade….I had no clue. I’m just following these ancient patterns. And so it’s very interesting to watch what’s actually happening."

For those of us outside of the Movement, it can be easy to scoff at attempts to force an ancient and mystical system of architecture into modern life. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be charmed by that same fact, especially when you compare it to the seemingly mercenary motivations of many housing builders in the United States, whose developments are devoid of both architecture and substance. With Maharishi Vastu there is at least the striving for something beyond the profit margin (though there is that as well). Its aim is spiritual and utopian, values that modern architecture once tried to promote before becoming simply a style.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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