Giles Oliver visits Walters & Cohen’s Vajrasana Buddhist Retreat in Suffolk


Giles Oliver

Dennis Gilbert, Will Scott

The Triratna Buddhist Community, which originated in London in the 1960s and now has centres in more than 20 countries, hosts public meditation and study programmes throughout the UK.

For the past 40 years it has offered short-stay retreats in the East Anglian countryside, which have been gradually extended beyond the Buddhist community to people coping with stress, addiction and depression as well as carers in need of a break.

With this rising demand, in 2000 the community bought a farmhouse and six acres of paddock at Potash Farm, Suffolk and re-named it ‘Vajrasana’, Sanskrit for the mythical spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment under a bodhi tree in India. Using mostly volunteer labour, the buildings were converted to accommodate up to 34 retreatants, with a shrine room improvised from straw bales inside the barn.

In 2008 an unforeseen legacy raised the possibility of replacing the outbuildings and creating a purpose-built, larger retreat centre from scratch. Further supported by hundreds of donations, and finally a bank loan, the London Buddhist Centre team – which included experienced New Zealand architect Maitrivajri – approached the RIBA’s client advisory panel, who recommended four architectural practices.

Walters & Cohen was appointed in 2013, and there began a close collaboration with the client group, including the landscape architect and structural and environmental engineers. Dozens of design sessions were held, with all disciplines contributing.

The client’s poetic brief called for a beautiful and peaceful environment that reflected both Buddhist traditions and the new western cultural forms that the Triratna Order has pioneered in terms of collectivity and community action. The team could not identify any precedents in the UK and few worldwide. How to translate their Buddhist ethos into built form?

The client’s poetic brief called for a beautiful and peaceful environment that reflected both Buddhist traditions and the new western cultural forms”

In due course a design theme emerged based on the foundational Buddhist principles of Triratna (Three Jewels), namely the Buddha (each person’s inherent enlightened nature), the Dharma (the Buddha’s teaching) and the Sangha (the community of followers).

These were resolved as three distinct external spaces, linked by a cloistered walkway in what Cindy Walters named an ‘Axis of Devotion’. The resulting built form is a sequence of courtyards, roughly occupying the footprint and scale of the previous outbuildings. Consciously facing inwards and providing shelter from the prevailing winds, this cloistered environment offers only glimpses of the surrounding gardens and countryside.


Encircled by a belt of trees, and approached obliquely past the old farmhouse, the dark-walled, low-slung centre is at first sight reminiscent of local agricultural outbuildings. But as you follow the gravelled entrance path, a welcoming, cloistered world is revealed.

The main entrance courtyard is formed by retreat rooms on two sides and a communal lounge, refectory and kitchen on the third. Richly planted, with seating and a variety of pathways, it is the space of communal encounter and interaction, one of the Three Jewels, or Sangha. The single-storey accommodation buildings, evoking the farm’s agricultural antecedents, are dressed in charred vertical timber cladding.

But looking closer, the elegant precast columns, high-spec doors and windows, crafted use of stacked blue brickwork and cast resin walkways reveal this as no rustic throwback but a sophisticated composition of undecorated contemporary materials.

the north-easterly ‘temple precinct’ is demarcated by a full-height, perforated ‘jali’ wall of dark blue bricks that provides glimpses of the sequence of increasingly contemplative of spaces beyond”

The symbolic boundary to the north-easterly ‘temple precinct’ is demarcated by a full-height, perforated ‘jali’ wall of dark blue bricks that provides glimpses of the sequence of increasingly contemplative of spaces beyond. The first walled courtyard contains a white stone ‘stupa’ – here a focus for collective rituals and reliquary for the ashes of the order’s deceased teachers, and itself a symbol of impermanence, a central tenet of the Buddha’s teachings.

Appropriately the landscaping, with its granite paving, appears bone dry. In contrast, across the walkway, is a beautiful walled garden for more solitary contemplation, with abundant foliage and a raised pool containing a bronze statue of Buddha that is reflected in the shimmering surface. This is Akshobhya, the aspect of Buddha that mirrors the nature of reality.


The culmination of this micro-pilgrimage is the Shrine Room, a 200-square-metre, double-height ‘interior courtyard’ that seats 60 on its oak floor. In a cleverly-designed lateral vestibule, retreatants take off their shoes and coats and pick up their mats and cushions before entering.

The Shrine Room is lined in the same dark-blue brickwork as the courtyard walls, but with high-level glazed openings intended to mimic the effect of dappled light in a forest glade (the landscape plan envisages embracing the room with woodland). The focus of the Shrine Room is a four-metre-high statue of Buddha, sculpted by a member of the community. In contrast to the raw brick walls, it is set within a gilded niche with museum-like illumination, a striking presentation of the ‘ideal’.


Great care has been applied to ensure that the space of the Shrine Room is silent. Ground-source-tempered fresh air is gently introduced through perimeter floor grilles shared with the central heating pipes. Air is extracted through the ceiling perimeter to roof vents, attenuated to preclude aircraft noise.

As retreatants will be seated here (with short breaks) for up to eight hours each day, a balanced, fresh atmosphere is vital to help maintain awareness and attention. While the filtered clerestorey daylight connects to the passage of the day, shielded drop-lights allow for reading-level illumination. The overall atmosphere is deeply calm, with an intimate acoustic generally dispensing with any need for amplification.

All the accommodation is built to Passivhaus standards, albeit relaxed slightly to allow for opening windows. The shared retreat rooms are almost spartan in their simplicity, with timber-framed beds, painted blockwork walls, exposed conduit and cast-resin floors.

Each room has a full-height, openable window with a view to either the countryside or the courtyard. It is clear that they are intended primarily for sleeping rather than private retreat. While the palette might seem austere, however, the detailing is refined and should ensure ease of maintenance.

Their stone-like firmness and solidity signals a bold commitment to quality”

The two principal communal spaces – the lounge and dining room – are aligned directly beside the entrance to the retreat. Exceptionally, they have wide, openable windows that face out to the south-west meadow and the entrance pathway.

With the lights on in the evenings and in winter, the otherwise enclosed world of the retreat should present a welcoming face to new arrivals. An open fire in the lounge will also help to achieve the client’s desired balance between the domestic and the institutional. For these higher rooms, with their pitched ceilings, the designers and client opted for precast portal frames in the same fine finish as the cloister columns. Their stone-like firmness and solidity signals a bold commitment to quality.

There’s no doubt that the retreat centre’s beautiful sequence of places and spaces is a result of a remarkable collaboration, and a reflection of both the design team’s clear architectural language and the client’s ethos. In its peaceful setting, this is a fine example of a consciously sympathetic environment for those seeking to calm and train the mind through the support of shared retreat.

Download Drawings


Walters & Cohen
Design Team
Cindy Walters, Lucrezia Vitaletti, Jean Wang, Marianne Zylstra, Kirsten Holland, Giacomo Damiani, Filiz Erol
Price & Myers
M&E Consutant
Skelly Couch
Project Manager
Holloway Squire

SEH French
Bronze plinth
Bronze Work
Wall ties