Varanasi is one of the holiest places of pilgrimage for Hindus all over India, and something of a tourist trap.
It is also reputed to be one of the most densely populated cities in the country. Millions regularly come to bathe, or be cremated, at the ghats (steps) leading down to the Ganges.
But just 120 miles south-east of Varanasi, across the state border in Bihar province - the poorest region in India - lies Bodhgaya, a rural town of 25,000 people, the centre of a totally different tradition.
Here Buddha is reputed to have found enlightenment, 2,500 years ago, after sitting under a Bodhi tree for 90 days. This less-developed area is home to a more sedate form of pilgrimage, and the town looks like it has not changed in decades. But not for much longer.
Work has just started on a 16ha masterplan for the town; the central focus of which will be the 152m high statue of the seated Buddha - the biggest statue in the world. Construction will take five years and cost £100 million. The project involves detailed professional research and development cooperation on a global scale; with design team members based in the UK and construction professionals based in Asia.
The masterplan comprises a range of ancillary accommodation and landscaping surrounding the massive focal point. The perimeter of the site is determined by a circular, threestorey wall of accommodation, which will house a monastery, convent, orientation centre, guest house, administration centre, restaurant and shops. With anticipated visitor numbers in excess of 2.5 million people a year, this complex is set to transform the locality in more than just its appearance.
The central focus of the new development in Bodhgaya is the seated Buddha temple, with a plinth height equivalent to a 17-storey building.
This is an awesome project and one which - because of the complexity of the brief and imaginative interventions by the architect - has been transformed from an exercise solely in engineering.
Rather than a hollow core with an expressed internal structure and elementary access routes typical of massive structures such as the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, this monumental project has to fulfil the needs of a place of spiritual reverence as well as quiet contemplation. It will also have to function as a tourist magnet.
As Nick Readett-Bayley, design architect at Whinney Mackay Lewis, says: 'The challenge is to combine discreet areas of calm and solitude within a vast, cathedral-like space.'
This is unlike historic Christian religious building traditions, which tend to accentuate spiritual might over the individual, without room for meditative isolation. The architectural challenge has been to turn a monumental engineering project into a subtle spiritual retreat on a human scale. The overall site provides a massive ambulatory route through the landscaped gardens to the access point under the feet of the Buddha.
Externally, the plinth is formed of granite up to 800mm thick featuring niches for the placement of Buddhist images. The central band around the full perimeter of the plinth comprises a repeat relief of 15m-high lions.
On entering the statue, the space opens out into a huge central auditorium rising 21m (two-thirds the height of Tate Modern's turbine hall - but nearly twice as wide) to a gently curved soffit, which helps to draw light into the space and aids the natural ventilation air flows.
Directly facing the entrance, within this auditorium, is a 17m high Buddha situated in front of a 'light wall' - a wall 40m high and 60m long, angled at 7degrees to the vertical - perforated to harness the changing light conditions as the sun moves around the statue. Set within this wall will be 200,000 statues of Buddha. After nightfall, thousands of LED display lights will dance across the wall in gentle, random patterns.
Chris Cotton, managing director of Whinney Mackay Lewis, explains the form of the architecture: 'References come from ancient Indian architecture, as well as Modernist triumphs such as Corbusier's Ronchamp, with its deep sunken windows that filter light creating the air of mystery, spirituality and solemnity of a place set apart from the world. There is also a connection with Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in Illinois, where his inspiration created a 'noble room that could offer man prayer and meditation in a moving atmosphere' by the use of massive concrete columns beneath bands of light which pierce the slab.'
Access to other levels from the central hall will be via the stairs or lifts within the legs of the seated Buddha. There are many levels, balconies, shrines and corridors arranged to facilitate the Buddhist clockwise circulation patterns, giving views and glimpses into other areas, thus maintaining a sense of spatial progression as well as a link with other areas while, at the same time, preserving a volumetric separation.
The end result is to offer the visitor new perspectives and insights.
This is best exemplified by the Level 5 platform, which extends above the main ground floor hall area, whose soffit becomes a curved wall of glass from this new location, enabling views down to the top of the internal statue of Buddha, and across to the light wall. Level 8 has a tempting preview of the external world - through carefully angled bronze light louvres - and up to the imposing face of the main Buddha, some 80m higher still. The architect has been scrupulous in using every effort to maximize natural light to permeate the building, while ensuring that the integrity of the sculptural form is not compromised. Glazing is contained in the lap, folds in the garment and through perforations in the sleeve.
Moving outside, onto the top of the plinth, a visitor can walk about 50m above ground level among a landscaped roof terrace and water garden, offering profound views for miles around the surrounding countryside.
The scheme has been developed in an organic way. Given that the form of the statue is set, the challenge has been to create an architectural form out of the core, and to this end the architect has used models and computer graphics as mutually reinforcing tools to the design process.
The complexity of the shapes, constrained by the steel structure and support framing, has been built in huge models to allow the designers to experience the geometries and the scale. The architect's offices are filled with GRP sculptural forms, timberframed detail models or simply paper and cardboard patterns.
In some ways, these crude feasibility models are the most dynamic; the paper slivers being used to simulate the 15mm thick bronze sheets, which will clad the whole statue, are aesthetically reminiscent of the ribbons of Gehry's Guggenheim. All of these models play a vital role in enabling the architect to envisage how the practical issues marry with the design intent. These models are used as visualization devices, but have also formed part of extensive research in lighting simulator tests, ventilation and wind tests.
Nick Readett-Bayley says: 'The interface between physical and digital in 3D has been fascinating. The architectural models are constructed in CAD by simply scaling off the models using a ruler and a piece of string.
Once a crude model is in CAD, fine tuning involves setting various fixed views within the model and manipulating the mesh surfaces until the spaces respond in a desirable way, then taking slice after slice through the model to generate the GAs.
'Most of the data for the project exists as 3D information (architecture, structure and cladding), as this is the only way of understanding what is happening; the 2D drawings record rather than generate'.
The 2.1 x 3.6m structural steel members, set as simple struts, are designed to cater for earthquakes as well as the day-to-day rigours of the massive loading and thermal movement and are encased in concrete at low level to guard against fire damage.
In fact the building has to endure 1,000 years from the date of completion - way beyond the normal predictive capacity of architects, although the design team has been careful to give full consideration to the IPCC reports on climate change.
The size and malleability of the 5,000 nickel-bronze sheets has, to a certain extent, determined the internal forms as the steel structure is wrapped with a secondary steel frame and tertiary fixing hoops which allow the building to expand.
There are only three movement joints, located at discreet positions at the neck and lap and feet to accommodate variable movement; the rest of the structure will 'swell' on its frame. All of this essential steel and engineering creates a significant network of bracing members which, of necessity, jut into voids and crisscross the utilisable spaces. Physical models and CAD technology allows the massing of spatial 'pods', to maximize the habitable areas.
Cutting back on internal services, the Buddha will be naturally ventilated throughout by a simple process of allowing cooling air to enter the building through labyrinthine tubes underground, and to exhaust at high level through the plinth deck and at the head.Natural lighting will be used wherever possible.
The architect says that the building will have no more detrimental impact on the environment than if the area had remained paddy fields.
Emissions and energy use will be as if the site had not developed. This is because the scheme will, to all intents and purposes, remain self-sufficient.
A massive aquifer is being constructed underground to cater for all the needs of the site, with sufficient storage capacity to even out the annual drought. Solar panels lining the perimeter 'living wall' will generate enough electricity to power the project and reed beds, rather than sewage disposal systems, will encourage the recycling of waste and minimize expenditure on infrastructure.
Whinney Mackay Lewis'Chris Cotton says: 'Passive design engineering will produce well tested and proven solutions that are in harmony with the local climate and environment.
'By taking heed of the lessons embodied in ancient structures in similar climates, the design process will integrate the best of modern technology and thought with the best historical models, to provide solutions that can last for over a millennium.'
CONTRACT VALUE £100 million
CONTRACT COMPLETION 2005
CONTRACT NEC (New Engineering Contract)
SITE AREA 16ha CLIENT The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition
ARCHITECT Whinney Mackay Lewis
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER/PROJECT MANAGER Mott MacDonald
SERVICES/ ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER Fulcrum Consulting
MAIN CONTRACTOR Larsen and Toubro
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Glasspoole Thomson
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS artists Denise and Peter Griffin, Dorset (in association with Buddhist master craftsmen); mould makers Castings Development Centre, Sheffield; logistics/permissions Dalal Consultants & Engineers, New Delhi; CAD/CAM Delcam;environmental assessments/monitoring Environmental Resources Management, New Delhi; site investigations FugroKND Geotechnical Services, Mumbai; Foundry services Westley Group, West Midlands, IT Price, Newcastle; Glass research Hodgkinson Marshall; glass security advisor Bureau of Cultural Protection; stone consultant Anglo European Stone; fire consultant Buro Happold, FEDRA; access engineering High Rise Services