How to design for wellbeing

By Sujata Burman

Mandala Lab is a multi-sensory storytelling experience

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, New York City’s Rubin Museum of Art looked to its collections for support during a difficult period. The museum is a hub for Himalayan art, and its goal as an organisation is to inspire the public to make personal connections between the region’s culture and the works – so, during lockdown, the Rubin team reinvented one of the floors to provide a platform for its schools and learning programmes.

For this they turned to the Sarvavid Vairochana Mandala, held in its core collection. The 17th century Tibetan painting is of deity Sarvavid Vairochana seated in a meditation posture. He is surrounded at the cardinal directions by four buddhas that are specific to this mandala. “The Vairochana Mandala teachings happened to have the instructions of how we can better manage our emotions during periods of turmoil that really seemed suited and essential for this time and place,” says Tim McHenry, deputy executive director & chief programmatic officer of the Rubin. And so the Mandala Lab, an interactive space for social, emotional, and ethical learning was conceived. 

Inspired by powerful Buddhist principles, “the Mandala Lab is a storytelling journey that focuses on self awareness and awareness of others,” he explains. The cultural healing space was designed by Brooklyn-based architecture firm Peterson Rich Office and created in consultation with a host of cognitive scientists, Buddhist teachers and contemplative humanities researchers. It comprises five multisensory experiences – films, sculpture, scents and curated percussion instruments – created with multidisciplinary artists including Laurie Anderson, Sanford Biggers, Tenzin Tsetan Choklay, Billy Cobham, Amit Dutta, Sheila E, Peter Gabriel, Palden Weinreb and more. 

“The Mandala Lab,” explains McHenry, “empowers the public to engage with art experiences that help them to understand how they can convert the energy that they expend on emotions that usually cause turmoil to insights and wisdom that helps manage their lives better with greater calm and greater connection.” The Mandala Lab aims to achieve this through its five experiences that guide and assist the visitor along an inner journey. The Mandala Lab invites people to connect and learn through the meditative and often playful interactions of video, scents, sculptural and curated percussion instruments.

The next era of the Mandala Lab found itself in Bilbao, in 2022. “We really wanted the ideas that are inherent with Himalayan art, like the Sarvavid Vairochana,  to be shared with the world,” McHenry explains of the itinerant nature of the project. Aligning with the city’s 2022 Wellbeing Summit, this iteration of Mandala Lab was designed by Madrid-based architectural firm Extudio, and design and production office Enorme Studio, who co-created a vibrant, freestanding structure in the Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar with the same five experiences inside.

Mandala Lab will land in London in September 2023. Why now? “Here is the nucleus in the capital city,” McHenry says of the Canary Wharf location where it will settle. “Here, we are saying we can still relax and calm down. Here is the ability to tune into something sensitive that helps you during a busy day.” The design and  “sensory adventures”including gong playing and a meditative breathing exercise, remain the same as the Bilbao version. "Whoever visits the lab will shape the future of the lab," says McHenry as visitors can contribute via scent memory books of what smells are nostalgic for them. This will anchor the exhibition in a specific location and at a specific time.

“The Mandala Lab is a storytelling journey that focuses on self awareness and awareness of others.”

It's rare to have this contemporary expression of traditional tantric traditions set in everyday life, and the Rubin aims to make it as accessible as possible. “We are giving people a sort of metaphoric idea of what it might be like to practise these concepts out in a playful and profound way,” says McHenry. The Rubin, he continues, also works with neuroscientists and psychologists to help formulate how these exercises might impact and resonate with audiences of all cultures.

“Whether you are eight or 88 years old you will find that storytelling is still at the heart of what drives your understanding,” he explains, of how this portal is designed for everyone. It’s an evolving exhibition, as the title suggests. “Our job is to make words like Mandala understood,” McHenry concludes. “For the ‘Lab’ part – it’s an experiment and invites a certain level of vulnerability. We hope it helps people to open up a little bit.”