At the Mandala Lab, a new learning-based initiative at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, everything is primed with meaning. Naturally, this includes the plan of the 2,700-square-foot space itself, which conforms to the outline of a mandalic diagram, up to and including the “void”—a coil of steel, glass, and marble treads—at its center.
“The mandala is a map,” said architect Miriam Peterson at last week’s press preview. “It makes you aware of your journey.” The choice of words is intentional and reflects the Buddhist principles that underpin the semi-permanent exhibit. In traditional depictions, the way from the hard-edged outer chambers of the mandala to the nebulous inner core is a treacherous one, requiring outstanding cognitive feats that need not manifest outwardly. Perhaps fittingly, the Lab’s frictionless layout betrays none of the emotional exertion visitors may choose to undergo while in its environs. There are few, if any, spatial impediments, with the design reinforcing a calm equanimity that the passage through turmoil promises.
Peterson and partner Nathan Rich of Peterson Rich Office (PRO) were awarded the commission following the outcome of an invitation-only competition in winter 2020. Lockdown went into effect a few weeks later, just as the architects began to hash out their design with representatives from the Rubin and a team of consultants—eight in all, working in fields that ranged from neurobiology and psychology to scenting and sound healing. “No one was sure what was going to happen, but to [its] credit, the museum doubled down,” recalled Rich. “In retrospect, it was a really optimistic act about bringing people together—the exact opposite of what we were experiencing at the time.”
If the Lab had its beginnings in the lockdown of March 2020, it was the pandemic that made the Lab necessary. At least, that was the impression the Rubin’s chief programmatic officer Tim McHenry wished to impart on journalists, who were persuaded to take part in a handful of activities, including playing in a “gong orchestra.” It’s a particularly charitable name for the cacophony produced by a group performing in less-than-synchronous fashion, though even this clamor was quickly mitigated by easing the thrumming gongs into the 30-ton water trough beneath. “Submerge your anger,” McHenry cheered.
In the argot of the Lab, such exhibits are akin to a “mental gym,” one replete with awareness-sharpening exercises and interactive artworks like a pulsating light piece by Palden Weinreb, which facilitates measured breathing. By engaging with these, visitors can fine-tune their emotional toolkit and so steel themselves to meet climate change, global pandemic, and other exigencies of the day head-on. Presumably, it takes time and effort to develop this kind of psychic fortitude, yet no mention of a gym membership plan was made.
Again, this hardiness does not translate to the architecture of the space, where rounded curves and soft lighting foster a subdued feel. Even the translucent metal mesh blouse that overlays the central staircase achieves a velvety appeal, its gentle folds imbued with a cool artificial light. The same metal scrim is used to delineate the displays into four quadrants, another allusion to the figure of the mandala. Yet, the planimetric referent isn’t especially forceful within the wider context of the Rubin, an institution devoted to the art of the Himalayas. After all, every one of the six gallery floors more or less defaults to this basic configuration, set down by Beyer Blinder Belle in its 2004 conversion of the building (it had previously housed an outpost of shuttered retailer Barney’s). As an iconographic motif, the mandala is everywhere, finding its way into several dozen objects—thangkas, sculptures, offering sets—in the Rubin’s store.
Perfunctory as it may seem, the symbolism is graciously confined to wall plaques indicating the purposive activity to which each of the Lab’s quadrants is dedicated. The narrative arc may be couched in terms of empathetic capacity, self-regulation, and emotional maturity, but the exhibits are also accessible to the children of wisdom-seeking adults. The West Quadrant, with its bank of interactive screens and scent library, leans most in the direction of youth, and it’s here that PRO’s subtlest details get lost amid appeals to this juvenile set. A red color scheme representing the fiery eleventh ring of the Rubin’s 17th-century Sarvavid Vairochana Mandala is too understated and negligibly applied to the bases of shards of igneous rock, which appear more like paperweights than the weighty totems they are presented as. Whatever potency was meant by the gesture is undercut by a questionable wall graphic that telegraphs the emotive beats the Lab is designed to hit.
In the deeply set North Quadrant, the architects have smartly framed Weinreb’s light sculpture against a dark backdrop of acoustic panels. The alcove, which doubles as a screening room, can be enclosed by a curved scrim curtain, and a tactile thrill happens when the hem of the curtain is drawn over the foamy, ribbed slate-gray paneling. Chittering sound fills up the East Quadrant, where the linear gong dunk tank is stationed. The temptation to hammer away at the row of gongs—each one designed by a different Buddhist practitioner, Peter Gabriel, too—is likely to prove too much for younger visitors (and let’s face it, most adults).
Exiting the hall, the visitor returns to the South Quadrant, which is where the stair deposited them in the first place. Whether they have achieved a higher consciousness or heeded calls to “let go of attachment” and “overcome ignorance” can’t possibly be said. Here, the line separating contemplative rigor and amusement is thin, though the architecture strains to stay on the contemplative side. The Lab demands everything and nothing from its visitors. Or almost nothing, clarified McHenry: “Check that egocentric pride at the door, a little like [you would] a wet umbrella.”