“We imagine the Mindfulness City as a place that could be nowhere else”- Bjarke Ingels
During the 116th National Day address to the Bhutanese people on December 17, 2023, His Majesty the King unveiled the vision for a new economic hub in Bhutan. Spanning across an area of 1000 sq km in Gelephu, the ‘Mindfulness City’ will adopt the principles of Gross National Happiness (GNH) derived from the country’s strong spiritual heritage.
Designed by a Danish company, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the Mindfulness City will leverage its location and connectivity to South Asia and South East Asia to lay the foundation for the country’s future growth and create economic opportunities for its citizens through investments in green technology, education, and infrastructure.
According to Bjarke Ingels, founder and creative director of BIG, “The Gelephu master plan gives form to His Majesty’s vision to create a city that becomes a cradle for growth and innovation while remaining founded on Bhutanese nature and culture.” “We imagine the Mindfulness City as a place that could be nowhere else. Where nature is enhanced, agriculture is integrated, and tradition is living and breathing, not only preserved but also evolved,” he has said.
The master plan for the megacity includes a new international airport, railway connections, a hydroelectric dam, public spaces, and a language for local building typologies, based on the nine domains of GNH. As a country famed for being a biodiversity hotspot, Mindfulness City aims to amplify the country’s abundant biodiversity by emerging as a vibrant tapestry of interconnected ecosystems and lively neighborhoods shaped by the flow of the 35 rivers and streams that run through the site. The resulting ribbon-like neighborhoods resemble paddy fields, forming urban terraces that cascade down from the hills to the valley. The city increases in density from the rural and recreational highlands to the urban and dense lowlands.
The natural elements and the existing infrastructure, agriculture, and utilities of Gelephu naturally create eleven distinct neighborhoods across the 1000sqkm area. According to the masterplan, “Each of the eleven neighborhoods is designed based on the principles of the Mandala; defined by a series of repeating typologies organized symmetrically around a central public space, a gradual transition in density is created, from small buildings dispersed in the landscape in the north to larger footprints within an urban environment in the south”.
To protect existing and future development against flooding in the monsoon season, paddy fields will be established along the site’s rivers and tributaries, running from north to south. These will further function as biodiversity corridors for local flora and fauna, leaving the migratory routes of elephants and other wildlife undisturbed.
Bjarke Ingels further annotates in the masterplan. “Shaped by waterways, Gelephu becomes a land of bridges, connecting nature and people, past and future, local and global. Like the traditional Dzongs, these inhabitable bridges turn into cultural landmarks, doubling as transportation infrastructure combined with civic facilities. Among these, the Sankosh Temple-Dam embeds the city’s fundamental values into a cascading landscape of steps and landings, which like a 21st century Tiger’s Nest will be a man-made monument to the divine possibility of a sustainable human presence on earth, turning engineering into art and turning the forces of nature into power.”
Additionally, intimate streets paved with permeable pavers will provide resilience by allowing storm-water to seep into the ground rather than the sewage system. Local materials including wood, stone, and bamboo will be used in the new buildings, inspired by vernacular motifs such as rabsel, cornices, ornaments, and roofscapes.
The neighborhoods within the city divided by rivers will be tied together by three main mobility connections which occasionally double as transportation infrastructure combined with civic and cultural facilities, creating a series of ‘inhabitable bridges’ which are tailored to each of the nine GNH domains.
BIG explains that each of the bridges will house key destinations within the city: the new airport, a Vajrayana spiritual center that allows glimpses into the daily practices of the monks and masters of mindfulness, a healthcare center as a meeting between Eastern and Western medicine, a university that exposes its academic activities, a hydroponic and aquaponic greenhouse putting ancient farming practices and modern agro-science on display for the daily commuters, a cultural center to immerse and educate visitors about Bhutanese culture and customs, and a market adorned with authentic Bhutanese textiles.
“Inspired by the Bhutanese culture of respect and compassion for others and nature, the Mindfulness City is designed to enhance ecological systems, through an urban development that connects flora and fauna, as well as people and ideas. It becomes a testament to humanity’s inseparable bond with nature, and a global example of how to build a sustainable human presence on Earth,” Giulia Frittoli, partner in-charge at BIG Landscape, BIG, has written.
The final bridge, a hydroelectric dam, will be constructed on the city’s western border with a step-well retaining wall that offers viewpoints, staircases for meditative walks, and a temple. Visitors and pilgrims can ascend and descend along countless individual routes to the visitor center and temple nested on the face of the man-made cliff. The Sankosh Temple-Dam embodies in architectural form of all the foundational elements of Gelephu; the harmonious coexistence of culture and nature, conceived as a hybrid child of Bhutan’s rich past heritage and its prosperous future legacy.
Tashi Namgyal from Thimphu