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Bhutan Is Set to Have a “Mindfulness City” Designed by BIG Architects Connected by Unique “Inhabitable Bridges”

Gelephu Mindfulness City / BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group

Brick Visual, Atchain, BIG

BIG, the Danish architecture studio, has just revealed its groundbreaking vision for a massive 1,000-square-kilometre project in Bhutan. This extraordinary development, known as Mindfulness City, will be situated in the charming town of Gelephu, nestled near the Indian border in southern Bhutan. The project is set to encompass an array of remarkable features, including an international airport, a hydroelectric dam, and even a temple. What truly sets this project apart is its unique design, as the entire city will be interconnected by a network of stunning bridges.

Gelephu Mindfulness City / BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group

Bhutan, nestled amidst mountains, forests, and rivers, is renowned as one of the few remaining biodiversity hotspots worldwide, boasting a remarkable 70% forest coverage across its land. The Mindfulness City project endeavors to enhance the country’s rich biodiversity by transforming into a vibrant tapestry of interconnected ecosystems and lively neighborhoods, influenced by the meandering flow of 35 rivers and streams that traverse the area. These distinctive neighborhoods, resembling ribbon-like paddy fields, create a series of urban terraces that gracefully descend from the hills to the valley. As one moves from the rural and recreational highlands to the urban and densely populated lowlands, the city gradually intensifies in density.

Gelephu Mindfulness City / BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group

“The Gelephu Masterplan 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,” says Bjarke Ingels, Founder and Creative Director, BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group. “Where nature is enhanced, agriculture is integrated, and tradition is living and breathing, not only preserved but also evolved. 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, that like a 21st century Tigers Nest will be a manmade monument to the divine possibility of a sustainable human presence on earth. Turning engineering into art and turning the forces of nature into power.”

Gelephu Mindfulness City / BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group

The natural elements and the existing infrastructure, agriculture, and utilities of Gelephu naturally create eleven distinct neighborhoods across the 1000+ km2 area. 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.

Gelephu Mindfulness City / BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group

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.

Gelephu Mindfulness City / BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group

“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 of humanity’s inseparable bond with nature, and a global example of how to build a sustainable human presence on Earth,” explains Giulia Frittoli, Partner in Charge, BIG Landscape, BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group

Gelephu Mindfulness City / BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group

The neighborhoods within the city, which are divided by rivers, are tied together by three main mobility connections. Occasionally, these double as transportation infrastructure combined with civic and cultural facilities, creating a series of ‘inhabitable bridges’ that are tailored to each of the nine Gross National Happiness domains.

Gelephu Mindfulness City / BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group

Each of the bridges 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 Bhutanese textiles.

Gelephu Mindfulness City / BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group

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 manmade cliff. The Sankosh Temple-Dam embodies in architectural form 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.

Gelephu Mindfulness City / BIG | Bjarke Ingels Group

Intimate streets, paved with permeable pavers provide resilience by allowing stormwater to seep into the ground rather than the sewage system. Local materials – wood, stone, and bamboo – will be used in the new buildings, inspired by vernacular motifs such as rabsel, cornices, ornaments, and roofscapes.