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King of Bhutan unveils masterplan for Mindfulness City, designed by BIG, Arup and Cistri

by Megan Whitby | 20 Dec 2023
King Wangchuck of Bhutan has unveiled plans for a moonshot urban project in Southern Bhutan
The masterplan draws on Bhutan's culture and spiritual heritage, as well as the country's Gross National Happiness* index
The Gelephu Special Administration Region will be located on the India-Bhutan border and have legal independence and executive autonomy
The project has been designed by architecture firms Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Arup and Singaporean planning city consultancy Cistri
Credit: Ehrhorn Hummerston
The Mindfulness City is a place where nature is enhanced, agriculture is integrated and tradition is alive and breathing, not only preserved but also evolved
– Bjarke Ingels

The King of Bhutan has announced plans for a new economic hub immersed in nature and designed by architecture firms Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), Arup, and Cistri.

Referred to as the Mindfulness City, the masterplan for the future Gelephu Special Administration Region (SAR) is informed by Bhutanese culture and its strong spiritual heritage, as well as the country's Gross National Happiness (GNH)* index.

The goal is for the SAR 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.

While presenting the vision during the country's 116th National Day address, King Wangchuck described the future city as an "economic corridor connecting South Asia with Southeast Asia via India’s northeastern States".

Realised by BIG’s Landscape and Urban Design Team, the masterplan includes a Vajrayana spiritual center, an international airport, railway connections, a hydroelectric dam, public spaces and a language for local building typologies, based on the nine domains of GNH*.

“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,” said Bjarke Ingels, BIG’s founder and creative director.

Nature first

Nestled between mountains, forests and rivers, Bhutan has been labelled as one of the last biodiversity hotspots in the world, with 70 per cent of the country covered in forest.

Plans for the Mindfulness City aim to amplify the country’s biodiversity by emerging as a tapestry of interconnected ecosystems and neighbourhoods shaped by the flow of the 35 local rivers and streams.

The resulting ribbonlike neighbourhoods will resemble paddy fields, forming urban terraces that cascade down from the hills to the valley.

The city will increase in density from the rural and recreational highlands to the urban and dense lowlands.

“We imagine the Mindfulness City as a place that could be nowhere else,” Ingles added, “where nature is enhanced, agriculture is integrated and tradition is alive 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.”

Ingles says the natural elements and the existing infrastructure, agriculture and utilities of Gelephu naturally create 11 distinct neighbourhoods across the area.

Each has been designed based on the principles of the Mandala: defined by a series of repeating typologies organised 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.

Giulia Frittoli, partner in charge, BIG Landscape, added: “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.”

Bridging the gapThe neighbourhoods within the city, divided by rivers, will be tied together by three main mobility connections.

Occasionally, these will double as transportation infrastructure combined with civic and cultural facilities, creating a series of ‘inhabitable bridges’ which are tailored to the nine NGH* domains.

Each of the bridges will house key destinations within the city: the new airport, a spiritual center which will allow glimpses into monks’ daily practices; a healthcare center as a meeting between Eastern and Western medicine; a university; a hydroponic and aquaponic greenhouse; a cultural center to immerse and educate visitors about Bhutanese culture; and a market adorned with Bhutanese textiles.

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.

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.

*Bhutan’s GNH – The Buddhist country uses the GNH – focusing on the wellness of its people – as its main measure of development in addition to GDP. The GNH is based on nine areas; Psychological Wellbeing, Health, Education, Living Standards, Time-Use, Ecological Diversity and Resilience, Good Governance, Cultural Diversity and Resilience, and Community Vitality

Mindfulness City  Bjarke Ingels Group  Bhutan  BIG  Arup  Cistri 
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The King of Bhutan has announced plans for a new economic hub immersed in nature and designed by architecture firms Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), Arup, and Cistri. Referred to as the Mindfulness City, the masterplan for the future Gelephu Special Administration Region (SAR) is informed by Bhutanese culture and its strong spiritual heritage, as well as the country's Gross National Happiness (GNH)* index. The goal is for the SAR to
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The Mindfulness City will have legal independence and executive autonomy / Brick Visual, Atchain, BIG
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