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Zen and the ephemeral: why light and vistas improve our wellbeing

Not only orientation and exposure to daylight but views from a room, a house, or an office affect our mood and productivity, hence our quality of life.

If we think access to landscape or a good view from our home or office doesn’t matter much, company ranks and house prices state the opposite. Both urban and rural landscapes consider appealing perspectives from strategically located windows for a reason —we get carried away by them to the point of improving wellbeing.

When at work, being able to peek at the landscape from a window or an opening reduces issues such as eyestrain, headaches, and blurred vision, according to studies that try to measure the health impact of prolonged screen use in environments with poor light and ventilation, and an absence of access to the surrounding views.

In the hills of unincorporated Mendocino County CA

Years ago, we met Loren Amelang, a veteran computer engineer pioneering some work in the programming language C++. Back then, the tunnel vision issues that would transform his life forever were not as severe.

Back in the seventies, everything seemed possible in computing. The new field of personal computing became the first step for people like Steve Jobs to integrate “human augmentation” machines for societal improvement.

It was back then when Loren Amelang bought a piece of property with an old sheep barn up in the hills of Mendocino County three hours North of the Bay Area “to live like the hippies on the weekend.”

He first built a small cabin with a Spartan, slick design and a place for books, notebooks, and soon a computer (when personal computing was still in the making.)

Then he planned to build an off-grid two-story home, pioneering most of the trends praised nowadays by enthusiasts of tiny houses and off-grid dwellings, such as a sunroom and passive features, as well as a solar-powered automation system for doors, windows, and skylights.

The view at places of transition

But besides DC lighting and an electrical installation that can be partially or totally disabled from every light switch (avoiding the build-up of electromagnetic fields created by home and electronic appliances around the house), our friend wanted to find a way to foster his physical and mental health by enjoying fresh air, natural light, and views.

It wasn’t part of the plan when, years after, his weekend property became his permanent home. His Silicon Valley employer had built an office where the workers’ facilities lacked any window to the outside world, replacing natural light with a gigantic fluorescent lighting system. Already struggling with his vision and circadian rhythm, he left for good, decided to live on a budget in his Mendocino home.

The new home needed to be big enough so the entire south side of the roof could host enough solar photovoltaic panels to generate “free hot water, free power, and a decent chunk of free heat.” The rest of the home’s south side hosts other solar capture devices: solar thermal panels for hot water, a sunroom designed both as a living room and greenhouse, and a solar hot air collector.

Upstairs, one single room hosts his studio and Spartan bedroom, consisting of a single futon mattress and a generous, well-provided library that shows a wide range of interests in applied sciences, humanities, and literature.

Most important: still sheltered but the majestic California oak trees surrounding the house, the openings provide a pleasant view of the tranquil, Northern California rolling hills in the proximity, especially when in transition from one place to the other (from the stairs to the bed, from the bed to the library or desk, etc.

End of chiaroscuro: windowless spaces and fluorescent lights

It wasn’t the first time I heard a story like Loren’s renunciation to his professional life, once his company had decided to switch from a space projected to the exterior and natural light to a self-enclosed cage powered by high-intensity fluorescents —my father-in-law also had left his job in his late forties for a similar reason.

Our view from a little window towards a bay in Kokkala, Mani peninsula (south of Sparta, Greece)

Back in the seventies, he worked as an engineer at an aeronautics company in the area. The Cold War was still at its peak. Since the company worked for the government on a military contract, the facility had a strict security code to avoid any possible technology leak, which meant —once more— no windows whatsoever, and, of course, high-intensity fluorescent lights.

Despite liking his job, he thought life was too precious to waste his best days at an office that felt like a prison, so he decided to dedicate more time to other things. And yes, he likes windows with a view.

Natural light and windows with enchanting views are, we see, important. They affect our mood, our productivity, and, ultimately, our health. But there can be too much of a good thing.

Excess natural light and pervasive, unprotected views can increase light radiation and intensity, affecting climatization, while unframed vistas can dilute a memorable landscape by an excess display.

The temptation of capturing what is meant to be ephemeral

The framing of a view is as necessary as the view itself. Even when we can’t fully explain why, we all have sensed one way or another how some framed views deliver a condensed, memorable meaning the same view may lack otherwise. I felt this precisely three years ago; we took advantage of the school holidays of early November to travel through some solitary areas of Southern Greece.

After days of non-stop travel and work, we arrived in Mani Peninsula, the central arm of the three extending southwards from the Peloponnese into the Mediterranean like Poseidon’s trident. After leaving behind Sparta, we drove down to Mani through a narrow road perched between the sea to the East and the hillside of the Taygetos mountain range to the West.

As we drove late in the evening, the scarce vegetation and rock composition sheltered small populations clustered around a small natural harbor or perched in mountain passes amid narrow valleys, the sea never too far away. Later on, a friend would explain that many of the most desolate villages in the peninsula’s remotest areas could only be reached by sea.

The area, which had belonged to ancient Laconia, with capital in Sparta, remained scarcely populated during the Middle Ages, making it a haven for Holy Land crusaders, pirates, and castaways. Houses in the area evolved aware of their remoteness and difficult land communication, becoming nothing but little tower fortresses aware of visitors coming by sea.

We decided to stop at the small fishing village of Kokkala. A boat in the middle of the bay, some dogs, and lights irradiating from several houses were the only visible signs of activity. We found a place to stay and made the area our headquarters for the days to come that week. The stone home we rented was up a steep hill allowing us to oversee the seashore from the terrasse.

More than a room with a view

We found the most magnificent view came from a tiny window opened on the north side of the thick stone wall in our bedroom. Getting close to it, one could see the small cove that concentrated the villages houses below, each indistinct of each other as the components of a turtle shell. A little orthodox church was the only white and distinctive building in the view, almost washed by the water. We had stumbled upon a memorable window, one that inspired us and made me feel a somewhat familiar, archetypical, pan-Mediterranean sentiment of solace and contemplation.

As for possessions, when it comes to views, less can indeed be more (and feel better). The idea of simplicity relates to many experiences and is the steppingstone of some cultures. But it’s maybe the Japanese version of Zen philosophy, the only one that blends design elements with a deep understanding of the human experience with our surroundings.

As with Loren Amelang’s home or the little window from a house in the hills of Greece’s Mani peninsula perching over the sea and a little beach bay with a tiny white Orthodox chapel front and center, Zen simplicity conveys more than a mindset but a way of looking into the world and projecting ourselves with no hassle within it. Simplicity has an aesthetic value but also begets an essence of things and their relationship.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Objects that feel they belong to their place often lack unnecessary features, focusing on the essential. Such objects “make sense” where they are and feel appropriate since they reveal their character with effortless assurance. In a framed view, less is also more authentic and can concentrate the essentials in a limited experience and therefore becomes precious.


Christopher Alexander et Al. dedicate an episode to the art of framing a view on their pattern 134 (Zen View) from the book A Pattern Language. The archetypal zen view doesn’t come from a huge landscape window occupying the facade of a modern home, but something more precious, and also humbler, more precarious:

“A Buddhist monk lived high in the mountains, in a small stone house. Far, far in the distance was the ocean, visible and beautiful from the mountains. But it was not visible from the monk’s house itself nor from the approach road to the house. However, in front of the house, there stood a courtyard surrounded by a thick stone wall. As one came to the house, one passed through a gate into this court and then diagonally across the court to the front door of the house. On the far side of the courtyard there was a slit in the wall, narrow and diagonal, cut through the thickness of the wall. As a person walked across the court, at one spot, where his position lined up with the slit in the wall, for an instant, he could see the ocean. And then he was past it once again, and went into the house.”

Often inward-looking to promote introspection and tame the amount of light inside, traditional Japanese constructions blended everyday activities with sensorial contemplation where each little view, each shadow falling on a room’s objects, becoming a celebratory experience. A view’s subtle inner workings, according to A Pattern Language:

“What is it that happens in this courtyard? The view of the distant sea is so restrained that it stays alive forever. Who that has ever seen that view, can ever forget it? Its power will never fade. Even for the man who lives there, coming past that view day after day for fifty years, it will still be alive.”

A view so restrained that it stays alive

With this little story, Christopher Alexander reveals much more than the art of keeping the appreciation factor alive of things as quotidian and straightforward as a view we so often take for granted (from A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et al., page 642–643):

“This is the essence of the problem with any view. It is a beautiful thing. One wants to enjoy it and dink it in every day. But the more open it is, the more obvious, the more it shouts, the sooner it will fade. Gradually it will come part of the building, like the wallpaper; and the intensity of its beauty will no longer be accessible for the people who live there.”

We are talking about views, but this advice seems to be relevant in so many other ways. What about keeping the flame of interest, or even keeping a relationship interesting and fruitful, alive? Are we sure we are using our perceptive powers the way we could?

A book of patterns about “towns, buildings, and construction” seems to understand better such subtleties of existence than most religious and philosophical books (not to talk about the often-noxious-and-counterproductive self-help industry complex.)

The monk’s house explained in A Pattern Language looks like this:

“What is it that happens in this courtyard? The view of the distant sea is so restrained that it stays alive forever.”

As the monk enters the courtyard through the entry below, the diagonal he traces to reach the door’s threshold exposes him momentarily to the precious peek in perspective of the distant landscape, as framed by the small slit in the wall:

“What is it that happens in this courtyard? The view of the distant sea is so restrained that it stays alive forever. Who, that has ever seen that view, can ever forget it? Its power will never fade. Even for the man who lives there, coming past that view day after day for fifty years, it will still be alive.”

A tree’s imprint

The beautiful and ephemeral is not only the secret of any view, but it hints at the essence of any meaningful cognitive experience that stays memorable no matter the eroding effect of experience and custom. Some years ago, we decided to move from Barcelona to Fontainebleau, a town 1 hour south of Paris known for its castle and the remaining forest of an old royal hunting ground.

There, Napoleon capitulated after Waterloo (in fact, one can visit and walk through the room where it happened). We rented an old townhouse with leaky single-paint windows whose sober charm was nonetheless immeasurable.

It was the beginning of November 2015, and one majestic deciduous tree, most probably a field maple was losing its already oxidized leaves with the wind, transforming the garden into a subtle mantle of yellows, oranges, and browns.

A tree in Fontainebleau, early November; weeks after, the tree was gone (to our despair)

We stayed with that image when we left on a trip days after renting the house due to a school break. By the end of the month, we got a notice from the house’s owner that the tree needed to go —it was too close to the house and (we didn’t know back then) the neighbors, a charming couple of retired professionals, perceived the leaves as a nuisance.

One day, our children came back home from school and, entering the living room, they couldn’t help but notice the change in light intensity compared to the previous day at the same hour of the afternoon. They soon realized the tree was gone. Something had changed permanently.

Prison literature

It wasn’t a happy moment for the family; we mourned the tree loss and its presence across our windows. We felt the house wasn’t the same. The experience wasn’t the same. Heck, we didn’t feel we were the same. We shared a brand-new sentimental scar. We stayed in that house for some time. Three years after, the last day before leaving it for good, I still sat by the table and looked at the window. I missed that tree for one last time.

“This is the essence of the problem with any view. It is a beautiful thing. One wants to enjoy it and drink it every day. But the more open it is, the more obvious, the more it shouts, the sooner it will fade. Gradually it will become part of the building, like the wallpaper, and the intensity of its beauty will no longer be accessible to the people who live there.”

Prison literature offers some of the most dramatic perspectives of the human condition since it is the result of forced confinement. In such literature, the author remains in a small, usually uncomfortable, and impersonal location against his will. Yet it is also a testimony of the power of tiny views: there, the prisoner usually imagines more than seeing, and his position is one of disadvantage, while his perception is trapped in a forced frame that barely changes and often relies on second guesses and second-degree perception, like the shadows seen by people trapped inside in Plato’s allegory of the cave.

From “A Pattern Language”: If there’s a beautiful view, don’t spoil it by building large windows that gape incessantly at it. Instead, put the windows which look onto the view at places of transition —along paths, in hallways, in entry ways, on stairs, between rooms.

In such extreme cases, the passing on the moon over a tiny window, or the visit of a bird, or the intensity change of natural light become a feast for the senses, provide solace to estranged prisoners, and can be the ultimate difference between unbreakable hope and nihilist despair.

An archipelago on the horizon

When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn finally published The Gulag Archipelago, he became such a threat to the Politburo that he lost his Soviet citizenship and was “invited to fly” to Western Germany. Yet, he never was an easy figure in the West either, refusing the values of a society he perceived as transactional machinery of pure, soulless utilitarianism. Society had to be much more than a Darwinist economic system and its customary outcomes.

Soon after, Stanford invited Solzhenitsyn to stay at the Hoover Tower as a member of the Hoover Institution. From the tower’s windows, one can see the Stanford campus, with Serra Street tracing a segment towards the hills of the Santa Cruz mountains. His critique of contemporary society did not earn did not sit well at the conservative public policy institution:

“Freedom! To fill people’s mailboxes, eyes, ears, and brains with commercial rubbish against their will, television programs that are impossible to watch with a sense of coherence. Freedom! To force information on people, taking no account of their right not to accept it or their right to peace of mind. Freedom! To spit in the eyes and souls of passersby with advertisements. Freedom! For publishers and film producers to poison the younger generations with corrupting filth. Freedom! For adolescents of fourteen to eighteen to immerse themselves in idleness and pleasure instead of intensive study and spiritual growth… Freedom! To divulge the defense secrets of one’s country for personal political gain.”

But Solzhenitsyn soon became an uncomfortable guest in the United States, with his own views, usually very critical towards Western values, as expressed in his speech for the 327th Harvard commencement address (1978). After Stanford, the writer lived in Cavendish, Vermont. There, he wrote and welcomed occasional visitors.

A glimpse of the distant

A little window was all he needed to reflect on exile, on the archipelago he had built, on the society of his time. Gesturing towards that window, he would state:

“And we really have a piece of Russia here. Once, my wife and I traveled across this country from the Pacific to the Atlantic; then, I went by myself to conduct research—to the Midwest, mostly. But I simply could not allow myself the time to take a trip around America just to get to know the country. I had only two choices: to write ‘The Red Wheel’ or not. To write it, I had to give it my full attention. Maybe, if I were not returning now to Russia, I might change my lifestyle on account of finishing ‘The Red Wheel.’ But now it is time to go back to Russia. There simply was not the time. One cannot encompass everything. Our history has been so hidden. I had to dig so deep, I had to uncover what was buried and sealed. This took up all my years.”

Framing a view has the power of fueling retrospective thinking. From a window in Vermont, the writer could sense the archipelago. From there, thousands of kilometers from Europe to the East, and from Siberia to the West, the spiritual “distant view” was nurturing.

In architecture, one can spoil distant, memorable views by making it too easy for us. An open, blatant, in-your-face, constant exposure of views could blind us from them. According to the pattern Zen View from Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language:

“If the view window is correctly placed, people will see a glimpse of the distant view as they come up to the window or pass it: but the view is never visible from the places where people stay.”

If window views and access to natural light “impact on thermal comfort, emotions, and cognitive performance” according to studies, beauty can inspire and nurture us beyond our most basic needs.

A beam of light

There’s a related pattern to Zen View in Christopher Alexander’s reference book: the “tapestry of light and dark.” The book’s sensitivity regarding light intensity, shadows, and the human experience within a building shows a subtle sensitivity and openness to aesthetic perceptions more prevalent in Eastern traditions.

In praise of shadows, the essay by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, is a reference in the art of combining alternating areas of light and dark to be able to advance from subtle gradients of semi-darkness to strong natural light.

“The Calling of St Matthew” (1599-1600) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

To Alexander, “the places which make effective settings are defined by light.” We can sense this phenomenon when we observe depth and perspective in Vermeer or Caravaggio’s paintings. Take, for example, The Calling of St Matthew, in which a light beam illuminates the faces of several men at a table looking at a very human Jesus Christ. In the painting’s background, there’s a Window that appears blind to us but makes us guess.

“This tapestry of light and dark must then fit together with the flow of movement, too. As we have said, people tend to walk toward the light.”

The immediate world has so much to offer to us. A mere little window can be our portal towards much more than wellbeing and solace. Those trapped on real or imaginary cells can also find parables and open answers (those most enriching in moments of existential inquiry) from that framing of temporary reality displayed beyond the window.