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Where the Utopian Dream Still Rules


Bhutan is using its traditional architecture as a blueprint, even as it builds modern structures – particularly in its capital city Thimphu, discovers Deepali Nandwani while on a visit to the little kingdom.

Bhutan may seem like an isolated little dot on the world map. But the striking Himalayan kingdom, which woke up to parliamentary democracy in 2008 after nearly 100 years of absolute monarchy, is allowing outside influences on its life, culture and architecture in carefully-measured doses.

To witness how, just travel by the mountainous road (that’s the only way to get anywhere in Bhutan) from Phuntsholing on the India-Bhutan border to Paro – and then on to Thimphu, its capital city.

Phuntsholing is like any other Bhutanese small town, except here you see a widespread use of concrete along with mud, brick, stone, wood and iron, materials that are traditionally used to construct buildings in Bhutan.

Drive to Paro on roads surrounded by rocky mountains, and you come to a small town with architecture that’s much more traditional. Here, homes rising two to three storeys high are constructed with locally available materials like mud blocks or bricks, rammed earth, red slate and timber.

The sloping roofs are constructed using timber. The windows are beautifully carved, much like the intricately-carved jharokhas we see in Rajasthani palaces, and the facades are painted with symbols drawn from Bhutanese culture and Mahayana Buddhism, the country’s official religion.

Drive a bit further to Thimphu, and you are in for a surprise. The architecture is still traditional – corrugated iron roofs (which have replaced red slate and timber in many cases) coloured red, white-washed facades and wooden windows.

But in Bhutan’s most modern city, the typical structure is reinforced with concrete. Buildings rise higher than they do in any other town. The windows, though still wooden, are unembellished and in many cases not carved. The walls are plain – unlike say in Paro or even Phuntsholing, where they are painted or covered with mosaic art.

Till about five years ago, the isolated capital city had no traffic signals and one central thoroughfare, the Norzin Lam, lined on both sides with hotels, guest houses, souvenir shops and shopping complexes.

It complemented the Himalayan kingdom’s image of the last Shangri La. But as Bhutan made the much-awaited transition from monarchy to democracy, there was another kind of makeover underway. The country decided to get itself a brand new capital city and capital complex.

Designed and planned in 2001 by Christopher Charles Benninger, an American architect living in India, work on the Thimphu Structural Plan (TSP) began to be implemented only in 2006. It is slated to be complete by the beginning of 2010.

Benninger’s project seamlessly blends Bhutan’s traditional architecture with its pressing need for more roads, highways, parks and an extensive transport system.

“Architecture,” Benninger believes, “is the sum total of the experiences of people who live in these cities and how they perceive spaces. It impacts emotions, sensitivities and memories of individuals.”

The architect rewinds to the time when he first travelled on the gravel-strewn, onelane road that connected Siliguri in Sikkim to Thimphu. “It was the mid-1970s and foreigners were not allowed in Bhutan.

Thimphu went from being a cluster of villages to a capital city.” Benninger has designed the 30-square-kilometre capital as a set of 15 “urban villages” situated in micro-watersheds between rivulets streaming in to join the main river, and created through participatory land pooling (all landlords have given up some part of the land for development projects).

Each urban village has its own village square with gardens, crèches and an express bus link connected by an urban transport corridor.

“In its new avatar, the city will allow you to walk. We have incorporated cycling paths. The emphasis is on pedestrian movement. There are street corners where people can stop, rest a bit, chat with other people.”

The new capital plan also includes mass transit systems, new water and sewage lines, pathways, roads and, of course, buildings. Tree-lined streets are being laid and the clock tower area in the centre of the city has been transformed into a park-cum-open-air theatre.

The new capital is costing Bhutan about $700 million and is funded by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The attempt is to modernise the capital of the country that is slowly opening up.

The TSP is designed to protect the fragile ecology and traditional architecture of the Thimphu valley. Even as the city goes on an overdrive, the government’s building code is being strictly enforced, resulting in a remarkably beautiful city that is at once modern and traditional.

“Citizens are free to use any building material such as wood and concrete, and build several storeys up. But the outer façade must incorporate features of traditional Bhutanese architecture, especially wooden window frames and slanted roofs,” says the architect.

Benninger’s Thimphu office is abuzz with plans for enormous architectural projects that his studio is designing and executing in the spiffy new capital city. They have recently completed work on the National Capitol Complex, a mere 20-minute walk from his studio.

Benninger has used vernacular systems of construction to meet contemporary demands of work and living. “The architecture has marked Bhutanese influences,” he reveals.

“The Royal Secretariat Complex houses ten ministries, with provisions for expansion. Covering about one million square feet of built-up area, the campus includes underground parking, high-tech security facilities, a banquet hall and staff dining,
an auditorium, media centre, dispatch office and stationery shops. It‘s part of the Tashichho Dzong Precinct in which the ancient fortress monastery sits.”

Among the other buildings that Benninger’s Bhutan studio is designing is the Upper House or the Parliament, the Supreme Court, the new UN House and the reconstruction of the Tashichho Dzong Precinct – which, besides the main monastery, has a number of smaller monasteries, some dating back to 1219.

The one-and-half square kilometre zone surrounding the Dzong has been declared a heritage neighbourhood in the new capital city plan.

Benninger has moved the monk’s quarters to a separate area connected to the main monastery by an ancient wooden bridge. The dharma sthal now sits in a deer park, reminiscent of the deer forest at Sarnath, Bihar, where Lord Buddha revealed the four noble truths.

“For the capital city I needed not just to keep Bhutan’s traditional architecture in mind, but also to research the Buddhist philosophy,” discloses Benninger.

A look back in time Although several ugly hotels, guest houses and video parlours have sprung up in Thimphu over the past few years (as tends to happen in any city going through a transformation), planned buildings are still based on traditional designs with elaborately painted trefoil-shaped windows and wooden frames without a single nail.

Much like buildings anywhere in Bhutan, in fact. One of the most striking features of Bhutan is its architecture.

“It’s an expression of the country’s unique character,” says Singaporebased architect Kerry Hill, who designed Amankora, a series of ultra-exclusive luxury resorts located in five cities – including Paro and Thimphu. The Amankoras were among the first modern buildings in Bhutan.

Amankora Paro has French windows with views of the mighty ruins of Drukgyel Dzong (a monastery and fortress built in 1649 to celebrate the Himalayan nation’s greatest military victories over nearby Tibet) and the Jhomolhari range, the country’s most revered peak, visible intermittently between clouds.

The 24 suites are similar in design and feature natural rammedearth walls, gently sloping roofs and wood-panelled rooms with a king-size bed, a traditional bukhari (wood-burning stove) and a big terrazzo-clad bath.

Amankora Thimphu’s Dzong-like architecture incorporates stone and white-washed buildings accessed through an enclosed arrival court. Stairs lead from this entry point to a dramatic combined living cum dining-room with soaring ceilings and wood-panelled walls.

The building materials used are muted and locally sourced. Hill has used compacted-earth walls and corrugated-tin roofs in his designs.

Virtually everything but the timber, stone and sand had to be imported. Lumber is scarce, not just because the industry is strictly regulated but also because there are only two lumberseasoning kilns in the entire country.

Building the Amankora resorts was a hugely complicated process, fraught with problems. Bhutan has no native construction industry – so most labourers, from bricklayers and carpenters to electricians, had to be imported from India.

Achieving the standard of craftsmanship that Aman junkies expect, says Hill, proved very difficult. Though the resorts are ultramodern, nothing is completely perfect.

Often, the textures of the timber used don’t match. And there is a feeling of rawness brought in by the use of wood, timber and iron, which makes the resorts fit beautifully within the landscape.

But the thing is: über-Zen Amankora properties would be at home even in Tokyo or Los Angeles, and their unembellished interiors are a contrast to the flamboyance of Bhutanese homes and guest houses.

They are also an exception rather than the rule, much like other Thimphu buildings. In other cities across Bhutan, fantastical Buddhist temples, elaborately-detailed monasteries, medieval castles and homes have been cleaved into its mountains or built in its valleys.

Though it’s largely influenced by Tibetan architecture, architects in Bhutan developed a style that is peculiar to their country. “The architecture is rooted in the local context, resources and environment. It is gentle and elegant,” says architect Pem Gyeltshen of Parobased Gandhara Designs.

While Bhutanese architecture has several common elements, it varies slightly in form in different regions. In western Bhutan, buildings have solid rammed-earth walls that are about 600mm thick, which enclose the ground floor and part of the first floor. In the central and eastern districts, solid stone walls replace the rammed-earth ones.

Except in Thimphu, where buildings are largely minimal, in most other cities they have elaborately detailed windows. The roofs are built without the use of nails and they open to provide a ventilated storage area.

Though traditionally finished with timber shingles weighed down with stones, in most cases this has now been replaced with corrugated iron.

The roof of Tongsa Dzong is one of the few with shingle roofs. Bhutanese people continue to build modern-day Dzongs or fortress-like complexes that once belonged to powerful families who used them to administer the region under their control.

In addition to the administrative and military functions, they acted as monasteries. Even today, the seat of the royal government is housed in the mammoth Tashichho Dzong. Architecturally, dzongs have a character all their own.

In the imposing fortresslike Drukgyel Dzong, seat of the local government in Paro, buildings revolve around a stone-flagged courtyard situated at a level higher than the street, to which it is connected by a massive stone staircase.

Originally built in the 16th century on the foundations of a monastery set up by Guru Rinpoche, the Indian monk who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, the dzong has a modern-day monastery, temple and the monk’s quarters on one side of the courtyard, and the administrative offices on the other.

In between it all is a chorten (stupa), a square or conical-shaped structure in which Buddhists seal prayers written on scrolls. According to Siam Lama, a Sikkim-based researcher and writer who has studied Bhutan’s culture, architecture in the country is the result of natural conditions and the climate.

“Bhutan has a milder climate with abundant rainfall. The Alpine-type forests are rich in trees such as oak, rhododendron, cypress, juniper, pine and fir. Obviously, good quality timber is available in plenty.

This is why shingle roofs and half-timbering ones are commonplace.” Thankfully, Bhutan has succeeded in preserving the soul of its architecture even as it modernises.

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