Tibet’s Iconic Architecture Is Alive in Rare Drawings, Maps, and Photos
Lhasa Old Town and Potala Kanwal Krishna; commissioned by Hugh Richardson Tibet; October 13, 1939. Watercolor on paper. Collection of Anthony and Marie Laure Aris
受委托于（资方）： Hugh Richardson
收藏 Anthony and Marie Laure Aris
Nestled in the Himalayas, at Earth’s highest elevations, lies Tibet. For many outside observers, it is a land of great spiritual tradition, vibrant color, and a culture uniquely and defiantly different than the Chinese government with which it often clashes. One of the great expressions of Tibetan culture is its architecture. This fall at The Rubin Museum, visitors will be able to tour Tibet’s most celebrated architectural sites through both a historical and contemporary gaze.
Titled Monumental Lhasa: Fortress, Palace, Temple, the exhibition features over 50 drawings, paintings, pilgrimage maps and photographs of monuments and sacred sites like Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, and Samye monastery. These are sites influenced by Buddhist religious and historical narratives, instead of the West’s architectural tradition.
View of Lhasa with Jokhang Temple Padma Rimomkhan, commissioned by L. A. Waddell Tibet (1890) Gouache with watercolor, gold leaf, and collage on paper. Wellcome Library, London
（艺术家）：Padma Rimo mkhan
受委托于（资方）： L. A. Waddell
Curator of the exhibition Natasha Kimmet says that when one visits Tibet and the Himalayas, one encounters buildings that form a distinctive part of the physical and visual landscape.
“These buildings also tell us a great deal about the region’s history and culture, yet they have never been the focus of a major museum exhibition,” Kimmet tells The Creators Project. “This is partly because it is difficult to display buildings in a museum setting, and we don’t have access to many Tibetan architectural fragments or structural elements.”
When Kimmet began her curatorial fellowship at the Rubin nearly two years ago, her colleagues encouraged her to explore the museum’s architectural material, as aswell as photographs of monuments in other institutional collections. Through research and discussion Kimmetfound a rich body of architectural images focused on Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa. She also secured images on loan from public and private and public collections in North America and Europe, including many from the British Library in London.
Tashilhunpo Monastery from the south GobonjabTsybikoff, Tibet (1900-1901). Black and white album photograph From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries Digital Photo Archive, PC 40C 38
威斯康辛大学，Milwaukee图书馆数码照片档案，PC 40C 38
Portals Palace in Lhasa, a monumental structure that is the former seat of the Tibetan government and home of the Dalai Lamas (the former religious and temporal leaders of Tibet). For this reason, Kimmet says that the palace is emblematic of Tibet.
The Jokhang, located at Lhasa’s center, is Tibet’s most sacred temple, though it's less visually commanding as Potala. Kimmet says another iconic site is SamyeMonastery, the first monastery in Tibet. The structure’s layout itself is interesting because it presents a large mandala, the circular cosmic diagram used by Buddhists in visualization practices.
“[Another building] that comes to mind is the great Kumbum Stupa at Gyantse in South-Central Tibet,” Kimmet says. “This 15th century monument is built in the form of a stupa(a type of Buddhist reliquary monument) and three-dimensional mandala that also has a seven-story temple interior featuring elaborate mural paintings and sculptures.”
“Perched on a ridge, the palace-fortress of Gampa Dzongnear the Tibetan border with Nepal and Sikkim might be one of Tibet’s most dramatic architectural structures known from photographs,” she adds. “Like one taken by the British photographer John Claude White in an album displayed in the exhibition.”
“照片中闻名的岗巴宗堡（县府），坐落在山脊上，靠近西藏与尼泊尔和锡金的边界，可能是西藏最惊人的建筑结构之一。”她补充道：“正如展览中的英国摄影师John Claude White 所拍摄的这一幅。”
Credit: John Claude White (British, 1853-1918), KhambaJong, From an album of photographs of Tibet and Sikkim, 1902-1904, The British Library; Photograph © The British Library Board, Photo 430/53 (4)
记录：John Claude White (英国，生卒年1853-1918)
Kimmet is also impressed by Tibet’s residential buildings, which she says reveal so much about how people structure their everyday lives. “Although many of Lhasa’s historical aristocratic residences have been destroyed since the mid-20th century, the Tibet Heritage Fund has carefully documented many of the buildings,” she says.
Noble houses, according to the Tibetan Heritage Fund, were arranged hierarchically, with storage rooms on the ground floors, servant quarters and family chapel in the middle floor, and opulent living quarters with large bay windows for the landowner. Courtyard houses were designed for itinerant traders that came in and out of Lhasa, while the single-family homes (Khang-pa) were built for craftsmen and retired officials, or even as summer homes for aristocrats.
“The materials and construction techniques characteristic of Tibetan buildings contribute to their distinctive appearance and functions,” Kimmet explains. “Tibetan architecture is built primarily of earth, stone, and wood. The buildings feature an interior post-and-beam framework, which is supported by exterior load-bearing walls made of courses of stone, sun-dried mudbricks, or rammed earth.”
Samye Monastery. Painted by a Tibetan monk, commissioned by Major William Edmund Hay (1805-1879), Lahaul, present-day India, ca. 1857. Watercolor on paper. The British Library Wise Collection, Add.Or.3017, Folio 3 Photograph © The British Library Board.
受委托于： Major William Edmund Hay (1805-1879),
大英图书馆西区收藏Add.Or.3017, Folio 3 照片@大英图书馆董事会
“The walls are constructed in such a way that they can withstand seismic activity, they have excellent thermal properties, and they are carefully integrated with the landscape (they often appear to emerge out of the earth),” she adds. “These battered walls, the flat roofs, small windows, and interesting decorative features are all important aspects of Tibet’s unique architecture.”
These basic construction features are common to all Tibetan buildings, says Kimmet, from the smallest single-room dwelling to the 13-story Potala Palace.
“By comparison to the monumental buildings, consider the structure of many Himalayan villages—there, the clustered houses share party walls and are seemingly fitted together like a 3D jigsaw puzzle,” says Kimmet. “There are a lot of intriguing regional variations in the architecture that merit further exploration.”
Interestingly, Kimmet says that artists and architects often remain anonymous in Tibet and the Himalayas. A master craftsman would typically be tasked with the design and construction of a Tibetan building, but they would consult with the inhabitants or patrons of the project.
“Some buildings have been attributed to historical religious figures,” Kimmet notes. “Other buildings were established by notable kings and royal patrons; however, the names of the architects remain largely unknown.”
While nothing competes with actually visiting Tibet to experience the architecture, Kimmet says that the Rubin wants to bring its key architectural landmarks to a New York City audience that might not others have the opportunity to visit them. Though she hopes that audiences will come away with a new appreciation for Tibetan architecture, she would also like it if people see monuments in a new way.
“I hope that Monumental Lhasa will encourage people to think about how we construct images and our ideas of places,” Kimmet says. “Most of the time we experience iconic buildings and places through images rather than the actual places. These images tell us a lot about the people who made them and how they experienced the landmarks that we’re now viewing through their image.”