Excursion into Bhutanese architecture

Bhutan Dochula_Pass_detail

The South Asia landlocked kingdom of Bhutan is a happy place. It is also one of the least developed nations in the region and still shows a lot of traditional architecture influenced by Tibetan culture and Buddhist architectural styles.

Bhutan architecture

The country brims with art, culture and religion that influence the way houses, government buildings and religious structures are constructed and built. While the designs vary from region to region depending on the topography and available materials, there is an architectural consistency across this eastern Himalayan constitutional monarchy.

The climatic conditions range from the lush subtropical plains in the south to the subalpine Himalayan mountains in the north. The temperature variations demand certain adjustments in the building processes, but the construction materials used throughout the country, including stone, compressed earth or mud, wood and bamboo,  are similar. Wood is widely used as the country is 60 percent under forest cover and the material is readily available.

Probably the most astonishing and interesting fact for a modern architect or designer is that all of the houses in Bhutan are built without written plans. The absence of drawings makes the designs of multistory houses even more impressive.

The chief carpenter is the master of the work who has a concept about the size and layout of the building structure in mind. He uses his own body and limbs to measure proportions of the different features of the house.

Bhutan architecture

After the site selection based on an astrologer’s calculations are concluded, the chief carpenter oversees other carpenters, stone-cutters and village workers. They all pride themselves in the fact that no nails or iron bars are used in the construction. It is tradition that the wood structures are assembled by dovetail techniques.

Bhutan’s economy is largely based on agriculture and increasingly on hydroelectricity. The remote mountain state relies on locally available materials and adheres to the influence of the culture and climate for the design of their architecture.

The main structures are solid farmhouses, goembas (monasteries), Ihakhangs (temples) and Dzongs (fort-monasteries). We are only focusing on the first and the last in this article; however, the design principles apply to the four types of buildings.

Bhutan architecture

The farmhouse architecture in eastern and central Bhutan at midrange altitude are stone structures. In the west, building walls are made of compact rammed earth that is strong and durable.

The walls are 80 to 100 centimeters thick and consist of massive compacted earth in wood frames. It can take several weeks of pounding the mud with wooden pools with a flat ram to create these walls. The finished walls are either left in the natural mud color or are whitewashed.

The front of the two-story houses face south in most places and, in rural areas, the ground floor is used as a barn and the upper floors as living quarters. The houses usually have an airy attic for storage. The southern façade with large windows is always built of timber and elaborately decorated.

The earthen foundation of the houses is also comprised of the rear wall and the back half of the exterior sidewalls. The front, where the living quarters are, is clad in wood. The wood construction extends over the front and the side of the earthen walls to give the houses a top-heavy appearance. 

Older houses still have sliding wood panels that serve as windows. Otherwise, windows are cut out of the wooden portion decorated with trefoil motifs that are influenced by Persian styles. Or as some may say, it is a practical design that lets inhabitants look out the windows while the smoke from the fireplaces blows out through the opening above. The window lintels are painted with geometrical and floral motifs.    

The traditional roofs are pitched and covered with wooden shingles. In many cases, they are weighted down by large stones to protect the shingles from the strong winds. The newer roofs are built with corrugated iron that is more durable and weather resistant. All Buddhist homes have prayer flags in the center of the roof. Below the roof, elaborate wooden cornices are richly decorated. 

Bhutan architecture

Inside, walls are built with timber frames filled with woven bamboo and plastered with mud. The technique is called weave-mud. Stairs are often ladders that are simple tree trunks with steps carved into them. The upper floors are supported by wooden beams that fit into the holes in the wall, and central columns support the beams.       

Apart from the individual houses, the Dzongs are the most visible and stunning multistory structures in the landscape. Their function is simultaneously religious and secular. Many Dzongs have watchtowers and citadels. These big constructions are usually white and protected by cantilever wooden bridges, another feat of Bhutan craftsmanship.

The inward-sloping walls give the buildings the impressions that they are bigger and more imposing than the actual structure. They are built of stone or pounded mud. Similar to the individual houses, they are constructed with timber, including massive beams. The wooden shingle roofs and the many butter lamps that adorn the walls and structure have often been the cause of fires in the past. More and more these roofs are built with corrugated-iron.

The Dzong design concept describes two wings with inward-facing galleries – one for the monks’ quarters and the other for the government offices. They are arranged around and overlooking the courtyards that are paved with large flagstones.

Bhutan architecture is unique, well-preserved and very much alive. The house and building types speak of the excellent craftsmanship of the workers and their inventiveness with the materials they have at hand and the weather conditions and topography they are dealing with.

Bhutan architecture

Keen to visit Bhutan and recharge? Six Senses Bhutan has great offers for that.

Source: some pictures are courtesy of Six Senses Bhutan.

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