Himalayan Vernacular Architecture

The Himalayan Ranges and the adjoining plains of the Tibetan Plateau have largely been imprinted by “Tibetan culture”. Its cultural influence extends far beyond the Tibet Autonomous Region in China – the former religious and political center – into large parts of Chinese provinces such as Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan and Xinjiang as well as neighboring countries such as India (with Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh), northern Nepal and entire Bhutan.

Since the heyday of the Tibetan Empire (7th – 9th century) a distinct and more or less coherent culture has spread over a vast area in central Asia. It endured the change of political systems, waves of migration, wars and the influence of competing cultural values. Though fragmented into local kingdoms and numerous Buddhist sects, a stable cross-border cultural reference survived that created a unique and common identity for people living in an area stretching over more than 3,000 kilometers of the Himalayas.

Part of this identity is a distinct and extremely rich architectural tradition that shows surprising diversity and flexible adaptation to local climatic conditions, economic necessities, the availability of building materials and the influence of local ethnic groups.

Our research project, which is funded by a three-year grant from the German Research Foundation (DFG), aims to capture the richness and diversity of Himalayan and Tibetan vernacular farmhouse architecture by documenting selected buildings in a cross-country approach. Typical buildings in the Himalayan region and on the Tibetan Plateau are being be surveyed and documented. Drawings are complemented by interviews on the historical and social contexts, and an exploration of the symbolic and anthropological aspects of traditional building and craftsmanship. We envisage that this research project will contribute to a better understanding of what may be called a “traditional ecology of building” that is based on an intricate balance of locally available resources, energy consumption, investment and the deriving social, economic and cultural benefits.

We believe that the documentation of vernacular farmhouses in the Himalayan region deserves special attention: not only do they represent the most widespread authentic cultural asset of a specific culture, they are also a rapidly vanishing species. In contrast to religious buildings such as Buddhist monasteries and temples that have attracted a huge amount of international attention and academic research, the vernacular farmhouse architecture of the Himalayas has been grossly neglected. A proper documentation seems urgent not only because of the architectural value of vernacular architecture but also because, with increasing modernization, even remote areas experience rapid changes in terms of accessibility, building materials, values, styles etc. In some regions (such as Qinghai and the Tibet Autonomous Region) the traditional farmhouse architecture is not far from becoming extinct.