A Brief Introduction of Tibetan Architecture

  Materials and Construction

The traditional way of building is a response to Tibet's cold and dry climate, and the earthquake-prone ground. From at least the 7th century onwards until recently, the materials used for construction of housing in Lhasa have not changed much. Local stone, wood and earth are the basic materials, different qualities of which were used for different purposes. Slate, for example, forms the little roofs over doors and windows, while granite is preferably used for walls. Softer woods (such as poplar) are used for carvings, while harder woods (firs, nut trees) are used for structural support.

One of the most characteristic features of traditional Tibetan architecture is the battered wall. Besides giving Tibetan buildings a distinctive silhouette, the inward-sloping walls also provide extra stability in case of tremors. The batter is created by the reduction in thickness from the ground floor wall to the top floor wall, with the inside wall remaining vertical.

The walls on the ground floor, usually built from stone on shallow stone foundations, are extremely thick, often more than a metre. The walls get thinner and lighter towards the top of the building. The top floor of a house is commonly built from mud bricks; but wealthier houses would have used stone bricks for all floors. Between the meticulously-made outer and somewhat simpler inner faces, the wall core is filled with stone rubble and then rammed with mud, straw and other insulating materials.

The masonry deserves special mention. Courses of large rectangular stones, roughly of equal size, are laid between layers of small flat stones. This technique, known as galetted rubble, gives the walls a greater flexibility in case of tremors and therefore adds to the stability of a house. The top of a wall is sealed against rain by a cornice made from slate and wood, crowned by a mound of clay.

Ceilings, supported by a pillar-post construction, are built by placing wooden rafters between the cental beams and the walls. The rafters support layers of pebbles and mud. The roofs are sealed either by stamped and oiled clay (known as Arga) or water-absorbing sand known as Tikse .photo arga detail...

The thick walls and the filled ceilings ensure maximum insulation against the harsh temperature changes in the Tibetan climate.

Tradionally responsible for the entire construction of a house there would be a master carpenter or master stone mason, who had the title of "chimo". The client would explain the size of the house and any special needs, and the only drawing of the building needed would be a rough sketch drawn on sand or with charcoal on a piece of wood, for the client's approval. For the placement of doors, windows and designation of rooms, as well as for ceremonially initiating the construction project, a monk well-versed in Tibetan geomancy would be hired.

For the refinement of the Lhasa style of architecture, the period from the 17th century onwards is most relevant. The 17th century saw the consolidation of the lamaist state. Building projects during that period re-defined the Lhasa urban landscape. In the 18th and 19th centuries, influential aristocrats and monastic officials built opulent mansions as their residences. The concentration of wealth, political power and religious importance provided the necessary background for the formation of a tradition of master builders. In the early 20th century, contacts between Tibet and the outside world gradually increased. The advent of new construction materials obtained from outside of Tibet, first of glass, later of metal beams, and finally of cement, heralded a modernisation of the traditional way of building houses in Lhasa.

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