Tibetan Architecture & Its Significance


On a whim last quarter, I took a class called Introduction to World Architecture. As an intended Mathematical and Computational Science major, I am not usually inclined to take that kind of class, but I decided to go for it because it sounded interesting. Although I enjoyed the class and the variety of buildings included in the course, I was disappointed in the lack of diversity in the architecture. The discussions we had about Western architecture were fascinating, but we did not spend as much time discussing non-Western architecture as I would have hoped. Seeing the architecture of the local Shangri-la region firsthand only confirmed my suspicion that there was a large portion of non- Western architecture that my class did not cover.
Tibetan architecture is fascinating to study because architects in this region have to be resourceful when it comes to finding building materials and figuring out how to stay warm. This resourcefulness results in a great variety of building styles from region to region. The architecture of this large region of cultural influence is very diverse. Therefore, I think it is best to talk about the architecture in terms of common themes and ideas as opposed to specific elements.
Tibetan architecture is unique in that much of it is based on functionality. The climate of Tibet can be cold and harsh, so the functionality of the building in terms of rigidity and warmth maintenance take first priority. Tibetan architecture is best described as “geomorphic”, architecture that varies depending on its surroundings. These factors can include the local landscape, climate, and materials that are available for construction. For instance, the most common tree that is used for building in the Shangri-la region is the Yunnan spruce, because it is light but sturdy. However, this type of tree is not available everywhere, and often other types of timber have to be used. These include fir, hemlock, oil pine, feather pine, birch, maple, and mountain poplar. In places where no timber is easily accessible, other materials such as stone and mortar, mud mortar, and sun-dried bricks are used. In much of Western architecture, the materials used to create the building mattered so much that they would be shipped from hundreds of miles away, to the point of being impractical.
Another key aspect of Tibetan architecture is sturdiness. In a landscape that undergoes frequent natural disasters, like earthquakes and landslides, having a strong building foundation is key. There is often a reliance on vertical columns to support the buildings. In some specific places, such as the assembly halls


of monasteries, these columns are placed with careful attention paid to the distance between the columns. The walls start relatively thick and get slimmer as they go up, which adds to the sturdiness of the building.
Because of the harsh climate of Tibet, the production and preservation of heat is an essential aspect of the architecture. Although buildings are traditionally white, some buildings are painted red because the color red absorbs heat in the winter and reflects it in the summer. Some buildings are made of stone, because stone collects heat during the day and keeps it in at night. Most houses are two stories, and in some homes, the first floor is relegated to the livestock and the second floor to the family. This is useful in cold areas because heat rises, so the body heat of the livestock keeps the family above warm. Windows are often narrow in order to only let in the sun’s rays when the sun is low in the sky. This occurs during the morning and evening of the summer and at most hours of the winter, but the design prevents the hot rays from the afternoon summer sun from penetrating the building. Since many families cannot afford glass for the windows of their homes, they cover the windows with white cloth to let in light but prevent heat from escaping.



Tibetan architecture is unique in that it independently came up with many architectural structures that either currently exist or have existed in other parts of the world. For instance, many roofs on Tibetan buildings are flat in regions that don’t get much snow. Flat roofs are handy because they can be used to store things like firewood and fodder. Additionally, the roofs are a good place for relaxing, sunbathing, and even for romance. This is similar to the civilization of Çatalhüyök in modern-day Turkey, where people used to spend a lot of time hanging out on the roofs.
Another similarity exists in the skeleton of the buildings themselves. Tibetan architecture makes use of the traditional post and lintel set up. This means that two posts are put up vertically and another beam (the lintel) is fastened on them horizontally. This set up can be seen all over Western architecture, from Stonehenge to the Eastern Facade of the Llouve. Columns also play a big role in Tibetan architecture. They are used to hold up the building, but also to divide large spaces into different living areas or rooms. Particularly in the assembly halls of monasteries, columns are much more than just structures for support. The timber pillars are placed 230-300 centimeters apart (depending on the building) and often have shelf-like capitals. This type of specific column placement and decoration of capitals can be seen in many European buildings, starting as early as Ancient Greece and persisting through the Renaissance and Baroque periods. These columns, particularly in Ancient Greece, had special proportions that were standardized and widely used. Later, they focused more on the distances between the columns and how their placement affected the viewer’s perception of the building.


I have spoken a lot about the functionality of Tibetan architecture, but that is not to say that is not as beautiful or detail-oriented as other architecture. Tibetan buildings are some of the most ornate buildings I have ever seen in terms of woodwork and colorful paintings. But for me, the most beautiful thing about Tibetan architecture is the way in which it seems connected to nature, almost as if it is a natural part of the landscape. Many of the buildings that I saw in my architecture class either attempted to mimic the landscape that they were in or physically point towards its features. For instance, the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae points in the direction of a sacred mountain, attempting to direct the viewer’s eye to it. At Machu Picchu, there are small mountain-shaped stones that both resemble the surrounding mountains and point to them. Now consider the Potala in Lhasa; this magnificent building appears to be formed out of the mountain, as if it were just an extension of the mountain top. This is particularly noticeable during the winter, when the white building is surrounded by other snowy mountain tops.


The Potala was the only image of a building by another architect that Frank Lloyd Wright had in his office, and it would not be surprising if he took inspiration from it. Just like the Potala, many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings appear to be a part of the landscape in which they reside, particularly the home Falling Water. This leads to more organic-looking buildings, as opposed to buildings that look like they were manufactured elsewhere and plopped down into an environment.
Tibetan architecture has a lot to teach us about adapting to our environment and working in unison with it.
Tung, R. J. (1980). A Portrait of Lost Tibet. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, Ltd.
Wong, H. M.; Troch, P.; Yang, J.; Logan, P.; Choy, I. (1992). Buddhist Monasteries of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous
Prefecture, Western Sichuan, China. Los Angeles, CA: China Exploration & Research Society.