Thimphu: East meets West

Invited to see a new hotel opening soon as part of a school for hotel management, I’m driven to a site dominated by a huge stone building punctured by irregular windows and somewhat encumbered by huge wood protrusions. Austrian design, Austrian engineering and Austrian money made it happen.

Austrian hotel

Austrian hotel

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Tons of Indian steel imported to cantilever a roof for this reinterpretation of the traditional Bhutan attic

The construction manager is on site, and happily gives us a tour of the building. The stone and wood are local, but absolutely everything else came from Austria and India: steel, insulation, door and window fittings, bathroom fixtures, solar and mechanical and electrical equipment…the works. The problems of procurement, detailing and construction suggest an attitude not at all interested in what the local economy has to offer, but the problems run even deeper. The local architect failed to assert himself against the will of the Austrian architect, the government procurement policies prevented wood chip making machinery from finding a home here to support the heating plant, some of the equipment requires maintenance expertise unavailable in Bhutan, and some of the double-glazed panels on the ground floor are misting as their seals were broken in transport from India.

Inside, entering some of the rooms confronts you with clear glass panels into the bathroom. I can’t think of any culture, however libertine, that wouldn’t be offended. The rooms do have nice big windows.

Upstairs, the huge cantilevered roof offers a reinterpretation of the traditionally open Bhutanese attic. I can imagine the architect searching for a modern expression of traditional Bhutan typologies, and I’m in exactly the same boat as I consider the project that invited me here in the first place, and there is no denying the drama of this incredible roof: my stingy Dutch Calvinism rebels at the expense while my secular devotion to visceral placemaking stands in awe: getting this project built took guts. Hopefully furnishings, the hot tubs and a full bar will make the attic more hospitable then it is now. I leave the project after a cup of tea determined in any case to find a local architect who will kick my butt if I do anything that makes no sense here even if it might in the US.

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OK: I ripped this pic off the web. The point is that the simple whitewashed stone volumes, very nicely designed lighting, and gorgeous wood interiors lend a sense of effortless elegance missing from the Austrian project.

Afterwards we visit the Amankora resort, and it is sensible and sensual and beautiful, without the ambitions of the Austrian project but also without the unfortunate problems. The Austrian project showed an architect working incredibly hard to carve out a modern Bhutanese architecture, while Amankora appears effortless and elegant and no less Bhutanese. Amankora seems more interested in the guest, Austria more interested in the architecture. Personally, I prefer simplicity to the highly wrought, that duality far more interesting to me than east and west.

Sculpture class somehow enduring the tourist onslaught

Sculpture class somehow enduring the tourist onslaught

Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara

Earlier in the day at the School for the 13 Sacred Traditional Arts, I had hoped to see metalwork and claywork and glasswork, but none of that was in evidence. Carving, weaving, embroidering and painting were the dominant arts, each primarily concerned with preserving ancient motifs and techniques.

If art prepares a culture for change, and this culture focuses its art on the past, I wonder how it will cope with the tidal wave of western influence the country has invited upon itself. Perhaps a focus on the past, on the other hand, is exactly the antidote required to survive. Perhaps politics is the way to address change, and art is a connection to the roots required to sustain you here. I certainly hope so.

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