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Instructor Xiangba Gyaltsen (in blue shirt) teaches trainees how to dry-lay a foundation.
Kham Aid teaches traditional construction skills
by Pamela Logan
Aug 12, 2005
Seng-ge Monastery, Kangding County
* our training program begins
* the effect of earthquakes on architecture
* defects of Tagong buildings
* why traditional construction skills need to be taught
Our starting ceremony was marred by a freak accident: a monk carrying a twelve-foot plank swung it around and smacked photograph Simon Lim across the bridge of his nose. Simon immediately doubled over, face in his hands. We thought his nose must be broken, but were relieved when his injury turned out to minor. The monk set the plank down on the ground wet grass, and we all sat down on top of it. The trainees arrayed in a semi-circle around us.
Behind us, just outside the wall that enclosed the lawn where we sat, was a big hole in the ground, recently dug. It was ready and waiting for the foundation of the new kitchen we would soon start.
As planned, training director Doka acted as master of ceremonies, and he spoke to the trainees first. He introduced the Kham Aid team, headed by architect conservator Tenzing Chadotsang, myself as president of Kham Aid, documentarian Earl Stirling, translator Asang, site manager Tenzing Norbu, and the five instructors. Tenzing Chadotsang then spoke a few words to introduce himself, with Asang translating his Lhasa dialect into the Tagong nomad language.
Then Doka explained what our program is about. "He said, "if we just wanted to build a building, we could hire some Han workers, pay the money, and get it done But building a new building is not our purpose. We're here to teach new skills to you. We want to show you how to make buildings that are stronger, safe against rainstorms and earthquakes, and that are still Tibetan. And we will teach you to do this, not with concrete and tiles, but with local materials only: wood, clay, and stone."
Doka explained how an earthquake in 1973 had struck near Daofu, leading to clever advances in construction there. That's why we had invited the two Dawu (Daofu) teachers, stone mason Shamba Gyatso and carpenter Losang Dendrup He explained that the Chaktreng (Xiangcheng) teachers, Tsering and Tarsin, had come to teach how to make leak-proof roofs out of arga, which is a specialty of their home area. From Kangding, we had invited quarry-master He Zhanqun, who is expert at cutting round boulders into perfectly square stones. Doka said, "if any one of you is not willing to work AND learn, you should leave right now." The trainees ?nomads from Dorakarmo village and farmers from Pasang - all stared back at us. Nobody moved.
Lessons from quarrier He Zhanqun (left) on how to cut stone.
Tenzing Chadotsang, who was able to follow Doka's speech, nudged me and said, "He forgot to say that one of our purposes is to protect the monastery.?nbsp; I touched Doka抯 arm and reminded him to mention this very key point. He quickly explained to the trainees how we would also re-fit the monastery roof to make it more rain-resistant, and strengthen the joists to help it stand up against earthquakes. With that addendum, the speeches were over. It was time to get to work!
Kham is known for its rich architecture, yet techniques vary greatly from place to place. (see this Gallery of Vernacular Architecture for some examples). So, it turns out, does quality of construction. In an April visit to the region, Tenzing Chadotsang identified several important deficiencies in Tagong buildings. For example, Tagong stone walls do not have long pieces incorporated into them to tie the walls together internally; hence during earthquakes they tend to split in two. Wooden columns are not stabilized at the ground level, nor are the pegs that connect them to the capitals very secure. Roofs do not drain well and the clay on them is not as waterproof as it could be.
It's not that Tibetan culture wholly lacks this knowledge, it's just that the knowledge is not in Tagong. Why? Probably because Tagong has not had a serious earthquake in living memory, so people aren't motivated. Yet the risk remains. Thus, "best practices" for traditional construction need to be imported from other parts of the Tibetan Plateau.
Another reason for our program is to teach useful job skills to Tagong's people, especially herdsmen, who are at risk for economic marginalization as herding simply does not bring in enough cash to sustain a family. Yet in Tagong the construction trades are being infiltrated by outsiders - mostly Han Chinese - who are capturing a growing market share and leaving Tibetans on the sidelines. We could not find a single ethnic Tibetan quarrier in Tagong or Xinduqiao, though stone-cutting skills are in high demand due to many new Tibetan buildings going up. Carpenters from outside have set up workshops to mass-produce pre-fabricated Tibetan-style windows and doors, thus displacing Tibetan carpenters who are accustomed to making the units on-site, one by one.
Our program is also intended to fend off alien construction by demonstrating that culturally appropriate methods are as good or better than imported techniques. For example, cement is an increasingly popular building material, but it not only undermines the traditional character of local architecture, but it also saps jobs from local Tibetans who cannot easily find someone to teach them the relevant skills. Yet often cement is a poor choice and confers few advantages. Another example: these days, in new houses, pitched wood-frame tile-covered roofs are now in vogue (except in the town of Tagong itself where tiles are prohibited by local ordinance). The new roofs are dramatically altering the appearance of the countryside. It's true that tiles are more waterproof than badly-made flat clay roofs, but a good flat clay roof, if well-made and maintained, can match the performance of tile. And clay, unlike tile, does not employ outside materials or workers.
And so we began to teach. Our Kham Aid instructors - masters of stone masonry, carpentry, and quarrying - gathered their students and began showing them what to do with the materials piled by the site. The arga experts, Tsering and Tarsin, went off looking for suitable clay with which to re-make the temple roof. Before long Tenzing Chadotsang, architect-in-chief, came to me and pointed at a spot on the mountain wall about a quarter mile away. "They found some good clay up there. The monks said it doesn't work, but they don't know the technique. They just put the clay on the roof., but that's not enough. You have to work it before you lay it down.?nbsp;
Meanwhile, stonemason Shamba Gyatso was showing his trainees how to dry-lay rocks in the foundation trenches. Quarrier He Zhanqun was teaching his student how to split a boulder into two flat-faced halves. Carpenter Losang Dendrup and his students were stripping bark from the huge timbers that would form the new building's columns.
The next day we added a dozen women to our crew. Under the tutelage of Tarsin and Tsering , they began removing bad clay from the temple roof and carrying good clay down from the digging site. They would prepare it, layer it onto the roof and harden it with a thorough trampling to make arga - the rock-hard material found on roofs in Lhasa and elsewhere. Tsering (who is a woman, by the way) explained, "with arga, every time it snows, you must sweep the snow off of the roof. But if you just do that, the roof will last a lifetime.
With so many students, teachers, and management staff from different parts of Tibet, China, and the world, communication was not always easy. Translator Asang was in great demand during the first few days. As stonemason Shamba Gyatso, who is 66, astutely noted, "The first step is that create a good cooperation by being kind to each other. We must all share our ideas like we are one family.
Although architect-in-chief Tenzing Chadotsang and stonemason Shamba Gyatso had learned their trades on the opposite sides of the world (Columbia University and Dawu, respectively) they found that their ideas on construction were not far apart at all. Tenzing said, "I was telling him about how to do the walls, and he totally understood. We agreed in about a minute.
This program will accomplish three things: strengthening and
retrofitting for Seng-ge Monastery's main temple, a new kitchen building for the
monastery, and new knowledge for our 25 students. With these skills, they'll be
able to create an architectural revolution in the Minyak area of Kham. We hope
that the innovations learned in our program will enable traditional Tibetan
architecture to endure in Tagong for many decades to come.
This project is a part of the Sustainable Tibetan Communities program operated in partnership with Winrock International under a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. For more information, see www.winrock-stc.org.
Special thanks to Simon Lim for providing photographic
services to this project.