The Lhasa Atlas:
Traditional Tibetan Architecture and Townscape
By Knud Larsen and Amund Sinding-Larsen
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 2001
180pp.; $75.00 (cloth)
The Lhasa Atlas is a thoroughly impressive and passionate work of scholarship, documenting what is left of the old capital of Tibet. The book is the result of a seven-year srudy begun as the Lhasa City Historical Atlas Project. The project was led by the Norwegian and Danish architects Amund Sinding Larsen and Knud Larsen, who teamed up with other Asian and European researchers to record the architecrural heritage of Lhasa. But it should be mentioned at the outset that because of the ongoing destruction of buildi ngs in the old city, the book is even more of a historical document than it was intended to be. When the LeHA project began fieldwork in 1995, “three hundred secular and religious buildings were registered; this number was reduced to around two hundred buildings at the end of fieldwork in 1999.” As a record of a disappearing culture, of a Lhasa lost, the atlas is hauntingly beautiful—and very sad.
In spite of the ongoing dismantling of Lhasa, this extraordinary and generously produced volume of photographs, watercolors, line drawings, elevations, satellite photographs, thangka paintings, and umerous old and new maps still evokes 1e magical Tibet of historical imaginalon: the Potala Palace rising majestically rom the plains yet dwarfed by the maglificence of the vast landscape; Kanwal Crishna’s watercolors of the 14th Dalai Lama’s enthronement; and maps drawn rom memory in 1959 by Zasak Jigme raring, the Dalai Lama’s architect.
Even the work of the LCHA project is strangely connected to modern legend. Peter Aufschnaiter’s beautiful 1948 map of Lhasa formed the basis and starting point of the LHCA’s survey of remaining building techniques, strucrural typologies, and historical development found in the articulate maps, drawings, and text of The Lhasa Atlas. Tourists will witness the vestiges of a lost way of life. But for all that the buildings of Lhasa have to teach us, restoring them will not restore the vibrant culture and spiritual presence of the city of yore.
What would it mean to save Lhasa? Such a question is inevitably amended with the all-too-agreeable notion that, of course, however much we may long for “old Lhasa,” we might not want to pre-1950 buildings. Aufschnaiter escaped with fellow Austrian Heinrich Harrer (known for his book Seven Years in Tibet) from a British prisoner-of-war camp in India in 1944 and crossed the Himalayas into Tibet, where they eventually found shelter in Lhasa. Aufschnaiter’s engineering expertise was put to work designing anti-flood dykes along the Kyichu River, which runs past the city. A sewer system project undertaken by Harrer and Aufschnaiter required good maps of the city, and the result was the 1948 map.
The authors of The Lhasa Atlas have rightly determined the nature of their work to be historical. Since the 1948 map and the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Lhasa’s population has grown from 30,000 to 400,000. The Lhasa they document suffered the destructive “cultural revolution” of Chinese communism and now must bear the potent energies of capitalist market forces, leaving a mostly archaeological record of destroyed buildings, in the worst case, or mummified monasteries and palaces, such as the Potala, in the best case. Of the two hundred-plus buildings of architectural and cultural significance still standing in Lhasa, many will be saved because of the diligence of the authors of the present volume and the growing recognition of the economic stimulus that preservation can provide as an attraction for tourists. Certainly, architects and historians will derive great benefit from the careful delineation of traditional live there ourselves. We understand the folly of fantasizing about Shangri-La, which is to say that few would want to return to the wretched quality of life (no toothbrushes, running water, or equal rights) associated with an agrarian economy. For that matter, one wonders how many Tibetan refugees raised in exile would actually return to the Tibet of their parents and grandparents if given the opportunity.
But perhaps a return to Lhasa is exactly what is required to save it. A return, that is, to a radical understanding of community as a way of being rather than as a means for getting. A part of the old Tibet of the historical imagination was the image of a social fabric in which spirit and community were woven together. As a record of a disappearing culture, the book reminds us that teachings are born and die. Tibet’s Buddhism, culture, and modes of architecture may be preserved in some sense as separate entities, but the mystery of community in which all these forms live together has disappeared. The crisis of Lhasa reminds us of the challenge faced by all serious practitioners to gather together as a community so that forces and conditions for the continuation of the teaching may be created and sustained. ▼
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