Architecture in Bhutan – Modernism and tradition in Bhutan’s architectural heritage. Bhutan is a small Himalayan state, extending between Tibet and India, two significant and fundamental Asian civilizations. It is characterized mainly by steep, and elevated mountains crossed by a network of swift rivers that form large, wide valleys before flowing into the lowlands of India. In the Bhutanese Himalayas, high peaks exceed 7,000 meters in altitude. The particular geography of the place strongly conditioned the architectural typology that developed over time, making it necessary, for example, to use a specific type of materials at the expense of others. 

Fifty Years of Architecture in Bhutan - Sheet1
Bhutan, the land of exclusive Oriental Art and Architecture[Photograph], (Punakha dzong, Punakha: Bhutan)_©Sarkar, B. (2012)
Much of Bhutan’s early history is shrouded in mystery because most of the nation’s records were destroyed when a fire devastated the ancient capital, Punakha, in 1827. To preserve Bhutan’s antique architectural style, architects needed to design all buildings with sloping roofs, small windows, and colorful wooden doors, just like traditional buildings. The aim was to make the architecture as unified as possible within the country. Due to the significant influence of Buddhism in the country and its long history with Tibet, the main architectural style of the buildings is that of Tibetan Buddhism. There are still some villages in Bhutan that still preserve their traditional houses unaltered. These are villages such as Rinchengang in Wangduephodrang and Trong in Zhemgang, which have the distinguishing feature of visually reflecting the vitality of the community they share.

The ancient Bhutanese architecture | Architecture in Bhutan

Bhutanese architecture has always presented unique characteristics. One of these is that the colors used have a powerful symbolic meaning that represents and connects to the natural elements. And this principle is so strongly felt within the population that there is even a traditional law guiding the use of different colors in various structures. A characteristic architecture of the region is a castle-fortress known as a dzong. The dzongs in Bhutan have been used primarily as religious and administrative centers since the 17th century. They are traditionally constructed with a single entrance gate and a central temple tower surrounded by a courtyard. The walls are usually slanted inwards and the structure’s windows are painted black, creating a sharp contrast with the white walls.

Dobji Dzong [Photograph] (Dobji Dzong, Haa Valley: Bhutan)_©Leonhardt, S. (2018)
The Lhakhang and Goemba are as well designed as the dzongs, with white walls and Jabzhi roofs, a traditional style of Bhutanese architecture. Even if they are smaller in size, the design is much the same as the dzongs. Chortens, another essential and historical architecture in the country, are large sacred structures that are believed to be blessed. They represent the five main elements of the Universe: water, earth, fire, air, and space. The base of the chortens is built in a square shape with a dome above it and the main materials are mud and stone, while the surface is white-painted. Within a village, the Lhakhang is usually the most important building. In addition to being religious centers, they also have important social and cultural functions, hosting almost all cultural events in the village. Bhutanese architecture generally does not include planning and design on paper before a structure is built. The carpenter chief is the master of the work and already has the dimensions, layout, and construction in mind. He uses parts of his body to measure and proportion the different components of the building.

Paro Taktsang, The Tigers Nest [Photograph] (Paro Taktsang: Bhutan)_©Stroeer, S. (2018)
Paro Taktsang, The Tigers Nest [Photograph] (Paro Taktsang: Bhutan)_©Stroeer, S. (2018)
In 1947, India gained independence from British domination and recognized Bhutan as a sovereign country. When China took control of Tibet, Bhutan’s policy of total isolation was challenged before the country was officially admitted to the United Nations in 1971. What is particularly impressive about this territory on the border between India and China is instilled in its culture and in its desire to keep its ancient and deep-rooted traditions intact as much as possible. It seems like it has remained closed and somewhat isolated from the rest of the world until its independence. However, nowadays, its architecture is equally connoted by a strong respect for local tradition and culture and every other aspect of life.

National Library of Bhutan [Photograph] (Thimphu: Bhutan)_©Faiyaz, M. (2018)
National Library of Bhutan [Photograph] (Thimphu: Bhutan)_©Faiyaz, M. (2018)
Although cheap building materials, such as cement and concrete, are readily available, houses are built exclusively by traditional methods, which include the use of wood and rammed earth. Instead, the walls of the houses are built with mud and rammed earth. However, houses in the eastern regions of the country are built of stone due to climatic and geographical conditions. The interiors of houses are generally decorated with paintings and wooden handicrafts. At low altitudes, houses are built with bamboo and wood, while the use of stone becomes more frequent at high elevations. The interiors of houses are generally decorated with paintings and wooden handicrafts.

The longest suspension bridge in Bhutan, Punakha Suspension Bridge [Photograph] (Punakha: Bhutan)_©Al-Jumah, E. (2019)
Because of Bhutan’s dramatic topography, most parts of the country are connected exclusively by large wooden bridges. The Punakha suspension bridge, characteristically decorated with colored prayer flags, is a clear example. It connects the Punakha Dzong to the villages of Shengana, Samdingkha, and Wangkha across the Tsang Chu River and it is one of the longest suspension bridges in Bhutan. In fact, given its area’s predominantly mountainous nature, Bhutan has always relied on bridges to travel across its rushing river courses. Bhutan’s most traditional bridges are its cantilever bridges; however, several suspension bridges are also found.

The modern development of architecture

Within the modern Bhutanese architectural tradition, it is essential to remark on how the modern aspects and the traditional features of its own culture are completely integrated. Nevertheless, the distinctive style of Bhutanese architecture, its solid connection to the land, and its use of natural and readily available materials, have been challenged by the ongoing process of modernization. In the past, in fact, all public structures and private buildings were constructed using materials such as mud, stone, and wood, causing minimal environmental impact with their extraction. However, although the use of new materials could undermine the authenticity of traditional buildings, certain codes are followed so that traditional art and architecture are still an integral part of the construction process. Houses in Bhutan are still built using traditional methods, despite the availability of such inexpensive materials as cement and concrete. Houses in Bhutan are old-style: all buildings have sloping roofs, small wooden windows, and doors made of colorful wood. The main purpose is to ensure uniformity of architectural design of buildings across the country. 

House in Thimphu [Photograph] (Thimphu: Bhutan)_©Thinley, J. (2020)
House in Thimphu [Photograph] (Thimphu: Bhutan)_©Thinley, J. (2020)
An issue that emerges from observing modern Bhutanese architecture is the construction of five- or multi-story buildings as opposed to the past’s two- or three-story houses. Since Bhutan is a high seismic risk area, the construction of vertical buildings makes them much more vulnerable in case of natural disasters. Due to the numerous earthquakes that have struck the area in recent decades, the World Bank has funded a large program with the specific goal of increasing the country’s resilience to earthquake risk. The Program, called “Bhutan: Improving Resilience to Seismic Risk“, aims both to improve knowledge of seismic risk in the country and to improve knowledge in terms of structural mitigation and prevention measures. 

Bhutanese House in Paro [Photograph] (Paro: Bhutan)_©Wolfe, A. (2014)
Bhutanese House in Paro [Photograph] (Paro: Bhutan)_©Wolfe, A. (2014)
Buddhist heritage, respect and care for the rare environmental heritage, and regard for the long artistic and cultural tradition have made the kingdom of Bhutan a unique place in the world, where the happiness and well-being of the inhabitants is the most important aspect of the society. The long-standing tradition of environmentally and culturally appropriate considerations in designs made in Bhutan should be taken as an example of an integrated building system to be adopted in other parts of the world as well. To preserve, but at the same time to modernize and not isolate itself from the world, is the key characteristic that has made Bhutan a popular travel destination and the ideal place in which to live.


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Laura Salurso is an architecture and design graduate with a strong passion for traveling, writing and photography. She has always looked at things around her from an architectural point of view, observing and studying the strong and archetypical connection between architecture and people.