Future Perfect Culture, not Folklore

View across Mirui road
View across Mirui road | Photo: Cheng Shu © standardarchitects

As the Chinese middle class are seeking rest and relaxation, the remote regions of their country are becoming the target of commercial schemes. But there are alternatives, architecture offices like standardarchitecture demonstrate: in their structures, local traditions meet development for tourism.

Theme parks for tourists?

In 2006 Nyingchi Airport opened up about 250 kilometres east of Lhasa, ushering in a new age of tourism in the Yarlung Tsangpo River valley in the autonomous region of Tibet. So now it takes only two hours to fly from Chengdu, a metropolis in southwest China, to Nyingchi, and there are flights every day. The rationale behind this new connection is clear: to rapidly develop the region into a popular tourist destination. And there are good reasons a-plenty to visit the Yarlung River: the peach blossom season in March and April, for example, and later in the year white-water rafting, mountain climbing and hikes through the pristine canyons, among them the longest and deepest gorge in the world, the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon.

In 2012 the local government decided to build a total of 22 “typical Swiss-style tourist villages”, according to a communiqué from the local party secretary, which should shake the region out of its deep sleep. They were to be isolated from the existing network of villages and to serve exclusively for purposes of mass tourism. The American theme park and hotel developers called in to handle the job moreover planned pseudo-Tibetan style shopping malls; to this day, though, they are awaiting construction.

And yet besides these rather dubious mega-projects, other, smaller-scale projects have emerged in recent years. They draw on local traditions, though without copying them. These alternative schemes seek to improve the infrastructure for local communities by putting up unobtrusive individual buildings, which will also foster unique experience tourism.

The search for alternatives

For some years now, standardarchitecture, a firm based in Beijing, have been working in the region. Their first projects were completed back in 2008: a landing pier on the Yarlung River near the town of Paizhen (派镇), a visitor centre at the same spot, and a square around an ancient mulberry tree nearby. The little pier is fitted out with facilities where passengers can buy tickets for a boat ride or hang out when traffic on the river is held up by bad weather. They can even spend the night there. Like a ramp, the building rises up along the bank and looks out on the river below. Depending on the water level, boats can be moored at various heights on the ramp. The architects used local stone and wood for the interior decoration, which was executed by local craftsmen according to their traditional methods.

The square that they designed the same year features a 1,300-year-old mulberry tree. This tree outside the little village of Jiala in the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon now stands on a newly-laid gravel surface, with large coarsely hewn stones around it to sit on. The local population really took notice of the tree in its new setting and began adorning it with prayer flags. This custom harks back to the story of Princess Wencheng (文成公主), who, more than a thousand years ago, is said to have gazed up from here at the gigantic backdrop of the well over 7,000-metre-high mountain peaks and whose name still draws many tourists here nowadays. During the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century AD, the Chinese emperor’s daughter set out for Lhasa to marry the Tibetan King Gampo. She is said to have brought with her to Tibet not only the mulberry trees needed for silk production, but also Buddhism, which is why she is venerated to this day as a bodhisattva called “White Tara”.
 
  • Model of the Yarlung Tsangpo boat terminal Photo: Cheng Shu © standardarchitects
    Model of the Yarlung Tsangpo boat terminal
  • Ramped building volume adjacent to Yarlung Tsangpo river Photo: Chen Shu © standardarchitects
    Ramped building volume adjacent to Yarlung Tsangpo river
  • The Yarlung Tsangpo boat terminal Photo: Cheng Shu © standardarchitects
    The Yarlung Tsangpo boat terminal
  • Square design for the mulberry tree outside the village of Jiala  Photo: Cheng Shu © standardarchitects
    Square design for the mulberry tree outside the village of Jiala
  • Tourists visit the mulberry tree Photo: Cheng Shu © standardarchitects
    Tourists visit the mulberry tree
  • The square in front of the mountains Photo: Cheng Shu © standardarchitects
    The square in front of the mountains
  • Visitor center in Paizhen Photo: Cheng Shu © standardarchitects
    Visitor center in Paizhen
  • Western Ramp of the visitor centre Photo: Cheng Shu © standardarchitects
    Western Ramp of the visitor centre
  • The visitor center in dusk Photo: Cheng Shu © standardarchitects
    The visitor center in dusk
  • Exhibition level of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon Art Centre Photo: Cheng Shu © standardarchitects
    Exhibition level of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon Art Centre
  • Interior of the Art Centre Photo: Cheng Shu © standardarchitects
    Interior of the Art Centre
 

Integrated infrastructure for tourists and locals

Also in 2008 the architects completed a visitor centre in Paizhen. On their way into the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, hikers can stop here and learn a bit about the region and about Namcha Barwa, a 7,782-metre mountain situated not far away at the Great Bend in the Yarlung Tsangpo River. With its massive walls of locally quarried stone, the visitor centre blends right into the landscape and the immediate surroundings. And yet this new infrastructure is not just an information centre, it also holds an Internet bar and an infirmary for travellers as well as a separate room reserved for tour guides, and also such vital facilities as a cistern, a central power distributor and conference rooms for local residents.

Three years later, the architects at standardarchitecture again completed several small buildings commissioned by the Tibetan Tourist Holding, including the Niyang River Visitor Centre, the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon Art Centre and a facility for the shipping authorities. The latter edifice zigzags high up on a hillside for several hundred metres and likewise blends into the landscape thanks to the use of local stone. The Chinese architects worked together with colleagues from Enbaixada, Portugal. The Art Centre over in Paizhen consists of a two-storey polygonal structure containing pavilions, offices, a restaurant, a large toilet facility, exhibition areas and a coach station.

As standardarchitecture’s projects go to show, tourist infrastructure can be adapted to the surroundings without discrediting the authenticity of the local culture by trying to copy traditional folklore. Even in Tibet, whose native architectural culture is endangered by a levelling urbanization policy and which – even more than in other traditional regions – is generally perceived through the prism of this native culture, development and renewal are inevitable. Only time will tell, however, whether the theme park-style “Swiss Tourist Village”, clearly motivated “from above” by party political interests, will prevail as the reigning developmental paradigm. In a more desirable scenario, infrastructure for visitors and natives alike would be developed through appropriate town and country planning efforts carried out at a local level. Because this would mean that one of the last remaining natural wonders would be preserved for future generations, whilst enabling the local population to further develop their culture in a contemporary form.