Student Sponsorship: Nikhil Chaudhuri ('19) - Tibetan House Project


SPIRE was proud to support Stanford student Nikhil Chaudhuri ('19), sponsoring his travel to Tibet over the summer of 2017. Nikhil was there to document and disassemble a farm house in Ximalaza, a village slated to be flooded due to dam construction, all as a part of cultural and architectural preservation. The final documentation of the project can be found here.

Read Nikhil's account of the project below:

In Silicon Valley, in the Bay Area, the built environment is often a vehicle of finance and technology. There is an attraction in the new, in development, and a value too. Yet, even if less quantifiable, there is also a value in the preservation of real estate – a cultural investment.

For two weeks in late June and early July, I was in a small Tibetan village, Cizhong, on the banks of the Mekong River in the mountainous “Three Parallel Rivers” region of southwestern China east of the Himalayas. I was part of small team “saving” a vernacular farm house in Ximalaza, a lower region of the village that will be flooded later this year due to a dam under construction down river. Led by Dr. John Flower, Director of Chinese Studies at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., the team consisted of seven American and Chinese students, educators, and professionals involved in history, anthropology, Chinese studies, film, carpentry, and architecture.

Our purpose during the fieldwork portion of the project was two-fold: documentation and disassembly. During the first week, we documented the house, including its lands and history, through photography, drawings, and diagrams. As the resident architecture student, I was responsible for mapping out the house in enough detail to reconstruct it virtually using CAD software. Every detail of the house’s structure was recorded down to the width of notches in the joists.

We also interviewed the owner of the house, Zhang Jian Hua, extensively. Mr. Zhang built his farm house in 1983, before the village had electricity. He felled and carved every tree used to construct the house with his own hands. Like the village in which he lives, Mr. Zhang comes from diverse and intricate roots. Mr. Zhang identifies as Han (the majority Chinese ethnicity) even though he speaks Tibetan. And his family, like most families in Cizhong, has been Catholic since French missionaries evangelized the village in the 1800s. He is a farmer and also a modern-day merchant with a keen business mind.

Mr. Zhang’s eclectic background is reflected in his home. The farm house is at face-value a seemingly common piece of vernacular agricultural architecture. It resembles many of the farm houses throughout the village, an indication of the shared profession of most Cizhong residents – subsistence farming. With its larger courtyard, gardens, and store-rooms, it is the machine through which Mr. Zhang harvests his walnuts, apples, and grapes (another remnant of French influence). Yet, the house is also part of a larger cultural ecosystem – influenced by Han, Naxi, and Tibetan styles, the ethnicities that call this part of China home. For instance, the trapezoidal form and thick sloped rammed-earth walls that surround and insulate the home are distinctly Tibetan, reminiscent of the structures seen at the Tibetan Buddhist Songzanlin Monastery in Shangri-la, the closest city to Cizhong. Yet, the organization of rooms (three over three), systems of scale and proportion, wood construction methods, and intricate carvings in the wall panels and roof beams reflect elements of Han and Naxi architecture.

Although there were periods of intercultural conflict – battles between the French missionaries and Buddhist monks over a century ago and religious suppression during the Maoist era – the diverse people of Cizhong now live in harmony. One Sunday, we went to mass at the local Catholic church and were able to experience firsthand this place’s peaceful congregation of differences. The church itself is a built example of mixed complexions with the layout of a typical Western church but the construction and ornamentation of a Chinese temple.

The opposing forces in Cizhong at the moment are attitudes on progress – to preserve the past or embrace the future. Like much of rural China, Cizhong is experiencing rapid infrastructural development. The Chinese government has funded many new roads and bridges that allow for easier transportation to and from major cities as well as increased commerce. Unfortunately, inherent in the rural modernization process is the gradual eradication of traditional vernacular architecture in favor of more modern, concrete structures influenced by urban architecture and Western design. Sometimes, as is the case with the house of Zhang Jian Hua, the transition is accelerated due to large-scale infrastructure projects, such as a dam on the Mekong River. Mr. Zhang and his family will be relocated from the house he spent so long building and living in. He has no choice in the matter.

The debate on progress and modernity is complex. On the one hand, the increased accessibility to Cizhong should support tourism to the small village and expand the economic opportunities of its residents. Yet, on the other hand, the concrete structures and paved roads that have eclipsed beautiful wooden homes and grape vineyards within the past years have destroyed much of the idyllic scenery and lifestyle that made Cizhong such a special place.

The second week of our trip was spent disassembling Mr. Zhang’s house. Given the ensuing inundation, we hoped to preserve and remember the history, culture, and lifestyle that Mr. Zhang and his villagers once shared both through the digital and physical preservation of his architecture. With Mr. Zhang and his family’s eager support, we enlisted the help of four “house-disassemblers” from a village near Dali in Yunnan province to take the house apart piece by piece. The disassembly process provided a second opportunity to study the house’s construction and to discern how all the structural elements fit together.

At the end of the week, every wooden element was labeled, catalogued, and packed onto trucks. Then, the trucks made the long overland journey to Beijing, where the house’s components were transferred into a container on a ship setting sail for the US. At the beginning of September, the shipment arrived in Baltimore.

Our hope is that the house will be reconstructed in a landscape reminiscent of its original location in Cizhong, on the banks of the Mekong, thus honoring the philosophical fengshui principles that were considered when originally designing and siting the house. The most likely location right now is in Virginia near the Shenandoah River, a region with striking environmental similarities to the Tibetan “Three Parallel Rivers” area.

The reconstructed house will serve as a cultural institution, museum, and educational tool, preserving a widespread aspect of Chinese culture that is frequently forgotten in this era of modernization – the vernacular architecture and agricultural lifestyle of the multi-ethnic, rural Chinese family. The project is also part of an ongoing process of cultural exchange between the US and China, particularly in the area of architectural preservation. In the early 2000s, Yin Yu Tang House, a merchants’ home from Anhui province was disassembled and rebuilt at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

We have developed a website that presents the project’s research findings in narrative and interactive 3D computer models, as well as a description of the fieldwork and relocation process through film and photography. Along with the physical reconstruction of the house from Cizhong, the project website is a unique educational resource for those seeking to understand Chinese rural culture, anthropology, and history through the built environment. That site can be found here.

I would like to thank SPIRE for supporting my participation in this project and helping to save Mr. Zhang's house from Cizhong.

-Nikhil Chaudhuri ('19)

Diagraming the House
House from Garden
Mr. Zhang's House, View from the Garden
House with Fields
Mr. Zhang's House, View from the Field
House and Fields
Mr. Zhang's House, Aerial View

House Disassembly
Disassembling the House
Interviewing Mr. Chang
Interviewing Mr. Zhang
Modeling the House
Modeling the House Using CAD