top of page

Architecture is NOT art

Community in Bumthang, Bhutan / © Phuntsho Dolma

“Architecture is an art,” one of the freshmen said as he stood up to explain why he had chosen architecture. “It’s a creative field.” As he sat down after saying that thoughtless applause sounded throughout the studio. Students kept busy in their own thought of introduction clapped not having heard what their soon-to-be companion for their 5-year long journey said. However, to cover up for the lack of attention from the students, the lecturers were all ears for the fresh batch they will be responsible for 5 years. The chatters got louder as more and more people finished their introductions until finally it came to an end.

“I am excited to see so many faces this year and the creativity you will bring forth,” one of the lecturers said, with a proud smile. “As most of you have said architecture is a field that will demand a lot of your creativity, however, I would like to point out that architecture is NOT art.

It was this small scene in our introductory session that always made me wonder what architecture is. To an architect the difference between engineering and architecture, art and architecture or any other course and architecture is screamingly loud. However, what about how others perceive it? If asked about architecture to a random person who hasn’t taken this grilling course for 5 years or more, the answer would be simple, “Designing buildings.” To them what is beyond buildings? What can be termed sensory architecture?

An83-year-old grandma circumambulating a lhakhang located near her home while some of her friends rest on a lush green pasture basking the sun. After sometime people, some younger and some their age, join them and share a good laugh. When the shadows grow longer and darker and the sun descends to give way for night, the group disperses to their home. This is a scene that’s commonly painted near most of the religious structures in Bhutan. Places that are spiritually packed, the Architecture that welcomes people of all ages without any fear of judgement and a place that gives them a place to hide away.

Traditional house / © Phuntsho Dolma

Traditionally, Bhutanese houses are humble. It is three storied fulfilling only the most fundamental spaces required (Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, 2014). The ground floor was reserved for livestock, the first floor and top floor had main functional spaces such as kitchen, drawing room and choesam (prayer room). The planning of the houses was such that kitchen and drawing room were one space and there were only one to two rooms including the choesam. The attic would usually be used to dry vegetables for winter. Traditional Bhutanese houses were multi-dimensional as it served as a shed for livestock, a place to live in and storage for food. The limited rooms and compact planning also gave room for social connectivity within the family.

Children squeal and disperse like a handful of sand thrown in the wind as a boy carrying a stick pretending to be a warrior comes chasing towards them. The parents simply throw them a displeasing look before going back to their gossip. The fear that their children would be hurt is far beyond their imagination. The laid-back attitude can be attributed to the tight knit community bonded by landscape and planning. The planning was such that there would either be a farm surrounding the house or a common space people could easily access and meet. The surrounding always led to something good, whether it was a good gossip with the people living around them or the nature that was source of their livelihood.

As Winston Churchill said, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” Our senses react strongly to smell, vision, noise or any disturbances that can evoke a memory whether happy or tragic (Goleman, 1995). It isn’t buildings or how elements of design are perfectly in balance with each other or how big of a scale a project is. Sensory architecture is a reaction or a memory that a space successfully brings out. It is how the 83-year-old grandma still visited the lhakhang even after having shifted to a home 10km away from it. How families had better emotional connection during the time when there were no spare rooms for even guests than today when each family member has a room each at their disposal or how that magic of social connection with neighbors are lost in time. Children are more at risk today than ever and security is a questionable entity. The pattern that tells the culture and story of people’s live through architecture, that’s what is beyond buildings and a trend that needs to be restated.




Phuntsho is currently pursuing her architecture degree from College of Science and Technology in Bhutan.



bottom of page