Architecture is not just tangible (or intangible) structures but can also be used as a tool for social change. There are many organisations around the world which recognize its ability to aid those in need and not just by providing shelter. One of these organisations operates in the old city of Leh, Ladahk and provides several inspiring examples.
The Tibet Heritage Fund is a non-profit organisation registered in Germany, China, India and Mongolia. They concentrate on development work as well as house upgrades and heritage. They focus on a sustainable participatory approach with an aim to conserve communities, buildings and local building technology.
Beginning in Tibet and the restoration of the historic city of Lhasa, they have expanded into the old city of Leh, which is one of the best-preserved historic Tibetan urban areas. The old city was in serious decay and was losing its residents as the houses and city infrastructure proved difficult to live in. The Tibet Heritage Fund (THF) work in Leh began in 2003 and since then they have introduced many programs which have helped restore the old city and the lives of the people who live there.
THF saw that the old city was more than a collection of historic buildings but a collection of people with long historic ties to the buildings and streets they inhabited. They offered owners 50% co-financing for the upgrading of historic buildings scattered throughout the old city. The only catches were that traditional materials and technologies were used where suitable and that the exterior appearance did not change more than necessary. Many buildings in the old city have since been improved this way. Buildings were not only restored but were made more livable for today’s occupants with increased natural light, and the introduction of electricity and plumbing.
Another project THF completed in the old city was an example of neighborhood upgrading. Streets in the old city were badly dilapidated with no drainage. After much consulting with the community, THF undertook a pilot project to pave and build a drain in one of the worse streets. With many community meetings and after bringing in experts to meet with community representatives a plan was developed. Unfortunately, the community members could not raise any more funds as they had already undertaken the THF 50% co-financing project. Instead they offered their labour and put in work for the drain digging and soil removal. Every family sent one member to help. For other aspects, experts had to be brought in.
The result of this pilot project were far reaching, not only did they discover a long buried rock straight from a Ladahki legend, but through the emphasis on community participation and involvement the community became much stronger from the project. The project also provided an example of what could be achieved and has since inspired further funding and encouraged the local government to develop other streets in the old city.
The old city has clearly been rejuvenated by the work of THF and no where is this more clear than Lala’s Cafe. A restored building at the entrance to the old city, Lala’s Cafe provides an entry point for thousands of tourists wishing to visit the palace and monastery which overlook the city. Visitors can experience the inside of a restored building, sample local food and learn more about the local area through an exhibition/library space. A heritage walk has been created which guides visitors to some of the highlights of the old city, of which now a great number are beautifully restored THF houses.
THF is a reasonably small organisation but it’s approach and method leave everlasting effects. The community has been strengthened, Ladahkis have been restored a proud heritage and locals have been trained in traditional and new jobs. Clearly, architecture here has achieved more than visible structures.
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