Thursday, January 6, 2011

"Symbolism and Geometry of the National Capitol Complex of Bhutan" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

We are presently engaged in the preparation of the urban design of the Trashi Chhoe Dzong Capitol Complex covering about one and a half square kilometers. This design is a necessary precursor to the design of the various components of the capitol complex. In this activity we have to keep in front of us that we are not merely accommodating functional needs for space; we are creating the future symbol of the nation.


Each culture, its society and the nation which governs it, has a unique identity! It is this identity which distinguishes one country from another, evokes national pride and empowers individual citizens with the courage to protect their culture and way of life from being over-run and dominated by alien cultures. Cultural identity inspires people to create lyrical gifts to their nation in the form of literature, the arts, music, dance, architecture and design. In an era of globalization, of cultural imperialism and of regional hegemonies, national identity is paramount to national survival. It is culture which gives legitimacy to the idea of nationhood.

We cannot assume that Bhutanese culture will just somehow survive and that through benign neglect that it will continue to grow and flourish independently, as it has done for centuries. Mass communication, education and urges to be part of the larger world all can act against the survival of a culture and therefore its people as an independent society. Mainstream culture, as evidenced in North American, Europe, India and China, is essential for polyglot, heterogeneous societies of large nations, but can spell the end of smaller and more unique communities. One may shrug their shoulders and say, “So what?” This is a casual and irresponsible response. The mainstream, global culture is imperfect. As it evolves, it exaggerates its embedded features, which may be long term weaknesses. As it grows in strength and assimilates smaller cultures, it becomes less introspective, less self-critical of its own assumptions and actions. This is an historical cycle evidenced from the times of the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Germans, British, Russians and now America. The expanding imperial wave finally implodes into its own centre, and new values, mores and habits are required to resuscitate the world order. Just as isolated rain forests hide the cures to future diseases, so do the smaller, more unique cultures hold within them lessons for the world as larger societies grapple for answers to chaos. Thus, cultural regionalism is not a matter of fanatical nationalism, which wrecked havoc over the world in the Twentieth Century. Rather it is a necessary condition for national survival and for gifting to the world aspects of this uniqueness, as homogenized, mass cultures loose their potency and relevance. From Ladakh, to Mustang, to Sikkim and to Tibet, the great Himalayan Civilization is threatened with extinction by films, television, music, fashion, architecture and transportation, cultural diffusion and political hegemony.

Vernacular contents are the local practices, mores, and codes of behavior, language, dress, music, art forms, habits, signs, symbols and motifs, which are particular to a culture and therefore become the abiding images of that culture. Invading, imperial forces have always attacked the main icons, or symbols, of a culture first. Occupying Delhi was always the objective of contenders to rule the sub-continent! The Red Fort was the symbol of governance. In the War of 1812 the British Navy lobbed a bomb into the American Capitol Building Dome, bringing it to the ground!

Thus, the key symbols of a culture are drawn from the emotive expressions of the people themselves and deposited in monuments, which then symbolize the entire complex culture. Cultural diffusion, a most implicit process, and cultural imperialism, a very explicit process, continue as a part of economic and political competition. While opening doors to the outside world, let us not do so innocently! Let there be a concomitant strategy to protect the identity, culture and uniqueness of Bhutan.

In Bhutan there is a cultural continuum between a small chorten, a mani wall, a cottage, a village lakhang, a large manor house, a monastery, and the great dzongs. Elements of the small chorten can be found in the largest dzongs, and in fact in all of the architectural expressions of the land! Yet, there is a huge variety of components even within the dzong prototype. The Trongsa Dzong is organic, the Jakar Dzong has prominent round turrets; the Paro Dzong is geometrical and the Trashi Chhoe Dzong is a grand, horizontal monument. Thus, the identity of the Bhutanese citizen, of the community of Bhutanese people, is largely drawn from the architectural imagery, which contains diversity within unity. While food habits, dress, painting, language, dance and music also play their role, the aspect of governance is largely communicated through architecture. A unique feature of Bhutanese architecture is that it draws its essence from the vernacular, rather than alien, foreign or historical imperial references as do American, Indian and European symbols. Perhaps Bhutan’s greatest strength is the continuum of its national symbolism, rooted in the vernacular iconography and spreading through to national icons!

Like Russian dolls, which fit one with in the other, the artifacts and iconography that make up the architecture of Bhutan, fit in all together. Yet, unlike Russian dolls, the inter-fitting parts are not merely scaled down replicas of one another. They are diverse expressions, yet with the same traits!


His late Majesty, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, understood this phenomenon in great depth. He understood that for centuries the various dzongs of Bhutan were the very image of law and order; of spiritualism and sanctuary. He understood that unifying Bhutan around his new vision of modernization would only be successful if the transformation took place within the cultural context. On his vast palate of agenda were the freeing of the serfs, creating a national assembly, codifying laws, rationalizing an oppressive revenue system, professionalizing the administration, entering into relations with other countries and the UNO, building the first roads, telegraph system and electric facilities, creating a modern education system, health care system and army; and imitating various industries. He initiated the process of defining distinct branches of governance separating out judicial and legislative functions! On his vast canvas he laid out a huge landscape, and like a Mandela it required a centerpiece to anchor all of the parts together. Thus, he embarked on the project to rebuild the ancient Trashi Chhoe Dzong, as the actual and symbolic headquarters of his new state and nation. Using all of the elements and components of the vernacular, he emphasized horizontal lines, simple geometric forms, and in an approach very similar to the American modernist, Frank Lloyd Wright, created a contemporary icon symbolizing the new Bhutan. To some at the time the Herculean task of rebuilding the Trashi Chhoe Dzong appeared a wasteful expenditure on a grand scale. Yet, through this one effort His Majesty gathered into one monument all the ideas, imagery and meaning held in the country’s numerous dzongs. While earlier dzongs were associated with the penlops and ruling families of particular valley regions, the Trashi Chhoe Dzong symbolized the entire nation. Herein lies a lesson of great wisdom about the symbolism and the state!


Shapes, their scale, their compositional relationships to one another carry meanings! Within geometry are set the relationships between the parts. Not just the physical parts, but the roles, powers, hierarchies, functions and most of all the authority of the parts. By placing a royal palace in the centre of a capitol complex, one is ceding to the monarch total control over the other wings and branches of governance. Historically Karlsruhe, Versailles and the Rashtrapati Bhavan expressed, through geometry, the singular authority of the rulers. They were the focal point from which all lines radiated out in a single direction.

The American capitol complex focuses everything on the people’s representatives, the national legislature. Chandigarh places the judiciary, the legislature and the secretariat in an equitable composition, including the governor’s house representing the state. It is a most democratic symbol, incorporating the idea of checks and balances.

Thus, the geometric composition of a national capitol is of critical importance for generations to come. Such compositions are mirrors of the political system and precursors of the future success of the nation. It is now the vision of His Majesty to transform Bhutan into a democratic nation, where no one branch of government can overpower any other branch; where the ethos and value system of the state are enshrined into a constitution, which in turn embodies the state!


A system of division of powers gradually emerged in the governance of nations. This was a long process beginning with unicentric rulers, expanding into bipartite systems where the interests of powerful land lords were represented in the early assemblies, which later expanded into more democratic bicameral legislatures, with empowered judiciaries wielding the power of “judicial review!”

Unipartite Symbols

Throughout history rulers have attempted to bring decisions inward, toward a unitary, centralized command. Right from the Pharos to European Kings, this unipartite system of governance characterized all nations. Versailles is the perfect symbol of this with power virtually radiating out from the King’s palace. On the city side the streets virtually fan out like fingers from a hand, and the same symbolic structure is used to lay out the vast gardens on the park side. The symbolic geometry of the Vice Regal Palace in the New Delhi imperial capitol layout, was devised to emphasize the central power of Her Majesty’s representative in Imperial India; another example of a unipartite symbol. In a unipartite system of governance all branches of governance are integrated into the state mechanism.

Bipartite Symbols

Many countries like Great Britain, and the countries of Northern Europe, underwent gradual transformations into constitutional monarchies and then representative democracies, with the monarchy remaining as the head of state, often including the judiciary. There were long historic periods where the monarchies held the executive and judicial powers, and an elected body created the laws of the land. A bicameral, or upper and lower house configuration protected the interests of land and property, while also checking popularist frenzy. In Britain this bicameral system evolved with a bipartite structure separating the monarchy and parliament with the symbolic division between Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. Each symbolized a center of power and the two were unconnected. The Parliament and the Monarchy even acted independently and at odds with of one another, creating conflicting situations.

Bipartite systems usually lead to landed families and wealthy traders controlling the legislative branch, opposing the centralized interests of the royal families, or even the elected presidents, as is seen in Latin America. In oligarchies, it is usually the wealthy commercial lobbies, whose interests differ from the national popularist interests, which creates a schism. Economic interests are monopolized and civil liberties are thrown to the wind. As such oligarchies are not elected democratically, but through an indirect system of representation. They are motivated by what may be called “hidden agendas,” usually of a monopolistic commercial and exploitative nature. Under such circumstances these governments are not seeking symbolic expressions, but rather prefer to conceal the operations of governance. In such systems the essential judiciary branch is suppressed, or non-existent, or just a decorative hand-maiden of the system.

The early American system of representative democracy was in fact this kind of arrangement! Though checks and balances were built into the nature of the constitution, the right to vote was highly restricted to an educated, male, elite gentry, until the early part of the Twentieth Century. Thus, Capitol Hill dominates over a large Mall, expressing the power of the elite representatives, who were not democratically elected through general franchise, but who ruled over the new nation. It took more than two hundred years for the judiciary to mature and to stake its rightful claim to power. While judicial review is not written into the United States Constitution, it is implied that it is the role of the judiciary to protect the Constitution. As recently as the 1950’s and 1960’s, where for the first time the judiciary became proactive in guaranteeing the civil rights of minorities; personal rights took precedents over economic rights. Thus, the Washington Mall represents the bipartite spirit of the ruling gentry and the indirectly elected president in the White House. Here the PEOPLE were given symbolic representation in the open lawns of the Mall itself, where there are parks, monuments and various attractions commemorating major historic figures and events. This vast open space links the bicameral legislative houses to the executive, and later with the judiciary attached. It is an imperfect symbol of what exists today in practice. Rather it traces symbolically the growth of a mature democratic system.

Rule, Misrule and Unruly!

It is important to note that very few new capitols symbolize democracy with a capital “D”! The new capitol complex in Dhaka was built under Pakistani Rule, as an attempt to keep East Bengal within its dictatorial fold and only symbolizes a limited regional autonomy. In New Delhi (a symbol of imperial colonial power), as elsewhere, there are very dated symbolic meaning systems. Interestingly, the Soviet Union remained ensconced within the walls of the feudal Czarist Kremlin, symbolizing the continuance of central, dictatorial rule. Perhaps the new capital of the state of the Punjab, and that of Brazil, are the only two modern, democratic symbols available as precedents to study. Others are really historical fragments, relics of past experiments and adventures, representing rule and misrule, which met with various degrees of success and failure.

Checks and Balances: Emergence of the Tripartite Concept

In the Twentieth Century the realization that the judiciary has a key role to play as guardians of the Constitution, and therefore indirectly the state, gave rise to the concept of checks and balances and the tripartite nature of good governance. The judiciary has to see things from a distance, dispassionately and with a rational, long term view on the implications of new laws, administrative orders and interpretations affecting the lives of the citizenry. Clearly, from a symbolic point of view, the judiciary has a key role in the iconography of the national capitol complex. It must be within the capitol complex, have a key axis mediating in the interest of the state and constitution between the executive and the legislative branches of government! Thus, in the thematic layout of the capitol complex the judiciary must fall in its own sacred space, at some distance from the other branches of government, yet within the composition!

Therefore we come back to the importance of the concept of the state, its fundamental values, and the Constitution as an incarnation of the state!


The concept of a state is an ethereal one, emanating from history and from culture. Whatever values, human rights, and limitations on authority that are written into a constitution are but mere fragments of the national value system, cultural wisdom and spiritual system. The laws of a country can be no more just than the values inherent in the people of that country. These values emanate from the ethos of history, from predominant spiritual systems, from the customs and mores which guide everyday life and from the symbols of these threads, such as the monarchy, the Buddhists Path and the iconography of the nation. At present these values are held in Trusteeship by His Majesty and the Je Khenpo. Under a constitutional democracy, His Majesty, as Head of the State, will have the role of preserving and safeguarding the values of the State and the Constitution which are reflections of the people. It is essential that the symbol of the State, the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, remains the centerpiece of the Capitol Complex. All of the other branches gain their authority from the State and the Constitution, which lays down their powers, roles, functions and limitations too!

Some of the ancient values enshrined in the State are:

*. The Drukpa Spiritual Path;
*. The Monarchy: Duty, Loyalty, Judgment, Courage and Truth;
*. Common Wisdom of the Bhutanese People;
*. Tolerance of Diversity within Unity;
*. Catalyst of Modulated Change; and
*. Respect for the people and an ear to their views!

Under the new Constitutional powers, authority will be further disseminated and decentralized into branches. Authority will be given conditionally, in trusteeship, and can be withdrawn if used unconstitutionally!


The Judiciary’s role vastly expands under the Constitution. While previously the Judiciary played an impartial role in deciding on innocence or guilt; judging on the legality of various actions by individuals and agencies under the laws; and as a point of appeal regarding executive decisions: it is now to protect the State and the Constitution through its review and veto powers over laws enacted by the Legislature and over orders passed by the Executive. It shall have powers to declare laws unconstitutional and to interpret laws within the context of the Constitution. It will have judiciary review powers over acts and decisions of the executive branch. Thus, it is essential that the judiciary have a prominent geometrical position within the National Capitol Complex. By aligning with the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, its reflection of the State becomes real. By sitting intermediary between the Legislature and the Executive its considered interpretation of the Constitution in judging on their actions is compositionally established. The Judiciary also has the difficult task of insulating itself from popular frenzy, unjust beliefs and momentary emotions of the people. It always has to keep the State and the protection of the Constitution, and its values in front of it and not be swayed by popular sentiments. The judiciary must be shielded from the Plaza of the People by the symbol of the state! This too must be found in the composition of the National Capitol Complex.


Elected Governments form policy and promote legislation required to implement policies. Governments are composed of Ministers, Councils of Ministers and their Prime Minister. But the actual implementation of policies through programmes and projects is an executive function of the administration. While it is the mission of the Executive to carry out the Governments’ policies, the Executive is professionally bound by the laws of the land to act within their own system of ethics, expressed in a Civil Code of conduct. They can not do something unconstitutional or illegal just because they are told to do so. They have both regulatory and facilitative roles and these powers must be applied in an unprejudiced and disinterested manner. They take national policy and turn it into programmes and projects. They take political goals and turn them into objections and even targets! They prepare budgets and monitor expenditure. They are responsible to the people to deliver services and order, yet they must act within the law of the land and in the shadow of the State! While their policy directives emanate from the elected leaders, out of the Legislature, they are also responsible to the Head of State for their ethical and professional behavior. Thus, the Executive Branch of Governance sits between the Judiciary and the Plaza of the People. It is shielded from the Legislative branch by the State.


As a participatory and representative system, the new constitutional government will be guided by elected representatives, with both a lower house and an upper house. This bicameral Legislature will debate policy, create laws, monitor expenditure, analyze government actions, form commissions to expedite enquires and to monitor the Executive. Most important it will form Governments, elect Ministers and create committees. The upper house must confirm treaties, declarations of war and review the appointment of senior officials. Committees will have the critical role of legislative reviews, and even investigations into executive propriety in the conduct of governance. The Legislative Branch of government must sense the pulse of the people and transform desires and requirements into rational policy frameworks. In theory the legislative branch can create amendments to the Constitution to check and balance the vetoes and interpretations of the judiciary! The Legislature must have its own geometry in the National Capitol Complex too. Fortunately, the present National Assembly will be more than adequate to house the People’s Representatives. An Upper House will also be required, which can be accommodated near by.


Just as the Washington Mall represents the people, so a People’s Plaza will symbolize the people of Bhutan, their common wisdom, their needs and their desires. It will remind all of the other branches for whom they serve! It will be placed between the Town Core of Thimphu and the Trashi Chhoe Dzong. It will include a statue, paved areas, landscaped sitting and contemplation areas. It will give every citizen of the country a place to come and to be a part of the National Capitol Complex in the same manner that the Central Vista in the New Delhi Capitol Complex arrangement works for the people of India and the Washington Mall works for the people of America.


The new Bhutanese Constitution enshrines Bhutanese values, guarantees rights of citizens and lays out procedures for enacting laws and the governance of the nation. It envisions various “branches” of governance, which moderate and modulate each other. It provides measures for any two of the three branches to curtail the other branches should they behave in an unconstitutional manner.
This is a system of “checks and balances,” and for this system to work each “branch” of governance must have its own strength, identity and symbolic PLACE in the geometry of the National Capitol Complex. It should be an obvious, transparent, overtly expressed aspect of the system of governance. Thus, the actual laying out the National Capitol Complex is not just a functional fitting of things into limited space; it is an emblematic expression of the nation of Bhutan, with deep seated meanings and ramifications. Just as a mandala is an emblematic diagram of the cosmos, of the order of the universe, so the organization of the capitol is an emblematic diagram of Bhutanese Governance.

A unique emblem would emerge, as Bhutan has a unique history and culture. It has never been ruled over by a foreign power! It has a State which has evolved through history in a modulated, continuous manner. Though labeled as an isolationist nation, it has in fact drawn judiciously and consciously from a variety of cultures, societies and nations. Yet, never in haste or under pressure! It has had a benevolent monarchy at the helm of progress and peaceful transformation. The culture itself sets out rules of conduct between family members, neighbors, village communities and all fellow citizens. All of these values are enshrined in the culture’s iconography.


Hints vs. tested and replicated/ test of time/ overt vs covert/ embedded vs extroverted


(markers/energypaths/spaces/places/landmarks/boundaries/zones/sequences/connectors/barriers/views/alignments/monuments/landscape/barrowed landscape)


*. Regionalism (human scale/nature/movement/ground/
*. Context as Generator
*. What Time is this Place
*. Critical Analysis
*. Appropriate Technology and Relevant Forms
*. The Role of Motifs


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