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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Conservation efforts for Tibetan and Sikkimese architecture lose foremost ally

Late Dr Andre at work at Tsuklakhang in 2011

GANGTOK, 30 Jan: Efforts at conserving Tibetan architecture, including the nascent conservation efforts in Sikkim, suffered a tragic loss in the demise of conservationist Dr Andre Alexander in Berlin on 21 January. He had just turned 47.
Dr. Andre Alexander, independent researcher, photographer and writer about the old city of Lhasa since 1993 and student of Tibetan architecture and history, was born and raised in Berlin. He co-founded the Tibet Heritage Fund [THF] and Leh Old Town Initiative and has a number of publications to his name.
Since the early 1990s he specialized in the research and conservation of traditional Tibetan architecture. The THF has launched a large number of rehabilitation projects throughout Central Asia intended to benefit and assist the local residents.
He first came to Sikkim in 2010 along with Anca Nicolaescu from Paris on the invitation from the Tsuklakhang Trust to undertake restoration work of the frescoes at Tsuklakhang.
After the first visit in 2010, which was more of a recce mission, the duo returned last year to restore the wall paintings at the monastery and successfully completed the restoration work on the paintings which had become soiled from soot from butter lamps and darkened by a varnish applied years ago.
Hope Leezum, the Chogyal’s representative in the Tsuklakhang Trust had in an earlier story [published in NOW! dated 30 March 2011] mentioned that even though Dr Alexander was busy with his work at Lhasa at the time, on the Trust’s invitation he had agreed to come and work here in Sikkim voluntarily.
The Tsuklakhang monastery was built in the 1920s, and the wall-paintings were done by some of the best painters of Tibet sent by the then Tibetan government. The restored paintings at Tsuklakhang now stand restored in the memory of Dr Alexander’s immense contribution not only to the monastery but to Sikkim and its people.
More projects had been planned for 2012, particularly to provide assistance to buildings of historic significance damaged in the 18 Sept 2011 earthquake.
Sonam Tashi Gyaltsen of Echostream, Gangtok, remembers Dr Alexander as “a man who believed in working hard with people to create organic value systems and experiences of building spaces without any blueprints and he believed in the ability of the craftsperson/ artisan to design and build. He used to say that the best part of building would be to built with the skills and traditional knowledge systems of the people/ communities”.
“We had plans ready to work on some projects starting March this year. It is a big loss for Sikkim as we have lost a master who could have revived our traditional building methods and knowledge systems,” he adds.
Dr Alexander along with his friends at THF received numerous awards for their commitment: they twice received the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards and the Global Vision Award for a number of their cultural heritage projects, and they were featured on BBC’s series on Heritage Heroes 2011.
Passionate and committed towards preserving and documenting Tibetan architecture, Dr Andre Alexander will forever be remembered through his work in Sikkim.
A message from the THF team reads:
“The THF team is deeply sad and in shock. The THF team has lost their leader, colleague and friend. We share everyone's grief and profound shock at this terrible news.  André's death is indeed a great loss - he was a unique man and great scholar and the soul of THF.
The THF core team has decided to continue THF's work and to continue and honour André's projects and preserve André's memory.  We will keep his beliefs alive and his presence will be with us every day, giving us the inspiration, energy and perseverance to continue our work.
It will be very hard without him but we will continue to strive towards André's and our shared dream.
With André in our hearts, THF will continue to preserve Tibetan culture for future generations. This is what we believe André would like us to do, keep doing our best, working with local people and for local people. André and THF team have always tried to preserve and create beauty in our work, whether restoring a building or publishing a book.
It will be very hard to carry on with THF work without André we believe that, with the support of our friends and colleagues we will.”

Motivated by seeing too many historic buildings in Lhasa's old town disappear, Andre Alexander and Andrew Brannan launched the Lhasa Archive Project in 1993 with the aim to document Lhasa's vernacular architecture. They were soon joined by artist Pimpim de Azevedo, who drew a beautiful map of 1948 Lhasa based on Alexander's research. Alexander and Azevedo then became acquainted with old craftsmen in Lhasa, who taught them traditional building skills (thanks to Pala Migmar, Jampa Kelsang, Olo Chunchun and Choetshok).
As the documentation project became better known, institutions such as UNESCO, Shalu Association and the Network for Norway-Tibet University Cooperation offered support. Crucially, the Lhasa municipal government and the Lhasa City Cultural Relics Office became interested.
In 1996 Alexander and Azevedo founded Tibet Heritage Fund in Lhasa with important contributions from Heather Stoddard and Enrico Dell' Angelo, as well as the encouragement of several Lhasa municipal departments and individuals. The Lhasa Old Town Conservation Project quickly halted further demolition of historic buildings, and together with the Lhasa City Cultural Relics Office the eastern part of Lhasa's central Barkor neighbourhood was rehabilitated.
Until the end of the project in the year 2000, 20 buildings were upgraded, 93 were listed a protected buildings and 300 artisans were trained. Since then THF has moved on and today is an established cooperation partner in several Asian countries. The team have jointly authored a number of publications about traditional Tibetan, Chinese and Mongolian architecture. Pimpim de Azevedo recently spent a lot of time in Mongolia, and is also working on a new book. Andre Alexander occasionally teaches courses about traditional Tibetan architecture at Berlin University of Technology, in-between living at project sites in the Himalayas and building a museum in Ladakh. Japanese architect Yutaka Hirako is picking up the different Tibetan dialects and songs that go along, while also managing projects in Tibetan areas and old Beijing.

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