Keynote Address by Hon’ble Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley at the opening ceremony of the SAARCH 2012 conference in Thimphu

“Cultural Continuum and Architectural Identity in Dynamic South Asia”

I am honoured to be invited to participate at this very important conference of the architects of South Asia. It is with great pleasure that I extend a very warm welcome to the distinguished architects and architectural students visiting us from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Maldives and Sri Lanka. Bhutan is proud to be hosting this important event. I am particularly pleased to note that the theme of this conference acknowledges the cultural continuum in our region which has and must continue to define our architectural identity that is at once unique and diverse. Bhutan has always attached the highest importance to regional cooperation that can best be promoted through SAARC which is founded on the belief that our countries share a common heritage and that ours is a future of shared prosperity. We are heartened by the remarkable progress our association has been making in various fields. That our architects should explore how by working together they can contribute to improving the wellbeing of one fifth of the world’s population is noteworthy for, indeed, the role of architecture in advancing human culture and societal wellbeing is truly immeasurable.

South Asia is home to a stupendous wealth of some of the grandest edifices created by man. They were shaped by the diversity of our culture, environment and resources. Great geniuses have left such a legacy of home and refuge for the gods, the living and the dead. Throughout our countries, our cultural landscape are centred around soaring places of worship, magnificent palaces, impregnable fortresses, sprawling havelis and charming dwelling places. These were built to inspire, please, unite, celebrate, protect and to awe and instil fear as well.

They tell us of the versatility of the ancient south Asian builders. Not only could they conceive the most complex and build with amazing engineering prowess but they were able to adapt their building skills to the varying circumstances of financial and natural resources in ways that more than compensated for the lack of technology and the unnatural building materials that are at our command today. They relate how the ancient builders understood acoustics, lighting, sound, colours, perspectives and climate control. Even as these structures were the expressions of our ever changing culture in the past, in turn, they have helped define our culture then as they do even now.

As I pay tribute to the monuments of the past, I do not mean to suggest that our architecture should revert to that of the past. However, our past is often the best reference for the way forward. Development of physical infrastructure and built environment, in one way or the other, affect human behaviour and functioning of human society in itself and in relation to the natural environment. Therefore, we would do well to look back to our cultural heritage and architectural identities. Else, we risk a sense of rootlessness and alienation; a feeling of being strangers in our own homes and neighbourhood.

Architecture, is about creativity, about daring and freedom of expression. But that daring, expression and creativity must serve the purpose of enhancing the well being of society – the individual, the family and community. Architecture must be a wise and judicious response to changing needs and values of society and the physical conditions within which it must survive and grow. And so there are social, cultural, economic and natural boundaries even for this creative profession. It is when these often shifting boundaries are not understood, ignored and trespassed that architecture fails society.

South Asia is a dynamic region with a good proportion of our people beginning to enjoy the fruits of high economic growth. Industry and commerce is expanding at an unprecedented pace and urban growth is phenomenal. Population, likewise, is exploding and our region also has the dubious distinction of being home to the largest number of the poorest and the deprived. The social, economic and ecological consequences of these are huge and create the conditions that define the role and bounds of the south Asian architecture. But I fear, it is only in the last few years that architects and urban planners are becoming mindful of such parameters and their own moral failure to serve the larger and deeper interest of society. Structurally, aesthetically, materially and culturally, our built assets are largely a story of failure. And of course, like any failure, there are reasons often compellingly convincing. But they are never enough. As a consequence, our modern homes, work places and urban centres have made little or no contribution to promoting physical, emotional and psychological well being of the south Asian citizen.

The costs of this failure has not been assessed but the consequences are obvious and are manifest in most world surveys that place three or four of our biggest cities among the 10 most unliveable and hazardous cities in the world. While our cities suffer from such ignominy, our buildings and structures are among the most vulnerable to the growing host of hazards. And culturally, most of our structures have little relevance and fail to address the social needs of our sadly disintegrating society.

The world has changed and continues to change. Uncertainty abounds and stress, insecurity, loneliness and mental illness plague an increasing proportion of our urbanizing society. Space is shrinking, climate is changing, communities are breaking up, ecologies are collapsing, water sources are drying. Even as our population is young, it will age soon enough as in the industrialized north. Energy crisis will hit sooner than later even as it is already a serious problem in our region. Physically, we are becoming more fragile and vulnerable. All the while, for reasons manmade and otherwise, natural calamities are striking our people and homes with greater frequency and fury. Then there is the challenge of providing the minimum security of shelter, in order to deliver the most basic of social justice. It is in such a rapidly changing world that the architect must fulfil his sacred responsibility. In almost each of these challenges there is a role for the architect. In ever so small or very definitive ways, architecture can offer solutions.

How will the south Asian architect respond to these innumerable challenges? How will architecture address the challenge of sustainable living and minimize carbon and ecological foot prints? How can housing be made affordable and home ownership brought within reach of every citizen? What can be done to make buildings friendlier even as space constraints compel structures to assume proportions far beyond human scale? What are the elements in architecture that can make our homes and cities more conducive to human interaction and community vitality? Should South Asian architects aspire to establish and subscribe to a minimum building code that will ensure an acceptable level of structural resilience against natural hazards, energy efficiency, localization of construction materials, stimulation and growth of social and cultural capital and so on?

What can you as architects prevent that must not happen? What can you promote and sustain that is needed? And to these ends, how will you collaborate to inspire, enlighten, support and embolden each other to dare to do what may not be easy, convenient or profitable?

My hope is that this important Conference will be engaging, deliberative and fruitful and you will be able to agree on ideas and solutions that would not only address the issues of our present generation but also those of the future so as to create a conducive context to bring security, comfort and happiness to all sentient beings.

Let me again express my happiness to be invited to speak at this Conference. I would also like to thank all those in the BIA who have worked so hard to make this Conference a success.

I am confident that the Bhutanese architects and guests will agree with me when I say that it is a privilege for Bhutan to host the SAARC Architects Conference in Thimphu with the participation of so many distinguished architects and that it is indeed a joyous occasion for us to have you here with us even if it is for such a brief period..

I wish you a very successful conference.


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