“Everything is so harmonious, and all of these elements are speaking to each other in the most cohesive and elegant language. Elegant not as in formal, but elegant in terms of its sincerity and authenticity.” Madeline Stuart, a renowned Los Angeles-based designer, could not have described Bhutanese architecture more vividly. Designed by Dorji Yangki, one of few published female architects to emerge from the country, and nestled in the Rockies rather than the Eastern Himalayas, the home that Stuart has helped create in Telluride, Colorado, brings that vernacular, and its distinctive ‘flying roofs,’ to the West.
The Buddhist kingdom is guided by a philosophy of Gross National Happiness, whose central pillars include the preservation of culture, from language to dress and paintings to architecture. The country’s built heritage is considered one of its most sacred treasures. The government implements specific codes and mandatory guidelines for all new construction to protect the “traditional architecture of Bhutan in its vernacular state—the hierarchy of its elements, the proportion, and forms of its elements to identify the building’s values, function and its significance.’” Today, those rules do allow for a certain amount of flexibility and creativity, as architects trained abroad (there are few specialist schools in the country) bring their own influence to traditional styles.
Distinctive elements of Bhutanese vernacular housing include gently tapered walls, flying roofs, rabsels (timber-frame bays with multiple windows and panels), wooden lintels and cornices, and iconographic and spiritual paintings. These architectural traditions have evolved over many centuries, adapting to climatic conditions, available materials, practical skills, technology and, most importantly, our culture and beliefs.
While largely assembled from Bhutan and built according to those aforementioned principles, the house in Telluride is also fit for life in the Rocky Mountains. A local stone, popularly known as Telluride gold, was used to match the masonry found in modern Bhutanese homes. Yes, there is a flying roof here, but absent is the space between it and the attic normally used to store and dry vegetables or fodder for animals. Within the tapered walls—a particular feature of dzong forts—intricate carvings using skillful interlocking joints were crafted by carpenters, artisans, and painters from the South Asian country. Historically, indigenous buildings were constructed without any drawings or, indeed, nails. The zowpön, or master carpenter, would have it all planned “out in his head,” explains Yangki, the architect.
The project’s lead builder, Kencho Tshering, acquired the timber—a specific type of magnolia wood—from a village in southern Bhutan. He then had a team of artisans from the east make and paint the carvings over a period of two years. These “three-dimensional jigsaw pieces,” as Madeline Stuart puts it, were then shipped to America. Upon their arrival, the carpenters and builders of Telluride began assembling the interlocking carvings—without any written instructions, but by means of numerous video calls with Tshering, who was prevented from traveling by the pandemic. The homeowners, a spiritual Buddhist student and an artist, recall the day the pieces were loaded into a container and, in typical Bhutanese fashion, everyone celebrated with spicy local cuisine, drinks, songs, and dancing. And, of course, dispatch day was determined only after consultation with a local astrologer to ensure successful transit and building. These festivities were yet another example of a culture so integral to the success of the mission.