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ZAO / standardarchitecture: Architecture and Landscape in the Himalayas

Namchabawa Contemplation, Tibet, 2008 © ZAO/standardarchitecture


Over the last ten years, ZAO/standardarchitecture has developped a very interesting body of work in Tibet, related with tourism development on a local scale.  “In Tibet, landscapes and buildings are one”. In their work in the Himalayan mountains, different strategies of relationship with landscape can be identified, from contemplation – as the Contemplation Space around the Mulberry Tree – to embeddedness – as the Niangou Boat Terminal -.  Their way of building in Tibet “emphasizes its equality towards the Tibetan culture” as a base for a contemporary architecture  in Tibet.  In the projects in Tibet by ZAO/standardarchitecture “the regional character is not manifested through specific symbolisms, but through the unique relationship with mountains and rivers as well as the creative interpretation of local materials and techniques.”

Part I


Niyang River Visitor Centre

Daze, Tibet, 2009-2010

Mirui Road is a tourist road that meets Highway 318, which connects Tibet and Sichuan Province. The road meanders southwards along the Niyang River. In the 20 kilometres to the Brahmaputra Canyon, the specific terrain and landscape of the river can be enjoyed from the road. Daze Village was chosen as the entrance to this tourist attraction. There is little land left for further development in this village, making the river beach beside the road the only choice for the site of a tourist center.

The road separates the river beach from the nearby mountain. The main concern of our design was how to establish a relationship between an isolated building and its surroundings. The building’s outer boundary is a response to the border conditions. The inner public space is carved out from the irregular-shaped volume. The central courtyard connects four openings, responding to orientation and circulation. The mass remaining after carving accommodates three major functions: a ticket office, a changing room for rafting, and toilets. The seemingly arbitrary floor plan is shaped by circulation, brief and site conditions, and the geometric character of the volume and the space dialogues with the landscape around them.


The construction of this building adopted and developed the techniques of the Tibetan vernacular. On the concrete foundation, a 600mm-thick loadbearing wall is erected. Most of the openings have deep recesses. The 400mm-thick walls to either side of the openings function as buttresses, increasing overall structural stability and reducing the interior span. Beams for bigger spans are made from several small logs bound together. A 150mm-thick layer of Aga clay covers the waterproof membrane. Aga clay is a vernacular waterproofing material that stiffens when tamped with water, providing another layer of waterproofing and insulation. It can be shaped to form gutters, which, combined with steel channel scuppers, ensure efficient roof drainage.


Colour is crucial in Tibetan visual culture. After several experiments, we decided to paint the stone walls as white as Potala Palace. The pure white enhances the geometric transition of space. From dawn to dusk, the angle of sunlight changes direction and height, shining in through the various openings. When passing through the building, people perceive the spatial drama of different times of day. The building successfully retains its humble essence, at the same time exuding a strong sense of the contemporary.


Architect: ZAO/standardarchitecture + Zhao Yang Studio
Design Team: Zhang Ke, Zhang Hong, Hou Zhenghua, Zhao Yan, Chen Ling
Client: Tibet Tourism Holdings
Total area: 430 sqm
Contractor: Hu Qiliang


Part II


Work I

Niangou Boat Terminal

Linzhi, Tibet, 2007-2013

Located in Linzhi County, Tibet, where the Niyang River and the Yarluntzangbu River merge, Niangou Terminal sits above a gently sloping bay, where old willows bow over sandy deltas. The bay gradually becomes a steeper hill. Beyond, layers of soft, nameless mountains.

The project originates from a reading of the primal landscape: in Tibet, architecture cannot be separated from landscape. The two are equivalent. Our design embeds the building into the landscape; it is neither attachment nor detachment. The product is a zigzagging path that draws a line to integrate the various complex functions. Rising from the highway, the ramp organizes parking, staff dormitories, offices, conference rooms and theatre, forming a wide platform at an altitude of 3,000m, guiding the visitor’s eyes back to the magnificent meeting of rivers. Descending from the highway to 2,971m, there is a ticket office, bathrooms, waiting room, canteen and kitchen, leading to a dock beside the water. The ramp defines the relationship between the various spaces, creating a chain of platforms and places. Each and every space is firmly lodged into the landscape, subtly mediating the human body with nature

The twists and turns not only emphasize the mountain ridges, but also suggest the spirituality of the journey. Just as the turn-and-descend of an Indian stepwell complicates expectations of the destination, Niangou Terminal also draws out the journey. As visitors approach the riverbank, they cannot help imagining and envisioning, until all becomes clear at the last moment.

Every twist forms a platform, serving not only as transition between circulations but also as a pause for contemplation and a frame for views. The boundaries of the platforms clearly define frames through which the barren hills and dishevelled bushes acquire a hint of humanity. There is a problem of phenomenology here: a redundant, primal landscape becomes sacred when gazed upon and pondered by human eyes. Architecture provides an angle for pondering and a direction for the gaze.

Like other projects in Tibet by ZAO/standardarchitecture, regional character is manifested not through specific symbolism but through the unique relationship with mountains and rivers, and the creative interpretation of local timber. The main body of the terminal consists of a concrete frame, filled in by rubblework built by local builders using their own technique with stones gathered from near the site. The railing is built from fire wood collected nearby, narrating, after exposure to the elements, a quiet and humble contemporaneity.


Client: Tibet Tourism Holdings
Architects: ZAO/standardarchitecture + Embaixada
Design Team:
Zhang Ke, Hou Zhenghua, Zhang Hong, Chen Ling, Claudia Taborda, Embaixada (Cristina Mendonca, Augusto Marcelino), Sun Qingfeng, Dai Haifei, Gai Xudong
Site Area:
35000 m²
Floor Area:
3300 m²
LDI: Tibet Youdao Architectural Design Institute + China Academy of Building Research Architectural Design Institute

Work II

Namchabawa Visitor Centre

Pai Town, Linzhi, Tibet, 2007-2008

The visitor centre is the second building designed by standardarchitecture in Tibet in 2008, after Yarluntzangbu Boat Terminal. It is located in a small village called Pei Town in the Linzhi area, in the south-eastern part of Tibet Autonomous Region. The building sits on a slope beside the road leading to the last village, Zhibai, deep in the Grand Canyon of Yarluntzangbu, overlooking the river to its north and with the 7,782m peak of Namcha Barwa in the background to the east.

The 1,500m2 building is a visitor welcome centre providing comprehensive information about Mount Namcha Barwa and Yarluntzangbu Grand Canyon. It also serves as a “town centre” for local residents, as well as being the supply base for hikers exploring the canyon. The brief is, then, quite complicated. It includes a reception/information hall, public toilets, a supplies store, an Internet bar, a medical centre, a locker room for backpackers, meeting rooms, offices for tour guides and drivers, a water cistern, and an electricity generator for the village.

Like slices of rock jutting out of the mountain, the building is conceived as a series of stone walls set into the slope, with no windows facing the incoming road to the west, almost without scale, an abstract landscape in the natural landscape. Viewed from a distance, it neither hides nor stands out from its background as a piece of “Tibetan” architecture.

When approaching from a distance along the road, visitors cannot be sure if this is a building or a series of retaining walls or even a Mani wall at the foot of the mountain. Leaving behind their cars, they take a path beside a stone retaining wall up the hill, where they find the main entrance to the reception/exhibition hall. The main hall is lit by skylights and has a picture window facing north towards the village and the Yarluntzangbu River. Inside the second layer of the metre-thick stone wall, visitors find the public toilets and luggage storage room, followed beyond another layer of stone wall by the Internet café, medical clinic and drivers’ rest space. Halfway, they have the option of taking the “stairway to heaven” to the second-floor roof garden and meeting rooms. The water tank is concealed beneath the stairs, and the electricity generator is housed in the underground space.

After a short rest to gather necessary information about the area and other supplies, and send emails to friends and relatives, visitors are once again led by a zigzagging stone path down the hill, first to the village, and then to explore Mount Namcha Barwa, disappearing into the uninhabited forest of the Yarluntzangbu Valley for days or weeks.


Architect: standardarchitecture
Design Team: Zhang Ke, Zhang Hong, Hou Zhenghua, Claudia Taborda, Maria Pais de Sousa, Gai Xudong, Sun Wei, Yang Xinrong, Wang Feng, Liu Xinjie, Sun Qinfeng, Huang Di, Chen Ling
Collaborate Design Institution: China Academy of Building Research & Tibet Youdao Architecture Associates
Site area: 10000 sqm
Building area: 1500 sqm

Work III

Yarluntzangbu Grand Canyon Art Centre

Pai Town, Nyingchi, Tibet, 2010-2011

The Grand Canyon Art Centre is located at an altitude of 2,900 metres, at the entrance to Pai Town in Nyingchi Province, Tibet. The site overlooks Duoxiongla mountain to the south and the Yarluntzangbu River to the north; Namcha Barwa is visible to the east, while a neighbouring stream to the west flows down from the snow-capped mountains.

In Tibet, landscapes and buildings are one. The design by standardarchitecture for the Grand Canyon Art Centre is no exception, as our design aimed to reinforce the integration of the art centre into the landscape. The design idea is based on a free grid of polygonal blocks. The structure and spatial organization are defined by imposing this irregular grid system onto the whole building site. This interesting grid also gave the architectural space many irregularities: unexpected masses, lanes, spatial sequences, windows, and viewing platforms. Viewed from a distance, the building might be mistaken for boulders, randomly scattered across the mountainside.

The building has many different functions and is split into top and bottom sections according to the natural height difference of the site. When viewed from the road, the building is a single-storey exhibition space with a total area of 1,180 m2. When viewed from the parking lot, however, it is a two-storey building with a surface area of 2,750 m2, including office spaces, coach dispatch centre, main restaurant, kitchen, and toilet facilities. The two parts are connected by a great staircase near the centre of the building that is the most convenient route for tourists moving between reception, exhibition and coach terminal.

The size and position of the windows inside the exhibition space are the result of careful research. Each space has a few openings consistent with the precondition of a continuous exhibition surface. Some of the windows form a series, occasionally offering visitors three to four consecutive views of the village in the distance, the Yarluntzangbu River, and the surrounding mountain chain. When weather conditions are clear, they may even catch a glimpse of the Namcha Barwa and Gyala Peri mountain peaks.

Daylighting is an important consideration in the design of the Art Centre. In every exhibition space, skylights are placed in the gaps between the gallery wall and the building structure, creating excellent lighting conditions even without artificial lighting. Most of the building’s spaces are underground, which, along with large stretches of thick masonry and stone walls, ensures good insulation. Even in the hot summer weather, the interior maintains a comfortable temperature without air-conditioning.

The building’s form strived for simplicity in a way that allows the local and the contemporary to co-exist. Local masonry was used for the construction, while the window details showcase the contemporariness of the exhibits. The seamless and frameless connection of glass to wall further abstracts the building within its colourful surroundings.

In its approach to building, standardarchitecture underlines its equality with Tibetan culture. Contemporary buildings in Tibet should never be copies or repetitions of superficial Tibetan ornaments and forms, as this would imply a hypocritical respect for its culture. True respect exists only in an unbiased view of another’s culture. Only with this equality in mind can contemporary Chinese architecture truly exist and be built in Tibet.


Architects: ZAO/standardarchitecture
Design Team:
Zhang Ke,  Zhang Hong, Hou Zhenghua, Tian Geng, Sun Qingfeng, Sun Wei, Chen Ling, Yang Xinrong, Wang Feng
Site Area: 99
00 m²
Floor Area:
3900 m²
LDI: Tibet Youdao Architectural Design Institute + China Academy of Building Research Architectural Design Institute

23.Dec.2016 7712 views
Zhang Ke

Zhang Ke (1970) founded his studio ZAO/standardarchitecture “标准营造” in 2001. With a wide range of realized works including the Novartis Campus Building in Shanghai, different Hutong transformation projects in the city center of Beijing, and various buildings imbedded in the landscape of Tibet, the studio has emerged as one of the most critical and innovative protagonists among the new generation of Chinese architects. Besides featured in various exhibitions (e.g. the Aedes Architekturforum in Berlin and the central exhibition at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale), works and essays by Zhang Ke have been widely published (e.g. Casabella, a+u, Domus, Detail, Bauwelt,the Architectural Review). He is also a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Zhang Ke has received many national and international architectural awards, including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 2016.

Edited by Transfer

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