Old Lhasa: Built heritage and urban form 1995-2005
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Representing a knowledge lacuna, a long history and status as holy city in Tibetan Buddhism, historical Lhasa was a unique subject for empirical studies on change – and Tibetan resilience to change – within a living urban context. The inscription of the Potala Palace on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994 increased international concerns for historical Lhasa – without positively affecting the implementation of earlier approved urban development plans. My research objective has been to investigate how traditional cultural practice and contemporary international doctrine on conservation and development have affected urban conservation in Old Lhasa during the period 1995-2005.1 Processes of change that affect urban form and built heritage in Lhasa need to be understood on a background of socio-political developments in China after 1949 and in Lhasa from the mid-1950s onwards. The research question was formulated as how and why do built heritage and urban form in historical Lhasa change? – this guided by defining the historical environment, and how urban conservation may to support traditions and characteristics of a Tibetan social community and physical historical fabric in a disappearing historical environment. The theory base in the study was formed by international doctrinal texts on heritage and urban conservation, juxtaposed with regional traditions, and development thinking. To understand processes of change, the research approach was contextual and inductive, qualitative and knowledge-seeking – and normative in terms of built heritage management. Field studies were carried out 1995-2005 on four case categories: buildings, neighbourhoods, urban form, and the Lhasa World Heritage properties.2 The study confirmed intangible heritage as more important than built heritage to Tibetan respondents who perceived international doctrine as alien and ‘outsider-administered’. Change to townscape and built heritage was a major concern only to educated respondents. The study indicated considerable distance between perceptions of ‘value’ as expressed in traditional practice and international conservation doctrine, and that a ‘nearing’ of international conservation discourse towards a developmental context built on cultural diversity in Lhasa appeared remote. Theory was revisited with focus on sustainable urban development, the historical urban landscape and rights-based approaches to heritage management. Main sources of data were direct observation with architectural documentation and interviewing – a reflective methodology with informal semi-structured interviews used to study lifeworlds – supported by cartographic studies, public documents and archivaland literature studies. The study has proved the relevance of the research question. A few remaining significant buildings, and their residents, inform of a diversity of strategies that polarize state intervention and private enterprise. This situation calls for representative local involvement to support heritage and resilience. Recommendations aim to strengthen urban conservation as relevant institutions appear insufficiently equipped to handle the physical and social reality in Old Lhasa. In a disappearing Old Lhasa affected by increasing physical and social vulnerability this constitutes a considerable challenge, the relevance of which could indeed be questioned.