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The Eternal City No More

April 29, 2014


It was early June yet it snowed during the night, leaving a dusting of white on the mountains that ringed the city of Lhasa long after it had melted away from the terraced rooftops and gilded copper canopies of the temples and monasteries within the city. After two weeks of traveling on buses and trucks, and crossing passes over 17,000 feet, I had arrived in the capital of Tibet during the Saga Dawa Düchen, the 15th day of the 4th month of the Buddhist lunar calendar, when the Buddha’s birth and his enlightenment are celebrated. This is a time of celebration, and for days Tibetans from all around the countryside came to fill the ancient city. Sellers lined the main streets with makeshift stalls displaying goods from the isolated villages within the steep mountainous valleys of the Tibetan plateau. Beggars arrived in great numbers, with the well founded belief that the city dwellers would be more generous during the festival season. Pilgrims likewise flocked to the urban center, filling the open plaza outside the entrance to the Jokhang Temple, prostrating themselves while they chanted and prayed.

The Jokhang Temple is the most sacred temple in all of Tibet and the conceptual center of the city of Lhasa. First built in the 7th century, it has been added to and enlarged over its thousand year history. On this day, pilgrims by the hundreds crowded its innermost courtyard, visiting the surrounding chapels and placing offerings at the many gilded statues, while the low-pitched, monotone drone of chanting, saffron-robed monks filled the air. Then they would walk the Nangkor, the innermost kora or sacred path that circumambulated the most ancient precinct within the temple, turning the multitude of oversized brass prayer wheels that lined the outer wall of the route, keeping them in constant motion as they continued their clockwise circumambulation within the temple.

Beyond the temple, the Barkhor thronged with people from every class of society, forming the second sacred circuit which encircled the ancient core of the city. This path is about a kilometer in length and lined with the whitewashed stone facades of traditional Tibetan buildings which tapered as they rose to two and three stories, increasing their sense of height and monumentality. Shops occupied the ground level, and the addition of wooden stalls selling every kind of good further narrowed the streetscape. Wooden poles bearing strings of brightly colored red, yellow, green, blue and white prayer flags guided pilgrims and myself along this route.   Likewise heaps of stones, placed one by one as an act of devotion by countless passing pilgrims, marked the route. These were always passed on the left, following a clockwise rotation so important in Buddhist rituals. Open fires also burned along the way, to which pilgrims continually added juniper branches to fuel the smoldering embers.

Likewise the Linkhor, the outermost kora which formed a seven kilometer circuit around the medieval city, was flush with people from all walks of life. I was just one of the thousands who leisurely made their way along this course throughout the day; many spinning hand-held prayer wheels as they slowly progressed, while others stopping to socialize in the parks and open spaces along the way. The Linkhor enclosed the Barkhor, the Chokpori hill (considered the 4th most sacred mountain in Tibet), and the immense Portala Palace which visually dominated over the ancient city. On occasion I would encounter a pilgrim crawling this entire route on their hands and knees, as a form of religious devotion. They would fold their hands above their heads, bow and then prostrate themselves along the roadway, often placing some sacred object or conch shell at their fingertips to mark the point at which they would place their feet for the next prostration. In this way they covered the entire sacred circuit one body length at a time.

Portala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

Portala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

A small diversion along the Linkhor brought me to the Potala palace, which sat on a rocky outcrop some 300 meters above the valley floor, making it visible from any point within the city. Although a palaces was erected at this site by Songtsan Gampo, the monk who introduced Buddhism to Tibet and founded the first Tibetan Empire in the 7th century, construction on the present structure began in 1645 under the great 5th Dalai Lama. The massive palace consists of two interlinked structures, built up to 13 stories and all together containing over a thousand rooms. The White Palace, designated by its whitewashed walls, consisted of the living quarters and offices of the Dalai Lama and served as the seat of the Tibetan government until 1959, when the present Dalai Lama fled the invading forces of the Chinese army after the Tibetan revolt. Nestled within this structure is the Red Palace, whose crimson walls and gilded roofs contain a monastery and a collection of religious halls, chapels and shrines to Tibetan Buddhism.   A formidable ramp which switched back and forth up the steep hillside led to the main entrance court of the Palace. A large embroidered banner hung over the entrance hall, and I followed the crush of pilgrims as they progressed through the hallways and courtyards of the Palace which were lined with painted images of deities and ancient lamas in vivid pigments of crimson, yellow and green, all subdued by age. The pilgrims brought offerings of melted yak butter which they added to the rows of burning oil lamps which illuminated the many gilded images of past lamas and bodhisattvas with a dim flickering glow. Often they would touch the ends of the colorful silk robes that draped these figures, which were soiled and discolored by the touch of thousands of hands. I walked from one darkened hall to the next, their ceilings blackened by the soot from the multitude of yak butter lamps. One chapel displayed a collection of ancient weapons, with bows and arrows, swords and armor hanging haphazardly from the rafters.

Remarkably, I was allowed to wander unrestricted, essentially lost, throughout the labyrinthine maze of halls and gallerieswithin the palace, until I mistakenly left through a minor exit at the back side of the building, which then prevented me from reentering. Unfortunately, I never saw the burial chorten (the Tibetan form of a stupa) containing the remains of the renowned 5th Dalai Lama, which rose to 49 feet and was sheathed with more than 110,000 teals of solid gold and some 20,000 pearls and precious stones.[1] This was just one of the eight funerary chortens within the palace which hold the remains of the fifth through the thirteenth Dali Lamas (excluding the sixth), and which were all elaborately decorated in gold, precious stones and gems and placed under the gilded peaked roofs of the palace; their eves adorned with mythical creatures and ridgeline surmounted by sacred vases shaped like pagodas. But at that time were no docents to direct me nor was there a guidebook that I could have followed to find these places on my own. Yet my time spent wandering through Lhasa and this extraordinary palace was such a sublime and inspiring experience, that it became a defining event in my life. It was after this incident that I became determined to study architecture as a way to understand culture and history.

But this vision of Lhasa was the city I experienced a generation ago, when China was just beginning to industrialize and Tibet had just opened to Western tourists. Today, foreigners traveling to Tibet are strictly controlled and it is only possible to visit Lhasa after attaining an Alien’s Travel Permit and enrolling in an officially organized tour. There are now high speed trains that can make the 4000 km journey from Beijing to Lhasa in less than two days. The train even supplies extra oxygen for its passengers to prevent altitude sickness as it travels across the high passes, and its windows are covered with a protective film to protect passengers from ultraviolet radiation. Currently the Potala palace is a museum, which provides one hour tours to a limited number of paying ticket holders each day. The Linkhor has been largely destroyed by recent construction, resulting from a government policy of modernization as a means of cultural assimilation. The Barkhor is likewise threatened, with recent plans to develop a shopping mall and parking garage within this area.[2] A similar effort at “modernization” is likewise occurring in the western province of Xinjiang, where forced demolitions and urban renewal within the historic district of the ancient silk route city of Kashgar, similarly serves as a method of political control and cultural assimilation (or some may say obliteration) of the ethnic Uyghur minority population within this part of China.[3] I suspect that even the hotel I stayed in at Lhasa; a traditional Tibetan courtyard structure with a three-storied drop toilet, is now long gone, most likely replaced by some modern tourist accommodation.[4]

So the Lhasa I once knew and which left such a lasting impression, may exist only in my mind, and as my experience of Lhasa fades to a distant memory, so too will the historic city it seems. And although the loss of the historic fabric of such a special and ancient place may seem like a tragedy to some; I try not to consider it that way. Every Buddhist knows that existence is a state constant flux and change, and that resistance to this universal law is just another aspect of maya, the illusion that binds us to the material world and the cause of suffering. Preservationists desire to cling to the material reality of the world and preserve the physical substance of buildings of the past in order to access some essential truth about the human experience, may be simply a false attempt to defy the rules of Dharma, the natural law of the Universe. In that sense, maybe the modernization of Lhasa and the loss of this ancient city is just a lesson we need to learn, to lead us to a more enlightened view of the world around us. But for me, I still cling to that memory of what once was; a memory of such a special place during such a particular time which I had been fortunate enough to have experienced. But like all experiences in life; they occur only once, never to be experienced again.

Thomas Gensheimer
Department of Architectural History
Savannah College of Art and Design


[1] Although most sources agree with the size of this chorten, I found little agreement on amount of gold and precious stones used to decorate this burial stupa. But the general consensus is a very large quantity, consisting of thousands of kilograms of gold and at least eighteen thousand precious stones.

[2] (see Yeshe Choesang, “China destroys the ancient Buddhist symbols of Lhasa City in Tibet,” The Tibet Post International, May 9, 2013,

[3] (see Uyghur Human Rights Project, “Living on the Margins: The Chinese State’s Demolition of Uyghur Communities” April 2, 2012,’s-demolition-uyghur-communities.html and Nick Holdstock, “Razing Kashgar, LRB blog, May 25, 2012,

[4] Trip Advisor lists 249 modern looking hotels in Lhasa today. It seems there is even a Super 8 Motel in Lhasa which you can book through Expedia.

Discover Savannah lecture to be broadcast live

January 16, 2014

Tomorrow I will deliver my “Discover Savannah: A Virtual Walking Tour” lecture at the SCAD Museum of Art Theatre at 10:00am.  The lecture will be broadcast live on SCAD’s Virtual Lecture Hall — SCAD Virtual Lecture Hall  Depending on the web browser you use you might have to unblock the security if you don’t see the video feed.  Look for a shield icon at the left end the URL line.

Late News: “Savannah is more than its Historic District; working class neighborhoods deserve attention, too”

December 15, 2013

Despite what we might sometimes think, architectural historians are not that different from ordinary people.  We live our lives addressing all manner of things, and experiencing an average range of typical, and sometimes atypical occurrences.  And this architectural historian apparently forgot that he wrote a blog-worthy letter to the editor of the Savannah Morning News a couple of months ago.  Apologies.  Below is the link.

Daves Rossell, “Savannah is more than its Historic District; working class neighborhoods deserve attention, too,” Savannah Morning News (14 September 2013)

A Cause Beyond the Ordinary: Serving a Global Community

October 24, 2013

In pursuit of a meaningful career as a scholar and critic of the built environment, I have spent the last few years of my life searching for a unique perspective on the cities we inhabit and the houses we dwell in. The road I have traveled has taken me to a great number of places, each with its own traditions and aspirations; its own local and global identities. The time paradox that exists in our world today, fueled by a consciousness of the past and an ambition for the future, has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration to me; it has driven me to invest in an international career, aimed at researching the temporal dynamic that exists within the built environment, while constructing strategies to unify heritage and new development in the midst of a growing global community.

The interdisciplinary nature of this career has required me to draw from a variety of fields, including communications, economics, political science, media studies and, not to forget, architectural history. When the time came for me to look for an internship, I naturally gravitated towards a job that would equip me with the widest variety of skills. Through our Department Chair Dr. Robin Williams’ network of professionals, I was able to secure an internship with the department of Planning, Building and Development, and Economic Development within the municipal government of the city of Roanoke, Virginia—a pivotal moment in my pursuit of a career in the field of built environment studies and international relations.

I was able to work closely with the city manager, assistant city managers, economic developers, the historic preservation officer and other community leaders of Roanoke in an effort to better understand the relationship between communities and the built environment. I specifically worked on two projects, one conducting research and writing a report on Roanoke’s rich history of commercial and artistic murals, DSC05077_Fixed2and the other researching potential ways to incentivize surface parking lot owners to develop their land. Not only did I acquire valuable practical skills related to the functioning of government, but more importantly, I gained a greater insight in the dynamic which exists between government, advocacy groups, communities, and citizens—all in the name of improving the built environment.

As I approached the end of my internship—before I was scheduled to return to my home country, Belgium—I decided to plan a short trip to Washington, D.C. to visit a few graduate schools. Despite the trip’s brevity—a mere thirty hours—I still managed to work in visits to Georgetown’s, George Washington’s and Johns Hopkins’ campuses. Four hours after walking out of the GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs, I already found myself on a bus to Dulles International Airport, finally heading back to Belgium after having been away from home for over thirteen months. Little did I realize my time in Bruges would be spent quickly bouncing back and forth between friends and family, because I soon found myself on the road to Geneva, Switzerland, where I was scheduled to visit Europe’s oldest International Relations school, the Institut de Hautes Etudes Internationales et du Développement.

Sitting opposite a senior representative of the school, I was taught one of the most important lessons for the future: “Here at the institute we are not interested in churning out the next engineer, doctor or lawyer; rather, we embrace individuals with unique profiles; individuals with a unique take on the world and a plan to change that world for the better.” What I had been struggling with for years, finally became crystal clear: rather than going through life trying to find the ‘right job’, I should focus on cultivating my own individual being and honing my own unique abilities. Preparing myself to work for a variety of organizations, resolving urban issues in both the industrial world as well as conflict areas in the developing countries, I am in essence granting myself the most meaningful career one could ever have: that of serving the common good of the people dwelling this Earth.

Editor’s Note: Olivier Maene is a senior B.F.A. student in the architectural history program at SCAD.

Continued Increase in Professional Employment Opportunities

October 9, 2013

The department’s Careers Survey for the calendar year July 2012 through June 2013 includes 104 positions listings, up from 99 listings in 2012 and 55 in 2011. The uptick was first noted six months and a solid gain is now evident. It is the first 12-month period with more than 100 listings since the July 2009-June 2010 period.  Prior to the recession, the number of advertised positions historically ranged from about 160 to 200 per year.  For more detail, click the Careers tab above.

Video recreates lost Savannah train station and benefits from Architectural History faculty and alumnus consultants

October 5, 2013

Architectural History professor Karl Schuler and Architectural History alumnus Ruben Acosta (M.F.A. 2010) provided valuable information, insight and feedback in the creation of a video that recreates Savannah’s lost Union Station, erected in 1902 and demolished in 1962.  The video was the result of collaboration of Visual Effects, Sound Design, and Film and Television students enrolled in a course offered by SCAD Visual Effects professor Joe Pasquale in spring 2013.  Information about the station was largely drawn from the M.F.A. thesis, “Savannah’s Union Station: Architecture and the Gateway in the South,” of Ruben Acosta, who was able to visit the class and offer direct feedback while in Savannah serving as the department’s inaugural alumni mentor.

Lost and Found in the Savannah Squares

September 24, 2013


When I decided almost ten years ago to go back to school for an M.A. degree, the Savannah College of Art and Design was first on my list of places I wanted to go.  At the time, this was almost exclusively because of the school’s location.  After nearly a decade of living in Nashville, Tennessee, I was utterly fed up with having to get in my car to do absolutely everything, and the idea of opening a new chapter in my life in a walkable, mixed-use, and beautiful city like Savannah was very appealing.  I knew that the city had an innovative network of squares, but that was really about all I knew—and to be honest, while my first love was urban design, I was rather set on studying 3D digital design at SCAD because I thought it would be a good way to experiment with urban environments.

I could not have been more wrong about my suitability for SCAD’s digital design program, but when it came to the city of Savannah and SCAD in general I was so very right.  After making a joyous switch over to the Architectural History program, I suddenly found myself not only in a great city, but also in a great program that was equipping me to discover and deeply explore that city.  It is rather clichéd to say that the urban environment is the best classroom, but in Savannah’s case I think it is literally true; the city’s globally unique network of civic squares presents outdoor public living rooms that are perfect for teaching, debating, reading, and just about anything else.

When it came time to choose a topic for my M.A. thesis, I briefly entertained the notion of doing a project on postwar reconstruction in Dresden, Germany…before slapping myself in the face and realizing, in a near panic, that the best possible topic was not only right in front of my face, but also under my feet and all around me: Savannah itself!  Specifically, the squares—and more specifically, the three squares that had been demolished decades ago, to the consternation and confusion of the city’s modern inhabitants.  Everything I could ever need was all there, right at my fingertips: faculty experts, newspaper microfilm reels, civic records, the sites themselves, local civil society archives, old phone books, everything.  Living not only with but also in my topic helped me to finish the document in a timely fashion, and I was happy to graduate, if sad to leave.

Little did I know that, even as I departed Georgia for a job in an architecture firm in Virginia, my life in the Savannah squares was not going to end anytime soon.  First, I learned that my paper had won SCAD’s Graduate Thesis Document Award.  Then, one of its chapters played an instrumental role in my being accepted to the Ph.D. program at Brown University’s History of Art and Architecture department.  Soon after arriving at Brown, I began to present my recent and ongoing research at scholarly conferences, and it seemed that everywhere I went—from Ireland to Hawaii, from Beirut to Boston—fellow students and senior scholars were eager to hear about Savannah.  And why shouldn’t they be?  The city is amazing!  Its unique and elegant layout is a rare manifestation of the Renaissance Ideal City tradition that dramatically embodies the rise and fall of its founders’ utopian dreams, creating a civic realm that has alternately been the site of progressive humanitarianism and cruel bigotry, of reformed egalitarian peace and bitter internecine war.  As I learned when writing my thesis at SCAD, Savannah’s grid of squares had also been the site of some profound Depression-Era debates about the nature and value of modernity, highlighting the ongoing relevance of the Savannah Plan and its evolution in the twentieth century and beyond.


Image courtesy of the Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan.

Ultimately, my thesis was broken into two parts for publication.  The portion on the twentieth-century civic conflict over “Savannah’s Lost Squares” was released in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.  The other portion, which was on the ideological origins and formal precedents of the network of squares, was published in an edited volume entitled Ordnance: War + Architecture & Space.  Somewhat ironically, this second publication was profoundly enhanced by my move to Providence and Brown University, where a brilliant collection of original documents from colonial Georgia is housed in the John Carter Brown Library.  Furthermore, while doing research at Brown for my dissertation on the architecture of utopian literature, I came across an ideal town plan [see figure] from a 1718 book by Leonhard Christoph Sturm that, to me at least, clearly resembles the 1733 Savannah grid and is a prime contender for the definitive influence.  When I got a hold of the original book and saw that it had been dedicated to the commanding officer of James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder of Savannah, while Oglethorpe was serving in the military, I nearly lost it.

My only regret was that I could not celebrate these discoveries or publications in Savannah itself, face-to-face with the faculty of the Architectural History department, whose kind instruction and counsel were indispensable to my career and indeed to my intellectual development in general.  Savannah is not only a great classroom, it is also a fantastic research topic.  I am utterly sure that much remains to be discovered and explored in Savannah, and that countless pages of great architectural history could be written on its buildings, streets, and above all its squares.  At risk of riddling this essay with urbanistic clichés, I must say that a part of my heart remains in Savannah due to its important role in transforming my life—and in fact, twenty-four parts of my heart remain in Savannah, one for each square, including those that have been lost and those that have been found again.

Editor’s Note: Nathaniel Walker (M.A. 2006) is currently completing his Ph.D. in architectural history in the History of Art and Architecture department at Brown University.


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