In a misguided attempt to legislate a unified national culture in the wake of the Nepali uprising, Bhutan's government instituted the Driglam Namzha policy to guide public dress and architecture. In a country where the elevation ranges from 300-feet to 25,000-feet and encompasses a wide variety of climates, cultures, and local materials, this "unifying" policy was a disaster and often had the opposite effect of creating a "nationwide family."
Bhutan's traditional Drukpa dress is fashionably elegant as well as practical in the Drukpa heartland. However, it is hot and cumbersome in the sweltering lowlands and did not go well with the Lhotshampa, used to Nepali clothes. The urban youth preferred Western fashion and ignored the government.
The dress code is enforced in offices and schools. It is accepted by most Bhutanese as attractive and stylish for formal occasions. But for the most part, the policy is disregarded, and the government turns a blind eye.
Bhutanese village architecture evolved by necessity. Geography dictated building structure, rooflines, and materials. Sun, wind, water, economics, and local gods, decreed building placement, orientation, density, and village cluster design.
Now building codes demand nationwide uniformity. New structures appear to be traditional—modeled on the enlightened form and expression of the dzongs and the vernacular wisdom of the villages—but often lack the harmony and balance of village houses. Traditional details, built with wood, earth, and stone, are now being imitated in concrete and steel, and shapes have shifted. The demands of modern materials distort the original architecture's beauty, freezing the function of many details into meaningless artifice and ignoring the wisdom of "form follows function." The result is concrete boxes with gingerbread "Bhutanese" icing, with no consideration for the elements—hot in the summer, cold in the winter.
The young are moving from the villages in droves, creating demand for urban housing. Bhutan's first attempts at urban planning are end-to-end faux Bhutanese concrete buildings, tight right-angled grids with no provisions for sidewalks, trees, planters, gardens, or much else that is close to the Bhutanese heart. The elegance expressed in Bhutan's dzongs and villages can undoubtedly be achieved with modern materials. However, a Bhutanese façade over an Indo-Western form is not the way.
From BHUTAN: Hidden Lands of Happiness, by John Wehrheim (Serindia 2011)