When Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated Bhutan’s Supreme Court complex last week, the man who designed it felt reassured at having played a role as a “source of happiness that has made a small contribution to peace and cooperation (between India and Bhutan)”.
Architect Christopher Benninger described to The Indian Express the motivation and thought that went into the creation of what would become part of Bhutan’s heritage.
Benninger had designed Bhutan’s UN House, the National Ceremonial Plaza that is part of the Trashichhoe Dzong — the Royal Secretariat Complex — and the upper house of Bhutan’s parliament, besides the Supreme Court.
“Context was more important —most important,” Benninger said, describing how he set about a structure in keeping with its modern purpose and the local historical and ethnic essence. “I refrained from using any global architectural gimmicks such as large glass areas or aluminum cladding.” He used indigenous design materials such as local blue pinewood and local dolomite stone. “We wrapped the blue pine in locally woven linen cloth, gluing it to the wood columns, large flying capitols, and beams with tree sap. Then we engaged local artists to paint these traditional pieces using traditional natural vegetable and mineral colours,” he said.
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The largest and most symbolic building on the complex is the full-bench court, part of a “sacred” alignment. The judges’ benches face south, towards the Trashichhoe Dzong, and align with the ancient central tower Utse and the oldest Lhakang (Buddhist temple) in the kingdom. To allow this “sacred sight line”, the judicial library opposite the full-bench court sets off to the side. Though a bit higher in altitude than the Trashichhoe Dzong, no roof is higher than that of the Utse.
Chief Justice Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye had discussed all details down to iconography, traditional woodwork and even the masonry with the craftsmen. “I think we had some sacred forces guiding us. There was never a moment of disagreement, argument, or ruffled feathers,” Benninger said.
He looks at it as a building not designed for today. “It is not scaled for the present population of Bhutan or the size of the present economy. Like the Trashichhoe Dzong, it is symbolically scaled for all times to be the people’s final recourse to protect their constitutional rights,” he said.