Returning to Ladakh a second time I began noticing things. There were still the stunning vistas of the snow-capped Ladakh and Stok mountain ranges, the exotic foods and people, the charm of the medieval city and the beautiful trappings of an esoteric religion. All of this had been in the forefront of my mind when thinking about Leh and Ladakh since my last visit, one year ago, but familiarity allows one to adjust one’s lens, bringing into focus what hadn’t been obvious when viewed through the rosy hues of a first time experience.
The first thing I noticed this time is that Leh is a mess. If ever one wondered what it would be like if a medieval Himalayan mountain city collided head-on with the modern world, Leh is the perfect example. Western tourists come here by the thousands every summer for the beauty of its locale, its heavy commerce in all things spiritual, and its affordability. Tourism is by far the largest industry in Leh. I noticed that the infrastructure of the city is nowhere near adequately designed to accommodate this swell in population and all of the consequences that it brings.
I noticed that there are real problems here, the same as in any other place. It is easy to think, as a tourist and an outsider, that because of the natural beauty that surrounds the place or the embedded spirituality of the culture, that people are more enlightened and have fewer problems, are less in need of help. The truth is that the same problems exist here as in any other part of the world, in greater or lesser degrees.
But then, I suppose that’s why I came here in the first place. I think that it’s natural when doing this kind of work—that is, attempting to help others from a culture not your own—to question the role one plays, the efficacy and meaningfulness of one’s actions on both the small and large scale. In the end, there is so much that we can never know.
Ultimately, I have decided that for me the reward of working for the underserved, beyond the abstract notion of “helping someone”, comes from experiences in the field, from a handful of interactions with various people, locals and students that make the whole endeavor worthwhile. It is through these exchanges that one makes a difference, at least as much as in changing the shape of the built environment; these exchanges persist in memory, rich and alive, long after we have returned to our normal lives and affect our work in times to come in profound and unknowable ways.
The things we build in the field are a record of these moments—for example, the conversation between students and Ladakhi workers leading to the design of a building detail—that tell the story of collaboration and of many different people coming together in pursuit of a common goal. It is for this reason that I think this type of work is so important, for what is architecture if not the expression of a dialogue between people, between individuals, community and culture? It is a way in which individuals can have a voice, and individual conversations can be heard, both by the local community and the community of the world at large.
In honor of the many amazing conversations I had this summer I would like to thank all of the students of Design-Build: Ladakh 2010, Sergio, Kim & Kyle, Anokhee, Prasad, Tashi, Lobsang and most of all, Angdus without whom we would still be in Ladakh wondering what to do with all those mud bricks.
— Jesse Anderson