Saturday 25 February 2012
André Alexander, who has died aged 47, was the leading figure in the effort to preserve the old city of Lhasa in Tibet.
He was born André Teichman on January 17 1965 in Berlin, where his background did little to suggest a future as a scholar. His father was a chimney sweep, while his mother had until her marriage been a hairdresser; although André studied History and then Architecture at university in the city, he did not complete his studies. Instead he was more interested in comic books, and even hoped to become a comic book artist himself. A favourite character was the sailor Corto Maltese, and throughout his life André dressed like a cross between a naval captain and a flower-shirted hippy.
He seemed very much the latter when, in 1987, shortly after Tibet opened up for the first time to tourists, he travelled there as a backpacker . On October 1 that year he happened to be in the main square in Lhasa when the first major protest of the modern era broke out; he narrowly avoided being shot when police opened fire on the crowd, leaving 10 protesters dead.
Teichman (who wrote under his grandfather’s surname, Alexander, and eventually adopted it as his own), gradually took a serious interest in Lhasa, spending extended periods there and paying attention to the physical fabric of its buildings. He once even “borrowed” a stamp from a police station to give himself a visa extension, earning himself a week in custody.
At that time the old city was still mostly preserved: “One could easily get lost in the narrow winding alleyways framed by low whitewashed stone buildings,” he wrote. But as he returned, things changed. “On each subsequent visit, houses had vanished – stone by stone, block by block, alley by alley.”
As a result Alexander determined to draw the old city’s buildings and to list their features, and in 1993, together with a British friend, Andrew Brannan, he produced a complete inventory of every remaining historic home in Lhasa. This they compared with those structures on the hand-drawn map of the city produced in 1948 by Peter Aufschnaiter and Heinrich Harrer (whose celebrated sojourn in Lhasa is recounted in Seven Years in Tibet).
Alexander and Brannan’s modern initiative, then called the Lhasa Archive Project, proved timely: of the more than 400 buildings they described in 1993, only 150 or so were still standing by 2001. The rest had been demolished in the frenzy of urban construction that characterised Chinese modernisation in those years, and which assumed – incorrectly, as Alexander showed – that concrete replica buildings would be more suitable for the climate and more popular than renovated traditional courtyard houses.
Alexander was not content with merely chronicling the loss of Tibetan heritage, and became committed to reversing it. In 1996, with the Portuguese artist Pimpim de Azevedo, and helped by the British Tibet scholar Heather Stoddard, he founded the Tibet Heritage Fund. It was under the banner of this organisation that he achieved what other Western experts had previously considered impossible: persuading, through charm and persistence, several leading officials in the Lhasa government to permit preservation work, despite the general reluctance of Chinese officials in Tibet to agree to co-operation with foreigners there.
Alexander’s approach was entirely different from that of most conservationists, focusing not on state monuments but on buildings used by local Tibetans. He showed that such repair work could rejuvenate communities as well as their fabric. They located the few remaining Tibetan craftsmen in the city and raised funds to pay for younger Tibetans to learn from them the ancient Tibetan arts of building and construction. By 1998 they had created a workforce of up to 300 Tibetan craftsmen in the city, renovated 20 historic buildings, and persuaded the local government to list a total of 93 others as protected sites.
As the work of THF became better known, it received funding from the German government and UNESCO, among others. In 2000, however, the government in Lhasa, possibly because of growing international concern about its demolition programme, abruptly threw Alexander out of Tibet, replaced his workforce with its own team, and denied the Tibet Heritage Fund further permission to work there.
Alexander did not let this dismay him. Instead he applied himself to saving buildings, both religious and secular, in other areas of the Tibetan cultural world. He and de Azevedo launched renovation projects in eastern Tibet (part of Qinghai and Sichuan provinces in China), Mongolia, Ladakh and Sikkim, as well as a conservation project involving residents in three traditional areas of the old city of Beijing.
In particular THF assisted local communities in recovery from the earthquake in Yushu (Qinghai) in 2010 and the flash floods in Ladakh (north-western India) that same year. Their work was recognised by a United Nations Best Practice Award, three UNESCO Heritage Awards, and the Global Vision Award.
Alexander became an architectural authority, defying those who emphasise the preservation of religious architecture while ignoring lay heritage. His publications include The Temples of Lhasa (2005) and, as co-author, A Manual of Traditional Mongolian Architecture (2005); the Beijing Hutong Conservation Study (2004); The Old City of Lhasa (in two volumes 1998, 1999); as well as countless field reports and articles. His doctoral study on vernacular housing and architecture in Lhasa is due to appear in 2012, and a major study of Tibetan imperial architecture, co-written with Per Sørensen, is nearing completion. In 2011 Alexander was featured in the BBC television series Heritage Heroes.
André Alexander, who had been in good health, died in Berlin after suffering a suspected heart attack. He is survived by Tashi, a staff member at THF.
Andre Alexander, born January 17 1965, died January 21 2012