The cyclopean walls of the Jianamani visitor centre allude to the structure of the world’s largest Buddhist cairn
Bordering the north-east edge of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, Yushu is a significant centre of Tibetan Buddhism. Its importance derives from being the site of the Jianamani, the world’s largest Buddhist cairn. Over three centuries old, this monumental sacred mound contains over 250 million Mani stones. These are stone plates, rocks or pebbles typically inscribed with the six-syllable mantra ‘om mani padme hum’ or any Buddhist devotional prayer.
Fed by a steady stream of pilgrims, the Jianamani continues to grow. Nearly half of Yushu’s population earn a living by carving Mani stones and after an earthquake in 2010, local people set about repairing the Jianamani before attending to their own homes
The new visitor centre serves both tourist pilgrims and the wider community, providing information about the cairn as well as incorporating a post office, clinic and small research archive.
Intended as offerings to spirits of place, Mani stones are placed along roadsides and rivers or piled together to form cairns. Creating or carving them is seen as an ego-transcending practice.
The production of Mani stones, inscribed with a Buddhist mantra for addition to the cairn, provides much employment for locals
The building adopts a traditional square Tibetan plan augmented by a network of observation decks that choreograph vistas of the Jianamani and various sites associated with it.
Form and construction draw on locally available technologies and recast the simple, robust language of Tibetan vernacular buildings. Intricate, random rubble walls crafted by local masons evoke the texture of the Jianamani and employ the same rock from which Mani stones are carved. Observation decks are fabricated from timber with some elements recycled from earthquake debris.
The jury was impressed by how the project connected very explicitly with place and culture, and how the architecture had a sense of timelessness while also cultivating a wider social purpose.
Photography: Courtesy of the architect