This paper investigates the architectural turn of the largest Buddhist cave complex in late-medieval Dunhuang (in Northwest China) with a focus on the contemporaneous exterior structures. The structures include timber facades that cover the caves’ antechambers cut out from the vertical cliff, timber-structured ante-halls on the ground, and earthen shrines and pagodas on the cliff top. These exterior structures, albeit mostly non-extant, constituted the comprehensive built environment of the Mogao cave site. This paper first overviews the diversity of exterior structures through a theoretical reconstruction of several building types including gable-sided facades, eave-sided facades with baosha-dormers, and compound architecture comprising a double-or-triple-level pavilion-like facade and a cliff-top shrine. I then look into one of the three zones where the multiple façade types congregate. The three zones, namely, cave cloisters centered around the Southern and Northern Colossal Buddha Caves and “the Three-Story Pavilion,” defined and redefined the appearance of the mile-long complex by means of vertical extension against the pre-existing horizontal passageways and skylines. As the paper argues, the exterior structures were a collective attempt to transform the cave site into a palatial complex amid mountains, which was motivated by a longing for synchronizing the earthly and the heavenly realms.
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