Oped

Is architecture alive?

  • Many losses go unreported and unrealised by rescuers and planners
- ABHI SUBEDI

Jun 11, 2017-In a friendly confrontation with a group of architects the other day, I asked a question: ‘Is architecture dead in the sense that you were all advocating it until a few years ago?’ The answer came as if in a chorus—’no, it is not.’ Naturally, the counter question came—why had I asked this question so abruptly? In the conversation that followed, I told these dreamers, planners, and philosophers the reason for my doubt. Architecture as a subject has a certain degree of fluidity in terms of its perception, reception and interpretation. 

Nepal Mandala is very well known for its architecture, temples, monasteries, carvings, sculptural forms and town planning. Hordes of foreign experts too have worked on these forms by acquiring skills, writing books and making designs for restoring the original shape of the towns. 

We who are interested in the intangible cultural heritage of this land are literary writers, art lovers, art critics and ancient architecture savvy people, whose participation in discussions about the architectonic topics is often architected by these very architects who have wanted to broaden the subject across the society’s wider spectrum. In the same capacity, I too have participated in several meetings organised by the architects at different times, and have written reviews of the books authored by native and foreign architects. We, as theatre people and teachers of visual art theories, have found architectonic forms interesting, because the underlying element, the core spirit of the Nepali architecture, has always been performative in nature. 

The earthquakes

The root of my caveat is that I see Nepal’s architecture by linking it to the poetics of space and politics associated with that. The architectonic forms, which we can see in the ancient and medieval structures, have their foundations on what I would like to call poetics, not just aesthetics, because every form of art, every abode of those times, and the sense of finish and consummation of the forms reflects poetry. We, as guides to foreign friends and cultural interpreters, try to uncover the same power, the same melody, and the same poetics whenever we take them to see these forms. The earthquakes of 1933 and, more recently, of 2015 that hit Nepal Mandala very badly have affected these monuments. The challenge and confusion started after the April earthquake. Anyone listening to the senior guru architect Sudarshan Raj Tiwari can feel the nature of the loss to the bone. The fact is, many losses go unreported and unrealised by rescuers and planners. 

I got an invitation from the Society of Nepali Architects  (SONA) to review and listen to the talented architects’ discussions and their vision of a future city, in November 2014. In my review in Kantipur (December 1, 2014), I summarised the gist of that meeting, which shows a vision of SONA. According to their plan, the capital city should grow towards the southwest up to Hetaunda; it should be very carefully planned. Its spread to the north towards Shivapuri should be strictly discouraged in order to preserve the forest and the source of water. That area should be declared an ecologically sound and healthy zone. The future Ring Road should expand in semi circular form only towards the south. The cultural and heritage zones of the cities, including ancient towns like Thecho, should be preserved with the spirit of archival zones. That was the main gist of the argument. 

Deviant arguments 

Architects differed over the question of maintaining age-old links and covenants with animals, plants and the management of water. Towns and society, nature and geographical position should maintain harmony. I always like the concept of bio-architecture. In less than five months of this great sharing of vision of the architects, a big earthquake hit the Mandala and other districts in April 2015. That cut the ordinary links. The main concern became one of the preservation of precious heritage sites. 

Some of the arguments became deviant. People became interested in making a huge Bhimsen Tower at the cost of the ancient heritage sites. Planners and builders became interested in demolishing the old buildings, which could be restored with some retrofitting. Anyone who has read journalist Devendra Bhattarai’s important interventions in Kantipur daily under the eloquent titles “Shital Niwas after Singha Durbar” (May 3, 2017) and “Tall claims of the donors” (May 17, 2017) can easily understand the logic behind the demolitions of these heritage structures to be replaced by lucrative monstrosities. 

Reshaping vision

The earthquake completely cut the link between the authentic planners and preservers. Quick buck makers’ claims have become so entrenched that the suggestions and plans of the architects and preservers will not be heard by the governments, and the authorised agencies who are given great decision-making power after the calamity. 

The irony is that those who never bothered to preserve and plan the heritage sites became the planners, and those who had vision for the cities’ future became lost in the maze of post-quake planning. The entire country is now building. Though the earthquake survivors have not been able to build roofs over their heads, the entire country is agog with city planning. Huge cities will be built all over the country. Kathmandu will expand without leaving any trace of its bio-architectonic origin. 

It is appropriate to recall my review of Vajra Book’s reprint of Carl Pruscha’s tome in two volumes entitled “Kathmandu Valley: the preservation of physical environment and cultural heritage: a protective inventory”. This book “a big index to visual sites and monuments of the Kathmandu valley classified and identified as 32 preservation districts, 34 monument zones, 29 natural preservation districts and 888 individual monuments and monument sites”. Pruscha’s compendium may have uncannily changed, but this visual index can be very useful today, especially “to assess and locate the damaged sites following the 2015 April earthquake” (The Kathmandu Post, June 12, 2016).

The architects whom I confronted that afternoon did appreciate my question, and said they were reshaping their vision for the post-quake times.

Published: 11-06-2017 08:09

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