Not the fairest of them all

  • For all the expenses on reconstruction, an investment of a few million rupees more is worth the aesthetic value
- Deepak Thapa, Kathmandu
Having just walked out of a traditional Thakali house that had a courtyard in the middle to keep out the wind while allowing the heat from the sun to pour in, I realised how ill-suited building plans made in Kathmandu can be

Aug 11, 2016-It was a pleasant surprise when smart-looking gazebos came up on Kathmandu street crossings recently. While not begrudging the fact that these structures do provide some relief from the elements to the hard-worked traffic police and keep their personal effects safe, the surprise was more in how well they had been designed. Unlike the earlier tinny eyesores, these new additions to the Kathmandu landscape are quite pleasing to the eye.

If only on occasion, aesthetics does seem to have a place in Nepal’s public life after all. We found out that there are aesthetes in the government when the overhead bridge near the Old Bus Park came up some years ago. Whoever came up with its design deserves more than just commendation for introducing an element of beauty in the cityscape (just as the one behind the design of the monstrosity of the overhead bridge near the New Bus Park deserves condemnation in equal measure).

The main reason for my enthusiasm harks back to the atrocity committed by the government some years back. Despite protests from Nepali architects not to play around with the original design, the Ministry of Health went ahead and converted its rooftop into office space, and, almost as a further snub, covered it with an ugly corrugated iron roof. Gone were the shapely arches that adorned the top of the building. That the building had been designed by Louis Kahn, one of the most iconic architects of the 20th century, had no traction on the authorities’ decision to disfigure it. Fortunately, it is not an irreversible change and some day we can once again get to enjoy the building as Kahn had meant it to look like.

Aesthetic sensibility is relative but recent previews of the planned structures at Teenkune, Dharahara and the Old Bus Park were a disappointment. Whether it was the colour combinations planned or the limitation of computer-generated images, all gave the feel of a place in a north Indian town—which, despite all our pretensions otherwise, is actually the impression some visitors have of Kathmandu. Consider any vista provided along the outgrowth from the inner cores, such as Putalisadak or Chabahil or Kumaripati, and the comparison does begin to sound apt. Perhaps it is only natural that one copies what one is most familiar with.

Loathsome uniformity

There is an interesting parallel with building designs in Kathmandu. During a talk years ago, Sudarshan Raj Tiwari, who teaches architecture at the Institute of Engineering, bemoaned the uniformity in the design of the new buildings that had begun sprouting up all around the countryside without any regard for local climatic conditions, or, more worryingly, for the many factors that have influenced the evolution of a building design over the centuries to reflect extant cultural and social practices. Tiwari believed that the chief culprit for this were the police stations all over the country, which followed the same matchbox design with a faux-pagoda turret, whether it was high up in frigid Solukhumbu or down in sweltering Nepalgunj. In many parts of Nepal, these buildings were the first modern structures in place, and hence provided the design template for locals to follow.

It has been more than 30 years since I was last in northern Rasuwa. But never have I failed to identify the unique architecture of buildings from that region in books and photographs. All of this is in danger of being lost forever following the destruction caused by the 2015 earthquake and the government directive that all buildings now have to follow a mandatory seismic-resistant design. The government has put out a catalogue of building designs to be followed. The catalogue does acknowledge the need to encourage ‘vernacular architecture and building practices’ and some of the designs (why not all?) do mention that ‘climatic conditions and social and cultural aspects have also been factored into the design of the house.’

My bet is that the detailed construction guidelines allow for little variation as people begin reconstructing their homes, and more and more houses will simply follow the designs portrayed in the catalogue. A more inclusive approach would have been to provide specific designs based on local practices across the affected zones rather than leave it to the people to adapt from a strict building code that requires highly skilled people to implement. The uniformity Professor Tiwari so loathes is likely to become more of a reality now and much more widespread. For all the money being spent on reconstruction, surely an investment of a few million rupees more is worth the aesthetic value.

Colour me beautiful

Our government has a history of such insensitivities. Take, for instance, the Guidelines for Use of Paint on Public Buildings 2069 (yes, we have something like that). The rationale for such a document is to maintain a separate identity of such buildings and help in their easy identification by the public, not to mention the added advantage of relieving the officials concerned about deciding what colour the building should be (very true) and the obvious benefit of saving costs during repainting. The reason we have a pink Supreme Court and a yellow National Archive next door is precisely because of these Guidelines. Interestingly, the Guidelines also state that the colours chosen should reflect the geographical, cultural, social and economic condition of Nepal’s mountains, hills and Tarai. And, then goes on to prescribe the one same colour for each category of government buildings. Talk of lip service.

On the question of government buildings, there is an image that has stuck with me over the years. Walking out of Tukuche up in the Thakkhola Valley in Mustang one winter afternoon long past, I saw a government employee seated on a chair against the wall of a government building. The famous winds that rise up during the day through the Kali Gandaki gorge were in full force. It was while bracing against this strong and bitingly cold wind, with a windcheater and attached headgear as protection, that the poor man was trying to sun himself. Having just walked out of a traditional Thakali house that had a courtyard in the middle to keep out the wind while allowing the heat from the sun to pour in, I realised how ill-suited building plans made in Kathmandu can be.

I just hope I am wrong about my impressions of the post-earthquake house designs but we never learn, do we?

Published: 11-08-2016 13:34

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