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The universal definition of architecture as synthesis of ‘art’ and ‘science’ is inadequate in the present democratic, globalized and information world of 21st century. Many modern ‘good looking’ buildings with ‘sound structures’ have been failed to meet the socio-cultural and psychological needs of the occupants. The demolition of several 14-storey slab blocks, designed by Yamasaki as part of the award-winning ‘Pruitt-Igoe’ housing development in St. Louis, Missouri in the early 1970s, just after two decades of completion clearly demonstrates this fact. Hence, architecture must focus on people needs and fulfills their aspiration.
Architecture is not a design of a detached object but a part of a whole. Architects do not have an autonomous position in relation to the surrounding world but must work in constant dialogue with the users and makers of buildings. Architects should be familiar with the notions of boundary, memory, and mapping, or public and private domains, as common devices for the staffing point of an architectural intervention albeit landscape or urban. As built environment is part of everyday life, architects need to create architectural concepts that bode well with nature and solidify their relationship with humanity. As a complex relation exists between building form, function and social context, architecture, instead of going into luxury of whim or aestheticism should respond to culture, context and time including linking nature and human kind, inner and outer realities and function and meaning.
Architecture is not limited to layout of interior spaces of buildings but it has also public face and community dimension. In addition to serving to the client, architects should also fulfill social obligation and nation building. Finally, architecture is an indicator of democracy. Coexistence of pluralistic culture respecting each other’s identity, dignity, freedom and public participation in decision making process are the basic norms of democracy in any form anywhere. Architecture through environmental design can make individual, family, community and society realization of it.
The traditional architecture of Nepal had almost all these features. The layout of the buildings around the courtyards in Malla towns allowed higher density and formed community spaces enclosed by housing units. It saved the agricultural lands and strengthened the community bond thereby fulfilling the social needs of that time. Symmetrical façade with larger and more ornamented central elements, dominating double
pitched tiled roof (with about 90 cm overhang to protect the walls from rain and sun), carved wooden doors and windows together with brick exposed façade with decorative cornices marking the floor difference all indicated the ‘visual art’ part of ‘Malla’ architecture. Use of locally available materials such as brick, mud and wood and their composition was done creatively in such a way that it had resulted energy efficiency and cost effectiveness. A unifying streetscape scene enhancing volumetric definition and achieving sense of enclosure for pedestrian was also achieved. In addition to these, naming of the neighbourhoods was carried out based on the historical background of the locality. Cultural practice in the form of daily ritual, celebration of various festivals including social institution ‘guthi’ had linked people to their built environment. Even ‘Rana’ autocrats were wise enough not to destroy the Mallas’ heritage. Instead they added huge palaces of neoclassical design as new vocabulary, built many religious facilities along the River bank and established modern facilities such as hospital, college, piped water distribution, wide roads (with footpaths) and fire fighters.
However, it was the six decades of modern development (after end of Rana autocracy in 1951) that has not only ignored the past trend but has also failed to fulfill the present days’ needs. The architecture developed during the 1960’s at that time was basically influenced by new building material of Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC) with simple rectangular plan and elevation with fl at roof, ‘chattja’ or ‘vertical louver’ projections (to protect sun and rain) over simple door and window openings. Flow of information and knowledge together with availability of new building materials and construction technology especially after the restoration of multiple party democratic political system in 1991 has resulted in emergence of new architectural vocabulary, popularly known as ‘post modern architecture.’ Developed with the common theme and notion, this contemporary architecture includes at least three different types of structures. The first type includes the modern buildings in irregular shape of plan and elevation with mixing up of many elements such as arches, bay windows, Corinthian columns with pediment base, sloppy roof, in some cases with ‘pagoda style’ roof, etc. in a single facade. Another type of style is the modern RCC frame structures, which are cladded by ‘dachi appa’, the tapered bricks historically used in temples and ancient palaces. The third type is new office and commercial units whose facades are covered by full glazing.
These different styles of post modern architecture can be seen not only in the Kathmandu valley but also in urban centres in different parts of Nepal. Its negative consequences are numerous. First, the trend of mixing various elements – circle, arch, column, sloped roof, bay windows, etc. – on a single building façade irrespective of the function (individual house, apartment, office cum shopping centre, etc.), location (core area, peripheral area, inside the courtyard, outside fronting the street side, etc.) and the surrounding building context does not help achieve human scale and proportion. Such task of duplicating anything and used for any purpose indicates the cynical attitude to history and degrades the values of those traditional elements. As these elements in most cases are merely used for decorative purposes rather than having structural and functional meanings, local traditions and historical settings are fabricated to use architecture as commodity or entertainment element. It has reduced human experiences but has presented a series of
The gradual development of ‘Malla’ period architecture has developed a cumulative knowledge, accumulated a sense of continuity and en-rooted in culture. However, the emerging trend of cladding bricks (new but in traditional design) on the façade of new RCC structure is nothing more than fabricated way to regain the past memory. The image is not allowed to arise from within but it is forced into a preconceived interpretation. New office and commercial spaces in different parts of the cities are characterized by thin layer of glazing with different design on the facade Designed merely for visual images, they are fl at, thin and weightless and temporarily. It seems that architectural profession at large has turned into a paper profession that thinks and communicates through lines on paper rather
than through a bodily and physical participation. The sense of flatness has been further reinforced by the diminishing role of craft in construction, by non-tectonic construction, and extensive use of synthetic materials.
Second, architecture should ‘fit’ in the surrounding environment and local context. It should be based on images that are rooted in the common memory, that is, the phenomenologically authentic ground of architecture. Authenticity of architectural works supports a confidence in time and human nature; it provides the ground for individual identity. Authentic architecture communicates its existential significance through our entire bodily and mental constitution. In this way, architecture provides the ground for perceiving and understanding the world as a continuum of time and culture. However, contemporary buildings with variations in size, shape, height, bulk and setback and plinth level from the adjacent structures together with use of different materials and construction technology are not only difficult to relate with the surrounding existing houses but they have also destroyed the sense of enclosure, the singular composition of continuous street walls, volumetric definition and unity in street scene.
Great architecture of ‘Malla’ period in the valley was the museums of time. They have the capability of suspending time. One can even experience the ‘time’ now through visiting some of those great architectural works. The emerging architecture has created more imposing buildings for publication on the glossy pages of magazines dedicated for architectural fashion rather than responding to the bio-cultural and archaic dimensions of the human psyche. They not only lack experiential background for grasping and understanding change but also fail to incorporate the identities, memories and dreams of people and society. Destruction of traditional city fabrics means loss of cultural value and deterioration of sense of place as well as decline of city economy in the long run. Third, architecture is a conservative art in the sense that it materializes and preserves the history of culture. Buildings and cities trace the continuum of culture which enables community to dwell with dignity. As the contemporary buildings have failed to continue architectural culture and to respond to the community spaces, the architecture has become fragmented into detached and isolated works. The society is detached from traditional sources and identity due to losses of community’s existential experience through the mosaic of placeless and timeless information. The spectrum of emotions conveyed by today’s architecture is confined to the narrow range of the visual aesthetic experience, and it lacks melancholic and tragic as well as ecstatic polarities. In short, the prevailing architecture can be seen as an attachment to surfaces rather than roots, a collage rather than in-depth work, a superimposed quoted image rather than worked surfaces, a collapsed sense of time and space rather than solidly achieved cultural artifact. Truth has been replaced by the aesthetic and rhetoric experience. As the ground of truth is lost, aesthetics takes over, and everything turns into pure aesthetics, technology, economics, and politics.
In addition to these, erection of public buildings either over the ponds (such as Sajha Bhandar Building, Nepal Bank Limited, Patan Municipality, etc.) or on the public spaces such as Tundikhel, reduction (and destruction) of public spaces by different means – extending the road network along (and over) the riverfront, building park and shops at Dharahra – Sundhara square, converting Te-bahal and other public spaces into parking lots – including widening of roads at the cost of narrowing down pedestrian footpath in the valley are just to name few examples of ‘planned’ but failed public architecture, carried out by various responsible agencies.
Acknowledging all these, the architects at individual level and collective way have been trying their best to serve the society and nation from the 1960s with varying degree of success. During the 1960s, qualified architects were few in number and mostly served to the government sector. Architects are also included in civil engineering group and in many cases, the architectural jobs were also carried out by other profession. Architecture course was also introduced for the fi rst time in Nepal in the mid 1990s at Pulchowk Engineering Campus, Tribhuvan University. At present, seven colleges (public and private) are offering architectural course (B. Arch) and producing hundreds of graduates each year. With increasing number of architects both graduated from abroad and Nepal, the number of private consulting fi rms has also been increased. In addition to these, Society of Nepalese Architects (SONA), an association of architectural profession since its establishment in 1991 has been involving various activities to enhance the profession of architecture. Many individuals are now employ architect for designing of their houses and interiors. Architects have attended higher posts ranging from Prime-minister, minister, Vice Chairman of National Planning Commission, Secretary in different ministries and Director General in many departments in the government organization. Publication of magazines such as Spaces and Business Architecture has further enhanced public education of architecture. Recent establishment of new Urban Development Ministry has further demonstrated the need of active role of architects in urban development.
All these efforts and achievements are still inadequate to response to the rapid transformation of society and settlements. In fact, architecture profession of Nepal at present is in the cross road. Globalization of economy, international investment and labour distribution and advancement in telecommunication has been, on the one hand, promoting ‘international style’ in architecture whereas development of democratic culture encouraging pluralistic and inclusive society, respecting local culture and identity, on the other hand, is searching for an authentic architecture. In such situation the role and identity of architecture needs to be defined. Research and academic institutions (policy direction), private sector (construction industry) and government agencies (policy formulation and enforcement) are the three pillars of nation development. And architects
shall contribute to all three in different ways.
First, the essence of architecture focusing on ‘human’ component and scope of architecture beyond building structure shall be well established in architectural schools and private practice. Design is treated as a ‘product’ of individual idea rather than a ‘process’ based on scientific data and study methodology. Almost all the architectural schools of the valley are still following the outdated syllabus using old teaching techniques of ‘chalk and talk’ in the ‘factory model’ buildings. Learning is still considered as a group of students in front of a teacher, feeding information for storage and regurgitation in tests. Public institutes are highly ‘ politicized’ whereas private colleges are highly ‘ commercialized.’ In this context, the engineering council shall be more active in the coming days. Second, architects shall play a crucial role in infrastructure planning and construction. Most of the municipalities in Nepal lack qualified architects. As a result, investment done on infrastructure on isolation basis could not yield tangible result. Moreover, there is a need of formulation of architectural design guidelines for new planned areas as well as for the already built up area to regulate the growth and transformation. Such guidelines shall address the local context, energy efficiency, seismic resistance besides quality and cost effectiveness. Third, the roles and scope of architects for designing built environment shall be clearly spell out in the government’s regulations. Numerous large scale building and urban development projects are still awarded to the engineering fi rm and the design schemes are judged based on the singular aspect of cost rather than quality of design and its implication on wider socio-cultural dimension. Any engineering profession or even the home owners themselves without architects can built the present styled buildings by hiring the masons and carpenters. To bring any tangible change in the society by individual architect might be a daunting job; however, same is possible if done jointly under the umbrella of SONA. It can assist all the three sectors mentioned above, working as a co-partners as well as mediators. It is the duty and responsibility of all individual architects to cooperate SONA in this endeavor.
Metamorphosis is basically change or transformation in character as per any standard dictionary.
In architectural metamorphosis, there is always an element of dream; though dream, it has to be pragmatic and realistic. Dream leads to the opening of frontiers and the expansion of incremental knowledge of the field and its application. Expansion or progressive knowledge leads to dynamic or utilitarian changes, serving the society.
If we care to ponder over Metamorphosis of contemporary Nepalese architecture, very often very chaotic collage of architectural products are physically visible. I wish it was just paper mosaic and not the tangible one. The mushrooming of mostly anything but creative architectural products, though called contemporary in developmental time frame, are bad
testimonials. Basically quite a number of them cannot be termed as architectural product. Really, it does not mean that all the products are anything but architecture, few are creative and aesthetic too.
In geological Metamorphism, the key elements to transform the related entities are pressures, heat and chemical action. If we were to draw interesting analogy in architectural metamorphism, the key agents could be professional heat (professionalism), societal affinity and ethical pressure.
Broadly the contemporary Nepalese architecture is having the octopus growth. Taking some exceptions among so called senior and junior practicing architects, most of us are the bunch is doing anything creative. I am not very sure about functional aspects of the various contemporary buildings; most so any skilled ‘Dakarmi Naike’ could very easily deliver that kind of substandard architectural services; what to talk of sustainable architecture.
It is not my intention to undermine contemporary architectural works of any designer when I am myself not a practicing architect. Nevertheless, it is vivid enough for us to judge that most of the architectural works are simply not on par with creative architecture.
However, all is not dismal; there are few amongst the seniors and juniors who are defi nitely practicing good architecture. The products are obvious for any critical but phenomenological observation.
While most of other mushrooming works by many degree holder architects are in limbo.
This scenario is obviously the self-inflected wounds, and no one else is to be blamed. The need of hour for us is to put our acts together and practice some really innovative architecture which could be based either on cultural national identity could very well be modern or post modern, crossing over the national domain. However, the bad imitation of the past leads us nowhere and is cancerous for the profession.
So back to start, talking about Metamorphosis in the absence of the key activators namely the professional heat, societal affection and ethical pressure, an ideal transformation is not very likely to happen until and unless the overwhelming present trend is consciously stopped by Nepalese architects, and the society is taken into confi dence by arousing awareness in good architecture. That era will usher towards true dream, and in the real sense there will be dawn of healthy metamorphosis of Nepalese architecture.
Metamorphosis of Contemporary Nepalese Architecture
“……..our architecture in the past was definitely talking – that too in a loud, clear and creative social way for any sensitive ears and eyes”
Talking architecture, as I view it has dual implied meaning. One could be “The architecture which talks and is not dumb” metaphorically. When we flip through the pages of time, the metamorphosis of Nepalese Architecture – modern or post looks pretty erratic and very inconsistent without any defi nite direction like a boat sans sail and rudder. Obviously, one cannot make a model out of the chaos.
De facto, Architecture does talk to us provided we listen and observe. Creative and utilitarian Architecture as well as junk one does talk to us and we do talk about the good one and the bad one with clear distinction.
Utopianism – society’s daydreaming is not much evidently rooted in our eastern history. Perhaps, closely related to utopianism is the type of environmental determinism which is very likely to influence architecture. As a creative designer, an architect is supposed to condition the characteristics of physical environment so that the socio – cultural and physical goals could be realized through the built environment. Kathmandu valley experienced this aspect in the past.
In the distant past, it would not be an exaggeration to state that our Architecture was definitely talking – that too in a loud, clear and creative social way for any sensitive ears and eyes. They were testimonials of high, intrinsic and pervasive status of built environment of Kathmandu valley as one symbiotic entity. It is not to say that there should be dogmatic continuum of the past for ever and we should be glued to the past glory of our art and architecture. Now is the dynamic age of transformation and transition powered by all kinds of socio – culture revolution taking place throughout the world? With tremendous stride in art, informatics and technology, the globe is no more compartmentalized and has shrunk into close connectivity and interaction.
Things are no more tied down to one particular geographical location or one specific culture. In other words, human achievements are getting globalised since last few decades. This is so true in case of architecture too. Hence, architecture should not be confi ned to
national boundary or should not be tied to so-called slogan of nationalism which we brag a lot without much substance. I guess there is no barrier between good architecture and national political boundary. Good architecture belongs to world heritage and is pride of Homo sapiens at large. Past glory as distinct identity should be cherished but we should move along with contemporary modern and post modern trend in proactive and creative way.
But for some unknown reasons, we tend to cling to the past without doing any justice to the present. It is desirable to conserve the architectural heritage of the past in workable and pragmatic manner but simultaneously we have to keep pace with the modern trend and movement of architecture in global context too.
In early sixties, a symposium was held in metropolitan museum of New York which deliberated on “Modern Architecture Death or Metamorphosis”. What Siegfried Giedion branded as ‘play boy architecture’ in which architecture is treated the way a play boy treats life with sensation, where as contemporary architecture was taken worthy of the name in context of its task of interpreting the way of life of the period, with objective of evolving a new tradition.
As it is said, history is defi nitely not compilation of facts but rather an insight into marching process of life or society Giedion’s observations on “constancy and change in primeval art and in Architecture” in the west is equally valid in our case too. Interrelationship of space time and architecture is too close to be separated apart. Contemporary art and architecture was born out of determination to go back to elemental expression.
For some time now, Europe and USA has been source of wind blowing the development of contemporary architecture. This is what is called universal architecture which has yet not begun developing in Nepal. In Nepal, the trend of architecture is very much like a crow that loses cardinal direction in the fog. Very few architects are producing creative and good contemporary architecture. Rests are bogged down to playboy architecture. Jigsaw puzzle solving approach in architecture is largely en vogue. Before pondering into what is happening in the current architectural scene of Nepal, let us devote our attention on global context. Normally, there were three distinct stages (phases) of architectural development in the west. In first stage, space was brought into being by interplay between various volumes and this was fi rst conception of space. Interior space was not given due regard; example could be that of Egypt and Greece. But during the second phase, the formation of architectural space was synonymous with hollowed out interior space. This second stage space conception covered the Roman period (eg.Pantheon) and ranged to the end of Eighteenth century. Nineteenth century forms are branded as intermediary link. In this stage, elements of all previous phases were intermingled.
Distinctly, the third stage of space conception entered with optical revolution with the onset of 20th century which eradicated the single view point perspective.
This stage had far reaching consequences for the conception of architecture and urban space. The space radiating qualities of buildings were freed from bounds of wall barriers. Interpenetration of inner and outer space and interpenetration of different levels came into play.
In Nepalese context, we do not have distinct phases as in the West and things are jumbled up with hazy situation. Numbers of the public sector institutional buildings have been dragged along the old eclectic architecture which need not be the case. Undoubtedly we should conserve and protect out old heritage but simultaneously we should break away from limbo of imitated cardboard architecture which is quite predominant these days. It is high time to get along with contemporary creative and utilitarian Architecture. This is the call of the hour. Those who are creatively and devotedly involved deserve our applause.
It is usual practice to follow the UNESCO conventions and other instruments approved by it when it comes to the conservation of World Heritage Sites. Conservation professionals use these instruments as standards of reference also for ‘lesser’ heritages of national and local stature. In Nepal, many small and medium ‘conservation’ projects are initiated at the local government level when the artifact is already in state of dilapidation or great disrepair and often executed by local communities represented as ‘user group’. The initiation of these ‘local’ conservation activities is often guided by an urge of the community and one or more donor to do public good. Reconstruction approach has dominated conservation/ renovation practiced in Kathmandu since ancient times and these were appear executed at the community level using the traditional knowledge and skills and a community based organization called Guthi. Inscriptions from as early as the fi fth century CE tell of the conservation of images, monuments and urban utilities and the setting up of endowed civic trusts (Sans.: gosthi, New.: guthi) with pious objectives. The Nepalese conservation tradition, its local principles and standards, is a remarkable response to the particular cultural, material and environmental context. It was developed by the community and was dominated by socio-cultural values. Such tradition of conservation has provided the basis for community initiatives and processes, for settings standards and, in some cases, also in setting up committees, organization and even functional and decision making models. Such traditional approach and standards, favored by the craftsmen and other traditional knowledge holders and user committees, run counter in many ways, to the ‘internationally accepted’ instruments that the professionals and national institutions feel somehow entrusted and bound to implement. Professionals participate in the process either as consultants or advisers and may also be drawn into the projects either on their own interest of participation in the ‘noble’ work or as arbiters in case of public disputes and widespread criticism and rejection of the process and standards of conservation applied by the user committee. These have brought into sharp focus some critical issues such as livingness, creativity, authenticity and temporality in conservation. This paper looks at these issues and debates from the perspective of traditional knowledge and experience from three conservation projects from Kathmandu Valley (Trayodasabhuvan of Dhando Chaitya in Chabel, Staircase of 55 Windows Palace of Bhaktapur and the Bhagavatibahal in Naxal) and draws some theoretical positions on the role of Present time and the local spirit of donation for improvement in the idea of conservation.
The Trayodasabhuvan of Dhando Chaitya had been affected by weather and earthquakes and its stepped brickwork had shown gaping cracks and shifts in its elevation. Cracks were also seen on the surface of the Hermika masonry cube (that is painted with the ever watching eyes of Vairochana). The proposal for renovation was initiated by donors subscribing to the religious faith and the works started under supervision of the Department of Archeology. As the nature of problem in the upper structure was being studied, it was found that its upright timber post, the Yasin was almost totally worn out and disintegrated and needed to be replaced (the timber pole earth-tree symbol that
stands on the reliquary at the center of the hemisphere of the stupa and rises through the Hermika to support the jewel at the crown of the Trayodasabhuvan). This considerably increased the scope of intervention in the heritage building from the Lichchhavi period
(5th -6th century CE) and professionals sought to apply ‘international standards’ of conservation so as to ensure that its ‘universal heritage values’ are authentically and integrally saved. While the original ‘yasin post’ was clad in copper sheet, the donors and
the local committee (headed by the chief Buddhist practitioner at the monastery) wished to cover the Trayodasabhuvan structure itself in gold-plated copper sheets and insert the new timber post with just the paint protection. Although the professionals could see that the post was completely beyond salvage and needed to be replaced by a new one, it was felt that the cladding of the Trayodasabhuvan in gold plated copper was not historically authentic and the ‘improvement’ sought by the donors unjust and unwarranted as it materially, aesthetically and temporally impaired its authenticity. The local committee and the donors had their way and the changes were installed against the international norms of values and authenticity. The key goal of internationally motivated heritage conservation is to conserve the tangible or intangible cultural accretions bequeathed as a legacy of the past
society so as to pass them on to the future generation as it was. It is moved by the marvelous assumption that the values of heritage that the present generation of professionals has assessed to be important, enjoyable and needing to be seen with reverence of our past will be of as great a value to others of the present as well as of the future and so its value content needs to be saved in an authentic and integrated manner. Although, in this scheme of things, the value assignment as well as defi nition of signifi cance of cultural heritage itself is entrusted to the present generation, the approach to authenticity ensures that the present does not add anything of its own. Whereas layers of the past accretions are thought be enriching authenticity, the present is denied any culture accruing role. It could not theorize to accept the metal cladding of the exterior of the Trayodasabhuvan as well as to replace the metal cladding of the post by a coat of paint rather than an another of the same material. The cultural sterility forced on the present time by the currently accepted international conventions of conservation is against the spirit of living cultures as it fossilizes culture and kills its dynamism, the key defi ning element of culture itself. Locally initiated conservation projects are however, not only rooted in the purpose of adding to the public livability of the heritage bound site but also aim at creating a value addition in the socio-cultural function of the site and the heritage-object. Both the urge to incorporate this creative change from the perspective of the present and the intent/commitment to a positive accretion seeking a consequence of enrichment and heightened cultural relevance to the user community of the present make the community led conservation action differ in philosophy and practice from the standard international objective of preservation of only what was and its active exclusion of innovations. In the case of conservation of Dhando Chaitya, the community and local representative’s priority for strictly following ritual processes in construction also stood in sharp contrast with the professional group’s bemused acceptance of such measures. Since the ruling western concept of heritage is largely derived from the application of romanticism – a literary, artistic or philosophical movement originating in the 18th century – on culture, culture becomes more of a legacy than a commonly agreed unconscious framework for community living and loses its present relevance. The remoter and far away the reference, the more the potential of romanticizing heritage, not just in terms of historical time but also in terms of space and people and the more the heritage approaches the idealized state. International instruments, therefore, seek to conserve heritage values highlighted from the perspective of romanticism. This art-historical approach to heritage is detailed through the discipline of archaeology. As such, for example, the dominant values
in world heritage (sites) remain direct or rehashed as expressions of art and architecture in terms of artistry, historicity, socio-religious signifi cance, symbolism and the like values. World Heritage Convention holds that the cultural and natural heritage is among the priceless and irreplaceable assets, not only of each nation but of humanity as a whole. Exceptional qualities render “outstanding universal value” to such assets. Their qualification as universal value as defined and applied in the case of world heritage sites further severs the link with the people in the place, who may be either the culturally descended ones, the current occupants of the place or just the property owners and primary consumers of the heritage artifacts. Indeed the ‘local people’ (and we may call them the owners in a territorial sense) in a ‘site’ may be seen in three classes, the cultural owners owning just the cultural values, the social owners owning just the social values and the economic owners interested in its economic values. The three have different levels of tolerance and expectation of creativity and ‘livingness’ and so would have different demands and definitions on authenticity and temporality. When cultural conservation are initiated from the local level, it is not the universal value, but rather a realistic mix of the values sought by the one or all of the three territorial groups, that guides the definition of the project. All three have a contemporary interest and thus bring the present to play in the conservation objective and design. For example, the conservation of 55-Windows Palace, a key heritage building in Bhaktapur Durbar, one of the seven Monument Zones making the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site, was initiated as a joint project of the Government of Nepal and the Bhaktapur Municipality and was led by a Steering Committee headed by the Mayor and with members drawn from the Department of Archeology and professionals. Despite disagreements voiced by the professionals represented in the committee, the design and layout of the timber staircase located at the south-east corner room was changed. The municipality bosses argued that the width of the original staircase was too narrow and needed widening in the interest of safe and easy negotiation by users of the conserved building (proposed adaptive reuse as museum and offi ce space). Unlike the case of Dhando Chaitya, where the cultural owners (the donors from the religious faith) presented their position on conservation and earning spiritual merit through material improvements and forced the professionals to acquiesce, in the case of 55-Windows palace, it was the social owners (the institution of municipality and the tourists visiting the proposed museum) and their user needs that prevailed to install changes.
As we move from considering heritage as objects fixed in time and space to ones that objects transmitting life, the livingness of the heritage and how we accommodate this while undertaking conservation become at once critical in any conservation process and action. We will need to look at culture as a dynamic entity that changes accommodating the collective impulses, urges and needs, energies, commitments and ways of one generation and others that follow. Viewed this way, all cultures would be living and ‘livingness’ will be naturally built in as we take care of the present’s impulses, urges and energies. (And the question may be asked whether we should be using term culture to denote and describe ‘dead culture’ at all. Or should cultures be fossilized thus?). If culture is an unconscious frame of reference for community living, then cultures could not but be living. Kathmandu Valley’s heritage has often been described as part of a ‘living culture’ and professionals raise this phrase as a protective umbrella to rationalize why the conservation of the KVWHS, which might appear as a dismal failure from the perspective of international norms and expectations (it being even put in List of Heritage in Danger for a few years 2003-2007… but subsequently pulled out again as WHS with some plans in paper) is actually an unfair challenge of a wicked problem made of a great force of the present. By using the phrase ‘living culture’ we are effectively posing an argument in favor of the changes inspired by the socio-cultural values of the present time and actively seek their assimilation in conservation actions.
While romanticism in literature and anthropology saw attempts at an exaltation of the primitive and the common man, in architectural heritage, the concept of outstanding universal value applied to heritage has led to the non-representation of the weak and the marginal in favor the peak heritage of the rich of the society, literally cream topping of the civilizing broth as it were and giving cultural heritage an elitist, classical and a non-local interpretation. Conservation action thus gets prioritized towards peak heritage, the heritage of the past social elite and the weak is either expected to identify with the heritage of the masters or see his own heritage and culture as weak, marginal and local (as opposed to universal!). In several conservation projects, there exist a situation of great mistrust and suspicion between the conservation specialist and the ordinary folks involved as members of the user committee and secular minded donors because of the divisive and elitist heritage classifi cation favoring classicism. Indeed, if we are to move towards participatory heritage conservation, ‘whose heritage is it?’ is a question that needs to be addressed in favor of the local.
The belongingness of a community to a heritage is at once affected by the system followed in the classification of the heritage itself; in societies where there have been abundance of heritage monuments, it has been traditional for conservation inventories to list the ‘peak cultural edifices’ exhibiting material architectural excellence as the most important. Such approach has led to the listing of monuments such as palaces and temples of the kings, princes and high society and the heritage of the ordinary citizen gets classed as minor. Consequently conservation of built cultural heritage prioritizes such peak assets that could have limited cultural relevance to the average cultural being or a lay person on the street. This becomes critical when we take the case of living heritage. Often heritage is sought to be developed by the state as objects of national identity – the social division it can potentially create in a multicultural society should also not be neglected. Heritage of the rulers and that of the common lay persons, although related, are not the same. The distance between the ruler and the ruled in the past seems to translate as a distancing of the lay person from the conservation exercises focused on heritage of the rulers, although we also find increased historical value reducing this distance. For developing civic emulation, public acceptance and relevance becomes desirable and this can be achieved through a strategic mix of conservation of ‘lesser heritage monuments’ and ‘peak heritage’. By choosing the non peak heritage, the relevance of conservation activities to the lower rungs of the society is greatly improved.
The reconstruction of the temple of Naxal Bhagavati in Kathmandu in 2010 was initiated by a community formed user committee. The temple, dedicated to the goddess Durga, was completely dismantled since most of its structural parts were considered to be on the verge
of collapse. In January 2010, when the dismantling of the existing temple on the site began, a public outcry that questioned the approach of reconstruction initiated by the community committee (Naxal Bhagavati Upabhokta Mul Samiti) led to the formation of a technical committee under my chairmanship to oversee and assure that the civic committee followed accepted norms and standards if conservation in its works. It appeared that the reconstruction was justified due to the extreme state of deterioration of the existing structural timber beams, rafters, the core wall around the sanctum and the ‘porous’ state of its metal sheet roof. Through its discussion with the civic committee, the technical committee sought to save the temple´s authenticity in the reconstruction by calling off any design interventions and making great reuse of salvageable and un-weathered carved elements such as windows, struts and cornice string bands. It also got the community to agree to keep the historic ancient image of Bhagavati, unmoved and on its venerated spot. Moving the deity would have greatly impaired the authenticity of the place, the deifi ed seat (Sans.: shakti pith). The civic committee agreed to drop several actions it had planned as ‘improvement on the temple’ e.g. raising the plinth of the temple, adding a side door in the sanctum room and introducing a stone string course (New.: nago) as these actually compromised the integrity of the temple design itself. The craftsmen were most reluctant to the reuse of old wooden cornice bands as they thought that the ‘quality and style’ of the extant carvings was poor and the wood itself did not come from the ‘right genus of tree’. Only one quarter of the old band was reused in the back side of the sanctum walls just as a token honor to the position of the technical committee.
Integrating the professionals in community led conservation projects has been seen as a equirement of conservation design and implementation both by the ‘user committee’ and the professionals. Whereas professionals seem to think that community conservation action is often substandard, the community committees voice their concern that professional conservationists apply more of theoretical standards. In the case of the reconstruction of Bhagavatibahal Temple in Naxal, the members of the user community felt more inspired by the local craftsmen than architects and engineers in conservation practice. The user committee which sought to behave more in the pattern of the traditional Guthi institution was more accommodative of creative inputs in conservation and even seem to demand innovation and change as a way of improving the relevance of the heritage to the present time and society. The reason behind such a difference in approach to conservation appears to lie in the different ways culture is viewed; while the community and user committee seem to see built heritage from within as a subject, the professionals approach it from outside as an artifact or an object.
This paper was read in the Inaugural Conference of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies, Guthenburg University, held at Guthenburg, Sweden (June 5 – June 8, 2012).