Article “Role & Responsibility of ARCHITECTS in Nation Building of Nepal” – Dr. Bijaya K. Shrestha.

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
unrelated scenes.

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.

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