Back to the future

Happening Issue 119 Sep, 2011
Text by Utsav Shakya / Photo: ECS Media

Modern day architecture in Nepal increasingly looks to the past for inspiration

What goes around comes around. Nowhere is the adage more clearly seen than, everywhere? From clothing to music, everything grows, evolves and comes back full circle. Take Nepali architecture for instance; Kathmandu today is not the row of charming Newar houses it used to be. However, the numerous ongoing renovations of typical Newar style buildings and the trend of contemporary design elements incorporating traditional elements is a sure sign of inevitable changes in this front.

As the Preservation Expert at Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, Dr. Rohit Ranjitkar has worked on numerous renovation projects, mostly monuments that count as national treasures. A few years ago, he renovated his own house in Patan, an old mud and brick building that had seen better days. Contrary to the cramped, small living spaces of yesteryear, Ranjitkar’s house is a tasteful blend of the new and the old. To customize the space to suit modern times and requirements, the architect tore down dividing walls. One distinct reminder of the older version of the house is the use of old wooden windows and doors and supporting pillars. Ironically, many of these old structures were scored from junkyards. The result of that hard work stands today as a tribute to our rich architectural heritage.

Later in his office, overlooking the historic Patan Durbar Square, Ranjitkar spoke more openly about the trend. “I agree with renovating older buildings to preserve our heritage. However, I would compare the building of a new house, using material that aspires to achieve the typical Newari look, to being a Disneyland concept,” he says. Not that he has anything against people building houses to their liking, but the man has a point. A copy of an original stands nowhere close to an original work of art that has undergone some repair.

Tucked away in Thamel’s Narsingh Chowk is Deva’s Arcade, which strikes a balance between being an unflattering copy and a faithful homage. Deva’s is a commercial building dedicated to preserving and promoting Nepali art, architecture and craft. The structure of the building is new but a homogeneous usage of reclaimed wooden windows and doors adds a healthy dosage of historic nostalgia to the place. Missing portions of the wooden fixtures have been repaired using new wood and subsequently highlighted for effect. What you get is a building, which although unabashedly modern in its functionality, recognizes its cultural leanings, and readily replaces a commercial slick exterior with a more rugged, traditional feel.

Perhaps the appeal of a mud and brick structure is the cool interiors courtesy of the materials used or maybe it is the distinct feel of living in a different-day Nepal. I would have to go with Pujan Harsha Bajracharya, a friend and lay appreciator of Newar architecture who says the idea appeals to him because the mud and bricks, organic materials both, would in time, fall and be one again with the earth.