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 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.
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.
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.