Monday, July 23, 2001

Saving local architecture in monument zones

By Razen Manandhar

The cliché description of Kathmandu Valley as ‘the city of temples’ is incomplete because it is not only the temples but also the surrounding private residential houses that make the city a city of matchless cultural heritage. Without the beautiful, traditional and homogenous setting of the residential houses around the monuments, the protected temples would be incomplete and never deserve the title of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Site does not mean the individual palaces, temples or stupas but the whole setting of the city. The protected monuments — i.e. the royal palaces of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, the temples of Pashupatinath and Changu Narayan and the stupas of Swoyambhu and Bouddha— however are only the focus of the whole city.

The state of the centuries-old traditional buildings, that tell the legacy of the indigenous architecture of the valley, in the core of the Kathmandu Valley has been a matter of deep concern for the world conservationists. The government has enough projects, either on paper or in reality, to conserve the palaces, temples stupas and other monuments of religious or historic significance but few steps have been taken to keep the private houses of immediate surroundings of the monuments intact.

However, conserving such houses is not as simple as that with the nationalized monuments. Along with time, the socio-economic life and needs of the urban citizens have also changed. That is why, those old buildings made with traditional "datchi appa" bricks, carved windows and doors, and tiled roof are being replaced with concrete buildings, against the essence of the laws and regulations. The citizens obviously will not live in those outdated mud-and-brick houses unless they are guided to the significance of obtaining such historical houses. The conservation of inhabited monuments need cooperative efforts both from the residents as well as the government authorities.

Being an ancient city does not mean being dead — evolution is a natural and irrevocable process. Apart from that, the residents of such historic buildings have a responsibility of preserving the specimen of the gone generations. They must learn to be proud of their great grandfathers for allowing them to live around the monuments of universal importance. Living there means being involved in protecting the priceless palaces and shrines and welcoming the tourists too. In the present context, most of the houses belong to the Newars, who are noted for their deep-rooted love and attachment to the conservation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. They should not escape from their hereditary responsibility.

Living in the monument zone and not obeying the special rules is not fair. Those who want to live in western-style buildings can also leave that precious areas and shift to suburbs in the peripheries of the city (though this is not a solution). Examples of the European cities illuminate that urban development should follow spatial patterns also. Rather than dismantling old buildings, the citizens should put effort to develop newer residential areas around the core city. In this way, the heritage would remain unaltered and at the same time, the city would expand and give more room for the growing urban population.

In the last two decades, the government has hardly done anything more than imposing laws and regulations to curb the deterioration of the masterpieces. The laws, formulated in 1956 and amended several times, does bind the house owners with ties. But how long the authorities can control the natural urban growth only with the help of the laws which are considered as impractical by the target groups?

Instead of imposing laws and trapping the residents in inevitable administrative complications, the government authorities should convince the citizens and raise public awareness. But for that, the officers must understand the value and feel the responsibility; only then some productive results can come out.

The residents should be given some incentives for living in such buildings. The subsidy on the paper is not enough to encourage them. The historic buildings can be sources of income: The houses can be used as restaurants, bed-and-breakfast guest houses and even as private souvenir shops. The history of the buildings will enhance the reputation of the service providers and also add pleasure for the visitors.

The threat imposed by UNESCO World Heritage Centre upon the Site of Kathmandu Valley to list the Kathmandu Valley in the Monument-in-Danger list is not new. In the international conference of UNESCO at Cairns (December 2000), the Kathmandu Valley was "the focus of public attention". It is not the monuments, mostly renovated with the help of international assistance, which worries the international experts, but the surrounding houses are the crux of the danger. Fourteen years after the valley was crowned with the World Heritage Site listing, Nepal’s steps to conserve the monument was far from satisfactory, so, the 16 Recommendations of the 1993 Joint Mission, the 55 Recommendations and Time-Bound Action Plan resulting from the 1998 Joint Mission were slapped on the Nepalese government. That also
became little prolific in Nepali context.

Article VIII.32 of the Cairns report concentrates on Kathmandu Valley and pinpoints the state of such public buildings. It says: "No new plans had been put forth by the Nepalese authorities to redress the persistent and continued deterioration of the materials, structures, ornamental features, and overall architectural coherence in most Monument Zones." The concerned officer there drew the Committee’s attention to the state of conservation of the site, highlighting the fact that in general, publicly-owned historic monuments were in good condition, but the problem lay in the urban fabric within the Monument Zones.

The Committee reiterated its deepest concern for the state of conservation of the Kathmandu Valley, where urban encroachment and alteration of the historic fabric in most of the seven Monument Zones composing the site have significantly threatened its integrity and authenticity.

The report also unveiled the level of knowledge of the observer of Nepal. The observer informed the Committee that they (the Nepali government authorities) were unaware, until 1992, of the World Heritage conservation standards, hence the errors made. That means we were enjoying the privilege without knowing the essence of it.

While the world level conservationists are showing their concern on the state of the private buildings of our old and transforming city, it is high time to take it seriously and produce some visible results in the near future. Our "lip-service" attitude of the government officials have annoyed the international experts living and observing the conservation works here. The feature of the indigenous architecture must be conserved soon, at least to maintain the sympathy we have been given by the world organizations. Otherwise, luck may not favour us in 2002 and being slapped with the Monument-in-Danger list, that we never want, will be unavoidable.