When German architect and urban planner Niels Gutschow first arrived in Kathmandu Valley in 1962, what he saw blew his mind away.
"There was only one word to describe it," he recalls in his new book, The Kathmandu Valley, "it was pristine."
When he returned eight years later in 1970, not much had changed. But in subsequent years, as Gutschow got involved with heritage conservation work in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, he was stunned by the accelerated transformation of the Valley's urban space.
It wasn't just the physical buildings, but the festivals, rituals, and the small everyday glimpses of a rich urban civilisation were all losing their lustre. The availability of cement, steel, and glass was radically changing Kathmandu's cityscape.
As an architectural planner, Gutschow was saddened by this, and admits there may have been some romanticism, even orientalism, behind his fascination with the old world. But in The Kathmandu Valley he takes a deliberately dispassionate attitude to documenting the spreading urban ugliness, looking as a detached observer at how lifeless grey slowly took over the chlorophyll green of the farms and terraces.
"I was here to document the building heritage of the Newars," recalls Gutschow, whose encyclopedic life's work, Architecture of the Newars, was published last year, "but since 1990 I found myself becoming a chronicler of change."
Gutschow uses a subdued, but pained, vocabulary to describe it all. As he says in the book: "The curiosity I feel about this ongoing development has nothing denunciatory about it. The documentation of the construction sites does reveal a certain crudity, not to say brutality. Its aim is to achieve a largely unemotional presentation of one aspect of reality."
There is removed understatement in his preface, where he describes how Corinthian columns with vase-shaped capitals and Tympanums have become 'fashionable'. There are 'ruined contraptions', the terrace farms below Thimi are covered by 'three-to-five-storey boxes devoid of any formal ambition'. The book has images of billboards atop the houses along Tin Kune, the 'palazzos decorated with pilasters', and the new status symbols of aluminium composite panels with mirror glass on street-front buildings.
Gutschow has used his photographs to document in place and time the current visual landscape of Kathmandu without any embellishment or intention to make the images more beautiful or more ugly. They are just there, monumental follies to greed, a lack of concern about seismic safety, and singularly devoid of the sophistication and refinement shown by ancestors who built beauty and harmony into our cities.
Time travel in Kathmandu, SWATI PUJARI
The ambient space of the city is a cluttered and intermixed mish-mash