Nepali Times
'Palazzos decorated with pilasters'

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."

The Kathmandu Valley
New Buildings, Sites under Construction and Demolition 1990-2011
Seen by Niels Gutschow Himal Books with the Saraf Foundation for Himalayan
Traditions and Culture, 2012 (190 pages)

The Kathmandu Valley is a depressing picture book, documenting in meticulous detail the steady decline and decay of the original urbanscape of the capital. It has horrendous examples of malignant concrete tumours that pass for modern Nepali construction from the formless homes on the outskirts of Kirtipur to the new highrise condominiums. There is no need for text as the stark black-and-white photographs record the loss of the historic fabric of the urban cores of Kathmandu, Patan, and the outskirts of Bhaktapur.


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.

Kunda Dixit

Read also:
Time travel in Kathmandu, SWATI PUJARI
The ambient space of the city is a cluttered and intermixed mish-mash

1. Svasti
The past is but a memory... reality is what we stare at today.

All this is good to know...nostalgic too but how about ideas, solutions on how we can improve living conditions of the city given the existing physical infrastructure of the city.

Everywhere I see, I only see nostalgia of what was, or what we lost, sure forty years so much has changed, but lets be positive, why can't we work towards making all this better, so that forty years down the line, things look better.

For example, the roads are being expanded, but why can't anyone ask the concerned officials, where the proposed Master-plan for the envisioned Kathmandu that these proposed changes are supposedly working towards, do they even exist?

2. Umesh
Why talk about German's pain about KURUP Kathmandu, even most ordinary Kathmandu citizens had realized this 20 yard years ago that the city would end up worse than any pathetic cities in Indian states close to Nepali border. But the problem was, who would listen to their voice? Most journalists and activists of social societies these days had not even seen Kathmandu 20 years ago. These  people who are doing wonderful job to bring the voice of people in political issue, had not or many still has not had a hint of what is urban planning, or what a city should be developed. Only finding a DERA somewhere to struggle in KTM, and boast their success story later in the media, or some building huge houses by devouring on the lovely green fields, and hallenge the Katmandu locals with their upward mobilization, have been the dominating issues. NO alien has come to ktm and devoured it, its we people living in ktm have done this.Nepal is so politicized that one cannot even complain about scattered garbage in the street because you will immediately get the answer that "country is in such a turmoil, it has to deal with the sacrosant issue like constitution, and you are complaining about garbage, you as a Nepali". If you complain about haphazard planning even in my own neighborhood, my neighbor would say I am being to "posh". Amazing.

3. Ajay
Congratulations and thank you Niels Gutschow for bringing the master piece and telling us how our own Kathmandu has transformed over the year from city beautiful to ugly city. The fact remain that Kathmandu with all shortfalls and pathetic services attracts thousands of people from all parts and section of Nepal. The government planners and academia are clueless as they have been following the western money and directions for urban planning and management and have been experimenting with numerous planning exercises from PDP 1969 to Periodic Plan (2012 on going).

The main physical settlement planning brain of the nation DUDBC is happy with constructing drains and hospital buildings in small towns while the newly established KVDA is happy with road widening (only demolishing and no plan and construction). Pashupatinath is also looking away

4. Subash Basnet
Despite the discrepancies in urbanization of Kathmandu valley it's striding towards one of the biggest cities of the world. Kathmandu has moved a long way ahead no turning back and lamenting, if anyone really feels to develop a well planned city in Nepal then why not develop a planned city in Jumla and make it a casino zone for the world like Macau or Las vegas. Baburam Bhattrai govt. has done some good jobs, whose outcome is definitely to be seen in forth coming days.

5. thomas

A house I lived in in Germany several years ago was a quadrangle, a 4 sided structure surrounding a central courtyard, and was subdivided into a dozen apartments.  The front part of the 3 story house was built in around 1670, and the other 3 sides were constructed about 320 years later, in the mid-1990s.  From the outside without close examination it is difficult to tell which part of the house is new and which was built centuries ago, as they blend seemlessly together, and both new and old parts share the same classic style that is clearly German.  Although all units are thoroughly modern on the inside, the house is appropriate for the area, and will doubtlessly still be regarded as a good looking building hundreds of years in the future. 

When the owner of the original 1670 house decided to expand to add an addition for more apartments, the only way he was allowed to do so was on the condition that the addition match the architectural heritage of the original.  Paying a bribe to the local planning office to be allowed to build a concrete monstrosity was not an option.  I relate this tale to illustrate that it is possible to modernize while still preserving cultural heritage, although successfully doing so requires rule-of-law, which is in short supply in Kathmandu.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)