Incongruous. Soulless. Ugly. Cement nightmare, concrete jungle, architectural disaster.
It is easy to describe walking through the streets of Kathmandu in these gloomy, disjointed phrases. The experience, after all, is much like that-without continuity, and with much to offend even the most accommodating aesthete. Even recognising that things, including our built environment, change and that restoration is not and cannot always be an option, there are few glimmers of hope for the future of our cityscape. And yet. And yet.
There is one route people are starting to go down, whether in building new structures or taking a fresh look at existing constructions-fa?ading. This is, quite simply, putting a face to a building that is not structurally required. This can, of course, often be disastrous, like the incomprehensible practice of Doric columns on Maharajgunj mansions, or even worse, the faux lattice windows on the RNAC building. Such insults to the urban dweller's intelligence are why the entire practice gets such a bad rap.
But it isn't all bad, if you think about it. Obviously it is impossible to tear down buildings that offend, and the convenience of modern design is undeniable, especially in larger office spaces. This is where facading steps in-to restore some traditional beauty and harmony to the architecture of the city without sacrificing convenience, having to spending obscene amounts on structural changes, or simply hoping against hope that somehow your new building will have an interesting, appropriate and attractive modern front.
An unlikely candidate for a traditional fa?ade with intricately designed oil bricks is a symbol of all that is sleek, modern, and industrial, the Tin Kune Toyota building. It is possible to take an ugly cement block designed to be a garment factory and turn it into a semi-elegant and modern structure that respects traditional Newari architecture. Industrialist Gajananda Vaidya wanted to ensure that while the building has all the modern amenities a business house requires, it would have a markedly traditional exterior. "They're doing it in Japan, Korea, in England, maintaining old fa?ades. You can't be modern without maintaining your culture," says Vaidya. Despite the extra time and money his project requires, Toyota hopes to not only impress foreign clients, but also set an example for other business houses. The building will have a traditional brick exterior that experiments with textures and patterns, and be interspersed with simple, attractive wooden windows. Inside the Toyota building are all the trappings of a modern structure-well-lit office space, lobbies spacious enough to withstand the foot traffic of a large organisation, functional cubicles.
Fa?ading is catching on as increasing numbers of hotels, private homes, and business houses realise the need to be modern without giving up tradition. Most new hotels like Dwarika's, the Hyatt, the Phulbari in Pokhara are designed with traditional looks, but owners of hotels built in the 1970s with just concrete and glass have realised that putting a new traditional Nepali exterior adds economic and aesthetic value to their property.
One of the people who make such work possible is Tirtha Lal Maharjan. Friends and relatives thought he was wasting his resources when, in 1980, he decided to set up a business manufacturing traditional bricks. "They thought I was crazy investing in a business that had little scope, in trying to revive a technology that was ancient and outdated and that people weren't interested in anymore," says Maharjan, proprietor of Om Shree Machhindra Nath Brick Industries in Dadikot, Thimi.
But Tirtha persisted and today, with his brothers Hira Kaji and Bikki Maharjan, he runs a brisk brick manufacturing business. "People have had to eat their words," smiles Tirtha. He is now hard pressed to keep up with orders of dacchin appa, the traditional Nepali bricks, that, together with the jhingati or local clay tiles, and wooden lattice windows make up Kathmandu Valley's traditional look.
It wasn't always so rosy, though. "Initially, when people weren't so keen on dacchin appa and plaster and cement were in, I tried to encourage prospective clients to use traditional material by accepting payment in instalments," says Tirtha. Although he comes from a farming family in Patan, Tirtha was with the Archaeology Department for 15 years before he quit in 1991. He had a sinking feeling about the Valley's fast-disappearing heritage. Pragmatic as he is, he understood that people outside the field of conservation would realise that they, too, could contribute to preserving the city's old flavour if the raw materials to do so were more easily available. Conversely, it would start making better business sense to produce those materials once the sphere and appeal of traditional fa?ades broadened.
And so, with his brothers Tirtha Maharjan combed the Valley, looking for artisans who knew the trade, learning more about it and recording the many patterns the bricks come in. "Some senior people at the Department of Archaeology were extremely encouraging and told me it would pay off one day. Others like John Sanday taught me the technology," Tirtha recalls. He experimented with designs and brick-burning techniques. Today his firm offers 300 varieties of bricks, plain and ornate, ranging from Rs 6 to Rs 150 and they are used in most new buildings coming up in Kathmandu with traditional facades. "Initially such work may cost more and take longer to build, but in the long term it is more economical-it's more weather resistant, you don't need to repaint the building and maintenance costs are lower."
Most of the hotels or houses he's supplied bricks to have a four-inch fa?ade covering the original structure. Laying the bricks itself is painstaking and delicate work, and Maharjan also supplies trained stone masons to lay a solid, uniform foundation before they lay the bricks.
When Dwarika's Hotel, Maharjan's first big client, drew artistic acclaim after its completion, he was immensely satisfied. Dwarika's Hotel is much more than its fa?ade, but even just its appearance is a superb example of what commitment to continuing traditional practices can achieve. Says Tirtha: "Dwarika Das carefully collected traditional pieces over a period of time. He also ensured that I always had an order of bricks so I wouldn't get discouraged and fold up the business."
Making the bricks is a delicate process. The handmade bricks are pressed, dried and burnt, individually wrapped in straw. 75 out of 100 bricks survive the entire process intact. "The bricks, built according to Malla period technology, are not of a uniform size. The varnished surface makes them water resistant, cool in the summer and warm in the winter," says engineer Laxman Kisiju, chief of planning with the Bhaktapur Municipality.
Kisiju and other municipality officials are trying to encourage locals to build fa?ades in the core city areas by offering subsidies on wood, tiles and brick. Since the municipality started the subsidy programme as an experiment, ten families have applied for subsidies. This year, the municipality is offering 75 percent subsidy on wood and 100 percent on tiles and brick. Says Kisiju: "Bhaktapur is a largely agricultural area, so people probably still don't know about the subsidies. Also, they might be thinking the municipality expects them to repay the amount. But we're hoping it will catch on."
Recognised as one of the world's ancient cities, and lauded as a brilliant example of architectural conservation by UNESCO, Bhaktapur wants to make the most of its cultural cache, and tourism is the town's best bet. The municipality uses funds from the local development tax, internal resources and tourist entry fees to provide the subsidies. Architects estimate that a small house in the core city area would cost Rs 300,000-400,000 to build and a traditional brick fa?ade would add another Rs130,000. "You can't enforce legislation without offering some kind of alternative or incentive," says Kisiju. Up to a third of the houses in Bhaktapur's city core now have cement exteriors, and the municipality hopes to provide incentives for them to add a brick fa?ade so the buildings blend with the surroundings.
The husband-wife architect's team of Chandra Lekha Kayastha have designed numerous structures over the past 25 years: corporate offices, government and private buildings ranging in style from postmodern, to neo-classical, and now, traditional. The firm designed the Kathmandu Tourism Service Centre in Bhrikuti Mandap. "If dacchin appa had been more easily available then, we would have probably used it for the exterior of the building," says Kayastha. Her firm is currently working with Maharjan and his team of artisans to cover the old concrete at the Narayani Hotel in Pulchowk with a traditional fa?ade.
Kayastha herself would like to see form and content being more complementary. "Fa?ading should not just be an afterthought, or an add-on," she says. "While traditional structures are appropriate for tourism purposes, they might not be as practical in terms of how space is used, lighting, and other modern requirements."
Critics might argue that fa?ading is an eyewash, because it does not actually preserve traditional architecture, only a few building techniques. Strictly speaking, this is true. But it has its uses, one of which is giving the city a new vocabulary of built space. A modern building, with or without a traditional fa?ade, has clearly recognisable modern contours, but is out of place in inner city Kathmandu, Patan or Bhaktapur. Put a traditional face on it, and suddenly the structure has continuity, its appearance acts as a bridge between the past and the present, and quietly schools us in new ways of conceiving and defining "traditional" and "modern".
Few modern buildings in the Valley can hope to match the Rastriya Banijya Bank building-its playfulness sends up the ponderousness most of us imagine lies behind the gates of Singha Darbar, and although cheeky, it is an appropriately placed symbol for Nepal's new, mercantile culture. It has lots of steel, and large glass windows, but its red brick exterior places it in a certain context-though only tenuously connected to traditional Valley construction, it is nevertheless a reminder of it. In the absence of more such innovative design, fa?ading is as good as it is going to get.