Kathmandu's urbanscape today is a mishmash of many influences: western extravaganza, glimpses of nouveau riche and ethnic chic, careless improvisations. But dominating the urban milieu are the concrete monsters towering over narrow lanes, or wedding cake villas that seem to have been uprooted from Beverly Hills and plonked down on Bhaisepati.
The basic contemporary urban look is of a reinforced concrete skeleton frame, flat roof, cement plastered surface and large windows. This "neo-Baneswor" style dwarfs everything else. Twenty years ago when the tile-roofed, mortar and brick two-storey houses started being torn down to make way for these boxes, it was a sign that Kathmandu was finally getting a "modern" look. Unfortunately, our architectural models seemed to have been borrowed from Gorakhpur rather than Kyoto. This trend abated slightly with the slump in the real estate market in the past five years, but population pressure has made it pick up again. The economics of such constructions makes immediate sense: it enables people to build higher than before, whether to stretch a small piece of land to surprisingly large rent-able floor space, or in the quest for more sun. We have very sensible building codes and zoning laws, but since these are rarely implemented, the sky is the limit. "People take it as an achievement if they can rise higher than their neighbours on the same foundation," says architect Deepak Man Sherchan of one of Kathmandu's most sought-after architecture firm, Creative Builders Collaborative.
House owners ignore the advice of architects and engineers when building becomes a race to keep-up-with-the-Janardans. My house has to be higher than the neighbours', how many rooms can I cram on each floor, how can I make my staircase narrower and steeper than the next guy's. There is no thought paid to the strength of the foundation, the frame or the soil underneath. There are many problems with new structures, including poor insulation, the cold-trapping qualities of concrete but among the most worrying is the stability of the buildings (see: Waiting for the big one, #25).
But in the midst of all this urban squalour and appallingly hazardous construction, there is the slight glimmer of hope that a new generation of Nepali architects is marrying form with function and designing new buildings that try neither to be too ethnic, nor abandon totally Kathmandu's traditional silhouettes. And it does not matter that this is happening only on the facades because it returns to the street-front Kathmandu's historical harmony of space and grace. So at least we have not completely sold out. "You need to have a feeling for architecture and your city. Only then can any form of architecture representing the essence of the city develop," says veteran Nepali architect Bihuti Man Singh.
A Malla-era Newari house generally didn't go higher than three storeys, the ideal height for a house in a seismically-active, former lake-bed Valley. The ground floor was used for storage or a shop in a bazaar area, the second for living and sleeping, and the top floor had a kitchen and pooja area. The use of locally available materials made construction economical, and the house was easy to maintain. The presence of different layers of bricks (raw and fired) made the walls stronger and also insulated the rooms. The sloped roofs made of tile or slate protected the walls from rain. This was a time-tested construction suited to the valley's climate. Until recently the design also met the culturally determined dwelling needs of inhabitants. But as joint families disintegrate and inheritance fragments ancestral buildings, traditional courtyards are not feasible anymore, and the size of the rooms reflect the shift towards nuclear families. The challenge for modern Nepali architects, then, is to design space according to contemporary needs, while taking lessons in construction techniques from older structures. The extensive use of brick is something that still makes sense for Kathmandu, which lies in the monsoon belt, but the mortar can be changed to cement.
The present trend towards merging Malla with Rana-Victorian styles began in the 1950s when the focus was on form rather than function. Later a few foreign architects, like Austrian Carl Pruscha, brought back Malla-period elegance and combined them with modified interior space. One of the notable examples was the Shangrila Hotel in Lazimpat, which had the dimensions, structural harmony, and landscaping to allow modern amenities to co-exist with a traditional look.
The establishment of the Chinese-built Harisiddhi and Bhaktapur brick factories helped sustain interest in exposed-brick forms. "Chinese bricks" added a new layer to the history of construction techniques in the Valley. And it was the spurt in the tourism industry and the flurry of hotel-building that brought back the traditional essence to Kathmandu architecture. Dwarika's Hotel in Battisputali is the ultimate example because it re-uses antique windows, doors and carved wooden columns in a modern new building, then there are the Vajra Hotel, the Soaltee's new wing, the elegant lodges that have sprung up in Bhaktapur and the bread-and-breakfast pensiones currently under construction in Patan. Hotel Narayani is building a shopping mall and turning its coffee shop into a conference centre and is going for a sloped roof, carved wooden windows and exposed brick walls. Proprietor CS Gyawali says: "This is an expensive and time-consuming task, but I am optimistic that it will make the hotel more appealing to tourists and also make it blend better with the traditional surroundings of Patan."
Not everyone got it right, of course. Soaltee's original old wing had the look of a Las Vegas motel, there are still hotels being built that look like the owners have edifice complexes, structures that truly represent a megalomaniac's dream come true. Then there is what can only be described as the Banglangpoo-Thamel style: quick-rise ferrocement and glass that has come to be the trademark of Thamel-by-the-lake in Pokhara, in Thamel-on-the-hill in Nagarkot, or in the original Thamel. Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered if these buildings had come up in the middle of the Ganges plains, but they co-exist with (and often stand in place of) the exquisite living architectural heritage of the Kathmandu Valley. Many owners and designers get carried away, while trying to be traditional they end up with hotels that look like Taj Mahals with brick fa?ades, completely disconsonant with the surroundings. Your building cannot stand out like a Dharahara, unless (like poor Bhimsen Thapa) you want to make a folly.
Outside Kathmandu there are some good examples of resorts that have not overwhelmed or tried to compete with the natural surroundings-foremost among them is the low-profile and intelligently planned Shangrila Pokhara, and the incredible Everest View Hotel in Syangboche that is so discreet that you don't see it until you are right in front of the building, and even then it never rises above the tops of the junipers on the ridgeline. And of course, what can we say about Tiger Tops in Chitwan that has built rooms on the jungle canopy, an idea that has been copied all over the world.
But Kathmandu's new architects seem to have learnt their lessons well. Today, although Kathmandu's skyline is a jagged outline of concrete terraces, from certain aspects you do see the emergence of a new line of red roofs, modest modern hotels with brick and tile facades. The Yak and Yeti has cleverly integrated the old Lal Durbar with a boldly cantilevered new wing. Nearby, the Heritage Plaza has unusual sheet metal roofs steeply sloped to make room for a spacious attic. The roofs are emphasised with slopes and struts for support, echoing one of the most elementary aspects of Newari design. The brick walls have staggered and layered projections to break the monotony and protect the structure from rain. The result is a simple, functional multi-storeyed building that stands out, especially in contrast to its nondescript neighbours. The acclaim for the Heritage Plaza seems to have sparked off a welcome copycat trend.
It's not all faux-Malla, though. Other buildings have attempted similar effects: the RB complex at Ranamukteswor, the Himalayan Bank on New Road. And of course there is the Rastriya Banijya Bank's Legoland building-that impossibly-complicated but somehow symmetrical construction has actually turned out to be not out-of-place at the Singha Durbar intersection, its self-conscious flamboyance in stark contrast to the staid police barrack across the avenue. Predictably, the reaction to the building is mixed, with some insisting it is a sore thumb while others believe it is the only true expression of modern, mercantile cosmopolitanism in the city.
As private residences go, the news is almost uniformly bad. Along the Ring Road, in Maharjgunj you go dizzy driving past the sudden visions of post-modern southern Californian kitsch. These are Kathmandu incarnations of the bizarre Punjabi Baroque seen on the outskirts of Delhi. Behold the manifestation of Kathmandu Baroque: wedding cake colours and protuberances, Greco-Roman porticos, marble flooring that destroyed the natural environment of Godavari, Jacuzzis and pools in this waterless world, Rajasthani carvings, Swiss-chalet roofs, Buckingham-style balconies, and White House-style Corinthian columns-all in one house.
Money is no object, clearly, when building in the service of thou-shall-be-one-up-on-thy-neighbour's house. Architects, when faced with such follies, say they're hired, but hardly consulted, and basically fill the role of the structural engineer. "We alone cannot do anything. There has to be a conscious effort on the part of the client and society as a whole to build houses that respond to the surroun-dings," says architect Biresh Shah.
Architects and armchair critics are unanimous that the challenge the city faces is developing a vocabulary of space and buildings that actively begins to dilute the ugliness all around. A style that expresses something about how modern Nepalis interact with their natural physical surroundings. A house is not just a home, a business complex is not just an office: both speak volumes about the level of respect for their surroundings and the cultural awareness of a city and its people. Deepak Man Sherchan is pessimistic, he is afraid that it will take another major earthquake for Kathmandu to set things right so that we can start rebuilding from scratch.