Table of Contents Next Page

Nepal: urban renewal - The restoration of Bhaktapur

R.O.A. Becker-Ritterspach

RAIMUND O.A. BECKER-RITTERSPACH is an architect and deputy head of the Federal Republic of Germany's team involved in the Bhaktapur Development Project in Nepal.

By common consent, the Himalayan country of Nepal is a source of constant delight. The medieval settlements of the Kathmandu Valley still preserve to a large extent both their ancient environment and their traditional way of life. The temples, palaces and even the houses of its historic cities show an unerring artistic instinct, especially in the lavish use of carved wood. This woodwork is not just surface ornament, but is integrated functionally into the buildings.

The period from the 16th to the 18th century was the golden age of Nepalese architecture and craftsmanship. Since then, there has been a decline; as has happened in so many areas, the old crafts are dying out. Modern materials and construction methods, cement and metal sheeting are supplanting increasingly expensive timber. An austere businesslike style is driving out the ornate products of a more leisurely age. Indeed, it seems that this survival of the ancient culture of Nepal is destined to disappear except for fragments in museums. The potential tragedy is not only the loss of irretrievable works of art but a loss of cultural identity as a result of uncontrolled change.

In a day of scientific and technological achievements and widespread desire for higher standards of living, people everywhere in the world expect better housing, sanitation, social amenities and opportunities for employment. In the rush of efforts to achieve these goals, traditional buildings, no matter how valuable they may be artistically, are in danger. One of the great challenges of economic and technical development is the salvation of these treasures using the materials, tools and techniques of advanced technology.

The three main centres of the Kathmandu Valley - Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu itself, the capital - are artistic cities suffering from decay. Of these, Bhaktapur calls for special attention because it is in a better position to preserve its character than the other two cities

Housing in Bhaktapur in a state of collapse, and a city reservoir

Up to the second half of the 18th century, Bhaktapur, 15 km from Kathmandu, was a power in the land and a thriving centre for trade, especially with Tibet. Then the centre of power shifted, the city lost its tributary land and after the construction of a highway to the capital was by-passed by trade routes. The decline of Bhaktapur was gradual but steady. Even now, the more active elements tend to move to Kathmandu or to the new centres of growth in the Terai lowlands, which lie in the south near the Indian border.

The nature of decline and shift of activity to the other two cities has meant that Bhaktapur has possessed neither the incentives nor the means for the kind of large-scale urban development that might have emphasized the repair of its architectural glory. Damage to buildings due to neglect has been compounded by the ravages of earthquakes and inherent factors such as moisture, the great enemy of wood. Weak foundations, lack of moisture barriers, leaking roofs and insufficient links between timber elements and masonry are among the main problems. Perhaps even more serious is that, even where they survive, the old crafts, which are closely linked to the caste system, have shown themselves unable to innovate. The result is that structures still continue by and large to be erected in the old traditional ways.

Fortunately, a determined effort is now being made to remedy this state of affairs, in particular by the Bhaktapur Development Project, which was launched as a venture of His Majesty's Government of Nepal with the assistance of the Federal Republic of Germany. The latter is represented by the German Agency for Technical Cooperation which has commissioned Systemplan Ltd. and ARGE System-plan-Prack to carry out the first and the second phase respectively of a project to bring Bhaktapur back to life and beauty. The costs for construction work for the two phases are 15 million and 23 million Rupees to be shared between the two countries: one third by Nepal and two thirds by the Federal Republic of Germany. The Government of Nepal covers counterpart expenses and administration, while the costs of German technical staff and certain equipment are covered by the Federal Republic of Germany. The first phase began in July 1974 and ended in October 1976. The second phase carried on from the first and will end in October 1979.

Although the repair of existing buildings and the revival of the ancient crafts are central to the project, the aim of the operation is not to turn the city into a kind of glorified museum. It is to improve the physical, infra-structural and socio-economic conditions of the people of Bhaktapur while at the same time preserving the medieval character of the town. It was clear from the beginning that what was needed was a comprehensive plan which would take into consideration and give equal importance to both development and preservation. The proper perspective and a balanced approach are essential if both objectives are to be harmoniously achieved

Restored building becomes a tea house

The key concept is to carry out planning and implementation concurrently, and, during the first two-year phase, this policy proved successful. After an initial period of trial and error, the planning benefited from experience gained from ongoing work.

Every effort is being made to combine the preservation of artistic treasures with the provision of income, employment and better living conditions. Thus, much time and energy has gone into the improvement of the water-supply system as well as into traditional open wells and ponds, sewerage, sanitary facilities, housing and construction Or school buildings. A handicrafts centre is already in operation, to be followed by small industries. A restaurant has been opened in a beautiful building which has been tastefully restored and a second restaurant will follow. In short, it is understood that unless new life can be infused into the ancient body of this still largely agricultural town, the vigour needed for the restoration of temples and houses-will lag.

The project has made a special effort to improve traditional house construction. The guiding principle in devising new methods has been to make use of existing skills, technology and construction methods wherever technically possible. The project has collaborated in a number of private house repairs and reconstruction works by giving aid in design as well as subsidies in the form of material and labour. During the work, house owners and project staff have had a chance to carry out and appreciate the improvements in techniques and structures. One advantage which was immediately realized was the saving in timber permitted by the project's methods. Even so, people were hesitant to adopt new construction methods. They wanted to be sure that these new ways would give results at least as good as the traditional methods.

Two demonstration house units were designed and constructed incorporating the structural, functional and aesthetic elements worked out by the project as well as typical elements of the traditional architecture. The purpose of this plan was to demonstrate that is was quite possible to use modern methods in construction, while maintaining the traditional appearance of the building. Some of the elements incorporated in these units were the overhanging roof supported by struts; the traditional proportions of windows, doors and other timber elements; and the unplastered brick walls. But, most important of all, these houses were meant to show that it was vital to preserve the character of each area as a whole, so that all the units blended to produce the overall effect, and conversely that no single unit detracted from that effect.

These units were also used to bring home the point that they had not been erected to provide something to be slavishly copied, but used as a general guide for the kind of improvements which everyone should adapt to his own needs when building his own house.

After a stay in a demonstration house for a specific period, selected families are in a position to testify to the effectiveness of the improvements and innovations. But this measure was supplemented by a drive to convey the message to housebuilders, craftsmen and local officials, indeed to the whole population, by means of slides, leaflets, posters or lectures.

The other drive to restore traditional architecture to something approaching its former splendour was for the preservation of old buildings. The project sought to achieve this aim by preserving certain ensembles of buildings in their entirety, and also, on a more immediate basis, to repair some damaged or dilapidated structures and objects. During the first phase of the project, the historic Dattatreya Square was completely restored, as well as a number of individual structures. During the second phase. several smaller groupings will be renovated.

Farmers who live in the city; in November the streets are covered with newly harvested rice

How new building techniques are introduced

The guiding principle at the Bhaktapur Development Project for the introduction of new methods has been to make use of existing skills, technology and construction methods wherever technically possible. The project has designed a number of technical improvements which reduce the amount of timber used in buildings while increasing the lifetime of building materials employed. These are a few examples.

· Ceilings: The number of joists is reduced by increasing the distance between them and by using "standing sections" instead of "flat" sections. Moisture barriers are used below wall plates and ventilation head and joints.

· Roofs: Modern purlin/rafter construction is employed using large roof tiles and reinforced ring beams to fix purling.

· Windows, doors, pillars and stairs: There is a reduction of sections following structural requirements. More glazed windows were used, double windows were designed, window mesh was introduced, stairs were redesigned for easier climbing, and plywood was used for such items as doors and cabinets.

· Joints: Traditional pegs were replaced with pegs which reduce the loadbearing capacity but which themselves carry little load. Nails, iron bolts and rods were employed.

· Timber preservation: Treatment with multipurpose preservatives gives protection against fungi and insects.

Detail of peacock window

Architect's drawing of the restored Sukhuldoka Math building

An old capital restored

A newly carved capital

Structural elements in traditional buildings

The traditional house in the Kathmandu Valley is a two to four storey unit set among others in rows along a street. Usually each house has two bays separated by a centre spine wall set parallel to the front and back walls. The skeletal structure is covered with a tile roof pitched at an angle of about 35 degrees. Ceilings are low - 1.80 to 2.20 m.

Elements such as doors, windows, pillars and lintels were made of timber and incorporated structurally into brick masonry walls. These timbers are covered with ornate carvings that disguise with beauty their vital structural roles.

Loadbearing elements of the ceilings and roofs were made of much heavier timbers than strictly required, because the artisans were not technically equipped to measure exact needs and stresses.

· Ceilings: The flooring joists span bays of 2.20 to 2.80 m and their flat sections (10 × 7.5 cm) rest on wall plates. The distances between these joists are 10 to 15 cm in order to allow a sub-flooring of flat brick which is finished with 10 to 15 cm of clay or, in exceptional cases, clay tiles.

· Roofs: The purlin/rafter construction employed is characterized by a broad roof overhang of about 1.20 m supported by struts. The laying of the rafters is similar to the laying of the roof joists described above. The internal structural support of the roof is designed in such a way as to keep the roof space free from obstructing elements. Rafters are covered with a layer of split timber or bamboo that carry a 10-15 cm layer of clay. Small "jhingati" roof tiles are then pressed into the wet clay.

The aim has throughout been to preserve as much of the original substance and cultural importance as possible. The structural condition of most of the buildings called for a comprehensive revision. Many buildings had thus to be partly or even completely dismantled. The task of reconstructing the buildings in exactly their previous form entailed an overwhelming amount of paper work and documentation.

It became obvious at this stage that, in order to avoid the structural damage resulting from the use of traditional methods, certain innovations would have to be introduced. Emphasis was therefore laid on a whole range of measures which will keep future maintenance down to the minimum and at the same time ensure that the buildings last for a considerable period. These innovations include better roofing, stronger foundations; moisture barriers and efficient timber treatment against rot, fungi and insects. Special attention was paid to the roofing as the most vulnerable factor. The rafters were covered with planking, and double tarfelting applied in hot bitumen. This was then covered with a layer of mud treated with herbicide in order to prevent plants from sprouting on it. And lastly, the traditional "jhingati" roof tiles were pressed into the mud after being treated with a coating of silicon syltrete. The result is a highly decorative waterproof roofing. Such comprehensive restoration is carried out only on buildings of historic importance.

The ideal

Total and faithful reconstruction is the ideal, but, in many cases, modifications are tolerated, especially when the parts in question are not visible, or at least not prominent, such as roof structures. Some visible details retained their appearance, but were reinforced with concealed steel bolts or with concrete where possible.

Top priority was given to wooden carvings as being the most striking feature of Nepalese craftsmanship in building. The utmost care was taken to preserve the maximum substance of any piece, both as such and with regard to its structural context. Often, this approach led to serious problems because, in most cases, the wooden parts have load-bearing functions. Various technical devices had to be employed in order to save weak parts or even whole elements. These means included the injection of hardening substances or the mounting of the parts on invisible reinforcements. Inevitably, a number of carvings were found to be beyond repair and had to be reproduced. This was a big problem at the beginning of the project. The standard of work demanded for reproduction of the carvings was so high that only a few carvers were capable of executing it, and many of those were seriously out of practice. The earlier work in Bhaktapur by the German specialists, and a parallel project on the old Royal Palace at Kathmandu (by Unesco) had fortunately set the ball rolling, but the number of skilled workers available was pitifully small. During the peak season, the project employs about 200 carpenters, most of whom can do carving, but are otherwise nonskilled.

New artisanry encouraged

Old artisanry valued anew

Four-armed goddess and restorer

Cleaned and preserved

The last stage of the repair consisted of skilled cleaning and subsequent treatment with preservative under the close supervision of a chemist.

During the first phase of the project, twenty large monuments and numerous small objects were restored or repaired. Carving accounted for a very large proportion of the work, ranging from the replacement of individual members of an element to the manufacture of whole units such as doors, windows, balcony windows and pillars. The repair presented no difficulty. Once the elements were removed from their setting, they came apart easily because in traditional architecture no nails were used in making them. They were made of interlocking parts which were held in place until the masonry was built round them. The completed masonry gave the wooden elements rigidity.

The project can clearly be considered a success only if it helps to create a corps of highly trained artisans. The task is by no means easy. The trainee must accept a new technology and new methods of work. He often must also acquire a new respect for his cultural heritage, which has been weakened by the glamour of modern and prestigious currents of thought and practice.

Every building combines masonry, carpentry, wood and stone carving

Traditional roof seen from above

Carpentry in Kathmandu

The equipment used has hardly changed down the centuries. All timber is cut, planed and worked by hand. The main carpentry tools are the flat axe, pad saw, adze, and a number of locally designed woodcarving implements. Machinery is uncommon except in carpentry shops equipped with circular saws and band saws. Prefabrication of house components is relatively unknown. It is possible, however, to order window and door elements from workshops in advance. Generally the workshops arrange for a carpenter to proceed to the site and install the elements ordered and to assist in the installation of ceiling joists and roof members.

The project accordingly lays great emphasis on the training of craftsmen and workers, generally in the building trades, in new methods which can be applied to traditional-style buildings. The programme tries to achieve this objective by on-site training. There is also special training in up-dated technology which covers the recording of all existing work methods, the development of new ones based on traditional techniques, the introduction of foreign work methods and their adaptation to local needs. Stress is laid on keeping production and maintenance costs low, on saving forest resources, and on safety measures against damage by earthquakes, as well as on modern timber engineering. Special lectures and seminars are planned for various levels of professionals, officers, overseers and craftsmen, supplemented by the distribution of appropriate literature. Lastly, a small-scale timber industry for prefabricating door and window components and perhaps parts of roofing is being considered in order to provide additional employment. Furniture, too, may be manufactured. The creation of this centre will give a new impetus to the need for skilled craftsmen, and, by ensuring employment, hope to attract new hands into this type of work.

The training covers construction as a whole, but particular attention is given to timber as a key building material and one which is susceptible to deterioration and decay.

Another aspect of the preservation of traditional skills is the creation of a handicrafts centre, manned by, among others, skilled carpenters who have formed themselves into a cooperative. This co-operative produces excellent carvings for sale to tourists and for export. In this way, they will stay together as a team for repair and restoration work on monuments and other buildings. The centre also includes hand weavers, painters and makers of masks and puppets.

Despite the prevalence of modern trends in construction, there is no doubt that timber will continue to be used extensively in Nepalese architecture. The demand will come not so much from public buildings and high-standard housing (though the revival of woodcarving will lead to a fair use of wood in the doors and windows), but from ordinary housing which will be very much in the market for timber components. And this is not just a matter of fashion. The new building code specifies that houses built in the historical parts of all towns must conform to certain mandatory standards which include sloping tiled roofs. The owners themselves generally build the houses or supervise the design and construction. This class of owner generally favours wood for doors, windows and stairs, because it is easy to work and handle and can be transported by the cheapest form of transport available in these parts - which is man himself.

The main obstacle to the continued use of wood on an extensive scale for building is its increasing cost. Steps will therefore have to be taken to alter the present policy on timber consumption. In earlier days, timber for the Kathmandu Valley was felled in the valley itself or in the surrounding hills. With the growth of population and the consequent demand for housing this supply disappeared. Now virtually all construction timber is felled in the Terai foothill forests, a considerable distance from Kathmandu. As logging moves to more remote areas, timber costs rise and are increased by the greater amounts of expensive fuel oil needed for the logging and transportation equipment.

Repaving brick streets

Resetting an ancient stone arch

From June to October there is a market shortfall in timber production owing to the monsoon rains. Reserves are gradually depleted, and acute shortages develop just after the monsoon ends and the new building season starts.

But there are still other factors making for high timber prices. At present, the timber for building comes from a small number of "primary species" such as Sal (Shorea robusta) and Asna (Terminalia tormentosa). These species, which account for more than 70 percent of the total consumption, are harvested in such a way as to put excessive pressure on the country's forest resources. Lastly, seasoning and grading of construction timber are virtually unknown in Nepal. In order to avoid twisting, builders use larger timber sections than are really necessary for the job in hand. Chemical treatment of timber is not widespread because of the high natural durability of Sal, which is the basic construction timber.

Chemically treated "secondary species" could perform well and their use would make it easier to extract wood from the forest reserves more efficiently. Moreover, these species have a lower specific gravity, and are hence less costly to transport as well as offering various other technical advantages.

Provided forest management is improved and the range of supply extended as suggested, timber should continue to be important in Nepalese architecture in line with the encouragement now being given to people in Bhaktapur to revive the riches of the national cultural heritage. Should the present success of the German-assisted project in that city continue, as there is every likelihood it will, both recipient and donor will have the satisfaction of achieving three objectives at the same time: the strengthening of an age-old culture by a judicious blending of old and new techniques; the economic revival of a declining town; and the creation of a large number of jobs. It will also fill with pride not only those who fashion timber into objects of beauty, but also those who have the good fortune to enjoy the fruits of these craftsmen's labours.

Brahmayani Dyochen restored

Centre of Bhaktapur after restoration

Top of Page Next Page