From the Rubble: Architects and Preservationists Assess How to Aid Nepal
May 20, 2015
Photo © Niranjan Shrestha/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Dharahara Tower in Kathmandu is just one of many historic monuments destroyed in Nepal’s recent earthquake. Dozens of visitors were killed in its collapse.
Around lunchtime on April 25, droves of visitors were busy ascending the 213 steps to the summit of Dharahara Tower—one of Kathmandu’s most iconic structures—to take in views of the city and the surrounding valley. At 11:56 a.m., according to survivors, the world started spinning as a 7.8 magnitude earthquake ripped through eastern Nepal. Within minutes, the 19th-century tower collapsed. Rescue workers pulled dozens of corpses, covered in pink dust, from the rubble.
The quake—the most violent Nepal has seen in 80 years—killed an estimated 8,000 people, leveled villages, and rendered stupas, temples, and other historic monuments into piles of brick and splintered beams. Hundreds of thousands are homeless. The weeks after the disaster have created desperate demand for temporary shelter and stabilization of historic buildings, leaving architects and preservation organizations to assess the best ways to contribute to relief efforts.
The Dharahara tower is just one of as many as 70 historically significant sites to be severely damaged or destroyed by the earthquake, according to Rohit Ranjitkar, the Nepal director of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, who spoke with RECORD by phone, just hours after a 7.3 magnitude quake struck Nepal May 12. Other destroyed sites include the Swayambhunath Stupa—an important Buddhist temple—and structures in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, the Durbar Square in the city of Patan, and other cultural centers, some centuries old.
Ranjitkar was in the Patan Museum when the earthquake hit and recalls watching the roof undulate above him. “I thought, oh, my God, the roof is going to collapse on my head.” Luckily, the museum was spared, but the damage to Nepal’s culture is irreparable, he says. “The biggest loss is the heritage of our country,” says Ranjitkar. “This is something that was left from our ancestors, and we have to keep it for our children and our grandchildren. We are like middlemen: we want to carry on all of our historical monuments—it has to continue somehow.”
Ranjitkar is working with the local community and architecture students to rescue artifacts and salvage architectural elements such as wooden doors and windows, carefully storing them in the museum until they rebuild the temples. “We are pretty sure we will rebuild in the next three years, at least the Patan Durbar Square. Kathmandu might take a little more time,” he says.
UNESCO, the United Nation’s educational and cultural agency, is undertaking “an international expert mission” to assess the damage and then “advise and provide support to the Nepalese authorities and local communities on [monument] protection and conservation, with a view to recovery,” the organization’s director general Irina Bokova said in a statement.
The World Monuments Fund (WMF), meanwhile, plans to focus on lesser-known sites. The organization is confident that many buildings can be restored. “In the heritage field, we sometimes get overwrought about authenticity, thinking the only thing that makes something authentic is that it’s the exact same thing,” says Lisa Ackerman, executive vice president and chief operating officer, “but a lot of buildings survive because they are constantly renewed.”
Like the restoration efforts, the humanitarian response to the crisis has also been slow, hindered by erratic aftershocks, fresh avalanches in remote villages, and destroyed roads. To satisfy the short-term need for shelter, international aid organizations such as the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees has sent thousands of tarpaulins and lanterns to eastern Nepal.
Architects are also attempting to do their part. Pritzker Prize–winning architect Shigeru Ban—who has been designing emergency structures since the early 1990s—has been taking stock of the situation and proposed, along with his humanitarian organization Volunteer Architects’ Network (VAN), a three-phase plan. As a temporary solution, Ban will distribute donated plastic sheets and tents for shelters. As soon as conditions stabilize, the organization build transitional housing with local materials—similar to those Ban has built in New Zealand, Japan, Haiti, and elsewhere. “For me the local context is important,” the architect says, “and because my activity is known it will be easy to find a local architect or engineer to team up with.”
Ban is wasting no time to get the project off the ground. In late May, Ban will travel to Nepal to hold a workshop with local engineers, architects, and students in Kathmandu. For the initial implementation stage, Ban is concerned most about bottlenecks in aid distribution. “Customs is really a problem because there’s lots of corruption. [Donations] are stuck in piles in the warehouse,” the architect says. Because of these problems, Ban will personally see that the some 130 donated tents, in a shipment sponsored by Singapore Airlines, will make it from Japan to Kathmandu.
“I always start by myself,” he says. “The fundraising follows. For me it’s important to start immediately instead of waiting for money to come.” Ban anticipates building a factory to construct permanent, pre-fabricated housing for the final stage of his plan, but this will depend on the conditions he encounters. “I have to go there to find out by myself,” he emphasizes. “You have to talk with me after I come back from Nepal. I don’t know what will happen when I go there.”
Other architecture organizations, including the American Institute of Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects—which teamed up with the International Federation of the Red Cross—are also calling on their members to lend expertise and financial support.
Nepal’s prime minister has promised to repair infrastructure and give loans up to $25,000 to rebuild homes, public buildings, and schools within two years, and religious and historic sites within the next five years.
The on-the-ground situation remains precarious as monsoon season swiftly approaches, creating increased urgency for shelter and adequate sanitation. But what Ranjitkar fears most is the loss of international interest: “Everybody is in the city now and wants to work with us. But maybe after a couple of months we will lose that energy. It’s human nature for people to lose interest.”