Nourished by its fertile soil and the hard work and creativity of its inhabitants, religious architecture flourished in the Kathmandu Valley. Rival Malla dynasties of the Valley's medieval kingdoms ploughed profits from the trans-Himalayan trade and agricultural surplus into the elegant temples, bahals and grand town squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur.
Today, this extraordinary architectural heritage is confined only to the city cores.
But a new generation of Nepali architects are integrating the traditional silhouettes and textures of the Kathmandu Valley's Newari architecture into their new designs. This combination of tradition and modernity doesn't just help conserve Kathmandu's unique architectural heritage, but also results in buildings that are elegant, affordable, suited to the climate and aesthetically pleasing. Nepali Times talked to some architects and restorers and asked them what designs they considered appropriate for the Valley.
Sujata Tuladhar: Transcending time
Centuries since Hanuman Dhoka Palace Square was built, it is still an important public space in the city, apart from being a place of artistic beauty and grandeur. The square is host to a thriving informal economy with buyers and vendors bustling about the area. The raised Dabali in the plaza are widely used as platforms for political meetings, concerts and festivities, and the steps of the temples are handy seats.
For Sujata Tuladhar, the enduring use of Hanuman Dhoka over the ages has made it a perfect example of public space that transcends time. "Spaces are as important as the buildings and any collection of structures that can sustain their use for so long is an example of good design," Tuladhar says.
Prabal Thapa: Blending new and old
The house that Prabal Thapa has designed for Surya and Babyka Joshi in Bhatbhateni is a perfect example of a modern building combining traditional influences. The exposed brick facade meant there was no need to paint the walls, which age well and add an earthiness and russet warmth to the house.
Inside there are telia tiles on the floor, the stairs and on the terraces. The house is not opulent, but exudes elegant simplicity. "Whatever decorations are there, they have been built into the construction material. There are no extra design features," Thapa explains.
All living quarters face south, to catch the winter sun, and traditional awnings shield the windows from slanting rain. "I wanted a modern house that also draws on the wisdom of traditional architecture," Thapa says.
Rabindra Puri: Modern traditional
ALL PICS: KIRAN PANDAY
For Rabindra Puri, a good house is one built with traditional wisdom that has evolved over hundreds of years of understanding and practice. His Namuna Ghar and Toni Hagen House in Bhaktapur (pictured left) are exactly that. Built with mud, brick and wood, they are very much what houses in the Malla period would have looked like.
"It's a misconception that mud houses are not strong or suitable for modern living," he says. Puri restored an old house that had been turned into an ugly cement plastered block back to its original splendour, and named it after Swiss geologist and Nepal expert Toni Hagen. The Hagen House is not ostentatious or aggressive, and blends into the Bhaktapur urbanscape. The harmony of its proportions, and Puri's attention to detail, add to the overall charm of both houses. Since Namuna Ghar is made of mud, it is cool in summer and warm in winter.
Puri maintains that good architecture need not be expensive. Paying attention to the orientation of the house and use of local materials can cut costs and heating and cooling expenses. "A three-storied traditional house can be built with Rs 2 to 3 million," explains Puri, "and it will also be stronger."
Dipak Man Sherchan: Practical elegance
Compared to the high-rise apartments coming up all across Kathmandu these days, Indreni Apartments in Bhatbhateni looks strikingly different. The six-storied building is on a more human scale, with spacious interiors and a simple, traditional brick façade that anchors it to Kathmandu's skyline. This is very much a 'Dipak Sherchan style', used in the other buildings he has done such as Heritage Plaza and numerous residences. "I like using local materials, bricks are durable and we don't have to paint the walls every few years," he says.
The overhung roofs not just give the apartment building a distinctive Nepali look but also shield it from rain. "I feel buildings should reflect the architectural heritage of Kathmandu, the buildings should carry influences of Newari architecture not just because they look good but because they are suitable for the place," Sherchan says.
Sherchan's designs are augmented with modern aesthetics subtly, keeping the climate in mind. He says: "You don't want a fixed glass façade just for the sake of looking modern, you have to think what it does to your energy bill."
Bibhuti Man Singh: Old, new school
When asked to pull down the old Rana-era palace that was St Xavier's School in Jawalakhel, and design a new one to replace it, Bibhuti Man Singh knew it was the most challenging task he had ever undertaken. The alumni had a nostalgic attachment to the building's familiar façade, but the 100-year-old structure was falling apart. "Apart from durability and functionality, I had to also take into account the emotional attachment of Xavier's students," he says.
The result is an impressive building that very much retains the look and the feel of the old palace, but inside, it is much more functional, airier and brighter. The Rana Gothic façade in front contrasts with the back, where Singh has used more modern influences.
"People have taken a fancy to skirt roofs and tympanums that are purely decorative," Singh explains. "But a school building must first of all be safe, bright, and well-ventilated, with lots of open space. It should retain a sense of history, while being functional."
Kai Weise: Beyond buildings
"Every building should make a statement that goes beyond its functionality," says Kai Weise. And the Coffee House building that he designed for Hotel de l' Annapurna is a statement on its own. The Coffee House is "having a dialogue" with the main hotel without taking away from the essence of the hotel building, he explains. There is also a generational transition here: the original hotel was designed by Weise's father in the 1960s and was a modern building for its time in Kathmandu.
Weise has used some of the elegant and simple elements of his father's design in the Coffee House. The elevation is just right, not to overshadow the lower three-storied hotel, and is an imposing presence along Darbar Marg.
A good building is one that exudes clarity, proportion and minimal ornamentation, says Weise, adding: "Every single bit of the house needs to dissolve into the design."