An archive of Nepali heritageThe Nepal Architecture Archive sets an example on how to preserve the country's cultural history
The 2015 earthquake damaged more than 750 heritage structures in Nepal. Many collapsed entirely to the ground, including the 900-year-old Maru Sattal, or Kasthamandap.
There was much controversy about how to rebuild the structure, and restoration was entrusted to the citizen-led Kasthamandap Reconstruction Committee.
With few architectural records of the original Kasthamandap, restoring it from scratch was not easy. Fortunately, the German architect Wolfgang Korn had published minutely detailed measurements of the structure in his 1976 book Traditional Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley.
Korn’s drawings proved invaluable in accurately recreating this historic building from which Kathmandu borrows its name. Korn’s original sketches, along with other architectural studies of Nepal’s many monuments are preserved at Nepal Architecture Archive (NAA).
The NAA is an initiative of the Saraf Foundation, which is also behind the unique Taragaon Next in Boudha. The idea about setting up the archive goes back to 2009 when Arun Saraf and his wife Namita met architects Niels Gutschow and Erich Theophile at the Yak & Yeti bar to have a spirited conversation about conservation.
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Over the years, the talk turned serious and focussed on the need to document, preserve and ‘re-activate’ Kathmandu Valley’s historic landscape, through restoration and research, and with a special focus on indigenous heritage.
When the Saraf Foundation began to restore the dilapidated Taragaon structure in 2013, it also began to acquire documents, sketches and photographs that related to Nepal’s religious and social architecture and vernacular landscape.
“It was a much more organic process,” recalls Namita Saraf, co-founder of the Saraf Foundation and Director of Taragaon Next. “We had the building here, and did not want to tear down its beautiful architecture.”
Then Niels Gutschow curated an exhibition there in 2014 and it seemed like a good idea to use the space to store and showcase Nepal’s architectural heritage.
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Initially, the Foundation collected material for an exhibition that would re-open Taragaon to the world. There were 150 documents from various European and American scholars who had come to Nepal starting in the 1950s with different projects.
Arun Saraf remembers a scholar friend who left 10 cartons of papers for safekeeping until he returned. “He did not come back. A year passed, then another, and we added the papers to our archive,” he says.
The collection continued to grow, and by 2015 nearly 2,000 archival material were housed at the Saraf Foundation, including architectural drawings, maps, sketches, photographs, slides, negatives, beta tapes, books, research documents, reference documents, proposals, feasibility studies, unpublished reports, diaries, manuscripts and digital materials.
The collection now needed a more definitive home, and a room was quickly set on the fourth floor of the Hyatt Regency hotel.
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Today, the unassuming double doors at the end of a corridor open into another long corridor lined with traditional pots on one side and carved window brackets on the other. The corridor leads into another room: the Nepal Architecture Archive.
There are no windows, and it is a scholar’s dream to be in such a room, among books and papers, smelling of antiquity and yesterday’s world. The walls are lined with framed maps, paintings and sketches, alongside custom-made moveable chests and drawers. An intricately carved wooden window sits surrounded by original drawings and reproductions of chaitya, temple and the façade of a traditional Newa house.
On the adjacent wall is a door from Thimi, possibly from a temple and salvaged from a demolition site in 1995. This door is nearly 2.5m tall and of unique design with sharp geometric patterns. A figure of Hanuman is carved on the top-centre, and directly underneath are nails in a multi-pronged group. The archivist Asmita Nepal’s workstation is at the centre of the room. Her computer is surrounded by books and sheets of paper. She explains that archiving is more than simply filing or storing information and materials: there are often stories to tell about each object.
“Archives are usually seen as repositories of static data, and thus rarely explored,” says Nepal, “but they provide a space to create a movement of knowledge, across time and space.”
The NAA receives a range of diverse material regularly, which undergo a digital scanning process, online references, and copyright adjustment according to international standards. Eka Resources helped to set a foundation for the NAA’s digitisation and standardisation processes, and the materials are now accessible to the public on written requests.
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“We are not hoarding,” says Arun Saraf, “we are making sure that these important documents and testimonies of our past have a home.”
Either the foundation approaches scholars, or the scholars approach the foundation, but the aim of archiving is the same: to preserve research works on Nepal and to put them in public domain so that future scholars may easily access them.
Scholars whose work currently held at the NAA include Niels Gutschow, Wolfgang Korn, Jørgen Rahbek Thomsen & Jens Wærum (from the Danish Architects team), John Harrison, Andreas Brandt, Robert Powell, Konstanty Gutschow, Thomas Kelly, Tiziano Terzani, Axel Weller, Klaus Kunzmann, Klaus Kette, Franz Frei, Ulrich Burscher, Thomas Turscher, Raimund Wuldz, and Peter Herrle.
There are around 80,000 individual documents, drawings and photographs, excepting slides. While European and American scholars currently have more representation, the NAA is also actively seeking scholars from Nepal and the region for its expanding collection.
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“Being an archivist is so much more than managing the collection. Beyond cataloguing, recording, arranging, it involves also knowing the collection inside-out,” Asmita Nepal explains. “An archivist studies the material beyond its tangible aspects, its story, its maker, background, patron and journey.”
It is a lengthy and dynamic process, and requires patience and passion. The NAA’s mission is that these documents must be within the reach of Nepal’s communities. It aims to democratise scholarship so Nepalis themselves better understand the country’s history and heritage. Preservation is the priority since the materials themselves are so fragile.
“This gives us as a people the opportunity to decide together what should be kept safe for the future generations. Why take apart something that has value? Why destroy it?”remarks Arun Saraf.
The foundation also organises Lecture Series by scholars. Taragaon Next also has a new permanent exhibition co-curated by Sujan Chitrakar ‘Archiving for the Future: An Intersection of Heritage and Architecture’ which displays several objects, documents, paintings and instruments from the NAA, keeping with this theme of making Nepal’s architectural and academic past accessible.
“We are just custodians and trying to get more people to care about this as we do,” says Namita Saraf. “Archiving may sound boring, but in fact it is fun and fulfilling work.”
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