The making of 'Kathmandu Valley Style'

The book may not have convinced everyone to preserve the Valley’s traditional architecture

The KVS core crew Lisa Choegyal, Craig Potton and Gautam SJB Rana on location in Babar Mahal.

“Actually, we are only photographing the house, if that’s all right.” The chatelaine at the foot of the sweeping staircase beneath a massive chandelier had obviously gone to great trouble with her appearance, draped in a yellow sequinned chiffon sari and hair freshly coiffed. She smiled in disappointment, “Of course, of course! Do please come in.”

Our motley crew on the Kathmandu Valley Style photo shoot set to work. His lanky frame bent over the tripod, Craig Potton was a fast worker, better known as New Zealand’s leading photographer of iconic nature and national park images, ubiquitous on Kiwi posters, calendars and postcards. His eager local assistants, Tino and Lothoto my Tibetan nephew, wrestled with reflectors, unreliable lights, loose electric plugs and power cuts.

Read also: A house in Budanilkantha, Lisa Choegyal

Gautam SJB Rana, mastermind of Babar Mahal Revisited, author of Ranas of Nepal and my collaborator, had arranged access to an array of rarefied interiors and private residences that had never before been glimpsed by the public. His volatile talent was knowing where to find exquisite examples of Nepali architectural adaptations and persuading homeowners, often his relatives, to allow us to reveal them in our book to celebrate the Valley’s vernacular styles and artisan virtuosity.

Our aim was to showcase the lesser-known and more imaginative models of Malla Newar, Rana neo-classical and Tibetan architectural and decorative styles in new buildings and restored old ones around the Valley. Only a couple had the temerity to turn us down.

Kathmandu Valley Style was a book crying out to be produced, but gestation and birth took a surprisingly long time. First proposed as Nepal Style by Hans Hoefer, Insight Guide pioneer, the idea was for me to collaborate with Italian photographer Luca Invernizzi Tettoni,creator of many of the Style series around Asia starting with Thai Style in 1989 with William Warren. Despite a near miss in 2003, this Singapore plan fell by the wayside.

The concept went through a number of incarnations until Kathmandu Valley Style saw the light of day in 2008, published by Shane Suvikapakornkul of Serindia Publications Chicago, designed in New Zealand and printed in China – a true international effort. Keen to accompany us on location, Shane’s Harry Potter glasses and gently encouraging presence were a calming influence on the team, and he hosted a splendid launch of Thai Nepal glitterati at his Bangkok gallery

I was lucky to find Craig in a spiritual frame of mind and persuadable to spend some weeks in Nepal over several visits in 2007 – we both needed a change of pace and this project was an ideal opportunity, as well as a mutual passion. Being a climber and environmentalist, Craig had longstanding connections with the country – we trekked the same year to Mustang with his teenage son, who he claimed was conceived in Chitwan. Craig had startled me into our first book back in 1995, Offerings from Nepal, a largely forgotten collection of edgy images of real life in Nepal that was a refreshing change from the usual chocolate box coffee table tomes of the day.

Such is the wealth and variety of styles in the intoxicating intensity of the Kathmandu Valley, we decided to focus our mission and leave the wider Nepal and Himalaya to others. My list shows we covered nearly 50 houses, hotels, restaurants and gardens, in addition to historic palaces and world heritage sites – not all made the cut.

Gautam’s punishing schedule had us covering several locations a day in all corners of the Valley. Royalty, Ranas, Newars, Tibetans, Ambassadors and Western expatriates were prevailed upon to open their doors to us and our speedy camerawork. More than one host remarked: “Are you finished already?” as we piled into the car and sped on to the next appointment, thanking them profusely.

Goetz Hagemuller’s matchless Kuthu Math in Bhaktapur was always a first choice for the cover, that arbiter of  style whose sure taste has powerfully pervaded so many Valley restorations, and Dwarika’s, which still defines the high bar of heritage hotels and master craftsmanship.

We appreciated the elegant intimacy of Chino and Elizabeth Roncoroni's farmhouse, another trendsetter of Nepali design, Gert-Matthias Wegner’s music studio, and the precious jewel of Bal Krishna Sama’s artist cottage.

One sunny afternoon found us on the Valley rim at Kakani where we took the liberty of rearranging furniture in the British Resident’s historic bungalow – dating from the mid-nineteen century, tragically it was destined not to survive the 2015 earthquakes. Quite a number of other properties have also gone missing –the James Giambrone’s Indigo Gallery has moved, Janet Rockwell’s Bansbari Bungalow has been encroached, Barbara Adams’ Thapa House is changed forever, and Ian Baker’s questionable collection had evaporated even before publication.

It is heartening that most of the Nepali and Tibetan homes are less transitory, with their carved woodwork, moulded bricks, gilded columns, art deco profusion, painted furniture, elaborate decoration and silk hangings. Many of the more glorious illustrations still endure as accessible spaces – Romi Khosla’s Gorkarna Forest Hotel, Bharat Basnet’s Bhojan Griha restaurant and Niels Gutschow’s fanciful stupa-studded lobby at the Hyatt Regency hotel.

But did Kathmandu Valley Style succeed in convincing residents to commit to restore and reuse historic buildings, or adopt their incomparable and admired indigenous designs in new constructions? After a casual glance around Valley architecture, I think not.

Read also: Ancient modern

Lisa Choegyal


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