More than four years after the earthquake, Kathmandu is still fighting injustice to save its heritage

A Nepalese resident sits near collapsed and damaged buildings on Sunday. Image: Getty.

Four years ago last April, vast swaths of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, turned to rubble in a matter of minutes. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake, which wrought destruction on the city, was followed by hundreds of aftershocks. Just 17 days later, another magnitude 7.3 temblor felled more buildings and structures, which had stood through the first quake.

The human toll was catastrophic: across Nepal, 9,000 people died and hundreds of thousands more were left destitute, facing extreme poverty. The damage to Nepalese culture was also significant: hundreds of historic buildings, shrines and statues across the capital were reduced to dust.

Four years and hundreds of millions of dollars in donations later, Nepal is slowly recovering. Inevitably, though, a catastrophe of this scale has caused issues for the nation’s resource-starved government. Researchers have highlighted that political squabbling and a lack of local or regional governance have slowed reconstruction.

Rising from the rubble

When a city is damaged beyond recognition, the need to rebuild presents an opportunity to reshape and redraw the physical landscape – to make it stronger and grander than it was before. Catastrophic situations can bring about unexpected transformations, not just in a city’s design and architecture, but also in society – creating new identities and opportunities.

Faith shapes the city. Image: Michael Romanov/Unsplash.

Kathmandu has long grappled with the conflict between tradition and modernisation. For most of its history, it has retained its medieval urban culture: Hindu and Buddhist religious practices have long influenced the city’s layout and design. But there have always been parallel concerns that the city could be on the cusp of losing its historic character.

Even before the earthquake struck, unbridled and unregulated growth had been undermining the city’s historic buildings, draining its natural resources and disrupting the skyline, with tall buildings blocking views.

The city’s five major rivers have been reduced to drainage canals due to development pressure and inconsiderate sewage discharge, while hinterland on the outskirts was rapidly cleared to build houses for those displaced by political conflict over the last two decades.


A city on the loose

As far back as 1934, much of the historic city was flattened by another strong earthquake. That moment is now regarded as the advent of modernisation, which introduced new buildings, roads and technology to the city. The 2015 earthquake brought many urban issues back into focus, and for a moment, it seemed the city could have been a giant workshop to test solutions to problems, in housing, culture, transport and heritage.

But as before, Kathmandu continues to operate as a city on the loose. From my own observation of the city, it seems that new development continues at almost the same rate as the decade before the earthquake struck. The transport network remains asphyxiated by too many vehicles. And both local and federal efforts to fix the city’s urban planning problems and accommodate its growing population remain fixated on creating satellite towns, ignoring the potential of retrofitting historic neighbourhoods.

After they were damaged in the 2015 earthquake, city authorities wanted to demolish and redevelop historic buildings such as Singha Durbar and Bagh Durbar (which date back to 1908 and 1805 respectively) – though they were finally prevented by a supreme court mandate. Ranipokhari (Queen’s Pond) at the centre of the city – a crucial cog of the old city’s innovative drainage system – has been drained and paved over to make space for shops and cafes. And a central open space called Khula Manch has been turned into a parking lot resembling a dystopian scrap yard.

Locals rise up

Political conflict is rife and agreements hard to come by. For example, in the absence of any agreement between different public sector agencies (including the municipal government, the National Reconstruction Authority and the Department of Archaelogy) about how the city’s famous Dharahara Tower should be rebuilt, there are plans to build two towers and share the profits generated from construction contracts, to appease any dissent.

The reconstruction continues with little input from local communities, while international powers make their presence felt. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square has become a geopolitical playground, with an influx of donor agencies and countries rushing to prove their solidarity.

Gaddi Baithak: under construction. Image: Urmi Sengupta/author provided.

The renovation of Gaddi Baithak (or “royal seat”) has been completed with US support, despite controversy over its slightly altered facade. Likewise, Nau Tale Durbar (“nine-storey palace”), is currently being rebuilt with the help of Chinese investment, and has attracted local ire for lack of transparency.

Many citizens in Kathmandu are more impatient than ever to fix these problems. Yet the reconstruction is often an assault on their personal and collective identities, given that these sites carry significant religious, emotional and cultural value. A great sense of injustice has arisen over the way building contractors have ignored local techniques and values.

For example, the redevelopment of Kasthamandapa – the temple from which the city takes its name – has stalled due to disagreement over construction materials and methods. Kasthamandapa was built with wood from a single tree some 1,000 years ago. A new tree needs to be found and there needs to be a whole new system of extracting timber. It requires the best craftsmen in the country and significant skilled labour.

Kasthamandapa – before and after. Image: Urmi Sengupta/author provided.

The lack of assessment of what has been lost has also been a sore point for heritage campaigners. The absence of detailed historical plans for many important structures means reconstruction efforts are based on limited photographic evidence. Campaigners claim that, without local input into the rebuilding, the authenticity of the new structures will be undermined.

The government’s reconstruction plans are now being challenged by numerous grassroots organisations fighting to save the city’s heritage. Post-disaster reconstruction will continue in Kathmandu, even amid social and political upheaval. But while authorities appear insensitive to citizens’ concerns, a greater grassroots awareness of local heritage has clearly emerged – and that, at least, should be welcomed.

The Conversation

Urmi Sengupta, Lecturer in Spatial Planning, Queen's University Belfast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.