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How did an architecture archive adapt to the pandemic?

The Nepal Architecture Archive, a repository of artistic and architectural heritage of the country, has managed to continue its work while following the pandemic-related restrictions

An archival photo of Bungamati in Nepal, which is home to important temples. Photo: courtesy Nepal Architecture Archive

At the Taragaon Museum in Kathmandu, an archive is coming together in a unique manner. Every day for four hours, two cameras pore over the architectural maps and drawings, after which the scanned material is shared with the Eka Archiving Resources team in Delhi. These are then carefully documented and catalogued. And this is how the Nepal Architecture Archive, housed within the museum spread across 35,000 sq ft, is adapting to the pandemic-related restrictions. Currently in its second phase, the archive is a repository of artistic and architectural heritage of Kathmandu, contributed to by foreign artists, photographers, architects and anthropologists in the second half of the 20th century. “Our family has had a very strong connection with Nepal since the 1960s with the various hospitality ventures,” says Namita Saraf, who co-founded Taragaon Museum with her husband Arun. “We saw Kathmandu, and the villages around it, changing so rapidly that it was almost scary. Traditional buildings and dwellings were pulled down to make way for larger modern buildings and roads. Villages like we knew them didn’t exist anymore. We were losing all what was unique in Nepal.”

The couple felt that while cities in Nepal needed to keep up with the global pace of development, they shouldn’t have been losing out on something precious in the process. “The green has completely disappeared, as have the older buildings,” she says.

When the country opened up in 1950, architects came here for restoration projects funded by Western countries such as Austria, Denmark and Germany. During their visits, they ended up documenting and photographing traditional architecture and the community way of living. The Sarafs realised that the material and records of Nepal’s architectural heritage—writings, maps, drawings, town surveys—were with those Western scholars and architects, and were now scattered all over the world. “We made it our mission to get these back, document them and make them available to research scholars and architects,” says Saraf.

The archive contains material and records of Nepal’s architectural heritage—writings, maps, drawings, town surveys. Photo: courtesy Nepal Architecture Archive
The archive contains material and records of Nepal’s architectural heritage—writings, maps, drawings, town surveys. Photo: courtesy Nepal Architecture Archive

Though they started collecting material and building a repository a decade back, they got into archiving it in 2016. Eka Archiving Resources, helmed by Pramod Kumar KG and Deepthi Sasidharan, was roped in to put the archive together. During phase 1, which started in April 2017, the Eka team put together a core collection of architectural material in sync with prescribed standard international practices.

One can see rare finds such as the first map of the valley drawn by Charles Crawford, who was appointed commander of the escort to the embassy to Nepal. Apart from “Maps of Nepal Territories and other Parts of the Himalaya Mountains”, the map of “Nepal”, to the scale one furlong to an inch, represented an outstanding achievement in the field of cartography. There is also a second “Map of the Valley”, ordered by English writer and journalist Perceval Landon (1868-1927), which was published posthumously in 1928. “A new era of map-making started at the end of the 1960s, when Carl Pruscha, the UN advisor to the Town Planning Office, prepared the Physical Development Plan for the Kathmandu Valley published in June 1969. Restricted to the administrative boundaries, a series of thematic maps of the Valley (such as “Land Use – Existing” and “Population Density”) did not extend to the Lele Valley and the Pharping area,” mentions the Taragaon Museum website.

The first city maps of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur were produced by Wolfgang Korn in 1968 in the context of the Physical Development Plan for the Kathmandu Valley (1969, pp. 75, 76, 153) based on aerial photographs taken by Erwin Schneider and Hansa Luftbild (Germany) in 1966. Korn elaborated these maps in 1971 to a scale of ca. 1:3,000, published by Heinrich Seemann in 1973 (Nepal 2019. Gestern noch verbotenes Land). Every map provides a list of shrines and temples (Kathmandu 132, Patan 177, Bhaktapur 63).

However phase 2 of the archive goes beyond documentation. Eka Archiving Resources is now training local staff in the museum to carry forward the archiving system as per industry norms. “In Nepal, we still don’t have the technical acumen to train young people in these skills. The pandemic, in a way, facilitated this task. In the past few months, young people from Kathmandu are getting trained in the art of archiving,” says Saraf.

Now that the archive has at least archival material dating back to 50 years, the task is now to make it accessible to architects and scholars. The team hopes to bring in scholars from across the year at least once a year. “There are so many interesting references to community living, and dwellings, which used to open up into courtyards. It is not just an archive of architectural heritage, but is also a repository of social behaviour of communities,” she elaborates. “The idea is to not just see how buildings were made, but also how people interacted with each other in this built environment.”

Nepal lies within a seismic zone, and is prone to massive earthquakes. The archive has interesting revelations in this context as well, with the team having observed that historically, structures made with local materials, customised to terrain using local skills, have managed to withstand quakes much more than modern structures created with metal and glass. “During the great quake of 2015, temples in Patan did come down. But people felt a sense of responsibility towards them and built them back with the same material, drawn from the rubble. This only made them stronger. Technology should add to the community’s wisdom and not veer away from it,” says Saraf. “It needs to be in sync with the environment. By preserving these records, we hope that young architects and urban planners can refer to them for inspiration. Sustainable urban development is the need of the hour.”

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