Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) has been an incredible partner to World Monuments Fund over the years—we helped them to produce a multiphase preservation plan for the Patan Royal Palace Complex a few years back. The buildings and monuments in the complex that we had helped to restore withstood the test of the devastating earthquake on April 25, 2015, better than expected. Now, with support from American Express, we are working with KVPT again to rebuild Char Narayan Temple, the oldest of the temples located in Patan’s Durbar Square, reduced to rubble by that same earthquake.
Since 1991, Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, based in New York City, has restored and preserved Nepal's magnificent cultural architectural treasures for Nepali's and the international community. We spoke to Liz Newman, Architect for KVPT, and Evan Speer, Engineer for KVPT, about the work that will be done on Char Narayan Temple and the reaction of the locals to the rebuilding of this sacred temple.
The remaining elements of Char Narayan were salvaged by the community immediately after the earthquake. What has KVPT been doing in preparation of the rebuilding of the temple?
Liz Newman: Finding those pieces and bringing them into a palace courtyard where they could be protected from looting and monsoon rains was the first step. Next, each piece had to be identified, labeled, catalogued, assessed, cleaned, and carefully stored. Fortunately we had carefully documented the temple a few years ago in drawings and photos, so we could use the documents to figure out where each piece belonged.
One great outcome is that in order to do this work for Char Narayan and other fallen structures, we established a workshop in the gardens behind the palace and hired woodcarvers and other staff. As we continue to find further needs for repair and replacement pieces for the royal palace and the square, we have a 21st-century Royal Workshop ready to go.
The sacred site will be accurately reconstructed using these salvaged materials, while concealing carefully designed seismic reinforcement measures. Can you elaborate on the process of the restoration?
Liz Newman: In rebuilding, we have careful documentation from before the earthquake to help us to correctly identify and reuse every possible historic piece. Many of the historic carved timbers can be reused, and we have highly skilled local carvers to help with repairs and details. Sourcing high-quality timber for replacements is extremely difficult and demands a lot of effort and resourcefulness, so this is an ongoing discussion and process. We also have many of the original bricks. The fragility of the traditional mud mortar makes it a sacrificial material in an earthquake, leaving bricks intact and making it easier to clean them for reuse.
Like the other temples in the royal square, Char Narayan is considered “living heritage” in Nepal. People worship at the temple and hang out there every day, so there are very real life safety issues to address along with the need to be sensitive. Char Narayan is also one of our model seismic projects, exemplifying strengthening for pagoda-type temples that collapse down to the plinth and need to be rebuilt.
Evan Speer: Through extensive experience with this style of architecture and the study of the collapse, we know that the weak points of these structures are in the connections between building elements, resulting in a lack of stiffness to resist the forces incurred during an earthquake. For example, the brick masonry foundation walls within the plinth at Char Narayan were found to be very deep, but not connected. There was an inner ring of foundation walls underneath the temple core extending up to the higher floors, and an outer ring underneath the exterior ground floor walls. The lack of connection allowed the walls to move independently underneath the structure during the earthquake, and their various loads meant they would move at different frequencies. This differential motion put a lot of strain on the building elements, causing the building to essentially pull itself apart.
The new seismic reinforcement scheme for the temple ties the foundations together so the base moves as one element; adds a small, concealed steel frame to stiffen the core of the structure; and unobtrusively strengthens building element connections to tie the building together. This creates an inherently stiffer structure that would move as one large element in an earthquake. A structure that moves as one, instead of a collection of independently moving parts, has a much better chance of surviving the next earthquake intact.
What did the local people say when they heard the temple was to be restored?
Evan Speer: While I was investigating the plinths of the small Mani Mandapa structures in Patan Darbar last summer, I noticed a group of young teenagers peering inquisitively over my shoulder. After a while, they built up the courage to come ask me about what I was doing. It was strange for them to see a foreigner with a clipboard, measuring tape, and drawings, rather than another tourist with a camera. I told them where I was from and what I was doing—helping KVPT to rebuild and restore the temples and other historic structures in and around the square.
Their eyes lit up. They became excited and had all sorts of questions for me. They wondered why I, as an American engineer, was interested in coming to help them with their temples. They wanted to know my thoughts as an engineer, because they were hoping to become engineers one day. I described some of the issues we’d found that caused some of the temple collapses, and some of the things we were doing to restore and rebuild, and they became very interested in the process. They were very wary of getting too near the damaged, but still standing, Visveshvara temple. Before the earthquake, they usually hung out on the plinth under the temple after school with friends, and the temples and square are very important to their community, both for daily worship and for civic activities. I told them that when we were done with our work, the shoring would be gone, the Char Narayan would be rebuilt, and the square would again be safe for them.
They were very appreciative and excited to see the projects unfold, and said, “When we will see the temples safe and restored again, we will always think of you, Evan, the American engineer. Thank you.” That really moved me and made me even more proud of what we’re doing here.
We understand that post-disaster reconstruction efforts often take a long time. What are your views about the situation in Nepal?
Liz Newman: Working in a developing country always takes extra time. Since the earthquake, to get funding and planning for a number of significant restoration and reconstruction projects underway, KVPT has had to navigate an even more complex landscape than before. Third-world bureaucracy issues, scandals, and delays have multiplied in every sector as billions of dollars in foreign aid suddenly pour into the world's tenth-poorest country. Nepal has had a very hard time establishing a new Reconstruction Authority. The Department of Archaeology’s response to the loss of historic monuments has been tortuous, with monument zone guidelines appearing only this March (2016). The four-month Indian blockade wreaked havoc on materials cost and availability. The widespread fear that traditional buildings are unstable and should be replaced with new construction is an existential threat to an enormous number of buildings that withstood the earthquake. Dealing with this complex situation makes it much harder to restore the buildings, but it is part of the work.
KVPT is alone so far in making progress on reconstruction work. We are uniquely positioned, with the Patan Palace spaces available to us, an established office across the square, open work permits, our construction crews, KVPT’s international team working onsite or available online, and a quarter-century of community roots and international connections, know-how, and experience with these buildings. Our long-time senior advisor, Niels Gutschow, is the world’s foremost authority on Newar architecture and has been advising at every step. All of these resources already in place allowed us to hit the ground running after the earthquake. Rohit Ranjitkar, KVPT’s program director in Nepal and the country’s expert on restoring the Valley’s traditional buildings, was out coordinating local groups to help rescue historic building elements in the first days after the earthquake, while his family was still living out of their car, waiting to be sure their house was safe! When we announced plans to rebuild the iconic Char Narayan just a week after the earthquake, it was a powerful symbol of hope in the midst of the chaos. Our new Royal Workshop is up and running, almost as if the 18th-century court were still in place and the king’s architect and builders were standing by when the earthquake struck.
Char Narayan is part of a five-year campaign KVPT is developing to restore and rebuild about twenty historic structures in and around Patan Darbar. As we move forward, new problems come up constantly; it is predictably unpredictable. You have to persist, keep adapting, and move forward wherever the way is open at the time.
What role does this particular conservation project play in a broader community context?
Liz Newman: People sometimes wonder about the importance of this work in the midst of an ongoing humanitarian crisis. What they may not realize is that KVPT has deep roots and support in the community and our projects are an economic multiplier. Our working model is an international collaboration that provides many local jobs, and our projects, especially the Patan Palace and Museum, have become, along with trekking, the most important local and international tourist attraction in the country. All kinds of school and other groups now visit the palace/museum, and the temples we preserve are a part of the community’s daily life. And now bed-and-breakfasts have been popping up around Patan Darbar in the last few years to accommodate the rise in visitors. The buildings we restore, in other words, are not only beautiful and historic and central to Nepalese culture; they are an important economic driver as well.