A Choice of Housing

During the very short history of urbanisation in modem Nepal, remarkable changes have taken place. There were less than 10 towns in the 1960s: today the number exceeds 30. About nine per cent of the country's population is now urban-based, up from about three per cent in 1960. The annual rate of urban growth now stands at eight per cent. Urbanisation has exposed Nepalis to the era of jets and global communications and dramatically increased their mobility, changed their attitudes and, also, led to shifts in the design and building of houses they live in. Unfortunately. not all the changes in Nepali urban housing have been for the better.

Most professionally designed houses in Nepal are so culturally unsuitable that the owners make changes almost as soon as construction is complete. Problems include low insulation of thin brick walls, infiltration of winter cold through large glass windows also shows a bias for the modern and a mindless abandonment of the tested and the tried. Professionals, architects, engineers and others, must change their technical orientation and be more open to locally suitable technologies that are culturally valid and functionally efficient.

Technology choice in the design and construction of housing in the Third World may be roughly divided into three categories: traditional, modern and "intermediate". Hasan Fathy of Egypt is the well-known promoter of vernacular design. In Nepal, architect Ramesh Manandhar has championed the cause of reviving traditional systems with an emphasis on building with mud and other indigenous materials. Inspired by the use of mud walls in Nepali housing, Manandhar has tirelessly experimented with the construction of workable mud domes. Certain prototypes were built in Gorkha and elsewhere, but there has been no widespread application as yet. Mud domes, which are not traditional, could yet provide an excellent roof construction technique for Kathmandu builders.

Choice of modern construction technology is favoured by architects and planners in the mainstream of the profession. Examples can be seen in the representative works of architects Narayan Bhattarai, Bijay Burathoki, Shankar Rimal and others, including previous works of this author. Ritual pioneered modern building design in Nepal, with works such as the Royal Nepal Academy hall in Kathmandu and the factory and housing for the Janakpur Cigarette Factory in Janakpur, as well as numerous other institutional and residential buildings. He initiated the extensive use of concrete, machine-made bricks, steel, glass and other modern materials. Pre-stressed concrete portal frames of more than 30 metres were used for the first time in the Academy building. In many residential buildings, Rimal has used bold new designs such as hyperbolic paraboloid roofs and large concrete cantilevered beams.

During the 1970s, appropriate technology was seen as the way to go, and numerous socially and culturally conscious architects have taken comfort in the idea of an "intermediate" space in housing design. Because the concept of intermediate technology assumes a unidimensional and bipolar notion of technology, practitioners have been confused about hitting the middle point in the line that extends from traditional technology on one end to advanced technology on the other.

In Nepal, architect Ranjan Shah has popularised a form which combines modern technology and vernacular aesthetics. Since the early 1970s, Shah has completed numerous residences in Kathmandu valley which incorporate sloping roofs with brackets, jail windows, carved doors and exposed brick walls. His buildings utilised the vocabulary of traditional aesthetics to create nostalgia and were extremely popular. Numerous architects have followed Shah's intermediate path and the approach is still much in vogue, but critics complain of the superficiality of the building forms and deceptive use of materials in these buildings.

The intermediate technology approach seeks to find a middle ground between the two extremes of the technological systems. But technology choices are not necessarily linear, and a person in a given situation, at a given time, may pick up two kinds of technologies and combine them for his purpose. For example, Kathmandu builders often use imported high strength steel bars to construct are inforced concrete roof to cap an otherwise traditionally built house with raw bricks and mortar.

Because certain components of modern technology are functionally better and economically feasible even in poor countries, they are suitable in supplementing otherwise traditional construction. Hence, an approach that selectively integrates the modern and traditional approaches to design and construction is most suitable for Nepal.

Housing standards for Kathmandu should incorporate the best of both worlds, as both have their strengths and weaknesses. There are many inherent problems (construction, sanitation, accessibility) with the traditional systems, while the modern system h as produced sprawl, climatic inefficiency and other problems. Appropriate housing in Kathmandu, therefore, would. seek an "optimal synthesis" of the traditional and modem systems. Obviously, this is easier said than done.

A.P. Adhikari is doctoral candidate in architecture and planning at Harvard University.

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