14 August, 2013

A democratic society is a regulated one

With increasing numbers of Nepalis working in the Gulf in low paying jobs, the dream of every returned migrant is to make a house that mimics the architectural “grandeur” (some could call it tacky ostentation and bad taste) of Gulf architecture. What most Nepalis don’t realize is that the houses they want to build—with blue glass completely enclosing boxlike structures—may be suitable for the deserts of Arabia but is unsuitable for the temperate climate of Kathmandu. Along with the glaring blue glass that is popping up everywhere all over Nepal has come the need for air conditioning, which was not necessary in Kathmandu where the mercury hovered at a moderate temperate climate. Now we have a city that has more waterless desert architecture and less of the lovely architectural wonderland which was set besides lush forests and sparkling rivers.

One the temples that is affected by the roadbuilding in Kathmandu.

I looked up from New Road, a dense commercial district in the heart of Kathmandu, and saw that instead of small panes of transparent glass that are no larger than one square feet in size, the windows now have giant panes of blue glass. These panes are more than six feet high. The danger of this is quite obvious—in an earthquake, the level of injuries due to broken glass and panes falling on people on the densely populated streets below is going to rise exponentially.

I also noticed this blue glass, some of them in iridescent colors, in places like the historic areas of Bhaktapur. Bhaktapur is often touted as the pride of Nepal, the one place in the valley where indigenous architecture has been preserved. But sadly it will no longer be so unless the residents agree to follow certain architectural rules and use local technology. Small panes of transparent glass allow for good flow of light and heat without being intrusive. Without that commitment to abide by rules from home owners, and enforcement by city officials, the city will not be able to hold on to its identity.

A German tourist I met told me recently: “You have these strange buildings all over the place. They are all facing in different directions. In Germany, there are rules and regulations about the ways houses can be build. We have to follow the architectural codes of the style of the city. We cannot do whatever we want.” This sort of disciplined behavior and abiding of codes, however, would be abhorrent to Nepalis, who would instantly take any sort of restriction as high-handed restrictions on their freedoms, rather than simply the workings of a democratic system.

This glass should be banned not just in dense neighbourhoods like New Road, in historic areas in Bhaktapur, but in general all over Nepal’s highways, where they are showing up with alarming frequency. The glare of non-transparent, reflective glass been shown to fatigue and disorient drivers. The blue glass reflects light on the one hand, but also absorbs the sun’s heat and contributes to the global warming effect on the other. It has been shown to be environmentally unfriendly by climate change activists. In fact, blue (and colored glass in general) should be banned completely in Nepal.

Lets hope the newly energized Kathmandu Municipality, which has been taking down the hoarding boards with zeal, takes a look at the Arabic Gulf and Europe and comes away realizing heavy colored plate glass is all very well for desert and sub-zero freezing temperatures but it should be banned in a city with a temperate climate where air-conditioning is not a necessity.

Imposing an architectural code would no doubt bring on charges of feudalism, regression etc. Not that a building and architectural code doesn’t exist— it does. Apparently buildings can only be built up to certain stories. But nobody is following these rules because its not enforced and there are no penalties for not following them.

Witness the rule which said buildings taller than the palace were forbidden in the Kathmandu Valley during the monarchy—the rule came to be symbolic of oppression rather than a measurement yardstick of earthquake safety. I have no doubt however that in all the most democratic of countries, from England to Sweden to the USA, there are rules that stop giant buildings with tacky blue glass to spring up besides heritage buildings, including the Buckingham Palace and the Swedish palace and the White House. Perhaps the day will come when our democrats will mature sufficiently to realize the difference between oppression and regulation—and will one day come to understand that a democratic society by its very nature must be a regulated one.

1 comment:

Sumedh Sharma said...

Yeah this glass thing is really irritating. Perhaps, we need to revise the way our architecture school operates! I doubt they teach students to develop buildings in the same cultural manner as that of the earlier era. This might have resulted in modern buildings (which are designed and 3D modelled by Architects) creating havoc! However, your interpretation of immitating European or Gulf architecture is not always wrong. Like in University type scenario, we need to learn from the Europeans! Kathmandu University's Central campuses look beautiful and are based on European theme! Hope we can have a perfect blend of ancient and modern tradition.