Last weekend we witnessed from afar another massive human tragedy with the earthquake in Nepal. Thousands are dead and injured and those who have survived are beset with problems due to loss of infrastructure, power, water and more. Heritage took an incredibly hard hit as well, with great Nepalese temples and towers – many of which survived the massive 1934 earthquake, now lying literally in tiny pieces. I spent some weeks in Nepal back in 1986.
Heritage Conservation is often inspired by loss, and while we naturally value life and limb above the loss of culture, they are separated by degree more than category. Just as ISIS targets heritage as a terrorist act to deprive people of identity and will, so the loss of heritage sites in disasters like this earthquake is a visceral loss of a significant piece of what makes people human. We do not live by bread along and life without culture and the human connections provided by culture is a lesser kind of living.
Durbar hall in Katmandu – a World Heritage Site – before and after the earthquake. Posted on Twitter by Mohan Almal
There is already drone footage of the devastation here.
“We have lost most of the monuments that had been designated as World Heritage Sites in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur [Patan].” said historian Prushottam Lochan Shrestha. UNESCO has pledged to send in experts. The devastation of heritage strikes at the heart of what makes us human. It also hurts economically, when so many sites are destroyed in a nation where more than 8% of GDP is driven by tourism.
One of the most distinctive architectural features of Nepali architecture are the heavily bordered and embellished multi-pane wooden windows. I loved these so much I bought and framed a print of the pattern. Yet, these beauties are also partly responsible for the failure since it creates large horizontal voids in the structure, according to Randolph Langenbach, a dear friend and expert on architecture and earthquakes.
The challenge now is to care for the injured and the displaced. But we also need to rebuild their nation and their landmarks, to insure the culture connection that makes us thrive rather than merely survive.