Tragedy in Nepal

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.

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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.

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Durbar hall in Katmandu – a World Heritage Site – before and after the earthquake.  Posted on Twitter by Mohan Almal

Un terremoto de 7.9 grados mató a unas 7 mil personas en Katmandú, capital de Nepal. Sus templos medievales y la espiritualidad atraen a turistas de todo el mundo, entre ellos a una periodista argentina, que estaba en la ciudad cuando se desataron los temblores.Un millón de casas y estatuas, palacios y monumentos protegidos por la Unesco hoy son escombros. Los costos para la reconstrucción son impagables en un país con índices económicos del cuarto mundo. Crónica de una catástrofe que interpela la relación entre naturaleza, desarrollo y conservación. – See more at: http://www.revistaanfibia.com/cronica/nepal-lo-sagrado-es-precario/#sthash.usSMr47f.dpuf

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.

 May 14 UPDATE
A second earthquake has further rattled the people of Nepal.  I had the opportunity to spend some time with Randolph and get more detail on the damage and also on the traditional vernacular of Nepal which is a seismically resistant combination of masonry bearing walls with timber bands that act as O-rings.  Much of the devastation in the second temblor happened to concrete frame buildings.  One of the challenges, he notes, is that engineering is so focused on frames that we have forgotten the seismic utility of the wall, which provides elastic capacity and dampens the excitations of earthquakes.  Frame strength will always be exceeded in an earthquake event, so you need walls – this is why seismic retrofits here in the Bay often go beyond bracing to create shear walls like this:
xanadu bsmt shear wall
Hear a report on the importance of heritage to Nepal here.
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One Response to “Tragedy in Nepal”

  1. La Potosina Says:

    Hello Vince, thank you for sharing the recent news on the devastation of heritage sites in Nepal and Syria. A very different perspective than what the typical news presents.

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