Martin Perschler directs the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, a cultural heritage preservation grant program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State. In Nepal, it has provided financial and technical assistance for reconstruction of Gaddi Baithak at Hanuman Dhoka and other heritage sites in Kathmandu valley. Mahabir Paudyal and Kosh Raj Koirala met with Perschler to discuss various aspects of heritage reconstruction and study of architecture and history.
How have you seen the progress in heritage reconstruction in Kathmandu Valley?
Let me start by saying that in the aftermath of the earthquake one of the quotes (I think that went on record in your newspaper) was that cultural heritage recovery takes time. I do not know if that time I thought within three years we would see what we are seeing today. There is still a lot to be done. This is my third trip here since the earthquake and in every trip I have noticed progress in Gadhhi Baithak, our main project right now. It is good to see the scaffold coming down and see the façade bright and shining without any cracks.
For many people in Nepal it may seem like it has taken tremendously long time for that single building to get completed. But in the grand scheme of things and compared to other countries that are saddled with having to recover after similar disasters, Nepal’s progress is remarkable.
Do you suggest that we are doing much better compared to other countries? For us it seems like forever.
If you are here every day you might not necessarily notice the changes. But every single time I visit I have seen noticeable improvement. I do not think that progress is slow compared to other countries. In the great timeline a lot has been achieved in relatively short period in Nepal.
Reconstruction of Gadhhi Baithak and other heritage site has been delayed due to lack of traditional raw materials and skilled manpower. What is the experience of other countries?
Labor and materials are partly tied to demand and it was always the expectation that once construction kicked in the gear there was the possibility of increase in cost of raw materials because of material scarcity and increase in cost of labor because of labor scarcity. Add to that, the fact that people skilled in traditional crafts are already limited resources. And you cannot necessarily train somebody in short period of time. I think a lot of these things played to make the project slower than what was initially planned or slower than the community might have hoped. But it is not so in the case of Gaddhi Baithak. Yet, paying attention to supporting and sustaining traditional craftsmen is important because when the need does arise you will have a pool of skilled labor.
It is human nature after a catastrophic event to want to move on immediately; to want to put the event of earthquake behind you. One of the first ways to doing that is to try to recreate fast. With new building that is pretty easy to do but not so with old buildings. They require a lot of planning in places like Nepal and other communities where heritage is centered to local, national and regional identity. Everyone wants to make sure that what happens is done right. There are a lot of stakeholders. There are a lot of meetings. So, there is a planning process that extends far beyond.
But one of the remarkable things about Gaddhi Baithak project is that when you look at the total timeline, from the awarding of the grant to its completion time next month, slightly more than half of that time has been spent in planning. But one of the benefits of all that planning was that once things were ready to go on site, it moved on.
It is amazing to see physical work at that site was completed using traditional methods, seismic strengthening, local crafts people and local labor. Since everything was planned things moved quickly though many people may not be aware of this. How do we communicate the changes to the people? People are working quietly sometime. People are working to make sure that they do it right.
One of the debates in heritage reconstruction process in Nepal has been whether to maintain originality of such heritage or improvise it with some modern construction materials in order to ensure resilience. How do you see this debate?
The best thing about this debate is that the debate is happening. If it is not happening then no one cares. That would have been worse. This debate of whether to recreate heritage sites in ancient or modern way goes back to centuries. That debate had been raised in France in the 17th century, where there was one way to build and there was another group saying no. We have that tradition. But we have an opportunity to modernize whether it is to adapt with new circumstances, new materials and technologies or do it with new way of thinking.
It is very easy to harden your position in such debate. Overtime you think about the buildings as being not only backgrounds of human activity, but also structures in which they take place, symbols of culture and identity over period of time and you think about what can be lost. If you basically stick to your position nothing gets done.
Finding common ground and consensus by not losing sight of the big picture is important. What has been really interesting and exciting for me to see in Kathmandu is that despite the debates lot of work has been done. There are a lot of modern innovations that will improve the strengths and structural integrity of the buildings. If the focus is on strengthening the building so that you minimize the risk of it collapsing again, it may not be done within the architectural tradition of the area in which you are working. So in such situation compromise is the middle way.
Your focus at the moment seems to be Gaddi Baithak and some other projects in Kathmandu. Are you thinking of expanding your work to places outside of the valley?
We have supported a number of projects outside of the valley such as in Mustang and Pangboche of Solukhumbu. Part of what we are able to lend our support to is the function of what requests the embassy receives from the government of Nepal. We don’t go out and say we want to do this or that. We seek applications through the embassy for projects and embassy forwards those projects to us. So if something is to be done outside of the valley, if that comes through our embassy and if that meets our criteria, it will definitely receive considerations.
You have been teaching history for a long time. Why, in your view, study of history and architecture receives little attention?
This is a very good question. Teaching young people these days has to be different from the way they were taught 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, you could say this is the date and style of the building, this is the architect and this is why the architect is important and so on. You could rely on fact-based things. The approach to teaching history and architecture to the millennials should be different. It should be more inclusive and participatory.
There are a lot of books in the last ten years focused on why people should care about architecture, how it serves as a background to human activity and how architecture constructs the space and manipulates the way we respond to history. So when it comes to architecture and history linking it with every day ways of people is the way to get them onboard to support preservation, understanding and values of architecture. The way of getting people interested in that is to basically get them feeling and getting them in tune with how a building might make them feel and getting them then to understand that all of the space around us is by design. Even subconsciously, a community created a village. And you move through the system somebody designed and created for a purpose. This will not only help you understand your own environment but also the process of construction and making of new cities.
Post-earthquake, there has been a wave of making concrete houses across the villages in Nepal. Is the old way of making buildings really unsafe?
The perception that old buildings are inherently unsafe is more tied to maintenance issue. In Haiti earthquakes in 2010, a lot of reinforced concrete buildings collapsed but what stood were the late nineteenth century old buildings. The two storied traditional houses survived perhaps because they were resilient or they were built to be resilient. In Nepal the opposite happened. Most buildings of the old era of old architecture collapsed while relatively few concrete buildings suffered the same damage.
What used to be cottage-like mud and stone houses have been replaced by concrete structures in Nepal’s village. How can we revive the old architecture of those villages?
It’s human nature to want to recover quickly. And there is perception that availability of modern materials and relative ease of construction will help satisfy that human nature immediately. The way to counter that perception is through some education, awareness, risk reduction planning and to get the people understand the importance of traditional forms of construction, and at the same time gaining knowledge from people who know the traditional way of construction. You could have a village where those people with knowledge of how to build, where to get the materials from and how to put them together are there. May be all of this accumulated knowledge rests in one or two persons who may be at their 90s. Or such knowledge does not exist at all. This together with lack of people with traditional knowledge may consign old architecture to history.
If so, how can we ensure that traditional knowledge of architecture is transferred to younger generation?
By asking questions, documenting things, listening and spreading knowledge through the media. If you know how to build a dry-stone machinery wall, you can film it and show it to others. If you pass the information available regarding this to others and talk about it repeatedly, many others will come to know about it. Actually we support these kinds of activities through our projects. In Nepal, I have found that young people are more vigilant about their heritage than the preceding two generations. There was resurgence of young volunteers who came forward to document the damaged buildings. They were assisting Department of Archeology through some apps. This was a remarkable thing to see.
Pairing young person who has shown interest in heritage with someone who is the bearer of heritage through projects like oral history and documentation is one way of not only getting it on record but also inspiring others. This is what we do through cultural preservation project. Sitting inside the class and telling the students ‘this is your heritage’ does not work.
Your heritage preservation program covers more than 125 countries. What actually drives America to work in this area?
One of the most interesting aspects of ambassadors fund program is that it is non-political, non-commercial and non-military program to show different facets of America. It’s the best thing that I have seen that actually takes the true American cultural diversity to the world by sharing through support. The interest that guides our program is the interest in engaging with other communities, cultures and people and learning from them. We Americans are learning so much from being able to participate in cultural heritage preservation projects in Nepal and other parts of the world.
For me this project symbolizes the true human partnership. One of the things so amazing to me about the cultural heritage issues is you can pull professionals from all corners of the earth and put them up in a room. Their countries might not be talking to each other through official channels but they still exchange their experiences and learning regarding preservation of cultural heritage. A person may say to other so and so type of clay is used in my country. The other person will learn from him or her. This is precisely what this program does. It pulls people together around issues that we all care about. We bring our knowledge to the countries we go to and we take the new knowledge back home from there. That kind of exchange is really unique.