The Seventh Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2005
Berkeley Prize 2005

Kamana Dhakhwa

People, place and events

The dawn brings along a gentle breeze that evokes the mesmeric sound of piped temple bells resurrecting the glorious past, echoing the seventeenth century poet, Kunu Sharma's words "Isn't it heaven on Earth?"

Settled in the hazy shadows of the fifteenth century palace, the artist portrays women with offerings, pacing to the revered Krishna temple (1641 AD). She rings the bell resonating positive vibes, which along with the sacred hymns emanating from the surrounding temples renders mystical sounds that slowly awakens the splendor of Patan Durbar Square, one of the most picturesque urban ensembles on the list of World Heritage Sites. Historically the Royal seat of the Malla Kings, the Palace precinct with the surrounding square originally demonstrated autocratic rule. Adorned in traditional Malla Architecture, the durbar square comprises of a palace complex with four quadrangles and temples accompanied by pavilions and platforms across the street. But after the unification of the Kathmandu valley, the function of the palace changed. With the royals gone, people moved in. So everyday, the morning calm, gives way to a rush of people; the curio shops are laid out on the streets while the surrounding marketplace slowly buzzes with life. The elderly sit on the benches before the palace, chewing peanuts and watch as guides with spellbound tourists enter the museum, which originally served as the palace of the Malla kings. Through the lattice window of the museum, a foreigner observes locals queuing up at Manidhara, a fifth century water spout. This curious dynamic of foreigners watching locals, and locals coming to watch foreigners is a part of what makes this place vital, and intensely public into the present day. Again, The Gaa Jhya, traditional window located at the front facade of palace-museum provides uninterrupted view of the square with all its festivities, like Gan-Pyakho, the ritual dance of gods dating back to the sixteenth century initiated by the sage King Srinivasa Malla. During such festive nights, the square comes alive with dramatic music and fire, binding locals and foreigners in one mesmerizing dance resulting dynamic interactions and an ongoing socialization which can at times be an educating experience further inspiring the continuity of many such cultural festivities, which otherwise would be in danger of being overwhelmed and displaced in the 21st century. What attracts People most is other people. Hence, the very design of paved lane that cuts through the heart of the square has been serving as a changing scene, complimentary to people observing the square. Each day unveils a vibrant crowd contributing a spectacular interplay of color, texture and materials which has now become a characteristic feature of Patan Durbar Square. And each night conceals in darkness a small younger group who submits to night inhaling smoke and exhaling good music.

But durbar square hasn't always displayed such a nice environment; it has been through years of neglect; encroachments by private parties and incompatible new construction on adjacent open plots were seriously jeopardizing the historic character and architectural fabric of the square. Lack of awareness in people became a major cause for its disintegration. At a time, when the general mass was devoid of education, conservation issues took a back seat. Then as the final nail in the coffin, the horrific earthquake of 1934 AD brought down the already ailing palace walls to the ground and with it the epitome of architecture, the silent stories of people's labor crashing to the ground. But like a phoenix, it has risen through the ashes; and slowly the Square has resurrected to achieve the glory, it holds today. After being enlisted as a monument zone within the Kathmandu Valley world heritage site, the issues of conservation of the historic palace and its adjacent squares gained much more impetus. And processes like restoration and adaptive reuse, fostered by foreign aid and local support, not only helped maintain the dignity of the monuments in the protected zone but has effectively revitalized the essence of the squares, public rest-rooms and temples thereby reinforcing the public realm like never before. This conservation has not only revitalized the area ensuring cultural continuity but has also given its architectural heritage a new lease of life.

The next transition came in 1990 with the advent of democracy, which signaled a new era in the story of Patan Durbar Square. With growing international influence, the democratic society moved in escaping the boundary of previously staged segregation of class and ethnic group; it grew into a true public space where people from all kinds of different backgrounds were exposed to each other. Being unbound to caste, creed or culture, the square provided a sense of belonging. Thus a small ensemble created by a mono-cultural group of people was now fast appealing to a larger multicultural group thanks to democracy and globalization. It then became more welcoming to the outside world, adding a new chapter. With the influx of tourists, the local economy reaped immediate awards. The carvings, the intricate detailing, the planning, the temples, were all emerging into a new era. The surrounding areas thrived in the economic activity brought in by the foreigners. The palace became a source of income and the need to preserve it had never been more eminent. It brought cultural continuity along with source of income for locals, which becomes the main cause of its success as a public space which boosts everyday life of everyday people.

The mysticism and sheer beauty of Patan Durbar Square was attracting people from all walks of life, from artists to students, poets, carvers, romanticists, writers, painters to lovers contributing in the presence, interaction and movement of diverse group of people at various times, which provides a secure environment in the square. Unlike the emerging pseudo-public spaces striped of any public element, and governed by economics, and functional limitations, this place is neither rigid nor bounded; escaping the great confinement, it supports people's democratic culture in everyday life. Visible and accessible from many directions Patan Durbar Square is unlike other public places. Escaping the great confinement of narrow lanes and tightly packed settlement, it opens up as a relief from visual chaos and a breath of fresh air. But instead of simply being a means of escape from the crowded lanes of the city, it bolsters peoples culture and supports their democratic way of life; it's a platform for people to meet and learn about the society at large. It neither has a big gate to direct you nor predefined pathways to manipulate your steps, which gives the public the complete freedom of movement. On the other hand, Malls, theme parks or popular food chains emerging in Nepal may look like a public space at some level but they are not true to the idea for they are privatized spaces that are sanitized of certain elements. For example, most Malls prohibit making speeches or inappropriate actions, security guards constantly screen the place and remove any hapless homeless or poor person. The circulation seems more mechanized here, with people doing what the function limits them to. Such space should not be the primary model on which public space is based; they fail to provide too many important functions of public space like casual interaction of social groups.

One critical contribution of public space is its unique role in the political action and engagement required by a democratic society, where a critical mass of opposition can assemble. It may not necessarily be against the system but people may be protesting CFC emission, uplifting AIDS awareness programs to architecture exhibitions or any other issue. Nepali society comprises of people of varying religious, cultural and social beliefs; places like these provide a common ground for all these people to intermingle freely. A platform from where such voices may be heard by a larger conglomeration of people; where you can be yourself without worrying that your privacy is being infringed by someone. Although the use of the durbar square has changed since its inception, it has successfully incorporated all kinds of changes, which is a tribute to its dynamic nature. Be it the moving people or flying birds, all of them bring in an intriguing aspect to the scene. People with their everyday actions provide the vitality that provides the place its human element. Subsequently, the durbar mirrors the dynamism of change, with people as the catalyst.

True public spaces can fill the voids of lonely souls with its warm and welcoming nature providing the sense of belonging. In case of Patan Durbar square, it is the sense of warmth the building evokes, the mud bricks that weep the redness in rain, the piped temple bells that sings and dance to wind, the grey of intricately detailed stone temples, the carved wood, the birds scattered across the square feeding on the grains you provide, the human scale of the Patan durbar square which doesn't intimidate anyone to evolve as the grander competing with you. It's all this that make this square setting, a soul comfort. When architecture is warm and so much to offer like in durbar square, like the details of the carved wall, the city exists as an open book, visually simulating library to all inspiration seekers. People can sit on the temple plinth and notice the intricate wooden carving adorning the temple facades; each carved detail brings out interesting historical legends. At a time when Architecture has become predictable, the uniqueness of this square is one of its strongest assets. Shattering through the confines of well laid out grids and universal standards, Patan Durbar square reveals curiosity and mysticism. It has such energy that constantly opens up and creates new avenues for discovery. Like entering the Patan museum for the first time, one never expects such well lit gallery space in traditional building; this is due to introduction of contemporary touch in building. A little further through the Keshav Narayan Chowk, the main courtyard of the palace, one never expects the contemporary facility of a restaurant planned in traditional way inside one of the garden of the square, a more purposeful advance enjoyed by people. This discovery, something that fits the present demand of society makes the public space truly public. This curiosity of the unexpected is the character of durbar square that gives it an edge as a public space. One can never become bored in this square because it has too many details to observe which new emerging constructions in Nepal clearly lack. The buildings never lie; it clearly shows the lack of care and often the hastily finished new constructions sacrifice the passion of creating something beautiful to economical or time constraints.

The square was conceived of as unified works of design and buildings; it has not only reciprocated social change but has also allowed architectural changes through generations to fulfill its use, which has somehow left the mark of changing society. These changes have not however interrupted the harmony of the durbar square. Changes are not spontaneous rather they are directly related to the society, time and so the durbar square as we now see today has not only Malla architecture but Indian influence in the form of the Krishna Temple, which was built when Nepal was much influenced by Indian architecture and Goetz Hag Mueller's contemporary touch. The works of Hag Mueller is a favorite issue. There will always be people who either support or falsify his logic for the use of modern material in the restoration. But the palace is much more important than all rhetoric combined; the use of steel posts instead of traditional wooden posts has if nothing else, given the palace a structural strength and a contemporary chapter, a transition to the future perhaps. The juxtaposition of differing styles has created the diverse in-between spaces that excite the eye as it travels through, intensifying the visual pleasure resulting in an alluring and thought provoking spatial environment.

Today, the Patan durbar square in essence is analogous to frozen music; a shadow of its magnificent past; a living testimony of a place, its people, culture whose remnants can still be seen even today, from the temple goers to the everyday people. For us, it is a matter of pride, to have such an ensemble which in inexplicably linked with people and their everyday lives because it not only is a living testimony of the past with its culture and representation of the people but its contemporary image represents us in time. Patan durbar square with its unique architecture style, relates to the past, is woven in the present and is always in transition.

It is not just a historical showpiece to admire but a place that advocates the varied and changing public purpose. Paying heed to simple little details will undoubtedly make a difference, so architects must realize that while designing public places they must not confine people's activities but let the space be defined by the activities instead. Likewise, new avenues for discovery should be integrated in public squares because people love the discovered path and be intrigued; they love to duck through the dark and five feet tall golden gate of Patan durbar and suddenly be taken to the medieval courtyard, the Keshav Narayan Chowk flooded with light, whose serenity was captured in Bernardo Bertolucci's film "Little Buddha". Or many prefer to sit on the temple plinth steps overlooking the palace being the unobserved observer. Such magical elements of public places, brings out the child in all of us. Thus, creating a public space is analogous to staging a marriage event between the place and people, whose success time alone can judge; like people, places must also grow otherwise they might end up in divorce: place abandoned with people just passing by, unfeeling. For culture doesn't just live among the carefully planned buildings for the purpose, it flourishes when there is public participation with undiminished vigor. Patan Durbar Square is one such place that boosts such cultural continuity reinforced through people and dynamic changes. In future too, the square might change in some way, but it is the beauty of observing the changing scene never mundane, never boring that succeeds a place as truly public. So we can always try to orient the public space in such a direction that it gives a view of the moving scene. Places become popular when people can relate with its essence; passion belies all expression. The future of this wonderful piece of heaven lies with us, we have to give tomorrow a chance to admire and evaluate the past, not only hand them the living history but provide a new chapter. Like artists portraying their roles on stage, we too seem to be engaged in an on-going play, the stage being Patan Durbar Square and we, the people the actors; the events are our stories.


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Kamana Dhakhwa, I.O.E, PULCHOWK, Nepal
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