KATHMANDU: Tintin in Tibet” is a wonderful comic written and illustrated by Hergé. The depiction of Kathmandu in 1958 is exquisite, with the details of temples, houses, squares and the local people who tragically speak Hindi. In the story, Tintin and Captain Haddock are in search of a Chinese friend Chang who was lost in a plane crash high in the mountains. They
encounter levitating clairvoyant Tibetan monks and of course the Yeti. It was when Captain Haddock’s whiskey bottle smashed against the rocks while trekking along a torrential Himalayan river and the whiskey dripped from the backpack, that Tintin’s dog Snowy was in a quandary whether or not to lick up the evil brew. In his mind there arose two figures: the angelic image of himself promoting virtuous action and the little red devil image goading him on to enjoy the dripping intox-icant. The little red devil wins the tug of war, Snowy gets drunk and totters into the torrential river, luckily to be saved further downstream by his desperate master.
There is a responsibility which lies in perpetuating our unique culture which is manifested through architecture. Looking around the Kathmandu Valley, I believe we architects have failed miserably. Even more questionable are trends in developments that are increasing the vulnerability of our cities. Furthermore, as architects, we must ensure functionality and safety. This lies in both design and in quality. We have failed to consider whether the buildings we design are functional as a part of the urban fabric. Many new complexes, whether commercial or residential, have placed even greater strain on the already precarious infra-
structure and service systems. Water is pumped up from the deep to supply high-rise structures and there are already clear indications that ground water levels are dropping.
Intolerable levels of traffic are generated around high-rise complexes, stifling surrounding communities. The structural stability of the high-rise buildings cannot be ensured, especially in the event of an earthquake. Where there is liquefaction, the buildings will settle and collapse. Even when we consider fires, the fire fighting capacity is absolutely inadequate for these tall structures. These tall buildings are not only threats in themselves but also to surrounding areas.
This is my understanding and my position. It would however be important for the authorities who are providing permission to build tall buildings also provide the citizens with the justification for why these buildings are safe. It would be important for structural engineers who
calculate the structures provide the citizens with a clear understanding of what assumptions were made and what the chances of collapse are. It would be important for architects who design tall buildings to explain how these buildings impact the city: the fabric, services and infrastructure. How do the buildings block sunlight from those behind them? What is the impact of the huge reflecting glass
facades? The last question would be whether anyone has thought of the maximum permissible lifespan of these concrete buildings and what legislation has been put in place to ensure that they are torn down before they collapse. We can of course sit back, hope for new strengthening technology and leave it to the next generation.
We are often in a quandary deciding between the respectable advice of the cute little angel and the wicked advice of the small red devil. When coexisting amongst masses of diverse individuals, it becomes so much more important to set standards, etiquette and procedures based on an understanding of respect. There is always a faint whispering deep inside us that tells us whether something is correct or not. Do we really want to listen to the whisper, let alone follow its advice? When we however make the wrong choice, not all of us get saved by our masters.
(The author is an architect and can be contacted through firstname.lastname@example.org)