November 17, 2008
Kathmandu Valley Style is a sumptuous photography book just released by Serindia Publications (Chicago). It celebrates the unique architectural movements, artistic styles and artisan virtuosity that have made Kathmandu one of Asia’s most intoxicating cities. Nepal’s capitol is a kaleidoscope of influences brought on by a succession of monarchal dynasties, scores of ethnic groups, and an overlapping Hindu-Buddhist-shamanistic spiritualism. Ancient palaces and temples still rule the skyline. The virtuosity of the valley’s Newari wood and metal craftsmen, (second to none and still in high demand), transforms pink brick walls into vibrant backdrops for dark intricate doorways, roof struts and window casings of phantasmagoric delicacy drunk on their own convolutions. Down every narrow street edificial wizardry is on display – an indentation here, a vermilion-smudge there – that keep the viewer riveted to Kathmandu’s native exuberance.
There are numerous photography books that have focused on the historical visual delights of Kathmandu. But Kathmandu Valley Style has managed to bring a new perspective by documenting what is happening with the city’s architectural standard bearers today, by photographing recent restoration projects and, perhaps most important, by evoking a narrative of what may lay ahead for the capital’s aesthetic stamp.
The book zooms into interiors and private residences where the public, up until now, have been denied access – an entrée made all the richer by insights provided by eminent Western architects who have fallen in love with the Kathmandu Valley and brought their talents to bear on the city’s preservation.
Thus we have first-time-ever glimpses of rarified interiors: the private quarters of Kuthu Math, a structure originally built in 1748 to house Hindu holy men; the residence of South Korea’s ambassador, a new but magnificent tribute to traditional Nepali culture and style; writer/explorer Ian Baker’s eclectic and tantric abode tucked away in Naxal; restaurateur Kunal Lamas perfectly preserved house hiding in the midst of touristy Thamel; the grand prayer room of Tshering Tashi’s house on the edge of Gokarna Forest; politician Pashupati SJB Rana’s magnificent residence reflecting the Rana style of cobalt Venetian chandeliers and princely portraits; writer (and former consort of Prince Basundra) Barbara Adam’s century-old Thapa house laden with Bhutanese textiles and Tibetan carpets, to name but a few.
Like the look of Kathmandu itself, Kathmandu Valley Style is a collaborative effort.
Lisa Choegyal, author of several books, including Offerings from Nepal, and a leading expert in pro-poor sustainable tourism throughout Asia, has made Nepal her home since the 1970’s. She is a board member of the Nepal Heritage Society and a founding director the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust.
Gautam SJB Rana, co-author of The Ranas of Nepal, masterminded the highly acclaimed Babar Mahal. Together, Choegyal and Rana used their extensive networks to gain access to previously unpublished private residences and historic buildings. Their commentaries on the photographs are eagle-eyed and prophetic in terms of how 21st century Nepal can modernize without forsaking the country’s invaluable heritage.
Craig Potton, one of New Zealand’s leading photographers and conservationists transcends the typical Architectural Digest-type coverage. He is as accomplished with exterior photography as he is with tight interior shots. And his eye for meaningful detail is crisp and superbly illuminated.
Kathmandu Valley Style is an important addition to Nepali identity—the text and photographs acknowledge the past while addressing what is possible in the present and in the future as well. Highly recommended.