Four years after a devastating earthquake caused large-scale destruction in Nepal, our columnist talks to local architect Erich Theophile about the country’s progress, and where to go in his hometown Kathmandu.
Minutes after I sat down to write about the promising signs in Nepal since the 7.8 earthquake struck on April 25, 2015, the first news reports of the Notre Dame fire distracted my attention. Flames still burned as a global chorus arose in unanimous agreement that the medieval cathedral on Paris’s Ile de la Cite represented cultural heritage of importance to all humankind and must be saved.
I hope this international rallying cry around Notre Dame and the huge sums raised already helps draw attention to cultural heritage more broadly. Having lived in both France and Nepal, what I know is that the remote Himalayan outpost is equally rich, if much less known, in cultural treasures, including the seven distinct groups of Buddhist and Hindu monuments, palace complexes, temples, and stupas dating back to between 1500 and 1800 A.D. that dapple the Kathmandu Valley, forming a single UNESCO World Heritage site. Yet according to Gallup Organization, Nepal is also one of the world’s poorest countries with a per capita income of around $1,000.
World heritage was already on my mind before the Notre Dame fire. A few weeks earlier, I listened to the 2019 Paul Mellon Lecture hosted by the World Monuments Fund in New York City. The evening began with a moving speech by Kanak Mani Dixit, a highly respected Nepalese editor and writer whose words flooded back to me as I watched the flames engulf Notre Dame. “In these dark times,” he said prophetically, “we need to preserve what our ancestors left for us and for those who come after us.” Preservation, he argued, provides vital cultural continuity not only in the reconstructed buildings themselves and requisite artisanal skills, but also ensures the continuation of the festivals and traditions “that give meaning to Nepali lives” just as services at Notre Dame do for those of the Catholic faith. “Rebuilding the tangible keeps the intangible alive,” observed the elder statesman.
Dixit introduced Erich Theophile, there to discuss the challenges and successes of rebuilding from Nepal’s 2015 quake, which caused 9,000 deaths and destroyed more than 600,000 homes. Nonetheless, according to the co-founder of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, “Kathmandu is still alive with heritage. Some people are living in the same house their ancestors have inhabited for five-hundred years.” Since the time of Jesus Christ, the valley has been home to the Newar people, renowned across the roof of the world for their artisanal handiwork. “Nothing,” Theophile explained to this Manhattan audience, “is more exquisitely carved than [when] in the hands of the Newars.”
The Harvard- and MIT-trained architect spent 15 years in Kathmandu before returning to New York City to leverage what he learned from those master Himalayan carvers to create H. Theophile, the custom door hardware brand. Theophile showed photos of rubble in the quake’s aftermath and spoke about young Nepali people rushing in to protect the stone and wood-carved gods and goddesses felled by the seismic activity. “The gods have no home,” reported one local newspaper after it was established that 753 heritage sites across the country were lost on that single day, according to Nepal’s Department of Archaeology, with another 2,200 historic structures at risk.
This New York gathering celebrated KVPT’s work, supported by the World Monuments Fund to restore one of those sites, Char Narayan, a 16th-century temple that collapsed completely that day four years ago. A Nepalese team of architects, engineers, craftsmen, and scholars are now working with input from leading experts from around the world to accurately reconstruct Char Narayan using salvaged materials while concealing state-of-the-art seismic reinforcement measures that will protect the site going forward.
As Paris considers how to rebuild its priceless heritage, I think about what Theophile said to me when we first met in Kathmandu some 20 years ago. “Conservation is ultimately a belief system,” he said. “It’s one that involves a lot of guesswork and wisdom that only comes from practice.” The lesson for Paris is this: When conservation succeeds, as I have seen each time KVPT completes a restoration project, the new structure adds to our shared cultural heritage, with an outcome that’s no less a human achievement than the original.
Erich Theophile’s Kathmandu Address Book:
“Come and see. It will be better than before,” promises Theophile, who visits his Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust colleagues regularly. Private tours of KVPT’s completed projects and works in progress can be arranged upon request. He’s especially excited these days about the Architecture Galleries at the 18th-century Malla palace turned Patan Museum. “It’s one place in Nepal which has gotten better since the quake.”
“People think only temples and palaces are monuments,” says KVPT’s Nepal director, Rohit Ranjitkar. “But old houses have historic value too.” This passion for sharing Nepal’s vernacular heritage led KVPT’s lead Nepalese architect to restore a 100-year-old brick-and-timber Newari house as The Inn Patan, a cozy yet chic 10-room hotel just off Patan Durbar Square. Exquisite woodcarvings appear throughout, while the individually decorated guest rooms feature exposed beams, hand-made local carpets, European bedding and beaten-brass basins in the sleek modern bathrooms. Some extend to private balconies and terraces. Six deluxe rooms and four suites surround the central courtyard where authentic, reliably delicious Nepali meals are served.
Head to Chez Caroline for authentic French casual fare in the courtyard of Baber Mahal Revisited, a renovated Rana palace that now houses some of Nepal’s most alluring boutiques, such as Theophile’s favorite, Tamrakar Antique, which overflows with hill-tribe bronzeware, including delicately carved antique measuring bowls and oil lamps.
Just south of the Royal Palace on Kathmandu’s main drag (known as Durbar Marg), Curio Arts is the trusted source among antique dealers around the world for Tibetan carpets, thangka paintings and nomad cabinets. It’s a short walk into Thamel, the backpacker quarter, where Fire and Ice serves the Himalayas’ best pizza via Anna-Maria, who brought a pizza oven from her native Italy. It’s also the meal eaten by the Nepalese royal family on the night of their infamous massacre.