In 2011, Spirit of Place – Spirit of Design, an international student design-build expedition will take place in the Namje and Thumki villages of the Dhankuta district of eastern Nepal. These remote villages comprise a rural and disenfranchised ethnic-Magar community with a traditional agrarian economy, and a cultural identity that is under threat due to the rapid pace of change of development and globalization. Since 2001, American Peace Corps volunteer, international grassroots organizations and NGOs have worked closely with village residents on projects such as new school construction, clean water infrastructure, sustainable agriculture education, and other innovative demonstration projects.
Beginning in January 2011, undergraduate and graduate architecture students from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC will explore the culture, history, and ecology of a village site and develop the design for a ‘legacy marker’ architectural installation which will be built by the American students along with Nepali architecture students, village residents, and local builders in summer 2011. Working with the community, a hilltop burial site was identified for a memorial to the ancestors. Located on the highest hill of the Thumki village, and visible from miles around, this ancient burial ground is surrounded by the growing fields of the emerging Learning Grounds sustainable agricultural education center. Alongside the built memorial project, the students will explore and envision new models for rural community spaces for Learning Grounds’ sustainable agriculture and eco-tourism.
The graduate student designs are being conducted through a full-semester studio in spring 2011, and will inspire new construction in future phases within this community, and as a model for other villages. The memorial will not only honor the dead, but alongside Learning Grounds will be a symbol of regeneration of the deepest aspects of the culture of the villages to inspire new development for housing, tourism, education, and employment.
Nepal is undergoing an extremely rapid and haphazard phase of modernization as a result of globalization. Hundreds of villages are losing their unique cultural identity in the transformation, as there are few demonstrations of alternative visions and ideas for architecture and community space. Not only will the Spirit of Place spiritual marker reflect the Magar and Nepali cultural heritage, but the built project, as well as the student models and renderings for Learning Grounds will have an echoing effect across the region, helping to protect and promote the cultural heritage and environment. Spirit of Place-Spirit of Design is a highly unique educational opportunity that will create a new force to preserve the spirit of Namje and Thumki, and other rural and traditional Nepali villages, for the future.
International Design Education and Student Cultural Exchange
Spirit of Place/Spirit of Design will bring students from schools of architecture and design, all from different countries of the world, to design the project during the spring 2011 semester at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Following a January site visit to the villages for planning and consultation with community residents, Spirit of Place program instructors will lead the students into an immersion of Nepali and Magar history and culture, in order to design an evocative space to reflect and celebrate the spirit of the unique site.
During the design process, students will develop metaphoric designs based upon Nepali culture and mythology, expressed in a modern idiom in a variety of media. The students create their own poetic and sculptural interpretations, and then further refine these into detailed architectural models: both physical and in electronic media, as well as in working construction drawings. Opportunities for public exhibits of the student design work will be sought in Washington and in Nepal.
In June 2011, the students will be joined by local artisans to construct the Spirit of Place installation in Nepal in 9 days.
The impact of this education on the students is invaluable and life-changing. Their study of the history of Nepali architecture and the importance of religious and cultural metaphor in creating the historical architecture will enable them to be a part of creating a new international architectural language that responds to the specificity of local context and culture. Additionally, the students will focus on exploring sustainable technology, local building and craft techniques, and conservation practices. A significant goal is to teach future architects about design that is environmentally sustainable as well as evocative of cultural authenticity. Subsequently, a record of vanishing Nepali architectural design and building techniques will be preserved hand in hand with the emerging design idioms.
New Models for Ecological and Culturally Responsive Design
Currently, global architecture, especially in Nepal, has become a sprawling and misguided landscape in search of a soul. Modern development is severely lacking not only in ecological responsibility and historical literacy, but more importantly in Nepal, the reinforcement of its sacred and cultural fabric. Globally, we are witnessing a rapid exhaustion of ecological and cultural resources. Even more disconcerting, new construction is taking its toll on the human spirit, the rich ancestry of indigenous peoples, and their sacred geographies. There is a compelling need in our emerging global culture to develop and record a new aesthetic archetype that speaks to these issues. The Spirit of Place building expeditions have sought remedies to this cultural and environmental problem for over eighteen years.
Alongside the built memorial project, students will explore and envision new models for rural community spaces for Learning Grounds’ sustainable agriculture and eco-tourism. These designs will inspire the realization of the campus and facilities for Learning Grounds, to be constructed in later phases.
Pending funding to match the village residents’ own resources, the project team will work closely with villagers to design and build new housing typologies that will serve as models for adaptation in the village. These housing models will serve as an example of design and construction with modern materials, grounded in spiritual and environmental identity, with site and climate responsive design, and energy efficient building assemblies, incorporating techniques such as passive solar heating and cooling. A master plan will also address townscape design and streetscape improvement.
The project is deeply integrated into the community. It will empower local builders, farmers, teachers, and members of the women's cooperative (with over 100 members) to develop a healthy modern rural landscape, and a built environment that will serve as a model community for eastern Nepal.
Benefit to the Villages of Namje and Thumki and Model Project for Adaptation in Nepal
The benefit to the Nepali villages of Namje and Thumki of the Spirit of Place project is manifold. Building an improved design alternative based upon their historical architecture is crucial to avoiding the pitfalls of soulless modern construction currently rampant in Nepal. The project at its core is developing an innovative modern architectural language for Nepal based on its sacred past. Villagers will be working side by side with an emerging generation of American architects. Both groups will be learning from each other during the experience. Most importantly, this expedition ensures that a built project will be left behind as a clear icon. As a design critique with its built manifestation, the project will be a clear milestone of change for others to emulate and from which to measure the built progress of the future.