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Interview

Fixing old houses on Himalaya

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Feb 15, 2010 | From the print edition

German architect Andre Alexander has been restoring old buildings in the Tibetan capital Lhasa for 15 years now. Over the past few years he has extended his work to Leh. Ravleen Kaur caught up with him over a cup of chhaang (barley wine) at a party where the artisans celebrated the last day of the work season before parting for the winter break. Excerpts:

Your tryst with Tibet

I first visited Lhasa in 1987 and immediately fell in love with Tibetans. I liked everything about them, their mountains, temples and beautiful houses, and started visiting the place frequently. But during each subsequent visit, I noticed an alarming change: the historic buildings were disappearing. In the mid-1990s the government planned to redevelop the historic town by 2000.

I started studying Tibet’s traditional architecture, met some old master artisans who had built the monuments and in 1996 proposed to restore the decaying buildings; the government agreed. By then, the 300 historic buildings I recorded in 1993 had dwindled down to 100. Together with some friends, I founded the non-profit, Tibet Heritage Fund. We managed to get 93 historic buildings listed as protected and for five years restored and upgraded 20 of them.

In 2000, the government told us that enough old buildings have been preserved in Lhasa and more conservation work would stand in the way of development. We stopped the work. But the team of local artisans we put together in 1996 have since been restoring ancient monasteries across the Tibetan plateau.

What brought you to Ladakh

I had heard about the unspoilt former kingdom in India. I visited the region in 2003 and felt at home; its architecture is almost identical to that of Tibet. I was particularly fascinated by the historic old town of Leh; it was in a rundown state, but still stood there.

The year I arrived in Leh, most of the wealthy families had shifted from the old town to the suburbs, leaving behind their houses to decay. The town is located below the famous nine-storey royal palace that fell into decay after the last king was deposed by the Maharaja of Jammu in 1840. The Archaeological Survey of India is doing a commendable job of restoring the palace, but no one was taking care of the old town.

I started preparing a restoration plan for the town with the help of two artisans, one Tibetan and one Ladakhi.

We visited all the 187 houses in the old town, recorded their physical condition and architectural features, and gathered information about people’s lives and their occupation. Using the data we devised the Leh Old Town Initiative project. We held community meetings and told people that we would restore their houses using traditional material, but they would have to finance 50 per cent of the work. We restored a small Buddhist temple on the hill-top to demonstrate our work. Many showed interest.

On Leh’s architecture

Like in Tibet, traditional houses in Ladakh are built using stones, timbers and mud in various forms, such as sun-dried mud bricks and rammed earth for plastering floors and roofs. The buildings reflect people’s lifestyle, with pens for their cows on the ground floor and Buddhist altar rooms on the top floor.

To make the buildings suited to the local climate, they are well-insulated with mud and straw, and the most important room always faces south for sunshine. The modern architecture recognizes this technique of passive solar energy. People here also have a sense of aesthetics and beauty—every house has its own character. The façades usually have an impressive layout and the roof parapet, the doors and the windows have detailed wood-carved decorations.

On drainage and sanitation

Poor public infrastructure is a big problem in the old town of Leh, particularly the absence of drainage system.

In the past, people in this region had little access to water. So they generated less grey water, which was usually discharged in the fields at the bottom of the old town. Now there are five public taps in the town. People have more water, which is good, but the fields have transformed into built-up areas. So along with the building restoration work, we are constructing drainage channels and paving the alleyways with stones. But very few want drainage channels near their houses. Many don’t even allow drains through their neighbourhood, even after showing them that the water flows in a concrete channel and not close to the foundation of their houses. Persuasion eats up 90 per cent of our time and the effort required makes the work difficult, even though the region’s geographical setting favours our plan.

The town is built on a downward slope and the grey water could be safely disposed in a desert below. Cleaned by the desert soil, the grey water can help it turn green. In 2009 the government of Jammu and Kashmir gave us funds.

On changing lifestyles and impact of the changing weather pattern

With changes in the social pattern, people live in smaller families now and do not require big houses with several rooms. So they are subletting a portion of their houses. Since many do not keep livestock anymore, the entire ground floor meant for livestock has become obsolete. Most prefer opening shops there. But the small town requires only so many shops. We sit with the owner to plan how to make the most of his house.

In recent years, the changed weather pattern in the Himalaya has brought more rain in the summer. This is a problem as the flat mud roofs are designed for the originally dry climate. We have experimented with all kinds of mud and clay mixes to improve the durability of the mud roofs. So far, we have made some good progress and our roofs usually don’t leak.

On growing invasion of concrete

Everyone in Ladakh is now in love with concrete. People are tearing down their beautiful traditional houses to construct concrete buildings. But since these buildings are not well-insulated, they would eventually cause problems. Luckily, people in the old town still support the traditional architecture. We are trying to propagate this across Ladakh.

On the new toilet culture

In Ladakh where water is scarce, flush toilets are wasteful. Moreover, they don’t work in the winters as water freezes. But people think it is modern to have flush toilets. So, most houses these days have two toilets: the traditional composting type for the winters and flush toilets for the summers. In the absence of a proper drainage system in the area, people drill and set up septic tanks underneath their houses. This can contaminate the groundwater. People also want to install showers in the old mud houses. But first the problem of drainage needs to be solved.

On the impact of tourism

Tourism has definitely brought more income to the region. But of late, many Ladakhis have started feeling that tourism is causing too much change in too short a time. This could destroy the place like Kathmandu and Goa. Many people across Leh have already converted their houses into guest houses, internet cafes, restaurants or souvenir shops. This would spoil the Himalayan valley’s historic and traditional character.

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