Swotha – ‘Traditional Homes’ ‘Reviving the old to ignite anew’
Courtesy of Ar. Prabal Thapa
Swotha – ‘Traditional Homes’
‘Reviving the old to ignite anew’
One dot at a time
In the midst of the ever condensing urban jungle, vernacular is slowly slipping away while predilection for a newer and modern style of building is rapidly taking over, either for the sake of modernity or simply for their materialistic convenience. One could even assert it as a victory most unlikely for a building to survive all that fuss and stand tall with its striking traditional decorum all intact. The city areas of Kathmandu Valley have many instances of residents leaving their ancestral homes, especially a typical ‘Newari’ residential building, to re-settle to better and sparse locales at the city outskirts while abandoning their houses which subsequently get leased to as many as eight families for entirely pecuniary purposes. Gradually, the house experiences degradation most often due to less care shown by the tenant and such tragedy only expedite the trend of demolishing these houses to yet again build unsafe and encroaching mix matched strips of new building. This only outlines one of the many similar stories of the city life and a dot in a trail of larger urban problem.
Swotha Traditional Homes was built as a precursor to exemplify that not all these Newari settlements have to meet the same fate. Originally constructed at around 1930s, the building was being inhabited by seven families to its brim by the time it reached 2010 and it accommodated a lot of mixed occupation for such an old building. The three storied load bearing structure had experienced a heavy addition of two concrete floors at the top and a RCC sloped roof during 1980’s which only add wound to all those historic eras it had withstood. Four partners (carefully put together by the tourism entrepreneur Mr. Pawan Tuladhar) came together to invite an idea of a sort that would annul the trend of demolishing these types of rented traditional residences and proposing a way for their restoration. One of the ways for a building to survive in the city is through its economic viability. Hence, the project decided on the concept of adapting these buildings as guest houses. As Architect Prabal Thapa emphasizes that ‘Swotha’ is only the first of the many to come under their banner of Traditional Homes.
To retain authenticity
Located right at the heart of Patan Durbar Square area, like any normal residence in the living breathing ‘Newari’ traditional settlement, the building faces a customary alley way and shares a common passage with other buildings along side it keeping up with the series of the street planning that has only served incredible time accumulating history.
The Guest house is a five storied residential building residing seven rooms with a quaint cafe area at the back including a breakfast area, reception and other utility rooms, etc. The top floor has a double height master suite and a terrace section that provides a magnificent view of the entire Patan Durbar Square.
The design of the building demanded a focus towards the subtlety with which the new changes were to be introduced. Hence, it was important to the architect that while the adaptation was acceptable by the building, the architecture was never to be invasive towards its historical feel. Facing only few options with the plumbing line, the biggest intervention and the greatest challenge was mostly experienced with the planning of the seven bathrooms within the existing narrow grids of the building. The bathrooms were made smaller to accommodate comparatively larger bedrooms. With only 580 square feet in area per floor, there were issues with staircase widths and living spaces. He also had to be particularly dexterous with the planning of necessary utility spaces, allocating window openings and living quarters around existing pillars. One of the things about the building that fit their criteria for traditional homes was its floor height. The house had a nicely acquired vertical height for the floors at just under 7 feet which was adequate for a traditional building turned guest house.
The authenticity of the building as a whole was most extensively deliberated during the design of the building. Feeling strongly that the authenticity would not only best suit its architecture but it would also be most sought for more than luxury in tourism led business in such a location, hence the primary concept found a deep root in it. The building could have turned to the luxurious and had all the makings of a luxury get away. However, it was decided early on that it would cater to all the comfort of a guest house but authenticity would be its own luxury. ‘It might not be luxurious but at least you get the taste of the real thing’, explains Architect Prabal Thapa.
The Swotha Traditional homes thrive on exhibiting authenticity in its many forms. One of which is the authenticity of its locality and local lifestyle around it. Despite their initial doubt on whether such a core location would suit the tourists staying the night or two in the building as hotels mostly would provide a buffer from the outside noise and such, the clientele so far, as mentioned by the architect, have been rather inquisitive and the response overwhelmingly positive. They discovered that the environment of living in such close proximity to an active ‘Newari’ neighborhood has made their stay even more exciting and exotic.
The building is in its vernacular ‘Newari’ architectural style with low floor heights, smaller grid size, and exposed brickwork with wall thickness reaching 22” in dimension. The local materials, proportion and size of the windows and the traditional facade have been retained to its original state with proper blend of many traditional items to flavor the interior design. The main building is treated as a guest house while cafe is treated as a separate addition.
Swotha Cafe is an extension to the old building. It was constructed as an entirely separate system using contemporary materials with RCC slab and metal works. Although the cafe’ area embraced a modern touch, the architect made sure that it would not be vacant of the traditional essence. ‘For me the essence of Newari architecture is its originality in material. Traditional Newari buildings use various materials and they use them in their natural state.’ says the architect. Swotha Cafe exhibits its interiors with its bare exposed concrete slabs and metal works. As one can experience the intricate local craftsmanship inside the guest house, the cafe’ likewise serves the similar essence and does not intend to hide any corners.
The roof top was remodeled to accommodate a master suit. A new roof with timber framing was constructed replacing the heavy RCC roof and it was shifted from the east to the west side of the building so that it gave way for a terrace with a better view towards the Patan Durbar square. After the uninviting roof top was taken out, the room height thus formed was retained.
The building also had to comply with certain obligations as it stood at the heart of a monumental site. However, as the facade retained its original design, only height restrictions regarding the roof and some aesthetic guidelines were needed to be considered.
Tourniquet to patch the old
The neighborhood ‘Swotha’ where the guest house is located fortuned a boom in conversion of traditional buildings into a commodity for tourism business right after Swotha Traditional Homes was opened in its area in 2010. Today, there are as many as 100 such guest rooms flourishing in the area. Such conversion projects have already gripped other parts of the valley and needless to mention have set a different path for these unfortunate edifices. People have begun to realize the importance of such valuable properties while the prejudice that they hold towards old buildings and their futility is steadily fading. Moreover, it is refreshingly comforting to know that tourists, mainly from SAARC countries have approached the architect addressing a similar urban problem and have shown much interest in adaptation projects as ‘Swotha Traditional Homes’ for their own countries.
The effort put into the building clearly implores a sense to retain a heritage immutable in authenticity. There are many such buildings that have sustained more than just wear and tear of time and they are in need of an optimal rescue. Swotha has indeed become a reminder to us all what it truly means to restore and revive a residential traditional building.
Written by Shristi Bajracharya
Special thanks to Architect Prabal Thapa