An Archipelago in the Valley
Housing Kathmandu’s Urban Poor
This project was the culmination of my Master of Architecture I program at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.
The thesis is predicated on the idea that housing is the most basic and fundamental artefact of the city. Mass housing is thus the point of departure for a project that seeks to invest architecture with the potential to articulate the city as a collective space. Such a project, I believe, must be located in peripheral cities in the global South - places where the extreme urgencies of development and looser entanglements with the global financial market provide a strategic advantage for the pursuit of such a utopian project. There are no great CBDs in these places. And the heritage sites that take their place as attractors of global capital, while increasingly disneyfied, are still part of daily livelihoods. And additionally, given the rural-urban migration patterns across the world, there is a severe need in these places to address infrastructural, economic and social deficits - especially that of housing.
Specifically, this project is located in Kathmandu, Nepal. Kathmandu, like cities of similar economy around the world, is a deeply divided place. Many residents live in higly precarious housing situtations, structurally, socially and politically. Given the recent earthquakes which have devastated the region, I believe this project has taken an even more critical turn. Prior to the earthquake, I wrote that Kathmandu was a post-conflict society struggling with rapid urbanization. Now, Kathmandu will be a post-conflict, and post-disaster, society struggling even more acutely with urbanization and reconstruction.
Like in urban areas across the world, the processes of global development had already left Kathmandu a city separated into enclaves of varying degrees of political and economic access. This was made very clear in the aftermath of these earthquakes, where most of those left without shelter in the city were those already disadvantaged. As much as the earthquake has been a collective experience of precarity, those without secure housing - slum dwellers, migrant tenants, and those that lived in the older structures located in poor satellite towns - are those that now face disproportionate difficulty in the aftermath of disaster. While the urgency and rate of change in the region are very different now compared to when the project began, the ambitions to understand the historical processes that have lead to Kathmandu's contemporary spaces, and to design collective spaces through architecture remain the same.
In the backdrop of an increasingly segregated landscape, the historic cities of the Kathmandu Valley exist today as islands of traditional, communal life. This historic urban fabric serves as typological model for the project that is aimed at Kathmandu’s urban poor, mostly migrants. Specifically, the multi-storey courtyard house from the historic cities is redeployed here for mass housing.
This courtyard housing type is fundamentally structured by family and clan based social relationships. These relationships are codified into a series of spaces that lie in a grey zone between public and domestic. Similar spaces are reinterpreted here to allow urban migrants to provide social support for one another. Ideas for collectivized domestic responsibility are borrowed both from 20th century housing projects in the West, (Red Vienna and early Soviet designs) as well as contemporary realities of migrants.
By using architecture to empower the most disenfranchised this project aims to invest our discipline with agency for democracy, equity, and political resistance. And through the specificity of place in Kathmandu, the design thesis aims to assert an understanding of architecture as a framework that can provide a struggling city with not just shelter and basic infrastructure, but also access to the city as a collective space.