Disasters and Rebuildings

by Peter Larkham

Nepal’s earthquake, 25 April 2015

The recent earthquake disaster in Nepal has had a massive impact in terms of death and destruction. Between 5000 and 10000 deaths are feared, and entire settlements may have been wiped out. This toll is high because of the severity of the quake, and its location in an area of largely remote traditional and isolated settlements, many of which are largely of traditional construction.


Not only is this a human disaster, but it is a cultural one, of much wider impact. Traditional settlements and buildings were physical evidence of traditional ways of life – already under pressure from other aspects of modern life including the pressure from international tourism. Major cultural monuments, Hindu and Buddhist shrines and temples, seem from media photographs to have suffered severe damage. The head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, said that it was a “huge disaster” with “severe damage” to the World Heritage Site in and around Kathmandu, including the pagodas and temples in Durbar Square dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries. “I will send as soon as possible a mission of experts to make an assessment and see what can be done in order to repair the damage or maybe, in some cases, will try to reconstruct them”.[i] Bokova was also quoted as saying that the damage was “extensive and irreversible”, with three Durbar Squares in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan “almost fully destroyed”.[ii] A local historian, Prushottam Lochan Shrestha, said that the monuments could be lost forever, as rebuilding them is technically difficult and expensive. “We have lost most of the monuments that had been designated as World Heritage Sites in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur. They cannot be restored to their original states”.[iii]


But these words carry value judgements: “destroyed”, “lost”, “repair”, “reconstruct”, “restore”. They mirror words commonly used, again particularly about cultural monuments such as churches, after the destruction of the Second World War.[iv] For example, in the Diocese of London, 604 of its 701 churches were damaged, and of these 91 were completely destroyed.[v] Of Wren’s 32 City churches remaining by the start of the war, only 15 remained substantially undamaged by the war’s end. However, this is one recent evaluation[vi] of a range of contemporary and more recent documents and illustrations, since contemporary reports and publications frequently use terms such as ‘totally destroyed’, when incendiaries had burned the roof and interior fittings, but walls and tower remained apparently little-damaged according to a range of graphical evidence. The architectural historian Herminone Hobhouse wrote in 1971 of St Mary Aldermanbury that “it was burnt out in 1940, leaving only the east end … standing”, yet photographs and drawings clearly show the entire shell and tower remaining.[vii] There appears to be a clear propaganda or morale rationale in some uses of texts and images. Yet even very recent publications, including local and architectural histories, and academic works, perpetuate these misinterpretations.


Likewise, damaged (or even “destroyed” structures can be “reconstructed” or “restored”. The same wartime destruction of churches spurred thinking about such activities, the nature and extent of what might be appropriate, and the pronouncement of “principles”.[viii] For example the influential architect H.S. Goodhart-Rendel refused to rule out facsimile reconstruction in principle, although “we must only reproduce those [buildings] whose designs appear to be intrinsically excellent, owing their merit, not to the beautifying disguise of antiquity, but to the architectural values that are permanent”.[ix] In contrast, though, the President of the Society of Antiquaries was clearly much more closely influenced by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings when he pronounced his three principles:

  • “Where only the bare shell remains, reinstatement would be largely without historical value or artistic justification”;
  • “Where demolition has been extensive, rebuilding would hardly be justified”; and
  • “[Internal fittings], where destroyed, would be costly to replace and, if so, would be only near reproductions”.[x]
28_2_Uppark-South front_Commons Wikimedia
South front of Uppark


The problem with these approaches and principles is that they are both time- and culture-dependent. They cannot be absolute. For example, changes in technology and materials could mean that replication (at least visually) could become cheaper – for example, for small items at least, using 3-D printing. Culturally, there is a major difference in attitude and approach between some cultures; with, for example, some Eastern views placing far less importance on the originality of materials, and therefore accepting replication of form more readily.[xi] And, no small issue in contemporary Western society at least, there is the question of finance. The National Trust’s Uppark House, gutted by fire, was “restored” in facsimile – despite heated debate – largely because that was what the insurance would fund. The restoration itself proved to be a major tourist attraction and, although the reconstructed house raises other issues such as “originality” and “authenticity”, it is still a popular tourist attraction.[xii]


To return to Nepal: Sir Simon Jenkins (currently a Guardian columnist, formerly Editor of The Times and Chairman of the National Trust) has argued that the earthquake ruins should not be bulldozed but rebuilt. He, too, refers to the lessons of the post-Second World War period (perhaps inevitably in this, the 70th anniversary of the end of that conflict):

28_3_Warsaw Old Town market reconstruction
Warsaw’s Old Town market after reconstruction

“It was not just second world war bombers that wiped out Europe’s old cities, it was the bulldozers and developers that came in their wake. After 1945 the Germans rebuilt the Hanseatic town of Lübeck … The Poles did likewise to central Warsaw, as an act of healing and defiance. Britain did not restore old Coventry or Bristol, their modernist ideologues preferring to erect new Jerusalems in the fashion of the day. As a result Lübeck and Warsaw are now world heritage sites. No-one visits England’s new Jerusalems.”[xiii]


Of course, this is a polemic. It is a striking sentiment. But it is an over-simplification of the pressures and processes of England, Germany and Poland during and in the immediate aftermath of war. The nature and extent of destruction was different. The pressures of a new political order, especially in Germany and Poland, were extreme. And, in Coventry at least, the public had seen a model of the radical new proposals as early as 1940 – before the bombing – and had expressed strong support: for example it was “Very sensible and necessary”; “A Coventry such as you suggest would be worth living in”; and “Get on with it”.[xiv] The solution for the crisis response in Nepal, whether for its cultural heritage or its settlements, should be for Nepal to decide. Aid from the rest of the world should be targeted at achieving these plans, and not come tainted with the values of others, a form of cultural imperialism.


Closer to home and on a much smaller scale, the gutting of another National Trust property, the 1720s Clandon Park House, raises the same questions. Should the shell be restored? But “[t]he scale of damage to the mansion has been devastating. The house is now essentially a shell. There is perhaps one room that is relatively untouched but the interior is essentially gutted”.[xv] It seems likely that fewer of the contents have been saved than was the case with Uppark, as the fire originated in a basement and quickly spread upwards whereas Uppark’s fire started in the roof. Without knowing the details of the insurance cover (will it only fund reinstatement, as at Uppark?), what would be the value – to the National Trust or the national heritage – of a second replica stately home? Obviously, any sufficiently well-recorded building can be replicated, as was the case with much of Warsaw’s Old Town, which had been carefully studied just before the war. But that was a unique locale, and was reconstructed as part of building a new national identity.[xvi] Britain has other Palladian mansions, and Clandon had been “extensively restored and redecorated” when the National Trust acquired it in 1956.[xvii] Although the Guardian’s art critic hoped that its most striking architectural space could be “salvaged”, he also said “Does that matter? Isn’t it just a bit of posh heritage culture that has gone?”[xviii]


All disasters raise important questions about response. The two disasters here, very different in scale and nature, have some issues in common. In Nepal, the humanitarian problems require, without question, a speedy international response. The cultural heritage requires a more measured response and, notwithstanding World Heritage designations and international cultural tourism, the heritage was produced by a specific culture and, as far as is possible, the descendants of that culture should lead in making decisions about its future. A Nepalese view might sanction replication; but leaving sites cleared, or even ruined, as memorials to the tragedy would be understandable, as so many British towns did with their bombed churches. The National Trust needs to explore its priorities, those of its members and of its funders. What will the insurance pay for? Is there a visitor-driven desire for another exemplar replication project? How far could a reconstructed house be refurnished? What alternatives might there be? After all, the grounds remain intact, and the Landmark trust’s imaginative reconstruction of the ruins of Astley Castle – winner of the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize[xix] – show that there is no single “right” answer.



[i] Bokova, interview to Associated Press, Monday 27 April, http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/ap-interview-unesco-chief-nepal-sites-huge-disaster-30626967

[ii] Bokova, quoted by the BBC on Monday 27 April, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-32472307

[iii] Shrestha, quoted at http://www.ekantipur.com/2015/04/26/top-story/irreparable-loss/404542.html

[iv] Lambourne, N. (2001) War damage in western Europe: the destruction of historic monuments during the Second World War Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh; Larkham, P.J. (2010) ‘Developing concepts of conservation: the fate of bombed churches after the Second World War’, Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society vol. 54 pp. 7-34; Larkham, P.J. and Nasr, J. (2012) ‘Decision-making under duress: the treatment of churches in the City of London during and after World War II’, Urban History vol. 39 part 2 pp. 285-309.

[v] ‘Diocese of London, scheme reorganisation’, The Builder, 22 February 1946, p. 193.

[vi] Larkham and Nasr (2012), p. 288.

[vii] Hobhouse, H. (1971) Lost London: a century of demolition and decay Macmillan, London, p. 66.

[viii] Larkham (2010)

[ix] Goodhart-Rendel, H.S. (1941) ‘The London that is to be: principles of patchwork’, Country Life 4 January, pp. 4-6.

[x] Clapham, A.W. (1941) ‘Anniversary address’, Antiquaries Journal vol. XXI no. 3 pp. 185-196.

[xi] For example see Chung, S.-J. (2005) ‘East Asian values in historic conservation’, Journal of Architectural Conservation vol. 11 no. 1 pp. 55-70; Enders, S. and Gutschow, N. (eds) (1999) Hozon: architectural and urban conservation in Japan Menges, Stuttgart.

[xii] Rowell, C. and Robinson, J.M. (1996) Uppark restored National trust, London; Venning, P. (1989) ‘Uppark: accept no facsimile’, SPAB News vol. X pp. 10-11.

[xiii] Jenkins, S. (2015) ‘For Nepal’s sake, don’t bulldoze the ruins. Rebuild them’, The Guardian, 30 April, p. 38.

[xiv] Signature and comment book, in Percy Johnson-Marshall collection, Edinburgh University Archives ABT SR 6, discussed in Lilley, K.D. and Larkham, P.J. (2007) Exhibiting planning: communication and public involvement in British post-war reconstruction Working Paper series no. 4, Faculty of Law, Humanities, Development and Society, Birmingham City University.

[xv] Dame Helen Ghosh, Director General of the National trust, quoted in Davies, C. (2015) ‘The wedding’s off. Huge fire reduces one of UK’s finest mansions to a shell’, The Guardian 1 May, p. 13.

[xvi] Ciborowski, A. (1970) Warsaw: its destruction and reconstruction, Interpress, Warsaw; Jozefacka, A. (2011) Rebuilding Warsaw: conflicting visions of a capital city, 1916-1956 Unpublished PhD thesis, New York University.

[xvii] Davies (2015).

[xviii] Jones, J. (2015) ‘Something heavenly and magnificent has been lost’, The Guardian 1 May, p. 13. Jones gave the counter-argument to his rhetorical question.

[xix] http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/news-and-events/visiting-landmarks/visiting-astley-castle/


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