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American Society of Landscape Architects


September 2005 Issue

Garden of Elitist Dreams

In one of the world's poorest countries, a potentate's garden is being restored. Will anyone gain besides wealthy tourists?

By Alex Ulam

Garden of Elitist Dreams

With its graceful neoclassical pavilions, ponds, and fragrant flowers, the Keshar Mahal Garden of Dreams is a rare place of repose in chaotic Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Beyond the garden’s high stone walls, however, the realities of Nepalese life assault one’s senses. The garden is located just off one of Kathmandu’s busiest intersections, which has one of the city’s few traffic lights. Car horns blare, swarms of minibikes and motorcycles snarl the streets, and beggar children dressed in rags dart in and out of the traffic. The air is so sooty that some pedestrians wear surgical masks. Policemen dressed in blue camouflage uniforms and armed with bamboo sticks and a motley assortment of antiquated guns regularly patrol in front of the garden’s walls.

Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries, and it has few resources for creating or maintaining sumptuous gardens. The country is also currently under emergency rule by a repressive monarch. Across the street from the garden, in fact, is the enormous royal palace compound where soldiers armed with machine guns peer down from sandbagged perches at passersby. The potentate needs these soldiers, because the masses have risen up and the country is in the throes of a Maoist revolution.

But a stroll through the 1920s-era Garden of Dreams, which is undergoing a restoration project scheduled for completion by October 2006, is an escape from contemporary Kathmandu into a scene that could be from a Merchant Ivory film about the times of Rudyard Kipling.

Field Marshall Keshar Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana had the Garden of Dreams built in the 1920s adjacent to his palace as a private preserve; even his children were allowed in the garden only during certain hours. The garden was designed by the renowned Nepalese architect Kishwor Narsingh and was heavily influenced by Keshar Shumsher’s extensive study of European landscape architecture and his travels in Britain. The axial arrangement of the garden’s main architectural features contrasts with the more naturalistic planting and asymmetrical environments along its borders, a design typical of Edwardian gardens. In addition, the garden’s architectural motifs and plant beds hark back to Europe. There are European-style pavilions, pergolas, balustrades, and urns.

No indigenous Nepalese or Southeast Asian motifs, other than some Hindi lettering on the garden’s pavilions, are to be seen, and the only Nepalese cultural references to be found are in the placement and naming of the garden’s architecture. Originally, there were six European-style pavilions, one for each of Nepal’s six seasons: winter, spring, early summer, monsoon, summer, and fall. Each pavilion had its own color scheme of flowering plants that bloomed during its designated season. Elements of the garden were also arranged according to Bastu Shastra, the Indian system of architecture and space that dates from Vedic time and that was the basis of the Chinese system of feng shui. Keshar Shumsher’s son, Lok Bhakta Rana, recalls that his father removed a pond from the south side of the garden and installed a flowerbed to make it conform to the principles of Bastu Shastra.

The original Garden of Dreams was 3.8 acres, but members of the family sold off a section to developers. Lok Bhakta Rana and his mother donated the remaining 1.5-acre section to the Nepalese government in the mid-1960s. The government, however, allowed the garden to fall into disrepair.

In the late 1990s, prominent expatriate Austrian architect Götz Hagmüller, who has been living in Nepal for the past 25 years, began organizing an effort to renovate the garden. “It was a romantic thing to see the dilapidated ruins of these buildings in the background of a thick overgrown jungle with huge vines hanging down,” says Hagmüller, adding, “but if you looked closely, it was full of bird shit, dead animals, and debris. It was just a neglected garden.”

Hagmüller persuaded the Austrian foreign ministry to wholly finance the Garden of Dreams restoration, which is being implemented through the Austrian nonprofit Eco Himal. Hagmüller estimates that the restoration will cost approximately $2.5 million. He says that he was able to obtain financial commitments from the Austrian government based on the success of his previous projects in Kathmandu Valley. Hagmüller is internationally renowned for his restoration work at the World Heritage Site of Bhaktapur Square, as well as his restoration of the Patan Museum, which was also financed by the Austrian government and which is today widely considered to be one of the most successful museums in Southeast Asia.

With the Garden of Dreams, Hagmüller sees the opportunity for a different kind of preservation project. “The great thing about gardens is that they are not architecture,” he says. “My interest in dealing with historic landscapes as architecture has to do with the hidden reserves of what is already there, sometimes in form, sometimes only intended, or sometimes not even seen by the original creators.”

As the restoration project takes shape, a thorny thicket of cultural and social issues has arisen regarding the garden and its place in the civic life of Kathmandu. The city, which is almost completely devoid of public green space, is about to be presented with a large spectacular garden that would be the envy of any Western metropolis. But the Garden of Dreams, with its elitist history and its foreign influences, raises sensitive issues in a country in the midst of social turmoil. And there is controversy about who will use it, how it should be restored, and how it should be managed. Lok Bhakta Rana, who is secretary and executive director of the government-appointed, five-member Garden of Dreams Development Board, says that the project has strayed from its original master plan and its mandate as a preservation project.

“Except for the existing buildings, nothing is the same,” says Rana. “Before the project even started, we identified all of the original flowers, but now all of the plants and the design are different.” Further, Rana, who is a lawyer for the American embassy in Nepal, contends that the development board does not have any real power over the way the garden is being restored. “It is not the board that really controls the project; it is the money that controls it,” Rana says. “If we act tough and say we are not going to allow this, then [the Austrians] will say ‘we are not going to fund it.’”

But Erich Theophile, project design and restoration manager for the Garden of Dreams Project Team, says that the project has a broader mandate than pure architectural preservation. “It was not funded solely as a preservation project,” says Theophile. “This is a model project that says let’s use preservation as a tourist development tool, which is something we take for granted in London, Frankfurt, and Boston. But so much of the development aid to the third world ignores opportunities for historic preservation, and that is why this project sets an important precedent.”

Even before it was built in the 1920s, there was concern that the Garden of Dreams would be a politically divisive statement. Keshar Shumsher’s father, Maharaja Chandra Shumsher, who was prime minister of Nepal during the early part of the twentieth century, worried that “it wouldn’t suit a poor country like Nepal to build such a nice garden,” says Lok Bhakta Rana. In fact, the maharaja prohibited his son from using his own inherited wealth to build the garden. Keshar Shumsher was able to build the garden only after winning 500,000 rupees during a game of kauda, which is played with conch shells. In the garden there is a sculpture of the Nepalese goddess of wealth Laxmi with shells beside her commemorating the win.

The largely wholesale borrowing of an imperialistic architectural idiom was befitting for the Ranas, a family that dominated Nepal’s cultural and political life between 1846 and 1951. The Ranas came from the Gorkha tribe, who descended from the hills in the latter part of the eighteenth century to conquer Kathmandu and unify Nepal. The Ranas’ immense white stucco neoclassical palaces stand in marked contrast to the earlier indigenous architecture of modestly scaled brick and carved wooden elements decorating the palaces and temples of the earlier Malla kings, of which many examples remain in Kathmandu. But even Nepalese preservation experts say that there is no known indigenous landscape architecture in Nepal. “We do not know of any garden designs under the Malla kings,” Hagmüller says. “It was the Ranas who introduced the concepts of big palaces like Versailles and big formal gardens from Europe.”

When the Ranas lost political power, many of their palaces were nationalized, and much of their land was redistributed in the 1960s. The neoclassical architectural style associated with the Ranas fell into disfavor, and in many cases the nineteenth-century modifications made to Malla-era buildings, such as the stucco that that was added to the brick exteriors of the temples in Kathmandu’s main historic square, were stripped away.

The Ranas built lavish gardens strictly for their own pleasure. But they did not build public gardens. Hagmüller, who estimates that within the past year alone 80 percent of Kathmandu’s street trees have been cut down, says that the Nepalese culture has a fundamentally different notion of nature in the urban environment that may explain the lack of public gardens. “There is no basic appreciation of gardens here per se,” he says. “Flowers have always been grown by the farmers and merchants of this valley for puja or religious purposes as an offering to the gods, and that is what it still mainly is. One of the dangers here in the garden is that people may come in and pluck the flowers because they are considered God’s property; anyone can come in and take a flower, so we will have to take some precautions in here.”

Could the Garden of Dreams foster a shift in attitude toward greater understanding of landscape architecture in Nepal? As part of the project, Hagmüller is training the Nepalese in horticulture. Muni Rana, a Nepalese adviser to the Garden of Dreams and a self-taught landscape architect who tends to the grounds of the American Embassy, says that the Nepalese upper middle class is just beginning to discover landscape design. Says Rana, “Just a few people are interested in horticulture at this moment, but they haven’t really gone to the extent of hiring landscape architects.”

Nor was lack of public green space an issue for a city where until recently shade trees abounded. Mass arbocide has almost completely denuded the city in the past several years. Many of the trees have been cut down for road-widening projects. Diagonally across the street from the Garden of Dreams, in front of the walled American Club compound, a row of large trees that shaded the street was felled just this past April. Today, in the rapidly urbanizing center of Kathmandu, the only open green spaces of any significant size are the parade ground and the adjacent Ratna Park, a shabby small area with weeds and litter.

Among the books in Keshar Shumsher’s library are several hundred on garden design with classic titles such as Wall and Water Gardens, by Gertrude Jekyll, The Modern Garden, by G. C. Taylor, and Gardens, Their Form and Design, by Viscountess Wolseley, who mentions a “garden of dreams.” Hagmüller’s team has been studying these books and old photographs to establish a historical record of the origins and influences of different design motifs in the garden. The balustrades in the garden, for instance, are similar to those described in Jekyll’s Wall and Water Gardens. The influence of the early twentieth-century architect Edwin Lutyens can be seen in the concave steps of the garden’s Chinese gate.

Another distinctive motif is the charbagh, an Islamic-style garden, which is located in the northeastern section of the Garden of Dreams. The charbagh garden is reminiscent of the Mughal gardens of India. Hagmüller says that use of the charbagh in the Garden of Dreams was most likely drawn from Keshar Shumsher’s study of European gardens. “The charbagh design made a big detour from Babylon or wherever, to Morocco, to Andalusia,” says Hagmüller, “where you have these great gardens such as the Alhambra.”

Many features are being changed to make what was once a private garden into a public one. In a corner of the garden near the spring pavilion, Hagmüller is building a hundred-seat indoor and outdoor restaurant. And in another section, between two parallel walls along the garden’s southern border, Hagmüller has built a new entrance with a small waterfall on one side and a raised seating platform on the other, with a sitting area overlooking the garden. One of the most significant new features is a terraced, grass-stepped amphitheater for outdoor performances and a moat, where there once was a large rectangular flowerbed.

In addition to redesigning sections of the garden to make it function better as a public amenity, Hagmüller views landscape architecture as a medium inherently more accepting of change than pure architecture. He says that this malleable aspect of landscape architecture is exemplified in the Garden of Dreams. “No garden is ever finished,” he says. “For 40 years, Keshar Shumsher Rana was working on the garden, and he was always experimenting with different elements.”

But Lok Bhakta Rana contends that Hagmüller’s changes violate the historical integrity of the garden. “It was supposed to be a preservation project,” says Rana, “but they have changed [the garden] too much.” Rana says that little remains of his father’s original vision for the garden in Hagmüller’s design. For example, he says that birds were an important element of the garden and that the original design had an aviary for pigeons and numerous birdfeeders. But during the renovation, the stone aviary fell over and Hagmüller says that he has no plans to replace it because the pigeons would add too much to the maintenance costs of the garden. Egrets, brown woodpeckers, flycatchers, thrushes, and migrating green mallard ducks frequented the garden, Rana recalls. But now, Rana says that the garden restoration team under Hagmüller has been frightening off the egrets by shaking empty plastic bottles with stones. Hagmüller wouldn’t respond directly to written follow-up questions about Rana’s allegations, but he did state in an e-mail response, “This board has in fact, and in mutual agreement, no role in our present planning, construction, and landscaping activities. Any complaint from a board member would be just a personal opinion as from anyone else.”

Certainly, the Garden of Dreams cannot be preserved as a monument to the memory of the aristocrat who built it for his own personal use when it needs to function as a public amenity. But the politics of historic preservation are different in a third-world country such as Nepal, where the money and the guiding expertise for such projects generally come from abroad. A typical controversy in the West between landscape designers and a property donor inevitably becomes a conflict charged with cultural imperialism in Nepal.

A potentially more volatile issue than the controversy over the restoration work is the question of how to operate and maintain the Garden of Dreams. Much of the garden’s history and design is entwined with the glaring inequities in Nepalese society that form the basis of the current revolution.

Hagmüller says that it is necessary for the garden to be financially self-sustaining because the Nepalese government does not have money to maintain or operate it. He says that he envisions four basic sources of income: a restaurant, cultural events, corporate partners, and entrance fees. “Although it goes against the grain of our Austrian-European mind-set that a public garden should charge an entrance fee,” says Hagmüller, “we are in a different situation here. This government does not have the money to maintain a garden.”

At other cultural amenities in Kathmandu such as the Patan Museum, foreign visitors are charged a higher price than locals. The justification for this practice is that the average foreign tourist has considerably more money than the average Nepali. But Hagmüller favors a uniform admittance fee for the garden. He argues that the situation is different with the garden both because it is not an educational institution that showcases Nepalese culture and because it will have only a limited carrying capacity. “This is not a fairground,” says Hagmüller. “This has always been a luxury place. It is going to be for those who can afford it; otherwise, we cannot afford the maintenance.”

Ironically, the relatives of the prince, who built the garden for his own personal enjoyment, argue that the masses should have access to the garden. Lok Bhakta Rana and his cousin Guatam sjb Rana, public relations advisor for the Garden of Dreams, say that they are concerned that if the entrance fees are too high for a large segment of Nepalese society, the garden will become a powerful symbol of inequity for a country in the midst of a class-based revolution. “Can you imagine what kind of signal [high entrance fees] will send to a society with all of the current troubles?” says Guatam sjb Rana. He should know. Maoists burned his family farm down several years ago after a Time magazine article publicized his opulent lifestyle.

The prospect of expatriates and a wealthy elite dining al fresco behind the walls of the Garden of Dreams wouldn’t be so politically problematic if Kathmandu had more open green space. But free admittance or a nominal fee raises the prospect of beggars and hustlers accosting visitors and people cutting flowers for puja. If the garden is to become ultimately successful as a public amenity, an alternative will have to be found to these two scenarios.

As a work of landscape architecture, the Garden of Dreams has a broader mission than a historic building; it must provide a sense of place and history as does, for example, the Patan Museum, but it also must provide a space to commune with nature. In history and style, the garden has an ambiguous status as a cultural touchstone for citizens of Nepal who claim no descent from the ruling elite. As an open green space in Kathmandu, however, the Garden of Dreams has tremendous value as a public amenity, and it should be accessible to a wide section of society even if that means substantial further modifications in the design to accommodate a larger and more diverse audience than the one being currently planned for. Under the current redesign, the Garden of Dreams is being restored as an elitist escape. That, to a great extent, is what it was designed for originally.

Alex Ulam is a freelance journalist who writes frequently on architecture and design for publications such as Metropolis, Wired, the National Post of Canada, and the New York Observer.

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