During a 16-course feast at Dwarika’s Hotel in Kathmandu recently, the architect John Sanday OBE paid tribute to the importance of his British roots in helping his clients restore their architectural masterpieces.
Growing up in England, the Global Heritage Fund’s regional director for Asia was fascinated by how, with little care, decaying places could be transformed. He studied architecture at Bristol University and has worked on restoring Chevening House in Kent, now the foreign secretary’s official residence, and Trinity College, Cambridge – two projects Prince Charles followed with interest.
“I find I get more British the longer I stay abroad,” he says, spearing a buffalo dumpling with his chopsticks.
Sanday has lived in Nepal for almost 40 years. He first landed in Nepal in 1970 on a Unesco contract. His brief was to create a master plan for the restoration of cultural monuments in the Kathmandu Valley. “Being thrown into a medieval scenario where there was no legislation governing the preservation of historic buildings, I had the freedom to carry out the most audacious projects. Rather naively, I saw myself as a William Morris of Nepal.”
Sanday moved his Cornish wife and their first son Robert to Kathmandu, the capital, in 1972. They traded an isolated woodman’s cottage in the grounds of Chevening House for a modern city home, which they shared with a live-in guard and three domestic workers.
Sanday shares his current residence in Kathmandu with a constant flow of friends and family. He converted the rooftop into an architectural studio, one of the few renovations he’s undertaken during four decades of living in rented accommodation. Like most expats in Nepal, Sanday decided against investing in a property market which is plagued by a lack of legal protection for foreign owners.
Sanday was the first foreign architect to open a practice in Nepal, in 1985. Nepali partners own 51 per cent of the company and 90 per cent of the staff are local. Sanday started with a few bulldozers, quickly learning important lessons about operating in an uncertain business climate early on.
The leadership vacuum since the royal family massacre in 2001 is one thing that could affect the future of Sanday’s business. It deters new investment in a city in which population growth wildly outpaces infrastructure development.
This was not an issue when Sanday moved to the city to restore the Nepali royal palace for King Birendra’s coronation in 1974. The monarch provided direction about how resources would be allocated. Sanday was determined to influence the ruler’s thinking about the role of historical preservation in building the nation and the economy.
“I became known as the ‘conversation’ [sic] architect because no one in the country had a clue about conservation. The moniker stuck because I spent countless hours discussing the history of buildings,” says Sanday.
Sanday and his team worked hard to educate people across Nepal’s stratified society about the importance of cultural monuments. There are now eight Unesco world heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley.
Spreading the economic and social benefits of tourism to rural communities is also Sanday’s passion. Impoverished Nepalis view jobs in tourism as the quickest route up the socio-economic ladder. But the industry’s capacity to create new jobs has been hampered by political turmoil. The government’s “Visit Nepal 2011” campaign is trying to lure 1m visitors this year – last achieved a decade ago. Nepal welcomed only 600,000 tourists in 2010.
Sanday is currently focused on trying to restore Chhairo Gompa, a 17th-century Tibetan Buddhist temple. He will apply lessons learned while working as a consultant to the World Monuments Fund on the restoration of Angkor Wat in Cambodia from 1999-2006. “Angkor Wat taught me that hordes of tourists can kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
● Resourcefulness and loyalty of affordable staff (live-in for between $120 to $160 a month) to run a household
● Rich cultural history
● High levels of personal safety
● Erratic electricity
● Water scarcity in the capital
● Uncertainty surrounding the shift from monarchy to democracy
What you can rent for ...
Only Nepali nationals can be residential property owners in Kathmandu, so expats live in rented accommodation.
$750 a month A fully furnished two-bedroom flat in the city centre.
$1,750 a month A five-bedroom, five-bath bungalow with a garden, Jacuzzi, playground and servant quarters.