Lost and found
In 2015 Ross Uebergang revisited Nepal and created a garden with a difference. Despite working on a newly built site he wanted to make a garden that looked so old that nature was reclaiming it. Ross wrote about the garden, which he constructed with a team of international volunteers, shortly after it was built.
In 2015 Ross Uebergang revisited Kathmandu in Nepal and created a garden with a difference. Starting with a newly built site he wanted to make a garden that felt old and weathered using local weeds and plants that traced the country’s colonial history and recycled handmade bricks assembled with traditional techniques. A team of international volunteers answered his clarion call for help on social media and the design included his signature whimsical touches such as a giant brass water bowl with water lilies that doubled as an outdoor table where diners ate on floating metal lily pads. Ross wrote about the garden shortly after it was built.
‘I could say a lot of things about this garden but most of them would be hindsight, or ideas that had occurred through the construction of the space. I would be lying if I told you this was what I set out to do all along. So I will tell some stories and you do with them what you will.
I was bouncing around Nepal looking for somewhere to get a custom-table made out of copper when someone caught my attention out of the corner of my eye: Rakesh the owner of the site who would help me with the table and then house me while I built a garden for him.
Nested within the mountainous valley of Kathmandu, Nepal is the suburb of Imadol. Littered with brick factories (well at least until the recent earthquakes) that directed you around the landscape. The markings on them told us we were at home or how to get back to our home. It is in an area where the city meets the agricultural lands. It was itself agricultural land up until about two years prior. The land was subdivided, zoned for housing and sold off. The council introduced a rule that any farmer who tended the lands of these properties for longer than a two-year period was able to claim around 30% ownership of the land. I guess this was to entice agricultural practices in the interim in a town where space was at a premium. What happened though was that the new owners panicked and slashed and burned the crops to avoid any situation coming up in the future. The farmers were displaced and this fairly fertile land became a haven for weeds (this becomes important later in the story).
As for an exact address, this doesn’t exactly exist yet. There is no street name and no one outside of the suburb has ever heard of Sital Heights. Rakesh told me his his brother claims he came up with the name at a stern meeting with the shopkeepers and some council representatives one day. But this could be one of those true lies.
I arrived back in Nepal just before Christmas 2014 and a week later I decided to build this garden for Rakesh as a present and a chance to explore some traditional Nepalese techniques.
I called in a friend from India who had just finished studying Architecture. She is a really easy person to be around and even though I had only known her for a week from a previous trip to India I had a good feeling. She was going to be able to help with translation and relationships. Hindi isn’t the language of Nepal but the younger folk have watched enough Bollywood movies to have a pretty good understanding. She would end up being the biggest influence on everything. I called another Architecture student from Malaysia who was in between jobs to come out. She had bucket loads of sass and was there to get things happening.
Three weeks later they had both arrived and I had finished being a tourist after a long year of travelling. We knew that we really needed some more people so we set to work finding them. We put up fliers, littered Facebook, called everyone we knew, advertised on volunteer websites and introduced ourselves to tourists at bars. We then bought some new blankets and something that looked like mattresses for our new workers, got an internet dongle from someone we met while we were having lunch and then got designing.
From this we probably ended up with around 120 people who put their hands on the project over about three months. Coming from as close as two houses away at the Christian Bible school to as far away as India, the US, Canada, France, Ireland, Israel, Denmark, England, Australia and Malaysia. On the last day we had about 40 people throwing a giant copper bath over a wall to get it on to the site.
We had a core team of Nepali workers who were made up of skilled masons and local labourers who would make sure everything was moving in the right direction.
Rakesh said that he needed a fence so that his claim to the land was permanent as well as something to keep people out of the property. He had also dreamed of somewhere to bathe outdoors because it got pretty hot in the summer. But he also said it was our vision and he understood if we didn’t include this. He talked of his love of the traditional Newari style. I could tell he was proud of his heritage when he said this. His family were caretakers of a huge temple made from clay built in 1585 and modelled on the Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, in India. The largest of its kind anywhere I’m told. This Newari style became a central focus in our design.
I wanted to create something that I and everyone who touched it would be proud of. I also wanted to use some of the traditional construction techniques I had admired in Nepalese buildings - something I had never done before - and it needed to be somewhat sustainable.
The most important thing to me was that it would be fluid. It would respond to all of the new information that we learned along the journey and reflect the people who were sticking the bricks down and painting the walls, eating dinner with us and sleeping on our floors.
We looked around the area to get a feel for the first week. The traditional Newari Style was on our minds and also the techniques that we would have to uncover in the process. Time was really tight so we had to start putting in foundations for the necessary outer walls before we really had a design. This gave us time to gather our thoughts about the context and assemble a team. We checked out the amazing buildings of the Durbar Squares and borrowed magazines from a local architect. We couldn’t learn fast enough!
I had fallen in love with the local metalwork on a previous trip to the country and I knew this would become one of the elements so I started a drawing based around one important element made from copper. It was a giant bath in the shape of a leaf. It spoke to me of opulence and timelessness, something that has been lost in Australia. I kept referring back to a picture that has been fairly constantly present in my mind for a couple of years now. It contains something that looks like a library being taken back over by nature with tall trees bursting through the floor and scattered bricks; I guess I have always had a fascination with nature fighting back against humans. It reminded me of a quote I heard sometime that had always remained with me: ‘‘We will not be there at the end of this world. We are just temporary custodians. It will go on for millions of years after us, just like it has before us.’’
We set out to create a garden that looked like it was slowly taking over the ruins of an old Newari house.
The most important things to me was that it would be fluid. It would respond to all of the new information that we learned along the journey. That it reflected the people who were laying bricks and painting the walls, eating dinner with us and sleeping on our floors.
The previous year I had been building a garden in India with a team of people who had never seen a plan in their life. Each morning we would squat in front of the site and talk about the day through a translator and I would draw in the sand with a stick. It was liberating to not be bound to drawings produced offsite in a little office before a stone was even picked up. Without knowing about the skills of the individuals who were going to put it together. I was chasing this again: to be part of a team who shaped the design together, pooling our skills and experience.
Despite the stresses involved in being in a country that sometimes seemed permanently involved in weddings and festivals, and the idiosyncrasies of negotiating with local suppliers, the experience was a wonderful pressure cooker. I had to quickly learn traditional building techniques and how to communicate with a large construction team of volunteers while at the same time gaining a completely new understanding of the daily realities of living in a culture with a different set of rules which is usually off limits for a tourist looking in from the outside.