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Architecture Prof. Silva shares why saving historic buildings requires local community support

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

LAWRENCE — Though the destruction in 2001 of the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by the Taliban might be an extreme example, it points out that the physical manifestations of cultural heritage must be supported by the local community in order to endure.

That’s the gist of a new book, “Cultural Landscapes of South Asia: Studies in Heritage Conservation and Management,” (Routledge, 2017) co-edited and written in part by University of Kansas School of Architecture, Design & Planning Associate Professor Kapila Silva.

The book was co-edited by Amita Sinha, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Two of Silva’s KU School of Architecture colleagues, Assistant Professor Farhan Karim and Lecturer Farhana Ferdous, also contributed chapters.

Silva said he hopes readers of the book “will understand that we need a kind of change in the way we think about heritage.”

“We need to go beyond a simple monument-centric way of looking at historic preservation,” he said. “The technical aspects are easy to figure out — what to do with brick and stone and timber. But we need to consider why this place should be considered ‘heritage’ for the community and how to take care of that place.”

To put it another way, Silva said, “A building needs to be a part of the culture. It needs to have a purpose to be preserved. If people in that locality do not think this building is important today or in the future, there is no point in its preservation. We can try to preserve a building, but if there is no meaning or relevance of it for its community, it will be difficult to maintain. We need people’s support to contribute to maintaining that building.”

Silva said residents may wonder, “If a UNESCO World Heritage Site becomes a tourist destination, what happens to our lives? We can’t drive or walk downtown. Property becomes gentrified, and prices go up. Prostitution could come in.”

“Think of a historic site in rural Cambodia,” he said. “If it becomes 'touristy,' it’s going to create serious problems for local life and culture. There may be a palace building we want to preserve, but we need to figure out a way that global tourism will not create dangerous impacts on the local population.

“There is always a role for national, regional or state government to play, but if we can localize the management of a historic site, it is much better. If we need to make a change in our lives, we can take care of ourselves and not only the building. People need to be involved in preservation and management decision making, as well as decision implementation. That’s the sustainable way to do it.”

The book argues for moving beyond the legacy of colonial approaches to preserving cultural heritage, or, as Sinha terms it in her introductory essay, “the fenced-off monument-in-the-garden.”

For instance, in his chapter about the Nepalese city of Bhaktapur, Silva argues that the old, inner city, with its temples and palaces, can best be preserved by expanded protection of the region around it.

“If you really look at it, the World Heritage zone is tightly related to the entire historical town and the agricultural landscape that surrounds it,” Silva said. “If development takes place in that agricultural landscape, you are destroying the local culture. If that is gone, all the rituals and festivals that are related to the agricultural economy will be gone … and the meaning of those buildings will be gone, too. I suggest in this particular case that the local area should be preserved, too.”

Silva said this paradigm can be seen again and again throughout South Asia. A native of Sri Lanka, he has traveled throughout the region as a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which is an advisory body to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

“What I have seen in South Asia is that we have narrowly defined the idea of what heritage is,” Silva said. “It’s been understood as historical buildings and monuments. As architects, we look at its materiality. But heritage is an idea; it’s not really a thing. … To preserve, we need to address all dimensions and build consensus among all stakeholders to figure out how to value and take care of the places.

“The idea of cultural landscape is a much better way to take care of historical places," he said. "It’s a broader idea of heritage than simply looking at buildings as monuments.”

Photos, from top: Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, Nepal. At right, Temple of the Tooth (of Buddha) Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photos by Kapila Silva.

Portrait photos, from top: KU faculty members Kapila Silva, ​Farhana Ferdous​ and Farhan Karim.