Culture as Base for Landscape Design

Culture as Base for Landscape Design

_GRADUATION WORK_ by Michelle Leemkuil

The case of an earthquake-safe community centre for the Nepali mountain village Ashapuri.

Before I started my MSc-thesis, I was searching for something that fascinates me; a topic that I
wanted to work on for more than half a year. Culture has always fascinated me and Buddhism
inspired me because of its simplicity in way of thinking but at the same time complexity of
images, colours and meanings.

This is why I chose to work with Buddhism. The only thing I had
to do was connecting it to landscape architecture. With the help of Pieter Germeraad, who knew
Ben and Tanja Kruk, who knew Benjamin van Ooij, I came into contact with Herb Nepal.

Nepal is a small country in South Asia, four times as large as the Netherlands. Geographically
speaking, Nepal can be divided into three main regions: the Himalaya in the North, the hills in
the middle and the Terai plain in the South (figure 1)[1,2]. Nepal is caught between the two Giants China and India. With Buddhist Tibet as part of China and India with a Hindu religion, Nepal is a  meeting place of different cultures. There are several casts or ethnic groups in Nepal, and 81.3%  of the people follow Hinduism, however it is not the state religion. With 9% of the population, Buddhism is also an important religion[3].

Michelle afstudeerwerk 1
Figure 1: Location Nepal on a world map with world plate structure and geographically

Herb Nepal is a Western organization located in the village Ashapuri, 30 km from the Capital
City Kathmandu. They have set up a farm with a training centre to improve the lives of the
farmers in Ashapuri. The community space around this farm should also serve as crisis centre
when natural disasters happen, such as the huge earthquakes in April 2015, which destroyed 161
of the 180 houses in Ashapuri. In Ashapuri live the Tamang, an ethnic group that has a Buddhist
origin. This is why I though that I could focus on the Buddhism. I decided to take the design question of Herb Nepal about their community space as the case for my research. To design a training centre with an emergency assembly area based on their ownership (figure 2).

Figure 2: Main spatial needs and wishes Herb Nepal
Figure 2: Main spatial needs and wishes Herb Nepal







To create a valuable space and a better environment for communities, culture needs to be
incorporated. Using culture in place shaping ensures that people can identify with a place, trust
a place, and will move on intuition when an emergency happens. So to participate on the design
question of Herb Nepal and to combine it with culture, I came with my own design question:
How can cultural manifestations be integrated in the design of a safe, earthquake-prone
community centre in Ashapuri? (figure 3).

Figure 3: Research subjects and knowledge gap
Figure 3: Research subjects and knowledge gap









To find answers I did a literature review to create a coding scheme about Buddhism, and went
for two months to Nepal. I did interviews, workshops and surveys to acquire local knowledge
from the people In Ashapuri. In addition, I made systematic photographs in the village and hills
around Ashapuri for the visual content analysis in the Netherlands of the cultural manifestations
in Ashapuri. My aim was to code all the fieldwork results with my coding table of Buddhism,
but during fieldwork I already found out that the village was not all about Buddhism.

Figure 4: Fieldwork picture coded with Buddhism elements
Figure 4: Fieldwork picture coded with Buddhism elements














For example in figure 4, I coded all the Buddhism elements in the picture that I found with the
literature review before my fieldwork. I found prayer flags and Stupas that could represent
villages or Buddha. I even found mani stones and snakes, which I did not see in first instance, but I  needed the help of an expert. This expert also noticed some other elements, which he related to other ethnic groups, for example Newar ethnic group. This Newari elements could be there due to the fact that Ashapuri is located on the boundary of two districts. In Kavre are mainly living Tamang people that follow Buddhism from origin, and in Bhaktapur are mainly living people from the Newar ethnic group that follow Hinduism. People from a local ethnic group follow a certain culture. But when two ethnic groups are living close to each other, the cultures can intertwine, as well as the religion (figure 5).

Figure 5: Influences on Tamang culture
Figure 5: Influences on Tamang culture

Although the people in Ashapuri call them selves Tamang, they have Newari cultural elements
too. So I looked again at the literature and created a new coding table. With my new coding
table I coded all cultural elements in the pictures. Orange for Tamang, purple for Newari and
blue for the things I only got from the fieldwork (figure 6).

Figure 6: Example of visual content analysis with coding method. Orange = based on Tamang literature, Purple = based on Newari literature, Blue = based on local knowledge
Figure 6: Example of visual content analysis with coding method. Orange = based on Tamang literature, Purple = based on Newari literature, Blue = based on local knowledge

The next step was analysing everything, and creating preconditions of culture for my design
starting points (figure 7). Staring with orientation to the East, temples should be placed in the
East, and houses should face the East and be placed in cardinal direction higher up in the hills.
Second, good and safe infrastructure is important to stay connected and to make life easier,
especially during the monsoon. Third, sacred sites as the place of snakes, confluences of rivers,
clusters of trees, groves and temples should have special attention. There are more
preconditions, but I will only focus on the three main elements.

Figure 7: Main preconditions Culture sensitivity
Figure 7: Main preconditions Culture sensitivity







Because of my research in landscape architecture, I analysed the landscape too. The three main
elements to improve the landscape are that there should be protection from landslides, river
overflow and wind (figure 8). Because of the unstable position of Nepal, I also looked at the
earthquake-safety. Preconditions of an outdoor space that is earthquake-safe are having an open
and flat surface, being away from edges and taking evacuation routes into account (figure 9).

Figure 8
Figure 8: Main preconditions Landscape systems
Figure 9: Main preconditions Earthquake-safety
Figure 9: Main preconditions Earthquake-safety


In the design the preconditions of culture sensitivity, landscape systems, earthquake-safety and
program of Herb Nepal are combined for a community centre that fits the local community. The
main elements of the design (figure 10) are the places for the training centre, tourist place and
an extra place; the place of worship in the East. These places are combined with cultural
orientation elements. These places are not all on the safest places of the area; therefore safety
protections will be applied. Besides, wind protection in the form of shelterbelts of trees will


Figure 10: Concept map
Figure 10: Concept map

The final design consists of two phases, the first phase can be implemented now with the land
ownership of Herb Nepal. The second phase is a design with optimal cultural translation (figure

michelle Figure 11
Figure 11: Phase two design community centre Herb Nepal


Figure 12: Testing fields around Training centre
Figure 12: Testing fields around Training centre

I started my Master Thesis with special interest in Buddhism, but soon I found out that pure
Buddhism in Nepal does not exist. In the beginning I was only interested in the spatial aspects of
culture, but spatial aspects of culture are woven into the entire culture. Therefore my research
was much broader than expected, I had to dive deeper into the culture and found out that I had
a much more complex fascination than I thought.

I needed to integrate with the culture, I could not just observe culture for two months and then
think that I understood everything. Culture is also a sensitive topic. People that study a different
culture than their own are at the same time influenced by their own culture. Therefore they are
always comparing it with their own norms and values and form a certain opinion about it. When
a culture does not answer to your own level of norms and values, soon you will want to improve
the lives of the local people of that culture. By improving life, their lives are changing, and
changing life may include changing culture, even if some elements are not socially acceptable
according to our Western culture[4].

There can be designed with culture on landscape scale, such as the orientation of buildings and
places, in connection with places and on elements in the landscape. But overall culture takes
place on a very detailed scale. It is visible in the facades of houses, in the form of matrass, sutras
and the details in pillars. These details are not in the field of landscape architecture, and only
culturally authorised people can design this. So the question pops up if it is even possible to
design with culture for a landscape architect. And by doing it, I think it is possible, but it is
important to be careful when designing with culture, and only possible till a certain level. Only
the material(s) and the shape(s) can be designed, not the symbolism.

 1. Chaulagain, H., Rodrigues, H., Silva, V., Spacone, E., & Varum, H. (2015). Seismic risk assessment and hazard mapping in Nepal. Natural Hazards, 78(1), 583-602.
 2. Wolfgang, K. (1976). The traditional architecture of the Kathmandu Valley. Kathmandu,
 Ratna Pustak Bhandar.
 3. District Pro le Census 2011 (2011, 31 December) Nepal Census 2011 District Pro les.
 [Available on: dataset/nepal-census-2011-district-pro lesdemography]
 [Last view: 10-10-2016].
 4. Rapoport, A., & El Sayegh, S. (2005). Culture, architecture, and design. Locke science
 publishing Company.

Name: Michelle Leemkuil
Study: MSc Landscape Architecture, Wageningen University
Date of finishing thesis: November 2016
Supervisor(s): Dr. Ir. Ingrid Duchhar and Dr. Ir. Pieter W. Germeraad

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