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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 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].

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

Case 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 thought 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

Culture 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

Fieldwork 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

Coding 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

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

Preconditions 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

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: Main preconditions Landscape systemsFigure 9: Main preconditions Earthquake-safety

Figure 9: Main preconditions Earthquake-safety

Concept 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

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 11).


Figure 11: Phase two design community centre Herb Nepal

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.

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