Spirit of Place: An Architectural Expedition to Nepal


Arriving in Kathmandu, I remember feeling that despite the fact that I was with 20 other people, it seemed like my entire American life was slipping away. The chaos of the city was rich with colors, shapes, smells, faces, and ideas that I had never known existed in the world, let alone experienced—from watching people being cremated in front of our eyes at Pashupatinath to seeing students painting Mandalas above Boudhanath stupa.
The design of the Spirit of Place project in Nepal began many months before, during a class at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. As part of the Sacred and Cultural Studies concentration, Travis Price has brought students on almost 20 design-build expeditions around the world since 1993. At the beginning of our project my classmates and I had very little knowledge of the place, culture, and religion that we were going to be designing for. Our task was to build a memorial to the ancestors of a small village on the top of ancient burial ground in the villages of Namje and Thumki, Nepal.
Even more unfamiliar was the combination of religious traditions. The people of the village are Magar and their beliefs are a mixture of Shamanism, Hinduism and Buddhism. We spent a lot of time researching as we prepared to design, becoming as familiar as we could without actually experiencing it firsthand.
Kathleen Lane, the director of Spirit of Place, had just returned from a scouting trip with Travis to the village. They shared volumes of photos and stories to acclimate us into the right mindset. The design process Travis has set up starts with each individual student developing a poetic metaphor as a design driver. Over several weeks and several drafts this process results in a single group poetic model which then translates into the final architectural design.

Onsite in Namje Thumki, we started with lessons in local construction and masonry techniques. This also included helping villagers carry stones up the steep cliffs in baskets strapped to the head. Although we could not speak the same language we somehow came up with an in-between means of communication. We spent the time learning from one another and laughing. Over nine long days we completed the memorial.
Ascending the steep path one now finds an opening within the stone walls and may enter the memorial to begin circling it in a similar fashion as one would do at a stupa. Within, a second smaller set of walls allows a glimpse of the sacred center through openings. This center is comprised of upright jagged stones representing the “sea of souls” which surrounds a 3-by-6 foot symbolic tomb covered by a plane of glass. The glass provides a view down into the dark ground while also reflecting the sky, mist and clouds above. In this moment the viewer simultaneously sees earth and sky as in the final segment of the metaphor “here is there and there again, embracing the unspoken knowing."

As soon as we finished building and the shamans had a chance to ceremonially open the site, the intense monsoon rains started; the mist floated over the memorial and we all ran down the steep slippery mountain to find cover and join the final celebration.
For 20 years of stories written about Spirit of Place, see The Mythic Modern: Architectural Expeditions into The Spirit of Place by Travis Price. Stay tuned for the next design-build expedition this summer to Inishturk Island off the coast of County Mayo, Ireland.
This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship—weekly steps to being an active, engaged global citizen. This week: Be An (Un)Simple Pilgrim. Follow along and join the conversation at and on Twitter at #goodcitizen.\n

Images courtesy of Travis Price.