The ancient seismic design of the Himalayas

In 1905, a deadly earthquake shook the landscape of Himachal Pradesh, an Indian state in the western Himalayas. Stable-looking concrete structures toppled like houses of cards. The only surviving buildings were in towns where residents had used an ancient, traditional Himalayan building technique known as cath kuni.

On a warm Tuesday afternoon, I was on my way to one of them: Naggar Castle, built more than 500 years ago as the seat of the region’s powerful Kullu kings and remaining unscathed after the tragedy.

Officials from the Geological Survey of India were amazed at the lack of seismic damage to the castle and other Kath Kuni houses around the earthquake. “This at first seemed unnatural given the houses’ seemingly rather top-heavy construction…until the natural resilience of their timber beam walls was appreciated,” they wrote.

The castle is one of the most exquisite surviving examples of the architectural style, but Kath Kuni houses have been built in this region for thousands of years. The design is recognizable by the layered interlocking of Deodar wood (a type of Himalayan cedar) with local stone, without the use of mortar. Naggar Castle is now a hotel and tourist attraction, but its rustic walls — flat, layered gray stone alternating with earth-toned wooden planks — prove that some things are timeless.

As a design, kath kuni is awesome. “Deodar wood and stone together create a spectacular balance and composition,” said Rahul Bhushan, architect and founder of NORTH, a Naggar-based architecture and design studio working to preserve the building technique through building projects, workshops, artist residencies and homestays . “Stone gives weight to the structure, resulting in a low center of gravity, and wood holds the structure together thanks to its flexibility.”

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