A restoration project carried out by arch i, a Delhi-based architecture platform, at a heritage site in Afghanistan has been shortlisted as one of the six best projects of 2011 by the Prince Claus Fund.

“One can say that there is historical continuity, as the Archaeological Survey of India has been working on the Bamiyan Buddhas for decades. Then in the ’70s, Indian Bulbul Singh (who recently restored Humayun’s Tomb) and Afghan engineer Sharif worked together on the Bamiyan Buddhas. More recently, Delhi-based conservation architect Ratish Nanda did a fantastic job, restoring the Babur Garden, the lush Moghul gardens around the final resting place of emperor Babur in Kabul,” replies architect Anne Feenstra on e-mail when asked about the community-based heritage project carried out by his design teams of not just Afghanistan but India as well.

Dutch architect Feenstra spends much of his time in Afghanistan and India where he is on the visiting faculty at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. He led two architects from Delhi — Himanshu Lal and Tanvi Maheshwari of arch i, the Architecture and Urban Design Platform based in Delhi, to work on the restoration of Darwaza Khona at Kholm along with Afghan architects. Quite a significant development, but even more crucial is the fact that the project has been shortlisted as one of the six best projects of 2011 by the Prince Claus Fund, The Netherlands.

Darwaza Khona is a unique mud structure built during the reign of Mir Qilich Ali Beg (1786-1817). Kholm, where the building is located, became the trans-shipment point where caravans from India and Bokhara met. The traders from Persia and Chinese Turkestan rested in the caravan sarais. When arch i along with the Afghan team of architects began to work on the site, it discovered “that the eastern part of the gate, including the 200-year old mud brick decorative pattern, was in such a good shape that we could just clean up the eroded parts, while the western part of the gate was in a very bad shape,” Feenstra informs us.

The need for restoration was felt after the 18th Century toll gate to the city of Kholm suffered extensively due to the two earthquakes that hit northern Afghanistan (5.9 Richter on 14 May, 2011 and 5.7 Richter on 21 March, 2011) and heavy rainfall in 2010. The natural calamities had weakened the monument and urgently beckoned repair to prevent pieces of material from collapsing onto passers-by using the road. Since the Prince Claus Fund supports cultural initiatives and provides first aid to heritage projects, it stepped in to support the restoration.

“The real challenge was how to make the structure relevant in today’s context because it used to be a toll gate where the taxes collected from the passing caravans were deposited. The toll system is abundant now. There used to be a shop and we have revived it,” says Himanshu Lal. Interestingly, Lal is also involved in another project in Mazar-i-Sharif which is 60 kms away from this site.

“The solution did not come from the gate itself but from the two spaces behind the gate. These two rooms were used earlier for the collection of the tax from the passing caravans. They counted the camels of the trader’s caravans, inspected the goods and only when the tax was paid the caravan could continue to the famous trading bazaar of the city. Today, one space has been transformed into an open public seating area. The local community can sit together. The other room has been made into a water distribution point-cum-shop. The owner of the shop has been made responsible to keep the gate area clear,” adds Feenstra.

While the Afghan team had more knowledge about the mud structures, Indian architects had an edge over the technical aspects, says Lal. Involving the local communities and sustainability is what sets Feenstra’s practice apart from the rest.

One 84-year-old Ghulam Sachi, a descendent of Mir Qilich Ali Beg who ruled the North of Afghanistan, took personal interest and gave us lots of fruitful leads and support. “By involving the communities from the very start, we spend more time and create real ownership. So with the design work, with the search for contemporary functions for the spaces, for the reconstruction itself, in each step local people are deeply involved in the project and the decision making process. We sit down with them on one of those beautifully hand-woven carpets and discuss over a cup of tea what the origin of the idea is, what the starting points could be, what are the local values, local crafts available, etc. At the end of the day, it is their city, it is their gate, it is their heritage. Architects move on, to the next town, to the next project.”