Nearly 50 years after he first came to Nepal and later made Bhaktapur his home, Austrian architect and conservationist Götz Hagmüller has brought out a memoir. A Picture Book of My Life is actually two volumes that he calls an ‘illustrated autobiography’.
Hagmüller starts with his early childhood during WWII when the family was evacuated from Vienna to the safety of the Alps. The children sketched and had fun making Kon Tiki rafts. That interest in art and exploration seems to have hooked the young Hagmüller, who became a cultural nomad, travelling from Timbuktu to Kathmandu inspired by indigenous cultures with sophisticated craft and sense of design.
In Volume 1, we get a visual tour of Hagmüller’s travels through Africa and Southeast Asia and his work in the German-supported urban renewal project in Bhaktapur. Volume 2 zooms in on his other reconstruction work like Patan Museum, The Garden of Dreams and Chyaslin Mandap. The pages are sprinkled with photographs of Hagmüller’s wife, children and friends on holidays and trips. This gives the books the feel of an intimate Facebook album.
Hagmüller first came to Nepal in 1968 (‘I was too old to be a hippie’) as a UN consultant, and returned here to work with Niels Gutschow and Saphalya Amatya on a master plan for Kathmandu Valley’s heritage conservation. It must grieve Hagmüller to see cultural and architectural treasures crumble before his eyes, but he doesn’t show it. How much of the old kingdoms could have been preserved if only Nepal’s planners had followed that masterplan.
The book is also a critique of ‘development’ and ‘aid’ and how foreign assistance exports a worldview and economic model in which the recipient often has no choice. He is comfortable enough with Austrian government support for Kathmandu’s conservation because it helps preserve what is best in its art, architecture and culture before it’s all gone.
Hagmüller recounts the chronicles of Tyrolean Jesuit priest Johannes Grueber, who travelled across Tibet to Kathmandu in 1660 and presented the king with a telescope. The king peered through it and was shocked to see the army of the enemy kingdom of Bhaktapur so close. Legend has it, he ordered his generals to launch an immediate attack. Telescopes seem to be a recurring theme: when the Cappucine monk Cassiano da Macerata came to Bhaktapur in the 17th century he gifted a telescope to King Ranajit Malla on behalf of the Pope. Much later, the book cites a head of the German-Nepal Friendship Society being asked by Kathmandu Airport customs to pay a 150% duty on a telescope he had brought as a gift for King Birendra. Hagmüller writes that he is less worried about proselytisation to Christianity than the wholesale ‘conversion’ of Nepalis to Western values and a consumerist culture.
Hagmüller’s didn’t just help preserve Kathmandu Valley’s heritage, he included an in-built sustainability plan to generate revenue for monuments’ upkeep. ‘I had to pioneer a whole new strategy that took me beyond the normal role of an architect,’ he writes. Patan Museum, The Garden of Dreams, and indeed the old town of Bhaktapur itself, are today models of proper management and maintenance of heritage sites.
Hagmüller also weighs in on the debate around what can be considered authentic restoration of monuments like Chyasilin. He is not a fundamentalist, writing: ‘It is not about the materials used in construction, it is about its history and design The skills of the Newar craftsmen are authentic… rebuilding a part of what has been lost will have the stamp of the time: you shouldn’t mistake something new as original.’
The book has details of many restoration projects including the 17th century Chyasilin Mandap, which had been lying in ruins since its destruction in the 1934 earthquake and was restored by Hagmüller’s team based on early drawings. Hagmüller has lived with his wife Ludmilla Hungerhuber in a restored pilgrim’s courtyard called Kuthu Math in his beloved Bhaktapur. It is a living example for the descendants of the Kathmandu Valley civilisation of how home and heritage can exist in perfect harmony.
A Picture Book of My Life
Volumes 1 & 2
by Götz Hagmüller
The memoir will be launched on 10 November at Taragaon Museum, which was designed by Hagmüller’s compatriot and contemporary in 1973 Carl Prusha, and restored in 2013.
All photos from A Picture Book of My Life, Volumes 1 & 2.
The guardian of the shadows, Sebastian Gansrigler
Back to basics in Bhaktapur, Hariz Baharudin
The Valley’s ancient heart still beats, Ramyata Limbu