11-17 November 2016 #832

The guardian of the shadows

Austrian architect Götz Hagmüller’s forthcoming memoir promises to be a homage to Kathmandu Valley’s heritage
Sebastian Gansrigler

Sebastian Gansrigler

Austrian architect and filmmaker Götz Hagmüller sits on his porch not far from the collapsed temple at Bhaktapur’s Dattatreya Square and picks up a thick portfolio map full of articles and stories about his conservation work in Kathmandu Valley.

Hagmüller first came to Nepal in the 1980s to work on the Bhaktapur restoration project and was involved in upgrading the town’s sanitation system for the German aid agency. One of his biggest and most important projects, the Patan Museum, which opened in 1997 has become one of Nepal’s main tourist attractions with over 40,000 visitors annually. Along with his wife, Ludmilla Hungerhuber, he was involved in the restoration of the Garden of Dreams. Completed in 2007, it is a peaceful oasis in the heart of Kathmandu.

Hagmüller has been living in Kuthu Math, a restored 270-year-old courtyard in Bhaktapur for almost 40 years and is considered to be one of the most respected guardians of the Valley’s cultural heritage. Retired in 2009, he is now working on his memoir which he calls “a text book of my life” and is expected to be a guide for heritage preservation. The book will delve into form and functionality in design and architecture and how those two are inseparable.

“Architects haven't easily succeeded in creating beauty with aesthetics. Form and function are equally important, modern architects disregard functionality. There are enough architects who think like that. Bauhaus, for example, counteracted this against the baroque,” he explains.

When he was a child, Hagmüller’s mother would advise him not to become an artist or a construction engineer like his father. When he began studying physics in Vienna, he realised that he took a much bigger interest in the beauty and elegance of things than in mathematics.

Ever since the earthquake of April 2015, people in Kathmandu Valley have been struggling to rebuild. The centuries-old structures in Hagmüller’s neighbourhood are still in ruins. Rubble is still piled up on the streets. For Hagmüller, the omnipresent dust and the smell of old clay awaken the spirits of the past.

‘In Asia, the gods dwell in darkness, in the smoky, innermost shrine of the temple, surrounded in stillness by a few butter or oil lamps,’ Hagmüller wrote in his 1991 book, Wenn das Licht ausgeht in Kathmandu (When the lights go off in Kathmandu). ‘Only rarely do they leave this abode: then, however, the gods are bathed with water and light and are carried around through their cities in festive processions. Until again they return to the darkness of their sanctuaries.’

Hagmüller’s inspiration comes from Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, who also wrote in his 1933 book In Praise of Shadows: ‘We Orientals tend to seek our satisfaction in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves in, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.”

“A lot has changed. Some of the buildings I cannot recognise anymore as I walk through the old streets of Bhaktapur," says Hagemuller who has dedicated four decades of his life in preserving the Kathmandu Valley. "Personally I’m very content with my own work, I wouldn't have done anything differently.”

Hagmüller’s memoir which will be published next year will contain stories about his architecture work and life, covering a vast collection of photographs and topics.


Read also

Götz Hagmüller feted

Living in Bhaktapur the Austrian way, Lukas Grimm

The Valley's ancient heart still beats, Ramyata Limbu