Taking the Long View

Text by Evangeline Neve / Photo: Wolfgang Korn

Taking the Long View

His journey of exploration and discovery to a far-off Himalayan kingdom resulted in his becoming a part of its history.

 Nepal in decades past as seen through the eyes of one of its faithful culture recorders.

Wolfgang Korn is probably best known here in Nepal for his massive contributions to the valley’s architectural records, but my first impression on speaking with him was that of being in the presence of an informal historian, a one-man repository of a collection of jewels and treasures from Nepal’s past. It might seem incongruous, considering he is German, but it’s true, though we’re not speaking of the complete past of Nepal, but rather things he experienced when, it can be said, that fate and circumstances conspired to bring him into contact with many fascinating people and events, specifically within the Kathmandu valley during a period of time many years ago.

The story begins with a young Wolfgang in Germany. After doing three years of apprenticeship as a draughtsman, he studied architecture at a special school for craft creators that also taught pottery, goldsmiths, weaving, interior design, and so on. “It was a very good connection between different professions,” he told me. His studies finished, his director helped him to apply for the DED program for volunteer service overseas, then just newly initiated as an alternative to military service, which he did not want to participate in. In his initial country of choice, Cameroon, there was no need for an architect, but “Do you want to go to Nepal?” they asked him.

Journey to a Faraway Land

“I didn’t know much about Nepal at the time, just Mount Everest, Kathmandu—you didn’t have much on TV then about such faraway places.” He recalls his first precarious landing: “We even had to go back to Patna because it was too cloudy, but then there was a hole in the clouds and we were able to land, but a difficult landing.” He arrived in early 1968, on January 5, a time so far removed that I cannot even imagine it. Many foreigners were coming to Nepal at that time, of course, but he was not part of the wave of hippies and travelers. Rather, he came here with a different purpose.

“I joined the section for town planning at the Baber Mahal building department in the spring of 1968, and then I had the good luck that Carl Pruscha, the designer of Taragaon Hotel (now museum), was then working with better quality bricks, so called ‘Chinese bricks’ that I think the durbar squares here are still paved with, as well as the Taragaon. He was the man to say, “We don’t need to plaster everything, look at the tradition instead.” Then, all the architects and engineers, more or less, followed Indian designs. He also said we won’t do only Kathmandu town, we’ll do valley planning.

He started this inventory, ‘Preservation of Physical Environment and Culture Heritage.’ “And, as we didn’t know—there was no plan detailing where are the villages, all the holy sites were in the field—I took on the task, because I liked to work outside the office, to go to all those places. Thus, I got into contact with traditional architecture. The team was comprised of me, a driver, and a local boy helping to measure. I made the measurements of the sites, and someone else came later to take the photos, and then a Nepali wrote the text. It was very basic work.” He says this self-effacingly, but looking through the pages, it is clear that this is one of the most thorough records of the time, and even now, still. The two volumes that resulted, one of the villages, and one of temples: Kathmandu Valley: Preservation of the Physical Environment and Cultural Heritage, a Protective Inventory are still available in bookstores today; the first compilation of perhaps 99% of all temples and their locations. Knowledge that is needed as much as ever now, both as a blueprint and historical record.

Productive Teamwork

“At that time, anthropologist Mary Slusser realized that an architect was around doing proper drawings. She asked me (here he pulls out two more volumes) if I could measure temples for her study. So, after my two years with the DED ended, she organized a Rockefeller Grant. So, for six months I worked with her, because she really knew, and I didn’t know, so much about different temple styles, so it was a very good and fruitful exchange, me as an architect and she as an anthropologist and archeologist. She saw things differently, and we worked with Nepalis, too. She was in contact and worked very closely with Danavajra Vajracharja and Gautam Vajracharya, now a professor in the States. So I became the first man in history to climb the buildings, not just photographing. Ground floor measuring is easy, but higher? Not so much. So we started with the Buddhist monastery, Chusya Bahal, in Jyatha, Thamel. This was the first measured building, in the spring of 1970. Then we measured Kasthamandap, because it was not a temple.”

It’s amazing to see these sketches, many of them showing buildings and temples that are sadly no longer standing since the April 2015 earthquake, but meticulously and lovingly recorded for posterity, for the generations. The then-young architect often risked life and limb to climb such shrines on bamboo scaffolding, with a meter folding stick in his hands. Such simple tools. Some shrines that he was not allowed to climb, he only measured the facade, using photos to recreate the rest. It’s amazing to stare at these perfect images, particularly of the temples in Basantapur, and I couldn’t help but remember the day after the earthquake, standing and looking up where such an epic structure had once stood, then see now only a pile of what looked like dust, with so much less solid rubble than I would have expected.

I ask him why this is, and Wolfgang Korn explains: “All the mortar was clay, in many cases, yellow clay; lime wasn’t used, and of course not cement, and so they just fell apart, and very often we don’t know why some fell and others didn’t. Maybe there was a fault underground some places,” like at parts of Basantapur where it’s the worst, and many just collapsed completely while others didn’t. “Maybe some places had layers of clay or sand underneath. We don’t know. I’m often asked why Nyatapol in Bhaktapur stands and did not collapse: we don’t know. No one can explain it, but this area in Hanuman Dhoka—just gone!”

Each sketch has great value, historically and culturally, but it’s particularly the one of Kasthamandap that draws me in, with so much discussion and planning about the rebuilding of it now, this one piece of paper and the lines drawn on it could make all the difference in an accurate rebuild.

Wolfgang Korn continued to measure monasteries, the different types of temples, the public loggias (patis), recording as much variety as he could. He invented this way of structural design, drawing all the little details, sitting for hours. No computers then, of course, so each beam and brick and tile is hand-drawn. When he goes to universities and colleges to talk about what he did then, they just can’t believe this kind of work, these measurements and drawings, were all done by hand, with two men and a measuring stick and tape.

Wolfgang’s Sporting Side

And how did he get involved in sports? “I did long distance running at home in Germany, because I didn’t have money for football boots. And here, a month or six weeks after joining the building department, I saw white lines being painted in Tundhikel near Shahid Gate. I asked, what’s going on? National sports meet. Can I join? Yes. So they let me compete in the 5000 and 800. Here I am with Kamal Chitrakar, who later became a table tennis champion (running photo in the spring of ’68). We decided to make our own team, and for three-four years we were the best team in Kathmandu, in Nepal, because we practiced a little more, 4x4 relay, the 800, and so on. We also had Anup Rana, the owner of Yellow Pagoda Hotel; he was a very good sprinter.

I was the only foreigner running around, not playing tennis or golf, and someone from Mahendra Bhawan Girls High School saw me playing sports and they came and asked me if I could coach them for the yearly inter-high school sports meet. At the time there were only three girls’ high schools—St. Mary’s, Mahendra Bhawan, and perhaps Padma Kanya, I don’t remember. But since ten years or more, St. Mary’s was the best. Mahendra Bhawan was a school with many poorer children, some orphans and girls from the mountains, too, and they didn’t want to always be losing, so I went there before school and work and we started practicing. The meet was two days, and the first day we were behind, but the second day we did win. The first time they had beat St. Mary’s, and the second year we were ahead, and maybe a third year, and then after that they divided Kathmandu Valley into three sections, so we didn’t compete directly anymore. But, it was a real good time, because they wanted it.”

Then we turn to the football photos: “Later, I saw football teams every evening in Tundhikel, where the grass was grazed short by goats and cows, so it was in perfect condition at that time. I asked one team if I could join; I wasn’t a football player, but I had stamina because of long distance running. I started with Boys Union, a team from Tripureshwor for one season, then I was called to Annapurna Team of Asan Tole, and then when I lived in New Road (in the city’s first five-story building), I joined New Road for about four years, NRT. We were champions about four or five times. When I went home, I wrote to Adidas asking them for shoes that I brought back. The Police team also asked if I could bring them a set, so the next time I brought them back a set too.”

Rubbing Shoulders with Royalty

Amongst the old photos we are looking at, there are several with the late King Birendra, “Imagine how easy it was at that time to get close to the royals...” he says, and indeed they are standing almost shoulder to shoulder. After the project with Mary Slusser finished, Wolfgang worked for other small projects, and the German government gave 100,000 German marks as a present for the 1972 marriage of then Crown Prince Birendra, earmarked for renovations, and around that time is when these photos were taken. “This one was taken around ’72, at Pujahari Mat, when we were surveying and the renovation had not yet started. He was still the crown prince then, and had come to survey his present. Here, in this later photo, he is king. But he came to find out if we did a proper job of the main facade. He checked the work himself.”

Wolfgang Korn reminisces about a time he was an inadvertent witness to history: “Birendra was crowned directly after his father died. I was sitting at the gate of Hanuman Dhoka one day, sketching, and suddenly the police and army came and rushed around, making everyone leave. I was sitting to the side, drawing out of sight, when a big car came and the crown prince rushed into Hanuman Dhoka, then four horses with a coach arrived, and I was one of the first to see the king coming out after being crowned, and only later the news spread that King Mahendra had died. The rulers were scared that someone would misuse the moment, so it was secret, and then of course the official coronation took place a bit later, with all the dignitaries like Prince Charles and all the others who came.”

Recorded for Posterity

“I never planned to make a book, but between ’74 and ’78 I worked with John Sanday and Hariratna Ranjitkar at Hanuman Dhoka, the four towers, and when there was no extension by UNESCO, I realized my sketches would have no value if I brought them home.” So, he read Mr. Regmi’s three-volume Mediaeval and AncientNepal, and with what he learned from them and Mary Slusser, he wrote his book. “The printing was done with lead stencils in 1979; the Balaju Printing Press didn’t have many stencils, so every one-and-a-half pages they had to take the whole block apart for the next pages, so there are a few spelling mistakes. And, the drawings had to be photographed for the offset printing, using carbite flash from the Second World War, a big explosion and smoke—I wondered how it could work, but it did work. The layout was done at home, cutting precious drawings and gluing them together.” This green-covered book, The Traditional Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley, can still be found in the bookshops of the valley, and probably in the libraries of anyone who is passionate about Nepal’s culture and architecture.

In 2012, Wolfgang Korn heard about the SES, Senior Expert Service, which pairs retirees with locals, not to work, but to pass on their knowledge and expertise; he is currently working with the KVPT (Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, Patan). Coming back has been insightful for him, sometimes in ways he hadn’t expected. Like the way the bricks that his team pioneered are now being used everywhere. “Perhaps the big success of the Hanuman Dhoka project wasn’t rebuilding or repairing, but getting these bricks made, which are now fashionable everywhere. A positive practical result!”

And, of course, another major, positive result is that his plans and old photos can be used to get buildings back, like Kasthamandap.

Many of his original drawings on the original tracing paper can be found in Taragoan Museum, but unfortunately, he tells me, there’s no archive for these sort of collections in Nepal, and even his detailed drawings of Hanuman Dhoka have disappeared, no one knows where they are. This is a concern, the lack of record keeping or some sort of a library. Even European and American universities didn’t show much interest when Korn and others have offered their work, and the problem in the country is the same.

Finally, we return to Kasthamandap and the current difference of opinion between old and new reconstructions methods. Wolfgang Korn knows his opinion is not always popular, but he believes that, as much as possible, traditional methods and materials should be used in rebuilding, but not to ever say “only” traditional materials and traditional methods. The buildings should be, as much as possible, made safe for the people who live in the surroundings, or who come to visit.

Beyond that, it’s up to the people to decide. If it’s important enough to them, and in this case with so much at stake, it certainly is, they will have to unite in a decision.