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Carl Pruscha Text Ar. Bansri Pandey Images: Carl Pruscha

“THE HORROR VISION IN THE CENTRAL DIAGRAM OF A LAND CONSUMING CENTRAL OCTOPUS DESTROYING
THE VALUABLE AGRICULTURAL LANDS HAS MEANWHILE AS I UNDERSTAND BECOME ALMOST A REALITY.”
-Carl Pruscha reflecting on his research of Kathmandu Valley in the early 1970's

Past Situation: The towns and
settlements in harmony with
environment

Present Trend: Fingers of a central
urban octopus growing to endanger
agricultural land and historic
settlements

Future alternative: Multi-nucleated
growth pattern. Historic settlements
and proposed new settlements in
harmony with natural environment

It was in the 1660s when the first Austrian visitor ‘Johannes Grueber’ came to Nepal. His reports in Europe are believed to be the first eyewitness accounts of our country. His gift to King Pratap Malla is said to have been a telescope which probably was the first piece of western technology in Nepal. It was a very important beginning for Nepal to look beyond its boundaries and search for new developments, new exposure and new technologies existing in the other parts of the world.

In 1962, Harvard University Professor ‘Eduard Sekler’ was travelling through India studying urban areas and the rapid changes brought upon them by modernization. With an advice of a friend, he came to Nepal during his visit to explore the country’s unique and naturally divine land. Recognizing the qualities of an intact urban form, he realized a great need for a planned development and preservation of the historic essence of the place. He took many memories with him back to Europe which inspired him to promote what he saw in Nepal and what was possible for its future.

The Master Plan of Kathmandu Valley
In the early 1970s, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) funded a planning office in Nepal and the Austrian architect Carl Pruscha, a former student of Sekler, was selected to lead it. And this way, after about 300 years of Grueber’s visit, once again, Nepal and Austria began a new relationship that is still fresh in history.

Carl Pruscha, a physical planner and an architect in the services of UNDP, engaged himself in physical regional planning of Nepal on a nationwide scale. His primary involvement was for the development of the master plan of Kathmandu valley and to help Nepal in preparing a detailed inventory of the valley’s monuments and cultural sites. When the several years of survey was completed, the inventory had about 888 number of sacred places identifi ed. Upon completion of research and gathering the material, Pruscha requested assistance from UNESCO, the Rockfeller Foundation and the Austrian Government to have it published in two volumes to become the basis for UNESCOs declaration of Kathmandu Valley as a World heritage site. This two-volume government publication was then entitled ‘Kathmandu Valley: Preservation of the Physical Environment and Cultural Heritage, a Protective Inventory’.

While preparing this master inventory, he consulted his scholarly friend and mentor, Professor Sekler, who had visited Nepal frequently and had cultivated a deep sense of attachment with Kathmandu valley culture. Sekler eventually became associated with UNESCO to prepare the Master Plan for the implementation of the project, which was called ‘Conservation Master Plan of the Cultural Heritage in the Kathmandu Valley’.

Published in 1977, this basic document is still the blueprint for the government’s efforts in heritage conservation.

This Master Plan has helped to nominate seven historical sites of the Kathmandu Valley to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Kathmandu Valley – the capital region of Nepal, covering about 15 square miles – is the area where for the fi rst time an attempt had been made to develop a comprehensive development under the co-ordinated concept of Regional Physical Planning.

After his analysis of the valley, Pruscha, believed that the problems of the valley are physical rather than social and should be relatively easy to solve with suffi cient fi nancial and technical assistance. Thus, in order to establish a sound framework and direction for the future growth of the Valley, various plans were considered and the proposals for a Multi-Nucleated Development were decided on as most appropriate. Urbanization and population distribution, transportation and infrastructure, preservation of physical environment and cultural heritage, are the three main pillars of his recommended development policy for the valley.

In his concept, he recommended the urban complex of Kathmandu-Patan to be guided in its growth to absorb new population in acceptable standards of density. He suggested revitalizing the Bhadgaon area through planned development and settlement expansion to the south and southwest. He envisioned the settlements as eventually circling the entire valley along the slopes of the emerging foothills. Considering that transport arteries are often the carriers of unwanted urban sprawl in the form of ribbon development, he also recommended a combined action of the proposed Land use and Transportation policy so that it is possible to utilize these arteries in a directed manner to guide the urban growth.

As a first achievement in attracting local leaders to express themselves with their problems in front of the national panchayat, Pruscha and his team had proposed to invite them to the valley and provide basic instruction courses, seminars and workshops. Therefore, he had requested the Ford Foundation for aid to construct a suitable building to conduct such activities. Later, when the Chairman of the National Planning Commission asked Pruscha to prepare designs for this building, he selected a site on the foothills of Kirtipur at the edge of the rice-fi elds. Today, we know this building as CEDA building located inside Tribhuvan University.

The CEDA Building
His design for the CEDA building was an attempt to blend physical, cultural and spiritual landscape of the valley while maintaining its contemporary expression. Using the existing terrace landscape, he created an eight story building which merged with the site so well that it looks like a continuation of man-made nature into man-made building.
His choice for the building material narrowed down to bricks as it was a  predominant building material since many centuries, giving Kathmandu valley its unique position among all Asian towns. Structural Engineer Mr. Zenon Zielinsky who was then working for Ford Foundation in Calcutta, contributed by designing a special prefabrication system for concrete panels that replaced the use of wood for ceilings and floors.

“More difficult to me as a foreigner was the design’s integration into the spiritual network of Nepal’s culture,”
explains Pruscha.


Taking an inspiration from the geometry of the Mandala with its circle and its square, Pruscha designed the fl oor plan to indicate its abstract symbol. The administrative part is designed as a square while the circle was reserved for the conference space. Since this is not a pure spiritual building, the circle is designed as an open one. It is placed axially in direction to Swayambhu from where its spiritual connection may be established. The third complex of the building was given a triangular form as a mediator between square and circle. Its function was to provide the living quarters for the invitees.

The Tara Gaon Hostel
During 1971, the chairwoman of Nepal Women’s Organization was planning to build a small village with little bungalows for foreign visitors, preferably young researchers or artists who were staying several weeks or months in the valley for professional reasons. Carl Pruscha convinced her to choose a special house type for temporary usage which  became the standard unit for the Taragaon Hostel in Boudha, Kathamndu.

As a result, a central small plaza was created with the cluster of 16 small  units grouped around a communal building, for which the brick vault commonly used for pilgrims’ lodging was selected instead of the pitched roofs commonly found in the valley. The building was constructed outside of the large stupa of Boudha, one of the most important centres of the northern Lamaism.

Be it Taragaon hostel or CEDA, in most of the buildings he designed during his stay in Nepal, Pruscha was continuously experimenting to evolve a new form of architecture using bricks. Gradually, he was successful to prove that it was truly possible to build traditional and modern both at the same time.

All these projects, for which he did not charge any fees as an architect, were actually not part of his obligations to the United Nations. But for him, they were important examples to demonstrate practically what he was to talk and propose as the adviser in physical planning.

Later, he was also asked by the Government to prepare a plan for the development of Lumbini. But after visiting Lumbini, he realized that it was still an untouched site almost unchanged since the days of Buddha. It was a place of such sacredness that he felt overburdened to touch it. Thus, he requested UNESCO to ask the architect Kenzo Tange, whom he knew from his studies at Harvard to serve as their consultant. Tange visited the site and invited him to join his planning team in Tokyo, where both of them collaborated for several months. Unfortunately none of the proposals became implemented.

Thanks to Pruscha, apart from his own contributions to Nepal he also proposed many personalities of outstanding reputation like Sekler, Tange, Kahn, Zielinsky, who otherwise
would not have been put in the position to contribute in Nepal.

Beyond Himalayan Vernacular
After spending about ten years in Nepal, Carl went back to Vienna where he served his following ten years teaching architecture at the Academy of fi ne arts. Another twelve years he served as the Rector of the University of Arts. Upon retirement, he was invited by the Getty Institute in Los Angeles as a head of Studio for Habitat, Environment and Conservation research scholar to spend six months there. The outcome of this research was the publication titled as ‘Himalayan Vernacular’. He is also an honorary member of the Senate of the Academy of fine arts, an honorary professor of the Technical University, Vienna and the chairman of the Austrian committee of the arts.

“More than any of the other arts, Architecture is place-specific. This is why Nepal has been so crucial in the development of Carl Pruscha...Like birds that migrate every winter from Siberia to North India, and then back again, some instinct brought him out to Kathmandu. There he came to life. Perhaps it was because he was young and full of creative energy, but somehow his work in Nepal is truly extraordinary, producing in his architecture a sequence of brooding monumental images, as mythic and enigmatic as the Himalayan ranges that lie all around.” mentions Charles Correa in the book ‘Himalayan Vernacular’.

Pruscha’s contributions in Nepal were more like the telescope of Greuber. They gave Nepal, a new vision to see beyond its existing boundaries. It was a fresh new beginning for the country to understand and appreciate what a planned regional development can do for a nation.

 

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