Kathmandu’s legacy is Götz Hagmüller’s legacyAustrian architect who made Nepal his home, and preserving its heritage his life’s work
Götz Hagmüller, the Austrian architect who made the preservation of Kathmandu Valley’s cultural heritage his life’s work died on Friday in Bhaktapur, the town he helped restore.
Hagmüller died peacefully in his sleep at Kuthu Math, the former pilgrim’s guesthouse in Bhaktapur which he helped restore and where he lived for most of his life in Nepal. He was 85.
Hagmüller first came to Nepal in 1979 to help with the Bhaktapur Development Project, the German government initiative that over two decades helped restore the crumbling town and upgrade its facilities.
He never left. After Bhaktapur, Hagmüller went on to be involved in the restoration of Kaiser Mahal’s Garden of Dreams, the Patan Museum and the restoration of the Patan palace, as well as numerous buildings in Bhaktapur including the unique 8-cornered Chyasilin Temple and the Kuthu Math. He also helped restore the house that would become Milla Guest House in Bhaktapur.
He made the 300-year-old Kuthu Math pilgrim’s rest house his home, spending three decades restoring the courtyard’s architecture that retained the original look and feel of the Kathmandu Valley civilisation that was being steadily overtaken by urban expansion.
The restoration of Patan Museum, Bhaktapur and Kaiser Mahal are models of heritage conservation, and an inspiration for architects not just in Nepal but around the world. Kuthu Math’s courtyard with its moist greenery is a serene oasis in Bhaktapur’s urbanscape, and murals that were discovered in the interior walls during restoration have been carefully preserved.
“It is my determination to preserve the spiritual core of the Valley that keeps me motivated,” Hagmüller once told Nepali Times. “Kuthu Math is aesthetically pleasing, and remains as practical to live in as it is beautiful.”
The young Hagmüller studied architecture at Technische Universität in Vienna, and discovered early on that he was much more fascinated by aesthetics and beauty than engineering calculations. Later, he was involved in conservation work in Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Luang Prabang in Laos before he came to Nepal to work for the Bhaktpur German project in 1979.
The legacy of Hagmüller’s life’s work in Kathmandu was not just to preserve its cultural legacy, but to make his projects sustainable. Having worked with the Nepal government, he understood that maintenance and sustainability were weak points — it was not enough just to restore a heritage site.
He ensured that Patan Museum and Garden of Dreams had local trusts that would be its custodians. Patan Museum, for instance, gets more than 50,000 visitors a year and the entrance fees are ploughed into upkeep and expansion work.
Towards the end of his life, with memory failing, Hagmüller would worry about what was happening to his beloved Kathmandu Valley with its population explosion and haphazard growth.
“A lot has changed. Some of the buildings I cannot recognise anymore as I walk through the old streets of Bhaktapur," Hagmüller told Nepali Times in 2017. “But personally I’m very content with my own work, I wouldn't have done anything differently.”
In 2001, Hagmüller was conferred the Gorkha Dakshin Bahu national medal by King Birendra in recognition of his preservation work. The Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art was also awarded to him at a ceremony in 2016 in the Patan Museum courtyard, which he helped restore.
“It is very very special for me to get this award from the Austrian government at the Patan Museum, which was Austria’s first big contribution to the cultural preservation in Nepal,” he said after the award.
Despite failing health, Hagmüller worked on the two-volume A Picture Book of My Life that was published in 2017, and is available in Kathmandu bookshops.
Watch video clip of the Austrian Cross award ceremony.
Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).