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  Book Review

Patan Museum – The Transformation of a Royal Palace in Nepal
by Gotz Hagmuller
144 pages, Serindia Publications; (December 1, 2002)

By Usha Ramaswamy

Besides being a comprehensive book on its subject, it deals with several interesting issues, ranging from the controversial subject of architectural conservation, and the sustainability of projects of this kind in resource- crunched countries, to what architectural design is about.

What degree of intervention is possible in a monument without changing the authenticity of its historic fabric? This overriding concern of conservationists and restorationists finds a unique and beautiful solution in the conversion of a royal palace in Patan’s Durbar Square to a museum of art. Patan Museum is a triumph in conservation, a work of art, a tribute to traditional Newar architecture and a testament to a man who has dedicated himself to preserving this tradition.

Patan Museum – The Transformation of a Royal Palace in Nepal is the fascinating story of how the conversion was effected. A collation of articles by five authors, of which the bulk writing is by the architect of the project, Gotz Hagmuller, the book is more than an esoteric architectural treatise. Its diverse but related interests not only give it a context for its main subject but also heft and substance for a wider audience. Further, this thoughtful and thought-provoking work is supported by splendid coloured plates - photographs, drawings and illustrations that would well qualify in themselves as art.

Besides the issues involved in restoration, and a detailed analysis of the design process including the considerations for museum design in general, Patan Museum introduces such topics as the mythical origin of Nepal, the culture of Kathmandu Valley, sacred urban space in Asia, the traditions of Buddhism, the history of Patan Durbar Square - even a comparison of it with Josephsplatz in Vienna! This socio-history and cultural insight is a palimpsest for every niche and every beam in the renovated museum. Mary Slusser’s informed articles on Exhibition Technology and Design and Traditional Metal Crafts of Nepal make the viewing of exhibits all the more meaningful for this knowledge, while Kanak Mani Dixit’s lament for the stolen art of Nepal is a sobering reminder of how the museum came by its collection. How the single most important ‘benefactor’ of the museum was the criminal world of idol-theft! Musings on the Patan Museum is my first impression of the museum, a sentimental journey made years ago, before I knew anything more than that it was on Kathmandu’s tourist map, but that moved me to return again and again.

In his introduction Hagmuller explains that he was first initiated in Kathmandu Valley architecture and its spiritual dimensions by Niels Gutschow, “…the Newars have illuminated their townscapes with ‘supernatural lights.’ Presumably these lights will not shine anymore in cities of the future. It is up to us to seek new dimensions in the twilight.” The semi-dark region between shadow and light, ‘…seeing architectural niches of light in the semi-darkness’ is the theme of Hagmuller’s design for the museum. Considering that for the occidental intellect light and darkness are opposites whereas in the holistic view of the oriental mind it has no distinct borders (darkness, in fact is beautiful and spiritual - Eastern gods dwell in darkness) Hagmuller’s adoption of ‘semi-darkness’ is a departure indeed. When deciding how best to light the museum collection, his dilemma was whether to treat the exhibits as gods or art objects, how, that is, to reconcile exhibiting with inhibiting. Rejecting the hard brightness of traditional museum lighting, he decided on mellow incandescent lights that are closest to Eastern oil lamps. Daylight filtering through the small windows and lattices would illuminate the long dark passages and orient visitors without subjecting them to sharp contrasts. Earth colours – terracotta, ochre, brown - would deepen the sense of mystery as well as complement the rich tones of the exhibits.

Central to the book is how Hagmuller resolved his design philosophy to fulfil the three major (and sometimes conflicting) goals for the restoration. 1) To repair and preserve the damaged structure 2) To restore its historical details as far as this could be determined by research 3) To adapt the building to its new function. And of course how he responded to the question: What degree of intervention is possible in a monument without changing the authenticity of its historic fabric?

Building design is contextual, and the original palace wasn’t excepted, says Hagmuller in The Setting. Not only is a building dictated by the prevalent architectural trends but also influenced by political and religious beliefs. Everything inside Asian cities was regarded as sacred, and each city imagined itself as the centre of the world. The mental image of the city was a mandala, a scale model of the universe, and religious buildings were projections of a cosmic order. Cities had defined borders that still hold, spiritually guarded by concentric external rings (or by converging spirals).  This cosmic structure of urban spaces is preserved despite the original boundaries being rubbed out by urban sprawl, primarily because of the religious processions that till today proceed on their original, defined route around shrines and landmarks. To understand, and specifically to design in such spaces, one must step back into time, and understand the intensely religious rules that governed them.

Religious rules translate to the practicalities of building design. In Patan Museum, lost details such as roof overhangs, balconies, doors and windows required a great deal of research, design and work with craftsmen to get them historically correct. This approach to finding the historic ‘truth’ of the building has been much debated upon. In Asia, the ritual of repair and rebuilding, and not the authenticity of the materials used is the essence of preservation. However, according to international guidelines for preservation, replacement design ‘by conjecture’ is condemned as falsification of historic evidence. The imitation of a traditional design pattern or even the reconstruction of lost building elements within a given historic setting is not only condemned, but rejected outright. Each indispensable new component ‘must be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a ‘contemporary stamp’. If applied in Nepal that would have justified interposing a balcony with concrete balusters, and a corrugated tin roof! In some instances in Patan Museum where modern technology was unavoidable, as for example, the steel sections for the new arcade in the museum’s rear wing, the adherence to these guidelines was criticized – and this in spite of the beams harmonizing with the whole. Hagmuller, one gathers, would have deemed it barbarous to pass concrete balusters as an honest solution, but would have considered it a tragic travesty to dress up the steel beams to make them look like the original timber. His solution was not a compromise but a creative resolution.  

Something astonishing happened in the course of executing the project. UNESCO made an about turn and banned contemporary construction materials in Nepal - the very condition it had earlier enforced! The consequences of such a draconian statute, i.e., disallowing concrete and steel even in foundations and invisible ring beams of endangered old buildings in earthquake prone Nepal was inconsiderate, to say the least. The last concrete slab for such a purpose, at the Patan Museum in 1995, was already in violation of the edict, and cast clandestinely over the weekend! But, says Hagmuller, and the exterior is none the worse for it. Indeed, the incorporation of several ‘modern’ features, including semi-cylindrical window walls, openings of varying sizes, and alcove protrusions enliven the façade. A new rhythm emerged in the original score. Since doors and windows are a ‘building’s eyes, ears and mouth’, through which a building can achieve a human dignity, and their ‘structured and poetic arrangements’ are full of hidden meaning, an almost abstract notation, like that of sheet music, facades can be read as well as seen. The rear elevation’s new rhythm is a faint echo of Rana architecture, a deliberate post-modern touch, in deference to the earlier dictate.

And finally, do such projects have a sustainable future? Shaphalya Amatya’s synoptic essay on the beginnings of conservation in the Kathmandu Valley establishes the early involvement of the Austrian Government and Austrian individuals in the detailed inventory of Kathmandu Valley’s monuments and cultural sites. Plans for restoring Patan Museum had begun as early as in 1982, and the Austrian Government largely funded the project since Nepal allocates limited funds for culture and related activities. The problem is that even though public museums in this part of the world generally have low standards of maintenance and security, and appeal neither to local people nor the foreign visitor used to higher standards, they are conceived as non-profit educational institutions, depending on government grants for their operation. Thus maintaining and operating a museum of international standards is impossible unless it can sustain itself. Patan Museum is the first cultural institution in Nepal that was granted the status of a semi-autonomous public corporation rather than a government office. The restoration and installation of the museum served as a start-up capital but the sale of tourist tickets will remain its main income. Additional sources of revenue include a café, gift shop, a guest studio apartment, and a gallery and the open arcades for temporary exhibitions, another gallery for lectures, and the main courtyard for cultural performances.     

Patan Museum – The Transformation of a Royal Museum will not only foster an understanding of the absorbing behind-the-scenes drama of a successful historic restoration but also arm the reader to look for and appreciate the finer points - architectural, historical and social context - of any heritage building or urban space.

To a newly opened eye nothing will ever appear the same as before. Patan Museum is certainly an eye-opener.

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