“Follow your curiosity and your interest”Wolfgang Korn on his love for Newar architecture and publishing books on it.
In 1968, Wolfgang Korn, a German architect, came to Nepal and worked in the Department of Housing and Physical Planning for the government of Nepal. In his years in Nepal, Korn also worked alongside Dr Mary Slusser, an anthropologist and archaeologist, to document various temples around the Kathmandu Valley. Korn was also one of the architects involved in the renovation of the four towers and upper story of the Lohan-Chowk of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace. With his work over the years, he fell in love with the vibrant culture and architecture of the Newars.
Till date, Korn has published four books on the traditional architecture of temples in the Valley that many architecture and engineering students refer to understand the traditional building methods of monuments and houses in Nepal. In an inauguration programme at the Patan Museum on Friday, Korn launched his latest book: Erotic Carvings of the Kathmandu Valley Found on the Struts of Newar Temples, which has been cooauthored by the late Sukra Sagar Shrestha, a Nepali historian and archaeologist. In this interview with the Post’s Srizu Bajracharya, Korn shares his unlikely journey to publishing books about Newar architecture and his love for documenting temples. Excerpts:
You have already authored three books on Newar architecture. Would you say you are a writer?
When I first came to Nepal, I had no idea where and what Kathmandu looked like. After completing my architectural studies, I wanted to go to West Africa, but the German Development Service that I had applied for asked me if I wanted to go to Nepal, and so I came here. I was unaware of the rich architectural history of Kathmandu.
At the time, my tasks involved measuring monuments and buildings. I was the first to climb temples and measure elevation and plan sections. I also mapped Maju Dega and Kasthamandap. I used to work for the town planning section, and so drew temples in their details, drafting their measurements on paper and documenting how they were built. I also met Mary Slusser and worked with her to document temples and later continued on my own. And in 1974, I joined the Hanuman Dhoka Renovation Project, which was a four-year UNESCO-run project.
But I realised that all my huge sketches were of no use or value if I didn’t publish them. So I decided to publish the drawings. And that’s how I started. I never planned to write a book. I am just a simple architect, and I don’t consider myself a writer.
Was it challenging to publish your first book, ‘The Traditional Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley’?
When I looked around for publishers, Ratna Pustak Bhandar took an interest in my work and agreed to publish the book. However, it was still challenging to publish the books, as at the time, printing techniques only used letter stencils. It took a lot of time to print the book, as the technology around it was difficult. But I left as soon as the books were published. I was given a certain amount that I was happy with, and I never really looked back. I didn’t even know if I would ever come back to Nepal. But I returned after 35 years.
For many students studying engineering and architecture, your book is a guide to understanding Nepali architecture. How does that feel? Did you know that the book was going to be used as a coursebook in colleges?
I feel proud. I never imagined that students would use my books. I didn’t see that kind of future for the book. I had no idea what happened with my published work after I left Nepal. I didn’t own any copyrights of my book, and I only found out that students who were studying architecture and engineering were referring to my books when I came back. I published the drawings as a book, as I believed they would these drawings needed to be accessible to people to see how the temples were made. But I never thought that students would be using them. I didn’t publish the book with the intent of gaining any profit. I am glad that I published the work.
What got you started with your latest book: Erotic Carvings of the Kathmandu Valley?
In 2013, I met Sukra Sagar Shrestha and became friends with him. He and I had similar interests. He was a historian and archaeologist, and he knew a lot of stories behind places. We used to go around temples and study the details that made them extraordinary. We always roamed around with the question of why and tried to answer it as much as possible. We were also both very curious about the erotic struts that were abundant in the temples around the Valley. We wanted to know why it was there, and what was its purpose. And so, we decided to work on a book, also because we realised that nobody else would take up this topic. But before starting, we had many discussions about why we should even make this book. But I remember Sukra Sagar’s very words, “without sex no life on earth can exist.” It took a lot of time to finish the book, as I only came once a year to Nepal. And then we collaborated with Roshan Dangol, who has documented in detail the erotic carvings that you see in temples, and with Eka Ram Singh, Sagar’s long-time friend who helped with the illustrations.
But do you worry about criticism for it? Since nobody openly talks about the erotic carvings or sex in general.
We were two bajes that believed that somebody should tell what these erotic carvings found on the struts of Newar temples meant. And we knew that no one would readily be able to explore this topic, and that’s why we did it. I am beyond that age where criticism affects me. I believe this was an essential book, for these erotic carvings are everywhere in Newar architecture.
It was a given that people would not be that welcoming with this book. And that is evident as we didn’t even find a publisher to print the book because the drawings in themselves are very detailed. It shows everything, and yes, some are even pornographic. But readers of this book shouldn’t take the pictures as something absurd. These drawings are erotic but not vulgar; they have their reason for being there. The book is the result of our curiosity to find out who ordered or designed them and to understand what was the purpose of the art.
What is the significance of iconic architectural monuments in any country?
When I came to Kathmandu, I had no idea about the skills of the Newar people and the beautiful architecture of the Valley. I can say that I don’t know of any other highly developed cultural architecture than that found in the Kathmandu Valley. It is impressive that such a small place has so much architectural excellence. Where in the world will you see buildings that are made with just timber and earth? The architecture and engineering of the monuments are remarkable. They are unique and valuable. They show the culture that existed in Kathmandu Valley during the Malla period. It exhibits craft and skill of Newar artisans. Of course, today that value of building culture has slowly gone down, with people wanting to modernise. And I know that it isn’t wrong for them to want to upgrade, but yes, concrete buildings are on the rise. And it is changing the landscape of the Valley. But for me, I wish for the past to be a part of the future.
What books would you recommend to people who want to write about Nepal’s architecture?
There still are not enough books published about Nepali architecture. Those that you can read are quite expensive. But architect writers who want to write about Nepal should read Niels Gutschow’s Architecture of Newars. The book is eight kgs heavy and remarkable. It comes in three volumes. They should also refer to the drawing collection if they can of Carl Pruscha’s Kathmandu Valley, the Preservation of Physical Environment and Cultural Heritage Protective Inventory.
What is your inspiration for writing?
It was my curiosity that made me want to find out about things which went on to become books because I felt that way the information had more value. But all the books that happened were because of the consequences of the decisions I had taken. More than inspiration, I would say that I was only following my hobby, and that gave way to making my books possible. There were no calculated measures made. Everything just happened in progress. I was documenting temples because I loved drawing them. And I published the book because I thought it should be accessible for others to see and understand. I have always believed that one should follow their interests and should be ready to get their hands dirty if they want to learn. Let’s not make this complicated; it is just as it is, an unfolding of events that got me here.