Carl Pruscha

About Carl Pruscha

Born in Innsbruck in 1936, Carl Pruscha studied from 1955 to 1960 with Lois Welzenbacher and Roland Rainer at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He received his MA in Urban Design in 1964 at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and came to Nepal in 1965 as a United Nations adviser for eight years. After a teaching assignment in the USA, he joined the Academy in Vienna as a professor for fundamentals of planning and building research in 1978. From 1988 to 2001 he acted as the vice-chancellor before taking over the chair for habitat, environment and conservation, which he held until his retirement in 2004.

In a letter dated the 13th of May, 2010 he stated:

“After completing my postgraduate studies at Harvard, I joined a team of five young architects who were invited by Wallace Harrison to engage in an urban planning project for the development of Downtown Manhattan (Battery Park, including the later World Trade Center). Our visionary approach, which included floating islands on the Hudson, were, however, scrapped and commercially viable solutions preferred. I had no interest to continue working along those lines and intended to return to the safe haven of the university to start with a dissertation on planning in developing countries. Facilitated by our dean, José Luis Sert, I managed to get access to the library and archives of the UNO. There I met Ernest Weissmann, who headed the Department of Housing, Building and Planning. He ridiculed me, reading reports about field work with artificial light and prompted me to join the field and gather experience.

At about the same time, I was still working with Harrison at the Rockefeller Center and used to have lunch at the cafeteria in the court of the old – and still beautiful – Museum of Modern Art. I saw the exhibition “Architecture without Architects”, curated by Bernhard Rudofsky (an Austrian architect born in Moravia in 1905). The exhibition (9 November 1964 to 7 February 1965), which presented “a short introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture,” struck me deeply. It reminded me of my teacher Roland Rainer and of my childhood on an isolated farm in the Tyrolean mountains.

As it was obviously too early for genuinely new architecture, I preferred to gaze into the past of anonymous architecture in order to find new directions. As Weissmann kept making fun of my futile studies, I asked him point blank to send me out into the field. When asked where I would like to go, I answered “Tibet” – as I was an enthusiastic reader of Sven Hedin’s travelogues in my youth. He said that the Chinese did not accept UN advisors, so this would be impossible. But some time later he turned up again and asked whether I would like to go to Nepal. I returned to Harvard and asked my mentor Eduard Sekler (another Austrian architect who had joined Harvard as a professor of architecture in 1960), who had been to Nepal in 1962. His answer was very clear: forget everything else, on to Nepal!”

In 1965/66 Pruscha served as an associate expert in town planning for one year. He returned in 1967 as a United Nations planning expert, and introduced the concept of regional physical planning. Within a little over two years, the Town Planning Office had prepared the “Physical Development Plan for the Kathmandu Valley” under Chief Engineer K. R. Pandey. Wolfgang Korn joined the team in January 1968 to prepare site maps of monument zones and villages for a comprehensive account of “human settlements and habitat.”

Besides working as a planner, Pruscha practised as an architect, not only designing and building his own residence in Bansbari, but also the Centre for Economic Development (1970, with the assistance of Jorgen Rahbeck Thomsen) at Tribhuvan University and the Taragaon complex in 1971. In 1972 Pruscha embarked upon another monumental task: the preparation of a Protective Inventory of monuments and sites. It was published in 1975 with support from UNESCO and the Austrian government. Earlier, in April 1974, he completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of Graz, summing up his experience in planning for the Kathmandu Valley.

From a letter dated the 11th of April, 2010:

“Regarding the background of the “star village,” as Ambika Shrestha used to call it. She once came to my home in Bansbari, which had been recommended to her as a new form of Nepalese house. She asked me to design a couple of small houses that could be rented out to Western visitors. I never referred to that project as a “hotel,” it was rather like accommodating visitors in a lodge.

My office in the Department of Housing, Building and Physical Planning could not be utilized for the project. A friendly civil engineer, Zenon Zielinsky, who worked for the Ford Foundation in Calcutta, supervised the structural design. In this way, the philanthropic organization of women had a cost-free planning team at hand.

Having completed my UN assignment in 1974, I planned to establish my own architectural practice in Kathmandu, which was initially set up by a graduate from the Ahmedabad School of Architecture, Vinod Vijas. But my life took another turn. I was about to join a similar assignment in Yemen, but my wife with our two daughters was not willing to follow me. When a professorship was offered to me in 1978, the experience in Nepal became history.”

From a letter dated the 13th of May, 2010:

“There remains the question regarding the emergence of Taragaon. It dawns on me that one day Ambika Shrestha visited me in the company of ladies from the Nepal Women’s Association and Annemarie Spahr, who came to Nepal in 1962 (and stayed till 1990) to administrate Swiss Aid. Mrs. Spahr guided the hostel after its completion in 1973. She was also helpful in finding a Swiss volunteer to act as overseer during construction. In the beginning, the ladies had the idea to create a Newar village in a nutshell, in which visitors from the West could be housed for some time: artists, writers, scientists, researchers and people interested in religion. Essential was the creation of a kind of community house with a library and a small open square to facilitate communications among the guests. I immediately opposed this plan, saying that the family house would not serve the needs of temporary visitors.

My ongoing research in the valley discovered the type of barrel vaulted structures which within the temple complexes served to shelter pilgrims – a kind of “Pati.” These were taken as prototypes for the design but it was not at all easy to carry this idea through with my clients.

Praise came from Kenzo Tange, Charles Correa and Eduard Sekler. The extension of the project was planned by Vinod Vijas in my Kathmandu office but was never implemented.”

In 1974 (published in “Das Fenster, 16”, Innsbruck 1975, pp. 1607-09) Carl Pruscha wrote a few explanatory notes at a time when Taragaon was still under construction:

“Located along the main route between India and Tibet, the Valley accommodated all those holy men, philosophers and teachers who brought the teachings of early Buddhism and later of Tantrism to the north.

This tradition of putting up wayfarers caused specific types of buildings to evolve which were often located near important sanctuaries and at scenic points. These lodges or Dharmashalas are ground-floor vaulted rooms, open to at least one side, large enough to provide space shelter for a few wayfarers. The Kathmandu Valley faces a growing influx of visitors. Many come and go without getting into any real contact with the exceptional civilization, in harmony with nature. Few want to remain for a longer period, devoted to meditation which is still practised by the descendants of those wise men.

For wayfarers of our time, who seek contact to this world, the Taragaon hotel was created as a hostel or shelter on the periphery of the Buddhist sanctuary of Boudhanath, east of Kathmandu. While Tibetan and Buddhist pilgrims find accommodation in the houses surrounding the stupendous stupa, a separate realm was created at Taragaon for visitors from other cultural realms. In a first phase, 14 small units and two larger buildings for common use were built. The design was influenced by the form and function of the traditional Dharmashalas. In the implementation, however, new technical and creative possibilities were utilised. The very small units of only one room are similar to monastic cells and provide a bed for the night, table and bench. In a small annex, facilities for cooking and washing are provided. Walls, floors and the vaulted ceiling, and even the inbuilt benches are exclusively made of bricks. Following the principle of the barrel vault, the buildings could be completed in a short time with moving segmental shuttering, supported by bamboo poles. The barrel vaults are made up of one brick on edge, a second layer follows after isolation with locally available bitumen. The result was the creation of a homogenous mass of bricks which had a considerable cooling effect. Penetrating rain water evaporates at the level of the bitumen and is thus a cooling factor. The openness of the rooms at both ends allows ideal transverse ventilation. Besides this standard type, larger units were created with bunk beds. The desk-like mono-pitched roofs reach to the ground and are negotiable via steps on the side. The two larger common buildings serve all further functions and form the centre of the entire complex. The former terraced fields of the site allowed for a staggered arrangement of all components that are connected by brick-paved paths. These paths lead towards a lowered village square in front of one of the common structures.”