Image by Nipun Prabhakar

The Taragaon Museum: one of Nepal’s first modern buildings

Designed as a hotel in 1971 by Austrian architect Carl Pruscha, the Taragaon Museum sits amid Baudha’s stupa, and symbolises Kathmandu Valley’s rich history of art and culture.

It was a rainy day in Kathmandu when I decided to visit Taragaon Museum, a building every architecture enthusiast I met in Nepal had suggested I visit since my arrival to the city. I reached Baudha, an area famous for having one of the world’s biggest stupas, but finding the museum, which is nearby, was a little difficult. I asked around but my efforts were in vain. Finally, I stumbled upon a brick wall, not very far from the entrance to Baudha, and a modest iron gate that brought me to the moist brick steps leading to the museum.

The architecture of the museum came as a surprise. While the campus was built entirely in brick – something I was used to seeing among the traditional Dachi brick structures of Kathmandu Valley, it was a modernist structure: minimalist design, simple forms, devoid of ornamentation. I could relate the museum’s basic forms with the visuals I had witnessed and absorbed during my two years of stay in the valley, although it expressed a different architectural language from the rest of the area.

The story of Taragaon Museum dates back to the late 1960s, when Carl Pruscha, an Austrian architect, was sent to Nepal on a UNDP-funded mission following the recommendation of his former professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design, Eduard Sekler. Pruscha spent his time developing the master plan of Kathmandu Valley and preparing a detailed inventory of its monuments and cultural sites with the Nepal government.

In 1971, he was given a chance to design a modern village to house artists, writers, scientists, researchers, and people interested in religion. They would mostly be from the west. Pruscha suggested a barrel vaulted structure similar to what he had seen in Dharamshalas, or lodges in temple complexes that sheltered pilgrims in the valley. The modern village structure became the standard unit for the Taragaon Hotel in Boudha, Kathmandu.

In a letter dated 13 May, 2010 and published by the museum, Pruscha wrote:

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 homogeneous 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.”

After its construction, the Taragon Hotel saw its glory days span nearly two decades, but by the 1990s, it was abandoned and neglected. Help came from philanthropist Arun Saraf, a hospitality entrepreneur who brought the Hyatt Group to India. He decided to convert the structure into a museum for preservation, restoration and the documentation of the arts and heritage of the Kathmandu Valley. The complex was restored, rehabilitated, and eventually re-opened in March 2014.

During my visit, I noticed how the homogeneity of materials accentuated little details like water spouts at the junction of the vaults. Given the contoured nature of the site, I was able to experience the museum from different heights. The barrel vaulted galleries by their very design instigated curiosity. It was a different experience standing in a room where the walls raised from the ground seamlessly became the roof before turning into  the walls again, yet on the other side.

I observed collections of  very elaborate handmade drawings, etchings, maps and sketches of the Kathmandu Valley, as well as 19th century ethnographic photographs – the first impressions of Nepal to a foreigner’s eye. I also noticed the detailed sketches of historic buildings in Kathmandu Valley, many of which I walked past every day while going to work. Most of them were still intact, as if frozen in time. Those public squares and religious buildings were still being used by the locals in their everyday life and not just by tourists. That is the beauty of Nepal, a country preserving its glorious past while building a promising future, all by including its heritage in everyday life.

The museum, in its new life, stands firm on its mission of establishing a dialogue on the rich history of the Kathmandu Valley and the cultural changes it has undergone since the time Nepal opened its doors to the world in 1949. Although a symbol of its time, the building is slowly being rediscovered by a new generation of Nepalis, who are growing up in a rapidly changing society that is going through a great social and political transformation. 

This article was written by Nipun Prabhakar, a documentary photographer based in Kutch and Delhi. He works on long-term projects dealing with intersections of ideas, artifacts, built environments, and folklore. His practice is informed by his training and experience as an architect in situations that call for a contextual response to culture and geography. He was the Cornell South Asian fellow 2019 for his project on the Doors of Kathmandu. Nipun also took all of the images used in this article.