Obituary: Otto Koenigsberger

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The Independent Culture
OTTO KOENIGSBERGER, architect, planner and Egyptologist, enjoyed a long and remarkable career that began with work as a government architect in Berlin in the 1930s. It took him eventually to most continents of the world as a teacher, adviser, and consultant on many aspects of physical planning, architecture, design, and technology.

He introduced the concept of "action planning" - community-based schemes supported by government agencies - into many parts of the Third World. He took part in numerous important UN, governmental and educational missions and workshops that ranged from housing refugees in India to an extensive resettlement project in Ghana for the Volta Dam.

Born in Berlin in 1908, Koenigsberger studied architecture for five years at the Technical University Berlin under the influential German architect and teacher Professor Hans Poelzig and the key Functionalist architect Bruno Taut. Among his contemporaries at the TU were Walter Segal, who was closely associated with self-build housing, and the distinguished architectural historian Julius Posener. Both, like Koenigsberger, resided and taught - and in Segal's case practised architecture - in London.

Before going to university Koenigsberger spent a period of practical training as a bricklayer and carpenter. He never forgot the experience. Years later, after Partition, he taught Indian craftsmen bricklaying skills so that they could continue the work in which the departing Islamic builders had excelled.

After obtaining a first class engineering diploma in 1931, he commenced work for the Prussian Government Service on housing and hospitals. Two years later he won the coveted Schinkel Medal and the first State Prize in Architecture - just as his architect father had done before. Soon however, like many another Jewish professional in 1933, he was dismissed from government service by the Nazis.

Koenigsberger then joined Ludwig Borchardt's Swiss Institute for the History of Ancient Egyptian Architecture in Cairo, researching and excavating the Temple of Thotmes III in Thebes. He completed his thesis on the Ancient Egyptian Door for his Doctorate of Engineering, TU Berlin, in 1935, a work which at the time was noticed by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. During a brief period in hospital with TB in Davos, Switzerland, he continued to work on aspects of climatology and numerology in Egyptian architecture before moving on to India from 1939 to 1951.

In India he spent the first nine years at Mysore State serving as Chief Architect and Planner, a post created for him by the Nazim, Mirza Ismail, who had recognised his talent in Europe. Koenigsberger carried out hospital and housing projects as well as the design of Victory Hall, Bangalore, and the Jayachamarenda Institute of Technology.

His first active involvement with development work began about this time. It was enhanced, after Independence, by his appointment as the first Director of Housing under Nehru's new government. Koenigsberger had the task of developing housing policies and programmes for the huge numbers of refugees flooding into India at that time. Later he became involved in the creation of several new towns including the new capital of Orissa, Bhuba- neshwar and Gandhidham in Gujarat.

Somewhat later he worked with Nehru in the development of the new capital of Punjab, Chandigarh, which this week celebrates its 50th anniversary. Koenigsberger was approached to advise on the new capital city but declined an opportunity to act as its planner although it seems he had much to do with the eventual choice of British architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew for the housing and Le Corbusier to prepare the overall plan and design of the civic buildings. It is said that Koenigsberger locked all three of them up in a guesthouse in Simla for a few days to ensure the new city plan was completed on time.

In 1952, Koenigsberger came to England as adviser to Basildon New Town, a post he assumed to catch up on British planning ideas. For a while he did research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine before turning to his most important work on low-cost housing development, action planning and what had become known throughout the British Empire as "tropical architecture".

He soon discovered the inadequacies of exporting Western building and planning methods to Third World countries. He detected a real need to develop methodologies and a body of knowledge for local professionals. Some work in this field had already been started by Fry and Drew with their books on tropical architecture, and the setting up of a graduate school for tropical architecture at the Architectural Association, London in 1954. Due to pressure of work in West Africa Fry passed on the headship to Koenigsberger in 1957.

The school transferred to University College in 1972 and was renamed the Development Planning Unit (DPU), with Koenisgberger as its Head and UCL's first professor of development planning. Between 1954 and 1978 Koenigsberger with DPU took on many short- term assignments and missions in Third World countries for the UN, the Overseas Development Administration and various government bodies.

Koenigsberger's classic textbook the Manual of Tropical Housing and Building was published in 1974 and prepared jointly with colleagues T.G. Ingersoll, A. Mayhew, and S.V. Szokolay. It stills sells 1,000 copies a year in India.

During a busy period "Dr K" - as he was affectionately known - was always ready to offer help and advice to anyone who came with a genuine problem from any part of the world. Indeed, he claimed that it was a Nigerian student who alerted him to the problems of Third World architects training in Britain. The student had complained: "I have studied architecture in the UK and learned about snow loads and local building regulations . . . but this is of no use to me in Nigeria!"

Increasingly Koenigsberger and the DPU became more interested in sociology, economics and politics, and architecture began to take a back seat although the technical aspects of housing were always of great interest to him. One of his favourite small projects had been an agency scheme prepared for President Nkruma's government for "roof loans" to cover the costs of building sustainable roofs for self-build and DIY projects in Ghana.

At the AA in 1986, he took over as a caretaker principal, seeking AA Council's approval to bring in John (Michael) Lloyd from Kumasi, Ghana, as the new head of school. He was also a great asset to the editorial board of the AA Quarterly journal (which I had the privilege of editing from 1968 to 1982), which he had helped to create with the AA President Jane Drew. In 1976, he became the editor-in-chief of Habitat International, a journal devoted to Third World planning issues.

Otto Koenigsberger received many honours during his lifetime, including an emeritus professorship from University College London, and a coveted Dr-Ing from the University of Stuttgart. However, it was the award of the first "Habitat Scroll of Honour" in 1989 from the United Nations (Centre for Human Settlements, UNCHS) that brought him the greatest satisfaction.

Otto Heinrich Gustav Koenigsberger, architect planner: born Berlin 13 October 1908; Research Fellow, London School of Tropical Diseases 1953- 57; Head, Graduate School for Tropical Architecture, Architectural Association, London 1957-1972; Professor of Development Planning and Honorary Research Fellow, University College London 1972-78 (Emeritus); married 1957 Renate Born; died London 3 January 1999.