Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Shades of Green and Architecture

Dr. B S Bhooshan,
Talk delivered at IIT, Kharagpur on 23 December 2009

I write this in first person as I think it is too difficult to be objective about this issue.

We, the mankind or woman kind if you want to put that way, as a species had developed from the animal stage to an intellectual group, making great strides of progress, expanding his abilities to tap the nature for greater creature comforts and making tools and technologies. He has moved from the forests to subsistence farming to manufacture to genetic tampering, faster movements, reaching the spaces unthinkable a two centuries ago. He dwelt in caves and emerged to build huts, create stronger dwellings, and sanctify them with myths and meanings, created sacred spaces and created cities and metropolises and in the last century nightmares of a curious mixture of fantasy and ecological nemesis – couchemar de la catastrophe ecologique- in the form of great and terrible cities.

Suddenly, we also find that we have entered an era of mass consumption and faster depletion of resources, and climatic changes, explosion of information on impending disaster, global warming, unavailability of potable water, creation and dumping of all kinds of wastes including e wastes and nuclear wastes and fights for resource control, crisis of energy etc. The last two decades saw these things multiplied their space in the media. There is greater awareness today. For 1972 UN meet on environment, the coverage was that of a scientific congress. But today, Al Gore’s visit to India is on the front page, there is Nobel price given to Al Gore and the intergovernmental organisation for climate change. Climate change and ecological perspectives cannot be just dismissed easily as anti development slogans. The so called green architecture, whatever that term conjures up, moved from the concerns of a few to a large number of aspiring professionals. From Passion it has moved to fashion. It has become for many a moral stance, moving towards a cult and religiosity. May be for the good of mankind! May be not.

As the momentum gains various shades of green are visible leading to a confusion of a kind especially to the young professionals. It is important that we know at least what we are doing. I talk more from the point of view of architecture and built environment, though the idea cannot be viewed in isolation to other feilds.

Firstly, we as professionals in built environment and architecture, should understand what green means to us. Secondly, we also should know that ours is not a politically neutral technical solution making activity devoid of ideological positions. Every idea has a political structure behind that to emerge as a solution.

Green buildings as I am made to understand

Green buildings usually refers to a construction development of what currently been promoted as sustainable development. Notion of sustainability has more than a hundred and odd interpretations: But what has often been used is the one that concerned with the idea of leaving the world for future generations, one which Brundland Report adopted and by the UN.

It says:

The ideal of environmental sustainability is to leave the Earth in as good or better shape for future generations than we found it for ourselves. By a definition, human activity is only environmentally sustainable when it can be performed or maintained indefinitely without depleting natural resources or degrading the natural environment.

Resource consumption would be minimal

Materials consumed would be made ENTIRELY of 100% post-construction hazards. Recycling of waste streams would be 100%.

Energy would be conserved and energy supplies would be ENTIRELY renewable and non-polluting (solar thermal and electric, wind power, biomass, etc.) Now we hear of nuclear energy as well.

Consumer recycled materials or from renewable resources (which were harvested without harm to the environment and without depletion of the resource base) only will be used.

This certainly is a utopian position at least in the present scenario. The whole question is how we approach to achieve this and what technical and managerial and societal requirements are evolved.

Ecological footprints of buildings and eco costs

One of the problems we face as professionals is how to assess the damage we do to the environment and ecology of our small planet. Perhaps, this is a problem of every living being.

A single concept, which makes an overall assessment of the environmental impact of a person, a building, a nation or any development, is known as the ecological footprint. The ecological footprint is an accounting tool for ecological resources. Categories of human consumption are translated into areas of productive land required to provide resources and assimilate waste products. The ecological footprint is a measure of how sustainable our life-styles are. The ecological footprint of a building refers to the area of land required to for continued production of wood products, embodied energy and attendant CO2 emissions. This measure is however fraught with problems of calculation. Similarly other methods are also been attempted to calculate the impacts to a single index such as BEPI (Building Energy Performance Index) expressed in terms of GJ/m2/year, the environmental cost calculated by reducing all impacts it terms of monitory value and other multiple criteria indices.

The concepts also have to be practical and have to lead to parameters, measurable criteria and norms. Do we really have?

When we are talking of green built environment or architecture, we should distinguish between Initial Capital Damage and Continued Damage or Positive Contribution within the concept of Life Cycle of buildings. Design involves both. There are many ways one can deal with minimizing continued Damage

Design with climate, Passive solar heating and cooling, improved gadgets and materials and technology ,

waste recycling, water recycling, rain water harvesting, etc.

Life style is the key for reducing continued damage; living with nature. India has been living with nature; but often in sub optimal subsistence level. Can we do it better? We can.

Initial Capital Damage will continue to be a major challenge. Because, it is more difficult address and not enough stress is given to this aspect. None of the green assessment methods and programmes and rating systems do not adequately stress on this aspect either. Methodology of evaluation and practicality of assessment continue to be a major hurdle.

Baseline for all the assessments today is a typical average and recognizing better than normal performance. This base line is difficult to define and scrutiny. The baseline and performance is expected to rise over time. Priorities and prioritisation will change the assessment norms and rating points. Experts point out that, for many criteria baseline requires a judgment call. (Tracy Mumma, Centre for Resourceful Building Technology, Montana)

It may also be noted that most of these evolved in the developed countries look at requirements from their cultural points of view. They make an anthropocentric view and give equal importance to occupants’ indoor quality as to the larger impact the building makes. They also give more stress on the impact on environment of the continued usage of the building over a life cycle of usually 40 years rather than the impact during construction. With the result highly rated buildings may also have largely negative impacts on environment compared to even normal and traditional buildings in the rural areas or small towns of India. As we generally are conscious of costs, embedded energy in most of our buildings are comparatively low, though this is not a rule.

These programmes also do not attach any negative points to any criteria. McDonald has suggested a more comprehensive matrix of sustainability. But this is far from being a practical to use.

Indian Green Buildings Council also adapted a LEED Rating System and there are already many buildings which are platinum and gold and silver ratings. A look at the rating system parameters and norms do not adequately look at the priorities of India and its developmental predicament. It does not even take note of the variety of environmental contexts, not to speak of the cultural contexts. For example, It does not consider a building which does not have air conditioning.

These rating systems seem to promote more business in the organised sectors of construction than informal ones. After all the slogan is: green makes good business sense. May be it makes sense in an environment where construction sector is capital intensive and largely formal. Is it the objective in our development paradigm?

There are many environmentalists who oppose this kind of green and tiy to promote an opposite view. And there could be many shades and positions in between.

Variety of approaches

There is no mathematical magic formula, as there is no full agreement on the approach to the idea of sustainability. This is not a technological situation, where it is problem to be just solved somehow. The approaches depend on the very idea of human development.

Global positioning:

We take the world or a country as a whole. The environment and ecology of all countries are so interrelated today that there should be a global level of policies and technological options, it is argued. Within the country also, we tend to take a larger view that all development or otherwise affect all and therefore the idea of green cuts across all sections of the society equally. “Conflict of interest and intense competition for domination” is discounted in the argument. The “reality however shows that such an understanding is naïve and illusionary”. The sustainable development mantra, if at all, in reality is meant for ‘others’ so that high development and high consumption level of ‘privileged class remains sustainable as long as possible”.(Redclift)

The fall out of this positioning is that we tend to believe that what is good for one place is good for all places, in principle. The idea of greatest common good as a basic parameter comes to fore. The quantifiers come to the picture and show that we do not have enough for greater common good. So then, we have to reduce the total consumption; either collectively by everyone or keeping some at very low consumption levels so that average remains low. Does it mean keeping a lot of people in poverty? Poverty seems to be more ecological and green solution, if at all. This will see that some can continue to remain where they are. That leads us to things like the energy priority as a leading criteria of green, where as in some places something else would be more appropriate. Say for example water.

An argument against this is, the neomarxist approach, As M. R. Redclift says development can never be sustainable if poor people are not involved in meeting their aspirations.(redclift, 1987) "Overriding priority should be given...[to] the concept of `need,' in particular the essential needs of the world's poor." (Brundtland Report)

This also means that the priority of built environment in third world countries should be on increasing consumption levels of environment al goods of the poor by appropriate policies and simultaneously cutting down on the consumption of the upper class. This is the link between the needs of the poor and sustainability.

“Industrial growth needs to be redirected towards meeting the needs of the world's majority; renewable energy resources need to receive a greater share of attention; natural resources and policies need to be shifted from the arms race to the protection of agronomic and biological resource system” ( Redclift, 1987, p35)

Sustainable development, means more than seeking a compromise between the natural environment and the pursuit of economic growth. It means a definition of development which recognizes that the limits of sustainability have structural as well as natural origins.

The environment alone is not the key factor in making development sustainable; it is political power, and in particular giving power to the workers, local people, empowering deprived groups etc. in developing countries to set their own goals--presumably ones that will not damage their environments as development has heretofore, the argument goes.

This also means, in green building terms, major changes in built environmental design, organisation of infrastructure planning and their implementation in a more democratic way. This approach also denotes the need for local level actions and perspectives to be given higher priority. Some tall order, some simplification here. This also is utopian and unachievable, especially politically.

Culture critics and deep environmentalists:

This approach is characteristically anti developmental and anti-growth theories in the sense that the notion of sustainability is considered to be utopian. The term only considered to serve to revitalize development, to give it another lease on its life, by tying it to concerns for the environment. To their stance, "eco-developers" are in some sense distinguishable from traditional advocates of development--most obviously in their admission that there are environmental limits on production. However, "What ties them nevertheless to the economic worldview is the failure to appreciate cultural limits to the predominance of production, cultural limits that render production less important and consequently relieve also environmental pressure.

According to Sachs, the biological metaphor of the evolution of nature has been turned into an economic metaphor--development--and then into an imperative for all of humankind. The result is to treat people, whole societies, and nature itself as resources for economic development. But, Sachs says, "Labeling things as `resources' takes off whatever protective identity they may have and opens them for intervention from the outside. Looking at water, soils, animals, and people in terms of resources reconstitutes them as objects for management by planners and for pricing by economists."

The idea of growth (with basic idea of promotion of consumerism and consumption and market economics in place) and that of a green development seems mutually exclusive. We therefore need a development which is not economics based at all, the argument goes. But the environmentalist contributors to the sustainability debate especiallythe deep ecologists, focus primarily on nature, not culture. Stanley Carpenter, as just one example, argues that the scientific evidence, in particular the growing ecological evidence suggests that autopoiesis--the ability of life on earth to regenerate itself after injury--is seriously threatened by mindless and heedless human development. Perhaps Native American habits were more mindful of nature, but the point is to change the thinking, now, of consumption-oriented people in the United States, North America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim, and of the corporate managers who feed and foment consumption elsewhere.

The answer as suggested by radical environmentalists is a return to appropriate technologies, to craft level productions and eulogise tribal culture. To some environmental architects, this means reducing architecture to materials of natural origin or mud based and almost a negation of contemporary technologies. So we have agro-waste products and bio-waaste products, stabilised mud, water recycling at small scales, etc. All hinging on an idea of return to nature. This is an activists view, more a moralising stand than offering any market or other management mechanism and depends wholly on upholding the activist path. This approach as a variant that most of the environment –friendly- built environmentalists follow has great limitation that it offers no scalable solution. Some demonstrations there and some here. Some experimental communities here and there.

This line of thinking, applied to architecture, produces a few heroes and heroines and champions of environment with the hope that these demonstrations will spread the awareness and slowly it will take over as the only development or anti-development paradigm in the world. Will it? This reduces architecture to a single point agenda as low cost architecture did earlier. It becomes a ‘religion’ at times and has same pitfalls of religion. But architecture is beyond that as it is a multivalent verb.

Corporate Green:

On the other hand, some of the advocates of market economics suggests that green to be achieved in the present day economic theories and policies, but with more controls and investment in green practices. So the idea of “green makes good business sense”. Environmental policy literature is dominated today by the notion of free market economics. Real estate development and profit based private initiative becomes manthra in built environment. Consume more, not less. This is largely due to the advocacy made swiftly and surreptitiously through media and other means by corporate think tanks. Many incidents and accidents have created public awareness and there are more controls on the corporate bodies today. They have now counteracted by adopting and promoting an environmentalism which suited their paradigm. Arguments against corporate approach are subverted absorbed by clothing them the environmental ‘lingua’. Are they totally wrong?


What I have outlined is the diverse discourses that are happening around the notion of green and sustainability. When almost all agrees and concerned about the realities of environmental degradation, there is no agreement on the prescriptions. And what is strongly said today is challenged with new evidences tomorrow.

Green approach to built environment has to take these views and be aware of the alternatives and the perspectives. As building professionals we cannot be naive about what we do and be part of a moralising cult alone. Passion is important and not be part of a fashion show.

It also shows that there is no single universally acceptable right way of doing, even when everyone agrees with the impending disaster. It may sound cynical. But that is the reality.

Personally, I feel that good architecture takes a mediating view and be sensitive to the environment. After all architecture is also a media, pun indented.

Architecture is just not a tool, it also excites and delights and it does so in variety of ways. It communicates and is responding to the social and cultural demands as well. Some in sensible ways and some insensitive ways. Both ways, it is our value judgement which determines good or bad. How do we say that our value judgements are final? And always right? The debate will go on. Debate itself is also entertaining! As modern architecture did go beyond functionalism to create great architecture which are evaluated and understood beyond functional meanings, the ‘green architecture’ can also produce significant architecture beyond being just eco-friendly. Good architecture is multivalent and will go beyond a single point agenda. Just being green in whatever shade may not produce satisfying good architecture. Vice-versa too.


1. Brundtland Report : 1987, United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future New York: Oxford University Press. Most commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report.

2. César Cuello Nieto, Fundacion Neotropica, and Paul T. Durbin, University of Delaware, 1996, Sustainable Development and Philosophies of of Technology, Society for Philosophy and Technology

3. Stanley R. Carpenter, "Inventing Sustainable Technologies," in J. Pitt and E. Lugo, eds., The Technology of Discovery and the Discovery of Technology: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology (Blacksburg, Va.: Society for Philosophy and Technology, 1991), pp. 481-492.

4. M. R. Redclift, 1987, Sustainable Development: Exploring the Contradictions,London: Methuen.

5. Wolfgang Sachs, "The Gospel of Global Efficiency: On Worldwatch and Other Reports on the State of the World," IFDA [International Foundation for Development Alternatives] Dossier 68 (November-December, 1988):4.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

another few minutes of limelight

BS Bhooshan and Associates could win a few more moments of attention by winning an IIA award for a house from the Indian Institute of Architects.

This house has somewhat unique for us as we have been developing a line of thinking ever since 1987 when we were working on the theme of low cost mass housing with no concrete roo. We moved a lot from that kind of technology, but the evolution of space under a bubble of roofs facinated us. Here are a few sheets we submitted for the entry.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

excellence in architecture. a NIASA initiative

I went to Vizag on 28 August to be part of the jury on zone 4 selection of two best theses of architecture. Beside me, there were architect. SK Das and architect Ashok Dhawan from New Delhi as members of jury. It was also nice to meet old friends like Prasanna Desai from PuneThere were 15 entries and we selected 10 for presentations on 29th. It was a very good experience. I am really happy at the quality and boldness of thinking and corresponding quality of architectural design and presentation I found in some of them. Equally distressed at the fuzzy foggy thinking and escapist presentation with equal amount of confusion. Will write more later.

Friday, August 14, 2009

future of architecture

I spent the last two days at TKM Engineering College Kollam, in Kerala. yesterday and today. Looking at the thesis projects of final year architecture students. They all have finished the five years at college and are getting ready to go out in the world. A mixture of joy that one has completed the burning of midnite oil and the sadness that one has to now face the outside world squarely. All of them did not seem ready for it yet. They will in a mattter of time.

I was struck at the vastly differing competence the 24 of them developed. There was difference in attitudes and approaches too. Diversity is not bad by itself. But the lack of confidence and competance in many is disturbing. So is the lack of attitude towards the enjoyment of good work. The work itself doesnt seemed to be enjoyed by many beyond the passing in examinations. Like monetory considerations and profit making alone tilts one's attitude to work, (especially creative work) and makes it a drudgery, the marks in the examination alone make study and project work routine and the result less than the ordinary. I dont believe that there is so much difference in the basic material these young boys and girls are made of. But the out comes are so varied. It can be seen in the efforts they put in as well. Some have put in great efforts; some too less. Some of them had referred a lot, explored new areas, tried to understand and worked deligently, while many others has done too shoddy a job. Even application of simple common sense was woefully lacking in some.

Is the system at fault or the teachers or the way we teach architecture? How is it that we take children of impressionable age group and churn most of them out into closed minds with a cynical attitude to design? and may be to work and life too.

There was gender equality in numbers. But obvious difference in design efforts and exploration. The boys generally are more adventurous and seem to explore more, though not successfully or with great finish- some do; the girls generally play from safer grounds. Some girls do pretty well some with great apathy to somehow complete course. Obviously, the social conditioning might have taken away a lot of initiatives from them. An obvious and ready submission to the possible future as a housewife or second fiddle to a partner in life later, perhaps. This inspite of the fact that however good you do in studies and work. Some could even have the safety feeling too that however bad they do they will be provided or arranged for a good and seemingly easy life. Either way a lot of initaitive seemed stolen from them. However, it was heartening to see determined effort from some girls to prove they are no less.

This apart, there appears a general confusion as to what good design is in the present context of India. Greater and visible orientation is futuristic and towards absorbing global trends. Inspirations are from neo-modern or post-modern global architects who build from a place in Europe in any culture around the world. Human beings are taken as same anywhere. This flambouyant posture attracts more competent as well as less competant ones. But most of the best efforts are seen in this area. On the other hand, there are many who espouse current ideas like sustainability and green, and some take in the themes of "cultural continuity" as well ( boiling down to repeat of simple past forms with out question) but I found none doing with as much vigour as the neomodernists and seemed to put up a green or cultural front as an apology for poor efforts and design. This line doesn't appear to attract better efforts and perhaps, talent too. On the whole the inspiration stops more or less at the skin deep formal level. No spark of criticalism. Is it too much to ask at this level? Perhaps, yes.

Are we witnessing a new generation who are not questioning any of the broad ideas which circluate in different guises? Is the slogan: Follow those which sells? Is it a charecteristics of the educational context or social context? I wonder.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

look at me: i am listing, but safely


Instability is a risk, but exciting - in business as well as in life and also in architecture. Controlled instability is to try to defy nature of things, perhaps. That is to defy gravity in architecture. A seemingly falling building looks unstable, (like leaning tower of Pisa), but makes it intriguingly attractive. The props make it appear stable. Stabilty is desirable, but some times boring and less exciting. This is so in business as well. Business thrives on risk. Insteabilty is risky, but attractive and interesting when risk is taken calculatedly. A show room has to be attracting the attention of passers by for sure. And then as architecture, perhaps, it should make one to think as well. This building tries to do that, particularly symbolising the time; the collapsing modern economies, which require propping.

( see also http://bsb-architects.com )

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

on top of chitradurga fort: "minimalism"

This beautiful masterstroke of a creation has some how missed to be celebrated. This struck to me more original than the complex Hampi archtecture at Vijayanagara, nearby. The artistic genius just sculpted a small shikhara on top of a naturally formed rock. The shikhara sits snugly and prettily there; adding to the beauty of nature and not distroying it. If this is not 'minimalism', what else is?

Friday, July 10, 2009

A sense of angst: a force of creation

Architecture always has been a search. A search for many things. Search of a core competance of the profession which will define architecture, a search for a philosophical justification for its existence distinct from some other related activities. a search for the intellectual content beyond the routine, a search to be different, a search for a point of departure, an ideology- low cost, green, energy, ecology, or USPs for the commercial world, etc. Extended to the professionals, it always ended up as a search for excitement, a search for name, fame and success and ofcourse, money.

In 70s when many of my generation started out, India was in a heroic stage yet in confusion. Trying to find an architectural identity - from the past and for the future. That is why the heroism, that we are setting out to be great again. There has been many an effort. But then we were trying establish as a nation. Perhaps, more a diffident nation coming to terms with the world after centuries of feifdom. One wanted to asert that we are a nation, a force, a cultural entity of note. Naturally many tried to look at our glorious past, even if it meant digging up too distant a past. More than looking at the past, we always showed impatience with the alien or assumed to be alien, more specifically, so called western ideas and architecture. In all our pusuits, we somehow detested the west as something terribly intruding into our legitimate glory. May be true or may be not, it also provided a platform for a search for alternatives. That in fact took us to many directions in architecture. Some scenographic excitements and some diatribes of social pathology too. Very little which provided a thrust forward.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

urban revitalisation: reinventing our urban spaces

I am working on a talk to some engineers on a requested topic on urban beautification. This is my reaction:

Reinventing urban spaces

BS Bhooshan

The concept of urban beauty has been an elitist pastime. I see problem in a talk about urban beautification. It is that it begs further questions. And it suggests cosmetic skin deep action.

Beautification suggests something to be done to something which is potentially ugly or not in order. Is it not a way of looking at it. What is ideal beauty? Beauty as a concept comes from perfect ideals. Are they elusive. And never reachable as the parameters we are dealing with are innumerable. Perfect ideals are like unreacheable “ perfect justice” as told by Amarthya Sen. More over a city is not a thing of beauty. It may be enjoyeable place and a workable place. But not an object of beauty by itself.

We can’t start on clean slate. The question is how our spaces could be made workable and enjoyable.

Our urban history is like our general history: truncated bits and pieces and never continuous. So is our architecture of cities. We are always at crossroads. Never find a direction. And we raise wrong questions and get unsuitable answers. May be I too am raising wrong questions. You decide.

First let us not talk about the big cities. They are beyond my comprehension. Many will agree with me. They are humongous and sometimes, no always, very vital: full of energy and synergy. lots of potential. Good in many ways: opportunities. engines of growth. But their spaces are getting torn apart. There is identity crisis in all. Being too big is not the only problem, neither being too complex. They did not evolve from their roots: they jumped and leaped: Some from to colonial beginning and some from pastoral beginnings through British and/or royal legacies to Western ideals, American dreams and many more dominant influences.

Second, we always wanted models. Provided by desi as well as alien dreamers. We wanted to leapfrog into modern scientific era and represent it in our cities like we did in Chandigarh. And for some time it seem to hold out a panacea for all cities' problems. We forgot about Fateh pur Sikri or Jaipur or Srirangam. All new extensions since pre independence embodied contonement ideals or later, Chandigarh's legacy or American dreams of Clarence Perry or Runcorn or the garden city and satellite town prescriptions of UK . All towns seemed to dream of the grandeur of Champs Elysses of Paris. We all marvelled at Connaught place, at Rajpath and Raisisna Hills and thought of cosmetic surgeries in other towns much of which went awry. And still we lament about the cities and towns problems. We think the grand beautiful plans somehow offer a model for India. But I would rather look at more simpler solutions and local opportunities. Seemingly simpler lives and simpler urban spaces of less complex communities, perhaps, offer up a model, hidden in the muck. But one must look at the right places with right eyes. That will be the challenge. And how to make and modify them to suit current needs a place demands and opportunities it provides. Architecture plays a big part, for sure. Architects only a small part. We, meaning all, not just professionals alone, together should search.

I will show some examples and try to learn from them.

We will have to move from hardware to software solutions; meaning looking for spaces not big constructions. For example; mobility is important, not the roads. Education is aim, not schools. Health is the priority, hospitals are only one of the means to it. We may need adhoc and small tickles against grand physical plans. Aesthetics of a different kind, than the ones we have been admiring from the images of other cultures.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Joberg nite

Went to a night club in joberg on 20 may09. Four of us. That was an adventure. The rumour is that Joberg is not a safe city especially after dark. There were many who wanted to go to a night club. But were advised not to without guide. So someone found a guide, Some black guy arranged by a hotel employee. He would take us and drop us back to hotel. By 9 pm we were taken in a limousine driven by the guy to a night club. It was half an hour drive from hotel. The place was called Grand place.

The idea of insecurity starts from the entrance. A dimly lighted place where one pays to enter. You enter though a revolving door of strong horizontal bars. One at a time. No one can rush in or rush out. Then you are frisked by gentlemen thugs. And you see people sitting in twos and fours around round tables. All spread out around a circular podium and bar below. Two girls up topless dancing. And then you pass around to find a place, you see more. Naked girls sitting on laps of fully dressed men and gyrating their bodies as if dancing. This is no Disco or anything. It is something different. No boy or man is dancing. Of course, there some women customers who came with their men. Too few.

It was my first encounter of the decadence of licensed organized and very decent (!) way of fleecing. Of course only from those who volunteer to go and experience the excitement. This fleecing is also part of the experience. As in casinos. Wonderful spread of food, ( something like more than 50 varieties), noisy music and bare bodied girls dancing all the time. Dancing and soliciting for a massage or private, dance in side rooms. Bare means totally bare at times, not even thongs. Some girls are blacks and more of whites, Russians, Poles, Chinese, hardly any Indian. All in 18-25 age. The guys moving around make it secure, are all black thug looking gentlemen in suites. Smiling friendly and very soft spoken. The customers were largely white, but a fair amount of blacks and Asians.
Even if you are not tempted enough for anything more, you will be tempted to spend on alcohol. Food is on the house as part of the entrance fee.

There is continuous din of music. Weird strobe lights and generally dim and reddish ambient light. The girls go up to raised circular podium below which is a circular bar. Two to three girly go up at a time. Half dressed. The dance around two shiny circular stainless steel vertical bars fixed form bottom to ceiling. The shiny poles are phallic symbols. The girls use them and gesticulate holding to it to dance and do high acrobatics. They have bodies highly pliable and extremely attractive figuratively. Very thin, hardly any flab, naturally with is kind of gyration! Some are accomplished acrobats; climbing uup the shiny poles rotating horizontally around with legs holding on to it and sliding down. They could climb the poles upside down as well.

Music is recorded and is bits of pop rock songs of yester years, some current too. Girls go up in twos and fours for a song. Fairly but thinly dressed. As the music changes rhythm half way through, they throw away the top and mostly have only thongs. The they do the acrobatics on the pole. Once the music stops, they pick up the clothes and climb down and another twosome climb up for another number. Then they go round the tables talking touching cajoling urging and tempting and dancing privately in front for a negotiable price. They go topless and bottom less. They solicit you for as dance in private rooms too, if you are inclined. Of course for a price. I see people vanishing and reappearing. There are massage girls, and men mostly Chinese looking.

Once we come out after eating. They don’t allow you to get out unless in a taxi. Or own cars. The number of upscale limousines parked out gives an idea what kind of people vist the place. There are many other joints around that place, I think. That perhaps, is for safety. We had our man waiting. It was 12 when we reached the hotel to catch a nap before getting up for next day’s meeting and conference at the hotel.

The eerie, uncertain, out of certain wild western Hollywood movies- uncensored, bordering on pornography, is revolting for the first timers, but people seem to get addicted. It is surreal. I only wonder, how much of it legal and how much illegal. Sure there are border cases with the connivance of authorities. I am sure there are places similar around the world, in Bangkok, London, Las Vegas, may be Mumbai too, with some variance. It was new to me. And therefore eerie and revolting.

Friday, July 3, 2009

first rains

It seams it will rain. Since yeaterday the ambience is rainy. but yet to rain really. It is already too late. by almost a month. Severe droughts and power cuts are beginning to stare. When it rains, some people will be sad. As it will affect their livelyhood and their roofs will leak. Yet no one can wish no rain. But no rain is good business for some.

Getting used to a pattern is an addiction and when it breaks, it disturbs most.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

What is Indian culture

A well known columnist and an economist, Gurumurthy, made a statement yesterday at Mysore that Indians are aping the west and that is not good. We should not, according to him, forget our culture. globalisation and opening up of culture and following the west will be doom for us, according to him. He suggests us to emulate Korea, Japan and Italy.

I know, some of you also may, that this Gurumurthy was advocating the good things gloabalisation can bring to India. And he made a public statement at Chennai four years ago on a IIA meet on globalisation that we should not worry unnecessarily about the bad things it may be pointed at. Now I am confused.

How to embrace gloabalisation and be part of the west dominated globla economy and still preserve ones culture. Have those countries really preserved their culture intact? And what is real core of Indian Culture. Saris for women andsuites for men? Puja in the morning and drinks in the evening?

Or corruption at all levels. or something else?

Is there an original Indian culture ? I am at a loss to understand. If any body knows, please tell me.

What is aping? Really. Is jeanswearing aping? Learning to use americanism aping? consumerism aping? liberalism aping? homosexuality aping? bride burning a worthy cause? modern medicine aping? spirituality and god men preservation of culture?

Changes always happen, aping are no aping. It is upto us to decide what is good? why blame others?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Significance of Laurie Baker

Dr. B. Shashi Bhooshan,

Who was Laurie baker? It is difficult to put him in the category of just an architect as most people do. Neither had he lived like just an architect. He was admired by people of many walks of life. But still architectural fraternity claimed him as one among them though many did not know him enough or his ideas enough. What makes Baker an important phenomenon of recent Kerala? It is not the fact that he started work as a missionary and did everything in that zeal, not even that he touched many lives and influenced the opinions of policy makers and ordinary people, nor that he could create dream houses for many who could not even dream; all that is known and written about by media. His significance is that he was an agent of change in architecture at a turning point in Kerala. But still I feel that he was most misunderstood architect.

History will remember Baker for making a generation of architects of Kerala think of their past in whatever little way and make them understand the relevance of building materials as well as appreciate the texture and aesthetics of ordinary materials. It is more significant to note that modern architecture came to Kerala too late, or may be it is true to say, it never came. All we have seen before the 60s were the insipid PWD stuff and the occasional works of Bombay or Madras architects. And Baker created some thing new in this vacuum. Though with the single minded idea of cost reduction. That was first ridiculed and then accepted and then was eulogized and even worshipped and followed. His kind of architecture was slowly kept aside today or if followed, done so only in form, like Gandhian ideas are today. Yet Baker will remain a turning point in Kerala’s architectural history; the history of modern Kerala and Indian architecture.

To eulogise is to forget the real content and keep only the form. Baker’s also might follow the same pattern. The ideas will get corrupted if not already by the followers who may not understand the spirit of enquiry Baker started with in architecture.
Baker’s architecture is largely misunderstood. People have used his ideas to suite their ends. Some followed his brickwork and some his tracing of tile roof shapes in concrete, some his jallis and some his cost cutting measures and a few followed him to make ecological sense of his works, which, in my opinion, was the most sustainable of his teachings.

Baker’s architecture is read erroneously and simplistically as “ Kerala style”. I think it was not that simple. The so called “ Kerala style” is itself a questionable notion. (this is not a place to write about it). But the irony is that by labeling it that way, the critics and followers in Kerala as well as outside have belittled the importance of his work. His works, - homes or institutions or religious buildings-, had an idiosyncratic stamp typical of his and were molded by the firm belief in Gandhian frugalism and the conscious attempt at eliminating the unnecessary, may be of cost cutting. To do so it was inevitable to build climatically suited structures and use skills locally available. When this was a philosophy, it was inevitable to result in an architecture that we now know as that of Baker’s. But we, took it as vernacular and labeled as an adaptation of “Kerala style”. He never claimed so.

Baker did question the logic of plastered makeup as an unnecessary paste on unlike anybody before in Kerala. He bared his walls of beautiful brick works or stone masonry and made us admire the beauty of materials. None did that in Kerala before except Architect Chisholm and his ilk in the 19c or early 20c. He used plans and sequence of spaces, which were contemporary and modern (least the way Kerala planned traditionally). He used openings and windows which were simplified modern. None of these could be called Kerala Style. His jallis were neither an adaptation of the past. Baker rejected past’s follies and adapted relevant and significant ones from anywhere

But true, he made tiled roof and sloped concrete roofs resembling the roofs of traditional Kerala as well as some wood joinery details, railings, etc. more like the “post modernist” way, yet very ingeniously and beautifully. And to that extend he was using an easily recognizable architectural vocabulary and signifying certain accepted meanings of forms. He was thus rebelling against the accepted principles of modern architecture as well. I think, that to him was just a way to get more latent ideas of architecture, - of lower cost and frugal living and ecological building - acceptable to people, more like the way Mahatma Gandhi clothed his ideas in simple mass appeal. Baker’s architecture will be and is significant beyond these scenographic formalisms. At the techtonic level and in technological innovation and spatial creativity, his architecture was universal, modern and had the significant spirit of adventure and objectivity. Modern scientific spirit of enquiry was the basis of his architecture. And it happened at a significant point in Kerala’s architectural and political history.

Let us remember not to reduce this significance of Baker to that of a mere technician (even if a masterly one) or just a low cost architect. Let us not disgrace his masterly adaptations with cheap imitations as seen in Kerala’s recent scenography of questionable and insipid adaptation of sloping roofs. A serious study of Baker’s architecture is required. I hope some one will do it. May be that only a European will be destined to do that!

Baker was admittedly a Gandhian in ideas and yet like Gandhi he is understood more superficially and because of his eminence, would be followed more in form than in real spirit and content of ideas.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

..friendship is also about forgetting a whole aspect of a friend.... Daniel Boulanger

Architecture and Cultural Continuity: some questions without clear answers

First Draft: Require revision, please do not quote, comments are welcome . This was prepared for a talk at Calicut in 2008 April to a course on the same subject.

We dance around in a ring and suppose,
but the secret sits in the middle and knows
. Robert Frost
There is a difference between actual built environment and social construct of architecture. One is, “direct experienAce of concrete things “and the other, “ knowledge of their meaning.” Architecture isa constructed idea. Physically as well as socially. Whose idea?

I must confess that I do not subscribe to the view explicitly expressed in the course pamphlet. It is a position many express today that the world is eroding the many cultural identities and something urgent has to be done about it, lest the plural identities are raced to ground and cultural world is levelled. This positioning, I believe, is based on the perspectives one takes. I am presenting my view. I must also say that I do get distressed by the alarming rate at which globalisation makes certain cultures and cultural traits dominant and pluralities get suppressed. But I don’t believe that it is an isolated phenomenon in architecture and the solution offered as outright rejection of the trend is a solution at all. Nor is it something absolutely new.
First, what is culture and cultural continuity? Spatial or temporal diffusion?
“Culture” is an elusive word and many definitions are possible. To me, it is the way life is conducted: The everyday life. The dress, the rituals, the food, how it is cooked, the gender relations, the morals, the religion, the way we express and communicate- language, literature, the arts, the films, the sports, the television, the net- all. Then for brevity, we abstract them only to sophisticated or more intense expressions. Like literature, music, art and architecture. That is only an abstraction. Abstractions are cerebral; a constructed idea of culture. This abstraction is a reflection of the society and its culture; we presume. But this construct need not be so as there is no uniform culture in society. While it is easier to talk about architecture, or a particular media, it is difficult to talk about culture as a whole. The dimensions are too many.
Continuity means a flow. We presume and it is true that life cannot be suspended or put to a full stop easily. It flows from generation to generation. So also does culture. It is also understood that culture has a spatial dimension and it pertains to a society in a place or a country or state. That is to say, it is assumed to have a spatial boundary. That spatial boundary is what gives it an identity. Where do we limit that boundary and what parameters do we use to limit it. Political history may have a big say in this.
Is Indian culture an entity uniform identity? And is there an Indian Architecture really? What are its basic parameters and characteristics in a particular period or today? What is the basis of European identity? or for that matter that of Mexico, USA or Singapore, the Malaysia? Does all parts of India have same cultural base? Is it the religion or political history or something else?
Apart from religious base of a remote past (?) of origin which we are suppose to have continuity at some level; Language may be one aspect which defines culture. May be because, it is a common vehicle of expression. This is again an aspect of vague and stretchable boundary today. Music may be larger regional idea, so are architecture and art today. Do these forms have a spatial identity?
May be we can talk of architecture more clearly, more so about the built environment, in sharper and smaller spatial boundaries. Spatial culture and syntax of space in our older cities are more identifiable entities. Therfore, we identify and distinguish the images of Delhi, to those of Mumbai and to Kochi or Alapuzha or Mysore or Trichy. But any research would tell us that the popular identities exists in parts. Major parts all cities of similar complexities have been similar for at least for the last century or so. The agraharas of Mysore and Bangalore or that of Mylapore in Chennai is similar. The poles of Jaipur and Tols of Ahmedabad are similar. So are the parts of Old Delhi or Hyderabad. Only minor details vary. Still there is something which deffrentiated these places. Then the so called, Kerala’s architectural heritage, which extended to many parts of west coast, Mangalore to Gokarna to Ratnagiri. The basic architectural character of houses and built spaces are similar with tile roofs and courtyards etc. And et different in some details. These forms are also found with little variations in other countries as well. We also discern the influence of other cultures and technologies from east and west modifying this architecture for centuries.
This also means that there is a spatial continuity of cultural expression. Especially with regard to architecture. (This is true of language as well.) But when the world has shrunk with more communication, spatial boundaries of culture also have become nebulous. Can we wish that only the former should happen, not the later? Cross fertilising of cultures also has happened.
The spatial continuity of architectural character started eroding earlier. Now you can find labelled “Kerala tile roof” in Bangalore, in Maharashra and elsewhere. So are the Charupadis and the Chettinad house details. Similarly, mediteranian villas, or tudor houses etc. are also being built and sold everywhere. Dining tables coexist with puja rooms, Italian kitchens with court yards, tile roofs over concrete; a curious mixture of fantasies and nostalgia. But none of those have the same meaning and utility as before or elsewhere. These are style statements and sometimes wish expressions or nostalgia. Is this cultural continuity? I am not sure.
If spatial continuity changes or erodes; so should temporal continuity. The former can be accepted, why not the later? Now we are talking of two dimensions of continuity, space and time. When one is a controlled and considered stable, the other can be studied. But simultaneous changes in both makes it difficult for any assessment. We often make reference to break in continuity only with respect to time, assuming that space limit is defined clearly. If one travels from one end to another of any country, common language changes slowly and continually, in continuum and over a long distance it changes completely. This is so also with architecture and many other aspects of culture, except things like cricket- international cultural expressway symbols. The same can be applied in the time scale as well. A person from 19th century visits a place of his village or town, he may find a lot of culture and architecture has changed, yet he may recognise it. But if a person from 1st century visits, he may find it totally different. A break has occurred in that long distance of time in the same way break occurs over space at the same time axis. Yet it is not break but gradual change.
If discontinuity of culture in space is acceptable, why not along the time dimension as well . The point to be noted is that every generation, perhaps, is worried about the changes. More so, when the velocity of changes is increasing and it seems too fast. This worry, leads to kneejerk reactions and propositions. Many writers have expressed this earlier more succinctly.
Cultural basis of Architecture:
The works of Amos Rapoport or Nold Egenter, Nikolas Salingaros and even the works of Christopher Alexander and philosophers like Gastin Bachalard (Poetics of Space) and even recent researches on genetics, animal culture and nuro sciences point to the importance of culture in Environmental Design and spatial culture in the development of human society. No doubt. But what are options and propositions? The studies tell us the evolutions from a tribal and isolated cultures and about the present. Not much is known about the importance of experimentation and the craving for novelty in the evolution propelling us to the future, which is also a great cultural trait of homo sapiens. We bask in nostalgia at the same time we crave for novelty. Rapoport’s conceptual frame works are very interesting, to say the least; so also are the structural anthropologists’ works on pre structural objects. Even, Rapoport admits that culture plays a larger role in much of the residential environments. The same is not accepted for non residential environments, but it can also be dismissed as he points out. Not much work has gone into this as the present day society is bombarded with a plethora of new typologies of built environment of a complex nature and the exigencies of speed and profit does not allow investments in thoughtful developments. That is also part of culture!
One of the commonly found easy solutions to this seeming problem is to apply scenographic details to a technologically different situation and building sometimes having different tectonics than the culture had before. We have this problem that architecture and built environment is understood more as stenography. Therefore we do not find it unnatural to marry these and seek a solution. We often hear about modernity with roots in the past. Meaning an allegory of past facades over modern buildings. It has not worked. Like the tall buildings of Shanghai with oriental roof, and similar applications in India: Close at home, the mascot hotel addition in Trivandrum, the Kerala’s new secretariat there or the Vidhan Soudha of Bangalore and so on. They tend to become poor caricatures. On the opposite spectrum, we find blatant imitations of the glass and steel or aluminium clad buildings brought to us as high technology images. As, Rapoport suggests, we feel that glass and steel makes a gesture of high technology while small openings with larger solid facades make buildings which are closer to oriental culture and India. Both solutions are simplistic typecasting. We need to understand more, if we are serious in making built environments for plural cultures. It is a phase where it cannot be otherwise, I believe. There are other extremes of similar kind.
There are also works which has gone into the basics of spatial organisation on a simplistic level like that of vastupurusha mandala. The Bhopal Vidhan Soudha, or Jawahar kala Kendra, Jaipur are examples with some amount of success. But these successes have not produced any acceptable theses or theory, which can be generally applied. They remain at the level of high art of individualist explorations, while most of the built environment are produced at, though professional, yet craft level; simplified applications of formula and type casting.
We are worried about two things, that our great cultural past requires continuity somehow from perceived breaks or erosion. We also want us to reach the moon. And become global players. We accept the globalising international capitalists free economic solutions and tools. But, we have a general problem in accepting an open society and a free spirit. Is it not a contradiction of the day? We launch the missiles and satellites at an auspicious time. On the positive side, perhaps, family ties more or less are as before. Some where we feel we are doing injustice to our culture. But we do not know enough to make that culture work for our ambitions either. Except by exporting exotic scriptures and yoga and ayurvedic therapy. Yet the main stream developments are not hinged on these things. The things we do are of value: value of symbolic projection of our self. Our Architecture and Built environment shows this confusion. Added to this, of course, are the pressures of real estate, the change patron from the individual and the state to the corporate entities. This exigency alone is a sufficient condition to relegate architecture and built environment to a minor theme augmenting profiteering. Architecture then is understood more as scenography and surfaces, not in tectonic planes and spaces leave alone other dimensions.
This is somewhat related to what Rapoport calls a handicap principle. The principle, explains how and ‘why certain environments are created at great expense a and effort- to communicate the ability of he builder to muster resources and labour to communicate power and impress people” (Rapoport 2008) A handicap wants to project an ability. Emphasising expense. To show that we can afford, we can do. In highly self conscious way. Architecture at best as symbolic expressions of power and resulting built environment is incidental.
Culture and heritage
Some of us are also worried, many of usl, about heritage, our built heritage.
Heritage of a place is equated with built heritage. Often the buildings produced by it patriarchal elite: the ruling elite of the past form the part of what is considered heritage. Even when the general mood of the society is in no way ready to accept the social validity of those who produced it. In some places and at some times, it happens to be that the new economic and political and what may be called cultural elite determine what is the heritage. What ever the legal and cultural definitions (INTACH and others notwithstanding), heritage buildings largely mean what the current elite consider them to be of heritage value. Largely consists of the oldest buildings of the place, and those associated with local or national history, social, political or religious. Heritage buildings need not necessary be of great architectural value.
Heritage also does not mean a tradition. Many traditions and influences can be discerned in the buildings of a single place or culture, built in different times and sometimes even in the same time. The heritage means what a society decides to be so. The heritage has to be understood synchronically and diachronically.
Conserved heritage buildings are no longer mere architectural symbols of the past. They form an important link to the past by binding people emotionally to a place and strengthening roots and sense of belonging. If projected further than this, heritage could mean an unnecessary baggage and may stifle freedom and sometimes also trivialise the very heritage itself. Heritage environment or abstracted features of taken as a cultural base to project a future of environment do nat make good sense. we should understand that by recreating past architecture, we do not recreate past culture. Architecture is part of a culture, but not the whole of culture. The various dimensions of culture has undergone substantial changes, and we welcome them as well. By clinging to the architectural veneer of a culture, what do we achieve?
Heritage need to be protected, given respect, may be. but cannot be taken as the raison d’ etre of architecture of a place. It gives ways to understand culture but do not give adequate equipment for the design of future.
In conclusion, I take the view that we cannot achieve anything by outright rejection of all the architectural trends. Serious debates are surely missing. We need to understand the core of spatial behaviour and build spaces around / for that. The architecture suited to social and culturally determined spatial behavioural pattern. This would require understanding on the spatial pattern of behaviour. Also we should take the view that built environment in anywhere except new cities, is a multilayered environment, chronologically and sociologically. Foucault calls this heterochronia, many times existing together. There are also heterotopias, many cultural spaces existing together. Architecture as a discipline is ill equipped scientifically to deal with these phenomena except in simple older typologies like residential environment. A theoretical foundation has not emerged. Neither modern architecture, nor post modernism or post structuralism, or theory of critical regionalism has anything significant thing to offer especially, to cultures like India. What is happening is architecture taking a back seat and total submission to real estate and economic solutions and activisms of many kinds. Even, the heritage outcry is pushed partly by the economics of tourist industry.
To find a hybrid solution, perhaps we have to look into abstractions globally and locally. This may require inflections of the global on a symbolic and significant way. And we may do well avoiding scenographic cut paste transfer techniques; either from past or from somewhere else.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Hope fires the cauldron of life. This could be true only when we look from one side. Can it also be said that despair, some times, fires life too?

Friday, June 19, 2009

21 june 2009

today morning, i was to go to Bangalore. Got up early but with a stiff neck. And stayed in bed and finally stayed back. Later I went for a walk. Is it the stiffneck or something else which made me take the decision to cancel the trip? i think at the back of mind i was weighing against going. This happens always. We, sorry I, calculate every action from various points of view and at some moment the balance favours the action and at another, the points against weigh high. At slight provocation external to the situation under anlysis, it becomes easy to decide. An excuse to decide? It is funny how mind works.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Croc farm , crook farm

Suncity 240509 :

The last day was eventful. Went around the croc farm yesterday and had a meal of croc meat. It was white meat and delicious. There are 7000 crocs there in the farm. They are breading them and selling the meat and skin. The meat of only less than two year and skin of less than five are useful. So they crop them before five. The normal female Nile croc, the variety here live up to 80 to lay 50-60 eggs every year once they are 7 for all the life time. The males may live up to 100-120 years. They grow upto 4.5 meters. Huge monsters. There are some which are above 80 here. The crocs have to lay such huge number of eggs as a survival strategy. The young ones are so tiny and are preys to all animals and humans. Most do not survive beyond two, except in the farm.

They eat only twice a year. In fact they get migrating cattle and antelopes only twice when they come to water for drinking. In one helping they can wallowt up to half their size in weight, which is up to 450 kgs; flesh, bones all/ anything is digested and converted to fat and stored in body for the next six months. During this time the females solicit and cajole the male. The males live in style with own territories. And a harem of 10 to13 females. Then lays eggs in a hole made on earth and bury them well and sit their watching until they hatch. It is funny, that temperature determine the sex. Less than 32 degrees it is female. More than 32 males. If more than 35 deformity or death. They become preys soon enough. The females go to water only to drink, during which small interludes the hyenas, snakes and other animals attack the eggs. A real struggle of survival. A drop of tear for the crocodile! And a feminist support for the female croc as they take the burden of laying and bringing up the off springs, guarding against natures cruel predators to become predator themselves. The males live happily guarding his territory from other males and hibernating. Naturally, the chauvinistic pig crocs are in lesser number. Thank god, the females tolerate the exploitation! And nature has given them the urge to keep producing till the end. And thankfully both males and females have very tiny brains, less than the size of our thumbs.

Today, we went to see the big hall where conventions and pageantries like crowing of miss world is held. Humongous. It can accommodate 900 people legally 11 000 illegally. The fixed seats are about 4000 or so all at the periphery of a polygon, raised by about 8 ft like in a balcony. The proscenium stage is at one side raised 7 ft above ground. The middle space is for standing, 6000 comfortably and legally and 2000 more a little packed. Then there are stacks of folded seats below the fixed seats, which can be pulled and slided out in tired rows, to accommodate some 3000, while reducing the standing space.

Fully air conditioned, with strobe lights, sound system and all, it is really a horrendous monster good only for pageantries.

Ten kilometers outside the Sun city is the lion farm. About 40-50 lions in captivity. Of various ages, small 6 month old catlike creatures, the cubs to 6’ high monsters. One could handle some cubs. All grownup male lions are at least 5’ in height majestic monsters with great lair. They have kept tone male with a harem of another 5-6 females. Male chauvinistic pigs and cats.

The whole city is run and scavenged and kept neat by blacks. The reception boys, concierge, the waiters, the stewards, room cleaners, casino clerks, chefs, guards all. They give a lot of employment to former Bushmen. For sure. They are paid in cash, not byy liquor as once used to be. Sara, who was doing up the rooms twice a day, stays 15kms away in a village almost invisible from highways. She goes and comes by bus transport. A local infrequent service. She is hardly 30, has two children and her husband too works there. An electrician. Speeks fair English with a heavily slurred accent, just like the way she walks moving her heavy body. An attractive shining dark skin with million pleated hair, she is a Zulu. Heavy protruding bottoms and thighs to match balanced by the bountiful bosom, does not seem to bother her in the efficiency of her work. She moves heavy furniture with great ease and rearranges beds and books and strewn sheets meticulously. The waitresses and reception girls are slimmer taller kind. Another tribe or people from Zimbabwe. Lot of people from other African countries,( referred somewhat derogatively as makwere kwere, the other Africans) work in the cities of South Africa. They provide cheaper labour. Most men are handsome, well built, slim and appear as antelopes on the move. Very elegant. There are heavy sumo wrestlers too, but fewer.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Jo-burg, South Africa


Hotel Hilton, Sandton city, Johannesberg

Last evening we, a group of architects from south India, descended down here landing at the hotel at 7 pm local time. I feel envious of those in the hospitality especially those at the front desk and reception and baggage management for their cool in handling motley crowds with cranky travel-wary, snobbish heads ill tempered with urgency to get to room and retire after long travels. And top it all has varying sizes and numbers of baggage.

I checked in with out the baggage which was to be delivered to the room. I got ready to bath after 28 hours from start at Mysore, before the luggage was to be delivered. I Changed and tied a hotel towel (small enough to expose a lot, big enough to cover the vital) around, the baggage man rang the bell. I opened the door in the steam-bath-attire came out to find that the baggage was not mine. While talking to the man, the door was shut cluck! I was to stand on the Hilton hotel corridor fakir or Gandhi style almost nude. There was a big commotion and the hotelman ran to the reception to get a fresh access tag. The five to ten minutes I was in full belly-dance view for the people who passed around. Did I feel a little voyeuristic! May be. I am used to this in my house at Mysore and back in the small place of the village in Kerala where many of my generation move around fakir style anyway. It was perhaps an irony of sorts, as I did this in the corridor of the westernized cosmopolitan unrealistic world of the five star South African Hilton hotel, where during apartheid not long ago, I would not have even been admitted let alone do the acrimonious gandhigiri of sorts, even if due to a strange comedy of errors. And this is the place where mahatma learned his answer of naked nonviolent resistance to brutal politics of discrimination. I did not, should not, feel bad, after all. For I am proud of father of my nation, to say at least.

Yet, I had a good sleep after a good though insipid kichadi of south Indian dinner at an Indian restaurant. Morning started very early around 4 thanks to my cell phone doubling. as a chronometer showed the IST, which is 3 and a half hour earlier than SA time. For a change I could be more than punctual.

Today, we left early by a nice coach to Pretoria, a good one hour drive away from Jo-burg, through a good highway on an intriguing landscape. The roads are of pretty high standards for the largely individualized world class car transport. The country side had chunks of thick vegetation alongside, many exotic plantations and some natural, dry grass stretches, and violetish dry bushes and green bush clumps in between brownish red patches of soil and an undulating hilly terrain. Some rock outcrops as well. The landscape is not uncommon in some parts of India – southern Andhra or eastern Karnataka. Weather was cool bordering to chill.

The guide – a middle aged Afrikaaner lady of British descend, spoke fluent English in a curious accent mixing Dutch and Flemish words and adding “everything” to everything like many of us do in India. I told her that she spoke good English and she was delighted and when I added ‘ like us Indians’, she did not follow what I meant. She recited perhaps an official version of SA history and ‘everything’ sprinkled with prepared humour, sounded well repeated too, and peppered with jokes and ‘everything’ followed by a dry fizzy giggle almost like an opening of a soda bottle followed by a sound of the empty bottle rolling on a pebbled surface. Hardly anyone reacted to her jokes.

The first stop was the VOORTREKKER monument nowhere in the middle of vast ‘kharabland’. This was built in 1949 of local brownish stone and marble. Stones were layered chiseled rounded semicircular so that all walls looked like piles of equal sized book backs. “A beautiful building” as per the guide was perched atop a small hill and accessed through a winding road and flight of very wide stone steps with brownish yellow granite (may be they contain gold ore! 4 gm per ton) risers and black slate treads. The podium in front of the monument too was paved by irregularly cut ‘random’ slate sheets. That was very pastoral! The compound walls were decorated with larger than life stone and concrete reliefs of ox wagons which the voortrekkers used to travel and conquer the gold land from the native Zulus. The monument is to commemorate their arrival and control over a vast chunk of land of real gold that made South Africa and the voortrekkers richer. The inside is of the monument again approached by two flights of steps culminating at the main entrance above 4 meters above the podium. Inside was a domed square hall. The dome was hidden outside by decorative parapets. The walls showed the history of the battle of the blood river where the Voortrekkers won over the Zulus in retaliation of killing one of their leaders. The fight between the natives, though acknowledged great guerilla wayfarers today, must have been largely one sided with the voortrekkers having gun powder and other contemporary ammunitions and the Zulus, the spears.

On coming down the steps to the coach, I wondered if it was worth the trouble to come up there to watch this unispiring monument. Then a bus rolled up the parking bay carrying a load of school children and outside the monument we saw another group of school children near the ox wagon ride, a joy ride as Voortrekkers travellled! Hardly any of the children was black.

Another 30 minutes, we enter Pretoria.

First to the museum and house of Kruger the President of old Zuid Afrika Republik around 1900. The man is somewhat the maker of modern SA and is revered figure at least by those of European descent. He lived in a ordinary looking colonial and yet a fairly small house for a President. Kruger used to have visitors on the front portico which was hardly two yards from the road having sip of coffee and discussing state’s matters. Well, that may be true and he was supposed to have been a disciplinarian religious person taking decisions by the book. The bible. There were many statues of the man and many photographs and railway wagon in which he traveled and ran the government in his exile when pursued by British troupes. He was helped by the Dutch in the run towards a declaration of freedom for SA to be a domain under the British queen. Apart from that the building very clumsily cluttered with Victorian furniture had no great character. Nor it moved me as I was when seeing the Gandhi Ashram at Wardha or Sabarmathi. May be an afrikaans would be. One perhaps has to feel as a part of a history to be moved by the immediate past. It does not matter when one talks about a remoter past, where humanity somewhere binds all together. Like the recent discovery near Joburg of humanid remains like that of austrlopithicus, believed to be one of oldest of men, existing some 40000 years ago.

There were small garden of flowering shrubs being meticulously tendered by a native South African, perhaps a zulu. He was oblivious of visitors watching him. The natives also guarded the gates and did many the upkeep. The painting and decoration of the metal model of two African lions on the front verandah was being attended by a white South African. The small church across the road was significantly beautiful, though of a common type of the time.

We moved through the central part of Pretoria where rich men lived once with palatial buildings now being used as monuments, offices or museums. The freedom square was small and cute with statue of Nelson Mandela presiding. Mandela another revered-perhaps, more revered today- South African has his presence felt everywhere; roads, statues, squares, buildings. All modern parts looked nothing extraordinary, but clean lines and functional, typically modern. The Sandton city, the better part of Joburg- is laid out in grid pattern with plenty of roadside plantations, people living mostly in apartments. Cars and Cars and too few two-wheelers and significant absence of public buses. Very few people on the streets. A stark contrast to Indian cities.

The union building was a secure place. We could just have a look from the front. It houses the RSA Government. It is a long low rise stone building with tile roof and domed central and side wings, sited over a hill overlooking a park in front valley and Pretoria beyond. The building was by Herbert Baker, the architect who designed the Secretariat at New Delhi as well. It was the same Edwin Lutyens and Baker team which built Pretoria prior to moving to New Delhi. Both cities were to be show cases of the British supremacy and their superior architecture to the colonies. Yet, thanks to 100 British and one Indian elites of the time petitioning the viceroy and to some in powers seeing the arguments in the petition reason enough, new Delhi’s buildings are garnished with Indian motives and mughal jallis and used local craftsmen to build them to create an Indian toppings to the British cake. The Union building looks totally Victorian with their Corinthian columns and entablature. To think further, it is ironical to see Corinthian columns on Lalith Mahal palace at Mysore built in 1949 and still more absurd and to some level bizarre to see those strange Corinthian leaves still crowning the more recent and even contemporary RCC columns of many buildings, most decadently the Hotel Leela Kempinsky, at Bangalore. Easy to explain then, perhaps, why we have mercenary teams of names like ‘knight riders’ and ‘super kings’ fight with some ‘Indians’ too for the crown of crickets entertaining value.. Why at South Africa? You may have look further at emergent decadent entertainment Industry, perhaps. Royalty is a favorable commodity everywhere, especially when entertainment is a snobbish commodity for conspicuous consumption!

Returning from Pretoria back to Joburg we had a stop at the Gold reef city, an entertainment park made out of an abandoned gold mine. The fantasy is built around the mine. A ride to some 226 mtrs down the 3000 mts deep 14th shaft was a real experience. Even with all modern precautions and electric lights the ride has thrills of some risks. Narrow tunnels, low head rooms, not enough light, eerie turns and propped up stone ceilings at places with dripping water too. Imagine the miners working at 3000 mts down ( now flooded) with just candle and no pumped in air and much hotter than the surface, with chisels and hammers ( electrical drills were introduce later) and dynamites with a possibility of earth caving in very high. The risk must have become part of a bore of life’s dredging task rather than thrill of coming back alive. And the best of times, a ton of golden rocks could yield only 4 gms. of gold! Do we think that human cost when looking at the price of yellow metal? It proves even Marx’s labor theory of value. But now, the technology has changed, they are even looking for gold at waste dumps of rocks of those times and still finding it profitable, It require less labor, more technology and therefore more capital. More humane?, perhaps. Not to expose labor to high risks is not to employ them at all! The demand justifies the price, not the value based on labor anymore! Marx or no Marx.

The adventure of the white man risking a lot and coming down to such inhospitable places at all odds in search of fortunes and gold is admired by all. Harbingers of progress. That makes them a superior human race! How wonderful and courageous! They also knew well, and the losers everywhere did not, that once you get the control over land and resources you can make the losers work for you and take all the risks for you. All you have to do is to keep them poor enough, if not slaves. You have to risk only capital. If you have someone, (government or rich parents or fathers-in-law) to bail you out, even that is not thrill enough! And one needs bungee jumping, night clubs or betting at the new cricket!


Palace Hotel
Suncity RSA 21-22 may 2009 Saturday

It’s the last Blast. Heat is on. Screams a full page advertisement for IPL final in Saturday Star, a South African daily. It also says :
Sunday 29h30 Opening ceremony ( no mistake!) to commence straight after the game. Don’t miss explosive performances by AKON, Katrina Kaif, Poenix fire Dancers, Eddie grant, Jugalbandhi of drums, as well as laser shows and the crowning of Miss Bollywood.

News papers usually carry no news of IPL. They are busy with other local and international sports. The entertainment center here has a 50-60 seater bowl with a large screen playing the game. I found no body there on Thursday. But some yesterday. Today’s the citizen, another paper, carry some picture news in the front page of IPL. Picture of 5 girls selected from the crowds of previous matches by IPL officials as contestants for Miss IPL Bollywood. The winner will get 50000 rands and a chance to act in a bollywood movie. Inner page of the same news paper has pictures of Preity Zinta , Shilpa Shetty and Hritick Roshan, Yana gupta , SRK and Katrina. The paper also features, the local singing sensations, Grant and AKON as attractions on Sunday.

The curious mixture of cricket and (filmi and pop) glamour. The glamour seems to get the upper hand! That is sportainment!

Five of our group managed to get some VIP 5-6 passes for yesterday and today. May be fo finals too. They went in a taxi travelling 5 hrs up and down from here to watch. I did not find any of them that crazy about cricket. May be I don’t know. It was the fun of going and being in the gallery and when nothing else to do. And tell others that they had been there, perhaps.

This Sun City is a fun city. No city really. It has hotels, entertainments, movies, casinos, resorts, manicured lawns, exotic plant beautiful roads, crocodile farm with 7000 crocs, tribal ( paid up tribals to perform) centre, two golf courses all in the middle of a hilly bush forest of a 55000 hectare game sanctuary with a plethora of animals large and small: African elephants, rhinos, hippos, lions, antelopes, giraffes, zebras, and many birds. It is nice to hear the bird chirping all the time outside the window. And gurgling sound a stream of water outside. So soothing. The stream of water of course is run by a huge pump, no natural stream. Well, a lot of this place is not natural, barring the forest. The Sun city is created on an imaginary story of a lost tribe and their lost city with a palace, where I am staying as a crudely and decadently luxurious 5 or7 star hotel. Rated as one of the best in the world! All the trees it is surrounded are palms and tropical ones, not found within a km away. The buildings, in with marble and granite and in some places made to look like ruins. Big hollow boulders, I believe imported from USA, is everywhere making caves roofs and passages for lifts housing casinos and auditoria. Some trees, large ones and plants with flowers are petrified natural ones. Look near natural, but don’t grow. I sometimes think, is the bird sound real?

The palace, the hotel is huge. Some over 500 rooms and suites. A potpourri of architecture. Whimsical. Yet some meticulous detailing. But on the whole it does look neither authentic nor serious. Like Disney land, to borrow Maxwell Fry’s words, the experience is there, but no seriousness.


Suncity 220509
I was reading this book: Maximum City by Suketu Mehta about Mumbai. Interesting and large part boring narratives. I came across this:

Long before the millennium, Indians such as the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi were taking the country to twenty-first century, as if the twentieth century could just be leapfrogged. India desires modernity; it desires computers, information technology, neural networks, and video on demand. But there is no guarantee of a constant supply of electricity in most places in the country. In this, as in every other area, the country is convinced it can pole-vault over the basics: develop world-class computer and management institutes without achieving basic literacy; provide advanced cardiac surgery and diagnostic imaging facilities while most easily avoidable childhood diseases run rampant; sell washing machines that depend on non-existent water supply from shops that are dark most hours of the day because of power cuts; support a dozen private and public companies offering mobile phone services, while the basic land telephone network is in terrible shape; drive scores of new cars that go from 0 to60 in ten seconds without any roads where they might do this without killing everything inside and out, man and beast.

Very correct assessment. Though not new, well written.