Thursday, January 28, 2010

the environmental question

`The inner crisis in environmental politics today is precisely the lack of bold concepts that address the challenges of poverty, energy, biodiversity and climate change within an integrated vision of human progress. At a micro-level, of course, there have been enormous strides in developing alternative technologies and passive-energy housing, but demonstration projects in wealthy communities and rich countries will not save the world. The more affluent, to be sure, can now choose from an abundance of designs for eco-living, but what is the ultimate goal: to allow well-meaning celebrities to brag about their zero-carbon lifestyles or to bring solar energy, toilets, pediatric clinics and mass transit to poor urban communities?'  MIKE DAVIS in New Left Review

Sunday, January 24, 2010

architecture of cities today

Written in 2005 in reply to a question during a National conference at Kodaikanal: what is the most significant aspects influencing change in architecture today

Is architecture really changing, except on the surface? Economic changes, aspirations of the commanding and controlling strata of the society, changes in the gender relations are major factors that influence architecture. Technology is a minor factor. The metropolitan economy, where service sector and global linked IT companies are leading the  change, is affecting the demography and ethnicity of our large cities. Disposable incomes and spending habits of the burgeoning middle class are on the rise. This population though miniscule in the total population of India is emerging as most visible and most vociferous in the media, both print and electronic. They are exposed to the world outside through media and travel. They are also in the impressible age group and are easily impressed by the architectural glitters of the west, the shopping malls, credit cards, multiplexes, chic joints, etc. Media and popular travel and architectural magazines, advertisement, are all adding to the utopian aspirations. The architectural and spatial taste cultures are influenced by this surface glitz.

Our education also gives them little room for understanding and and to make sense of spatial culture over and above the material surfaces and to understand social and environmental implications. Their purchasing power also influences the real estate sector and influences their investment decisions. The young generation has dreams of creating mini Europe or US in India, even if it means shutting themselves inside fortified enclaves, moving along elevated highways in chic automobiles, isolated if need be from the nuisance of Indian reality outside that is too large and too distanced from their dreams. The smart real estate tries to cash in on this dream and the result is the new found surface glitter. There is short sightedness of the sustainability of this economically, socially and politically. This may have impact on the smaller towns and larger hinterland architecture, but not on a visible scale.

Beyond the surface change, I do not see any change in content (structure in anthropological sense) of architecture. Certainly not in large part of India in a significant way. Architecture perhaps has become more visual and more hyped.

It is valid even today I think, even after the reession.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A sense of angst: a melancholic melee: a force of creation

Dr. BS Bhooshan

There is increasing evidence of a new confidence. We hear fewer apologies to do what we do now. There is appreciation for technologic braveries and showpieces, even if they are not appropriate to climate and culture, often. There is search for a new vigour. Daring excitement is not a taboo; experiments in market place though not acceptable. Crass commercialism and intellectualism (albeit pseudo one sometimes) coexist. There is also a renewed interest in the ‘conservative’, ‘contextual’ as well as ‘culture’ and heritage which are marketable now. May be confusing, but there is passion , of many strands. Can this be a sign of coming of age and will the generation next graduate further and start producing architecture of significance for India?

Architecture always seemed a search to me; a search for many diverse things. Search of an elusive and nebulous ‘core competence’ of the profession that defines ‘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 of building, 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 of course, money. The multitude of possibilities in a plural society makes architecture seem like a personal agenda. When we include all the players in the realms, the client, the builders, the construction workers and their varied skills, the engineers and consultants, the planners as well as public at large, the various strata of the society who use buildings differently with different attitudes, there arises a confusing conflict of agendas and the best exercise seem to be that of conflict resolution. Circumstances seem to conspire to make good architecture happen, nonetheless, though not very often.

Architecture, as objects in a context-physical as well as cultural, is a total sensory experience, but not just visually alone. That is how we experienced and evaluated architecture before. But today the majority of buildings and urban spaces are designed and produced with visual experience alone in mind and are also being evaluated through the visuals, especially photographic visuals. The print and visual media have added to this. Excessive lights made possible by the lighting industry and glossy pictures and dazzling 3Ds numb our other senses. The haptic sense of touch, the senses of sound and smell and even kinaesthesia are hardly explored seriously. Are we moving away from real experience to virtual one? Does this make it possible to transcend real space defined by cultures as images can be exported and transplanted with ease? And does it relegate or reduce the architecture to mere soulless surfaces of colours? I wonder.

The design agenda also has moved from a multivalent mode to a dominant single mode. We are dependent on limited agenda today leaning too much either on elitist economic sense on one side, on crass commercial success in the middle dancing to the demands of consumer market and on social activism on the other side. Even the cultural meaning of architecture is often reduced to visual scenographic details alone; creation of visual imagery of one kind or other; either iconic (most noted ones are so) or blatantly insipid copies. Or sometimes plain gimmicks in construction, like walls made of beer bottles. Hardly do we seem to appreciate a balanced view of architecture having multiple dimensions.

So we create variety of labels too like ‘green’ buildings, or traditional or ‘vernacular’ recreations or mythical ‘heritage’ sets like the many in hospitality sector. If passion drives those choices, there is hope. But if it is simple branding and jumping into the wagon of convenience, then it leads nowhere. Many of them fail to outlive the notion of contemporaneous novelty or a limited public appeal of nostalgia and hardly achieve a seriousness enough to be called architecture. In this context, if a minuscule percentage of buildings turn out to be serious architecture, the credit goes to the heroic efforts of a few.

We create many complexes today over dominated by the production process dictating the design. And in the builder segments which accounts for large amount of urban buildings, the idea of architecture seems to be to create as much volume as possible and produce a loud packaging appeal and merchandise for sale like any other commodity. The design agenda is mutated and mutilated by management, economics, finance, bureaucracy, fashion and even ‘vastu’. The humongous scale of construction today makes neither architects nor architecture in command. Our traditional skills seem to be insufficient. Is such scale of construction a necessary evil? Or do we need to move on to an era of teamwork, reducing the often bloated egos? Is it not emerging?. Future is, perhaps, of the underdog, and not the maverick?

Architecture is taught and practiced even today in a problem solving functionalist mode. But hardly functionalism is a USP in architecture any more. Personal whims are. Hardly there is any public debate. Whatever little public space is used for discussion, current fashions take the lead. Can this lead to a serious Indian discourse, beyond the transfer of images from our past or from somewhere else? Can there be a multi-cultural synthesis for the evolving future? In the era of shrinking thought boundaries. Seriously? I hear many talking about practicality of simple design without a hangover of theory or of green rating or cultural context as justification for insipid work. Could there be any design possible like that without an underlying theoretical concept of what is architecture really?

So is it confusing? Or is it beginning of a new sensible era? Destruction is perhaps, necessary to create new construction. Can we make it happen, really, beyond the image making?

I pin my hopes on that few of the next generation. Let us not confuse them with one sided arguments. Let them open the minds and see beyond fashion and labels. And not only a new generation of architects; we need a new generation of people who can appreciate architecture in its proper perspective as a cultural medium by itself and not just a functional utility or a showpiece of vanity or packaging material.

The sense of angst which is palpable on many youngsters today sure will turn into a force of creation.

published as OPEN PAGE in Index Furniture Journal IFJ feb 2010