Thursday, February 25, 2010

An interview

An interview given to Ms. Prathima Manohar, some time in 2008 but never published anywhere for some reason.
Some of the questions were interesting, so I thought it could be here

1. What's the latest trend in architecture in urban Indian homes?

There is no single discernible Indian trend. Historically, the show of vanity and wealth has been a major trend and it continues. But one can also perceive that simplicity and environmental concerns are catching up. If there is a pan-Indian trend visible today- it is that the  regional variations of the past getting obliterated in the large cities given that similar techniques , services and materials are available in all our cities.

2. Is there a shift towards efficiency from elegance? Are elaborate elements out of favour?

Both efficiency and elegance have never been major concerns except perhaps in rare academic discourses. Ornamentation or ‘elaborate elements’, is also not completely out. It finds different ways of expression. Cladding is often ornamentation. So is excessive use of glass. This alone does not guarantee elegance. Sacrifice of ornamentation cannot  bring in efficiency automatically.

3. What do you feel should be the guiding factors while designing a home - architecture and interiors?

It depends on the person you are designing it for. There is a class of the elite who look for ‘architecture’ beyond an ordinary lovable home. This category is increasing in all segments, due to media and higher appreciation of the value of design. A home should fundamentally celebrate the virtue of life. In the current predicament of global warming, run-away economies, appalling political scene, and insecure life- architecture could be meaningful and not simply a show of what one can afford. It could be what one can consciously avoid to make life meaningful.

4. What does good architecture do to make a house warm and comfortable?

Warmth and comforts are personal and cultural. One who is comfortable at certain environment may not be comfortable at another. I believe that there are no universal standards of warmth or comfort. All of us get used to certain comfort levels. A concern and understanding of larger values of life and society often results in an environment with more of natural elements like light and air and a choice of materiality. Thus articulating a thought process that went into the design, could be considered warm at personal level for many. But some can be easily comfortable and feel warm in an artificial and synthetic environment as well, like that of an aircraft. This depends on the basic value system one has developed with or imbibed. One can make a personal conscious choice or go by fashion. It is impossible today, perhaps meaningless as well, to be building at any one extreme, as conditions and contexts are constantly changing beyond individuals means.

5. The social fabric of societies is changing. What sort of influence is this having on architectural trends?

All changes are not deep. Most of them are transient. Economics is changing a lot of lives and lifestyles in large cities. Work pressures are also changing. Age pyramid is getting tilted towards the young working groups. Bachelors with higher disposable incomes are also rising. Nuclear families are on the increase. The demands and hold of old generation is resented but nor revolted. Women have more voice and more visible. But men have not changed as partners in many of habits. Servants are not completely dispensed with; in fact, they are becoming more and more essential. Cooking styles are also not changed fully.

This hybrid situation is perhaps more volatile and is reflected in the architecture. “Multiplicity” seems to be the major tendency in today’s city architecture. The home buyer today is also much younger. In the past, one looked towards having a house as permanent. Not so much today. Therefore, the saleability at a later stage becomes a priority. Modular kitchens and imported toilet fixtures are becoming norms. But one still finds period furniture and moulded shutters behind sleek cabinets and by side of imported electric chimneys. The mood today seems to be one of fashion and not of prudence. I think a maturity to develop out of this hybrid situation over a period of time.

6. How should an architect balance his creativity and client's needs?

Why do we put too much premium on architect’s creativity? Can all architects be highly creative? Can ordinary but well done work be not a good one? Architecture as a profession can happen, at various levels of intellectual or that of a responsible construction. We should not expect same creativity at all levels.

Client’s needs are important to be satisfied. But they should not contradict with the larger interest of society. An architect can choose to build for a client’s wish for a Mediterranean villa or an acropolis in the middle of Bangalore. Those are his fancy needs. But I will choose not be the one to design it, as it revolts against my beliefs, not because it affects my creativity. Attitude makes most of architecture not creativity alone. Talent can be wasted easily.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The questions of name?

The supreme court of India made a judgement in a petition that a divorced women should not be allowed to keep the surname or name of the previous husband.

Curiously it raises many questions about name.

First a silly one:

I wonder how will this law get enforced, if a woman had the same surname before and after the marriage? Or if she changes it by making a slightly different spelling.

More seriously,

Why is that the surname or the name of the husband be attatched to a woman in the first place? Most of the time it is done forcibly by the husband or his ilk?

This was not the pattern in many parts of India before.
Why has it become a pattern now? It is a practice picked up from the British, and the West, perhaps. I know my mother or grand mother did not have a name other than one given to them at birth. They remained so even until and after their death.

Another related question,  why children, boy or girl,  should have the names of father's only atttatched to theirs? and why not the  mother's. Is it a practice showing women are of lesser gods? Are godesses lesser than gods? These are not legal questions, but curious ones.

More practically, if a married women is made to change her name after marriage, should she not be compensated for further change after divorce? Because she will have go through difficulties of name change? Like alimony being paid. Or else she could keep the names if she wants to. It is her choice, then.Does'nt it make sense?

Thinking more about names. Name is after all an identity. Two or more part names are required today, perhaps, as a means to identify a person precisely . Especially when there are more children born than the stock of names available. The name is an identity. The given name, first name,  is the first identity of the self or the person. The other attatched names are identities of the larger group the person belongs to. In a really free society, it could actually be the group a person wants to identify with.  So one should have the freedom to choose "six-footer" or "lamboo" or "thin-one" or a "budhivantha" or intelligent-one, "punditha", a "professor" etc as his second name. In fact, many of these names are actually used by many even if they are not really so. They have come as default of being born to a family. There  are people who have also given titular names  to themselves like "manthri" or "senapathi". One can also have a nom de plume  or  a pen name like  the French architect of Chandigarh, who called himself Le Corbusier. It meant the 'enlightened one' in French. His real name was Charles Edward Jenneret.

Most commonly used second or third name are caste names.   Place name, family name, surname or combination of some or many of these are also in use. But in most of the cases, a father's name are found as part of one's name. One could choose or not to keep the surname or caste  identities, though one cannot choose the father's name. In matrilinear societies like Kerala, people used to be identified by the uncle's name and not the father's. Most often people keep or remove these identities for some benefits or for some ideological reasons more than just being plain convenience. For a long time keeping caste names were considered not 'progressive' enough. Many children of some 1950s to 70s in Kerala, for example, did not have caste names attatched.  In fact, some people deliberately gave their children names which were of very different caste or even from caste names from diffrent places. So it is not uncommon to find given names like Rao, Kothari or Ajay Ghosh or Winston Churchill, Lenin, Stalin, Gandhi, Choudhari etc confusing the identities very pleasently. In recent times, the ideologies seems to have taken a reverse swing so much so that some 'caste less children' of 60s and 70s have started  getting their names changed with caste names attatched taking the required troubles. The caste identity seem to give a new found advantage. Some persons have even modernised old caste names to more stylically chic sounding ones!

Whoa! What a problem with one's name? Am I a mere name? Does my name mean everything? Should it mean anything? Can there be names which does not mean anything?Can I be with out a name? May be an alpha-numeric identy?  Why not? Why do we want nice sounding names?

With Nandan Nilekani's efforts, some of us can just choose to be known by a unique nuetral (in gender and caste) identities pretty soon! Till then live with the problem of long and short names, nice sounding, confusing, irritating, rough, sweet etc.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Questions from students

The students of Sinhgad College of Architecture, Pune asked me a few questions to answer. Here are my responses:

1. How do you see your journey in your eyes? How did you evolve as an architect and a human being? Did these 2 facts complement each other?

BSB: I know I grew up as a human being first and then as an architect. I chose to do what interested me and I stumbled into architecture. I was fortunate enough to find kinds of work which interest me, and that I enjoyed doing it. That made me evolve as a person as I am. First decade and a half of my career was that of teacher and researcher rather tangential to architecture learning social sciences relevant to planning and architecture. Later, I returned to do things which were different from that yet continuing to be a teacher. It helped me to develop as a human architect, perhaps. However, my trajectory of career is in architecture is not normal. I believe that, a lot of things are chance happening, but lot depends on one’s attitude to work and life. All professions and all works have their own attractiveness. One has to have an attitude to enjoy what one does. To me, all work has been basically ‘serious fun’. Once it stops to be fun, it turns out drudgery, and it can warp one’s development as a human as well. I never wanted to be a professional on a safe and beaten track, but never a self-centered maverick just for the heck of it. That defines my work as an architect.

2. How do your philosophies translate into designs?

BSB: I don’t know. Lot of things is given to us without our own conscious knowledge. We don’t choose your parents for example or where you are born. And who happens to be your clients and what kind of work environment and design context one is thrown into. Designs emerge out of context. Context does not mean the physical setting, the site, climate, functions, surroundings, the buildings around etc, as commonly thought. Context is defined mostly by unseen parameters like budget, economy, social values, the political and social environment, the industrial and technological set up in which one works etc. When the design develops as a group effort, not just as thought product from a maverick individualist architect alone, metaphors and ideas to shape architecture emerge unselfconsciously. When we limit our parameters, the emerging architecture also will have limited valance. I believe that architecture is not experiential alone, nor just cerebral, it is a product of multivalent process. It gives a physical concrete experience as an object and also is a social construct as a metaphor or idea, which in turn may help make and further ‘social construction’ of meaning of concrete object.

3. How many design processes do you adhere to? Describe them briefly.

BSB: I am not sure. Life is a big and complex process, difficult to put it neatly. So is architecture meant to support life? Architecture can delight like art, has to be cost effective, and needs to interface with technology and culture. Thus our design ideology and methods attempt to circumscribe innovation in formal, technological and cultural realms. With its multi-valent agendas, our architecture has been collaborative -the client, the builders, contractors, the site engineers and the workmen are partners in the process.

Technology, in both its dimensions of material and technique, has been at the core of our work. The attempt has been to be at the cutting edge of contemporary technology albeit in a manner suited to the prevalent local conditions and ecology. Technology has never been an end to itself with us, but a means towards catering to the physical, psychological, fiscal, social and cultural needs of the client and the project. This view led us to pioneer the use of various materials, including stabilised mud blocks, and extensively develop and use various construction methods including brick vaulting, brick domes, skin domes and doubly curved forms, prefabrication, 3D windows etc.

4. Recent construction materials and techniques that have a bright future according to you?

Materials and technology are tools to make architecture happen. They keep evolving. They per se do not determine quality of architecture, though some materials could adversely or positively affect well being and environment. The essence of architecture remains same always. To be sensible, sensitive and safe. And to delight.

5. Your favorite historical monument and how does it reflect in your design (if it does)?

None. I have no favorites in any period of history, including present. I refuse to put anything to neat categories.

6. What are the important aspects that you will keep in mind while designing in India? Would it be the same for structures outside India?

The idea of India exists only as much as an idea of an Indian culture. So tempting an idea yet so nebulous and foggy. To make architecture it does not help. Architecture, I believe, is tied to a place and also simultaneously one cannot escape the global forces as well. Architecture is primarily a social act and phenomenon. As spatial culture it mirrors the cultural trends. A “conscious” architecture needs to be ‘located’ in a place and its culture and history. The global forces of today also cannot be discounted and need to be addressed and mended. This should inform our work. Two aspects are seen as prime foci:

1. Architecture as interpretation of the cultural text that makes the place. That text is not static but evolving.

2. Architecture as construction. This means concerns of ‘green’: impact of the place on buildings and the buildings on the place and its ecology, which also means response to climate.

This principle will work anywhere in India or elsewhere.

7. Comment on LEED and Green Buildings.

There is a lot of controversy on the subject. Green building idea as much as it is a concern for ecology and energy consciousness goes it is valid and important premise, but if it becomes an apology to support architecture which fails in all other aspects and use it as a support argument for poor design, it cannot be accepted as architecture. They could be just ‘green buildings’.

LEED like many other rating systems make sense as much as its parameters. The parameters of rating systems are many times insensitive to real local issues and priorities. They could be misused for promoting certain business interest alone. They also expect formalizing and professionalizing building industry way beyond many societies can accept and accommodate. Thus they become tools for elites to feel less guilty and to project a new champion social status. This makes little impact on the large scale really. That is why the controversies arise. An inclusive system which can address the issue from a more holistic point of view, economically, politically and socially is lacking.

8. Who are the architects who have influenced you and to what degree?
No one particularly. I have liked the works of many in different ways. I value any work which has serious thought behind. One may disagree. But one has to accept sincerity and deep thoughts as great virtues. Many, including my colleagues, my clients and my students influence my work. I am ‘influenceable even now.

9. Core skills that we as students should develop as future architects.

Skill to discern depth of content from surface sheen. Skill to question any fashion trends, past or present. Honesty to work. Skill to work in a team and to lead. Skill to synthesise ideas given by others. Skill to analyse an idea and convert it into a building. Skill to continue learning. An open, not a closed, mind. Other technical skills are secondary and that can be learned any time.