Thursday, December 29, 2011

Season greetings!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

every lie is true and every truth a lie
when you stare at it long enough

every fairness is unfair and every unfair deed is fair
if you look at it long enough

every man is cruel and every cruelty is manly
when you don't want to look at him or the deed long enough

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Towards a paradigm shift in technology

A talk delivered at the Infrastructure Conference at Trivandrum on 17 November 2011

Architecture of public Realm in Kerala: towards a ‘paradigm shift ‘ for design
Dr. B Shashi Bhooshan (1)

1.       The public architecture; why is it important as messages to future?  
Architecture is not technology; it is a social response to technology and its application to meet certain needs; physical, psychological, social and cultural. Architecture is neither utility alone. It mirrors culture of the time. And it should. Architecture is multivalent, multilayered; single agenda do not make good architecture. Public spaces and buildings are the symbols of major institutions of a time and therefore it reflects the time’s expressions and aspirations. Public buildings are not appropriated in the private realm and therefore are collective expressions. And it should be so.  Therefore the design of public realm is important investment for/of future and the design of such spaces and buildings should be done with care.

2.       The past as present :   
In the past we have shown so much maturity to adapt and develop an architecture in Kerala region which was unique. But then the social and economic condition was unique too. That has undergone tremendous change. In the early last century public government works distilled the images and details from past architecture of Kerala and created a new idiom, eg. The Napier Museum, University College in Trivandrum etc. Then they also created the secretariat; a new kind of architecture for a new function. We were not stuck by stereotypes then. We adapted well. Now they are part of our heritage. 
However, can we be proud of any building  or spaces created in the last 50-60 year? Why did we settle for a mediocre architecture in the public realm? The public works department pioneered many a new technologies in the past. But could not make any lead in developing anything relevant to the region. Some where it got stuck. We have created inappropriate architecture all over Kerala influenced by new architecture developed in entirely different climatic and cultural regions and without investing enough thought or experiments to make them suitable. Today they dot the entire stretch of Kerala as mediocre spaces and buildings aging too ungracefully. They are today as remnants of a bad caricature. We have come to abhor these public spaces and public architecture as poor imitations badly done. It was Laurie Baker who thought of an experiment in architecture which caught the imagination of some people at least for some decades. Baker’s architecture was based on an idea of cost reduction and a philosophy of Gandhian frugalism. Yet it endeared other dimensions as well.  This experiment though not irrelevant seemed to have died too soon, whatever done in the so called style of Baker has also descended to a level of caricature. Lack of a multivalent agenda.
3.       Confusing trends: 
The last two decades of globalisation and opening of the economy made us believe that creating images and use of certain materials produced globally is synonymous with architecture. It is creating a substantial niche today and is moving to spread. The problem of this is not in the forms and shape they take, but its misappropriation of the valance and meaning of architecture. The dissatisfaction with aping the global tendencies cries for appropriating past forms in the name of heritage. This has also created spaces and objects and material surfaces untrue to the process and technology and is making architecture a paste on extra of a scenographic surface appliqué.  Architecture is understood as external surfaces and a visual media alone. The past decade also saw awareness on the great damages being done to our planet and ecology and the idea of green and sustainability is gaining ground. Though movement has a valid point to make, a plethora of different shades of green are being promoted; some masquerading rating systems and some romanticising tribal technology. In this scenario today we see that green by itself can promote any monsterism to the level of architecture. Critical evaluation of technology, heritage, green processes and their relevance is woefully lacking and architecture is becoming a name game; a labelling system; contemporary, heritage, modern, green.
4.       Moving forward: an approach to design
 How do we move out of this? We need a paradigm shift, certainly. First and foremost, architecture should be understood as a multi layered cultural product and a product of thought process with in the society.  It is the most public art and makes permanent marks on the environment. Public debate on buildings and architecture should happen; not left to narrow political or real estate processes. Plurality in thinking is to be encouraged, but critically debated.  A parametric approach to architecture need to developed defining the new developing contexts and parameters. Architecture should try to satisfy most such parameters and should not get bogged down to one or two. Architecture is to become multivalent again. We may outline the critical parameters of architecture for the future. 
a.       Climate: sun and rainfall, Sustainability and energy efficiency
These parameters as a group together make primary influence on the shape of any sensible architecture anywhere. But today most architecture does not start with that. Air-conditioning has made anything possible and that has made all the difference. If one does not bother about energy, anything goes. When such a thing happens, the very essence of architecture the place maker is gone.  Sun has been tempered by AC, but the rain still plays havoc on buildings. We have not understood yet how to build sensibly and densely with our climate. The sun, the shadows, the rain, the breeze and many other natural elements becomes means of celebration of life in a place and a joyful architecture is created when we respond to them. Have we done it in the recent past? 
b.       Pressure  of land / competition of uses/ depletion of resources
No more land is made, but our needs are increasing. Naturally, we have seen the fiercest encroachment on all terrains and farm lands. We know we cannot go on like that. Higher density is essential. But we need to decide how much density and building is too much. And what can go where. All this means a very scientific approach to planning for a settlement system and a settlement policy. Kerala is today one large multi nodal city. The land is being parcelled in the name of infrastructure without any idea as to how we would create a settlement and city system with limited land availability. Also not considered is how the new infrastructure development is impacting and would impact the settlement system. Why are we not investing on such studies and initiate a policy on urbanisation, regional planning and settlement system? 
Our urban planning has been based on models borrowed from elsewhere on outdated processes and legal framework. Neither did we have an urban model in the state in the past. Most of our cities are accretions of organic settlements developed without much care, meant not for motorised transport. We have ruptured that system badly. Our building byelaws are creations of political and administrative expediency and not of objective scientific thinking.  
We also have been depleting other resources like sand and water. We boasted of plenty of water in our gods own country, but where are we heading to. And the story of sand is well known now. We need to invest urgently into developing alternate strategies of building and planning. 
c.        Economics/frugality
Economic growth alone does not make development. And real estate development alone does not mean growth as well. Many have been warning on that and I am not to take a side here as I am not an expert. But as an architect I feel that unbridled growth of building density everywhere is not a healthy development. We have been building more than what we need in places and less than we need elsewhere. I believe that Gandhian Frugalism, even if not achievable everything could well be a guide. There could be economic benefits from building more and consuming more space accruing to the economy, but in the resource crunch situation it is a bad model. We tend to put priority on the hardware of buildings than the soft capacities to run them. For example, we prioritise on school buildings to education and hospitals to health care and roads to mobility. However, I do not subscribe to the idea that all buildings should be frugally built. But I do believe in not being extravagant. Can we create architecture of judiciaous spending? 
d.       Technology /experiments/ spirit of modernity 
Technology could be at the heart of architecture, provided we use it well. Technology makes impossible possible in many ways. The spirit of enquiry was the spirit of modern architecture. Technology was a means of expression. It is moulded sensibly to serve human purpose and create places. When we forget that and loose that sensibility, technology becomes a juggernaut to intimidate and overtakes the human spirit. 
Technology has two components; one that of construction techniques and materials and the other of design and production management. Most often materials of glitz overtake the other. We get enamoured by the surface glitz and novelty of materials produced for different climate and places thinking that use of such materials create world class architecture. We forget that no materials per se make architecture, but only surfaces. Further a material and technology is a product of an economic philosophy and there is a social and social power structure behind that. By bringing in a technology and materials like that of excessive surface glassing and metal cladding we are not recreating the processes that made it necessary elsewhere; we are just aping.  Leave alone the desirability of these in our climatic situation. We need continuous critical evaluations and experimentation. 
On the other hand, technology of design and production is continually changing and that is not been used to full extend. Architectural design without research cannot produce successful innovation. Frank Lloyd Wright, Antonio Gaudi, Renzo Piano, and our own Laurie Baker have been researchers and innovators. Such innovation could happen in the ambit of large commissions largely in public domain than in profit driven real estate domain. But the design atmosphere in which architects are made to work does not help to do that. We may have to rethink of some institutional arrangements for this purpose. 
Experimentation and innovations are crucial to any society. Innovation is a result of spirit of enquiry. Stressing too much on status quo, we suppress that spirit. We need to create an atmosphere of innovation and where else can we promote it except in public realm? 
e.       Democratic spaces and conviviality 
Unique architecture of past in Kerala were produced in a feudal social situation. They have been exclusive architecture not spaces for public, be it palaces or other spaces. However, tradition has been that they were not of intimidating monumental scale or size. The public spaces we produced in the last several decades are becoming more and more exclusive and trying to be intimidating. Compound walls and barricades and surveillance are becoming the order of the day. Architecture as public art is slowly becoming undemocratic. There may be many reasons for this, but certainly contributes to an atmosphere of mistrust in humanity. The conviviality of public spaces which is desirable quality of humane space does not exist. Most public buildings and spaces are not inviting and they stand aloof. 
It is not easy to reverse this in the present circumstances perhaps, but if there is will to change and general awareness for a need to create convivial public spaces and architecture, it could be done. It would require a hard design research exercise involving design disciplines, political and administrative professionals, and police. 
f.        Semiotics 
Semiotics deals with signs and how they make and convey meaning. Architecture is a semiotic system and to that extends it a medium to communicate. Mostly, it communicates at very basic level and higher communication requires more cerebral participation. If that awareness can be raised by sensible architecture and public debates, architecture will become a public art and will contribute to the culture more than at a utilitarian level. We would be again proud of what is built. 
5.       What can be done: starting point?
What is said so far is not easy to do unless there is a clear ‘paradigm shift’ in thinking. To start with the Government of Kerala can think seriously of kick start a series of measures.
a.        Public Architecture Commission 
We need to create a public architecture commission for the entire state. I see this commission  not as an authority, but an institution. This independent commission could advise government on the design of major buildings and other investments. It would not do any design, but would vet the designs of major buildings and inform architects about the parameters considered important for a proposal. It would be good if the commission could continuously sponsor and engage academics on relevant research on various aspects like building byelaws as well as conduct periodic consultancy seminars and conferences involving professionals on issues that may emerge from time to time. It should be an agency for proactive thinking and not an administrative stumbling block. 
b.       A policy on human settlement and urban planning
We urgently need a policy on the human settlements, cities development and regional planning linking it with transportation and infrastructure planning for the whole state. We need to search for alternatives to the existing models of urban development suited to our conditions.  Architecture and urban design should become part of this policy instrument.
c.        Competition for designing major public investments in building and spaces
The government’s architecture department should become facilitators, administrators and not designers especially for new major buildings of certain size. All major buildings should be designed through open competitions after a clearly defined brief. The department of architecture should work as a permanent secretariat for this purpose. Also they can liaison with construction. 
We must be working to make a brand of modern Kerala architecture unique to the place and that is sensible to the land and people as well. All these are possible only if we have serious concern about the quality of architecture. That concern has to be shared not only among architects, but others and especially the powers that be.  I hope some will take note of. 
(1)      Architect and planner, BSB Architects, Mysore and Bangalore and Adjunct Professor, BMS College of Engineering, Bangalore