Thursday, August 30, 2012

architecture in print

printed in Journal Design Detail, Vol 1 Sept 2012

Architecture in print.
B S Bhooshan
Writing is a linear arrangement; of words, thoughts, ideas. It presents itself like a procession of signs. But are thoughts linear always? As thoughts are expressed verbally often, logical thinking appears linearly perhaps. Words have to form a sentence in a preordained fashion, ideas are to be formed in paragraphs and they have to be positioned one after another, so on and so forth. We find nonlinear thoughts confusing. If thoughts put to paper in that fashion will be difficult to understand, complex and may be boring too. But still our non verbal minds, I think, often think laterally without a start ing point and a finish;  starting anywhere and meandering and no proper finish.  Architectural thoughts are often in a nonlinear fashion.  Unlike verbal entities like writing and it is also not understood or experienced only cerebrally. Unlike other visual media, architecture is also read, understood and experienced through many senses. However, it seems that architecture cannot be understood these days without verbal support.
Architectural profession is influenced by the idea of writing and similar narratives. So the idea of formal architecture understood or arranged as procession of images, things or objects. Monumental spaces of western classical history always tried to do that. We are also drilled with two dimensional visual ideas like symmetry, balance and harmony etc.  
Historically architecture of a culture is located in a place. It constitutes the place. To the extent that time is linear, events and ideas in one time influencing the next; but space has no time and layers of time can be found superimposed in the same space. French philosopher Michel Fucault called it heterochronia, citing cemetery as a classic example at that(!). However, buildings and places can be understood and read as multiple narratives with unfocused following of the eye backward and forward and laterally. In many places, one can start and stop from different entry and exit points. In addition , built environment meet us through the haptic (touch related) and acoustic and olfactory as well as kinaesthetic senses too.
In spite of many theories and methods to channelize design thoughts, conscious design most often is nonlinear; and is abstract and multi tasking too.  The architectural theory culls and scavenges from many disciplines, forms ideas about physical space and stops there, leaving the actual method of design to a nebulous process, to the individual designer to find out.  Even the simplest and mechanised form- search  is truly cloudy. The process looks apparent only after the design is arrived at.  This despite claims of parametricism. After all built environment is ‘touchy-feely thing’.  The end result, the built space is not always cerebral, but experiential. And experience is multisensory.  More so in the not-so-self- conscious cultural production of architecture and places.
Design of architecture is a process of converting nonverbal, nonlinear thoughts .  To that extent it is a media by its own right. It is represented in diagrams, drawings, pictures and inadequately in words.  Print and visual media is poor in conveying the architectural idea adequately   to the readers.  When done so, it is misrepresented and twisted resulting in misreading of the idea.   In reverse, architects are generally poor verbal communicators; many abhor it and many even think that talking too much about design and analysing it verbally drains their creative energies. Geoffrey Bawa famously refused to talk about his works saying that his works should speak for itself. There are also architects who left the feild and did well with words, British novelist Thomas Hardy for example and recently, nobel prize winning writer, Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk left studying architecture after 3 years. His book on Istanbul is a vivid description of the city and its cultural history, though.  Is there a disconnect between architecture and writing then?
Yet architectural journals are in the increase in India. Are they read by words or by photographs; both grossly underrepresenting architecture? Long tradition of architectural journalism has reduced architecture to mere photographic and vicarious experience. Real experience of many an architecture and places is too distance for many, but virtual experience of those places is too common. As long as direct experience of architecture cannot be conveyed over distances except through words and pictures, this limitation will always be there. Then, how is and to what level the print media is then influencing architecture? And its design. Is the print media only promote architects or is it promoting critical debate in architecture and built spaces? If so what kind of discussion would be relevant in the print space?
This photograph is an entrance court to an office. This makes good visual composition in print.  But does it adequately convey the experience the space can give. Will it be more or less than the expectation this picture generates? The object is several times removed from the image (sign).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

CL Razdan, Architect Jammu

Chaman Lal Razdan studied architecture at College of Engineering Trivandrum two years junior to me. He was from Jammu and Kashmir and the language was a barrier to know each other. Even though we spent more than 3 years under the same portals, we did not know each other well. I almost forgot him as there was no chance to see him since I left the college in 1969.

After 43 years, Chaman Lal contacted me in December last from Katra where he was the director of the Mata Vishnodevi University School of Architecture. He searched out my phone through a student of his from Bangalore. Sine then we were keeping in touch, more sharing the notes of the old times at Trivandrum school which was being run at that time as a makeshift fledgling place. All of us sharing a sense of incompetence and insecurity of not being exposed the great architects and meccas of architecture of the time. The sense of being in not a great place could create a mindset of inferiority if you are in a field or profession where hero worship and one-up-man-ship is rampant, like in architecture.

We met again on 25th May 2012 at Jammu airport where he was waiting for me. Time has changed the contours in both of our bodies and faces and also of the minds. Still we recognized each other easily. Chaman Lal drove me to Patnitop that day where we stayed over night and drove again next day to Srinagar. He has changed from my impressions of the shy lanky lad to a mature person with firm opinions about architecture and many other aspects of life. We enjoyed two evening talking a lot and had morning walks in the lanes of Srinagar which he new well. In between we met many of his friends and clients. I had no idea about Chaman Lal's architecture. We stayed in a a hotel , meridiene, where he had added extensions. I was impressed by the simplicity and the directness of the addition which also exhibited the exuberance of the traditional wood craft of the region. Wood is woven like the shawls with great dexterity. The space Chaman Lal created had a crystalline quality and exhibited the innocence of a novice dabbling adventurously yet in subtle control. I liked it.

Later, my friends from Mysore joined us and we traveled to Gulmarg, to Kargil and to Leh. Chaman Lal came all the way helping us with the arrangements. His eagerness to be of help surprised me. He had kept contact with all his classmates and to Kerala and could speak a few words of Malayalam and knew few songs of the time. Thank you Chaman for the company and your eagerness.  You have humbled me. Your friendship with many at Srinagar and the value your clients had given you irrespective religion, makes me think that humanity is made of small episodes and little souls like you and not of great men. Salute to you, my friend and I am attaching a few pictures of Razdan's  Hotel Meridiene at Srinagar.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

architectural media

Media is not only a powerful tool. Media is powerful. And power corrupts. Indian architectural media is in a nascent state and given the coffee table approach of most architectural reader (really how many DO read?), they tend to be glossies either promoting some successful architects or products and hardly raising any significant questions. Critical analysis is woefully lacking. The photojournalism, which architectural media depend on, reduces architecture to visual images selectively chosen. The few professional journals available today are also beginning to succumb to the pressures of the publishing world. Glossies masquerading as design journals catering to upper society leisure individuals and to the real estate copy cats are not really educating or informing anybody, doing more damage than good. The myths of architectural voyeurism cannot be equated to serious media. The apathy of the media towards issues of built environment and cities echoes the apathy in general on matters that are not sensational.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Marginality is today no longer limited to minority groups, but is rather massive and persuasive; this cultural activity of non-producers of culture, an activity that is unsigned, unreadable and unsymbolized, remains the only one possible for all those who nevertheless buy and pay for the showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself. Marginality is becoming universal. A marginal group has become a silent majority.”   
Micel de Certteau in The Practice of everyday Life

Monday, January 2, 2012

House in the Changing Indian cities

B S Bhooshan
 (This is the expanded/revised version of an essay in the book :+91 Residences, InCITE , Bangalore)

This note tries to look at the viability of a plethora of ideas and designs put forward by many architects and planners in the last 30 years who very romantically looked at virtues of collective living as in villages and old settlements.. The most prominently, were those promoted as part of HUDCO’ s cluster housing, the Aranya project by BV Doshi or the Belapur housing by CM Correa and the new projects like Ambivalley, Lavazza and many other gated communities. The inclusive housing vs exclusive housing is a debate which never settles. There are many arguments for and against these, but most importantly to note from documentations is that all these ideas failed being anything beyond as successful only in miniscule parts or as interesting photographs. There may be many reasons. I have no intentions to go into that. But I think, a closer look at the idea of dwelling itself may give some clues.

A house(1) is more than a set of spaces and features put together. Its physicality is formed by a set of personal preferences and social values and given a physical form and setting. But, what does a house mean in India’s urban world today? What does it imply on its design? 

 The sense of place that a house offers is an extension of the meaning derived from the multilayered identity that a house along with its environment has. It is meaningful more to the inhabitants, than to a visitor. One identifies oneself with a house and then to its surrounding ‘place’.  

The structure of power relations influences the manifest forms of houses and their relation to a place most fundamentally, . Power derives from vanity and fear. Vanity is the desire to be different and evolves from the idea of one’s identity- individual or collective.  Fear of many kinds, real and imaginary, generates values for protection, or defense, which also promoted collective living, once. Protection also generates power.

Stratification and hierarchic position is not new to Indian society.  Most people always belonged to a group, often inheriting commonalities and sharing values, living collectively sharing resources that suited the life styles. Most of the collective living in the past, the agraharas, the tols or the pols or the row-housing streets were based on a social stratification on the lines of caste or a vocation or trade; a grouping dominated by‘segmentary differentiation’ ( term used by Luhmann cited in Schumacher, 2011). Modernizing urban  societies are transforming towards a ‘functional differentiation’( again to use a Luhmann term)(2)  breaking original social stratification and grouping to create new ones.

Collective identities based on new criteria like income or status group change the meaning of a dwelling or house. It becomes more of a value statement and life style statement and also is a desire statement to belong to a status group.  The individualisation of dwellings has altered the sharing of resources even in the traditional areas like agraharas. Common social spaces are crumpling and shedding original use and therefore,  meanings. The collective idea now remains more as a dream; not an achievable nor generally desired value, except in vanity- or- social status- raising-situations like gated communities or high value apartments. Here again, anonymity of urban life militates against a shared collective culture and that denote a different meaning to a dwelling, perhaps to a thing of convenience and economics.

The individual house with a separate compound announced a status, a position and declared a power relation with the rest of the society traditionally. A bungalow  for a long time was reserved for rich and feudal land lords or elite class who sought a different identity and a  different meaning deriving out of the affordable voluntary  exclusion , though partial, from the environment. Now that desire of individuality runs across all seeking new status.
In the larger cities, migration has been a major aspect in recent times. The proportion of youth with investment capabilities is also on the rise. Investors therefore look at abodes largely as temporary and go not seek much more. A minority who thinks to settle down may seek greater meaning. They constitute what can be  termed loosely as consumers of designer homes or ‘ seekers’. As per McKinsey Report this class with annual income above two lakhs rupees as is less than 2% of the urban population of India today (3). This denotes that a significant part of urban population is struggling with day to day living and attaches totally different meaning to a house. The trend making media moulds the values and influences this minuscule ‘seeker’ class.

However, all classes of people tend to emulate the life styles of ‘higher’ class  and consider that desirable.  This along with the desire to be different propels the need for individual plots, however small. The resultant ever decreasing size of plots leads to an inward looking self referential architecture with communications to the street or to the neighbor totally broken. Meaning of life around multifunctional streets and common social spaces collapses. Dwelling becomes a property and goal is individual identity and projection of self.   Is collective living an unachievable utopia then?

New collective identities may develop, perhaps, but not in the spatial sense of the past. The increase of space-less, rootless, ‘ homeless’  nomads of  global traveler class will assert more voices in metropolitan landscapes. Functional and other groups defined by new life styles, marked by high value gated communities for example, may physically segment societal spaces.

The provision of dwelling in large cities has become a simple technical economic exercise of how to fit it physically and economically into an urban milieu. Architecture then is a USP driven by notions of salability and economics compounded by reinvention of nostalgic spaces and features, free cross-country adaption of invented heritage features, mindless novelty seeking shape geometries and materials. Do they have the quality to stimulate any deep experience for the inhabitants? If not, the idea of community living is only a romanticized physicality or of temporary experience. This problem solving approach fails to address the question of human identity and ecologic meaning of dwelling in the evolutionary and volatile urban societal context. What happened to Belapur housing or many less known cluster housing ideas?

Can architecture, as a discipline, search for resolving the dichotomy of self and its relations  to the environment at large? When physical space no more defines social groups, we may have to invent a new architecture and a new idea of dwellings, housing and the city as an ecologic community. As our social system is neither stagnant nor functionally as differentiated as in the developed societies and still tradition coexists with the contemporary in an uneasy way, we need, perhaps, an architecture and urban design different from the past as well as the global. I am aware that it is a tall order, the first step is to realise the current follies and learning from them.

  1. The word house used here to mean the physical expression of a home: a dwelling or an abode, which could be an independent house, apartment or a street/row house. This essay is in the context Indian cities only. It tries to understand the meaning of transforming physicality of a house in the urban social context and its implication in its design.
  2. Luhmann cited by Patrik Schumacher (2011), The Autopoesis of Archtecture, John Wiley and sons, West Essex.
  3. McKinsey Global Institute, (2010) India’s Urban Awakening,