Sunday, September 22, 2013

Romancing Water

This was published in my column "cubes of words" in Design Detail  volume1, issue 4, August 2013.
Follow the link: [pages 117, 118]

B Shashi Bhooshan
Romancing water

Water is the essence of life. It manifests in myriad forms. It delights, it is meaningful, it plays important ritual roles in all cultures, it is fun, it is cool, it warms, it is cruel, it destroys, it makes and breaks life. It is forceful, it is placid, it is deadly.  The purposive, semiotic and experiential, ritual relation we have with it is reflected in every culture, a lot of music, poetry, art and architecture. We reacted to it as reflecting surfaces, as wonderful drops reflecting world, as music of waterfalls, spraying water jets, as cascades and fountains, as foggy screens to create cloud like amorphous floating illusions of buildings, as pools for swimming, as special baths, Jacuzzis, cascades and fountains enjoying its basic experiential quality. 
Our fundamental understanding of water is of its ‘flow’. When you drink water, you are conscious of its flow down inside you, when you swim you know it , when in wading water you feel , when you see waves,  waterfalls, and rivers you feel is the nature of flow. Imagine yourself caught in a heavy downpour; you know flow on the head and shoulders down to the torso wetting every part on its way down to the legs and the foot and to the earth.  You would experience it even if you don’t enjoy it. Every child enjoys it, it is joyful; every farmer who works on rain would love it. It is perhaps the way we understood water experientially and learned of its cycles and its appearances in nature. Will you get the same feel and awareness, when it flows from a tap? Those who have had a swim in the natural rivers ever or a bath in natural streams would know that water flows and touches our body so differently and delightfully than in the most expensive baths of our times. Every leading manufacturer of bath fittings are vying with each other in enhancing the experience in closed or even private open bath rooms with artificial jets, digital controls, showers with remotely controlled embedded music. Would this experience give a personal knowledge of water? 

Natural phenomenon to experience

Water is a phenomenon of nature and a utility.   We studied its chemistry, physics, biology and devised technologies for collecting, extracting, conserving, purifying to convenient standards and norms, packaging and even marketing and selling it. We have created laws on its use, developed notions of ownership; our water, their water, our bathing Ghats and theirs, and now my water under my property and my rain over my roof.  We have also semantically and culturally and religiously classified some water more pure and some dirty. In all  that, water has been objectified. Have we forgotten the value of experiential knowledge of universality, the phenomenology of it which makes our consciousness aware of its cycles and its central position in nature intrinsically? Have we forgotten its real nature of ‘flow’?
Our dependence on it has made us to settle in places where water was available. Most cities and villages had been located near water bodies. The size of the settlement depended directly on the size of the water source. Technological developments of collection and transportation of water, pipes, aqueducts etc, has freed cities from dependence on an immediate water source. Cities today are depending on not just water, but on the technologies connected with it- transportation, desalination, harvesting, storing and leak proofing, distribution- and the economics, politics and sociology-selling and billing and haggles of administration.

Objectified commodity and a resource

It is no more just water; it became an object and a commodity.  It is considered resource and fancily a basic ‘infrastructure’. Use of water means social status. How often you bath ceremonially or ritually or for pleasure, matters.  Control of it is a source of power in society. Water has moved from the notion of a basic phenomenon to an object of desire and luxury. Objectification and consumerisation of water happens in more than one sense.  We believe that greater the use of water, higher is the standard of life.  There are large investments made in research and technology and innovations to cater its consumer economy.
German philosopher Heidegger pointed out two extreme use of water that differentiates its understanding; one as a river flowing and other as flow of river as a source of power.  Heideggerian phenomenology looks at the experience of a thing, like water, as the real appearance and the knowledge and understanding. Looked at as a source of power, that understanding changes.  Ramon Barbazza, a Philippine philosopher scholar points out that water is no more understood in its natural way, but as a resource.  As a thing which has a cost and a price, it divides, as everything else today. 

Sun temple. Modhera, Gujarat. an architecture enhancing water experience. Now hardly used. 

Public exposure to water in public places would enhance our relation and understanding of it.

 Architecture of water

To liberate water from being a mere object or resource,   the experience of it in a natural way has to be brought back. Can architecture and urban design do that? As architecture today is slowly substituting sensual sensitivity with cerebral virtuality, how will water be used and manifested in the future? Digitalising touch is still far away though.  Will it be like flowing water on a surface, digital control of its flow, and jets  on surfaces making an illusory floating cloud like foggy form for a building, buildings or cities floating up from lakes or submerging in it, hexagonal bubbles of water stitched up together to form a watery cube ? As in the past and recent architecture. Would the primordial experience of water be evoked this way? Is it necessary for the coming generations to understand water that phenomenological way at all? Or to find answers of life and nature from consumer economy and experiences and education it can provide?  And to digitally evoke a virtual flow; of water, of life?

Friday, July 12, 2013

Affordable humane habitat

Market for consumable products is expanded by incorporating lower income segments into it besides new areas.    A small sachet of shampoo, for example, becomes affordable for most even if one forgoes a meal to  get it along with the satisfaction of consuming a luxury item. It plays on the psychology and develops a taste for the new item. This strategy combined with aggressive marketing worked with varying successes for various products in the last two decades. The prime motive of this strategy was to expand the market by creating a new need and not satisfying an existing basic one.
The real estate business model
The notion of Affordable housing seems to be the latest manthra for reaching the larger population. Like in the case of consumables, the idea seems to be to expand the real estate market. The producer is the prime mover and the private sector is made a major partner in this endeavour. The affordability and quality is to be improved by technology upgrade. Many writings and presentation and reports claim that affordable housing is not low cost housing. But it is of higher quality at low prices. Affordable housing as projected is basically a business and financing model, without bothering too much how will it impact the total habitat situation. All advocates of affordable housing is actually trying for policy changes to make land available, overcome bureaucratic delays, ease planning rules etc. Thus it aims mainly to make land available for real estate development. A component of low income housing would be used as the social agenda for convincing policy changes. Primarily it uses a growth economy argument in increasing the real estate sector growth.
The housing sector does not work like consumables market. Firstly, housing is tied to a specific site.  Unlike consumable items, it cannot be moved from the production site.  That makes site value the  major component of cost . Poorer sections tend to live closer to work and such informal works are nearer to prime areas. The slums and squatter settlements occupy those prime lands in many cities. Affordable housing as a strategy could even mean a way to appropriate these lands with promises of cross subsidy. Housing investments are also lumpy and cannot be bought at peace-meal. It evades one unless one is credit worthy.  A vast majority cannot afford even these affordable houses, unless they are cross subsidized. For the 70 % of the urban household which are in lower income brackets, house is not a priority as much as a stable income. House without a job does not mean anything. Even subsidised housing change hands easily and end up with higher income groups.
A humane habitat model
Most importantly, shelter nay habitat, that includes more than just shelter, is a basic need. It is not an idea of impressive aesthetic environment. The affordable housing as projected is part of a market dream appealing to the middle class to create slices of visibly good looking cities, without understanding the social and historical processes that created them. The convivial and humane quality of living environment is rooted in the relational dynamics people have with others, the family, the community and the environment, in a larger sense. That makes up humane habitat for healthy communities. It is not number crunching game..
Given the situation, appalling living condition in cities, we need a programme to create affordable habitat in a larger sense. This could be done by using from the existing small scale  individual initiatives  of Self Help like one found in informal settlements of slums and squatters. It needs a holistic business model not the one which looks only from the growth of large business model.  The notion of affordable habitat should then mean primarily creation of convivial living areas and shelter appropriately answering the priorities of different sections. Improving the conditions from what they are today. This means a design strategy that involves technology, finance, mass producton of components production,  processes of creating social and environmental services. It would be city specific and even site specific.

Priorities should be different

The first priority in all cities is drinking water, good sanitation, clean environment, accessibility and mobility to work, health care, and education. Then safe spaces to walk and children to play. These bundles of priorities constitute the basics of humane habitat for all. Shelter comes only next. Priorities may change for different groups.  This is what humane convivial habitat is. This means not the general model touted in affordable housing manthra. The site and service schemes with some specific successes did not meet this requirement either. It tried to create all too new shelters primarily, Thus creating affordable properties instead of habitat. Such attempts make marketable products only. Instead one could look at bunch of environmental goods deliverable to different income communities cross subsidizing the cost of land and development as done in social housing. This programme could include, among other things, financial support system catering to people of 1.Credit worthy classes, all incomes 2. Low income below the credit line or marginal ones 3. No income no credit worthy footloose migrants largely in the informal sectors of economy.

Mass production and assembly
Mass production has a real role, but differently.  So does design. A design should mean beyond traditional physical approach alone. It should encompass a cluster of activities, economics, finance, amenities, regrouping, renewal, regeneration, identifying and designating lands and people for bringing them in a business like venture. Design of components and producing them in large scale to reduce cost and design of technology so that they can be assembled on sites as people do with tin sheets and plastics in squatter settlements, should become part of this initiative. Can multi-storeyed framed spaces be generated and offered along with services so the at people can build on them as they start to live? Can we take the individual private initiatives and link them to Self Help and Cooperatives for low incomes and design prioritised habitat bundles?
The purpose of such habitat communities is not just making visible improvement of urban areas or increase real estate activity and profitability as an end in itself; but to create a system to improve living conditions generally. None of these are mutually exclusive.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Plural Practices

This was published in my column Cubes of Words, in the Magazine Design Detail, Volume 2, issue2, feb 2013

Design invades every aspects of daily life these days. There is a  proliferation of design disciplines too. Moving from agrarian societies to metropolitan cities this change is more and more visible and complex. When designs try to even out regional cultural differences, complexities in the processes of design are on the increase, as are the production processes. To a large extent, the complexity entails changes in the organisation of professionals and their specialisations and their marketing tactics.
Design, especially architectural design, in a social and communal production mode (largely in agrarian and earlier societies) was based on generalised codes developed over long time through trial and error. In many places, in Kerala state for example, even illiterate carpenters could work on codified systems and create intricate and complex structures. Many elements were repeated though. The hallmark was that the designer was no different from the producer. Design often evolved and happened on the work site. However, though this gradual social evolution of architecture, like folk arts,  is claimed/said to be best suited to a regional geography and culture,  can it repeat  in changed social and economic and political conditions? The design system that evolved for a political and economic context and social structure and low density settlement structure and a per capita resource availability, gives way with change when these parameters. 
The formal systems of architectural production evolved in places with excessive concentration of political power and economic means. The global expansion of capitalist and specialised manufacturing/production system developed since the middle ages in Europe gave birth to the evolution of architectural design and its profession as it is known today. In this evolution, design moved away from the site of production. Remote control and representation techniques like that   making and reproducing drawings  and development of geometry for communication and scientific basis for engineering design changed the way buildings and architecture came to be conceived. This led to the emergence of an architect coordinator. He was a master crafts man like before, an artist, an engineer, project manager and above all a visualiser like a poet, a mantle of a maverick anointed onto him. Avante Garde architect s  were among notable leaders in a societal context of dominance of the intellectual, so different from that of pastoral society.
The architect Stapathi or Mimar were almost invisible in Eastern cultures. In India , though architecture might have been celebrated, for political or social reasons,  architectural design process and the architects were anonymous. The profession of architectural design in India is of 20C origin and took its lineage from that European context.  Formal architectural education augmented the mysticism around design.  The disconnect from the past then was not of the manifestation of the architectural products alone, more so of the design and production processes. The unknown master craftsman got replaced by a trained designer professional, in formal/semiformal production environments.
Traditional production systems are on virtual collapse today, the virtual economy creations are globalised hyper mode, and a new pattern of design practice has been emerging. The scene is dominated more of entities than real persons, like teams, firms and associations. Management of design practice (that includes marketing), today is practically more important and necessary skill.  Many believe that MBA = making better architecture? All this is challenging the very concept of an architect. An international breed of firms is also emerging scrounging for gigantic investments in the emerging countries, betting on the quality in deliverable business terms.  A different kind of avant garde, backed by technology and capital are trying to be the leaders.  Markets are active, more in selling ideas as much as products. Obviously, different manifestations of designs and kinds of architecture are happening. Architectural crest  is being moved from phenomenological sensuous experience to cerebral adventures thus challenging    ` genius  locii’ to be replaced by global `genius mundi’. Or are they trying to find a coexistence? Or are they fighting for space?
 Still there exists space for avante garde ’ artist architects, pockets of traditional craftsmen productions, some middle designers exploiting the nostalgia for the chicness of it in the market economy claiming the idea of mainstreaming as a goal. Then there are notions of green, heritage and conservation as well. And there are arguments of justifications and oppositions and resistances from earlier models of practice.  Architectural schools still are largely in ‘heroic architect’ mode. So is the curriculum, though hardly it seems to make impacts on the students and the scene, generally.  Plural thinking is missing from the academia too, largely.
It is a new pluralist design practice that is emerging; a reflection of the social dilemma. Culture is not geographically/ regionally contained or separated, but socially and intellectually segregated.   Different value positions coexisting. Gated/closed communities of different strata coexist legally or illegally, overtly or covertly; in high society or middle class enclaves or in slums and squatter settlements.  In India, with a very unstable urbanisation Index where migration to cities take place in all segments, ( farm labour with no special skill to software professionals flock to swell cities every day) this situation has to be lived with to develop and not forged to fusion.  There seems to be no one way of living, or designing in the melting pots of Urban India. The entire gamut of construction cannot yet be formal. Or will never be, perhaps. There seems to be space for pluralism and different kind of practices at the moment.
This is a delicate situation and can shake up in violent ways, as there are indications, catastrophically, say due to global warming effects on economy, for example, or extreme social dichotomy or political unrest leading to civic strife. Perish the thought.

Thestepped well at Adalaj, community produced architecture by unknown craftmen and  Modern Star architect Le courbusiers’ mill owners association building Ahmedabad. Two different production and design prcesses. Two different times. (photos by the author)