Thursday, November 27, 2014

Smart Cities and Urban Corridors

Published in my column  Cubes of Words.   Design Detail  issue 9  oct-dec 2014

Movement from rural to urban has been phenomenal.  While 23 % of Indians were living in urban areas in 1981; today there are over 30% urbanites with 35% migrants.  There is considerable regional variation and some states in the West and South are urbanised more than 40% already. This tendency is gaining more momentum and all pundits and urban gurus predicting more than 55% of Indians would be urban in 2050. They also see a bleak urban future with poor capacity of cities to absorb the migrants gainfully.  When India became independent much of its urban population, that was only about one sixth of total population, lived in smaller towns; only less than half of it living in cities larger than 1 lakh population.  Now over three fourths of urbanites are in such cities.  One fifth of them are in the ten megacities of over 3 million populations.  A continuous concentration is making metropolises tearing their own fabric apart. The dichotomous quality of life between ends of the village- town-big city-metropolis spectrum as well as within the big cities is well articulated. So are the abysmal and distressing miseries of large-city life.  Dissatisfaction of the poor conditions and environmental goods is evident even among the higher classes of city dwellers.  Yet, large cities are the lure, but how can they be endured?
Developing urbanising corridors, making use of the trends, was one such suggestion since 70s by a task force on urbanisation headed by Charles Correa  as  part of a  multi pronged strategy. Its new avatar is the ‘smart cities’ and urban corridors along information highways on some selected high growth stretches.  No credible objective and detail is available yet, except that of creating cities in the vague image of hypermodernity catering to a metropolitan real estate dreams often modelled after parts of Dubai, or Singapore. Industrialisation and job creation seem to be thought of as automatic outcomes of this wish list of clean dense cities, an environment of urbanism appealing for the new elite middle and upper class, like gated enclaves or even some exclusive developer towns or vacation resorts, keeping off the reality of urban India outside the gates. Would this alone be the basis of this proposal that is yet to be articulated?
The paucity of opportunities in the overcrowded agriculture is pushing the people with very little urban skills to migrate to the burgeoning cities. They can be gainfully absorbed only in marginal jobs like construction labour or in household services or in marginal informal sectors. Will the smart cities be smart enough to change the migrants to ‘smarties’ in short duration?  To expect a transformation replicating experience of the urbanistically stable countries or of island economies in a short time is a pipedream.  Yet a new beginning is in order.  Hope it will not stop at that symbolic gestures and statements.
The cities had been nodes of regional culture and economy even in the medieval and 19 C India. They depended on a region and led the regional economy and regional culture including the language, education and architecture. Until recently urban centres played that role as a system and hierarchy of centres. However, the latter half of last century with `modern’ economy penetrating the country side saw a change of role where city systems slowly became networks for marketing of capital and service goods destroying the local industries and economies creaming off the agricultural / rural surpluses. This top down development has its impact on culture. The cultural artefacts like architecture seem to have shown much more visible hiatus. The much touted Gurgaon model and the ideas floated on the net of the smart city corridors are nothing but caricatures of urban design or influenced by comic strips and video games that seriously lack any genuine thought or debate. Urban planning and city governance have been an apology of lethargy and anarchy despite 74th amendment of the constitution.  We have been inundated with ideas, technology and advice; none seem to work in our social and governance context. Do we change the context or the models? Can we generate a model of our own?
There exists a set of global metropolitan cities in India linked to each other and connected externally too and a series of intermediate regional cities. All these together form a national economic space. Another  set of intermediate and small towns like taluka headquarters for example also exist at next level  which are / can be networked to form corridors and regional spaces. The regional ‘space’ made of network of cities and towns superimpose themselves on a regional economic ` territory’ of agriculture and resources.  This system is in need to be strengthened.  Abandoning the existing ones to create totally new ones would leave these existing cities / towns to languish. The city / town is its people and its culture and character that are not built overnight. There are too few examples of successful new cities either.   A realistic policy and programme of urban development cannot ignore this; neither the works done earlier of multilevel planning and regional development planning.  Relying only on a hyper urban model of growth economics and industrial development to produce a healthy settlement system would be costly. It is demonstrated academically that small and middle size towns seem to have more healthy relation with country side. And can culturally absorb the rural migrants better. They have better chance to serve the future than big cities alone. I think that urban corridors do have a role in this scheme, so do territorial settlement complexes, where a network of many towns together can create the efficacy and the threshold of demands required for the services of a large city.  Such a system would possibly arrest excessive concentration on too few cities.

The urban design of these cities would then take the cue from the rural urban connectivity and not from real estate utopia. We need a way to develop a city system which can take care of itself controlled by the effects of economic and land policies and not by land use planning alone as done today, which is observed more in violation.  An innovation in the ownership and development of urban land should seem a prerequisite to extricate city development from land mafia.  What would that policy be and how would we bring that around? 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Good morning from Ganga river, Varanasi: Every thing is intense here; celebration of water, colour, food, street activity, faith as well as filth. Never seen such gargantuan scale of filth and a ceremonious neglect of it as though it does not exist. Eating joints the great tasty delicacies dotting the streets and the throng of people around seem to celebrate one side of metabolism and obliviously venerate the acrimonious olid sting of the products from the other side, of both human and animals.
A tiny treasure of knowledge, a book store in a street of Varanasi. Devouring katchoris next to it. Cacophonic traffic of two wheelers, cycle ricks and four wheelers continuously honking to veer through the river of humanity. Add the chanting filtering through many turns. The human sweat and its smell. The open unabashed urination on the steets and the stench. The seemingly stoic bulls. The high performative dust settling on exposed sweaty parts making one constantly aware of one's physical existence. The experience is truly existential: moment to moment. Every sense is horned. I would say: I sense therefore I exist.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Oops, urgent matter of poops

to be published in my Column 'cubes of words'  in Design Detail issue no 8

....Then I sit and wait,
Sit and wait, sit and wait
Until the poop plops down.....
(From poop song ; a  rhyme  teaching 2 something to hygienically do number 2.)

One of primary bodily pleasures is the movement of bowels and urine. Growing up into self awareness, we acquire values of cleanness and privacy, shame and taboos nurtured  by culture. Pleasures turn to pains of controls often. The problems of privacy, hygiene and safe disposal of the discharges lest they transform into sources of pollution, diseases and sensuous discomfort is a collective concerns of any ‘modern’  society.

Latrines, toilets, water closets for use in privacy along with the sewerage system had become a sign of modernity by last century.  Yet over half of India does it in the open. They do not have access to even a rudimentary one.  A small section of Indians have luxury of ‘glamour rooms’ to do the job. Ironically more Indians use telephones and mobile phones than toilets according to 2011 census.   The poop and pee and their putrefying stench seem to define our existential reality and philosophical detachment to the environment.

 Most of us cannot stand the stench of it, yet we have live that ‘aroma of discomforting air’ hovering in many pockets our cities; our trains, railway stations and the bus stands  exuding a distinguishing pungent presence.  Many sidewalks of roads exhibit human excreta and filth.  So are our public spaces, and public toilets in public buildings are apologies of squalor.  Underground sewerage system is known only to a part of urban India; even so in larger cities. Small towns and medium sized towns are still to live with open drains and the pungent stench.  Manual scavenging was banned in 1966, yet it exists in many places. This dehumanising practice has been a basis of the social divide.  In the march towards a higher urbanised India of smart cities, sanitation poses a significant conundrum;  how the other half poops? It is a question of dignity as well as status. Open or private, pit or potty, local or western, yuk or glamour, evil or showpiece: defecation divide is real and crucial.

The question is not one of economics and technology alone. There is more to it, of sociology, psychology, concepts of hygiene and cleanliness, taboos and superstitions. A major international conference on sanitation last February at Delhi heard a call for including sociology of sanitation as a subject in schools and colleges. We sanitise even the problem. The conference talked of sanitation and used that word more often while it was denoting  defecation and the processing of ‘poo” and pee; called faeces or night soil or sewage more affectionately.  Even sex is more openly discussed than the shitty affair. Even those ‘decent Indians’ living luxuriously have great problems in reconciling the issue of toilets and their location. Attitude varies from that of a necessary evil to a vain showpiece those conflicts with concepts of cleanliness, purity or profanity and mundane personal hygiene. An objective attitude is rare.  Why that is no discipline has done a serious scholarly study of the history and sociology and behavioural aspects of defecation. Have any?

Prof. Alexander Kira of Cornel University is one who made an exhaustive and scholarly study of bath rooms in 1960s. His book,  the bath rooms,  a best seller in 1966 looks at the history and design of bath rooms and accessories ergonomically, largely from the US and Western perspective. He pointed out that squatting is the best position for bowel movement which only Indians and other Asians practice. This, it seems, prevents haemorrhoids somewhat. The horizontal thigh position constricts the rectum hindering easy bowel movement. So he proposed a semi squat commode design though unsuccessful with market. Similar designs were also tried by Le Corbusier and others. The Western closet has become a fashionable habit for its appeal to lethargic stiffer bodies. Studies also show that use of tissue paper does not clean effectively and about half of respondents had residual faecal matter in their briefs.

Studies by Prof. Kira
In fact all the new products seem to complicate things and designed to improve looks and increase size and feel of luxury and hardly to improve the ergonomics. The imported products and designs of even of green claims (waterless urinals and water saving flushes etc) do not take the Indian habits, sociology, physiology and psychology into the design. The Indian quantities of bowels are generally said to be larger than in others and the low water discharges do not always flush fully in one go always resulting in inefficiency. The Indian pan and the Asian pan have very little room for improvement and the market for it also in the lower luxury segments that make it unworthy of any investment in design innovation.

 Studies by Corbu & Garnier                          Approach to design by Prof. Kira

Manual scavenging widely practiced earlier had put the excreta to use as manure in some places like china and Japan and England. With water carriage system expanding, scavenging and dry latrines, even chemical ones, weaned ending all researches on that line. The shortage of water for carrying it away is looming large. Most of our urban water is consumed for washing, flushing etc and finally ends up in the sewers. Will we use dry latrines and processed poop as manure again?

 Sulabh International of Bindeswar Pathak builds low cost toilets for about Rs 5000. They also reach and maintain low cost toilets in many public places making a low profit business out of it and prove that it is economically viable. But why does not it d get replicated?   Peepoo and Ecosan are other groups which developed disposable kits that self sanitise itself and is comparatively cheap and easy to use. These initiatives to be replicated in large scale require cooperative movements that can generate employment as well. A clean India revolution?   It is demonstrated that the quantity human urine produced in India, would provide for all the urea needed for our agriculture. The urea factories may then close down. But except for some enthusiasts in isolated cases, this is not explored.  So also is the case with night soil as manure. It is possible to do that hygienically if enough research and education is followed up.  Why no management studies in this area?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Save the path to Chamundi hills, Mysore Stop the wanton destruction of this place.

All these pictures were taken on  way up the Chamundi hills in Mysore in the beginning of summer 2010. The 1000 steps stairway always hold interesting views and episodes.You are likely to meet some  most unexpected people there.

Stop the wanton destruction of this place.

It will be gone pretty soon, unless the concerned act fast before the government 'develops' it destructively. With pasticy cover over the path! What an unimaginative, wanton act?
These steps are the real democratic heritage space in Mysore. Thousands of people move up and down every morning enjoying the free wonderful air and the forest like walks with a lot of tree cover, innumerable flora and fauna for those who are care fore to notice. A lot of devotees also go up doing ritualistic pasting of saffron on every steps. No one steps on any one else's treads. One meets all kinds of people. Regular climbers, old and young, visitors, tourists, school children in groups and some mendicants too. No one complains of a need for a canopy here. The beauty and utility and sanctity of the place is in its openness. It is part of the Chamundi ecosystem. 
Unfortunately as this place has no big name of rulers attached has not been declared a heritage place, a heritage walk.  No pompous building, no artificial 'thandi sadak ' associated with any king. No major ugly construction so far marring the nature.  Only plastics and wastes in someplace, lack of basic facilities like toilets at both ends and proper parking space at the foot hill. Dirt do accumulate at the top, some juice sellers do clutter at places with their push carts. They could be organised if the authorities want to . That is so far.

Now the Government acted too fast. Yesterday's news paper carried an item that the Chief minster inaugurated the construction of cover over this. The picture showed an ugly blue cover with rickety pipes popping it up. There were many other bigwigs too in the picture. Why this now? Why this at all? 

The trees  provide adequate cover over this from sun. In some places, that is open more trees could be planted. The plastic sheet will only be a nuisance as it gets too got in summer. And every one will be sure how this will become eyesore with dusty and brittle too soon.  The monkeys will add further damage over it. In rain, people mange to stop somewhere for a while and continue. 

Chamundi is fragile. Wanton destruction has left scars of land slide in the past. Please don't act with out thinking. I appeal all the ministers, MPs, MLAs, Public Figures and Officials and more importantly all environmentalists and right thinking pleoples to think about this and act appropriately. One's this place loses its charm and ecology, Mysore will lose a major asset for ever.

It will really be sad, if this is not stopped. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Moon Wreck

It was a dark night. Or was it? I could see the almost full moon through the half open wooden shutter of the only small window. Grandma would not allow to open any window at night, even in the sultry pillow-drenching summer night. Some unknown fear of the unknowns. Some how this small slit of opening just happened that night.  Outside the sky was beautiful with stars. But nights were meant to be spent in fatiguing cells of tubular spaces. I never knew then that I would once imagine up beautiful nights spent outside where the grandma will tell stories of revengeful bitches wandering around gobbling up children or some such thing; an imagination constructed from fragments  years later bragging to colleagues in the city who reveled in such snob stories. Then it was simply stultifying nights to be endured inside. After grandma had gone, she became an angel. She was a loving lady I was told by everyone. Anyway elder people have to be nice and wonderful, especially after they are gone.  What the children thought of them would not be real and correct assessment, and what they really   think even  at that time also would be prompted. The fragments in my head was a mixture and one major image was that  of a loving gaoler who constructed dreadful insurmountable castles of fear. Fear which had no real lime or stone; no rhyme or reason. Perhaps it had. 

Where was she then that night? She was sleeping there? Where were my mom and my father?  My friend Velan was there. We were studying together since evening. Or were pretending to be.

The moon on the sky was a delicate thing. Like a glass ball.  It will crack if it   falls down. Like the one I have seen in a local doctor’s table when I was taken to him.  He had kept it to fight against bitchy winds flying away his papers. Why did he have so many papers, all neatly stacked up with a three forth of a glass ball on top? Once it fell down, it seems, and a portion chipped off. That had left a mark on it. A dark rabbit like mark. I was chided when my hands almost reached to touch it. The moon, I used to imagine then, also fell down like that during some heavy cosmic wind. That left the dark mark in moon. But my father used to say it was a real big rabbit, the pet of the moon. Moon, the beautiful lady. My mom used to supplement that story and would tell us children that again later. But she would to scold me as I wouldn’t believe.  I heard from my uncle - teacher that it is a crater and moon is a satellite going round the earth and it had no light of its own. I didn’t like that too. Moon would be beautiful without this science explaining everything and making it to reason, I thought. Yet I couldn’t agree with my parents.

They thought and made too much of gods or  goblins – moon was also a goddess  and was a small deity in a nearby temple. That moon was fun and was thought clothless, all worshippers placing a bit of threads from their clothes to cover the goddess. They believed and were scared of  more of the evil spirits than the gods and worried of bad sights and spells who would visit us children dropping periodic seeds of fever and cold, and sometimes much more.   A week of escape from school; but no going out in the sun and only salt less liquid ganji and papads burned in fire, no fried stuff, no cold food, nothing sour, nothing spicy. A bland existence and the dreadful  pampering love hovering around like sticky useful perspiration.  And then, a bitter kashaya, and the worst, a talisman. Something inscribed in a copper leaf and placed inside a small tubular silvery trinket. A local astrologer cum heroic fighter of all evils and bad spirits would tie it around my hip after an hour long brouhaha and gibberish. That would stay there or would fall off or removed with no one noticing it until the next bout of visit by the evil.  And I would have to sit for more than an hour in front of this ‘ noble soul’ until he finishes his rites to receive a dakshina of coins or notes, the quantity depending on the length of the rites and the severity of the evil attack . It would be given by my father through me. Some times in addition to this, there would be additional fortifications, arriving in the form of nomadic mendicant evil catchers/ warders who would claim themselves to be descending from the forests -with rare leaves flowers feathers and small drums all together to create a cacophonous theater of sound and jumps and shivers, for a small group of neighbours who would gather around.  I would be the sacrificial goat to stand in front his diatribe against the spirits. I don’t know if to avoid these celebrations of evil visits or simply to have the pleasure of rebelling against the parents, I tended believe in the reasons of science which the teacher uncle averred though halfheartedly. He still believed in gods at the least, though he thought there was no goblins and evil spirit. I was not sure. But surely my mom was. She was sure that the bit of science has really made me a non- believer. She was always worried that something bad would happen to me in the long run. What one learns at school was needed to be remembered only to pass the exams but that should not be to fight the beliefs that were facts existing since time ever was, as being told.

Sorry, back to my story of that night. We, me and my friend, decided to do something that night we wanted to do for a long time. There was a huge rectangular wooden box of storage for the paddy, called pathayam. It was very large, a grown up man could sleep over it. A man could go inside it though a lid on the top, an act which I liked when asked to take out the  last bit of paddy from inside. The pungent smell of paddy, the irritating dust of it, stinging sweats , near suffocating air ,or lack of it,  combined to produce the unknown pleasure of being in that self referential space with no context of connections, even if for a small time. It was like going to one’s one womb. Ah, can we say the womb one was conceived in is one’s own? Sorry for the absurdity.  Any way it was a strange way of enjoyment of confining space, an escape from the real world, forty years later it would seem. That huge pathayam sat in the middle of the room like a womb inside another. A rectilinear cuboid womb. If I was conceived inside a cuboid womb, would I been cuboid too? I wonder even now, did they make the rooms rectangular to fit a rectangular pathayams and cuboid objects inside or the other way? Whatever that may be the techtonic origins, the huge pathayam left very little space around for us to sit and study on the floor on either side of a shivering kerosene lamp. We could sit over it, though not allowed for some strange reasons of belief. It was almost our height any way. To climb up was not easy without a stool or a chair.

Many a time we toyed the idea, ( with it or just toyed- not sure)  as knowledgeable intelligent ones would  say,  to move it to a  side. The best time would be when it was empty.  Even an empty pathayam would be too heavy for two children of 12-13 to move; to do that to one pregnant with paddy was unimaginable.  But that night we decided we would do it. Some strange weird spirit possessed us, certainly not the science liking spirits; it is the other kind, perhaps.  With all the might we heaved together to move the giant. And lo, move it did. With a horrible scrapping sound like a giant cow would belch, it moved on the rough cement floor. The whopping noise could wake up the whole world. Suddenly cries were heard from outside.  I heard my mom calling out to me. I went and closed the door to prolong the heroic act of moving the demon womb.  The scround, i mean the scrapping sound, vibrated the whole house. The half shut shutter fluttered a bit. The moon- three fourth of it, looked pale and was looking scared. The sound of cries outside was raising; so was the cry of the patthayam. It all energised, nowadays we would have to say synergised, us. Thought of nothing else, but enjoyed the act of doing the impossible. Even if it was an environmental disturbance.  Uncivilised, brat-like. As one would say now.  Once we see a goal possible, we get more energy; even if that goal is unsocial. Once you are drenched, get off after a bath; my grandma used to say. Did it mean this?

Mom called out to stop, So did gradma, grand pa, neighbours, all. We were disturbing the moon they said.  Ah, the moon. Through the window I could see the moon shivering. And there was a thunderous sound that could be heard across the world, I thought.  And with the cry of the pathayam which started inching along by itself, weird, devilish or goblinous, the lightning and a thunder occurred outside, raising innuendo of confusion,  all were shouting to me to surrender to gods and goblins. Don’t challenge the gods by moving the pathayam. Plead that I would atone for the fault so far. So on and on.  I felt myself important to have attracted the attention of all. The feel of the local thug who challenges gods in public.

 I was not sure what happened next; the moon started cracking in the middle. It broke and one piece fell off. Grrrrrr. The terrifying noise.  An one fourth of the moon was what remained on the lower sky, its head tilting to a side. Was she crying?  I could not control myself too, what will happen to me. I challenged the moon and the gods. Mom was wailing too. So were others. Panic struck me, which happens to me very often even forty years later. Panic is a way of relief from the clash of irrational and rational parts of mind, perhaps.

“Da!, Eda!, wake up to go with the father”, Mom was shaking me . Was I wailing or what? She violently shook me to get up. It must have been just when white was scratched on the east, as they would say, but actually it was red.  Have to follow my father and the beasts to the farm, swaying half asleep vaguely hearing the hoof of bullocks club-clubbing on the winding narrow gravelly paths bound on both sides with short mud walls sprouting cactus and sisal plants on their top.  On to the field I looked at the western sky.

The slice of the moon still hanged low there precariously. I smiled to myself.

an attempt make a story of a dream, a day dream?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Gometry of thought;

The geometry of thought 

This is expanded version of  my column, Cubes of Words, that appeared in Design Detail, Vol 2 issue 6 April 2004. 

I wonder why all languages are written horizontally and vertically in the normal course?  No language script runs diagonally or haphazardly. Written matter, more so the printed one, appears like a table.  It is a metaphor of knowledge, which after all is a formalised classification of tacit or explicit experiences and data in communicable form. A table with rows and columns, a common simple device for organising information, is an intersection of vertical and horizontal entities or lines.   Our concepts, about the physical world thus seem to take reference to the horizontal and the vertical. Is it not a reference to our experiences of nature’s primordial force that we experience tacitly as we grow; to stand erect against gravity is vertical and opposed to vertical is horizontal. The pairs of eyes mounted parallel to the ground when we stand perhaps is the basis for this experiential situation! Even on an inclined plane, lines parallel to the eyes are understood horizontal.  

 Graphs, charts and other devices too use this simple format. Memory needs knowledge of the complex world to be simplified; may be as interplay of binary opposites. Do we ignore or shun complexities as they are less comprehensible? Simplification is the name of the game. We even feel this elegant. Don’t we?

A tabular format is an array of rectangles or squares.  Perhaps, this simple geometric connection to thought influenced human architecture to evolve with right- angled geometry format that was idolised over time in most civilisations. There had been many indigenous people everywhere, who used circular or near circular forms to create their shelters. But settled life of villages and towns, farms and roads as well as making buildings has evolved close to the form of grids. Is it the ease of use or of comprehension and memory at the root of this evolution?  Have we deified the rectangle and the straight line? Did not all developments later augment the original bias of vertical, horizontal and the right angle as the sign of order, intellectually and emotionally?

One finds more of curves and near circles in nature; trunk of trees, leaves and plants, animal and human figures, nests, ant hills, burrows. Yet  the rectangle is easier to remember and memorise. Is there a template in the human brain that helps this or is it a cultural adaptation?  Further, in spite of many possible complex orthogonal diagrams, like multiple cell tables, to express realities and concepts, we opt for simple ones. For example, why is that the popular vastu mandala or janm kundlis evolved only with 9 cells, not 16 or more. Is it not the appeal of simplicity of the diagram that masquerade as an evolved concept of an imagined world? A wee bit organised, yet sufficiently simple.  Again, there is a null cell in the middle and others in periphery; a simplified form of a single core and a periphery, opposing binary entities.  

While a circle with a string of points around a centre is fundamental and a triangle is a stable shape; a hexagon consisting of triangles is more natural, more useable and more efficient in material use. Look at beehives.  Circular arrangement is found in animal architecture and in certain native societies. Many architects have also tried these and other forms with some successes. Yet why did popular imagination never accept them? 
Understanding of forces of the world, like gravity, the balance needed to stand up against it leading to the sense of symmetry and axiality, the feel of horizontality as the easy resting position, all have contributed to the love of orthogonal rectilinear geometry and its mathematics. This made fundamental imprints for explaining and creating many things including buildings. The rectangle became a symbol of superior organised thought as much as it framed views in pictures.

Search for new forms of novelty is also a human nature. Yet the limitation of form making was the geometry itself, in design and fabrication.  There are many an attempt these days; some deeper, some on the surface.  Works of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid among others try to transcend the idea of vertical and horizontal. Gehry wraps around; Hadid is more adventurous. Yet they are caught in the web of earlier built physical context like the city grids. Hadid’s recent Heydar Aliyev  Museum in the Azerbaijan’s  time warped city of Baku,  is claimed to be defying the orthogonal in all directions; visual fluidity being its hallmark. Leave alone other criticisms of it as an object out of context, Peter Cook wonders why the  designers have left glass panels on one side with large rectilinear divisions with vertical and horizontal lines; a pattern as old as Roman times, I add. 

Innovation and inertia seem to run together. We want to think 'out of the box' and yet despise many things that are out of the box'! And the box lurks out from within us!


Hydar - Aliyev- Centre at 
Baku By Zaha Hadid.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

... the reality of the world consists almost entirely of a hybridity within which it is impossible to disaggregate that which is natural and law like and unchangeable and that which is human, interpretive, and at times capricious.                          

Daniel Milller

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Architecture of tiny creatures

Architecture of ant hills and their subterranean colonies are eye opening examples of the amazing world of brainless creature’s  design excellence. (See:   , )  They seem to be great city planners and architects of underground cities of up to a million inhabitants.  Different researchers have studied them by pouring molten aluminium, plastics, or by pumping liquid concrete into mouths of the subterranean ant colonies ( cruel way , one could say) to study the complexity and design of these underground cities.  The results show that ant colonies go as deep as 3 M  and have corridors connecting bulbous spaces in several layers below earth. Taken out of earth carefully, the hardened aluminium mould looks a chandelier like structure.  Or like a Calderian sculpture. Some ants   also build structures up to sixty feet above the earth’s surface, using saliva and mud particles. They are inspiring as sustainable creations  as they  are zero carbon zero waste  systems, amazingly resource efficient, and  energy efficient as well in creating  thermal environment. They show  great efficiency in structure,  material manufacture, in water use  as well as  energy generation and management .  A social haemostasis of self regulation is achieved it, is said. 
(for more details see

Researcher Prof. Tshinkel with aluminum cast of ant colones.
Similarly there are efficient hanging and aerial cities of bees and wasps produced with saliva and pulp.  Some hive walls of one millimetre thickness has a thermal insulation quality equivalent to a nine inch thick brick wall!  One can wonder endlessly on natures marvels.
Great designs as we, the designers  of human habitat see it;  innovative in their own right, sustainable in an anthropo-centric way. Are we studying, marvelling and evaluating their architecture as a future to get out of our own environmental predicaments? Certainly there may be many things we can learn from them. But are they really adaptable to our needs and do they really hold ways to achieve sustainable future?
Biomimicry or biomimetics is about mimicking nature for human tooling. Velcro is an adaptation of the way certain insects hang on to goat skin intvented by  a Swedish scientist. Architecture has been mimicking nature in building and making tools for long in form making. We copied forms and shapes of nature; shells, skeletons leaves and flowers and animal shapes, in different materials for its aesthetic appeal.   Modular by Le Corbusier was adapted  the proportions found in nature. Innovative adaptations  they are. But  larger system like ant colonies is more complex than just amazing forms. The crux of the matter is actually in knowing the way these systems came about in nature and the process of getting there. All this with out a hierarchical command structure or a Central Processing Unit. Understanding iterating algorithms and devising codes which dumb robots can perform repeatedly and which become parts of a grand design is being explored for long time. That of course with the help of a speed computer these days. Much community traditional architecture of the past were by evolving simple codes woven into a grand pattern without self-conscious effort. The complexity of woven textiles of Patola , handloom designs of many places in India, the carpets of Kashmir, architecture of Kerala and Kathmandu valley are examples such designs evolution.  So are many organic settlements. which are just accretions of individual efforts.
Ants and bees achieve all this without any formal schooling, no long hours of slogging in studios, no parametric design iteration,  no low paid internship ; they are efficient in that way too.  Their efficiency lies in their political and labour management system; a Queendom  of labourers with a busy queen (or queens, there are some ant varieties with oligarchic and multi queen colonies) producing and laying eggs and reproducing labourers, who untiringly keep working on an assigned repetitive task that they are programmed to do efficiently. Like robots. They are also ruthlessly controlled by natural selection of their efficiency and perhaps the total population as well to suit the locations, resources and natural features of their habitat.  This may include succumbing totally or partially to natural catastrophes. Sometimes manmade or other animal made too. Even the organic settlements of humans are no more tenable with ever changing economic systems modifying the politics and societal structure; globally and locally.

In second thinking these amazing world of tiny no brain creatures is to see not as great store house of ideas for sustainable design, but as a design of a habitat system that suits and evolves out of a unique political and social organisation. Environmental adaptation seems the only aim in their production systems and habitat systems. Limited or no innovation is high priority, sensuous sensibility is not a design aim at all; it is all utilitarian dictated by the societal structure. Above all there is no private property and no desire to excel or show off wealth or intelligence more than the other.  Snobbery is design force, for humans. No fast movement, pace is same as always has been, no new acquired abilities over centuries.   A total antithesis to cultural world of humans and their evolution. Amazing as they are, will these habitat systems give any clue to organise our world? Who wants to live like an ant or a bee even if as a queen  of a kingdom or queendom?