Architecture is an agent of change, which is why a leader like Mahatma Gandhi is called the architect of the nation, writes Charles Correa in ‘A Place in the Shade: The new landscape & other essays’ (www.landmarkonthenet.com). “Neither the engineer, nor the dentist, nor the historian. But the architect, i.e., the generalist who speculates on how the pieces could fit together in more advantageous ways. One who is concerned with what might be.” And to do this, in the context of the Third World, we must have the courage to face very disturbing issues, he adds.
When talking about putting pieces together, the author draws inspiration from Hindemith, a twentieth-century composer, who was once asked how he composed his music. It is like ‘looking out of a window into the black night of a thunderstorm,’ observed the composer.
“One cannot see anything. Suddenly there is a flash of lightning, illuminating the entire landscape. In that one split second, one has seen everything – and nothing. What we call composition is the patient recreation of that landscape, stone by stone, tree by tree.” Likewise, to the problems faced by the cities of the Third World, solution lies in searching out and recognising ‘those stones and trees… as they gradually coalesce into the new landscape,’ says Correa.
Scanning the global landscape, he finds ‘incredibly beautiful habitat’ that people have been building for thousands of years, from the Polynesian Islands to the Mediterranean hill towns to the jungles of Assam. “In fact, if we look at all the fashionable concerns of environmentalist today – balanced ecosystems, recycling of waste products, appropriate lifestyles, indigenous technology, etc. – we find that the people of the Third World already have it all.”
The irony, though, as the author notes, is that while there is no shortage of housing in the Third World, there is most definitely a shortage of ‘the urban context in which these marvellously inventive solutions are viable.’ His call, therefore, to architects, is to help generate that urban context.
Correa concedes, however, that only about twenty per cent of the population have the resources to commission the kind of buildings the academically-trained architect has learnt to design, and that only a tenth of them would think of engaging an architect, the others appointing a civil engineer, or perhaps a contractor directly. The ‘less than 2 per cent’ interface that architect enjoys with the society is made up of ‘people who commission the office buildings, apartments, luxury hotels, factories and houses,’ reflecting ‘the grotesque inequality within society.’
Today in Rio or Lagos or Kolkata, there are millions living in illegal squatter colonies; and it is the poor whose needs are the most desperate, exhorts the author. If you wonder if the architect, with his highly specialised skills, can find a way to be of relevance to them, Correa’s answer is simple: “What these communities need is not only our compassion, but our professional (i.e., visual and topological) skills.” Without these, the squatter colonies will turn out to be nightmares, proliferating over the next few decades, on a scale which boggles the mind, he cautions.
Urging architects to be inventive about generating habitat at the micro-scale, Correa suggests a solution to the problem of crowded sidewalks of Mumbai – with hawkers forcing pedestrians onto the traffic lanes during the day, and as evening falls, with people unfolding their beddings for a night’s rest. He finds that very often these night people are not pavement-dwellers, but office boys and domestic servants who keep their belongings in a shared room, and use city pavements for sleeping at night, so that living expenses are economised and they can maximise the monthly remittances sent back to their villages.
“What is dismaying is not that they sleep outdoors (on hot, sultry nights, obviously a more attractive proposition than a crowded, airless room), but that they have to do so under unhygienic conditions, with the public walking right amongst (and over!) them.” His recommendation, in response, is to modify the streets with a line of platforms, 2 metres wide and 0.5 metre high, with water taps at 30 metre intervals. “During the day these platforms will be used by hawkers – thus clearing the arcades for pedestrians. In the evening, water from the taps would wash the platforms clean – creating otlas for people to sleep on.”
To the awakened architect who wants to reach the millions who lie on the pavements and in the shanty towns, the author’s advice is to bring the best of professional skills, rather than think that an aesthetic sense is something the poor cannot afford. Improving our habitat needs visual skills, and the poor have always understood this, he avers, with compelling examples.
“With one stroke of a pink brush, a Mexican artisan transforms a clay pot. It costs him nothing, but it can change your life. And the Arab had only the simplest tools: mud and sky – so he had to be inventive! In the process producing some of the most glorious oasis towns (low-energy, high-visual) ever seen. And it is not a coincidence that the best handicraft comes from the poorest countries of the world – Nepal, Mexico, India.”
The author invites architects to offer their ideas and energy to the society and resurrect the ‘shared aesthetic’ that once existed. Tracing the historic precedent to such sharing, he informs that for throughout most of Asia, the architect’s prototype in the past was the mimar or mistri, i.e., an experienced mason/ carpenter who helped with the design and construction of the habitat; even today in the small towns and villages of India, the practice continues.
“Owner and mistri go together to the site, and with a stick scratch out on the earth the outline of the building they wish to construct. There is some argument back and forth about the relative advantages of various window positions, stairways and so forth. But the system works because both builder and user share the same aesthetic – they are both on the same side of the table.” It was exactly this kind of equation that produced the great architecture of the past, from Chartres to the Alhambra to Fatehpur Sikri, reminds Correa.
Imperative read on a contemplative afternoon.