Life & Style

Blueprints for the future

Clockwise from top left: Drone tourism at the Taj, Maitreya Buddha Temple in Ladakh, and speculative fiction from The Busride Design Studio and artist Yuvraj Jha, exploring the inherent value of depleted land parcels  

Growing up, I’d often wondered at our urban sprawl — an ever-expanding growth with no beauty (or goals of longevity) to give it value. It was development done without context or respect for the environment or local traditions.

As I’m writing this piece, my house in Kochi is surrounded by tide waters with nowhere to drain, an example of bad city planning and illegal land reclamation. Similar situations crop up every time it rains in Mumbai. Every city and town has its own stories of how urban planning has failed its people. So why aren’t we doing anything about it?

Forums like Building Blocks, a series of discussions hosted by Coimbatore-based organisation, India Design Forum — with speakers curated jointly by IDF founder Rajshree Pathy and architect-writer Mrinalini Ghadiok — may not be the immediate solution, but they are the means to start a conversation about how we can rethink the scope of architecture. “Post Independence, there’s hardly been anything built in India that we can be proud of. We are talking about smart cities, but how many of them have involved deep thinking and execution?” asks Pathy. “There is a crying need to look at architecture in a way that we haven’t so far, with the involvement of architects, the community, policy makers and the government.”

IDF founder Rajshree Pathy and architect-writer Mrinalini Ghadiok

IDF founder Rajshree Pathy and architect-writer Mrinalini Ghadiok  

The sessions, spread over four weekends, threw up more questions than answers. But that is a good starting point. “We are constantly chasing our tails today; we are not farsighted enough to see what is going to happen even two days from now,” says Ghadiok. “The pandemic has been a subcap, telling us to ‘open our eyes and reconsider some of the things we have been doing’. If we are taking a pause, we need to utilise the time to find long-term solutions.”

A few insights:

Public spaces need our attention

“Government projects, especially today, focus on the per sq ft schedule of rates,” says Mumbai-based conservation architect, Abha Narain Lambah. “In the 70s, a Charles Correa or a Le Corbusier would be appointed without tendering for a project. There was a certain respect given to the architect as a visionary. Now, the government expects the architect to bid for a project just like a contactor, and treats him/her no better. It is very short-sighted. To save a 2% difference in design and project costs, they land up spending huge amounts of money on bad buildings. Aesthetics is something you can’t quantify. What if Shah Jahan had asked for the lowest tender to look for his architect?”

Clockwise from top left: Crawford Market in Mumbai, Abha Narain Lambah, and inside The Royal Opera House

Clockwise from top left: Crawford Market in Mumbai, Abha Narain Lambah, and inside The Royal Opera House  

Finding context in the urban sprawl

“Much of what was built in the 70s, 80s and 90s was built without context. We have lost a lot of ground already. But the good news is that none of it was built to last! Today, these monstrosities in glass and steel are in worse shape than the haveli next to it. So we have a second chance at reviewing things,” says Lambah. “For example, I’m working on the Crawford Market redevelopment in Mumbai. It is the oldest Victorian market in Asia. We’ve restored the historic structure [dating back to 1869] designed by Sir William Emerson and got rid of all the little additions, such as ramshackle tin sheds and concrete structures, that had cropped up over the years. Now we are doing an ambitious 3 lakh sq ft of construction, where we are building new structures, but while respecting the original height, the massing. We are also reintroducing a one acre open space because we are using the old footprint the building originally had. The new construction is responsive.”

Ayaz Basrai, The Busride Design Studio

Ayaz Basrai, The Busride Design Studio  

Virtual reality at The Taj? Yes, please

“Technologies like photogrammetry that extract virtual wire meshes from physical objects like age-old ruins or artefacts are very popular in gaming environments. Studios like The Quicksand GamesLab and Studio Oleomingus use these to weave fantastical yet charged narratives, and create a playful tangential engagement with heritage. To my mind, this sense of play greatly augments the experience of the monument or heritage sites,” says architect Ayaz Basrai, of The Busride Design Studio, Mumbai. “It is one thing to experience The Taj or Hauz Khas as a pedestrian viewer. But there’s a grammar to be unlocked in experiencing these as their base geometries, being reconstructed real time in VR [virtual reality], where you can see mathematical algorithms dancing to the sound of Dhrupad, experience the virtual construction of domes and minarets, and witness sieges and battles real time in the monument through AR [augmented reality]. These will allow us to better integrate lived experience and documented histories in a whole new environment, which is a very powerful tool for falling in love with history. And you cannot conserve what you are not deeply in love with.”

We need more public-private partnerships

“We need to scale up conservation and that is impossible if one waits for government grants. There will always be a hierarchy, so funds will go to Central government buildings or monuments. But monuments don’t make up heritage — there’s so much urban infill, private buildings, etc,” says Lambah. “In 2004, I’d worked in a remote village in Ladakh, restoring the 15th century Maitreya Buddha Temple. The World Monuments Fund had given us a grant, but the villagers matched it, with materials [wood from the willow tree in someone’s backyard or mud blocks] and labour. The project went on to win the UNESCO Award of Excellence because of this unique partnership.”

Architect Niels Schoenfelder

Architect Niels Schoenfelder  

Trust your senses

“Critical discourse about architecture needs to stand on the foundation of shared and verifiable experiences,” says Chennai-based architect Niels Schoenfelder. “In that light, the sensorial aspects of the built environment is a good starting point. It can throw light on the fundamental aspects of humans using architecture — much before the discourse can venture into the cultural or political realms.”

Criticise, criticise, criticise

“There is a dearth of criticism in the country. If we had it, it would help us up the game and change the situation we are in today,” feels Ghadiok. “But it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we don’t have the means to do it because of a lack of professional critics. On the other, we don’t have the medium to do it because of the lack of acceptance and openness to the idea. A lot of this comes from a sense of vast competition that leads to insecurity. We can break this cycle by first starting critiquing among our peers.”

The last session of IDF Debates: Building Blocks is on December 19, at 6 pm. Join Riyaz Tayyibji of Anthill Design, Ambrish Arora of Studio Lotus, and Vicky Richardson of Inter to discuss ‘Architectural education or professional training?’ Details:

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 9:25:24 PM |

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