Walking for a cause with Gita Balakrishnan

This is the fourth such walk undertaken by the 55-year-old architect, the founder of Ethos, a platform started in 2002 that aims to bridge the gap between students and professionals from the ACED fraternity

Updated - February 06, 2024 12:44 pm IST

Published - February 06, 2024 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

 Gita Balakrishnan from one of her walks.

Gita Balakrishnan from one of her walks. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRAGEMENT

Gita Balakrishnan recalls a conversation she had at a fire station she visited along the route of her recent 300-km-odd-long walk, Walk for Arcause 4.0, from Chennai to Bengaluru. “We were talking about saving (the lives) of people with disabilities,” she says. For a person with visual impairments, for instance, it would be hard to make their way to a fire escape in a building which did not have tactile markers on the wall or floor, while someone who was hard of hearing may not even hear a fire alarm, she points out.

Similarly, a wheelchair-bound person or even an elderly one would struggle to use the fire escape or staircase in case there is an accident in a high-rise, adds Gita, who ended her walk in the city on January 28 at the Museum of Art and Photography in the city. “If they had to escape, how would they?” asks Gita, who did the walk specifically to address issues such as this one, hoping to raise awareness about creating inclusive and accessible environments for all through this endeavour. “You may design a basic space for everyone, but you need to look at it from a 360-degree perspective,” she firmly believes.  

A need for design literacy 

This is the fourth such walk undertaken by the 55-year-old architect, the founder of Ethos, a platform started in 2002 that aims to bridge the gap between students and professionals from the ACED fraternity (Architecture, Construction, Engineering, and Design). The idea for Ethos began with a quiz, she remembers. “I was sitting at Jadavpur University, thinking about what I would like to do with my life here, and was waiting to meet the head of the department to see if there was any role that I could play, “says the Kolkata-based Gita. It was there, in the library of the university, that the idea of having a quiz on architecture struck her. “I walked out and started building my dream around that quiz,” she says.

After the first quiz, she found that students of architecture began writing back to her, making her realise the “power of the student community.” Ethos was born from that experience. “We realised that there was a need to create a platform where young architects could talk to each other and discover that there was a world beyond their college oyster,” she says. “Otherwise, you don’t even know where you stand.” 

Gita Balakrishnan from one of her walks.

Gita Balakrishnan from one of her walks. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRAGEMENT

Ethos also began conducting design competitions, getting students to look at design problems that may not necessarily be thought of in classes, she says. “We had very senior people adjudicating at these competitions, getting the best out of the community, “says Gita, adding that Ethos has been conducting annual contests since 2005, without a break, except during the COVID years. In 2018, Ethos launched an online learning portal on design. “The objective was to reach that last student in class, someone who wasn’t motivated for different reasons, and also for them to find themselves,” she says.  

Then, around COVID, she realised that simply engaging withthe community wasn’t enough. “We need to meet and engage with people outside the architecture and design community as well,” says Gita, who launched Arcause in 2020 with the aim of doing precisely that.  

Walking for a cause 

Arcause, one of the several verticals of Ethos, is defined on the Ethos Empowers website as a “platform for acknowledging, enlisting and actualising social responsibilities of architects, designers, engineers, and others associated with the construction field (ACED Community).”

In early 2022, to mark 20 years of Ethos, Gita set off on her first long walk, covering the 1,700 km-long distance between Kolkata and Delhi on foot, interacting with communities she passed. Terming it “both an inward and outward journey,” Gita hopes that her walks will help sensitise the design community. “Design can be elitist...making it accessible is something we need to look at.” 

Gita Balakrishnan

Gita Balakrishnan | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRAGEMENT

She chased this walk up with three others—Kolkata to Dhaka, Konark to Bhubaneswar and the most recent, Chennai to Bengaluru, all with the aim of raising awareness about the profound influence of well-crafted design on people’s lives.

Talking about her recent walk, supported by Mphasis in collaboration with AVAS Trust, she says, “I was surprised at the numbers (of people with disabilities) that I met. It was very powerful meeting these people. How do you design (spaces) for them?”

Gita, a 4-time marathoner, began training for this walk around two months earlier, slowly building up tolerance for these distances. Having said that, “nothing prepares you for what could be the state of your body,” she admits ruefully. “You discover pains you never had before, “says Gita, who stretches, foam rolls, uses compression socks and is mindful of her nutrition on these long walks. “This walk, however, I sailed through.” 

So, why walking? “If you get out of a car, you are considered a little different from everyone else,” she says. Walking, on the other hand, is like an equaliser,  a leveller, believes Gita, recalling meeting women who have asked her for help in carrying a load of sticks and offered her a lift in the Matador, which was taking them to the fields, almost as if she belonged with them. It is also a great way to kickstart a dialogue. “I would shamelessly say that I am walking from Chennai to Bangalore. People would ask me why, and then that conversation would start.”

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