SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Poetry in architecture

Experiential revelations: Narendra Dengle

Experiential revelations: Narendra Dengle   | Photo Credit: Photo: HArsh Kabra

Veteran architect Narendra Dengle on the ongoing evolution of architecture. HARSH KABRA

Architecture is the only art, which demands wanderings through space for us to appreciate it.

Definitions are indeed schizophrenic creatures, lending one to a discipline like architecture located at the intersection of social, technological and artistic history. As crystallisation of a given moment of society, technology and art, a built form is more of an event in the ongoing evolution of architecture.

Jharoka, a collection of Marathi essays authored by veteran architect and conservationist Narendra Dengle, is born of a similar attempt to unravel and interpret the poetry in architecture by exploring its feeling, conceptual thinking and association with history, environment and society.

The 58-year-old Pune-based architect has won several Indian and foreign awards for his works, authored papers for architectural anthologies, and researched, written and anchored a four-part bilingual documentary on architectural appreciation. In looking at architecture from such varied standpoints as philosophy, aesthetics, technology and urban design, Dengle lays out a thoughtprovoking spread of experiential revelations about architecture. Excerpts from an interview:

Why did you choose to write about architecture in Marathi, although you have written substantially in English as well?

The first few essays I wrote way back in 1982 explored my experience to uncover architectural elements. They followed the Laghu Nibandh (short essay) tradition of Marathi literature. It is important to write about architecture for the common man, for intellectuals and connoisseurs and for architects themselves. For architecture and planning to make sense to us as a society, one must be able to communicate with all. I believe that one should be able to discuss it widely through different media. I have also made some educational films on appreciating architecture for the same reason.

How do architects go about shunning their ivory towers and esotericism?

Architecture is an intriguing discipline. It could lead to crass business or a fine creative play of spaces and forms or useful insights into social issues and activism or architecture for and of people or the technological achievements that beckon because of the scale of a project. So, unless one is a specialist and working in a groove, architecture is a multifaceted realm and one keeps getting in and out of the ‘ivory tower’ depending on the nature of one’s work. But it is, of course, necessary for architects to play a more active role in social, environmental and planning issues, where there is no apparent client. In reality, the entire environment and the society are one’s client.

You have written that the experience of architectural spaces and elements influences the comprehension of form, design, symbolism and detail. How does that happen?

Space has been called “a pure, a priori intuition”, which means that no one taught us ‘space-sense’. It is with this sense that we can comprehend forms. We can think of the world devoid of form, but not devoid of space. Space and place together shape our understanding of physical and psychological space. Architecture is the only art, which demands wanderings through space for us to appreciate it.

The physical elements that constitute this experience have varied significance. They can be indicators or pointers of something beyond, or they could give meaning to, and characterise, spaces and forms. Elements can speak to you and evoke responses and memories. They transform the place and symbolise human gestures and rituals. Details are a means to resolve constructional problems and achieve scale and proportion. Together, they constitute the richness of architectural experience.

Your essays also deal with primary architectural elements such as the wall, column, window, door, roof, internal courtyard and so on. How have these evolved in contemporary Indian architecture?

These are primary to any kind of architecture. They are eloquent narrators of history and manifest efforts in articulation. The courtyard, for instance, is such a mysterious spatial soul of architecture that it seems to evoke so many associations — mythical, relative, active and transcendental. They evolve through subtle observation and skills of interpretation. The local and the global both have a place in expression and need a kind of fusion by discarding the false, clichéd and pastiche, which erupt as a rash in commodity architecture.

What are your observations on the aesthetics that emerge out of various concerns — traditions, contemporary character, history, context and so on?

Architectural expression is a synthesis. If it starts appearing as analysis, we know that architecture is getting fragmented. If, on the other hand, it continues its exploitation of resources, it is fantasised, made fashionable and hence, divorced from life. You may dissect, analyse and study various aspects that make architecture as much as you like, but when it comes to designing, it must be a converging synthetic act with its own sense of priorities of space, communities or context. The history of a place and its context are extremely sensitive issues. These shape or cloud our consciousness of the place and people. It does not, however, help to simply transfer images from history and places, for nostalgia or revival alone, but to transform them with ingenuity of an artist and seriousness of a scholar, explorer.

How have you integrated your interpretation of history and rural or tribal exposition of architecture in your own works?

My work in rural and tribal areas was based on my learning from the context. Tribal communities have a much deeper and a live sense of nature, living organisms, climate and material. One can only be caring and help improvise what already exists so that the built environment addresses contemporary demands. We used local materials and spatial vocabulary of courtyards and spaces in our work, and adopted techniques of construction as were found necessary in a given context.

What determines what can be carried forward as tradition while still being contemporary?

There are three traditions in architecture: Visual, philosophical and craft. There cannot be any sensible architecture, which has not addressed these three traditions. The response may vary from conformation to deviation, even rebellion. But attending to them is a wonderful way of learning from, and contributing to, some very serious and fine examples.

What do you think of the contemporary Indian city and the architecture that informs it?

Of the many problems, the major one is appropriate public transportation system, rather the lack of it. Another is the policies of extension and expansion into surrounding regions. Flexibility for services and changing technology, on the one hand, and equity of open public space, on the other, are two major concerns. Cities are expanding at the cost of agricultural land, which is worrying, not only because agricultural land is reduced but we have not yet made any positive effort to intermingle the urban with the agricultural regions. They may have much more to offer in terms of knowledge, fusion of communities and work ethics, which together shape our new urban values.

Architecture is the only art, which demands wanderings through space for us to appreciate it.

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