Monday, August 31, 2009

Cities and Seepage and Architects

The India Habitat Centre along with some partners is organising the Habitat Summit some time in late September 2009. Building up to the Summit, was an “in conversation” evening between Manit Rastogi , one of the founding partners of Morphgenisis , and Prof. Ashish Ganju, Founding Director of TVB Scholl of Habitat Studies, discussing the trends, developments, and over-all direction of the Indian Urbanism.

The conversation was an interesting one, as a tussle of fact versus story, of real world versus utopia, the conversation covered much ground. And served to instigated thought on the largely lamentable state of urbanism, and the more lamented stature (read absence) of the architects in the process of that urbanism.

The audience was a 60 strong contingent of largely under thirty-five “yet to do their thing” architects and a few fuddy-duddy academics, and one exceptional woman who had made it through rush hour traffic to ask these two architects a very important question.

I was surprised by the attendance, with the number of firms in Delhi, its four architecture schools, its teeming academics, and to add to it the fact that this was the Habitat Centre, 60 odd reflected poorly. It is hard to imagine, with the sheer number of practices, many engaged with issues of urbanism, many more changing the face of India across it many cities - designing new airports, new urban facilities, metro stations, and bringing a new imageability to India -that an Audience of so few assembled. More surprising was the fact that the orgainisers expected few more, a small hall with a capacity of maybe a 100 at most was the venue. It says something I would prefer not to acknowledge about the perception or the manner of architectural practice in India.

The conversation ended, with an idea of including the audience in a larger debate on the state of urbanism, throwing the house open to questions. And a older than middle aged lady asked a question that had the audience in fits of laughter.

She said she had travelled a great distance, to ask these two a pressing question, “ How can I stop the Seepage in the walls of my house in New Friends Colony? I have tried plasters, cladding, chemicals, but nothing helps. Cab you solve my problem?”. I mean no dis-respect, but when you have spent the last one and a half hours discussing the state of the modern Indian urbanism, to hear a question like that makes you think.

Somewhere it said to me that architects are meant to build buildings, solve problems and thus-like. All engagement in conversation, hogwash etc, are idle deviations. There is no agenda, appreciation or necessity for architects to imagine they need or can play a role in the definition of the urban India. We build buildings; make drawings, models and beautiful presentations. I can remember a perticular grey-haired scion addressing the convocation of the SPA in 2005 where he ,reminiscing his years spent at the then Delhi School of Architecture, said he didn’t know if he designed great buildings, "but at least they don’t leak". Is there a connection between seepage and the architects work or is the seepage a result of a botched engineering exercise? There will be contradicting answers to that as any architect will know. The more urgent question is, Who is the architect? Is the architect what comes between your house and the leak? Is the architect what gives you the pretty picture you plaster across your office as your next great condominium housing project? The one who give you the front porch that you picked out of the catalogue or some glossy French magazine? Who is the architect in the mind of the millions that make up this city?

With the JNNURM, the “Make Delhi a World Class City by 2010” propaganda, the MPD 2021, the architect still seems to be the editor of the cityscape’s glossies in the mind of its millions. In our minds the engineers still build our cities – our roads, our flyovers, our hospitals, our great metro stations and pretty much all else. As architects we occupy an obscure and misinterpreted seat in the mind of our city’s citizens. Most do not know what the architect does - Something like an engineer, but not quite! We spend more money trying to make things beautiful!

The fact that architecture is seen as a technical profession, like civil engineering, mechanical engineering or welding, hasn’t helped. To add to it, in the now over sixty years since independence architects have been too busy building buildings, largely at the mercy of a more powerful civil engineering establishment. As a profession we have not used the time or the publicity offered by the act of building the numerous edifices of modern India to carve out a separate identity, we remain somewhere ambiguously immersed in the larger building industry.

After Corbusier, Kahn, Baker and Stien, who did great service to the cause of Indian Architecture (modernism coming to India as an act of God is another debate- that we shall not get into now) and to the possible impressibility of the architect on the Indian mind. Few have stepped into the shoes to be flag bearers of a profession still in its infancy across the Indian landscape.

Ours is amongst very few countries, where the architectural profession is surprisingly younger than engineering . This of course came from the british empire's need to set up schools to train engineering clerks, foremen, and drafting assistants to the british engineer working in the continent from the late 19th century. Architecture arrived almost eight decades later! The engineer had already established his throne as the “Builder of the Future”. And little has changed since.

And somewhere one feel it is our fault, as architects we have spent the last six decades, painstaking reinterpreting what the stalwarts of the west had interpreted already. Feverishly building buildings, in the best traditions that they had schooled in. Each to his own. Somewhere we failed to see that a child in its infancy needs its hands held to walk. We didn’t hold hands then, we still don’t.

I remember once asking a professor of mine (and I think I’ve mentioned it before), “As architects what are we trying to do?”. I look around, and barring a few I can count on my finger tips, I still see no answer. And till that answer comes, our cities will continue to be the product of civil engineering endevours and we will have to content ourselves with making building, drawings and such like. And still be held responsible for buildings that leak.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Looking for Delhi

It was the 27th of July , I was Coming into Delhi at 3:30 am from Helsinki. Looking down just as I had for the whole 7 hour flight I tried to find markers in the unending ocean of lights that was, by the pilots description, Delhi.

We were coming in at some 400km an hour, maintaining level then dropping, then holding then dropping, and all the while I tried to find some thing I could recognise- CP, India Gate, IG Airport, any thing. The plane dipped sharply to the right and I looked even harder, determined to find something.

Another sharp dip, and a large river, with an almost estuarine form bottled in at a tight dam, bridges, a long sweeping curve across it, with traffic- the DND flyway, the power stations, then I saw the Apollo Hospital, Nehru place. Yes I had come home, come home to my Delhi. I watched the outer ring road, the Vasant Continental Hotel, the familiar shape of Vasant Vihar from the Eisher City Map. One last dip, and the reassuring rumble of tyres as they hit tarmac.

I still remember how in my first year at the SPA, I discovered Karol Bagh. On assignment during ragging, we were asked by a senior to get cloth dyes to make a stage set. Krishna and I were packed off, with a map, a pair of helmets, and our dear senior’s trusty scooter, and cash to make the purchases. It was one ride, with me driving and Krishna giving directions. We were stopped for not having a number plate in front, but let off after sharing a Pepsi and an assurance that the error would be rectified forthwith. We made it there and back, Koral bagh was Discovery!

But between auto rides from Maharani bagh to IP estate, and visits to South Ex and Nehru Place Mandi House and CP we slowly settled into a comfortable illusion of our own Delhi.

My Delhi, that ran from Rastrapati Bhavan, to CP on one hand with the Theatre Circuit of Mandi house and Bengali Market, and stayed stuck to the two sides of the ring road from South Ex to Majnu ka Tila on the other. This was Delhi. An out of the way place was St. Stephen’s College where all of my three other brothers went to college.

Eleven years on from the summer of 1998, my Delhi hasn’t grown much. Chandni Chowk has been added, for the Camera wali gali , and the Jalebi wala, and Chowri Bazar . Khan market and lodhi road too have found their place. But by large my Delhi is the Delhi of the South Delhi wala, for whom the rest of Delhi north of CP and west of Dhaula Kuan is some ancient forgotten world that is best avoided.

There are others like my uncle who lives in the heart of Darya Gunj for whom south Delhi is for the Dead, no self-respecting Dilliwala would live there. South Delhi was made for the dead or so it seems by the ways of the Mughal Rulers, flood plain and forest, where the spirits of the mighty and not so mighty were set free to roam in the here-after.

Delhi is like some ancient ghost to me or folklore. Hidden away, pushed to edges of our conscious lives and daily reflections. The city of Delhi lives in books by foreign authors, travel guides and photo albums.

And yet in its vastness, in its magnitude and in its centuries of being here, it offers stories, wisdom, insight and new discovery to any who cares to look.

And so it happened, a collegue of mine and I decided, ten years after my first encountering it in a book on Delhi, to find the Khirki Masjid.

How many of us know it exists? Sitting in the heart of the village which has turned it back on it, so much so that that bearded banana seller didn’t even know such a thing existed. It sits a stones throw from the swanky Select City Walk mall at the Saket District Centre. The masjid is a revalation to any one who might like to find the beginning of an explorations of an Architecture of “India” or the City of Delhi.

Hidden away behind the mass of irreverent construction that has somehow turned its back on this monument the mosque answers numerous questions that have plagued architecture since the import of alien cultural influences into our landscape.

But like much all else in Delhi, we seem to be looking elsewhere, across the Arabian Sea, or further across the English channel or even further across the Pacific.

In a curious way, just the search for it and finding it will make for a commentary on our attitudes. The short term memory and a never-ending willingness to chase images, often the first and the most easily encountered! After the Khirki Masjiid, even the the celebrated Mughal Architecture of Delhi will look like image-chasing vanity.

And as has been the fashion of empire, we have had centuries of Architectural image thrust upon us. So much so that it is hard for the colonized mind to think otherwise even when free, chasing after the images that give you the glitzy architecture of a resurgent, mindlessly consumptive, India with its catastrophic 8% growth story.

I will not go and say there is an Indian Architecture, there is a lot of architecture that is Indian. I will not say that you cannot have a modern Indian Architecture either. I think we can, if we want it. But first we must want an India, not a Singapore or Dubai or a London or New York. We must want New Delhi first, and not some sad half-assed replica of the last city you saw on your Dubai Shopping Festival trip.

Some where in our driving, fast roads and flyovers , in our great spending and gratification the city has receeded into a blankness that few of us seem inclined to hold a light to. The seven cities of Delhi, its lofty citadels and clamourous villages have all but faded from consciousness.

If you love Delhi, find it!

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