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.
Are you saying that our cities would be better if architects designed them rather than engineers?
I think the fundamental problem in the cities are that the different professions are not talking to each other. And architects probably head that queue. There is also little effort within the different parts of the community to connect with one other. Cities, are, collabarative products- and sooner we realise better it is....