Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Monument and other thoughts on the Nalanda University Design Competiton.

Through history, the idea of the monument has, and continues to occupy a position of great reverence. Both as an epitaph, and as celebration of the human capacity to achieve the spectacular. And all architecture has, in some manner or the other, strived to realize that ideal.

How we have viewed the "monument" and how it has been interpreted has defined the makings of architecture for centuries.

In the light of this fact, the exhibition from the 13th to 18th of May 2013, at the National Gallery of Modern Art hosted of entries to The Nalanda University Masterplan and Architectural Design Competition holds forth pertinent questions.

I had the good fortune to be present while Rajeev Kathpalia explained the workings of their winning scheme, to which BV Doshi added an after-word, a clear and succinct description of the overall vision that the scheme sought to create.

And (as always happens) while Kathpalia explained we did have the odd-ball question, “Doesn’t your design look a little Arabian?”, and as one might expect from schemes with water channels - “So this will be a bit like Venice?” and by the tone and the time it took for and answers to emerge, I am sure these had him stumped for a bit!

There were eight schemes in all. I write this piece is not to take you through each, or to make a comment on the nature of the architectural exercise the schemes sought to undertake. That would be a wider and more studied critique than I attempt here.

But as I walked from scheme to scheme, and studied the broad framework of each masterplan, a thought emerged, largely aroused by the need or attempt across all entries to be Net Zero. In the real and true sense this is impossible, however, as benchmark of a sustainable design it is a worthy intention.

Without going into the specifics of each one could broadly divide the scheme into two types.

The scheme by VastuShilpa Consultants easily the most sophisticated of the former collection – which would contain 7 of the 8 exhibited. Doshi and Kathpalia’s scheme is evolved and articulate. A careful and clearly intentioned assembly of architectural and spatial experience that modulates scales, and controls space, enclosure and openness with a deftness that rivals Kahn and Corbusier. The philosophical underpinnings and the architectural control clearly define a scheme of great brilliance – a monument of the 21st century.


Hundred Hands + Allies and Morrison, in clear contrast refuses to allow that monument. In a display of iron-handed control - of scale, of enclosure and the street, and building typology, that in my opinion draw from a intrinsic understanding of climate. The scheme is an assembly of variations in a theme, some subtle, some stark, as illustrated by the curious sheet titled “Catalogue of Buildings” used in the Masterplan. In its refusal to employ the inventory of canonical devices of modern architecture, and the superhuman scale, the scheme makes a pertinent question to the practice of architecture in a moment of deep cultural as well environmental consequence.

And it is precisely in that fact that lies the question and argument I am attempting to raise. If one understands the physiognomy of the monument and the making of monuments through history, it is this question the two natures pose together and by virtue of their inherent opposition.

I will not get into the discussion of energy, material consumption, or building craft. My question more addresses the stance the monuments represents as an expression of humans and their relationship to (read dominance and control over) the systems of this planet.

Can architecture , and its creation, in its unavoidable intervention into systems of the planet, afford the creation of monuments?

Is it right to perpetuate the notion of human superiority and dominance? Is it appropriate to encourage and accept the consumption of a limited planet.

Is it allowable to perpetuate the romanticized notion of modernism and its super-human scale when the planet seems to be crisis?

What, then, is to be nature of the monument that reflects a realization of human life as intrinsically co-joined to the larger and wider systems of life and sustenance?

With the ever-growing pressures of development, and the pace of modern technology should we expect to rationalize and limit the demands we make on the planet and its systems that sustain life including human life?

I believe the question, now more than ever, needs asking.

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images : ajonline/uk

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