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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From an exchange of emails with Ashish Ganju on the same :

The monument is perceived as an expression of dominance and control ( an architecturally sophisticated example being the Vastu Shilpa design for Nalanda University) , and therefore its architectural legacy is seen to promote a vision of larger-than-life action, encouraging wasteful use of resources, and denying democratic processes. There is also reference to ' canonical devices of modernism' which promote monumentality.

This reference to modernity seems to indicate that a European architectural understanding, in which the visual dimension is supreme, is the defining feature of the understanding of monumentality. If we accept the proposition that the 2 schemes are in direct contrast, the analysis for both relies on visual parameters. This is a limitation which diminishes the importance of the issues raised.

Is it possible to define monumentality from another perspective, which would connect the notion of ' grandness ' with a different set of parameters ? I presume an architectural winner will be ' grander' than others. A monument is also memorable, as distinct from being visually exciting (only). Perhaps the other parameters we are looking for are better defined by 'publicness' , that is something which has meaning for a very large number.

Le Corbusier, in his younger days, was concerned with ' le plus grand nombre' or 'the great majority ', and his ' Unite d'Habitation' concept was the expression of this concern. This was not a visually determined conception, although Corb was a master of the techniques of the ' Ecole de Beaux Arts' and his drawings were visually very sophisticated. The strength of the idea, however, came from the public nature of the design and in its inclusiveness. Thus an architectural monument was produced , which at the same time was an unsuccessful building project, not being able to realise the designer's intention.

Your note contrasts the two competition schemes on the Master Planning mostly, and this approach also is limited by visual patterns. The Vastu Shilpa scheme relies on vistas and objects set against the hills in the background. The other scheme appears to be using the courtyard pattern as a template almost similar to the way a sari printer may use his stamp, with the architectural expression arising from the attractive visual composition.
Another master planning principle which comes to mind is the idea of zoning - primary functional elements were typified as residential, institutional, recreational, industrial ( as explored in Tony Garnier's ' Industrial City' scheme done at the turn of the 20th century) and this led to an approach of spatial segregation of functions, which promoted mobility. In contrast we find in older cities a comfortable mix of uses which can promote conviviality. I did not look at the Hundred Hands scheme carefully but from the picture of the model it appears they are working on a mixed use pattern. Hence the contrast with the VSF scheme which is very 'industrial city'. Is this the reason for your discomfort with this scheme? The issues you raise at the close of your statement all seem to flow from the industrial civilisation promoted by the West in the last 2 or 3 centuries.

I think a more enduring concept of the monument is possible. We need to articulate that.
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