Monday, April 14, 2014

Eastern Freeway

A new landscape appears for more incredible images of this most ridiculously photogenic city. refineries, storage tanks, mangroves, salt pans, the distant towers of the mill lands, the slums at the base of antop hill, industrial warehouses and the cranes of the docks. 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

here! gaze upon the bruises on my skin, she said

This friday there was a Cinema City discussion at the Mumbai International Film Festival. While Madhu and I did our usual introductions to the project and they way it affected our disciplines; Pushpa showed the Phantom Lady 2 project; and Mukul, Sonal, Shikha and i did readings from the two books; Nicole and Mukul spoke for the first time on a CC panel- and they were both super. In Nicole’s presentation the city became the bruised and battered body of Ranu from Shyamal’s ‘I am the very beautiful’ which is flirting with the gaze of all of us who watch it, all of us who try to hold it down by trying to understand it. it says i am but i am also not and will never be what you want me to be- but i will still give you what you want. the city as a bar dancer, shapeshifting chimera- seductive inspire of or rather because of the eroticism of her imperfection. 

Mukul on the others hand drew a history of the phallic, delayering the iconography of the city through the way in which the images have been determined by the technology that produced it- and how those have been recirculated in different ways forming the collective memory of the city. 

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Lawrence and the Tiger

At the Clark House initiative when Lawrence spoke of the emergence and evolution of the social contract; and suggested ways in which we can resist- by active dissent, by withdrawal, by evolving a new relationship with nature, and spoke of the shifting terrain of the sunderbans where conceptions of property and nature have evolved ways of speaking to one another, I was reminded of the MCGM stakeholders meeting that we had organized a few weeks back for the residents of koliwadas, gaothans and adivasipadas at the ward office in Dadar.

As every community sent its representatives to voice its concerns to the MCGM while it is formulating the new Development Plan, there seemed to be distinct differences in the way that the arguments were put forth. The goathans seemed to be the most able to deal with the language of bureaucracy and planning- able to argue through legislations and documents. They even felt equal enough to the representatives of the MCGM to level base allegations against them. The koliwadas were more militant and aggressive- asserting rights to the sea, to livelihood that had been taken away from them- an anger towards the usurpers of the rights that they see as their and a demand to be seen as the ‘original’  inhabitants of the islands. The gentlest and the shortest presentation was made by the adivasipadas- who are denied existence in the plan almost entirely as those concepts of identity/property lie outside the realm of the plan almost entirely. Almost overwhelmed by the articulate and vociferous voices of the other two communities they felt that they were going to be subsumed under the clamor. They asked only to be recognized, be given water, electricity and some basic services- but the moment that I remember the most was when one of them stood up to speak first of the sun that they need to see in the morning- and ask that tall buildings not be built to the east of where they live- and most memorably when he decided to speak for the trees and the snakes of the forest as they did not have any representation in the room. He asked that their rights to ‘be’ in the city be also protected- and be prioritized as important when evolving the development plan. He told a story of how leopards and snakes are protesting against their habitat being eaten away by human beings by attacking them; and how he understood the way they feel because as an adivasi he empathized with their plight. He saw himself as half-animal and seemed to feel even more wild in the presence of the din of that conversation.

I also remembered the island of Majuli and the relationship with the ever shifting landscape of the tribal villages who lived on stilts and moved to higher and lower ground whenever the land changed shape; and the satras whose diagram hovered like a ghost over the land and reasserted itself after every monsoon- in exactly the same way.

And I thought of withdrawal from the clamor of conversation that speaks whatever the audience want to hear; of silence in the place of the simplifications and rationalizations that are spoken to allow one access to a world of international discourse on architecture/ on cities/ on artistic practice; of kaushik and disenchantment with the world of the art market; of distancing as a form of denial of the corruption of the world; of love and truth as priorities over fame and power; and of the 'social contract' of artistic practice when the figure of the artist as romantic recluse is also a commodity for our consumption. 

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

a city/film festival

sheharnama  - a city/film festival curated by surabhi and mukul held in our neck of the woods this time- thankfully. and some incredible films. 

‘night hawks’ for me was one of the highlights where on the edges of darkness, in the gold light of street lights, or the swerving headlights of cars, or the blue flickering light of night shelters, we watch the stories of those who wake while we sleep- distributing blankets to the homeless, waiting in like for tatkal tickets, or clearing the highways of accidents. 

another one- ‘this bit of that india’ sns sastry’s films division subversion- Purportedly a film to look at india as a destination for further studies for foreigners but actually a wild fever dream of ambition, sex, love, science, spirituality.. in other words about india as a destination for further studies for foreigners. this was part of the fd package mukul had curated in which the other films were plain propaganda designed to convince us to not shit on the road (stinking story), not support the railway strike (the voice of the people)- that actually was so shrill and sharp it ends up parodying itself (probably on purpose) and to always be on time (dilly dallying)- which left us with the immortal insult - ‘dilly dallying shilly shallying nincompoop’. more fd - ‘the burning sun’ in which the smug MHB architect spouts banalities and reveals his own prejudices as the poor suffer in the sun without a roof or water. the propaganda piece that turns on itself- revealing a heart where you expected none.

more highlights - ‘cemetery state’ in an abandoned cemetery in kinshasa where entrepreneurs make business out of selling graves in the overgrown landscape. who is buried where is never quite clear. during the day they wait lazing on the gravestones for someone to to buried. meanwhile death rituals are expressions of anger and resentment of the young against the old as the parents are blamed for the sons death…. 
and then there was ‘wasted’ which opened the festival: spinning from the detritus of words that a friend has left behind as his legacy in his dust covered notebooks, to the garbage and filth on manikarnika ghat, to the recycling yards in jaipur for paper and metal in mayapuri, delhi to the excess of ideas controlled and recycled in tifr- a strange creature this film- perhaps not strange enough. burdened by its linearity and narrativity, the film is easy to use arty. still well worth the time if only for some of the incredible images- the plastic bag on the ghats caught in the wind, the recycling yards of mayapuri..

mira nair’s classic ‘india cabaret’ in the world of bar dancers in 1980s bombay. rekha is the star.. she lives in abandon as a bar dancer..and gets invited to yamrajs room when she dies. the city is the seedy side of town where migrant women dance for disinterested men. power is theirs in spite of the city- they have claimed it. and roam free in the evenings on the beach. meanwhile the sati savitri wife of the fat gujarati businessman patron slaves at home and cooks and cleans for her family. 

the ‘labour section’ had three films that i loved - ‘i sing the body electric’ - as student film where the making of steel rods is a dance of fire; ‘presence’ when stories of labour on the bangalore development projects are subsumed by ghost stories and the cit his haunted by disappearances and reappearances; and of course amudhan’s ‘shit’ whose precise argument is unsentimental and more effective therefore. 

another film whose analytical cleanliness i was taken in by was ‘kya hua is sheher ko’ deepa dhanraj’s close reading through interviews with the actors in a spate of religious violence in Hyderabad in the 1980s. even handed the film makes no villains or heroes- no community is a victim or the perpetrator. the violence of partition and the sikh riots of 1984 mark the inter-race family of safina oberoi. the film ‘my mother india’ sees the story through the eyes of patricia oberoi- australian married to a sikh trying to find a home in this strange country. speaking of which another fd film that we saw the next day ‘our indira’ makes her mother, daughter, sister, lover in ‘triumph of the will’ montages of parades and speeches. 

i am not quite sure about why ‘please vote for me’ was part of a city film festival- but regardless the corruption of democracy is seen in an election held for class monitor at a chinese school in wuhan between 3 8 years old. one is the power broker, the other has the gift o the gab and the girl is the victim. very entertaining- but i forgot about it when it was over. anti-democracy propaganda should be this entertaining. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

nostalgia for the future

It has been just over twenty years now that the world I grew up in transformed radically. My life has been so far split into almost two exact halves- before the great fall and after. I grew up in a world of walls that protected my impressionable mind from the evils of the outside world. I was indoctrinated into believing in certain ideas of nation, truth, sacrifice and austerity by the state that knew what was right for me through civics textbooks with flattened illustrations of fresh faced versions of me helping the needy, obeying my parents and respecting the national anthem.  

Perhaps the iconographic moment in this indoctrination was the annual ritual of the Republic Day parade. On Doordarshan the Indian family was to sit and watch a pageant of all things 'indian' and in that sense the nation in its parts parading down Rajpath in Lutyen’s ensemble. Besides the cartoon version of the states that make up the nation, subjugated to being cut-out cultures parading around in a chintz version of tradition, there were floats dedicated to the great bureaucracies that make up the administrative infrastructure that runs the nation- regardless of who is in power - the railways, the postal department, the horticulture department, department of science and technology and the central public works department. And this passed for what we consumed as ‘Indian culture’ - a country where tribal and folk art segues seamlessly into rockets aimed for the moon; a nation whose modernity was born out of ironing out differences into sameness, the foisting of a common identity upon differences, the denial- or rather the reformulation of the past to make up a grand narrative of an Indian nation. Schizophrenic from birth, a nation split between the twin poles of a modernist rationalism and it’s faith in science and technology;  and  a romantic vision of the rural where a genuine identity may lie untouched and pure. And these schisms played themselves out in the culture we were fed. 

Today, when I watch the same parade I am struck by how incredible it is that these hulking dinosaur bureaucracies present themselves as harmless, almost cute institutions in the parade, concealing their labyrinths of paperwork and power within fur, feathers and dashes of tinsel and colour. But back then, it was merely a ritual to be sat through that joined us all in the making of the nation.

Architecture too was embroiled in this construction of the nation. The story of Le Corbusier and Nehru has been told too many times to reiterate here- but a certain form of modernism, and its ability to live outside historical references, and instead refer to universal phenomena  was seen as the landscape where the new nation would live. This was a modernism that was marked by a utopian spirit and the possibility of change- of a sudden break with history- an architecture that stood outside time and embraced the eternal- the arc of the sun traced across the sky, the horizon as it perpetually disappeared into the distance and the human body naked in the light. 

Who were these heroes that were to inhabit this landscape? They never came and too few of these grand gestures were ever built- perhaps for the good of everyone. Instead we had watered down versions of these heroics in the form of a functionalist ethic that was adopted by the state. With a dry rationalism that denied anything that could not be quantified and classified, it reduced the idea of architecture to that of the minimum standard- an architecture whose byword was efficiency, where ornament was crime, where pleasure was  sin. 

Perhaps this aversion to the vagueness of the poetic might also be traced to  a chaste  Gandhian asceticism where any kind of excess, or pleasure was seen as wasteful in a country where so many are so poor. And to implement this was a process of highly centralised control and a convoluted bureaucratic system that reduced the variety of particularities into generic codes that could be applied uniformly across the country - for the sake of fairness and ease of management. 

Most of the time, this is what became the architecture of the new nation. Regardless of where we were, what we got were grids of streets, set back regulations from the street, provisions of gardens and playgrounds, minimum sizes of rooms, minimum heights of rooms-  and unfortunately often a systematic decimation of local variety and knowledge through the weapons of paperwork and processes. This was the form of the real architecture of the State- the great many institutions that were built across the country- schools, courthouses, police stations. 

This is what we learned to deliver in architecture school. The rational as beautiful, and the violent dismissal of the idiosyncratic as dangerous. The area statement, the bubble diagram, logical structure and organisation, the faith in the Plan as the generator and elevations being dismissed as merely decorative. This legacy continues to haunt us today. Even today, in spite of the years in between, many educators still cling to the efficient and the systematic as the moral standards against which architecture is to be judged. 

Once in a while, we had lip service to a local culture in a few buildings that attempted to bridge the gap between the universal and the local- the ‘regionalism’ of a B V Doshi or a Charles Correa in large institutions or housing projects, these were few and far between. Often, even in these what was evoked was not necessarily local- but rather the idea of an ‘Indian’ identity as a bulwark against the West- as though there was in the country a way of living that could be generically classified under that rubric. 
To be able to enable that unification was a state apparatus for governance. These included the back-offices where the business of governance was carried out almost detached from the community they served- except for, sometimes, some type of public interface that was apologetically provided for.
State power was exerted not merely by the use of force, but also by the boredom of the banal. What was meant to be a landscape to enable freedom enabled by rational thought was in reality a endless array of similarities quickly frayed at the edges and rotting from within. In the worst possible case they represented for many who lived on the periphery of this power, the disdain of the Indian state for who it governed. Yet, we saw these very same communities on television, folk dancing in glee with Prime Ministers and submissively genuflecting at the power of the Indian state. 

Not that these indoctrinations were completely successful. Even then we had imbibed the great art of performing without believing. As our bodies went through the motions of submission our minds drifted. Leaking through the wall of propaganda were other narratives and other histories. Somewhere in the distance we could see other horizons. These seduced through the danger that they represented for everything we were supposed to be. Perhaps they appeared even more tempting because they were unattainable.  

And then suddenly everything changed. I was in the middle of my architectural education when distances no longer seemed to be so unsurmountable. With the collapse of the walls built to protect us by the socialist state; and the opening out of our economy came the possibility of change- and with that change, a chance an escape away from the claustrophobia that we had experienced before. Flooding through the doors were images, ideas, sounds, things, tastes that were once chimera. 

The presence of the state began to disappear from our everyday lives and was taken over by commodities. The state took refuge in its reputation of being inefficient and inept and abdicated its responsibilities to the market. Gradually but steadily it took the place of the State. What was controlled proactively by the state was now to be regulated by the volatile dynamism of the market. And the market made its own utopia out of the belief that images can offer- if not freedom and justice- then at least a simulation of it. We revelled in that simulation.

I returned from my masters at the United States in 1997 and entered a city where local forces were beginning to exert their influence on the landscape of the city. I had finished my masters in urban design and was looking in a naive way to participate in the transformation of the city. I soon found myself working on projects where community groups were negotiating with the government for new infrastructures and regulations around their neighbourhoods based on their interests. These groups claimed to speak of the interest of the greater common good, and the state in the name of  public participation the buzzword of the hour, heard them out and gave them authority over shaping the built environment. These self appointed caretakers of the city imposed a cleansed aesthetic learnt from their summer trips to Europe upon a city that they were embarrassed about. Feeling suppressed below the facade of equality came spilling outwards as older class, caste and religious conflicts played out in the the space of the city. Socialite women used their charms to make sure that fish trucks did not park in front of their houses, older open spaces where young men used to hang out in the hot afternoons were barricaded and opened only for those who could pay. With no one there to even claim to speak for those without power, it devolved into the hands of the powerful and the wealthy. Private interests swallowed up what was meant to be public- and the state willingly co-operated. 

Meanwhile, with the global and the local interacting in brand new ways, with information and money moving and with “India” becoming the new market for goods and services there was a renewed interest in ‘understanding' the country. What was this strange exotic land that once was a place for snake charmers, maharajahs and snake charmers? What was it now- with its wild growth, its overwhelming difficulties and therefore the tantalising possibilities that it offered for intervention- for work. A new discourse began to take shape. 

If there was a site where these fantasies of the new nation converged it was at the slum. These informal settlements lying at the periphery of the imagination of the nation now took centre stage. They repelled as much as fascinated. They escaped every categorisation- every description. They became a site for endless speculation, and automatically sites for a perpetual investigation into their nature, their particularity. Studies proliferated of networks, processes, systems in place within them that needed to be understood- to be acknowledged. New terms were proposed to understand these systems, new methods to capture the uncapturable. These were often seen to be valuable because of the subversion of the ‘system’ that they challenged that was uniquely ‘Indian’. These were often revered as particular, special and therefore sacred. This dynamism was positioned against the violences of the bureaucratic state and the atrocities it had committed in the name of planning. Local idiosyncrasies were deified as truly incredible formations -  in spite of the fact that many of them grew out of the adversity of living on the edge of the formal city and were appalling places to be alive in, perpetually insecure about your presence and the rights that you have in the city. It was also naive to imagine that within slum communities there is somehow a more ‘democratic’ mode through which power operates. Without any other recourse, older xenophobic forces of religion, caste, gender and class were being reified. And this disturbs us because these forces challenge the imagination that we would like to impose upon the slum community as a place where justice, equality and freedom are negotiated and claimed somehow without recourse to violence. Is one kind of exoticism being supplanted with another- a new romanticism?  Freedom, justice and equality- the abstract concepts that had been hammered into me when I was young were seen as laughably naive  ideas in this new pragmatic world. Perhaps they were.

The other day I was watching Charles Correa’s ‘The City on the Water’ made in 1975 by Films Division as a propaganda film to promote the idea of New Bombay. With romantic shots of Bombay in the rains, and throngs of people in trains; with animated diagrams of people in hut-like houses and an argument for restructuring the city into a new form with public transportation, affordable housing and green spaces for children to play in. Utopian in its naiveté and it’s belief in the possibility of a better future, it is easy to dismiss the film as simplistic and impractical. In fact the long drawn out story of the growth of New Bombay stands testimony to many of the misunderstandings that the city was built on.
As I watched the film, I was torn in two. One half of me longed for the naiveté of the belief that architecture and urban design could affect change- a misty eyed ideal of the notion of architecture as the vehicle for hope in a better future; and the other sneered at that hope reminding me of the savagery that was the concrete outcome of those expectations. 

Meanwhile the city continues to change exploding across the hinterland while pulling its guts out- communities are displaced, destroyed; hills, valleys, mountains, rivers ravaged; history reconfigured and reformulated into strange new forms; spectacular simulation replaces reality- all truth disappears into a labyrinth of flickering light. The older ideals of modernity seem incongruous and ridiculous here. They too have fallen prey to this landscape of apparitions, as they are bandied around in pedantic newspaper articles and shrill television shows- nine screens letter-boxed in one, out-shouting each other while paying lip service to ideologies that we are too cynical or pragmatic to actually believe in. 

‘Public’. ‘Freedom’. ‘Equality’. 

Too self conscious of the weight of these words, we seem to be embarrassed by their nakedness. We shield ourselves from them within the safety of knowing inverted commas. 

‘Love’. ‘Beauty’. ‘Truth’. 

Our sophistication does not allow us to have belief.

If the discipline of architecture has any meaning it is towards betterment. The utopian impulse is embedded within it. The city may have emptied out the meaning of those much maligned terms, but shouldn’t we find a way to reclaim them or should we renounce them to damnation by holding them accountable for the atrocities committed in their name?  Should we abandon the utopian completely? And can architecture really exist as a critical discipline if we do? 

Sunday, October 13, 2013


starchitecture all around in this brash new city, emerging as the southern main town in taiwan. so a metro with famous architecture from around the world design station entrances; the waterfront grows conference centers, office buildings, museums; and older industrial areas become design spaces. annie and me n bicycles down through the hill to the university and past the sea over the bridge on the docks and then along the promenade along the water till we get back to the industrial sheds where young men and women in black uniforms guard drifters from entering the exhibition spaces.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

yi-lan - huang sheng yuan - the town hall

an addition to an existing building that disappears almost completely to the front but opens itself out with two wings to the rear, where floor slabs turn and towers soar.