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.

yi-lan - huang sheng yuan - the shed and the river

a public space made again with the slightest touch.

and in the main city of yi-lan with a master plan that is to be implemented in the decades to come, he gently and diligently negotiates with all the stakeholders along the path of the river to revive it as a presence in the city.

yi-lan, huang sheng yuan- the winery

when a winery was going to disappear from the city of yi-lan a suggestion by the architect instead turned part of it into a cultural centre for the city by the simple insertion of a series of pipes leading visitors from the street into the heart of the industry into a museum and shops. playful and whimsical twists and turns in a minimal intervention.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

yi-lan: huang sheng yuan: the culture factory

the most incongruous because the largest of his projects- a massive roof floats over a large plaza. in the roof you see driftwood like sticks that can be walked into from the bar like museum piece that floats within. yet the complexity of scales continues to exist- from the street square like scale near the entrance ot the street to the strange shooting space above the bar overlooking the city. the large plaza is used for performances and skateboding. a generous contribution to the public space in the city. the building overlooks a circular pathway whose edges meander into properties of school yards and office buildings. fanciful towers on a landscape of curls and twists with a running track surrounding.