Sunday, September 4, 2016

In Conversation with Vikas Dilawari: Contradictions and Complexities in Urban Conservation

Vikas Dilawari
Image: Piyul Mukherjee

Contradictions and Complexities in Urban Conservation:
In Conversation with Vikas Dilawari

Mustansir Dalvi

This blogpost marks the news that Vikas Dilawari has been endowed with his 12th UNESCO Award for the restoration of the Cama Building at Gilder Road, which has received the UNESCO Asia Pacific Award of Merit 2016. The building (A Grade III Heritage Building) is owned by the Garib Zarthostiona Rehthan Fund, who have won their third UNESCO Award.

This conversation was first published in
Tekton: A Journal of Architecture, Urban Design & Planning;
Volume 3, Issue 1, March 2016; pp. 72 - 87

Published with kind permission from Tekton.

All images published with kind permission from Vikas Dilawari Architects
All images copyright (c) Vikas Dilawari Architects, and may not be used without their express permission, except where specified

Mumbai has been particularly fortunate in having a well established urban conservation movement for close on twenty five years now. Right from the early nineties, several exercises in identifying buildings, precincts and making fabric assessment for conservation were carried out, and in most cases legislated. The canonical buildings that Mumbai is identified by have been attended to, and are conserved with Grade I & II Heritage listings. The cave temples of Elephanta and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus have been designated as World Heritage Sites. Most of the buildings of the Raj have been duly prioritised. So much for the good news.

Of the rest, much of which far exceeds the imperial buildings, attention to conservation, whether through legislation or actual intervention has been patchy, to say the least, and increasingly becoming more difficult to achieve. Buildings that were created by home-grown architects, urban precincts that define areas of consistent urban fabric like the Art Deco Precincts or Girangaon, the areas of the mills from the early twentieth century have all got a short shrift, not least because of the post-millennial city's obsession with the monetisation of real estate. Newer laws and newly framed Development Control rules have further diluted the early gains of the conservation movement, while the new mantra of 'redevelopment' allows for vast swathes of the city's historic past to be flattened for the insertion of new global homogeneity.

Conservationists like Vikas Dilawari fight an increasingly difficult battle to get their projects realised, to preserve buildings for posterity and memory. There are only a few conservation practices in Mumbai of quality, and Dilawari is amongst the foremost. Dilawari was very forthcoming in participating in this dialogue, unravelling the several complexities and contradictions in the practice of urban conservation, especially in Mumbai.

Are there classical or canonical approaches to conservation? 

Conservation as a field in India has been following, informally or formally, the canons of the West. This is evident in the formal approach of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in the manner by which they look after its monuments since late 19th century. Thereafter in late 1980’s, when the concept of conservation of built heritage was introduced, the thinking was once again dominated by the approaches from England, for example from the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) started by William Morris that forms the base approach to English Heritage.

Our country by and large does not have adequate governmental support, nor has it done enough research to advocate any alternate approaches, unlike the Japanese who boldly introduced the Nara Draft Charter on authenticity in the mid-1990’s. The Indian charter by INTACH was a small step forward but theory and practice both have to be put together, keeping our context in mind.

It is also evident that most conservation architects practising in India were mostly trained formally in UK and/ or Europe and their practice revolved around the broad philosophy of the Venice Charter and other international charters that emerges out as a response to the threats to conservation in Europe at the time.

Have these definitions to Conservation changed over the last two decades or so? How does your practice relate to this?

The approach and definitions have certainly changed in last two decades depending on several factors- whether it is a government sponsored project (as the government owns most of public heritage). If so, there is a paradigm shift to ‘beautification’ rather than real conservation. One more reason for this shift is that the soul of conservation lies in tradition and skills. Unfortunately these do not get revived in any ‘sarkari’ project, where the focus is on the contractor who can manage such projects where such beautification is profitable.

In the private arena on the other hand, it is heartening to know that so many conservation architects in different parts of the country are trying their best to establish good bench marks. Private clients are now new patrons for conservation. However, access to craftsmen, good skills, and easy availability of traditional materials are some obstacles, along with a lack of governmental or intuitional support by way of legislation.

My practice revolves around private clients, mostly. I was fortunate to get a free hand in doing my projects the way I wanted. We have tried our best to follow international charters adapted to the local context and the aim is also to revive lost skills in many of the projects. Let me explain this with an example- In the West, they follow a policy of minimum intervention and the retention of maximum original fabric to retain material authenticity, whereas for us economic viability is a major concern. In all our projects we try to revive some or the other lost crafts or skills or else we try to integrate good craftsmanship as a part of mainstream construction.

How does conservation contribute to the quality of urban life in a city?

The buildings that we conserve are the architecture of yesteryears. Since they are constructed well, with traditional wisdom, materials and skills; and as they fit well in the planned urban design or town planning scheme or have organically grown, their conservation contributes to the continued quality of life and space. It is not just the physical attributes of the architecture, townscape, roofscape, mass and scale but the quality of space, the hierarchy of spaces and the social and cultural use that also need to be attended to.

For past 7 or 8 years, we are dealing with many unloved residential buildings of the last century. We have realised that conserving them properly ensures a balance of growth. It is like natural law- the old will go and the new will replace it. In a nutshell, urban renewal helps in retaining continuity and brings gradual change. It is a mix of green and brown field development, unlike the present trend in Mumbai which is only redevelopment. Clean sweep redevelopment affects the urban quality of the city as it displaces original inhabitants, changes the class demography of the area, brings in severe load to already fragile infrastructure and completely alters the typology of built form and use of community spaces.

Bombay, as we know it today is the product of the City Improvement Trust schemes that came up in the 1890s in the wake of the plague. The city was reorganised into recognisable precincts that still flourish today. Most of the buildings in the scheme have been in continuous use for nearly a century now. 

We have come to the conclusion that many of late 19th century schemes like the City Improvement Scheme might have affected what could be heritage then (had this concept been there), but it improved the city’s quality of life and the built form. This itself is worthy of today’s heritage, despite the Rent Control Act.

Conservation of details like chajjas, cornices and balconies served a functional purpose of keeping the building protected from ill effects of rains. Similarly clusters of buildings displayed uniform patterns like arcades, building lines, mass and scale, which imparted a unique urban design value that helped maintain the city’s identity.

You have been involved in the conservation  of some of Mumbai’s most loved structures- the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, the Municipal Corporation building, the stained glass of the Rajabai Tower, amongst many others. What do you bring to these buildings in your specific approach? 

Let’s begin chronologically with our projects of buildings loved by all in the city:
The Rajabai Tower of the university library and its stained glass project was the first one, way back in 1998. That’s the time when conservation was in its infancy. The clients were unaware of conservation and so were contractors. It was essential to have them both educated in the field of conservation.

Since the Tower was a Gothic Revival building and the project backed by British Council Division, it was imperative to use all the skills of my post-graduation degree from York to restore it scientifically and authentically. This was the first project in the city with British experts coming to India to train Indian counterparts because of which a high bench mark was established. The trainees who had previous background in conservation were introduced to conservation philosophy and were taught the lost arts of stained glass painting and glazing, leading to their revival. The Indian experts thus trained have been busy in their own private practices restoring several other buildings.

Restoration of stained glass on the Neo-Gothic Rajabai Tower, 
Mumbai University Library
Image: Vikas Dilawari Architects
There were educational workshops open to the public wherein they could come and visit the library and see the ongoing work also created a tremendous awareness in this subject. Being stationed in the building for two years, we were delighted when a peon or a cleaner would inform us if something wrong was happening.

Restoration of the fire damaged Municipal Corporation Hall was done with INTACH Mumbai Chapter. This project set a benchmark in actual restoration as there was an extensive damage, both structural and non-structural related to soot. This was the first such project in the country concerning damage due to fire. A lot of science, in the form of petrography tests and load calculations was involved. We had to use modern materials like steel channels and plates to strengthen existing cracked stone brackets despite having stone craftsmen, as the load of the floors above did not allow bracket removal.

Detail of gilding in the Municipal Corporation Hall.
The project helped reviving the lost art of gold gilding.

Image: Vikas Dilawari Architects
This was also our first project where help was taken from traditional craftsmen, the Sompuras (temple builders) to reconstruct arches in Porbandar stone according to the architect F W Stevens’ original design, along with reviving the lost art of gold gilding. Professional conservators helped restore the decorative chandeliers and paintings that adorned the hall. Help from eminent architectural historians in the UK resulted in the right colour schemes with gilt being used. The Coats of Arms were repainted in their true colours to return old charm and glory to this splendid hall. This project resulted in convincing the decision makers of the MCGM (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai) to accept conservation as a discipline and a full-fledged cell was established thereafter to look into other heritage structures owned by the MCGM.

The Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum project was a god-sent gift, a unique PPP project, which allowed all the freedom and flexibility one desired for an ideal restoration. It was the project where the client, the sponsor, the architect and the display designer all went on a study trip to the UK to study around twenty of their best museums. The Building was the most opulent building of its time that had fallen prey to neglect and dilapidation; restoring it was like a dream come true. The previous experience of Rajabai Tower and the Corporation Hall gave us the necessary confidence to do the same in the most economical manner using the best contractors, as also monitoring and controlling system on a day to day basis.
Restoration of Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum-
a holistic conservation effort

Image: Vikas Dilawari Architects
The BDL project was the first holistic conservation effort- from landscape to display, from its building to artefacts, all under the dynamic leadership of Mrs Tasneem Mehta, the Director of the museum.  Our challenge was to integrate state of art services in a discreet manner and adaptively reuse under-utilised spaces of the historic museum, while restoring them as authentically as possible, reviving lost craft skills in the process. The project got a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award of Excellence in 2005 which is the highest award that any of Mumbai’s conserved buildings have received so far.

How collaborative is the practice of conservation in India? Could you give us a broad overview of your practices once you get a project?

It is collaborative now, especially as the scale is widening and city level issues are involved. Now multinational and national PMCs and infrastructural firms are entering the mainstream. Projects are awarded based on a tendering system. My firm has stayed away from this kind of collaborations. Our practice is of a modest size, and we prefer to collaborate with local MEP consultants, structural engineers and landscape designers and to work as a team like any other architectural project. My small practice has 2 to 3 young architects and a few student trainees. We have an experienced site supervisor who has worked hands-on at sites. We also bring in the inputs of quantity surveyors and structural engineers, case by case.
Interiors of the restored Reading Hall
at J.N. Petit Library, Mumbai

Image: Vikas Dilawari Architects
We normally prepare a fabric status report and share it with the clients. This is essential as clients and architects need to be on the same page- our philosophy, their brief. If and only if they agree with the findings of the report do we move to the next stage of preparing tenders. We normally choose a lead contractor and then try to get specialised conservation agencies as external agencies that can work with the lead contractor which we closely monitor. We believe in visiting the site fairly regularly and with close monitoring, we try to make each project economical.

The Conservation movement began in Mumbai in the early 1990s, and as did your practice. The city has seen some successes in the conservation of some iconic buildings but has been woefully inadequate in terms of conserving precincts. What seems to have gone wrong?

Conservation has never got the required governmental support. It emerged in Bombay as a discipline due to activism and concern of NGOs and citizen groups and hence has seen a lot of ups and downs. From being the first city to have conservation bye-laws, it is infuriating to see the same laws being tweaked. Now Grade I and II identified buildings are protected, whereas the bulk that forms the urban grain is removed from its jurisdiction. This is the result of a lack of incentives for conservation, and is unsustainable because under the Rent Control Act, market rents can’t be charged. The government also unfortunately believes that urban grain is not important and allows its redevelopment.

Popular landmarks do get governmental funding but repairs are carried out by usual bureaucratic procedures, with the lowest bidder getting the work. As a result, many of the buildings do not accrue real benefit of this spending. Moreover, the ‘beautification’ approach I described earlier dominates such repairs, where cleaning is more important as compared to actual structural repairs or strengthening.
Restored Nave, Interior of the 433 year old St. John the Baptist Church at Thane
Image: Vikas Dilawari Architects
There are also very few private owners or clients interested in quality conservation. It is thanks to a small number of really concerned and knowledgeable citizens that the conservation torch is still alive.

It is desirable that rent control be removed and skillful repairs using like-to-like materials with minimum intervention be introduced meticulously. We need to appreciate that when residential tenanted properties are conserved and repaired, they serve as affordable housing, which is missing in the city.

What is your opinion of the new rules for redevelopment in Mumbai, especially the sections 33/7 and 33/9? You have talked about the fabric of the city. What consequences do you think Cluster Development will have on the city’s fabric?  How do you look at the new DC rules that are to be promulgated shortly?

It is unfortunate that our Government thinks that “Redevelopment” is the only solution for the dilapidated tenanted buildings. Redevelopment comes with a price. It erases a close knit interwoven socio- cultural fabric which forms that particular place; replacing it with a new typology, new inhabitants who get less of public facilities like reduced open spaces. It also severely loads the already fragile century-old infrastructure, as that has not been renewed. It is really sad that the surveys reveal a decline in the population in B, C & D wards of Mumbai but we are constructing high density, upmarket, high-rise blocks which certainly don’t cater to those in need of affordable housing. This is because “redevelopment” only caters to the greed of individual developer and is not related to any larger picture of the city.

Cluster Development thus comes into play within the larger picture. Ideally, structurally sound and vibrant housing stock should be viewed like trees and can be retained while new development can happen around it, integrating it harmoniously. This is not the case here, as Cluster Development wants a clean slate. That is where the problem is. Imagine the Bhendi Bazaar area where Cluster Redevelopment is proposed; the very name of that place has a ‘Bazaar’ attached to it. But, if you see the redevelopment proposal, the bazaar factor will be erased forever, especially the famous Chor Bazaar.

Hasn't the problem of redevelopment been the result of the government largesse of 'free housing'. In a sense this did create unreasonable aspirations in the inhabitants and has effectively killed off the work of the Repair Board that quietly worked for several decades to keep ld buildings functional?

Giving free additional space as per minimum standards is a big burden and should be curbed as it affects the overall health of the city. Areas like Bhendi Bazaar are already very dense and they will become even denser affecting the quality of life which is all important.

Imagine the CP Tank area undergoing Cluster Redevelopment. It would be really disastrous as that place has such a complex interwoven socio-cultural matrix which is the actual soul of the area. The Cluster Redevelopment following sections 33/7 and 33/9 will destroy that.  For example, the Lal Baug area is known for its cultural festivals like Ganeshotsav, with pandals that come up in the open spaces of chawls or in common open spaces between buildings. With redevelopment this too will be affected.

It is really sad that no investments are being done to encourage good repairs which are more effective, easily implementable and help in retaining quality of life and benefits the city. Charging redevelopment cess is one way where money can be ploughed back directly to improve the infrastructure of that area and used as additional cess fund to repair this building stock. Why is TDR (transfer of development rights) used for redevelopment but not for building repairs is the question we should ask.

I am currently involved in restoring a fair number of residential community housing or tenanted buildings belonging to various trusts and I find that once these are restored, it is hard to believe you are still in Mumbai, as these buildings are actually neglected gems but seen together as a precinct, they are like oases in a concrete desert.    

One of the ways your conservation practice stands out amongst others in the city is the attention you have paid to the lived-in buildings, especially domestic architecture inhabited by largely the middle class of the city? What has been your experience with dealing with a number of end-users, as opposed to a single client or patron?

It is not easy to deal with several clients. Dealing with tenants as individuals is always difficult as their tastes vary largely.      

I was fortunate to get very good clients in trustees of the Sethna group of buildings, who believed in being custodians of heritage and were concerned of the difficulties of middle and poor income residents. These buildings and the spaces used by the owners had great associational value as the generation staying currently was born here and had bonded with this area and community.
Sethna group of buildings, Tardeo, Mumbai
Image: Vikas Dilawari Architects
These were ordinary buildings, fairly dilapidated with nothing significant in its external appearance. However, as we proceeded further, we realised that these buildings are actually beautiful in their simplicity. The past interventions had stripped the buildings of its details and once we restored them, we realised that other owners wanted the same treatment for their buildings. We found that skillful and economical repairs, using good modern material replacements (like RCC slabs in place of jack arches), we could prolong the life of the building. So a pilot exercise on one building helped us restore seven buildings in this complex.
View of restored Cama Building
at Gilder Lane, Mumbai Central
Image: Vikas Dilawari Architects
The next complex we did was Lal Chimney. Here, we realised that these were ornate structures and required a lot of wood work which, when restored, brought back the old time charm. This made us believe that many of old Mumbai’s unloved buildings are actually precious gems. We are now dealing with a large ensemble of 23 buildings in Gilder Lane. Here, we are now restoring a few buildings, and at the same time, redesigning new buildings in scale and harmony with the existing by using salvaged materials and catering to the new needs of the community like introducing a geriatric ward for the caring of the aged.
Corridor of restored Cama Building
at Gilder Lane, Mumbai Central

Image: Vikas Dilawari Architects
You have talked of making your practice of conserving public monuments transparent-that is- open to the view of the general public, even as the work goes on. Could you elaborate on the values (and pitfalls) of this process?

In the UK, any project that receives government funding has to be educational in nature which means that a model or a film explaining what was done or the actual work that is happening is showcased in a regulated manner to the citizen. We did that for stained glass work while working on the Rajabai Tower. This not only generates a lot of interest but brings a great amount of awareness at all cross-sections of the society. I believe this will also ensure high standards as it is open for scrutiny by all citizens. The only pitfall is that cynics and vested interests will always criticise and this can be demoralising.

As an educationist, what were your learnings in terms of the propagation of conservation among architects? Why do the precepts of conservation not permeate through general architectural practice, as sustainability and barrier-free design has now begun to do?


I have now been teaching and practising for the past 25 years in various capacities, initially as a visiting lecturer teaching conservation as an elective subject and then as a head of department. The propagation of Conservation has taught me to make architects aware of the built environment they have inherited by understanding the layers- first, the historical, followed by the social and cultural patterns prevalent at that time that shaped the environment, and then finally, understanding the construction technology and materials that built it. This task is possible by site surveys and through text books. Mapping these layers shows how interestingly our cities are made and why they work.
St John the Baptist Church at Thane, exterior after restoration
Image: Vikas Dilawari Architects
After the mapping, the next stage is to understand the defects and its causes whether in an urban area or in a building. It is here you analyse how wrong policies can result in the deterioration of built environment. This is the complex part, as time available and the maturity level of the student (due to the lack of practical experience) generates good mapping but not ideal working solutions. I strongly believe that practical knowledge should be coupled with theory while imparting education, as it happens in medical colleges housed within hospital complexes.

If one looks back to our academic syllabus, measured drawing was an integral part of the training but this is now ignored by many. Reintroduction of such subjects will give an opportunity to students to get firsthand experience of a monument that will educate them in materials and construction technology. I have also noticed that our sensitivity bar needs to be raised. If conservation is introduced at the under graduate level, then it helps in controlling of egos as we learn to respect the original creation.

In the five years of architectural education, the focus is on creation however, the preservation of built environment should also be included. Mainstreaming is possible when there is a need or demand in the society, backed by appropriate government policies, which presently are lacking. Once conservation becomes viable professionally to sustain a practice, I guess it will become more permeable.  

Vikas Dilawari is a conservation architect with more than two and half decades of experience exclusively in the conservation field, ranging from urban to architecture to interiors. He obtained his double Masters in Conservation from School of Planning and Architecture (New Delhi) and from the University of York (UK).

He was the Head of Department of Conservation Department at Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture (KRVIA) Mumbai from its inception in 2007 till Aug 2014. He has served as advisory roles in International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). He is a Trustee of Indian Heritage Cities Network (IHCN) and Co- Convener of INTACH Mumbai Chapter.

His practice has executed conservation projects ranging from prime landmarks to unloved buildings of Mumbai. His nationwide work includes projects ranging from historic homes, palaces, residential buildings, educational buildings (Schools and Colleges), hostels, churches, temples, dharamsalas, museums, banks, office buildings, lecture halls, fountains and hospitals. Several of them have received national and international recognition. A total of twelve of his projects have won UNESCO ASIA PACIFIC Awards for Cultural Preservation in SE Asia.

Architect Dilawari has lectured and written extensively on the subject of conservation nationally and internationally.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Space Gulliver- in conversation with Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji, Promenade des Anglais, Nice, 2011
Space Gulliver- in conversation with Sampurna Chattarji

Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien is Sampurna Chattarji's 14th published book, out from Harper Collins in July 2015. That she is prolific needs no underlining- she has published, poetry, poetry in translation, novels, short stories and prose in translation amongst other things; and dealing with them all would require more than this one conversation.

I sought to indulge her on her latest book of poems and prose poems, the complex but endlessly fascinating study of Space Gulliver, Chattarji’s outworlder Who Fell to Earth. Opening her eyes in this ‘alien’ situation, more than dealing with her Lilliputian/Gaian inhabitants, Gulliver considers her state of being. She speaks to herself in layered verse, and contemplative prose, as her physical being speaks to her too. It is Chattarji’s musing on our own condition, seen through a sensuality not of this world that reflects back on us, we the poor occupants of this lovely planet.

This body/object finds its counterpart in a building as object- the Canterbury Cathedral, in whose vicinity Chattarji spent several weeks in a residency. The cathedral’s spire casts a long shadow in her book, mingling with her chronicles of Gulliver that together create a palimpsest of materiality, bone and stone, leaving us as a flaneur traversing terrain, terrior and terror in equal measure.

I am very pleased that Sampurna graciously accepted my invitation to this interview, and in a freewheeling email exchange talked about Gulliver, but also about the writing of poetry, the experience of a residency and the interior world of the writer.

Tell us about the million strings that tie Space Gulliver to earth. I get a feeling that she arrives, not tabula rasa, but with a weight that she uses to make sense of earth, and yet, like wearing thick, soda-water glasses this gets in the way. Do you see her that way?

As a person who wears the kind of “thick, soda-water glasses” (slightly glamourized by a titanium frame!) you mention, I could hotly deny everything you say! Instead let me address the question, first by thanking you for intuiting this strange, loaded weightlessness that Space Gulliver carries with her into the world that is my book.

You are right, even though her arrival feels like a bolt from the blue, she does not arrive “tabula rasa”, it is not the shock of the first time – it is, as the first of the Space Gulliver poems states, a “return”. There is some degree of irony (I hope!) in the lines:

Space Gulliver returns
Space conqueror, she

The fact that she has come back to earth can be seen both literally and figuratively. It’s a jolt, and as the book progresses, a gradual acclimatisation to earth conditions, a re-learning of things she once knew and had (maybe) forgotten.

Having said all that, I must also add that there is another story to this return. As you know, I had written 6 poems inspired by a piece of artwork by Swiss artist Judith Albert. At that point in time, 6 poems seemed enough. Space Gulliver the character had come into my life and gone, and I didn’t miss her.
by Judith Albert, from Journal fuer Kunst, Sex und Mathematik

It’s only when I arrived at the University of Kent on a cold (snow still on the ground) February morning in 2012, and found myself ensconced in the room that was to be my home for the next 3 months that Space Gulliver (SG) popped into my head and refused to go away. I was, technically, supposed to be writing another kind of book (which I hope will get written another time, in another place). I tried shooing SG away, but she hung on. And I must confess (I can now confess!) that I hung on to her too. This may sound a bit pitiful, like a lonely child clinging to an “imaginary friend” but after the initial startlement, even a little annoyance at her reappearance, I was glad to have her around.

As I found my feet in those unfamiliar surroundings, as I began re-learning the student life, the shared-kitchen life, the temporarily single-againlife, it felt comforting to know that someone from my past life was with me in this sometimes disorienting new present. Of course if you’d asked me then, I may have had different answers, or none at all. But with the intervention of time I can see more clearly how this was a symbiotic relationship. She was not ‘me’ – but she was ‘mine’. I knew her once, I hadn’t paid much attention to her then, now that she was back, I could make her speak to me, reveal herself, I could invent histories for her, I could transfer emotional predicaments on to her, I could make her my alter-ego, my twin, my co-pilgrim. Does that sound too fanciful?

The word ‘pilgrim’ seems appropriate given that I was in Canterbury! I hadn’t thought of myself as a pilgrim before I landed there, nor even while I was there. But now, back home, I wonder if that’s what she and I were? Companions on a pilgrimage into the unknown. Not the entirely unknown – rather a half-familiar place now made strange only by the fact of considering oneself a more permanent resident, rather than someone simply passing through. My earlier visits to that part of the world had always been a week or ten days at the most. Three months felt like an eternity – at least in the beginning – and the idea of surviving it in the company of an intrepid traveller such as Space Gulliver was one that pleased, enchanted and comforted me.

But for all this intimacy with this ‘alien’ – to answer to the tail-end of your question – I never visualised her! A Scottish theatre-person who works with children asked me (at one of my Kolkata readings) – “How big is Space Gulliver?” and I was stumped! I had never thought of her in such concrete terms. Though I did not hesitate to accumulate concrete details around her, I had not seen her in my mind’s eye – merely sensed her. I knew her gender, I knew she loved walking, I knew she could see in the dark, could inhabit any number of modes of travel and apparel from boxes to bodysuits, knew she loved walking, knew the exact colour of her walking shoes (purple!),  knew she had a practitioner’s interest in language, knew even which books she liked (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe being one) – but I did not know what she looked like, nor how big (or little) she was. Flipping through the poems now, I see I have made her fluctuate – she can become small as a “tiny sweet orange”, as big as a giant in her “seven league boots” – but I haven’t conveyed any specific physical characteristics. Perhaps I want the reader to imagine her the way they will?

How complicit is she, who fell to earth, with this alien planet. Does she descend with her eyes open or was she surprised to find herself in the New World?

Oh, I wish I knew! Let me return to the poems for clues. In the beginning she is frightened:
That chest of carved and polished wood lies within her reach
But she will not touch it
She is a visitor now
And earthly things disturb her
All around her with their unflinching edges their resolute past
Even the drapes on the walls
And the intricately carved bedspread on which she
Frighten her with their ornate proximity their embroidery
That speaks of pain
Staking its territory as needles stab fabric in a million hands

Ordinary objects seem hostile to her, indeed almost terrify her. She, who is “no longer terrified of vastness” seems to shrink inside what is probably a normal comfortable well-appointed human habitation, as if everything in it were an assault. She recognises things because she has lived here before, but the time away has unlearned and undone her, and that fear seems to suggest that she came back before she was ready.

So maybe it’s not surprise that accompanies her back, but rather befuddlement – where am I, why am I here. Like waking from a trance. It’s almost as if, having “conquered space”, having become “Laughably used to having Brahmand around her” she has forgotten how to live on this planet anymore, what to do with her limbs, her gaze, how to fit herself into the circumscribed room, how to get used to being on the ground looking up at the sky instead of the other way around, how to deal with this new scale. It’s a kind of “space-sickness”, maybe.

On the question of her complicity: as the book progresses, doesn’t she lose her terror and become more and more complicit in the ways of this world? From being a kind of stowaway in a room on this strange mother-ship who imagines a “great benign-ness” watching her, who talks to ladybirds and hides from young people with “glittery skins/ And flyway hair” – she begins engaging with the world that initially terrified her, and she falls in love! How devastating for her! She is no stranger to this “amoral tech heaven” where:
devices need to be paired
Before they can speak to each other
Before this act so close to intercourse can take place
Him entering her phone directly
but she is rattled and unnerved by contact, is she not? See the lines:
To her who has lived without human contact for aeons
Stretching her fingers apart to see him better
Feels like the most intimate contact
As if she has really touched his hair
His neck his waist
Instead of merely the soft skin 
Of the device that nestles at his hip
Or at his ear
Accepting his mouth
Just as her straining eyes must accept that 
On some days 
The mid-morning moon that strikes her with its 
Deranged light
Is really the sun
And the mid-afternoon half-moon in a sky of no dimension
Is really the moon
And that the horizon is capable of receding
The way her body recedes
After half a bottle of red
Into a farness comforting in its extremity

At first, the only enterprise that interested her was “observation” and in this pursuit the horizon was her accomplice:
Space Gulliver prefers the complicity of the horizon
In this enterprise called ‘seeing’

She was comfortable with that complicity, it was neutral and perhaps even ‘scientific’ enough to leave her unscathed. But when human contact occurs she is pulled right in, and her relationship with her surroundings, and her apprehension of herself as an “alien presence” changes radically, to the point where she cannot quite demarcate the boundaries between herself and the “others”. She, who has wanted to obliterate location, finds that “Place has encroached her”. Towards the end of the book, you can see how the comfort of belonging, of having made friends with the seemingly-hostile environment and its inhabitants starts stifling her and she wants to move on, wants to “Abandon this ‘she’”, wants
a ship to sail away in
Leaving ‘her’ behind
To grow worms

"How many ways can you approach the same Cathedral"? Let us count (a few) ways. This is Canterbury, isn't it? Can you describe the experience of visiting the Cathedral and its impact on you?

Oh yes, very much Canterbury. As you know both the Cathedral poems and the prose Journal entries are clearly Canterburyan!
Canterbury Cathedral

I had visited the Cathedral in 2011, the year before my residency. I had visited it like a tourist, albeit a literary tourist, marking the spot of Thomas á Becket’s murder and remembering the play (Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral). Having studied Chaucer in college it was only natural that I should go and see a (really kitschy) version of Canterbury Tales, complete with odours and atmosphere!And take photos of the gates that the pilgrims must have walked through, wandered through the lodgings, taking more photos. Both the Cathedral and the medieval town were fragments of literature that I was somehow magically walking through, gliding through. It was both surreal and also strangely superficial, if you know what I mean. My interaction with the place was so on the surface, despite prior knowledge, despite a strange tug – my first experience of it was almost frivolous. I’m reminded of a game we used to play as children where we had to run and touch a wall and come racing back. That’s how I approached the city and the Cathedral; I touched and raced away, flushed with the sheer mindless triumph of it.

But in 2012, everything changed. First, I was perched on top of the hill, on a very modern campus, looking down on this very ancient city. And the best thing about my room on the edge of the University campus was that I had a clear view (on clear days that is) of the spires of the Cathedral. I cannot begin to explain or even understand how important that view became to me during my stay.  The Cathedral was how I oriented myself. It was like my true-north! I needed co-ordinates to locate and anchor me in this new geography and the Cathedral was my key co-ordinate. I grew fond of it, I admired it (in the night especially), I perhaps even spoke to it from my room!

And when I went down into town, I found I could save myself from being lost (in the early days) simply by trying to see where the Cathedral was. It was everywhere! Which could be maddening, but it was not, at least not to me. My relationship to the Edifice that was THE Cathedral had changed. I could still admire its beauty, but I could also ignore it. After all, I lived here. I could visit any time (or not). That freed me from reverence (not that I recall being reverent on my first visit either!) and I felt able to enter it normally, casually.

I remember one Sunday literally racing down the hill to arrive in time for the Sunday service because my friend (who is a fabulous singer, and whose choir had been narrowly beaten in an all-Kent choir competition, unfairly I thought!) had told me that the famous Canterbury Choir whose conductor was the key judge at the competition would be singing that Sunday! I wasn’t late, and I have to admit, the choir was fantastic. The acoustics of the Cathedral are so glorious, I felt kind of transported – and this without any religious leanings whatsoever! The only experience that outshone this one was hearing the choir sing in Christ Church, Oxford just before Easter that same year.

So thanks to my being a resident in Canterbury (or rather above it!) the Cathedral changed for me – from tourist attraction to familiar landmark to ethereal song – a movement that in a sense “vanishes” the structure away in almost exactly the way the fog would, or the night, once the Cathedral lights were switched off:
At midnight 
The cathedral 

PS: In 2015, I found myself taking a young Welsh poet friend around Canterbury! How strange: there I was, an Indian poet playing tour guide to a Welsh poet, after 3 years the geography of the city and the Cathedral still so familiar to me, it felt like home.

May we read your book separately (the Cathedral poems and the Gulliver Poems) or as part of the same occupied space.

I think you could, of course, read the 3 kinds of pieces separately, but I think they work best when read as part of the same occupied space (and dare I add – in the sequence in which they are presented). They are all of a piece! I like your use of the word “occupied”! That’s exactly it – the same space occupied in 3 different ways, in 3 different modes – creating and perhaps replicating my own 3-dimensional anchoring to what had once felt like surface alone, smooth and glassy, impossible to get a grip on.

Let us into the secret of your conception of Gulliver. 

You know your question makes me think about her lost/home planet, wondering where it was, what it was like. Almost like thinking of a lost book, the book that tells us where she was and who she was before she returned to Earth, the book I might one day even write (or not!).

When I wrote this book, with the subtitle: Chronicles of an Alien, I was finding out more and more about SG every day, with every new poem. In the initial SG sextet, she was clearly some sort of explorer, keen, hungry for words as much as for what the words provided: food, pickle, chalk; she was a pattern-seeker, a person equipped with naming words but not always able to fit the name to the object it signified:
There are many beings here, roaming the ether.
Are they real? Is that a parking meter? A lamp post?
Is this what it means, to travel?

Always a bit off-kilter, but never thrown. When she came back for this book, I didn’t think at all of her previous avatar. She was all-new, and mysterious to me. She was oddly disembodied – an idea that was the outline of the body that I would have to flesh out as I went along. The idea of having lived so long in another atmosphere, in an outer space too remote to contemplate, dependent on all manner of machinery, very sophisticated machinery that enabled her to breathe, eat, travel at the speed of light, all of it was taken for granted, like a knowledge that I shared in common with whoever might read her, eventually. All the science-fiction that we share like a collective memory. That’s what I was drawing on, and that freed me up to focus on her here-and-now, her landing and her learning to love where she has landed. I realise now – you’ve turned me into a detective, sleuthing through my own book! – that there is some sort of secret coercion in her past: a “They” that seems slightly sinister:
They never taught them to breathe
There were machines that did that
For them
Space Gulliver could hold that
Against them
Against herself
Who took her away

This reminds me a bit of the “they” in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We. A manipulative “they” who “took her away” – no doubt for her own good, perhaps with her own complicity, a “they” who made her dependent, made her powerful, made her very veryspeedy! Is that why she escaped? Giving up the adrenaline of speed for the grinding slowness of another gravity? Giving up a comforting airlessness and having to learn to breathe on her own again?
The slowness of it flabbergasts her
For days she buckled under 
Over-oxygenation of lungs

Having to cope with more primitive modes of transport, which rob her of her spatial sense:
Perhaps it appears far to her who has abandoned the great machines
That lent her speed and cannot travel anymore as the crow flies
For her to measure where she is how far from where she was
She will need instruments that torture 
Needles that point dials that encompass gauges that fill 
With secrets she is saving for the time she will read her own memoir

Gulliver exists in a phenomenological reality that is turgid, sticky; the gravity of earth is certainly heavier than her lost/home planet, her being even more grave as the gravity pulls her to possible reconciliations.

The words that you use to describe her phenomenological reality – “turgid” and “sticky” – how apt they are, and how wonderful that’s what it comes across as. Because it is turgid and sticky, the clutch of this organic world, at least in the early days of her arrival. Oh, and about her “being grave”. How right you are! In the beginning she is very grave, isn’t she? And then she begins to lighten up, loosen up, make jokes (even if the joke is sometimes on herself) – I liked seeing that happen.

I must also share two key influences: one is Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and the other is a science-fiction novel I adore: Walter Tevis’s Man Who Fell to Earth, which was made into a film with David Bowie (who else!) in the role of the ‘alien’, who as we see becomes all-too human by the end of the story. This section clearly references Solaris:
Space Gulliver adrift
That was how they made them in the movies
Bodies like bubbles
They rarely mentioned metal
The thing that saved you
The sheets you had to rip through if you 
Wanted to touch someone from a dream
Bloodying yourself all over
Mirrors were always convex on that ship
And disrepair a condition of comfort
Huge fronds of weed
Sea that spoke
Every cauldron bubbling with tomorrow
Isn’t that what they taught you in the schools
Where fabric was an essential lie
Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972)

Nicholas Roeg's The Man who Fell to Earth (1976)

My beloved alien comes from my fascination with a notion of space travel as inward, messy, traumatic even, a function of dream and nightmare, a place of comfort that doesn’t look or feel comfortable, that involves the flesh even while denying/disembodying the flesh. Damage as a necessary condition of any kind of significant journey.

"Space Gulliver unbridles her horse
Escapes on the bare back of the runaway sentence
Someone close the door of the barn."

You seem to straddle the world of prose fiction and poetry seamlessly, riding runaway sentences bareback. Space Gulliver is your 14th book. Can you give us a bit of an insight into your working ways?

Thank you for the compliment! I like the idea of being a bareback rider!

Insight: hmmm...
I think the way in which I work doesn’t change whether I’m writing prose/fiction or poetry. The only thing that is different is the nature of the sheer physical commitment: the day-after-dayness of sitting at the desk that a novel for example demands. While I can write poetry in short sharp bursts. How not to flag, that’s the great challenge in writing fiction, how to stay invested in the characters and their predicaments. When I’m writing poetry, I focus like a laser – and there’s no scope for flagging!

Having said that, I wrote Space Gulliver – which is after all a sequence of poems – the way I’d write a novel! I wrote everyday – and the fact that I had 3 different entry points made it easier in a way, kept me buoyant and interested and committed.

Returning to your time in Canterbury; how was your experience as a Resident Writer? Does the forced separation from a familiar environment invigorate the writing process, or is it a mixed blessing?

The day I arrived in Canterbury, my first reaction was: “Why on earth did I come?” It was a grey, grim day, and even the fairytale snow on the ground did little to lift my spirits! I even – I can now admit – cursed myself for thinking I needed to be on a Residency to write a book, having written all my previous (till then) 13 books sitting in my book-filled den at home in Thane!

But that gloom swiftly passed, and I found myself invigorated by the change. It wasn’t just that I was in a hyper-state of awareness, as if everything might be material to the writing, and in a way much of it was. I think an unfamiliar environment makes me look at everything, including the way I write, differently, and that was exactly what I needed.

Were you reclusive during that time or garrulously social?

I was deeply fortunate to be at the University of Kent, attached to the School of English, which counts among its lecturers several very fine poets, creative and critical minds: David Herd, Nancy Gaffield, Jan Montefiore (since retired), Patricia Debney, Simon Smith, Caroline Rooney, Sarah Wood. I gave a reading, I conducted a workshop for the MFA Creative Students, I attended many poetry readings by visiting poets, was part of many conversations about poetry and writing, I was invited to read poems about the sea at the Turner Gallery at Margate, along with other Kent poets (teachers and students).

I was drawn into the community in a way that was as hospitable as it was instructive. I learnt a lot! I made friends for life. And I was so happy that the first launch of Space Gulliver in summer 2015 was at the University! It felt so apt, and this was all because of the lasting associations that were forged way back in 2012. Canterbury gave me my second poetry-family (the first being right here, in Bombay!) –and I feel great love and gratitude to have such richness in my life.

So, I was neither utterly reclusive nor wildly sociable! I think I struck a good balance, and I am rather pleased I did, knowing my own tendency to sometimes get carried away!

(interview with Sampurna Chattarji, July 2016)
© Mustansir Dalvi, 2016, all rights reserved.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

On Charles Correa's Passing: A Lament for Bombay

It is a year now since Charles Correa left us, and the city feels his loss with every revised policy for densification, over-urbanisation and the commissioning of redundant infrastructure. I am posting a paean to the architect that I wrote last year. It was published, in a slightly different form in the Economic & Political Weekly VOL - L NO. 28, JULY 11, 2015.

On Correa's Passing: A Lament for Bombay

An urban architect who was a friend of the residents of the city and the environment, Charles Correa was more than a builder of sustainable houses and offices. He was a quintessential Bombaywallah, one who put forward eminently sensible solutions to some of the problems of his favourite city. Sadly, most of them did not materialise and the problems continue unabated.

Charles Correa was a shaper of the public realm. Remembered and revered for his several striking and iconic buildings, his ideas, both through writing and design, through built, un-built and speculative work foreground the community, the civic and importantly, the inclusive. As a true-blue Bombaywallah, a lot of Correa's attention was focused on his hometown, but there are few interventions that allow us to identify Bombay as Correa's city. Even today, Kanchenjunga is the apartment building we associate best with Correa. In Bombay, he was proselytiser, activist (sometime filmmaker), academic and architect, but above all, he was Citizen Correa. His vision of the city was both broad and specific. He saw patterns and possibilities before most others, especially the government, did. And offered solutions freely. That few of these were actually taken is something that all its citizens must be held to account for. Therein, in Correa's passing, lies this lament for Bombay.

Charles Correa set up his practice in Bombay in 1958, returning from MIT after a Master’s Degree. His thesis, interestingly, was presented in the form of an animated film called 'You and your Neighbourhood'. He brought his concerns into his practice from the very outset. His early work can be seen in the context of the early post-independence years, where along with a few other practitioners like Habib Rahman and Balkrishna Doshi, an expressive internationalism defined the optimism of a Nation State. Public spaces like International Pavilions in the country's capital brought him in touch with the government as client, and this relationship continued right until the turn of the millennium, but with varying degrees of success. His design for the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya in Ahmedabad (1958) is one of the finest examples of civic buildings that represent independent India.

At the same time, Correa built several houses that allowed him to explore the contexts and specificities of site and climate. Buildings in Ahmedabad led to his developing a template for what he called the 'Tube House' (1961) - a small open plan, two level, row house prototype that created comfort conditions within using passive means- where the design itself allowed for ventilating the house. This was built as an exploration of low income housing for the Gujarat Housing Board. This design is significant it became the fountainhead for alternatives in Ahmedabad, Kota, Lima, Bangalore, Bombay and New Bombay, and for all scales of housing, from housing the poor to housing the very well-off (as in the Sonmarg and the Kanchanjunga Apartments).

Correa's housing designs play out like the variations of a jazz soloist, riffing on a central theme, wandering away and returning, working and reworking ideas. The central theme was inevitably, the interface between the building and its beyond, the quietness of the interior space and the bustle of the public. In his housing designs, he always had place for the raucousness and unwieldiness of a city, of an old city like Bombay, set in its ways.

Even in his more upmarket housing, his buildings never turn away from the city; instead they embrace it, look upon it and take it in. The famous corner balconies of Kanchanjunga allow 270* panoramic views of the city. Their double heights are intended to give the impression of being outside, as in an al-fresco space, one with the urbanity around, capturing 'a piece of the sky'. The apartments corkscrewed around these balconies made the best of Bombay's meagre breezes, ventilating the rooms within. The tower became, according to Correa, 'a Tree of Life'. In later years, he would rue the addition of air-conditioners to the apartments for they were designed precisely to function without them.

The public realm, as mentioned earlier, becomes central to Correa's architecture the poor. One of his proposals in the late '60s was a series of simple upraised platforms (or otlas) for organising hawking along the edge of D N Road in Bombay, lined on both sides with the classic covered arcades (an idea developed more than a century ago by Bartle Frere, the Head of Police in Bombay, to protect citizens from the harsh summer and hard monsoons). Correa's platforms gave pedestrians unrestrained access. Each platform had a water tap for washing the platforms at the end of the day and providing a clean place to sleep under the stars, as so many in Bombay still do. He was keenly aware of the difference between the pavement sleepers and the homeless- 'Migrants don't come to the city looking for housing. They come looking for work.' The sleepers were workers and employees of offices on D N Road. One immediately thinks of the Best Bakery tragedy in Bandra. There too, the people killed in the car Salman Khan was in were bakery workers, not the destitute or homeless. This simple proposal never came to fruition, nor did his later proposal for reorienting traffic at the Flora Fountain, creating an urban plaza for the public rather than a paid parking lot. Neither the traffic nor the issues with hawking have been addressed with any degree of resolution, forty years down the line.

In the early seventies, Correa made a series of designs for squatter housing in Bombay. He proposed twin units of two room houses organised in clusters with open to sky space and organisational centrality, all with their own small courtyards opening out into larger community spaces, creating a hierarchy of territories and common ownership. This design was the precursor of the Belapur Housing in New Bombay (1983), now regarded as a significant landmark in mass housing in India. Correa was clear about not recreating the sub-urban sprawl in this part of the new city, but rather making a concentrated cluster of low-rise land use. Correa laid out a set of guiding principles that governs this development- incrementally, open-to-sky spaces, equity, dis-aggregation, pluralism, malleability, participation and income generation, principles he called ‘non-negotiable’. The housing units would be 'packed close enough to provide the advantages of high density, yet separate enough to allow for individual identity and growth options'.

It is the elegant drawings and old photographs from the freshly built scheme that we still recall with some nostalgia. In reality however, after about thirty years, the Belapur project has transformed considerably from that which it was originally intended for. Meant to be social housing for artisans with modest resources, with a basic shelter, site and services, it was intended to grow with accretion as the families grew economically better off. Today, it is a bit of a curate’s egg. Parts of it show clear indicators of gentrification rather than community living and growing together. Several signs of upper middle class aspiration and comfort are visible. Built over and over-built, on occasion demolished and rebuilt, individual houses turn their backs to the sensitively planned open spaces as only Mumbai's cautious middle class can. Balconies are bricked up, terraces are harnessed as extra rooms, windows closed for air-conditioning and cars parked everywhere. Elsewhere, it does seem that the original homeowners have moved out and a newer lot with no affiliations to the original scheme have come in, displaying current post-liberalisation aspirations and entitlements. The appreciation that the neighbourhood was designed by one of India's finest architects is academic and probably more in the minds of visitors and students who keep landing up there and wondering if they have the right address.

Many of Correa’s guiding principles are seen in the planning of New Bombay (now Navi Mumbai). Intended to house two million people across the harbour on the mainland, it was designed (along with Pravina Mehta and Shirish Patel) as a series of nodes strung along a central transport corridor like a string of pearls. New Bombay offered well designed urban neighbourhoods for contemporary living across scales. Here clear plots and wide roads with infrastructure, well placed gardens and pedestrian paths form the highlights of each node. Several projects of mass and affordable housing were designed by architects like Kamu Iyer, Uttam Jain, Raj Reval, Hema Sankalia and Correa himself. Navi Mumbai did take about thirty years to come into its own. Execution struggled far behind planning, local trains took more than ten years to set up, and international airport is still in the works and the legislative and executive branches of Bombay never shifted to the CBD in Belapur as was intended. But still, the new city is slowly finding its own identity away from Bombay. Still a lot remains to be realised, most significantly the effective and sustainable use of the water edge, the western seafront of Navi Mumbai and options of water transport. Even the node designed by Correa- Ulwe is only just being populated, and more by speculation rather than occupation because of its proximity to the chimera that is the airport. And, Correa would sadly live to see and record that squatters had begun to establish many pockets in his new town.

Back in the island city, Correa would be called upon by the Government of Maharashtra in 1996 to set up a committee to prepare and integrated development plan for the now defunct mill lands. The redevelopment was to include ‘coherent urban form and civic amenities and to generate new employment opportunities for mill workers’ now out of jobs for nearly a decade. The famous one third/one third/one third solution that he proposed for open spaces and amenities, for affordable housing and for sale in the open market was lauded in the city. It offered the real chance for having a consolidated open space in the city that has one of the smallest amounts of open spaces in all the cities of the world. A space like Central Park was imminently possible. But various vested interests whittled down and diluted the proposal to make it but a shadow of its original self. Today there is no consolidated open space. Instead and alternative business enter is consolidating itself, populating the spaces that were once the mill lands with malls, hotels and office spaces, certainly not inclusive, nor incremental.

What has been lost is the old urbanity of the city, one where people of all classes and stations lived cheek by jowl.  ‘Affordable housing isn’t something that happens in a vacuum’ writes Correa, ‘ it is the direct result of the correlation between the pattern of public transport and employment distribution in the city. The third that would have been converted to affordable housing is ultimately become the city’s biggest loss. This large area has only fuelled the stakes of the real estate market. Today, there is hardly any affordable housing being built in the city. Those living in the chawls in proximity of the mills still live in conditions of decaying buildings or have moved out to the furthest reaches of the metropolitan region where some affordability is possible. The absence of sensible social housing in Central Mumbai is a vacuum that is filled in by self-help housing in other parts of the city having locational advantage in terms of public transport. In other words- slums, self-built and regulated, outside the pale of mainstream amenities and civic regard. Correa’s opportunities for urban transformation were also opportunities for social engineering- thorough harnessing the power of the city.

What remains in Mumbai today is an aspirational population clamouring for the limited spaces and opportunities that she offers. Gentrification is now a mental construct that makes the citizen demand rights- from subsidised transport to free housing, giving little in return. Inclusive spaces such as those conceived by Correa through his designs and his advocacy are usurped within the ambit of real estate and not shared space, awaiting monetization. In a city where only two types of growth can be seen- the rise of luxury towers and the agglomeration of slums, the convivial, collegial and ethical urbanity that Charles Correa had always talked about, something that he clearly identified as the spirit of the city is recession. The public realm, exists in so far as to allow people to commute from one place to another, not to loiter, to contemplate or to breathe in.

We lament the city, for in Correa’s passing, he will, without doubt, be remembered as an architect of some of India (and the world’s ) finest contemporary buildings, but might well be forgotten as Citizen Correa- a person who knew Bombay intimately, had the ideas to transform the city into a place for all, but for all his efforts was really not heard.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Ginger Biscuits

Image and eaten by Pooja Ugrani

Of all the available biscuits, I like ginger biscuits best.

It is an acquired taste; so of course, they are the least easily available. When I can lay my hands on them, I tend to over-buy and hoard.  I have to, you see. In the boondocks where I live, resources are available only because they sell. 'Yeh item running hai'. New products do make their way on and off, but last only if they catch the imagination of the grand unwashed. Only running items are reordered.

This is not the way of the small kirana-wallah but the credo of the franchisee supermarkets as well- Big Bazaar, D-Mart, Hyper Mart will only stock items that will easily clear their shelves. The end effect is obvious- there is no diversity, no innovative products, no inclusion or freshness in the merchandise, only the staid and steady. So of late, no ginger biscuits. Also no coconut-orange juice, no basil and no Dindori.

In much the same way, our government has imagined 'smart cities'.

They have redefined ‘liveable cities’ to ‘cities that have the potential to give maximum returns’. In a great leap of associative fallacy they equate 'smart' with 'running items'- with economic viability. This ledger-book definition keeps citizens entirely out of the balance-sheet. If 100 crores are to be put into a city, it must generate 100 crores to be deemed smart.

This, in the long run, is a slippery slope. We can imagine stock patches of habitation with corporate built slickness and all round surveillance. A city where you can control your air conditioner with your mobile phone. But you cannot buy a packet of ginger biscuits, because not enough people like to eat it. Cities without diversity or inclusion, with only economic drivers, lacking socio-cultural touch points are cities heading for stagnation. We already have enough gated communities and failed malls to show us what such smart cities can become. No dogs, no bachelors, no women living alone or together, no musicians, no non-vegetarians, no Muslims. Nothing that is not conventional or conservative.

The great cities of the world have shown us one thing in the 21st century- they can run, grow, even flourish despite the government and their planners, not because of them. You live in one of them today. Look around. You have enough to complain about, but the city is not about to collapse. Diversity and everyday innovation power cities forward, social contracts that are made and remade on the streets power its spirit. And yet none of this is reflected in the Development Plans and indeed Smart City conceptions of the state.

Labels are all they are. Even definitions are difficult to come by, let alone directions.
Meanwhile, I dream of ginger biscuits.

Friday, January 15, 2016

‘Historicize and Problematize’

The inaugural conference of ‘The State of Architecture’ exhibition (currently on at the NGMA, Mumbai, curated by Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote and Kaiwan Mehta) called ‘The State of the Profession’ achieved the objective set out by Kaiwan Mehta in his opening remarks: ‘Historicize and Problematize’. In doing so several affirmative readings were possible about the state of architecture in India today. The conference covered the profession, practice, education, criticism and institutions. Here are some larger impressions that remained with me:

The profession of architecture, if seen as a collective set of ideals, is difficult to pin down. At one level this is the consequence of the diversity of practice that is now increasingly prevalent. Yet at another, this difficulty may be attributed to the lack of ‘communities of judgment’, to use an evocative phrase by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who gave the conference’s keynote address, among architects in the country. Looking towards ‘institutional’ definitions does not seem to help, as institutions too, in a sense are ensconced in silos of their own making. 

The choices made by several architects who spoke at the conference present (rather than represent) the ‘problematization’ of the profession and the fuzzy presence of the professional. This conference brought together such professionals whose practices are essentially reflexive, rather than located in the self-confident comfort zone of the mainstream. For what it is worth, this too can be attributed to the impotence of regulatory mechanisms or the community’s own unwillingness to introspect as a collective. Questions were raised, but it will be some time before definite readings are possible.

The practice of architecture in India, since the millennium, seems to have grown richer by moving outside of the mainstream. It is not the diversity of practices that are the most revelatory (although that is important) but the diversity within individual practice. The embracing of multiple disciplines, media, collaborations and muses have resulted in a variety of ‘messy practices’, reflecting the ‘punctuated chaos’ (to quote Bill Gates) that we find ourselves in currently. This can only be a good thing. The feedback loop between thinking and doing gushes like a cataract in some practices. In many cases, these practices cater to the same patrons as that of the mainstream, indicating a more enlightened patronage and a greater sense of collegiality and synthesis. 

On the other hand some practices, co-create with end users, bringing themselves in direct contact with the communities they design for, even searching out communities not catered to by architects so far. Several practices reach out to the marginalized- slum inhabitants, those living in tribal or rural areas located far away from transport streams. These architects subsume their expressions into those of their constituents, and even encourage the users to express themselves in the built form. There is an embedded-ness of the crafts-person in the design process. This does hark back to the pre-modernist practices in the country before technology got valorized at the expense of the indigenous crafts tradition.

The state of architectural education is particularly problematic. It should have been an article of faith that schools of architecture were the laboratories that informed architectural practice. This does not seem to be happening. Education is overwhelmed by numbers. One of the unique features of this exhibition is the location of architecture within the larger eco-system of education, criticism, location and institutions. What emerges is that from 2015 onward, more than 25,000 students will graduate from the 450 odd architecture schools in the country. This is a number greater than the number of practicing architects in the country. This begs the question- who are the teachers, and what is the nature of learning in these many schools? How may quality or innovation or farsightedness be possible in this proliferation? 

Curricula too, are largely prescriptive, where under the rubric of a single university, may cater to the lowest common denominator. The roles of both students and teachers of architecture have to be re-examined in the light of fast and easily available information. The top down didactic and ‘expert’ supervisory approaches seem to have lost their relevance. The teacher has to be reimagined as an ongoing learner and co-create with the student. There are few stand-alone schools in this country who may chart their own course. A clear call was made in the conference for a syllabus that was more flexible and less prescriptive, less of a cookie-cutter, one size fits all templates. Here, the diversity of practices can provide role models, and be muse to architectural education rather than the other way around.

The role of institutions that oversee the profession was perhaps the most problematic. The governing institutions mandated to look after the interest of architects and to regulate practices and provide codes of conduct under which practices could flourish seemed to present a monocular gaze, more at ease with the mainstream sense of the profession. Laboring under self-perpetuating myths of their own presence, they presented a stance of protectionism and definition. The current positions of institutions comes across as largely reactionary- expressing fears of encroachment by ‘others’- by engineers, by ‘non-architects’ of various stripes, by foreign firms, by project managers. In the affirmative universe of collaboration and multi-disciplinarity they seem to write themselves out by focusing too much on who should be an architect and who should not. 

While it was readily accepted in the conference that architects as a whole in the county influence a relatively small amount of actual building, the vast majority of building still happens outside the pale of institutional memberships. The institutions themselves did not seem to accommodate this reality in a worldview largely oriented towards building memberships and corpuses.

In both the exhibition and the conference, the state of criticism in the country was historicized perhaps for the first time . Architectural writing and critical self-examination is only now emerging, and its influence is far from clear. More books on Indian architecture are being written, but not enough on contemporary concerns and challenges. Like reflexive practices, we need more of reflexive criticism whether in books or journals. Journals such as that of the Indian Institute of Architects have excellent archival value, particularly from its early decades, but do not provide critical writing. Other magazines that have emerged since the turn of the century largely valorize and commemorate the boutique practices and showcase architects in their very limited roles as lifestyle designers. 

There is also a dearth of academic writing on architecture because of the absence of peer-reviewed journals on architecture. In the last couple of years some journals have been established but their value shall only be seen in their sustainability.

If one had to rank the various states of architecture in India based on the deliberations and the initial viewing of the exhibition, the practices in constant dialogue with themselves and their larger environment are the most encouraging. The profession is being redefined by these practices and has a potential to influence education and criticism. There have to have a larger presence on the cultural consciousness of the country for lasting value, much beyond the confines of this conference. Architectural journalism still has to take off to meet these practices half-way and become the critical carriers of potential.  Architectural education has to resume its role as producer of ideas and alternatives that can be fructified in practice. The institutions that govern architecture need deep self-examination as to their present and future relevance.

One issue undiscussed in most part was the location of the Indian architect in a stage larger than the local. Perhaps the valedictory conference that focuses on architecture in South Asia will pick up the gauntlet.