Learning from a Design Jury

Guwahati College of Architecture Magazine May 2010

I am writing this article after a day long jury of a Master’s program in urban housing and conservation. As usual a jury session is always a learning experience because a person more set in his views has an opportunity to see new ideas and ask and listen to fresh questions. It is quite challenging to ask the right question because one has to think about how to frame it so that it can be communicated clearly. And that’s why one can agree with Louis Kahn that a good question is often better than even a brilliant answer.

The projects that we saw were a housing scheme in a part of a node in New Bombay and the restoration of a 16th century Portuguese fort in Vasai near Bombay and conservation of areas around it. The first project was at one of two sites and the program was to create a structure plan for the portion of the node in which the sites were located after which housing typologies were to be designed that would be suitable for the plan as also needs of the society that would inhabit the housing. The node itself was planned on a macro scale by the Planning Authority for New Bombay.  The process of design, as all students are trained to do, was through site visits, study and analysis of precedence and creating a program which, really, is an expression of an architect’s vision. Statistics, analysis and synthesis done sensitively could suggest a solution to the problem in the way a well stated question often contains the answer within itself. The project as seen by the students differed and that made it more interesting because of the difference in the way the problem was stated and not in the way the details were designed. Most of us get bogged down in details and often base our judgments on this. It is a case of missing the wood for the trees. To come back to the project, it could be located either around a suburban rail line and station or an existing village. Both required some sensitivity in the approach to the project. In one, transport and movement of people were the prime motivators In the other, an existing settlement with a culture and typology of housing that has grown around people who have lived together for generations, has now to live with development around them which is quite different from what they have known so far. In most cases the methods which planners and bureaucrats adopt to arrive at solutions are based on statistical information, financial viability, and management and delivery systems. In the process the human being for whose needs, ostensibly, all this is being done is, generally not given a second look. That is where an architect can help for he, with his sensitivity to place, man and nature, can make a settlement that a child would love to grow in. This, of course, is possible only if the architect realizes that architecture exists in a context that is physical, social and cultural and that it is more important to address the issues in the context than creating iconic buildings especially in housing settlements. A look at some of the existing neighbourhoods which make up the fabric  in a city that is old will show the variety of building facades that can coexist in a context without any of them screaming for attention. This reiterates the idea that though a city is known for its iconic buildings it is perceived through its fabric which is mostly residential and in which the individual building is subsumed in the context.

This is quite different from the situation now prevailing in all our major cities where growth is through legislation that enables commercial exploitation of a shortage situation. Buildings are now designed and built as stand alone objects responding to market forces without regard for any physical or social context. The high rise apartment building is the embodiment of the skewed thinking that is prevalent which architects are party to. In the process of building these isolated towers occupants are alienated from their surroundings and isolated from one another thereby shifting the emphasis from the community to the individual. Occupants of these high rise apartments have lost contact with the most unique aspect of our towns –the street on which a lot of our social networks take place. It has been replaced by the internet and virtual reality. This may have taken place anyway but the stand alone high rise apartment typology has contributed to it substantially. It would appear that architects identify self conscious architecture consisting mostly of high rise buildings clad in glistening materials with a global image which basically is western having a different basis. Global image is a kind of standardizing which in a way is bringing everything down to the lowest common denominator. It comes from the demands and aspirations of a few who desire to belong to the club of the elite and are not concerned with either the fabric of a city or its environment or people other than those who can afford to live in the towers that they construct.

Fortunately none of the designs that we reviewed reflected any of the trends prevailing in the city in which their projects were located.

The second project that the jury saw was the restoration and conservation of the Vasai Fort and its environs. The project entailed detailed study of the history of the fort through the centuries of its existence, a detailed analysis of the structures ,their structural features , present condition and their restoration using ,if need be, modern materials. This was done with care and competence but the fundamental question of the manner of dealing with heritage acquired still remained unanswered. It is like having a great grandfather in the family and not knowing how to integrate him into the rest of the family. One option is to let him live alone in his past glory propping him up with life sustaining therapy and singing paeans to his past, even finding virtues that he did not possess, while the rest of the family moves out and get on quite differently. Most conservationists opt for this thinking that it would be better to restrict heritage to restoring and preserving a structure and not allowing any development around or within it. The other option that a family could have is to consider the grand old man as a resource and not as a relic and bring him into the mainstream of the family without isolating him and making him resentful of the present.. Of course nobody wants to see clones of the old man in a generation far removed from his. This option is the more difficult of the two but begs to be thought about seriously and tried because the dilemma facing all civic authorities and architects is either preservation of heritage protectively and shunning any growth or permitting an intervention without copying the language of the past.

These questions were probed into and the discussions that ensued were thoroughly enjoyable. Hence: the need to share the experience

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