19 Jan

Change and Constancy

Talk at FEED, Pune, March 2004

My presentation is titled “Change and Constancy” and it is about understanding what stays constant amidst the changes that take place all the time. My search has been through the projects that I have done and I will, therefore, show a few projects in each of the four decades of my practice which I will relate to the prevailing architectural practices and ideas. This will help put the work in a context as also address some of the issues that are of interest to me.

There is continuous change in everything all the time – in Nature, society, science and technology to name only a few. These changes have been reflected in Architecture through the ages. They continue to do so today although at a faster pace. One questions what these changes are and how fundamental they are to our understanding of the world around us. On reflection we see that from the beginning, man’s deep concern has been with space. . Space is a difficult concept to comprehend . It is abstract and we can perceive and comprehend it only when we define and redefine it from time to time. What cannot be seen can only be felt and hence artists, cosmologists, writers, sociologists- in fact everyone has at sometime or other come up with or used space in the course of their work and often wondered at its immensity.

Space can be seen when contained between walls in a building or felt when we see or use a pot or jug or understood through other abstract concepts like mathematics and so on. In Indian thought and tradition, space like the concept of “shunya” or Zero or Arogya is positive and used as such. All these concepts are not opposites as is usually perceived in the West. For instance, space is an entity in itself- not absence of any object, shunya is not absence of numbers or Arogya absence of disease or ill health. One can appreciate a positive use of space as the potter moulds it at his wheel. His concerns are with how much water the pot can hold, how easy or heavy will it be to carry when full, or how will the water flow when the pot is emptied out or how will the pot be cleaned when it is empty. The form that we see finally is the outcome of the potter’s answers to these questions. To the onlooker the shape, colour and lines of the pot are his sole concern which is quite different from the user’s. The form of the pot is the result of how the space within it is manipulated . The architect like the potter, is concerned with space, it’s proportion and orchestration. But unlike pottery, architecture allows the user and the viewer to see, feel or experience the space contained within it. The idea of space has interested all. In fact, the word has been used with different meanings. For instance, people say “Give me space” or “I have my own space”. The social scientist refers to space as a container for man and his social structures and equitable distribution of space. They call the appropriation of space the Politics of space. Cosmologists talk of infinite space and what effect this has on the movement of planets etc. Pursuit of the understanding of space is constant at all levels of human endeavour and even more so in architecture. Hence the constancy amidst the rapid changes that are taking place.

Before we see the projects, I would like to arrange the background against which the work could be viewed.

I will go back to the 50’s when I was a student of architecture at the JJ School of Art. At that time the school followed a Beaux Arts style of teaching in which great emphasis was placed on drawing skills, study of history or rather historical styles and understanding the elements that went into façade making. The system was concerned with proportion and aesthetics and refinement of details. It was a rigid and exacting discipline and rigourous and hence uninteresting. This system adopted in the design studios was soon changed largely due to the resentment among students who felt that the Beaux Arts system was outdated and that the school should be more concerned with training architects for real life practice than merely providing drafting skills.

In the 50s, there was great euphoria and idealism following independence. A whole nation had to be built. Most of the students who went abroad to study further returned to India to take part in this nation building adventure. On the architectural front, buildings in the modern idiom started emerging. Le Corbusier was commissioned to build Chandigarh and his ideas were radical to us conditioned as we were to the formally composed Victorian buildings or the Art Deco apartments or pseudo revivalist buildings. The earliest modern building to influence architects was the Golconda Hostel at Pondicherry which started in the late 30’s and completed much later. Apart from this, examples of modern architecture were only sporadic. This was so in the 40’s. In the 50’s however, in Bombay, there were four buildings which are of significance. These were the Jehangir Art Gallery, Petroleum House, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and Darshan Apartments. All these came up when I was a student and they lead some of us to look into the ideas behind them and find out what it was that made them different from what we had seen earlier. There was great enthusiasm then at the JJ.

When we (my partners and I) started practice in the mid 50s, the prominent modernists were Bajpai, Kanvinde, Rehman and others. They were senior to us. Our contemporaries were Correa, Doshi, Piloo Mody, Pravina Mehta, Raje, Raj Rewal and a whole lot of architects in Delhi. The architects in Delhi were greatly influenced by Corbusier and most of the commissions came from the Government. In Bombay, three streams of clientele emerged and they provided the projects for those of us who practiced. They were: Clients who started using architects to do the interior design of their houses, shops, offices, restaurants etc. Hitherto this was done by furniture makers who also designed the interiors through designers. As is to be expected interior design was looked at as being interior decoration. Architects, however, had an opportunity to look at these assignments as design of interior space rather than decoration.  This clientele provided a lot of work to young architects and continues to do so even now. The second provider of work were the developers. The early builders came on the scene when there was an acute shortage of housing and anything that was built was sold. In a sellers market, shoddy buildings were built and sold. These people exploited a shortage situation and did not care for quality let alone design but they provided a lot of projects. On the flip side they also manipulated FSI, a planning tool, into becoming a tradeable commodity. Architects were more concerned with getting Municipal approvals than in design or the pursuit of the deeper issues of space or architecture. The third set of clients were industrialists. Industrialisation was taking place rapidly after independence. Most of the buildings  that came up were for the engineering or pharmaceutical industries. The entrepreneurs were either Indian or multinationals. The factories of the multinationals were built to good standards and had a design quality although most had the basic plans drawn up abroad. The Indian industries were under capitalised and hence frugal in their approach to design. We got most of our work in the early years of practice from Industry. We learnt the value of the client’s money and we had to maximise the use of space, available technology and materials and learn to complete projects within a time and cost schedule. It was a great learning experience and we found that rational use of space, honesty in the use of materials and minimalism which were the ideas of the modern movement, had a direct application in our projects.

By the end of the 60s, Corbusier completed almost all his work in India and the influence of his ideas were felt everywhere. In fact you were not taken seriously unless your buildings were in exposed concrete and brick. At least that was the situation in Delhi and Ahmedabad. In Bombay we were not so bigoted mainly because Bombay is a commercial city that has no time for such niceties. In the later half of the 70s deconstructionism was the most favourite topic of discussion among architects.

Deconstruction  challenged  the existing  philosophies in the western tradition saying that there were preconceptions which became established by acceptance  Architects, many of them in the west,  were taken up by this questioning and analysis but these ideas did not find takers among the architects and clients in India What did emerge was the importance of the design program which I understood was not merely a set of requirements  but a vision of a client. This enabled me to question the validity of a programme and made me look at a problem holistically I realised that architecture is an expression of a programme as seen by the architect and that to see is to inquire into the nature of the problem. To design is to evoke qualities that are immeasureable through tangible means like the site, the client’s vision and engineering skills.

Laurie Baker’s low-cost houses in Kerala made some architects take a second look at modernism and the buildings that it spawned. Baker’s houses were simple and his ideas were mainly to stretch the use of materials to their maximum. In other words, get the most out of them. To do this one had to question everything from materials to space and its optimum use to lifestyle. He, like Gandhiji, believed that one should build inexpensively, not because of lack of money but because it is a way of life. His work made architects aware of vernacular architecture which was the way people built their houses with the sensibility acquired over generations through the use of common sense. Young architects started experimenting with materials and indigeneous technology and contained space became differently defined. On the other end of the scale was Louis Kahn’s outsized IIM building at Ahmedabad. The building which is a load bearing wall structure came as an eye opener and made us rethink about modernism. Till his arrival in India, use of the arch was frowned upon by the modernists since Le Corbusier used RCC extensively. He saw the immense potential in its use for big spans, and generally did not like the limitations of masonry load bearing wall structures. Kahn destroyed that notion by showing how masonry could be used in different ways, in varying spans, shapes and forms by combining it with concrete. His buildings are stark and materials used without fuss and minimally. In that respect he was a modernist although his language was quite different.

Kahn’s influence was probably more far reaching than Le Corbusier. On the flip side, many architects and students got fixated on the 45-degree geometry and repeated ad-nauseum plans based on this often without any relevance to inner space or surroundings.

In the 80’s, with interest in vernacular architecture gaining more acceptance,  sensitive and serious minded architects had another look at  traditional building forms specially house form and the traditional housing typology not so much for copying them or even adapting them but using them as a spring board to  investigate alternate typologies for urban housing .The lesson we learnt was that architecture does not stand alone but operates in a milieu which includes  people, the space occupied by social structures ( I do not mean buildings) and the ideas prevailing in society.

The 90’s was the decade of architecture of sensation. In the politics of space, architecture as an expression of the power of the state or of financial institutions diminished and almost all buildings and architects became self-indulgent. Limited understanding of the confusion that was felt in the West among writers, artists and architects about the limitations of the modern movement, made things worse in India. Packaging became more important than the content and in the absence of any new ideas, images from the past which many mistakenly perceived as post-modern, came to be used. Also elements like curtain walling, atria and ideas used in western architecture since long were used ad nauseum without reference to climate, the prevailing ethos or user acceptance. Architects, developers and clients vied with one another to make their buildings conspicuous resulting in self-conscious architecture.

I looked at the changing architectural scene differently. While most were taken up by the images of architecture in the west and letting their buildings become superficial and decorative, I went back to old buildings to look at space and find out how it could be redefined afresh. Japanese architecture especially Katsura Imperial Palace showed how the Japanese saw space within the house and outside through a series of openings that framed the view. By this they created an illusion of depth and hence a different perception of space. I found similar ideas in some of our traditional buildings without the refined aesthetic sensibility of the Japanese. My work of this period tries to adapt some of this.

The 21ST century is one of globalisation and the world is now moving towards a global village.  Most people consider this as an assault on one’s territory, commerce, jobs and culture. I am an optimist and I have no misgivings about what the future holds for us. Undoubtedly there will be drastic changes. The fears that we have are unfounded. At least we in India need not fear since we have been globalised for centuries in almost everything from trade to travel to cross cultural ties and influences. If you look at our culture it is very difficult to truly define what is Indian. As I see it, with the world moving towards being a global Village the boundaries of our space will get more and more blurred, culture will be less and less contained and will become more open. It is difficult to predict the outcome. In fact it should not be predictable. And the comprehension and the appropriation of space will alter but our concern with it remains even though there is change all round. That, I feel, is constancy.

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