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 continous 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 50’s,  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 50’s,  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.

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