September 27, 2023

Role of Architecture in Nation Building| By Kanchi Parmar

Rethinking the modern urban-scape of India in the 21st Century

Beauty and the Least

( Keywords: projection, dimension, space, architectural space, architecture, built-form, built environment, inner-agencies, nation, country, rasa, chi, resilience, self-preservation, emotions, devotion, fear, hope, love, safe, patriotism, freedom, BC- Before Computers, AD After Digitization, fragments, ethos, tangible, intangible, beauty, least, balance).

While you blink, you are projecting dots. While you breathe, you are projecting lines. When you will move, you will project a curve. Everything you see around you right now can be called as an amalgamation of these three projections – a dot, a line, and a curve. If we add verticality and a material dimension to it, we may project a post, a wall, and a shell. If we introduce a cementing dimension or our inner agencies like impulses, needs, emotions, and memories, they can probably hold these fragments together. What would it produce and how would it bind?

This world would have been flat if we only dealt with our two-dimensional bodily gestures. It is our inner agencies that potentially elevate our living on this planet. It was when we felt devoted to the almighty and had no idea of His stature, that we introduced tall shikharas in India, tied vaults and stained the glass in churches and cathedrals, and likewise built many religious enclosures which
stood the tallest amongst all, in their vicinity, at that time. It was a singular hope to secure a good life after death, that we built the pyramids of Egypt. The fort walls stood tall only to shorten our fear from the intruders. It was love that still holds the four minarets of the famous tomb in Delhi. The primitive too built with wood, earth, reed, and clay only due to the human instinct of self- preservation.

We have gathered these instances to define ‘space’ dramatically built with our projections and which is now elaborately traveling from within us. So, what is it that comes from within, which leads to the ghettos of any country? Ghettos are that part of a city that homes the minority groups, behind dismantled and chaotic facades, locally spoken as slums. The self-grown configuration of any slum is difficult to portray with identity, or to make any interventions/ amendments. Maybe that is the reason why they are so closely packed and maze-like, that no outsider can superimpose. We are left with two options. Allowing it to breed (like the largest slum of Dharavi, Mumbai) or completely eradicate and decentralize it.

Jai Sen, an architect- activist, quotes “Human beings are resilient species and many prefer to live in a place where such resilience is in full display.” If resilience has lego-ed the slums in many countries, again a built environment is nudged by our inner agencies. The romance between the geometry of every built form and our inner agencies has also prevailed today when we are masking our memory against the piled-on pandemic. All of us a chorus, in rhythm, speak it gracefully, the two aspects together. Stay home and Stay Safe. Where both ‘home’ and ‘safe’ triggers the human instinct of self-preservation.

“Architecture is such a conspicuous immensely physical object in space its presence is bound to influence everyone.”

Gautam Bhatia.

How are we extracting the definition of architecture from what we defined as space? If spaces are molded at such an individual level, different ‘experiences’ have led many veterans to pen down numerous definitions of architecture. “Architecture is invention.”, says Oscar Niemeyer. For Richard Rogers “Architecture is always political.” Bjarke Ingels quotes Architecture as practical
poetry, while “Architecture is a mystery that must be preserved” for Jean Nouvel. “Architecture is geometry.” says Álvaro Siza, while Frank Gehry too defines elaborately as- “Architecture is a small piece of this human equation, but for those of us who practice it, we
believe in its potential to make a difference, to enlighten and to enrich the human experience, to penetrate the barriers of misunderstanding and provide a beautiful context for life’s drama.” We can thus branch out several definitions based on several experiences and understandings to baptize a space into an architectural space.

Repeating, congregating, detaching, attaching, semi-detaching, multi-storey-ing, assembling, sometimes refurbishing these architectural spaces gives us composed precincts, cities, and towns. These can further multiply and divide until we reach the barbed wires that break into another country. Don’t we feel cheated that while we were busy fastening these barbed wires to break the unison amongst men, that the land, waters, and winds continued their alliance? Anyways, patriotism is that inner agent that relishes the formation of a territory.

The word ‘Nation’ has a very different impact as compared to the word ‘Country’. If fragments of land successes formation of a country, then solidarity of emotions makes a nation. The same can be implicated in our concept of space. If fragments of geometry are composed well, we can achieve a well-defined space, but if we blend our inner agents, the product shall be an architectural space.

An oracle of the venerable Bede believes that “When the Colosseum stands firm, Rome too stands firm, when the Colosseum falls, Rome too falls.” (4). If we and our inner agents are the ones who built such architectural marvels, why is it that we cannot or do not even want to imagine it getting down? Why is it that in every action, thriller and fiction movies they first highlight on destroying the famous buildings, topple the sturdy domes, and shatter the glass facades to show the end of the world/ clan/ rule? Does it signal that we are in a state of barter system with the built forms? Maybe this is the reason that Winston Churchill quoted without any doubt – “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”. Architect veteran Raj Rewal and design master Manu Desai coin it as ‘rasa’ in the built forms. Many Japanese Laureates call it “chi” in architecture, which means ‘aliveness’ or ‘a living force’.

More than a thousand workmen have erected this humongous amphitheatre in Rome. Over 300 steel workmen on-site contributed to the icon of Paris, the Eiffel tower. (9) To top it all, over 20,000 workmen have stacked the white marble to build the love token, Taj Mahal. (10) The workmen are sometimes labors, victims of foreign rule, in other words, slaves. These men may not be etched in any of our history books, but the resilience in the built form sturdily reflects even today. If we dig deeper, what is it that brought men to etch the intricate bas reliefs in a stepwell at Ahmedabad and Rajasthan only to store water, which oaths to serve only twelve weeks of the year? It equals to the madness shown by a climber who conducts multiple hikes up the craggy sides of mount Everest. Only when he reached the peak did he know the height and overwhelming benevolence of the giant mountain. Only when the stone got sculpted for the step wells, we know how the ruthless stones can even stand gracefully.

We have enjoyed this barter system for ages now, where we invest our intense inner agents and in return, we rejoice in the ‘liveliness’ or ‘chi’ or ‘rasa’ or ‘prana’ it projects. The concepts are easily absorbed and sound very relevant to heritage buildings, religious buildings, and those which have been resting for a couple of decades altogether. However, what do we exchange with the metal titanium sheets enclosing the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles? What do we share with the uneven concrete panels supporting the Dancing House in Prague?

Deconstructivism and Parametricism , marched in elegantly during the 1980’s. It is often characterized with the absence of harmony, continuity, and symmetry. We too were catching up with freedom of clothing, speech, thoughts, and all ways of living. When the freedom we once seek was settling in every aspect of living, art had started to home in machines. The computer became so much a part of us, that we barely remember its absence. Moreover, we can almost redefine BC and AD in an architectural timeline where the former can stand for Before Computers and the latter can stand for After Digitization.

Paul Oliver in his three-volume Encyclopaedia on vernacular architecture have beautifully described human efforts to use local materials and how built forms got moulded with its site context. The country where it locates could only find its name on a mere little map in the corner of the page, while focus always remains on the built environment. Did vernacular architecture ever define a country and nation? We could always dig in a past of a place to know what vernacular was, but did we ever do the other way round? For instance, bricks, clay roof tiles, and rammed earth are local
and indigenous practice in several locations across the globe. Though it excels in debating on sustainability, somehow it did not manage to glorify a nation.

Today, architecture is no less than elegant sculptures. Computers have been contributing its inner agents stronger than any which prevailed before. Ironically, while computers are human aided, we humans too are getting computer-aided, and this has borne exemplary masterpieces like Dubai. The tallest building, largest mall, fastest ride, all to achieve a new benchmark across the globe, a city that celebrates the alliance of human brains and computers. After digitalization, architecture has managed to shout its presence like an icon to distill a power contributing to building the spirit of a
nation. In 2019, UNESCO declared Rio de Janerio in Brazil as the world’s first capital of architecture and promises to shift the title to every deserving city every three years. Architecture can potentially now step further to glorify its country into a nation. We also use terms like a star- architect today more often because now is the time when built forms are traversing through human minds like never before.

Loud architecture like that sprouting due to deconstructivism, is of fragmented facades, distorted walls, bending roofs, swirling passages. Lives today too portray controlled chaos, fragmented relations, distorted memories, bending needs, swirling emotions all that reflects from the built, and that what projects from us within. The new ‘rasa’ and new ‘chi’ is bound to create a feeling of discomfort or confusion. ‘Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music’, believes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. While today the music is hard rock, and architecture is fragmented music.

Humans often ponder over the secret life of a tree. The life it holds, the life it shares, and the life it projects. As an adult, would you draw a tree of a brown fragile stick balancing a large green circle or cloud? Your mind would refuse you to do so because, with age, you can look through the soil, at the roots. We understand that the fragile (only fragile-looking) trunk is witty enough to first anchor itself on support that binds the soil. If every beautiful looking architectural piece is rooted strong with an integral understanding of what prevailed before and what suits the best for the present ethos,
nations will only build stronger like never before. Before our nerves dry with AI4 and BIM5 successes, there is always something to look through, maybe fetch the least considered, our inner agencies, to brings out the real beauty. If beauty is the canopy, the roots are the ones least appreciated. The trunk being architecture, it has got the power to link ethos of different timelines, bring together the tangible and the intangible. This leaves architects as funambulists, a tight rope walker, who balances all the agents in play and looks after the back and forth capillarity of the same.

— Kanchi Parmar

%d bloggers like this: