It is not quite clear to me as yet as to what ignited the whirlwind of a tour I have just returned from. Was it the subject of Materiality we were supposed to be dealing with throughout the next semester or was it the focus of “Sustainability” (which has become so much of a bad word today) we gladly chose, I remember, in almost a fashion as if it were a kind of a given, and we were the chosen exponents. In fact a new system was being tried out this time, that of treating the whole semester as an elective for the students. I thought this to be a very good idea since it gave the students enough choice of the subject, and it gave the teachers a challenge to come up with an innovative program to experiment in a different track the usual elements of architectural education.
The first semester was almost finishing up with the final juries in place characterized by the usual hurried walks of the students from place to place looking for teachers, administrators and other helping hands to “nearly” complete their submissions (for submissions can never be quite complete as we all know so well). And as faculty members embarking upon a new kind of an assignment, we set up to program the framework for our chosen focus, that of “Sustainability”. The semester was to begin with an almost customary study tour which usually takes the shape and form of the choosing of a historic site, and a measured drawing as a mandatory exercise culminating in a display of drawing works by hand, to be marked in either individual capacity or as a group work. Having done this many times over in the earlier years it was for me quite a boring event as I had seen this exercise degenerate into a series of drawing delineations exhibiting rendering prowess. Had this hard labour by the students led to some analysis, further flowering into an innovative search for a new methodology of documenting knowledge, or even if it would have been somehow designed to stick in the memory by creating an inventive analytical framework for referencing I would have given it due credit.
The key was then to evolve a study tour like no other, one, which would be the strong foundation on which the semester rests and which would provide enough feed to nourish the ideas throughout the design exercises intended for the semester. A kick start was needed to allow the seeds of sustainability to take root and germinate within the young minds. What followed was somewhat of an event which stopped just short of being a miracle, in the way in which the pieces of a jigsaw went about arranging themselves so very casually as to seem inconsequential. There was an effortless ease with which one link fitted into another almost by an unknown force. This was not evident while the efforts were being made to coordinate with the various components of the study tour, but in hindsight, there seemed to be no logical reason how so many right steps could have been taken from the start.
Our descent into Chennai marked a season of good weather for us compared to the chilly smogginess of Delhi we had just left behind thankfully. Airport spaces today seem to be so ubiquitous and similarly clad in metals and glass as to keep one wondering as to which place one is in. Finally, I decided that the only distinction would be the hierarchy of Volume to figure out as to what grade of City one has landed in. The American obsession with standardization and modularity seems to pervade unequivocally throughout the developing Nations (I don’t know how familiarity doesn’t breed contempt here) rendering the question of context, redundant. The sameness of International brands like Costa Coffee, McDonald’s, and KFC, placed very competitively alongside our very own CCD, Vango and Barista reiterated the economic-cultural trends of today which are here to stay I guess, and we are therefore formally globalized! And through this Global portal, we thus entered a world of South Indian chaos ready to understand the values of sustainability through the eyes of the stalwarts we chose as our guiding force.
The entry to Egmore museum our very first destination is completely swathed in flyovers, therefore, denying it the elegance of a sense of approach. A recurring feeling I get is that our public buildings face the worst consequences of the pangs of development since these rigours seem to steamroll all sensitivity issues. Sadly we learn to condone all these incidents (for what else are they?) which follow in the wake of the very much needed progress for the city to be able to keep pace with the rapid urbanization. Professor Durganand, or fondly known as Nandan or Durga among friends, was already there waiting for us with two colleagues from the office. It was his idea that our trip should begin with an angle on historicity and therefore the choice of place. He seemed to be a demure man of small stature and a somewhat rounded build. Large intelligent eyes shone brilliantly from behind a pair of specs which gave a kind of a proffesorish appearance. All I had to build an impression of him was his voice which I had heard over the past two weeks of our association. I can’t say that his personality exactly met the images formed in my mind but at the same time it was not a shock either. After introductions were over we proceeded to buy tickets and herded the flock towards a set of steps of the auditorium building which could have been designed at one time to receive the higher echelons of the British gentry. The students quickly sat on the steps eager to receive knowledge from the words of our History host. Once Nandan began his lecture, the students began their task of documenting the course of the tour through photos, videos, audio recordings and sketches, which was going to be their routine for the next week.
Nandan presented a very culturally interesting picture of the times Egmore museum was built in by interspersing the talk with structural details of the Madras slab roofing supported on wooden/steel rafters. As the students listened intently, grabbing whatever meaning they could illicit out of the talk which now became very architecture centric. Nandan had launched into a detailed explanation of the reasons why the building elements turned out the way they appeared. He pointed out interesting examples of the meeting points of various divergent materials and the painstaking way in which the builders had resolved constructional and aesthetic issues. From the building, it’s history to its cultural nuances to its structure and it’s political implications Nandan easily weaves through the various layers of life in those times and the lecture part of it draws to a close. The exited questions begin with the students all but performing their part in this slice of educational dramatics.
I had already subdivided the students into 5 groups of 4 each who would be studying the entire tour into elements of architecture which were classified as walls, floors and roofs, doors, and windows, transitional elements, & details and they were expected to document precisely these throughout the tour. True to their own categorization, the questions kept Nandan on his toes but the seasoned teacher that he is, quickly satisfied the student’s inquiries all too comfortably. He seemed interested too, with the sense of eagerness students displayed and the enthusiasm with which they responded, and was a little apologetic at having to assign this group to his younger two associates later in the afternoon. The students too were sorry that he could not accompany us all to Mylapore, old Madras, where he had programmed to have the session after lunch.
We all had had an early morning flight and launched into the tour straight after landing at Chennai airport. There had not been enough time to check into the hotel and freshen up before joining Nandan. The lunch also had to be a quick one if one had to catch Mylapore before it turned too dark to appreciate. Nandan’s team explained to us the planning principles resorted to by putting the temple at the centre and developing concentric rings of houses with the temple priests being located in the innermost ring, and progressing further as per the hierarchy of society in those days with the menial labour and scavengers placed further away. Here students realised as to how the structure of society reflects in the organisation of built form and leaves an indelible stamp for generations to come. At first it was not evident as to where this concentricity lay, since modern and most modern houses had invaded the ancient culture leaving it almost impossible even for Nandan’s team to find the route to our source of enquiry. Finally after much enquiry we found the way to where some of the ancient layers could be recognisable. While studying whatever houses were left from the earlier times, we noticed how the need for converting the front portion of these homes into shops selling knickknacks was essential to sustain even simple lifestyles in this complex world of ours. Students requested the owners to let them inspect the homes and after much interaction in Tamil by Nandan’s team the students were finally allowed to penetrate the privacy of some of the most ancient homes of Mylapore. Ancient Houses (as one has always noticed) are low-ceilinged small spaces, now even smaller due to subdivision of rooms to accommodate the forthcoming generations, and depend more or less on the inner courtyard for light and ventilation. At any one given time the house could only accommodate 5 to 6 students making the time available for us to explore in detail much lesser than expected. Interestingly, we noticed at several places the tiled roofs being covered with either plastic weighed down by stones or covering the entire roof by a composite layer of cement mortar with sand and aggregate. The roofs seemed to have lived their life and started leaking, but the inhabitants surprisingly chose to cover the same tiles instead of replacing these by new ones, even Mangalore tiles. The reason for this was not known as we started drifting towards the temple and the tank. Impressively carved statues painted with south Indian zeal lined the tapering sides of the Gopuram. Windows popped up on some of the levels indicating intentions of ventilation and the fact that a route to almost the top was laid out, probably for purposes of maintenance. The columns were all too decorative as they changed shapes modulating the otherwise plain vertical with an array of geometric gimmickry fit to please the Gods. Needless to say there were sprayings of carvings throughout, almost as if a plain surface were the sign of sacrilege in an
By now of course, patience was also wearing thin mainly due to the dwindling energy levels as we all wanted to desperately crash out before beginning a new day.
Note: Gaps here as the infill of material for the transition from Nandan to Anupama is laden with stories of the LEED certified building in Chennai, the brush with Benny Kuriakose, the Intach showing of the French Quarter in Auroville, & the Dharmesh demo. Yet to write.
Our tryst with Anupama Kundoo must have been written in the obscure pages of the unseen destiny of us all, for how else would one explain the barrage of events which followed culminating in this exhibition.
The dust kicked up by our bus was just about settling down as we rolled into the open yard in front of the Town Hall complex at Auroville. The sense of heightened expectations was hanging palpably in the air like an aura, almost made tangible and represented by the cloud of dust. A motorbike Yamaha RX 100 noiselessly rolled in with Anupama driving the two-wheeler (the mobile being as old as her practice, 24 years old, as I learned later), and deftly parking on the side, purposefully strode towards us. Forty eager bodies jostled with each other to get a glimpse of the icon they had until now only imagined. Taking a few moments to size up the crowd, (and I’ve seen she does this habitually with every new interaction) she immediately launched into a brief introduction to the planning principles of Auroville.
The introductory journey, short though it may have been, began at the Town Hall and finished at the open space behind the hostel building where she began addressing us all. This set of buildings included the Centre for Urban Research, the Multi-Media Centre, and located equidistant from this, the City Centre Café, all of which were interlinked cleverly by a series of connectors which traversed through the motions of being ramps at some places, bridges at some others and pathways at most. The rapidly changing materiality, which all were closely observing, was being consumed by the senses through the differentiation in color, texture, and form. While explaining the thinking behind all this Anu led us from place to place. We were alternating between grabbing fragments of knowledge she was spewing and looking closely at parts of the built environment being experienced while trying to absorb a seemingly impossible amount of information all at the same time.
As we all finally settled in a circle around her, she began speaking with measured terms intended at being understood by all. Presented with a candid freshness, the essence of her design philosophy created an envelope of austerity which seemed to characterize her very being. The sense of hearing a sermon pervaded the air which was thick with the humidity of a cloudy January afternoon. Using various means and by giving several references she tried to impress upon us the importance and relevance of context, the need for a deeply rooted ethical value system, and how she lived these beliefs through the projects she designed. The humility of learning from the craftsperson, incorporating societal issues as an integral part of one’s work and rejecting external pressures were some of the primary tenets of the intrinsic structure of her studio culture. The core of her discourse, however, remained centered on the issue of sustainability, (which has only now become the keyword) which seemed to have been so for her from the very beginning. What came from within her was like as a natural rush of the clear mountain spring and soon we were mesmerized into losing all account of time. However eventually as all good things have a habit of doing, this intimacy also came to an end and we loitered around trying to assimilate our new-found knowledge. It had for sure left us all severely inspired, to say the least.
Later I saw some of the students observing the exquisitely crafted steps of the hostel building behind us with the same awe one would a minimalistic sculpture of Donald Judd. It was now that I happened to stroll across to the make-shift office space Anupama was using in a nearby building. On seeing me, and out of nowhere, she suddenly confronted me with the idea of conducting a workshop in the college which entailed preparing 10 models for an exhibition in Spain. I was quite stunned by the idea that we all could take this engagement beyond to another realm. It meant asking the students if they were interested and the school authorities too for an official sanction. The students were only too willing to grab such an opportunity and the school Dean too helpfully consented. After confirming all logistical arrangements finally all was set to conduct the beginnings of this semester as a hands-on experience in model-making.
To be continued ………..