Monday, May 21, 2007

Jaisalmer and pre-cast construction

Jaisalmer as a city, as urban fabric, is in total harmony with its soil, its terrain and the lifestyle of its people. A city in yellow stone, a sculpture that emerges out of the landscape. But, Jaisalmer is a man-made sculpture of small well-designed parts. The parts that make the harmonious whole are the key to the urban fabric that one sees today in Rajasthan.

It is a system of carved elements - stone slabs, beams, columns - pieces put together, the putting together - a carefully pre-planned process. Stone carvers - the artists, the artisans working in groups to deliver the pieces as required, with every piece cut, carved, to make a railing, to turn it to make a junction or to break the monotony of a symmetrical façade.

Stone blocks cut and carved to make an arch, a doorway, a jharokha, brackets that support a circular jharokha, brackets that are radiating out from a point and therefore vary in their sizes, but must be carved to precision to take their place away from the courtyard of the carver's house, in the walls of the palace.

And today, centuries later, can Bombay, Calcutta or Delhi boast of a harmonious city fabric inspite of the progress made in construction technology? Should we not rethink about the city as a whole and apply the technology to the whole rather than to a part, a sole building? We make individual buildings with our technological inputs. Can we not energise our entire city system which may produce a building that reflects the common ideology? Can we use stone again? Can we carve again? We can, but perhaps at greater expense and therefore we may look for a less expensive alternative.

Can precast concrete elements take the place of stone slabs, beams, columns, brackets, railing? If we were to analyse the system of building in Jaisalmer and devise thereon a system for use today, we will perhaps have an answer to a better city fabric woven into the other townscapes and reflecting the current mind structure too.

Urban morphology in India has been studied before. Architects and planners know today how courtyards, streets and built-form come together to make Indian cities. Contemporary Indian architects are designing townships for industrial empires. Many of these reflect the Indian norms for City Planning, yet the built-form is a collection of units that are in concrete, and sometimes alien.

If we could merge the appropriate technology being researched and practised in some parts of India with these early canons of planning to generate urban patterns of relevance and create an aesthetic that one can relate to, we will again have cities and townships that we can be proud of.

It has spices, it has quiet…

Kumily has places that sell spices, it also has places that sell food and some quietitude. The restaurant at Ambadi is well-frequented by foreigners. Ambadi is a hotel which was built more than 20 years ago and is designed by Laurie Baker. Set amidst the forested area of Kumily, it is built in exposed brickwork and roofed in mangalore tiles.

It is an architecture that knows the culture of Kerala and the people of Kerala. One wall is crafted with brick and stone that make a portraiture of a Kathakali dancer. The rooms have verandahs that are themselves protected by tree canopies. A performing art form that is also now a building art. It lends the façade a textural quality.

Another part of the hotel has a longer verandah that uses for a railing, a mix of unshaped wood from the jungle nearby and a more orderly motif in teakwood. The old trees have been preserved and perhaps more planted. Sunlight filters in through the branches which rest comfortably, sometimes on a wall, sometimes on a window overhang. Here, one does not say, ‘this is building, this is landscape’. They came together and grew together.

Ambadi has also architectural detailing of an exquisite nature. There is the staircase that speaks of the hours of dedication of an artist in wood, there are the carved windows in wood that may have once been part of a tharavad. Laurie Baker often recycled doors and windows into his projects, from houses in Kerala that people chose to demolish to build a lavish, modern home. In this part of Kumily, as in many other parts of Kumily, you see the trees and you hear the birds. You take back with you the smell of spices and the touch of silence.

Café Italiano & the Badam tree

After you have been in Varkala a few hours, you walk along the cliff wondering which restaurant to have your first cup of coffee. How does one know what place has the best view, the best coffee and the best price? And then, there is the music or the silence to choose from. The first day, you try one place for coffee, another for lunch and yet another for dinner. You begin to savour each cafetaria and each restaurant a little at a time. Some you walk into a second time and yet another time perhaps. You find that a shaded place to sit with a good view of the sea is the most popular combination.

At Café Italiano, the shade comes in plenty, with a badam tree being the centre of place. The floor of the café is covered with sand. The tables are simple wooden ones and the chairs are cane. There is the outdoor eating space, with tables under the badam tree and there is an indoor eating place, with tables at a timber and tile-roofed verandah.

And, is there a design element that is a key to Café Italiano’s success as a space? It is just the badam tree. It is the natural shade from the sun that this ‘God’s own country’ restaurant offers you with your cup of coffee. There are the terracotta murals along one side of the café. The murals do add to the aesthetics of the place. The sign that says ‘Café Italiano’ is a strong element and an important part of the design.

The “light and no light” that Louis Kahn speaks of is so much a part of this café with badam tree. When ‘Design for Tourism’ follows ‘Designing with Nature’, it creates a built-environment that has serenity and delight – the two elements architecture can bring to our lives.

what is good design

Is it colour?
Is it the natural light that permeates a space?

There’s the sun, there’s sunlight
There’s the wind and the windsong
What building, what design
Makes them a part of our lives

Is it the inner courtyard?
Is it being in conversation with the landscape?

Is it the spaces inside a building?
The spaces outside the ‘space you live in’?
The spaces between buildings?

Is it less money, more square feet?
Is it available only in Greece?
Is it “what is good for them” is “good for me”?
Is it just white, and some light?

Is it “small house + small garden in posh locality”?
Is it “newly constructed, fully furnished flat with cupboards”?
Is it “house with 24 hours water and good vastu”?
Is it 2 Bedrooms+Hall+Kitchen in 800 sq.ft.?!

Is it Simplicity?
Is it “putting the look together”?
Is it all history now?
“Please give me a good elevation” what can it mean?

Is it detailing?
Is it adding the personal touch?
Is it creating an ambience?
Is it why the newspaper stand is what it is?

Is it the random plan of the vegetable bazaar that “works”?
Is it the roadside shrine that “belongs”?

There are so many answers to our question
Perhaps, good design is . . . an answer to our “needs”

Maybe it is not the elevation, but a good plan, that transforms into space and light
Maybe it is about several families of plan before you arrive at one
And yet, good design is only what you think it is…

Life from its past

At Varkala, there are two distinct lives that the town leads. It has a life from its past, a life that belongs to the people of Kerala who have lived here for generations. To this life belongs also the 12th century Janardhana Swamy temple. And then, it has a life of the present, a life that belongs to the tourists. This is the life Varkala inhabits on the cliff. The beach and the bazaar belong to this life. The Sea, however, belongs to Varkala’s past and to its present. The Sea belongs to the fishermen. The Sea also belongs to the tourists. When the tide ebbs, there is a momentary silence. It is a moment in the sea of time, when people see Varkala as they want to see it.

The people of Varkala come to the temple for their daily prayer. Some come from towns nearby to offer their gratitude for prayers already answered. A few tourists visit the temple to know Varkala in its entirety. One climbs a few steps to go up to the temple. There is the sanctum sanctorum where the local priests perform the daily puja. There are the open spaces around it where others wander. There is a tranquillity in the temple grounds. As one walks back to climb down again to the town, you see the town in a different light. The town seems quieter from here. You also see the temple tank and the ‘Sree Padmam Garden restaurant’ that overlooks the water and the coconut palms beyond – a place where tourists become for a while a part of Varkala’s past.

Periyar lake and the morning mist

It was a long walk to the lake. The sun had just risen. The morning had only just begun. The road winded up and around the jungle trees. It was a wide road. Every once in a while, a car went by. The ‘boat landing’ was 4 km away from Kumily town. There were signboards that said “Tiger land, No horn” The bamboo rustled. You knew the breeze was walking too. The cluster of trees parted and a deer stood there. Only for a moment.

That morning, the lake was there with the mist. Maybe, every morning was the same at Periyar. The boats were there. No people. Slowly, people began to arrive. There was a choice of “upper deck” and “lower deck” tickets. The information centre in stone walls was a nice space to be in. Monkeys sat on the trees and in the cafetaria. There were guards. Nobody spoke. People began to wander around and watch the birds.

It was time to climb the boat. We moved into the waters. There were the trees on either shore. Tree trunks, small and large. It was a sculpture park on the waters. Each sculpture bore the same signature. It was an unknown artist. The dam waters had flooded a once forested land. The trees were very silent. The boat moved. People looked. Periyar lake and its sanctuary had become a part of our memory, of our lives.

CYMA hall in Alleppey

The CYMA hall is an old, traditional building. It is located in a quiet and peaceful part of Alleppey. It is Kerala’s first public auditorium built for staging dramas.

"This hall was constructed for the common man’s use, without any aid from government agencies. It all began in 1920 when some men came together to form an organisation called the Catholic Young Men’s Association (CYMA). It included writers, scenic designers, costume designers, stage technique experts, make-up and lighting artistes, amateur actors and theatre directors.

The construction was started in 1926 and the hall was completed in 1934. The building has a magnificent arcade. There are twin columns and horizontal mouldings. The arcade has on its either side, two semi-hexagonal rooms that is a style based on Venetian architecture. The roof has mangalore tiles in the Kerala style."

As you begin to walk towards the hall, one cannot but be touched by its serene grandeur. As you continue to look at the sunlight that falls on its walls and the patterns that the carved wooden fascias make, you notice a large newspaper clipping pasted on a wall across the road. As you pass it by on your left, you realise it has a photograph in black and white of the very building you admire on your right. The half page article is written by an architect, George Kochupurackal. It is from here that you get your information on the history of the hall.

In India, when you walk into the Golconda fort or into the Konark temple, there is a standard blue painted board with white text that describes the monument in front of you. It is often about the history of the building or the fort and sometimes about “this is a protected monument” Here, in Alappuzha, there was a building that young men strove to build many years ago, historical events took place here in addition to their dramas and so many years later, someone wrote about it. A few weeks or months later, someone pasted the story about building and people on this very street. As strangers to the city, you see, you read and you become a part of the collective memory of the place.

Looking at the 'everyday'

April, like a child writes hieroglyphs on dust with flowers,
wipes them away and forgets

Rabindranath Tagore
in 'The Fireflies'

Designing an apartment complex

Contemporary architecture in the cities in india is now a reflection of the needs of the urban indian.

In cities such as Bangalore and Chennai, these needs stem from the development of the IT industry, the large employment it generates, the rise in the standard of living and the growing expectations of a population of young people who are participants in this revolution. As this happens, there is a new architectural typology that is emerging – the Residential complex that consists of apartment units, a clubhouse and a convenience store.

In 2006, residential development in urban india is taking on a new perspective. The search is on for shelter that is not just a place to live but a place to create a new lifestyle. The price of the land is higher than the structures that are constructed on it. Therefore, it is more economical for a developer to build apartment complexes instead of a colony of houses or “villas” as we refer to them today. Each apartment unit sits with many other apartment units in a large complex that also offers a clubhouse, a swimming pool and a central landscaped area.

In chennai, it is the Old Mahabalipuram road where many such “gated communities” have begun to develop. What is a “gated community” and where does this term originate? In America and in some European countries, it is common for the rich city dweller to buy a house in the countryside which is one among a group of houses, sometimes nestled amongst the mountains and which is gated, i.e. provided with high security. People feel the need to have a house that is safe from the crime and violence of the city.

In India, living within a gated community is symbolic of a new lifestyle. It implies that you can afford an apartment that is well-constructed, that is maintained by a good management service that you pay a monthly fee for, that provides your children with a play area, that is private and safe, and that provides you with the amenities you need to counter-balance a work-life that is hectic and harsh on your health.

The design process for one such residential complex began with conceptualising a complex of building volumes that would be an interesting play of masses & voids; where the different planes of the façade would be planes of bright colours from a warm palette; where the light and shadow of a tropical sun would make the architecture a different experience.

What one learnt is that in chennai, the apartments that sell within a residential complex are the ones that get ample south breeze; where the kitchen & puja room are located as per vastu; apartments which overlook the ‘centrally landscaped area’ and which have two car parks. This is what is important for a buyer.

For the builder, that is the one who sells, it is important that the price of the land he purchases or partners on is reasonable; that the infrastructure – road and electric supply are available; that the architectural design is good; that the plan, the elevation & 3D views translate quickly into a brochure that is attractive; that the advertisement in the newspapers is appropriate and timely; that the apartments are booked early so that he recovers the money invested in the land or that which is needed to bring in the material for the construction to begin.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

an experience of "seeing"

The experience of designing this project was such a joyful one. It was one of the few properties in the city that abutted the beautiful waters of the Bay of Bengal. A wall had to be built to ensure security. I wanted to think of a design that would be a wall and yet not be a wall. This is what we did. This blog would like to explore the many ways of seeing and designing that are part of the universe and that we may just discover some day!

All of us "see" in a different way. We make for ourselves each day our own kaleidoscope. A child climbs a wall to seek adventure. He wants to know more. When he sees more, he knows more. One day, he stops climbing the walls. He thinks he knows enough. So, he stops "seeing"

Many of us cannot stop "seeing" more. With a mind to perceive what comes before us, we continue to look and to see, if the grass is green and if the pebble is indeed round. Every day one sees and cannot help seeing.

Who is to decide what architecture can or cannot say? Each of us may read a different story. Why believe in any one story when you know that within each story are wrapped up many, many stories; or that the end of one story is the beginning of the other. That everything in this world has a story to tell, and if we care to listen, we can hear them all.

In a world of people and places, in a world of nature and light, there is much that we may not have seen before. To look within our world for a new story, for the many, many stories that each story has within it. We find a new beginning sometimes, when we think we have reached the end of our imagination. It is for this beginning to a more creative existence, that more stories unfold.