Prologue : Death of Architecture

Can Architecture really die? Is it alive? Or is it that people who inhabit a place live and die and their life and death is perhaps, affected by the architec­ture they conceive and inhabit? Does it mean that our emotions are affected by the spaces we inhab­it? Are our emotions and memories related to our experiences of life, tempered by the spaces, the atmosphere within which they occurred?

These and many more questions, it seemed to us, would be best served by creating an experience – this installation.

The cubicles represent two extremes, life and death. We live our lives negotiating at any point of time between these two extremes. Paradoxically, being on the edge of death makes us alive and curiously, we become numbed by alive-ness and could be called dead. Our search as architects’ lies somewhere in between, negotiated, by our own desires, experiences, questions and hauntings.

We hope these two experiences along with the questions in between will help each individual who visits the installation to search within them of what architecture can be?


Epilogue

Ruins are stimuli allowing our minds to journey to­wards the indefinite, the distant, and the remote to satisfy the aspiration for the infinite, for something that vanishes in distant time or space whose meas­ure is lost. The complexity, the richness of ruins lies within the deep temporal relationships revealed by the presence of reminders of mankind’s building efforts accumulated over time. The present – day is never divorced from a sense of timelessness and universality.

It seems I’ve been waiting a lifetime for this mo­ment. The many photographs in books, in tourist pamphlets and brochures do not prepare you for the reality of this magnificent pile of bricks. There is an aura that surrounds you no sooner than you enter the vicinity of these evocative bricks. Voices, murmurs or are they just whispers of the wind? The guide drones on and on about their history, their chronology, but I believe he misses the point.

The beauty about ruins is their enigma. One never knows the exact size, shape or form of the build­ings or the spaces in between or even the life that took place. But the excavations suggest possibili­ties and potentials for all of these. They allow our imagination, to trace diverse interpretations and meanings and our sensibilities in extremely excit­ing ways. They engage our thoughts and dreams and make that time and place ours. They allow us to transcend time and space.

I stand amidst the ruins of the Nalanda Mahav­ihara; eight centuries of decay and yet their life continues beyond the earlier eight centuries whenthey formed a community of bricks forming spaces for learning, residing, frugal spaces for the life of a seeker.

On one side are the remains of the Viharas or cloisters with their courts for learning. Each court presided by a teacher whose way of enquiry fash­ioned a school of thought. On the opposite side are the remains of temples. The two are bisected by a walkway. I have often wondered about this clear bisection between the sacred and the tem­poral, does the walkway represent the space of negotiation between the two and though phys­ically clear is actually ambiguous, much like life itself. We know that learning does not necessarily happen only in the classroom where the focus is the teacher. It has been posited that the half kilo­meter Nalanda walk was also a mode of learning. The teacher and the students walked side by side as learners, questioning as equals and discovering along the way.

When a building loses its functionality or integ­rity, it continues to release a charge over time that we define as poetic. It continues to elicit our emotions, however different from those that were originally aroused.

We continue to appreciate in ruins, even if in dis­repair, a venerable set of relationships. Despite the fact that the missing parts affect the music’s com­pleteness and harmony we perceive the pathetic condition that renders the building almost part of nature, almost geography.


Simultaneity

I have often wondered about my fascination for ruins. Does it spring from the fact that in our coun­try the residues of past civilizations and empires still populate the present? Ruins of cities, forts and temples continue amongst newer construction. Myths and legends, festivals and rituals bind them into our daily reality. Past, present and future are all ambiguous and do not show clear distinctions. Time is not linear and certainly without end or be­ginning. You could be living in the 12th century or the 21st all within the distance of a few streets or a few hours.


Lessons Of The Ruin

Is my fascination because I spent seven years of my childhood in a fort? Or is it because in the process of making a building it is for a while incomplete and appears as a ruin but once complete loses that primordial sense of being? Or is it that contractors nowadays anyways give you a ruin, which for the rest of your life you are repairing?

Does this affect my perception of the world? Does it color the way I think and the way I design? I believe it does. Some of the themes that bind my work have evolved from this haunting.

From the age of nine to sixteen I was in a Board­ing school within an ancient fort, which came into existence in the 8th century AD. The fort sat on a rocky plateau some 300 feet up in the air and dominated the surrounding plains and plateaus of central India.


Skyline And Silhouette

At the end of the school term while leaving for vacations at the railway station where one left or arrived depending on the time of the day, one could not but be overwhelmed by the skyline or the silhouette of the fort dominating the city of Gwalior.

The fort was built over centuries. It had several palaces, mostly in ruins, water harvesting tanks, temples, some still in use others derelict, several layers of walls, ammunition batteries now filled with hordes of bats nesting in them, many bar­racks, and several more recent structures. Their vintage ranged in age from several years to several centuries.


Acceptance Of Change

There seemed no rationale or specific order, they were built, added on, modified depending on the circumstances. They seemed to reflect the accept­ance of change in social, economic and cultural life style of different eras, be they good or bad.


Apparent Chaos Or A Self-sustaining Order

The roots of trees or other plant material had en­gulfed many of the structures. It seemed difficult to ascertain where the natural began and where the man made ended. They were both alive! This apparent chaos seemed underpinned by perhaps a deeper order. I call it the self-sustaining order of the forest. For the sustenance of forests it is nec­essary to understand very carefully how natural systems work. How land and its folds and slopes channel water, which in turn erodes and changes the land over time, how water flows and collects alluvium, and regenerates the soil, how the wind and its flows distribute seeds, how birds and in­sects spread the seeds and pollen further and how all of these seemingly independent acts are inter­dependent as agents of nature to make complex ecological and environmental systems.


Choice

The juxtaposition of these fragments of structures with each other allowed a variety of scales to be experienced. There were intimate and there were grand structures but strangely, often the grandeur was intimate, depending on how I chose to move. It is like our thali, we can mix things as we please. Our instinct guides our impulse and unexpected combinations are discovered. In the long run I am pleased because I have filled my appetite with something more than what I had expected.


Mortar

In this journey of time I realized that the summers with their intense heat expand the stones, which make most of the buildings on the fort. The often bitingly cold winters contract them. In this tug of war between extremes it is the lime mortar that accommodates the cracks of this movement. In our lives we often search for this mortar that allows seemingly paradoxical situations to be weathered.


Rebirth

The torrential monsoons with their life giving waters flow into the cracks created between the stones and loosen the stones further but also often help give birth to plants and other living organic matter in between. In a few decades we see the decay and in a few centuries we see only the ruins, the remains of buildings stripped to their bare es­sentials, but strangely their power increases.


Frugality

On careful observation one notices that the various layers of structures built through the ages reflect this phenomenon and generations of builders built frugally with one or two materials. But this frugality is not minimalism, it is rich with crafted ornament and variety. It deeply explores the material. In fact, very often the stones were carved and a kit of parts approach, very much like the modern technique of pre-cast construction is seen.


Generosity

The colonial barracks, which the school occupied, had large rooms, with high ceilings, protected by deep verandahs and good ventilation that all helped to deal with the extremes of weather, and being in them made one acutely alive and aware of the seasons and the passage of the day. The generous spaces I daresay, not only dignified the various daily rituals of life but also instilled a sense of generosity and large heartedness amongst the boys.


Relationships

Boarding school was as much about sports and extra curricular activities as studies. Being part of a house and its team meant learning about co-op­eration, tolerance, humility, generosity and inter­dependence. I learnt that life is about establishing relationships. As I have discovered Architecture is also about establishing relationships!


Pause And Threshold

Within the daily routine of the school there was one very special moment of the day. There was a ritual called the Astachal, or literally the hill at sun­set. Every evening, come the twilight hour, dressed in crisp white kurta pyjamas, the boys assembled in the amphitheatre called the Astachal, the spiritual watering hole of the school.

Set on the western ramparts of the fort, it revealed the horizon for over 30km. The hues of the setting sun, occasionally the reading of a short poem or the cadence of a piece on the violin, but always ending with two minutes of silence and reflection and then dispersal made this moment magical. I learnt that an ordinary day becomes special when the architecture allows us to connect back to our circadian rhythms, to pause, reflect and connect to our inner self.

Horizon
The Astachal reinforced the impact of the horizon, in fact one of the unique features of the school’s lo­cation on a plateau at an elevation of 300 feet was its connection to the horizon – it literally broad­ened our horizon! Ever since our ancestors started walking on two legs in the African veldt or grass­lands their view of the world changed as friend or foe was discernible over a greater distance and ap­propriate action could be initiated in time. This is inherently wired in our psyche and even now when we connect to the infinity of the horizon there is a strong emotional response.

Don’t we all sigh with wonder when we stand at the edge of the ocean?
The horizon marks the boundary of the visual field of the meeting of the terrestrial and the celestial realm where the rising or setting sun, the move­ment of the stars across the firmament all of which affect our psyche in subtle ways is accommodated.

We make a room to escape the vastness of the horizon, and then we make a window in the room to frame the horizon to connect back to the infinite but within the controlled frame of the window to feel secure. I dare say that to a large extent the making and framing of this connection is what the game of architecture is all about.


Incompleteness

Ruins are about incompleteness; they allow your imagination space to move towards a vision of more completeness. Should our architecture then be about incompleteness? Incompleteness is about possibilities and potentials that can when neces­sary be tapped on to add, modify and transform. Isn’t that how the majority of our population lives? Today they can afford little but tomorrow they will grow economically and add to what they have.

Human habitats are about the flow of energy towards an imagined completion, they are more about processes and journeys and in many ways architecture is tempered by this phenomenon.


Practice

Practice as we discover is always about omissions, additions, and circumstantial situations. Commit­tees will pare down budgets, new programs will get added on even while the construction is go­ing on and surveys on hilly terrain are notoriously inaccurate and rocks pop out of the ground where least expected. Often the bye-laws will change as areas that were under the development authority are now under the expanding municipal authority.

In short practice in India is about uncertainty and change. One discovers that paradoxes of scale, diversity of function, all work better with open ended loosely structured plans which allow for new discoveries in space and form and give a unique expression to the architecture.

Finally, Practice is not only about projects but it is a means to establish relationships amongst people, amongst the earth, water, wind and the spirit and aspirations of a civilization. It is perhaps a thread that binds the past, present and future of a culture. It becomes our identity.