Educational background affects one’s interpretation of his environment. It affects the individual’s performances and decision making process. When one is educated abroad, as I was, and has to practice in his own country — which has a long tradition and diversified needs — he is bound to be confronted with new situations and challenges.
I learnt from Le Corbusier to observe and react to climate, to tradition, to function, to structure, to economy and to the landscape around me. To an extent, I also understood how to build buildings and create spaces and forms. However, I have in the last two decades, gradually discovered that the buildings that I have designed somehow have a foreign look. They appear not to have their roots in the soil. With the experience of my work over the years and observation, I am trying to understand a little more about my people, their tradition and social customs and the philosophy of life.
Study what’s already yours
The best way to know one’s own culture is to study its existing settlements, their way of life, crafts and the arts. These give insights into many problems. One observes the heat and cold, the sunshine and the moonlight, the starry heavens above, and the directions of the wind. All those things that mould the life of the people.
One understands the subtle significance of the porches, verandahs, staircases, open spaces, balconies, terraces, carvings etc., which constitute the form and the character of their indigenous architecture. They show the relations of classes and communities in their depth, their mutual actions and reactions. In short the whole web of life. One understands finally the connections with general economy and the use of energy.
The study of existing buildings from hutments to mansions, from a workman’s house to a market place, one sees the technical insight of the old in keeping the buildings cool, getting cross ventilation, providing direct and indirect natural light and protection from say the sun, the rain or the dust. Economy, of course, played an important role and affected the major aspects of design such as choice of materials, method of construction and the ultimate expression. In short one often found the simplest and direct ways of building a total eco-system that gave architecture its due place or reverence.
To this, I often felt that we can perhaps add new ideas based on new technology, new spatial understanding, perhaps a new function and a new aesthetic. For example, we could add an efficient lighting system within to make the building more suitable for frequent use in different seasons and at different times. Provide varieties of space for specific or general functions, or even, make the building an extension of the outside space. We can try and re-organise functional and service elements within and outside the house, to make them more efficient, save energy and even give it a new orientation.
Buildings that survive in time have more than material utility. They indicate several levels of associations and meanings compared with present-day functional structures, with their craving for modernity.
Besides, these new buildings often do not satisfy the expectations of the users; even after completion the users change parts of the building as they do not feel at home with, either the structures or the spaces or the form. Some of the buildings go through innumerable changes. It is then that the question is asked: what is appropriate? What kind of buildings should we build? At this juncture one begins to feel the limitations of one’s education and has to learn many new ways of doing things.
Buildings that grow
Buildings in India must provide the potential for growth because of fluctuating economical situations and changing social conditions. For example, very often projects start with large requirements but due to economic constraints or changes in the situation, they have to be built partially, or sometimes doubled during construction. I have observed that the concept of growth leads to better efficiency and economy. Another important criteria is the provision for changes in the design or modifications of functions. This is required due to either upgrading or downgrading of the functional conditions, be it housing, offices or public buildings.
However, to make the growth concept acceptable, it is necessary to know the needs of a society; without these it is difficult to create a suitable environment and allow for future growth or change.
This leads me to say that all design considerations should be based on community considerations rather than individual ones.
In the process of creating built environments there are not only measurables but also immeasurables which affect design. Here the tradition of a culture becomes very important, without whose support the buildings do not become appropriate.
Therefore, unless the socio-cultural tradition is understood it is difficult to locate or design streets or places or extensions to buildings or the buildings themselves. The forms of the built environment cannot be come a fabric and cannot be used if designed otherwise. It is necessary to speak about cultural environment rather than a building or a technology or an economy. A house in Ahmedabad or in Jaisalmer or in Udaipur has centuries of tradition behind it. This tradition has given the house or its form many factors which tie the generations together.
Institutions are the key element
One notices within communities that there have always been several types of institutions which have varying permanency in relation to the scale of their operations. For example, institutions arising in a community are more permanent than those of the cluster and those of the cluster are more important than those of the family and those of the family are more important than the individual. It is therefore, essential to study the institutions and their hierarchies which operate and generate various activities and establish cluster form. Design can not be an external physical component.
I believe that the institutions are the primary elements of an environment. When one is to design either a building or a settlement, it is necessary as a first act to study the interaction between the individual and the community, and to provide for community spaces and the institutions of the community.
Let me take an example of social institutions, a well and a water tap. To fetch water from a well involves a lot of abour, while in a tap water is easily accessible. But in the case of the latter, the wastage of water is much more than that in the case of a well. In consequence it allows mosquitoes to breed and make the place dirty, which can only be remedied by subsequently installing a drainage system. In the case of the village well as it involves physical labour there will be little scope for wastage of water. But what is important in the well in addition is of a meeting place for women. In fact it is a sort of club for them in the morning and evening i.e., it becomes a social institution.
Or take a temple in a village or town. When a temple is established it brings people from all walks of life together for workshop and social diversions. Here you have music and dance and many elaborate ceremonial rituals. Here you have folk plays in honour of the diety. Thus a temple becomes a place for spiritual inspiration and aesthetic satisfaction. In addition the deity often becomes a guide, a friend and a philosopher to the ordinary folk. It is this type of socio-religious tradition in India that has given colour to Indian culture.
From these two simple examples and many others, one can see how total human energy was expressed naturally and spiritually and gave a unique awareness to the people.
Through this awareness man not only sees his place in the world as worker but as an enjoyer of life.