The objective of this seminar is to reflect, through the theme of identity and territory, on the practice of social science in India. Regular exchanges and confrontations concerning our different fieldwork in South India have brought to light a concern common to all social science disciplines. Even though the concept of territory has long been a fashionable one in social geography, it is also of increasing concern for historians, anthropologists and sociologists interested in engaging themselves in the re-definition of a complex phenomenon, that of the relation between identities and territories.
Tonight I want to begin by sharing with you memories of an event of long ago when I was much younger. That event has given me certain insights into the nature my work. Later on, in the second part of this talk, I shall try to reflect upon, with the help of those insights, some ideas that has brought us, architects, to our present perceptions about the activity we call architecture.
The event I want to describe was a journey I undertook many years ago; a journey into lands that are far from here and antipodean, and in many ways belonging to a different time but not for that reason any less significant to us in the North America in the last decade of this remarkable century. I am referring to the northern stretches of my country, the Himalayan wilderness of the northern provinces where the boundaries between solitude and togetherness are often indistinguishable. This journey has been forever etched in my memory and only many years later, recently, when I have been struggling to find meaning into my work as an architect, that I came to realize its significance.
I had only been in the first year of my education as an architect when a young man in my class, whom I had befriended only a few months ago, invited me to spend time with his family in his ancestral village in the remote Gharwal hills in the northern provinces, the Diwali festival, the post harvest festival of light and offering of thanks for the little mercies of God for which the farmer is always grateful.
His village was in that region where the rocky slopes of the mountains give way to the gentle plains and the turbulent white waters of the many adolescent rivers merge with, and acquire the quiet dignity of the mighty Ganga. Great primordial forests must have once occupied these hills which now are dwellings to men who still live with the ancient rites but are no less wise for that.
The nearest railway station was some seventy mile away from the village and we had to make our way on a rickety old bullock cart which was carpeted with straw and covered with jute cloth to make it comfortable for the city guests. On the way we had to pass many small villages, hamlets may be a better term for them, as well as a number of streams. The owner of the bullock cart, my friend and I pressed forward on our tortuous way on a narrow dirt path skirting tiny farms each of which must have been a source of no more than just subsistence for their owners. The animals seemed to know how to make their way forward for they did not require any direction from their master. They must have made this journey many a times.
My friend's village was only slightly larger than the many we had encountered on the way. His uncle, our host, being the "mukhia", the headman, occupied the largest house and the only one built of bricks; the others were made of rough wood and plastered with mud. They were all freshly whitewashed and decorated for the coming festival. Electricity was only a recently acquired luxury and was anyway rarely used, especially during these festival days when the nights are traditionally lit up with many small oil lamps in the tiny forecourts of the houses and the small ledges and niches in the mud walls. Light being offered in gratitude for life received.
On the evening of Diwali, just before sundown, my friend said, "Come with me. I want to show you something." I had no idea what he wanted to show but he took me to the woods in the direction of the river where we had gone every morning since I had arrived and free of all care and concern had splashed for hours in the cold mountain waters of the holy river feeling invigorated and purified. But this evening my friend's face suggested that the youthful frivolity seemed to be far from the objective of our journey tonight. Something told me that I was about to confront the very purpose of my coming to this part of my country but my friend was not going to give me even a hint as to what it was.
We walked in silence. Each of us filled with his own solitude, increasingly being engulfed by the growing darkness of the moon less night, the only sound an occasional flutter of wings of a bird sensing the danger of unknown intrusion into their domain. We were in a dazzling and secret world of nature which at the same time was a growing menace of cold and fear of the unknown. Everything became one: the solitude, the danger, the silence and the anticipation of my mission.
We continued till we came to the end of the thick woods. I could sense the presence of the river somewhere ahead though I had not been to this particular place before. I suppose it must have been the feel of the ground below my feet; it had turned hard and rocky and its gentle slope propelled me, with an unfamiliar insistence, to keep moving. In this darkness I had the strange sensation that my whole body was alive and that I was one with my surrounding. Now, after many years, when I think back of that moment I realize that, though not by design on the part of my friend, but still by bringing me here in this quiet way, anticipation having taken me to the edge of my senses, the circumstances had conspired, in a strange way, to prepare me for what was to follow.
I was shaken out of my introspection when my friend put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Can you hear it?" Sure enough, from the direction of the village we had left behind, came a faint sound of singing.
"Are they dancing?" I asked.
"No. Listen carefully." My friend said. Yes, they were not dancing. Their song did not have the exuberance and the joyful abandon of young dancers. Instead it was somber and devotional. And besides, the sound seemed to be coming nearer and nearer to where we were.
We sat on a high boulder and waited. In the distance I could see, across the valley, the dark silhouette of the distant hills with occasional flicker of light coming from scattered settlements on their slopes. The river, though shrouded in darkness, must have been down there somewhere.
We must have waited for almost ten minutes before the singers were close enough for us to understand what they were singing. Theirs was a song of praise and of gratitude, of the plentiful rains they have received and the sunshine and of love and good health. It was a song of joy. All the villagers, men, women and children, singing in unison, were moving in a procession toward the river. Each of them had, in their right palm, a small earthen bawl containing vegetable oil and a cotton string which was lit on one end forming a lamp not dissimilar to the lamps which had decorated their houses and their forecourts. In the warm light of their own lamps one could see their faces full of love and joy. Their singing was accompanied by several pairs of brass cymbals and a drum producing a percussion sound that filled the air.
Suddenly I also saw other similar processions of light and sound in the distant hills. Soon the hills were all lit up in the warm glow of tiny lights and the sound filled the valley. All seemed to be converging on both the banks of the holy river.
Shortly, they all arrived at the river. Their singing had reached a crescendo. The cymbals and the drums were now beating a feverish rhythm. Everyone seemed to be in a trance. I could identify with them for like me they too had become part of their surrounding. Each of them had willingly merged their individual identities with the togetherness of the group and with the poetry of the event.
As if on a signal they started to form a single line facing the river. Soon there were two strings of light each stretching almost a kilometer on both banks of the river. Suddenly the river came alive. its calm water, a mirror-like expanse, reflected the lights on the opposite bank. I became conscious of the flow of the water and realized that now the song was gentler, its rhythm and modulation matching the flow of the water.
Without a break in the song the people bent over and set the lamps afloat on the water. Hundreds of tiny specks of light filled the river and gently started moving downstream. The song continued in the same rhythm matching the flow of water. The song, the light and the river had all become one. The river was set on fire by the generous offering of life back to the giver of life.
Ladies and gentlemen, it was not to seduce you by its poetry and exoticness that I recounted, in such great details, a past event, reliving on this occasion a never forgotten occurrence in a land so far and so different from the one we are occupying tonight. I did this because I believe in that dark night, lit by Life itself; I sensed an important element of my work as an architect. I say "sensed" because only recently, many years later, that sense is beginning to form what might be called an insight which I may or may not be able to articulate in my work and words, but it will certainly explain me to myself.
I believe, in that simple ceremony, the inhabitants of the Gharwal hills were engaged in an act of design; an act (and all art is action) which was more than a mere transformation of nature into culture. It was an unmistakable sublimation, a word almost forgotten from our lexicon. A sublimation of the daily experiences of being in that particular location; of going to the river every day, experiencing the gentle but firm flow of the water, looking across the valley and sensing the solidarity of shared community, of illuminating one's evenings with the flickering lamp. But above all, it was the sublimation in which all distinctions between art and life became meaningless and in which there join as equal partners Man and Nature and which entailed, on the part of Man, in all his humility, an intense reflection on every action he takes.
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The design of that ceremony was not aimed at any exigency of the moment. Nor was it to provide a solution to their daily problems. It did not in any way materially enrich them or eased the drudgery of labor. But it did dignify human existence and to me it informed the nature of that place, nature of men living in that place and the nature of human construct, be it a simple ceremony, a poem or a building, in a way that no description, not even this of my own, could possibly ever do.
Many years later, and far from the solitude of the Gharwal hills, when I was in Philadelphia preoccupied with more immediate concerns of building productions, I came across a quotation from L.B. Alberti with which, had the men of Gharwal hills been as articulate as Alberti, would certainly have agreed. It says: "Arts were begot by Chance and observation and nursed by Use and Experience and improved and perfected by Reason and Study." This observation by Alberti seems to have been addressed to an artist as he approaches, proceeds and defines his work. Significantly it too does not make any distinction between art and life, does not make the artist a superhuman being, a little "God", contrary to the legend that surrounds the artist of the Renaissance. But it does have the simplicity of truth. You see, Alberti was an architect, among many other things, who believed architecture to be an art as a way of life. In fact, he went through the pains of writing about architecture, not making theories, but condensing, not unlike the men of Gharwal hills, the experience of two centuries before him: he was rather looking for laws, the laws which set limits to architecture. Too often theory presupposes the absence of experience; it is believed to transcend experience. The finding of a law is instead the sublimation of experience. Alberti was looking for those laws which precede and determine the individual choices of an artist without which no freedom is possible. Alberti believed architecture to be an art not distinct from life.
Nowadays, we avoid, as much as possible, to talk of architecture as an art. Either we feel so shy about the word, or we have lost the sense of its meaning, or worse, we think altogether that architecture is not an art but some kind of clever making, even happening.
There is a proliferation of words about architecture; words with sharp edges (may be one reason why we like them more) environment, process, system etc. We probably dislike those mysterious implications that the word art has. In effect we reject those manifestations that reason alone can not explain. We seldom discuss architecture alone; there is always something attached. Architecture and technology, architecture and its social relevance, architecture and the fabric of the city, architecture and the distribution of power in a society, sustainable architecture, etc.
To be sure, architecture has forever to do with technologies, customs, economy, social and political conditions etc. They constitute an important dimension of architecture. However, today this dimension comes, not only to severely question certain traditional aspects of architecture, but often architecture itself. As the activity of learning becomes more and more oriented toward arriving at solutions for predetermined problems, architecture finds itself in the position of becoming totally absorbed by values concerned with predetermined solutions. Works of architects are increasingly being straight jacketed into stylistically identifiable categories; like their signatures, to be repeated on demand by the corporate clientele. As Giancarlo De Carlo has so perceptively observed, "certitude disappeared when architecture chose to have the same public as the business... for business is forever obtuse, repetitive and uncritical..."
Why is it so? Why does architecture risk becoming an irrelevant accident in our society? Why in fact, in spite of individual virtuosity, architecture seems so irrelevant to a vast majority of population around us.
In the past we were guided by sets of wonderful definitions: Walpole told of architecture as the field on which the genius of the people realizes itself. Balzac called it the record of man's history. The great book of humanity, said Hugo. Architecture tells about the aspiration of man (Lutyens). And on a more practical level, The wise use of materials to build (Le Duc). Structure is the language of architecture (Perret). Ornamentation added to building (Ruskin). Architecture starts where function ends (Lutyens). The wise, correct, magnificent plays of volumes in light (Corbu). A house is a machine to live in (more of Corbu). Livable space (Wright). One can go on and on.
I entered architecture with those definitions. With them almost any problem, whether grave or trivial, could be solved. It was the time in which at school they used to tell us about thesis and antithesis as complementary aspect of a single reality: the two views of a question, form and substance, content and container, appearance and reality, essence and existence, continuity and discontinuity and so on. Architecture was a definite reality made of those contrasting dimensions. The method was simple and there was not a problem which could not be tackled in this way; from the design of a country house to the master plan of a city. However, before long the exercise became mere verbalizing; reflection gave way to a kind of superior punning. Ingenuity and cleverness substituted a real search, because invariably out of the two alternatives you put forward a third interpretation and everything was safe. The intelligence was satisfied but the spirit was left high and dry. And we looked for something else.
It was then that we learned about the new dimension in architecture. William Morris had proclaimed in 1862 the unity of the arts with the economic, social and productive forces, and we learned that Bauhaus had produced a method of realization of such a unity.
But unfortunately, our excitement at this discovery was short lived. We found out that if Bauhaus (this extraordinary paradigm of honesty, integrity and coherence) succeeded in finding a method of realization it also often failed in the application and its theories became more isolated from experience; there was a kind of reluctance to get actively involved in an historical process. The synthesis, the transformation of one reality into the reality of architecture, did not really occur: people went on building Georgian mansions, sprawling our cities in the voids of suburbias, technology being the only repository of truths.
Eventually we went on to accept the phenomena of our time with existential bravery. We talked again about time and space; not as hypothesis but as scientific realities. Problems multiplied for us at every level: social, political, economic and technological, especially in a land like India, where modernity was still not part of our experience and where architecture meant different things to different people, the very purpose of our preparation came to be on trial. We became aware that all traditional answers were inadequate but we also knew that we had to find answers on our own terms with our own means. So we read profusely. We read Gandhi, Marx, Heidegger, Hegal and Sarte as well as De Chardin. Later we also read Marcuse and Levi Strauss.
In a way social science and humanities, especially history, became more a part of our professional preparation, not as a sequence of facts, but as an experience related to those facts in their development. With an hindsight one may say that at that point we could have come closer to the men of Gharwal hills.
But pretty soon though everybody started talking again about a new dimension of our environment. This realization came forward not in the way as we architects like to think: it came rapidly as sheer size, as proliferating population, as production and consumption. On that dimension all the concepts engendered by sublimation of experiences again became less and less probable in architecture, or at least looked upon with suspicion. Analysis took over. So those concepts, the laws brought to the surface by the sublimation of experiences, which are supposed to produce something immediately cognizable a celebration, a political idea, a work of art, poetry, music were placed in the background. Analysis was the only responsible thing to start with but, unfortunately, we were not left with enough time for conclusions.
So our environment became incomprehensible. In our cities a hypothetical zoning replaced a mutually negotiated assignment of land splitting our life in dissociated activities; one goes to bed in one zone and to work in another. The consequence is alienation.
No, our new dimension in architecture is quite different from others that still happened in the course of history. The men of the Gharwal hills and the builders of medieval India, the Moghuls and the Moslems, too were involved in new dimensions when they designed a simple ceremony or built their mosques and the cities of Fatehpur Sikri and Sarkhej. The Renaissance introduced architecture to a multitude of new dimensions from the lonely Palldian Villa on the banks of the river Brenta to the fabric of the city of Ferrara.
Are we involved in the same kind of aspirations? From the manifestation of much of our architecture it hardly seems so. And here lies the source of much of its irrelevance.
Someone expressed the opinion that, today, architects are cynical and not hopeful of the future. He may be right, but for one I, as an architect, like to reject this Idea. For I am still committed to the proposition that the work of an architect is produced by the inspiration to build.
We know that in the early man this creative act was fundamental and in the process, between the inspiration and the physical results, the essential was never lost. Architecture was, in those early days, and is still is in some part of this world, what a phenomenologist would say, a true aspect of consciousness because it made explicit the things that are signified. Architecture was a "presence", an enduring presence, in which all distinction between meaning and absence of meaning disappeared. This man discovered many years ago and is still being guided by this sense in many remote parts of Asia, Africa and South America.
It is not for me to get involved in subtle philosophical speculations but that gap between the inspiration to build and the physical product in our time uncovers a more substantial dilemma; between the things that are immutable and the ones that are consumed, between the phenomena of man and that of his material needs, between the environment of the individual and the needs of the mass, between Aldo Van Eyck's threshold and Victor Gruen's shopping Mall. In other word, we are still looking for those dialectical resolutions, those conclusions from analysis between thesis and antithesis, I mentioned earlier.
Yet architecture must be produced within such contrasting situations in so far as it is to be realized "here and now" with no procrastinations, no doubts, no illusions and no reliance on habitual actions. Here and now, without precedents.
It means to be in the present with the strange predicament of using the language immediately preceding, and we look at the past, or rather we should, in the way as geologists and psychoanalysts do: searching for certain fundamental properties of architecture, certain non temporal truths of it which unfold in time, both in its physical and spatial universe. In other words, like Alberti, we too look for laws.
Perhaps if we start to look for the dimension of our architecture from this beginning, the accusation of irrelevancy will be baseless because architecture, and forgive me the generalities, really embodies the advancement of knowledge.
The constant questioning of the recent years wiped out all the beautiful definitions with which we grew up, even the ones relative to space, so musical and wholesome to our ears. It may be that we were trying to build theories independent of experience relying on reason and reason alone. Though the intention has been to transcend subjectivity and private preoccupations, the results have been far from satisfying. In recent years these private preoccupations have come back with a vengeance and have been even promoted to the rank of generalized theories in the form of historical references or worse. This is too dangerous and turns our back to our mission as architects; that is to understand and make architecture in relation to itself and not in relation to the architect's own self, or something else. An architecturally relevant architecture.
So you see, "here and now" is not a mere existential position but a search for an immediate synthesis, a word often used and misused. But it is only through this synthesis, which searches for, and in turn informs, the nature of the places of Man, that architecture embodies the advancement of knowledge.
Today it is easy to confuse the advancement of knowledge with the growing complexities of intellectual organization. Far from that, what propels our passion for knowledge is the passion for truth. Such a simple thing but how difficult to put your finger on it. For, true reality, also in architecture, is not the most obvious of the realities; in fact, as the philosophers say, it in in the very nature of reality to hide itself.
That is why we believe architecture is an art, a passion for truth which in turn has been so beautifully defined by Lou Kahn as "a progressive expansion of meaning". To this we can add that this meaning can only be arrived at through reflection upon our own action; sublimation of experience. This must have been what Corbu meant when he talked about the patient search and this was the profound meaning of a simple ceremony designed by equally simple men in a remote part of northern India.
So as architects we build before we analyze. We build models. We examine them, their properties, the way they react to their immediate surroundings. In other words, we experience them. And then we reflect upon our observations in light of our understanding of the empirical happenings around us. And these reflections will inform the nature of the places we design. These may turn out to be very different from what we had expected our models to do in the past.
Our models are the multitude of unrelated events of our present. Perhaps, in this sort of an outline for the introduction to architecture, this is the only suggestion I can give you; to keep studying those unrelated events, rooted in the most disparate places, may they be here in north America or in the distant Gharwal hills of northern India, and make them come in contact with one another. A city with its institutions, a village with its ceremonies, a factory with the homes, the ephemeral with the permanent. To search for a structure, that is to interpret those events as a system of reciprocal relationships where every element is in function with the other. Immediately in order to make clear certain existing situation, but in search of those laws which precede and determine our individual choices as architects.
One never knows, from those contacts new Cathedrals may still take shape.