When I first began work on this paper, I sought to adopt the academic style that is conventionally considered appropriate to conference papers: a style of detached neutrality, which we typically assume will achieve for us a certain level of objectivity. But I soon had to abandon the project, and start again, this time with the more personalised conventions of essay and autobiography. If this falls short of the conventions of conferencing, I will claim the defence that I was forced into this position by the organisers of this conference when they asked us to address the two-faced riddle that looks outward onto freedom and inward into memory.1 To address the question of memory at all is to attempt introspection, and having begun the journey down that path, unable to resist the pull of my intuitive sympathies, I found myself drawn to starting the inquiry at this personalised pole of memory. From this point onwards, objective neutrality (a doubtful proposition at the outset) was impossible. I felt that one could begin an inquiry that introspected into the self, but did not stop at that point, seeking to move outward from there into the wider cultural dimension. So one could begin with memory and seek to end with freedom. And if, in adopting this method, I follow intuition, I am only granting recognition to that close partner of memory.
Although we are often loath to admit it, intuition and memory play a dominant role in the way that architects work. Whenever I design, and I notice this also amongst my colleagues, I rely strongly on such faculties. Using (often arbitrary) shifts of line, tracing paper, and colour, we tend to draw spontaneously and then lean back and ponder whether this 'feels' right. On the basis of what our hunches tell us, we then draw further, and continue to repeat the cycle until things seem to fall into place, and we just 'know' that a proper balance has been achieved. Our judgements are strongly influenced by our memories - places we have been to, spaces that have touched us, and images we have seen that have been embedded deep into our imagination. Our reliance on this mode is the reason that many of us have such little faith in computers during the early stages of design, for current information technology demands a precision of operation and input that does not allow sufficient free play to our natural faculties.
But even when we feel in our gut that what we have done is good, doubt and insecurity linger. We ask, 'What does this mean? What value does it have to others? How does it relate to my culture?' In India, like in many parts of the non-western world, these questions have a very strong presence, for the vestiges of tradition are still clearly visible, and we recognise that in the traditional arts such questions did not have to be asked. But we also realise that we cannot just transplant tradition all over the place, for the conventions that legitimised it do not exist in the modern cosmopolitan societies we increasingly face.
We often find it difficult to justify a reliance on our personal design intuitions, and we seek cultural justifications in our acts. We look at our traditions, and see a mark of India in them, so we ask 'Where is the mark of India in our modern art?' And if one accepts that our art must bear the mark of India, then one has to be able to look at the work and 'read' India in it. Which leads to the question being phrased: How can the work of art represent India?2 This question haunts the Indian designer.
But I also noticed that some of my colleagues did not seek to justify their work through principles of collective cultural determinism. Operating on the principle that 'you have to satisfy yourself before it is possible to satisfy others' they place full faith in their own aesthetic sensibilities. But when they talked about their work, I noticed that they relied on what was felt to be intrinsic characteristics of architecture to convey the sense of the aesthetic. Phrases were used such as 'the quality of light from here', or 'the view framed through to there' to describe units of experience that formed the foundation for enjoyment. Lurking in the shadows is the question of representation, for the underlying assumption is that the kind of experience that the designer valorises will coincide with the valorisations of the user. Even if they did not resort to the literal figurative characterisations of cultural expression, there was a correlation assumed between designer intention and user experience. This is the modern art that Jean-Francois Lyotard describes, which uses its expertise to 'present the fact that the unpresentable exists.'3 It operates on the assumption that there is something which can be seen and felt, but cannot be described, and this is the level of the sublime, and it can be presented in the work.
As soon as the question of representation, in any form, is tackled, problems arise, for one has to simultaneously look at the question of interpretation. If I have to feel security and reliability in representation, then I also have to pin down, in my work, the range of possible interpretations. If I am going to represent 'India' in my work, I have to resolve how the reader (viewer? experiencer?) will be able to perceive my intentions - the intentions of the artist. If my work is to carry a sense of the sublime, how do I know that the user will reach this same plane? If I allow full and free play to interpretation, to the extent of allowing over-interpretation, then is there any point in my trying to represent at all? Most important, what are the conventions that legitimise what I wish to represent? Representation and legitimation form the twin crises of contemporary expressive aesthetics. And the crisis has developed to the stage that as Thierry de Duve observed, the modern aesthetic question is not 'What is beautiful?' but 'What can be said to be art?'4
Such questions have moved further into the foreground since the work of Jacques Derrida, who to my mind has convincingly demonstrated the impossibility of pinning a sign down to its referent in any fixed manner. I do not want to get into the complexities of the philosophy of deconstruction here - let it suffice to observe that if we feel the need to gather in a conference of this magnitude to debate on the question of 'Indian Architecture', and we also note that this is one among many other such conferences that take place within architectural circles all over the world, it is clear that the dilemmas of expression, representation and legitimation are still left wide open. I entered into this problem through readings of Derrida, but now I wonder if, as an Indian, I needed to venture so far as French philosophy. Am I just returning to a revised form of the ancient Vedantic concept of Maya - recognising that an objectified material world is nothing but illusion?
But more of that later - let us return to the subject of memory (which I had claimed as a starting point). My first encounter with the links between memory and architecture occurred when I was a child living in Bangalore. Every year, my family would regularly spend time during the summer at my grandparents' house in Mangalore. I noticed a similar vacation pattern amongst my friends at school - in the parlance of South Indian English, it was referred to as 'going to my native place'. There was always an architectural pull that formed a strong part of the trip - the fact that one was visiting the ancestral house. The point that remains embedded, to the point of emphasis in my mind, is the strong bond that all of us felt with these houses. All of them had their roots in traditional design; some were architecturally outstanding, while others were quite ordinary. But, in our hearts we felt that our soul took root there in a manner that it could not find elsewhere. We knew that we were immersing ourselves in the same spaces in which our ancestors had immersed themselves, and their ghosts had an indefatigable presence there. Every year the rituals of the visitation - the reminiscing of the adults, the games of the children - overlaid another layer of memory, which served to intensify the sacred aura of place and event. Many of these houses no longer exist and many of them are empty shells whose inhabitants have long since fled to big cities, new jobs, or even new countries. Of the few that are still surviving the struggle they have to endure to sustain themselves is clearly visible. Today, I cannot offer to my children this vacation pattern that I experienced as a child. But even if you visit one of these empty shells today, you can sense the presence of the memories that continue to haunt it. Some years ago, in a trip taken to visit ancestral homes in the Chettinad district of Tamil Nadu, I walked into homes that belonged to a culture and tradition that was largely alien to me, but inspite of this, I struck an emotional chord that evoked the resonance of my links with my heritage and identity.
My next memorable encounter with architectural memory took place many years later when I was in graduate school, when one of the participants in a discussion told us about an article he had read describing a skill possessed by the orators of ancient Greece and Rome. Today we take for granted the notes that we can make on paper, but access to paper in those times was far from what it is today. Whatever parchment could be produced had to be reserved for manuscripts of a far greater significance than the scribbled rough notes of a speaker. So how do you make a long and complex speech when you cannot carry notes with you? The ancients coped by utilising as mnemonic devices the architectural elements of the place in which they were to give the speech. Thus a particular column would serve as the reminder of the opening argument, a niche as the reminder of an abstract philosophical point, a statue as the memory of a specific reference, and so on. Depending on the architectural layout of the space, they would pick their elements according to the structure of their arguments, and the skilled practitioners could run through an argument backwards by reversing the sequence of their traverse around the room.
Finally, two years ago, I read Primo Levi, who recalled these skills of the ancient orators, and remarked that he would never be able to utilise such a technique in his own home for 'every corner is occupied by authentic memories that would interfere with the fictitious ones demanded by this technique.'5
All of this brought home the fact that when we focus on architecture expressing meaning, we capture only a partial picture. We can also write meanings into architecture. We can do this with self-conscious deliberation by resorting to fictions of the type that the ancient Greeks and Romans created. But more often, it is the result of a slower and unselfconscious process. As we continue to use a space patterns emerge, at the interstices of which memories begin to lodge. We find ourselves indulging in reminiscences such as 'Do you remember when we sat out on the veranda until three in the morning talking about...' and the veranda now takes on a new power. Ritual plays a strong role in this whole process, for not only does it reinforce the patterns, but in its very nature embodies a process of making history come alive. No longer is history a matter of archives; it is something that gets re-enacted on a regular basis.6 And if we have given up the orthodox rituals of tradition bound life, have we not developed new rituals embedded within daily routine?
Eventually we build up such a mass of memory, that when we wish to search for the poetry in our lives, one of the easiest places to look is a home that we have happily occupied for a reasonable period of time. This aesthetic which builds up through accretions of memory over time is what I will call the 'aesthetics of absorption', and is the subject of my interest here. It slowly arises out of the continuing act of inhabitation - in stark contrast to the dominant trend in art and design that has always highlighted the aesthetics of expression, where the aesthetic is assumed to come into being at the initial moment of creation, brought into life by the intention of the artist.
Architecture, in its explorations of the aesthetics of expression, has always been obsessed with the first time impression. Most of us, when we design, evaluate our work by imagining: 'What would somebody think if s/he turned the corner and came upon this work of art? Would s/he say ''Wow!'' If you examine the presentations in the architectural media, new work is typically put forward with the sense of excitement imparted by an air of discovery.
But the first time impression forms a very small, practically insignificant, part of architectural experience. Most architecture is used repeatedly, day after day, year after year. This demands a consideration of the aesthetics of absorption, which raises a different set of questions: How can one structure space in a manner that permits its meaningful ritualised occupation? What kind of architecture allows you, over a period of time, to inhabit it in a style that allows you to look back on it with affection?
Now, when I thought of the design of a house, my concern would wander across the placement of bookshelves, steps you can sit on, window seats, attics, spaces for gathering, spaces for contemplation - all elements that showed a potential for the absorption of memory. If I sought to design an office, I would seek the kind of discussion that gave me glimpses into the culture and habits of the organisation - how did its members interact with each other, how did they retreat into solitude, what kind of a public face did they present - all so that one could visualise the potential for ritual.
But one question continued to haunt me: Where does the art in architecture lie? Was I just going to design empty shells, devoid of meaning at their moment of creation, which only acquired value over time? Was I designing theatre sets, for which no play had yet been written, in the optimism that I would be provoking somebody into writing the appropriate script. I sensed that my descriptions were as yet incomplete, for I sensed in art the capacity for an existence independent of myself. When I walked through Fatehpur Sikri or Padmanabpuram Palace, I felt a force that seemed independent of hearing the echo of history's footsteps. I was moved by the work of Wright or Scarpa on a plane that was beyond the potential I could visualise in my inhabiting their creations. Often, strolling through an art gallery, I would come across a painting that made me stop to look, even before I could think about it. And if art could move me in this manner, not only did it seem to possess a life of its own, that life established some sort of profound connection to my own life.
Following my intuition once again, I took two steps: I widened the search to the other arts, with a specific focus on literature, for language (spoken and written) was the medium whose conventions of communication are developed to the point that has the most direct connection to our lives. And having arrived here with leanings towards the aesthetics of absorption, I began to examine the other arts also from the perspective of the potential for inhabitation.
When we examine how we make sense of our lives, we cannot help but wonder how the mind moves from the unprocessed field of received data to the comprehensive structures in terms of which our history and existence is intelligible. Hayden White denied that logic could ever preside over such a move, since it is logic itself that is served by the move: 'When we seek to make sense of such problematic topics as human nature, culture, society, and history, we never say precisely what we wish to say or mean precisely what we say. Our discourse always tends to slip away from our data towards the structures of consciousness with which we are trying to grasp them; or, what amounts to the same thing, the data always resist the coherency of the image which we are trying to fashion of them.'7 We seem to possess an innate poetic faculty that can instinctively move from the raw data to a figurative characterisation that makes it intelligible. When we feel uncomfortable with the developing distance from factual justification, and seek to move closer to the data, we find it impossible to know where to draw the line, and keep including more and more until the sheer weight of what we have collected pins us down so rigidly that we no longer know where, or even who, we are. I am reminded of something that a teacher of mine told me. When you are faced with a question to which you do not know the answer, you have two choices: you can acknowledge you do not know the answer and act accordingly, or you can take the easier option and expand the question.
But in the language of literature and poetry, we find that language has suddenly escaped this inexorable gravitational pull of experience, and has learned to fly. Italo Calvino writes about this quality of lightness in literature:
'I tried to find some harmony between the adventurous, picaresque inner rhythm that prompted me to write and the frantic spectacle of the world, sometimes dramatic and sometimes grotesque. Soon I became aware that between the facts of life that should have been my raw materials and the quick light touch I wanted for my writing, there was a gulf that cost me increasing effort to cross...At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places, but one that spared no aspect of life. Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world - qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa's head is Perseus, who flies with winged sandals......To cut off Medusa's head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror. I am immediately tempted to see this myth as an allegory on the poet's relationship to the world...It is hard for a novelist to give examples of his idea of lightness from the events of everyday life, without making them the unattainable object of an endless quete. This is what Milan Kundera has done with great clarity and immediacy. His novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being is in reality a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living, not only in the situation of desperate and all-pervading oppression that has been the fate of his hapless country, but in a human condition common to us all, however infinitely more fortunate we may be. For Kundera the weight of living consists chiefly in constriction, in the dense net of public and private constrictions that enfolds us more and more closely. His novel shows us how everything we choose and value for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight. Perhaps only the liveliness and mobility of the intelligence escape this sentence - the very qualities with which this novel is written, and which belong to a world quite different from the one we live in.'8
Moving to the text of another novelist turned theorist, we come across Jeanette Winterson:
'The question 'What is your book about?' has always puzzled me. It is about itself and if I could condense it into other words I should not have taken such care to choose the words I did...the language of literature is not an approximate language. It is the most precise language that human beings have yet developed. The spaces it allows are not formless vistas of subjectivity, they are new territories of imagination... Whereas science outdates the past art keeps it presents. Whereas the language of science tries to eliminate error, chiefly by the use of agreed symbols carrying an agreed value, the language of literature seems to be able to contain error by being greater than it. For instance, Shakespeare has not been sunk by the weight of four hundred years of scholarly and popular interpretations.'9
And then I read Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things.10 The narrative is based in Kerala, and my friends who have lived there tell me that the authenticity of her description makes it come alive in a powerful way. I have only made two short trips to Kerala of a few days each, so I cannot say that I know the place at all. Yet the novel moved me - and the affinity that I felt to it was provided more by its language than by its story. Let me name two major impacts. First is the tension that exists between word and event. The situation describes an extended family that appears stuck in anachronistic ruts that prevents it from coming to terms with the situations it faces. When an event exerts its force on the fundamental nature of the familial relationships, the text, both in its descriptions and conversations, never takes on the event head on. It skirts around it talking of other things, and noticing small details. I found that in my explorations of the text I could see before my eyes the faint terror felt by extended families in a nucleating world. Recognising the fragility of the threads that bind them, they respond by largely ignoring them, as if the enthusiasm that they can invoke over small things can evoke a sympathetic resonance in these threads that will sustain them. The second impact the text had on me was its evocation of the way a child constructs its world through language. Unable to comprehend the full depth of the scenes s/he is immersed in, the exaggerations of perspective forced by the eye level of the child often makes things appear to be a different size and height than they appear to adults - ordinary nouns suddenly acquire capital letters. I could immediately recreate in astonishing vividness scenes from my own childhood. Given an environment of security, things eventually shrink, and everything settles down in lower case. But create insecurity and trauma, and I could imagine how the sense of heightened perspective never goes away, and the balance between the weights of life takes on a new form. The narrative in this novel creates a place and a story, and at one level this moves me. But at a more profound level is the fact that even though the narrative is depressing, and at times horrific, I could find its language intimate and accessible. Even though most of the scenes were alien to me, I could find, in the nooks and crannies of the text, spaces that were dear to me, close to my heart - spaces that felt like they had always existed within me, but until that moment I was not aware of their existence. I could appreciate the story, and at the same time, examine my existence. This is the hallmark of good writing.
What these readings suggested to me was that the primary quality that the work of art offered was not its meaning. I am not trying to say that art does not carry meaning. Nor am I saying that meaning plays no role in aesthetic appreciation. I only seek to point out that meaning is always open to interpretation and is notoriously difficult to pin down with any level of precision. We can never know what meaning was put by the artist, what meaning was put by the 'reader', and what meaning was put by critics and the media. And this inherent blurring of the edges only serves to soften the impact.
What the work of art primarily offers is itself, its own formal condition, its exactitude. Within the turmoil of our daily existence it is impossible to locate any site of exactitude. Everything is continuously shifting and changing, Boundaries of definition seem to disappear on their own, and then reappear elsewhere. We can never find absolutely fixed points of reference, or even guideposts that remain stable long enough for us to seek a proper understanding of who we are, what we do, and why we exist. Art offers a resistance to this sense of decay. Art offers us sites of exactitude. When we step into art with our body and soul, we know where the points of reference are, and subsequently where we are. It is not so much a question of whether we know what it means; it is more an issue of the measure we can take of ourselves. It is not so much a question of the intention of the artist, or the links of the work with culture. It is rather the skill with which the work prescribes a space in which one can wander - a site to be inhabited, a site for the reposition of memories, a site for making discoveries, a site where one can get to know oneself, a site where time stands still and the imagination runs free.
Exactitude involves the marking of place - the expression of presence. Most of the other arts seek to mark place in a metaphorical, allegorical or mythical sense. Architecture also faces the task of doing so in a material tectonic sense.
The ability of art to distil experience down to a fine degree of fixity and definiteness provides us with a reality that is distinct from the terrestrial plane. It is the reality of the poetic imagination - what Alexander Eliot calls the mythosphere11 - and in its swerve away from the maelstrom of life provides us with a vantage point to view life from the remove. Having recognised that we have reached a different level of reality, we find that from here we can not only look downward for an overview of experience, we can also look upward into the realm of the sacred. When I use the word sacred, I am not confining myself to its traditional binding with religion. As Gayatri Spivak puts it, the sacred 'need not have a religious sanction, but simply a sanction that cannot be contained within reason alone.'12 But more than that art, in the act of making its own reality, recognises that reality exists on more than one plane, and this is a belief that it shares with religion. No wonder that through the centuries art has sat so comfortable next to religion.13 We could thus define the sacred as the higher level within the multiple and complex levels of reality that we can perceive.14 I feel no need to make a justification of this definition of the sacred, for surely each one of us recognises that chord of idealism that exists within us, which resonates so clearly when struck - that primeval impulse to reach for the sky (both literally and metaphorically).
I now find myself investigating the characteristics of sacred architecture. I have pinned down five categories to work with. I must admit that I cannot justify them as inherent attributes of sacred architecture. I cannot even say that each one of them is distinct from the other, or that I have resolved or defined any of them with any level of precision. I can only put them forward, saying that, at this moment, I find them useful headings under which I can continue my search:
- Exactitude: I have already spoken of this. Italo Calvino, in an essay on this subject, defines exactitude as: (1) a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question; (2) an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable, visual images; (3) a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.15 I would accept this definition, but add that exactitude also deals with the coherence of the work - a level of coherence that breaks down instantly if one attempts to change a part. To return to Winterson: It is redundant to try to analyse a poem, or a piece of fiction that undertakes poetic principles, by separating out the parts, meaning on one side, words on the other. When a thing is perfectly made it has no fastening or seams. It will not come apart in your hands. What you do manage to pull to pieces is a construct of your own. A fully realised piece of work cannot be put into 'other words'. Change the words, even by trying to substitute dictionary definitions, and you will change the meaning. This is not because language is imprecise and subject to landslide, it is because it is exact.16 Perhaps, we could measure exactitude by the scope given to the thesaurus to operate. I could illustrate the relevance of this to architecture by asking you to visualise the weight you would feel on your shoulders if you had to add to or change one of the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright.
- Presence: This has to do with the marking of place - the marking of the spirit of this particular spot on earth where you are placing this specific piece of architecture. It is the attempt to recognise and accommodate the aura of the spot. It is the characteristic of an architecture that can simultaneously say that 'I am a new work of art' and 'I have always belonged here'.
- Extension: This works in tension with the notion of presence. It recognises that to mark presence it is necessary to draw boundaries, but also insists that the drawing of physical boundaries require recognition of what lies outside the boundaries. It deals with the relationships between inside and outside. It is an attempt to acknowledge the presences that surround the work, while lying outside it.
- Ambiguity: This is not to be confused with vagueness. It deals with precise definitions, but seeks to accommodate multiple definitions. This has to do with scale - multiple scales. It aims to bring the work in line with the measure of the human body, but juxtaposes different scales to accommodate different perspectives. It is the quality of the work that allows you to conceptualise it in its entirety in your mind, only to discover that your choice of action or gaze brings forth a different conceptualisation. It is the theme that Robert Venturi addresses in Complexity and Contradiction.[fn] Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977).
- Stillness: This is the level of repose that the work can achieve, in its whole, as well as in its parts. In architecture, this has to do with detailing. To use a mathematical analogy for an illustration, it would be like looking at Benoit Mandelbrot's fractal patterns: however much one enlarges parts of the pattern, we find the same thing we see in the whole pattern. It is the success with which the spirit of exactitude, presence, and extension permeate the work, from its overall concept to the level of small detail (how does the window meet the jamb?). Wherever one's gaze settles one finds the same spirit, whether one leans back to gain an overall view, or leans forward to examine a small part. The work does not change with the angle and sweep of your glance, and in this quality of repose achieves a degree of stillness and timelessness. There are very few contemporary architects who have achieved this. Frank Lloyd Wright and Carlo Scarpa are the masters of it who immediately come to mind. One senses it to some degree in the works of Luis Barragan, Tadao Ando, and Geoffrey Bawa. Where it has been achieved you find that the architect has been acknowledged as a master, but has not developed a school of followers and imitators. There are no 'isms' available here. You cannot imitate these people. It requires rigour, and one has to do it the hard way - go through the struggle of first principles yourself. There are no shortcuts.
At this point, let me return to a theme I dealt with briefly in the beginning of this essay - the question of representation and cultural identity. In recognising the work of art as a site of exactitude, one also recognises that the sacred site is lyrical, and that poetic experience is something we can only achieve as individuals, within ourselves. The stirrings I feel cannot be matched perfectly with the stirrings that you feel. We may both share our experiences, and find an amazing level of overlap, but that sharing is after the fact. The initial act of inhabitation can only be singular and unverifiable.
Therefore, If I were to start with the goal of cultural expression, I cannot allow that inhabitation, for the inherent privacy it contains would run against the grain. I will have to bounce my audience off the surface of the work in order to deposit them on an established external point of collective reference. To do this there are several traps I can fall into. I can resort to surface imagery so that familiarity and association crowd between the viewer and the art. Or I can develop the density of the work to a degree of arcane composition, loaded with extreme self-consciousness about the act of expression, weighed down with commentary and footnotes - so that eventually only a similarly informed elite, who possess the keys to the door and a map through the maze, can get in. Or I can deny exactitude, and collect a collage of easily substitutable elements, to the point that even though you can enter, when you arrive you do not realise you have reached anywhere, and drive straight through.17
Then how does one deal with anything collective, for one cannot deny that humans are cultural animals. To begin with we have to resist the perpetual search for metaphysical glory and realise that a great deal of this is resolved at the level of the pragmatic - through climate, material, and situation. Do I have to start with a notion of what is Indian? I am dealing with Indian climate, Indian materials, Indian contexts, and Indian requirements. If I attempt to deal with each of these with honest commitment, will I not end up with something that is Indian?
Secondly, we have to realise that the relationships of art are subtle and avoid definition. We cannot learn them in the explicit manner we may learn physics or chemistry. We can only internalise them in the manner in which a musician learns to play 'by ear' - just listening to the point that the notes and the instrument become a part of you. As a person who seeks to be creative, I have to resist the urge to constantly speak of my inspiration, and stop to look and listen to what is around me - to develop my sensitivity to the idiom that surrounds me.
Thirdly, we have to look at the way we to look at the way we structure knowledge and authority. Lyotard analyses this in traditional societies who structured their knowledge in the form of narratives.18 When I listen to my grandmother narrate a myth to me, I know that she has received the authority to tell from the times when she listened to it, and that in my listening now, I receive the authority to tell the myth at a later moment. Moreover, we also occupy the subject matter of the myth, for its narrative takes up positions with reference to nature, culture, and ethics - positions that we shall seek to occupy ourselves. We find ourselves able to occupy all three positions of teller, listener, and story. There is no necessity for any special process of legitimation for nobody is granted any privileged position of authority that lies outside the system. There is no need to consciously remember the past, for even though the narrative may have references to the past, its reality is contemporaneous with the act of telling. Knowledge and authority are recycled within this system. And this cyclical nature foregrounds the rhythm of periodic retelling as much as it privileges the accent of a specific occasion. Today, our lives are too interspersed with technology and mobility to attain the timeless stability of such a system. We privilege the knowledge of individuals, place full accent on the occasion, and do not recycle authority. This is a difficult question. If we can seek any resolution at all, the direction does not lie in the nature of our art; it lies within the sociology of our profession. We have to restructure architectural practice, demolish its exclusivity as the base for the prima donna or the vehicle for business, and restructure it as an institution through which a society can question its architecture.
Last, but not least, we have to break the myopia of our vision that confines itself to disciplinary boundaries. We tend to talk about 'culture in architecture' or 'truth in architecture'. Why can't we just talk about 'culture' and 'truth'? We keep trying to understand humanity in architecture, instead of first coming to terms with our humanity, and subsequently coming to terms with architecture. We have to recognise that each one of us has been inserted into a larger context that predates us, and is larger than us, and that this fact casts a historical responsibility upon us. Therefore, as moral agents in a civil society we have to be alert to the ethical implications of what we do. We have to realise that in marking place, we draw boundaries; and every boundary includes things within it and excludes things outside it; and that, while as artists we are committed to circumscribing place, every act of drawing a boundary falls prey to this same shortcoming. We need to pay attention to our exclusions. If we seek to construct sacred sites of exactitude, we must ask the question 'Who inhabits, and how?' and its converse 'Who cannot inhabit, and why?' If we seek to construct and occupy the centre, our gaze must constantly work its way towards the margins. We seek to be creative; as architects, we have even entered a profession that demands creativity, as it is conventionally understood. Yet we tend to place such little faith in our own imagination, and search for collective pegs lying outside ourselves to hang our hat on, forgetting that a fundamental aspect of the collective lies within the realm of personal ethical responsibility. The full-throated voice of art is not the voice from the studio; it is the voice of a shuttle, a shuttle that never fully resolves its position, a constant ever-vigilant shuttle between citizenship and creativity.
- 1. Text taken from the conference poster
- 2. I ask this question in a general manner of all the arts, for this is a common problem that relates to the issue of aesthetics. Architecture, however, is subject to a further constraint, for its public nature forces ethical limits to the didactic luxuries afforded to the other arts.
- 3. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), p. 78.
- 4. Ibid., p. 75.
- 5. Primo Levi, Other People's Trades, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (London: Abacus, 1990), p. 2.
- 6. For an incisive analysis of the links between ritual and the sense of history, see the study of Roman and Etruscan towns in Joseph Rykwert, The Idea of a Town (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).
- 7. Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978).
- 8. Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), pp. 4,7.
- 9. Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects: Essays in Ecstasy and Effrontery (London: Vintage Books, 1996), pp. 165,166
- 10. Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (New Delhi: IndiaInk, 1997)
- 11. Alexander Eliot, The Timeless Myths: How Ancient Legends Influence the Modern World (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1997).
- 12. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 'Translator's Preface and Afterword to Mahasweta Devi, Imaginary Maps', in Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean (eds.), The Spivak Reader (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 275
- 13. Religious ritual also provides a site of exactitude, with the care and ceremony with which it constructs events. Even those of us who profess to modern beliefs and customs, for the important rites of passage of birth, marriage, and death turn to tradition and religious ritual. This allows us to indelibly mark these milestones in our lives.
- 14. See Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth, The Primordial Tradition (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).
- 15. Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, pp. 55,56.
- 16. Winterson, Art Objects, p.171.
- 17. This is the language of scientific writing, and also forms the tone for much writing in non-fiction, including philosophy. Perhaps, the challenge of our time is to construct a philosophy that is lyrical. Perhaps the new methodologies of philosophy should adopt the traditional literary tools of narrative and autobiography.
- 18. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p.p. 20-23.