Catalogue of an Exhibition held at New Delhi, August 2001

Architecture in India carries a difficult burden. In a country, where situations and problems achieve a despairing magnitude, is there a way of thinking of architecture, other than as mere problem solving? Should architecture even innovate towards problems? Should it remit to finding solutions to the Bhopal Gas tragedy? Should artistic effort be directed towards making, not just adequate, but thoughtfully imaginative houses for those who need shelter from a cyclone in Orissa?

1. Places Made

For an architect, architecture is a kind of memoir. A piece of construction, the making of a building, even the viewing of a monument, is a form of autobiography; as personal an autobiography as an architect can write. It carries notions of professed aims and ideas influenced too by the people who build them, and those who live in them. Seen through the architect's eye buildings express the architect's own perceptions of a place -- the way he would make it for himself, the way he would occupy it. And, to that degree, architecture becomes a canvas of confession. Since architecture is such a conspicuous, immensely physical object in space, its presence in fact, influences everyone. The presence of building around us provides a persistent frame of reference - as permanent as roads or fields - from which there is no escape. Buildings are explicit, big, always visible. They line the street, they are at the end of the road, they make the town. The final products of a difficult endeavour, they involve questions of aesthetics, design, construction, layout, structure, materials, details, ornamentation, personal likes and public taste - all things that can be individually identified to convey the way a building is made. Through them, architecture becomes a treasure trove of unfolding links and discoveries, connecting histories of culture to expressions of style and personal histories, making the past visible in the present.

For me, architecture, writing or sketching all form part on one and the same thread; fragments of buildings - whether drawn on paper or built on a site - and thoughts about them, grow out of each other, one leading to another. Till, sometimes it is difficult to tell apart the source of the inspiration from the culminating action, whatever it might be - a book or a building, an article or a drawing.

Yet the act of drawing architecture has a clear advantage over others. It allows a more real, and therefore more convincing depiction of architectural ideas. Which it may not be possible to build an unadulterated thought on a construction site - given the demands of clients; the constraints of budget - it is possible to express the compete image of an idea in drawing. Drawing invariably begins as an act of appreciation. A method by which you retain on paper n image you like, keeping it within easy reach, for inspiration and savouring. Like a doting father photographing and rephotographing members of his own family, buildings and parts of buildings are drawn and redrawn through the course of numerous viewings; and drawing becomes a way of expressing something of the way architecture is experienced in each viewing.

I remember architecture is fleeting moments. Over time these moments consolidate into cumulative impression. Places grow from nodding acquaintances to take root in a deepening landscape that stays, not as a fixed image, but whose swaying shifting characteristics create a containment that lingers. At Padmanabhapuram Palace, a place I have visited often, I remember the building gave me constant reminders of the light and landscape within which it was set. In it were hints of my own memories of Kerala - the darkness of its temples, reminders of houses that I had seen, the palm edged sight line that was so much a part of the place. Yet, there was no single correct perception of the place; no one vantage from which the structure was to be viewed; from no place on the grounds could it be experienced as a whole, as complete statement of architecture. The plans' dispersal, and its moments of containment, only created fragmentary experiences. Through constriction and exposure the building acted like a camera - sometimes confining me to a small court, sometimes opening onto a sunlit gallery. Then, when I lease expected it, suddenly enveloping me in complete darkness.

Circumstances conditioned my perception of the place and I began to see things in a personal and disjointed focus. The drawings and sketches that emerged out of the experience were themselves only fragments of the place. Similar in intent is the record of other buildings - the play of shadows against the domes of the Mosque at Gulbarga, the repeating line of brackets at Fatehpur Sikri, or the mossy depths of a stepped well in Gujarat. The drawings are impressionistic rather than representative. They are seen from a personal perspective...

2. Places Destroyed

But there is another side to viewing and drawing architecture. The architecture we make for ourselves today, I suppose, reflects something of the conditions of the present. It is an architecture, less inspired, and less inspiring.

Whenever I move out of the house, I am always filled with a sense of dread. I wonder why I am so repulsed by the places we make for ourselves today. It has nothing to do with poverty, disease, or malnutrition. The dread is related, to the places of ordinary life, the buildings of the city - the house, the school, the landmark. If there is a professed spatial, humanist or aesthetic purpose to architecture it is difficult to experience it in reality. On paper architecture is that wonderful making of spaces, that sculptural massing brought together in light, that imaginative wondering of the creative spirit. But the buildings around, are nothing but dreary masses of broken and smudged plaster - flagging in spirit, depressing, unsightly, blemished. The shops and offices and markets are like parasitic growths, spreading along the ground, smudging the sight line, slowly sucking the life around them, turning the city into a rotting concrete carcass. And leaving you with nothing. No remembrance of landmark, no encounter with history, no cause for celebration.

When the sights and sounds of the place are overwhelmed, when the pitch reached a severity of personal affrontry, there was little to do but retreat. The city was a wasted place, and architecture was a threat palpable in physical terms. It reached out through the clutter of people and buildings and signs, and promised a daily dose of hostility, conflict and chaos. At the end of a work day, I felt I had enough. I was seething with my own reactions of hostility. It was then that I would seek the quieter comforts of the drawing board, to undo the architecture I had just seen, to remake it in drawing.

The despair of the streets, the dereliction of public plazas, the isolation and disconnectedness of housing, the desperation even, to preserve historic landmarks against all commercial odds, and in fact, the architect's fear of commerce, are suggested in the second type of drawing. Drawings that are realized in distress. In the drawings the sense of isolation and dereliction that people experience in the city is exaggerated; through man-made and natural catastrophe familiar places have destroyed themselves. The ruins of Connought Places, Fragments of a Great City and Protecting India Gate are renderings of known landmarks drawn into their own imminent demise. Buildings that not only once made our world, but created the history we are constantly neglecting and destroying.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that the ideal house should be built of materials that are found within a five-mile radius of the site. It was a statement whose conciseness could only be attributed to the simplicity and directness of his own life; for it encapsulated his world-view and expressed an ideology on building, ecology, lifestyle, self-reliance, even human dignity, all in one single thought. Could the new buildings of India suggest any of these ideas? Do they indeed say anything of the enormous possibilities that architecture - made in consonance with the climatic terrain and materials of the place - holds for bringing the occupant in tune with his surroundings. Perhaps this is an altogether archaic view of architecture, it seems the world has already embarked into a new future. Buttressed by the impulse and hopes of a more consumptive life, architecture has turned away from the act of making space habitable, and its professed aims of sheltering and nurturing; it has become instead a product oriented art, an assembly of richer and newer products whose use and usefulness is suspect. The idea is not to make beautiful buildings our of ordinary objects, but to make ordinary buildings out of beautiful objects.

Compare Mahatma Gandhi's house at Wardha with that of a Retired Customs official in Greater Kailash. Does it make it a ludicrous juxtaposition? Maybe. But when the more profitable architecture is in objects and places that help to enhance the identity of its owner, then perhaps not. Such blatant commerce of what was once an artistic endaveours has made the city into a free-for-all display - a tentative theatre of surfaces, made and proliferated by the forces of the country's push towards a free market economy. Architecture is only a minor player, but nonetheless its signs are everywhere. In the Coca-Cola Headquarters in the shape of a bottle; in the Hotel in Khajuraho shaped to resemble the temples outside; in the decayed Sat-Isabgol box supporting the pristine remains of the Jantar Mantar.

Is the imaginative impulse no longer central to architecture? Is our public life relegated to surroundings that stem from other forces - mediocrity, imitation, mimicry, repetition, monotony, and eventually desolation.

Architecture in India carries a difficult burden. In a country, where situations and problems achieve a despairing magnitude, is there a way of thinking of architecture, other than as mere problem solving? Should architecture even innovate towards problems? Should it remit to finding solutions to the Bhopal Gas tragedy? Should artistic effort be directed towards making, not just adequate, but thoughtfully imaginative houses for those who need shelter from a cyclone in Orissa?

In the seventeenth century, when Rome experienced a dramatic increase in population and a subsequent shortage of housing, the needy sought shelter in the ruins of the ancient theatre of Marcellus. Its low vaults and long arched galleries that once accommodated Roman audiences and gladiator fights, were thought suitable for housing. Gradually small houses appeared on its rusticated facade, and before long, the entire arena was transformed into a housing complex. Ancient theatres at Nimes and Arles also accepted similar changes. Yet, at each of these places the nature of the transformation did not in any was affect the essential qualities of the original building. Today when you walk through the monument to Marcellus, you sense both the amphitheater and the house.

Do ruined architectural fragments offer a possibility of reuse? Can history be used in new ways? In India, as in Italy, simultaneous ruined stratifications exist on the same site. But their physical presence need not be viewed solely in preservation terms. Through recollection and interpretation memory can be made to traverse different roads through the same past, and so perhaps to a different future.

3. Places Imagined

Is it possible to develop an architecture of ideas? The history of architecture is in fact littered with generous insights and impracticalities that evoke enough second looks. Much of the historical work of the visionary designers of the Renaissance lead to the establishment of a commonly understood code from which to design, build, and perceive architecture. The perfect house, the ideal city mansion, the hypothetical villa were all drawn by architects who exhausted their writing and drawing power in conceptual notebooks. Vitruvious, Palladio and Leonardo's ideas on architectural theory far surpass their efforts in the execution of architecture. Though many of the proposals produced were extravagant and futuristic, their value lay in their ability to raise questions, and test the then conventional approaches to design.

The Western tradition has continued to stress the value of such originality. Drawings of nuclear reactors in city neighborhoods. Apartment blocks built on toxic waste sites. The garden city as skyscraper. Suicide bridges on the Hudson River, Fast food restaurants in the shape of a burger. The Ugly Duckling Beauty parlor. Boulee's drawings for a penis shaped brothel. Architecture as a dark, often private joke, untold and stored between the sheets of a drawer full of serious drawings. In their own ways 20th century America, Renaissance Italy and indeed Roman Rome were open and permissive to a point that encouraged thinking beyond their cultural borders.

In India, such thinking is often not possible. Architecture, like other professions, falls squarely in the realm of objective activity directed towards a specific goal, discouraging, so to speak, the tangential view. There are no patrons in architecture, only clients. And theirs is not an exploration of architectural ideas, merely an expression of details for eventual construction. In seeking to express ideas, the architectural task so, becomes harder, if not downright impossible.

The final collection of drawings takes a generic bash at this possibility, rather, impossibility. In turning the problem on its head, reversing its intent, exaggerating it, or drawing it in a literal image, the ideal gets clarified in tangential ways. Drawing the impossible makes it possible.