Next week, ground-breaking young Iranian architect Leila Araghian will visit Panaji, to showcase her work at the Z Axis conference organized by the Charles Correa Foundation, at the late, great Goan architect's own small masterpiece of design, the Kala Academy on the beautiful Mandovi waterfront.
While still a twentysomething student, Araghian won a design competition to build a new bridge connecting two parks over a highway in North Tehran. The resulting Tabiat (nature) bridge is a sleek, undulating, high-tech marvel that enfolds multiple pathways, and comprises different levels of restaurants, cafes and mini-plazas for people to sit and relax. It has immediately become a beloved city landmark.
As Goa continues to lurch headlong to opaquely planned, dubiously sanctioned massive "infrastructure" projects that consistently and crudely disfigure the state landscape, it seems cruelly ironic that some of the world's finest exponents of sustainable, sophisticated 21st century architecture and design will gather here to exchange and share ideas and expertise next week. But will any lessons spill over from this remarkable brain trust, to influence the state's reckless trajectory? Does any official have the capacity to appreciate or support the kind of vision that Leila Araghian brings to her work?
Another deeply thoughtful young architect whose work has immense relevance here is Ilze Wolff, who will travel to Panaji from Cape Town, South Africa. Her practice pursues the idea that buildings and cities have to be understood in the context of social conditions in which they emerge. They "participate in the construction of societal structures of power, race and gender." When she talks of "architectural space...embedded in the designation of power and the disempowering of people", Ms. Wolff strikes bulls-eye about grandiose state projects everywhere, with many egregious recent examples in Goa.
State officials - like those responsible for the hideously inappropriate "renovation" of the Panjim Residency hotel right next to gorgeous colonial-era masterpieces like Palacio Idalcao - should be required to occupy Kala Academy seats to hear Ms. Wolff's personal philosophy, "buildings evoke...stories and details of life that would otherwise remain unspoken. I am interested in the stories and the moments of inhabitation..I am interested in the traces of human occupation, the residue of memory..." Perhaps a more sensitive approach to intervening in the state's already-existing, exquisite built and natural heritage could result?
It's interesting how many Z Axis conference (the theme is "Buildings as Ideas") speakers have direct experience with the kind of large-scale projects Goa is initiating. Marina Tabassum of Dhaka, Bangladesh won competitions for her country's Independence Monument, and Liberation War Museum. Her Bait Ur Rouf Mosque was shortlisted for this year's Aga Khan award. One of just a handful of practicing women architects in Bangladesh, she uses brick, mud and low cost materials, "by the action of your own creativity and innovation take that to any level you like."
That confident sensibility is notably lacking in state (and increasingly, private) construction projects in Goa, where the prevailing ethic is to lay on as much concrete as possible, then add further concrete "decorative elements".
This has resulted in the outlandish, gigantic South Goa collectorate building outside Margao, and the conspicuous flouting of environmental and aesthetic norms to cut hillsides and slopes for sprawling, dense housing estates that serve the "vacation home" market fuelled by Indian urbanites.
It's head-scratching fact that many of these estates (like those arrayed back-to-back on the Kadamba plateau above Old Goa) don't have wells or water connections - instead tankers bring in every drop for gardens and swimming pools. This is okay while water is cheap (or easily stolen) but how long will that situation last?
Still, while sustainability is very far from the minds of Goa's building lobby, it is the main principle of Sandeep Virmani's Hunnarshala Foundation of Kutch, Gujarat, which focuses on local materials and craftsmanship, constant recycling and rigorous environmental principles including biodiversity conservation, reducing vulnerability to climate change, and drinking water security.
Charles Correa Foundation says around 100 people from Goa have registered for Z Axis. That's an encouraging sign, a big step in the right direction for the late master-architect's vision for his home state. His trust was "established to initiate and encourage architecture, urban design and community projects...with the realization that in our society a number of ideas that originate with citizens do not see the light of day."
At Z Axis next week, we will see examples that did work, in Tehran and Dhaka, in Cape Town and Kutch and Porto and Beijing. Will Goa pay attention?