KOLKATA: Ever wondered why a montage of Kolkata features in so many Indian ads? It's because the city with its diverse architecture still retains the character that all other Indian cities, except pockets like south Mumbai, have lost to me-too steel and glass structures.
Yet, Kolkata that was a melting pot of Mughal, British, French, Danish, Dutch, Armenian and Chinese cultures where each flavour found expression in the layered built environment of the city as colonial echoes, traditional mysticism and periods of synthesis leading to a contemporary syntax of tropical modernism also witnessed a dark age from the 1960s to the 1990s when nondescript, ugly buildings mushroomed all over the city.
That nightmare passed in the late 1990s with developers from the city roping in architects like Balakrishna Doshi and Charles Correa to design their properties. But as houses with raised `roak' plinths, phased courtyards, long cast iron grilled balconies, louvred windows and occasional elements of decorative whimsy creating interactive edges between buildings and the street are razed, the Kolkata that we know is under threat.
The city's leading developers have always evaded the issue, but the generation next isn't shying away from tough questions. Not just for the heck of asking them but to discover an answer that can marry the old and the new.
These and several other issues will come up at a convention - a two day event to be held in the first week of March - where members of Indian Institute of Architects and Credai-Bengal will seek to investigate connecting histories against the multipart milieu Kolkata as a city at the threshold of promising new possibilities of contemporary regional and global concepts of development.
Expert theoreticians and practitioners like George Feguson (past president of Royal Institute of British Architects and first elected mayor of Bristol), Leila Araghian (chief architect of Tabiat Bridge in Tehran, a pedestrian bridge that has become a symbol of the city and a successful public space), Alejandro Echeverri (Colombian National Architectural Award winner), Juergen Mayer (member of advisory boards at Princeton University Architectural School, The Bauhaus Stiftung Dessau, Flassbad Berlin), and Palinda Kannangara (Sri Lankan architect known for experiential architecture) are flying into the city from different parts of the world.
In a session titled `Humanizing Heritage', speakers will situate heritage within the current climate of developmental pressures and look at approaches to heritage conservation and management, encompassing both nature and culture, tangible and intangible.
In another session titled `Design Dialect', architects will explore how the vocabulary of architecture adapts itself to its context to successfully navigate ground realities.
`Where the City Sleeps' will attempt to understand the pulls and pressures of urbanism and social justice and the dichotomy of quantity and quality in housings against a backdrop of affordability . `Grand Moves' will explore holistic approaches to sustainable urban development.
"Architects and builders in Kol kata have been collaborating on projects. It is now time to interact and share knowledge and look at opportunities to redefine and redesign the urbanscape," said developer Pradeep Sureka. Architect Gita Balakrishnan is excited about the prospect of so many distinguished architects flying in from the world over and believes it is a never-before opportunity to rediscover Kolkata and figure out where it is headed.
According to her, the reason why so many ugly buildings came up in the last four decades of the 20th century was because they were designed by licensed building surveyors and not architects. One of the reasons is the scant number of architects that are produced in Bengal. Of the 450-plus architecture colleges, only seven are in the state, of which four have come up recently . In contrast, Maharashtra has over 70 institutes where architecture is taught.