Three Contentions: Critical Regionalism

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Three contentions on the study of theory of Critical Regionalism in architecture today:

1. That Critical Regionalism (especially Frampton's version) became a framework through which many architects of South Asia could place their works in the main stream architectural discourse of the west. On the other hand it enabled the West with a linguistic vocabulary (terms) through which works of South Asia and regions around could be discussed.

2. While the idea of critical regionalism, as framed by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre in their original work suggested a kind of critical continuum of the theory itself - one where architecture must constantly revise itself and address its own epoch, Frampton's formulation deduced it into six points - often consumed as a formula. Frampton's framing of critical regionalism has been critiqued by Fredric Jameson for its stylizing tendency seen in the way in which the text was pedagogically deployed in many South Asian contexts, and sometimes evident in the works of architects working within the purview, themselves.

3. Critical Regionalism must be seen as a corrective theory against the free and careless appropriation of symbols and signs from history within architecture that had a banalizing tendency of postmodern thought - primarily for the South Asian counter parts who were far removed and dissociated from the discursive context of the West.

thoughts developed with discussants: Shreyank Khemlapure, Dushyant Asher

Taragaon Museum, Kathmandu

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

One of the finest buildings I saw in Kathmandu was the Taragaon Museum built by Austrian architect Carl Pruscha during the '70s. It is said that Carl Pruscha is the one who brought back the use of brick to assert the indigenous identity of Nepal's architecture within its modern landscape. I learnt that the architect has built about five structures in Kathmandu, and worked extensively on the regional planning of the city. He has compiled two volumes documenting important landmarks and notes across the entire city of Kathmandu.

The Taragaon Museum was originally built as a hostel for visitors traveling to Nepal for short duration stays and gatherings. It consists of a modular plan with a scaled barrel vault as single unit staggered around courtyards and pathways stepping on the sloping site. While it didnt serve the purpose it was built for, the Hyatt, to whom the property belongs, decided to turn it into a Museum. Thus, the entire building serves as a museum to a modest collection of drawings and works of architecture of Nepal.

Roshan Mishra, the present director of the Museum was kind enough to take us around the entire museum, and mentioned that the building was one of the first modern projects executed in Kathmandu. He informed us about the different initiatives that the museum is taking to build its own archives on Nepal's indigenous architecture, library on architectural literature and drawings of Nepal, and so on. After the 2015 earthquake, the museum archives became the principal source of reference material for much of the conservation work within the country. Drawings of ancient architecture in Nepal and other photographic material helped mobilize the process of restoration. It is here that the urgency of preserving architectural documentation of the built landscape in Nepal came to focus for the museum. The Taragaon museum is now consciously collecting books and documentation from across the world towards their archives. Several scholars, architects and artists have graciously donated a lot of drawings and research to the Taragaon museum.

The campus is quite close to the World Heritage Site of Boudha Stupa, which is about 10 minute walk away. Given the context, the earth hugging forms seem to have been conceived as no short of the Buddhist Chaitya halls, which share a similar geometry. The domestic scale of the volumes make an interesting meandering within the museum, making it more human and tactile. The cafe and the auditorium spatially play with volumes, whereas the exterior triangular forms allow you to walk over it. Windows and gutters are very carefully detailed in a way that they do not disrespect the circular and diagonal geometry of the building. The landscape is tightly handled, yet seems so easy and minimal. I am sure the museum holds its own drawings. It might be a pleasure to look at the finer articulations of the planning. We could not go to the basement archives. However, Roshan also mentioned that an extension of the project as planned by Pruscha has never been built. In order to interconnect the Hyatt Regency Hotel and the museum, an grand circular amphitheatre was built about 14 years ago.

Presently, the building has suffered some damage after the 2015 earthquake. Those repairs, along with leakage issues are being treated for now. The architect was very opposed to the proposal of plastering the entire building that was suggested in order for its longevity. Rightfully so! The building does not dominate the landscape unlike the massive generic Grand Hyatt adjacent to the museum. With soft and subtle architecture, the Taragaon museum still exists quietly in the Kathmandu landscape.

Shanghai - II / Litanies

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Mobile Apps and Softwares: 

  • Psiphon Pro - VPN on the phone, it worked well - it was free too.
  • Lantern - VPN for computer
  • Chinese Lite - for quick translations
  • Google Translator - really helpful, even if rudimentary - reads chinese text too.
  • Offline Google Map for Shanghai since baidu will be in chinese
  • WeChat for connecting with friends quickly
  • QR code Reader because everything has a QR code
  • ShareIt - for android users, so that you can share apps without google play. Google Play will not work
  • Explore Shanghai - Shanghai Metro Map app
  • Have a non-gmail email id like Rediff or Yahoo or Hotmail etc.
  • Good to have Alipay paperless cash or some such service - easy to rent bikes and make payments

List of Museums and galleries (and the exhibitions) I visited in Shanghai:

The Long Museum

The China Government Museum

The Power Station of Art - Lecture by Apichatpong, Toyo Ito, Danish Design

The Minsheng Art Museum:

'Listening to Transparency'
Pierre Alain Jaffrennou, Michel François, Pascal Frament, Fujui Wang, Dominique Blais, Stéphane Borrel, Christophe Lebreton, Denys Vinzant, Pierre-Laurent Cassière, Matt Coco, Yann Orlarey, Jean-François Estager, Henri-Charles Caget, Julie Vacher, Dania Reymond, Iuan-Hau Chiang, Christian Rizzo, Gregory Chatonsky, William Anastasi, Thierry De Mey, Luc Ferrari, Manon De Boer, Thomas Leon, Li Yuhang, Deng Yuejun, Xiao Yu

The Urban Planning Museum

The Tongji Museum


at the Power Station of Art

'Home and Lights' by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a well known Indonesian architect turned film maker who presented his work at Power Station of Art while I was visiting. Here are some thoughts that I took away from his lecture.

Memory and light are malleable. Same can be said about history and storytelling. 
Identity as a function of fact and fiction... Our identity keeps on changing since we are also transforming. 
24 fps in cinema is a very rudimentary form of medium. Cinema, TV, mobile phones just put a frame around images.

Parts of things which are not visible to us even when out eyes are open. 
For me dream and cinema are similar. I face dream has much more potential. 
Dreaming is the only action which has freedom. No one can control it. Even ourselves! 
Length of cinema cycles evolved from the length of stages of dream. In dream you have 4 stages that last about 90 minutes...which is also almost the length of the film... 
Jungle is a place where you don't need to follow rules. Cinema is also one such space... 
Seeing animal sculptures in fireworks. 
Immersing the spectator in darkness. 
The colour of the movement is black...
Travel as a trigger to go in different cultures and slow down and concentrate and look at the world like a kid and be skeptic. 
To press the button in the elevator and not feel the pressure of reaching your floor.

Walk instead of running wherever you can...

Works by Apichatpong:

Fireworks (archives)

Future vehicles

Tropical Malady, film

Cemetery of Splendour, film

Of Provocations and Induced Doubts

Monday, June 19, 2017

Having worked out neatly the history course structure for semester two  (to five) at SEA, I called for a meeting with the entire team to fix up the nuts and bolts for its delivery. What I presented was a course structured over 10 sessions that would discuss different materials across history (from stone to plastic), their materiality and experience, phenomenological aspects on one hand, and tools and techniques and the resultant forms and shapes that have evolved to work with these over the years. My colleagues who earlier seemed to be convinced, strangely came forward doubting the trajectory. What to my mind seemed an interesting in-depth investigation hardly found a common ground with Prasad.

Often in his pursuit to avoid "criticism" and be considerate, Prasad's feedback diverges to an extent that his comments become cryptic. Sounding unconvinced, and with an intention to therefore make me reconsider my entire structure, he began by asking: "How will you talk about the experience of the material?" - he meant in a manner to confuse, perhaps, assuming that's not something that I had considered. I confirmed and understood that he was referring about the historicity of experience of a particular material under consideration. "In that case," I responded, "we should never be talking about experience...since talking inherently creates the gap between experience and its knowledge. It will never be possible to understand experience. We can only speculate." Prasad had a mysterious smile - an expression that troubled me. I tried to look for confidence into myself.

I elaborated: "Experience can never be ascertained and articulated. The way in which a limping man physically (as well as emotionally) experiences a piece of stone on his body will be quite different from what a completely healthy person experiences. Quite obviously, the forces acting on both bodies are different, and their emotional outlooks are also different. Further, how does one situate the "historic" in such a case? We merely assume the present body in the past time. However, today's human body is augmented through so many material and immaterial factors that the dimensions of space itself are quite different."

In any case, the question of historicity of experience of material was implicit in my objectives - something without which it is impossible to theorize about materials.

Continuing to push me to reconsider, Prasad's second response to my overall idea was to not treat materials and technique as an insular category. To me, these categorizations were important so as to go in depth of a subject. Often, histories are reduced to statements that bring together factual comparisons in a manner to produce contrast and provocation. For example, I pointed how the quick one-liner history of "how after the invention of photography, the paradigm of painting changes"  - something that I've found Prasad iterate in his lectures in history, is not the manner in which I would have liked to orient students to understand it. Another example is what he went on to give - that of how "the history of Taj Mahal can be read as the story of exploitation". As someone who has invested in in-depth studies of visual culture, I find this reduction invaluable, even if not incorrect. It is important to understand the finer details and nuances within particular contexts to be able to make meaningful interventions. To me - both the above examples, often heard in Prasad's delivery are methods of provocation.

"Whether you choose or not, students are constantly get provoked..." said Prasad. My quick response was on two fronts of the politics of provocation. Firstly, the kind of questions that provocation mobilize was not a part of my course objective. For example, the social, political and cultural questions opened in thinking of the building of Taj Mahal as an exploitative practice is not something that this course aimed at. (It aimed at understanding material as experience and phenomenon). The second, and more important one is the way in which provocation works. Often, the soft sensationalisation of certain historical facts - putting them together in a manner that bring in a completely new, unimagined dimension of otherwise familiar history - gropes the audience in a dual space of wonder (of new way of thinking) and perceptual limitation (of our own imagination). In such a space, history is actually lost to the effect of the provocation.

Anyway, provocations have to be affective, I said; those which last and operate over a longer cycle of time. Soft sensationalizations of historical facts take one only so far. Often, they end up just as statements, and in essence, they are not historicized readings themselves (in the favour of which, Prasad was arguing in the first case). It's an altogether different reading of history facilitated by the faculty of modern day social sciences. Provocations in history have to have enough gyration for students to construct deep, solid arguments. Presentation of historical facts quickly juxtaposed in a manner to produce effective contrasts are not much useful beyond pulling the momentary attention of an uninformed bunch of students. Its value is often lost towards to the reverence that listeners may develop towards the innovative analysis at hand, strategically presented by the speaker. The politics of provocation, and the momentum it creates, should allow for foundational new understandings of history by empowering students to get deeper into the subject itself. Provocations can be subtle but deep, soft but impactful. - both, at a personal and academic level.

Such a discussion led Prasad to conclude the modernist mode through which apparently my course was formulated - that which discusses history spoken in a manner of "from beginning to end". "The modern canon believes that history has to have a beginning and an end, that everything has to be situated in a continuum. But it may not be important for anyone to know the entire history to make sense of it", Prasad said. "We are taught to think in such modernist mode." I may have mistakenly taken this critique far too personally - something that was originally meant to point at the method in which history is often delivered. Certainly, Prasad's critique was on the deterministic aspects of modern thinking, within which my thinking was aligned. My endavour in history courses is to find through my lectures, a meaning in the past. Talking of contexts that are not ours, and far removed from our reality is very difficult. To present them in an interesting manner is a challenge. But I believe that if students are presented this material with interest and depth, it is possible to build some interest.

At Yale, History and Theory was taught with deep focus and lot of care. I inherit such a modernist method, something I have come to value deeply. In my practice, I therefore try to put in substantial research and figure a way of making it interesting. My trouble with Prasad's criticism was the rejection of this method, and therefore my effort. Prasad had already assumed that the delivery of history as a linear narrative will bore the audience. I would like to locate the problem however, in the content and not the method. Because the same method, when applied to lectures on the history of modernism, for example, garners much more interest and attention. Simply because the content was closer to the students and they could relate to it, they were more attentive.

I could not just accept the team's critique thus - for it didnot evaluate my notes within the objectives I enlisted to be achieved - something that was made clear much in advance. The objectives were digested back then without resistance. At the moment, all critique was outside this set framework, almost confused and misplaced. It began in questioning the method to decipher experience, then jumped to the categorization of material and content and went on to suggest employing a provocative politics. I did not understand what the real critique was - since these criticisms seem quite incoherent. What I could only crystallize thus is a certain reluctance for deploying the course I suggested in the programme.

Incidentally, as I was drafting this blogpost, Prasad dropped me a message on Whatsapp:

"Why don't you articulate a 5000 word paper on the 'critique of experience' (of space)? I think after the critique of political economy, critique of history, critique of reason.... a critique of experience needs to be written . . . I think your interest in developing an understanding of experience needs to be explored in full rigour... why don't you start with list[en]ing to lectures on Kant?"

Each of the above statements was interspersed with my sporadic responses. But in putting Prasad's messages together here, and reflecting upon them, I am compelled to think of the progression as an anticlimax. He begins in the promise that I could potentially contribute something through my own personal thoughts and investigation through a critique of experience. However, he quickly goes on to establish a crisis. By the end he mentions that my understanding "needs to be explored in full rigour" (through a reading of Kant, a philosopher he is recently obsessed with) - implying a fracture in the formulation of the history course that we discussed earlier. I still remain confused on what is expected out of the course from teachers (not students). If it was clear to them, why wouldn't they just spell it out, and if it is not, why wouldn't they allow to experiment? And if this is not how they would like me to structure this course, why don't they just ask me to focus on something that I am good at, and interested in?

Inducing constant doubts in one's abilities and expertise is a perverse way of negating ideas in academic space. Instead of freely debating, such politic makes you subservient to a hegemonic model of employing thoughts that is not even available to you, or is elusive even to those who recommend it. The random methods in which history has been deployed - as sporadic conversations, chats, or informal discussion is indeed valuable - however is an outcome of history "as smelled" - not really tasted. Can one just smell facts and ascertain what history actually tastes like? And one may argue that all what we have of history is smell. In that case, there's no point of putting down any methods of teaching. A strange unnecessary power politics that shouldn't dismiss divergent viewpoints and ideas of thinking about things constantly seems to occupy the academic space. I hope such insecurities are erased such that fresh voices and honest efforts can bloom and find a voice.


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