Writing Architecture / Death of Architecture

Monday, February 04, 2019

I spent my weekend in Ahmedabad over a panel discussion on 'Writing Architecture' organized as a part of the 'Death of Architecture' programming. The panelists I shared the conversation with were Miki Desai (architectural historian), Sameera Rathod (editor, SPADE), Shiny Varghese (Journalist), Meghal Arya (academician). The session was moderated by Sachin Shah, faculty at CEPT. Panel discussions are often blind games, if you do not know what you are going to be asked. They almost seem like vivas that induce immense pressure on giving engaging answers  as well as inform audiences about the topic at hand. However, a theme like 'writing architecture' often becomes too generic if not held within a framed question. For example, one could look at the architectural writing in the last 20 years, or architectural writing and its relationship with new media, or emerging forms of writing and critical discourse in contemporary architecture. Further, these could be looked at through very specific examples, or works by panelists, which can be questioned within a critical framework in a forum. Without such a framework, often such discussions become freewheeling conversations through keywords derived from a broad conversation in order to keep things going for the duration of the talk. The conversation at the Death of Architecture on 'Writing Architecture' seemed to liminally rely on the panelists' improvisation to the questions posed. It is important for the moderator to have a position(s) in the background of which the responses of panelists could be understood, or through which a debate, and dialogue can be nurtured.  Else, the talk becomes lament which everyone feels happy about. It is important for panel discussions to enter, even if performatively, the form of soft debate which provokes the audience to think through new ideas, or articulate new positions. While the moderator, in his humble attempt, threw reasonably open questions, I felt the discussion lacked spark. It was largely lost to thinking of writing as a way of reflection, introspection or criticism. However, the dimension of experience of writing and reading architecture was completely missed out. If one considers that writing constructs an experience through the employment of form/style, technique, content, tone and media, what criticalities must one expect from the writers of today? What has been the impact of writing? And how must one write today?In general, one needs to review on the form and content of writing in order to have a crisp discussion on the politics and agency of writing/writers today. While I have mentioned on other platforms, the avenues that have opened up for writers today, and the increased demand for writing - one needs to understand what is the subject, content, quality and kind of writing that is being produced? What purpose does it cater to? Whom are architectural writers writing for? How, after all, has writing suddenly become a viable and valid profession in the contemporary time in India? An analysis into textual production through these questions would allow us to map the different trajectories of the practices of writing today. Further, how have they addressed the practice - of profession or academia needs to be understood. One of the key questions to address is that of readership. What kind of books have come through over the last two decades in architecture? What kind of writing do people like to consume and why? Who are the best selling (contemporary) writers and how are they writing? What are the shifts in voices that write? Sachin rightly pointed out that on an average, an individual today reads more content in a day than one ever did, say even two decades ago. How does reading so much (often unnecessary, informative) content shape the reader today? What is the psychological and phenomenological experience of reading in the contemporary times? How are these shifts reflecting in the subjects and objects of architectural writing today?There are a lot of questions that could be jotted down, however, they would remain ambiguous unless we take up concrete examples to elucidate what it means to be textual today. Further, how is architecture being written today? One of the interesting ideas that came up through the discussion was if writing could be considered as a legitimate communicative form through which architecture could be conceptualized and constructed. Working through the example of archival drawings of the Manavendra Palace in Jaipur, that were mere diagrams with a scribbled set of poem-like notes - I tried to suggest that the form of representation, synonymous to "architectural drawing" today - that which consists of orthographic plans and sections, is fairly recent and even a colonial legacy. Were all buildings in history realised through drawings? And following the notes of Jaipur building archives, could one mobilize forms of writing as possible communicative tools for alternative spatial articulation?

Drawing from City Palace Archives, Jaipur, (MSMS II Museum) with written instructions on construction.

Drawing from the City Palace Archives, Jaipur (MSMS II Museum) with written instructions on construction. 

Meghal Arya pointed out the often-embeddedness of academic writing in architectural jargon and unnecessary references, and her preference of the essay-form which allows her to contemplate while weaving through relevant examples. Riyaz Tayyibji suggested to preserve the sanctity of the disciplinary writing - that which constitutes the very discourse of architecture. However, my response was to expand the frame of "disciplinary" to knowledge production in general, and not restrict to architecture. Instead of making the discourse so exclusive, the discipline of architecture could productively borrow concepts and terms from many other disciplines (as much as lending its own terms to) in order to expand the manner in which space is otherwise narrated and understood today. Such a method would demand participation and dialogue with other disciplines,  making architectural discourse more inclusive as well as enabling and amenable to other professions. 
My principal point however was, that students no longer related to the voice in which architecture has been narrated so far. Contemporary histories must find voices that resonate with the language which this generation is more conversant and comfortable with. The tapping of writing forms that get shaped through new media must be understood and strategised within more serious writing projects. This could be a way of involving younger audiences into both writing as well as reading, ultimately architectural conversations. Historians of architecture need to update the methods and materials, along with the narrative forms they employ in architectural research. Space is no longer in habited through the morality of romantic socialism of nationalism, narratives against which so much architecture in India is always backdropped. The recent excess of discussions in this field have also been around informality and impermanence. These have been substantial formulations, and they certainly hold value. However, how must architects narrate these stories to their community and larger audiences, beyond blind lament, empty critique or indulgent introspections? Those narrations may perhaps shape new experiences through writing.

The Loneliness of Landscapes \\ Ronny Sen at Tarq

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

published in Art India \ Dec 2018

The Loneliness of Landscapes 

Anuj Daga is moved by the poetry in Ronny Sen’s documentation of the raging fires of Bihar’s coal mines.

In a selection of images clicked with an iPhone, Ronny Sen’s show Fire Continuum at Tarq from 23rd August to 29th September, presents a distinctly political landscape in a poetic rendering. Through an array of ‘tablet-sized’ portraits, Sen attempts to capture sights of wonder and despair spread across the coal fields of Jharia. Known for their everyday violence, popularized in recent Hindi cinema, regions of Bihar and Jharkhand have been perceived to be extremely rough. Rightfully so, for much of my summer vacations would be spent in these ‘dark’ areas visiting several collieries with my maternal uncles. The long bumpy bike rides on mountains of coal in brazen heat made us inhale ample coke, leaving us with black sweat and rough hair. More so, coded conversations and quiet exchanges would expose me to negotiations and inner politics of everyday existence. To look at Ronny Sen’s work is almost a personal revisiting of those old dust-laden journeys in the burning summers of Bihar.

Underground fires were first reported in Jharia in 1916, some of which continue to be alive. One of the first sets in the exhibition captures flames rushing out of the belly of mines. Vast tracts of mined mountains lie open in clouds of smoke and dust in Sen’s documentation. At once, the viewer is compelled to link the journey of coal into dust that eventually exhausts through fire into smoke. The photographs hint thus, at the simultaneous explosion and implosion of coal into fire.

Fire is in continuum with life and death of people settled around the coal mines of Bihar and Jharkhand. As much as it supports the livelihood of people in the region, it has also taken many lives, like in the Dhanbad Coal Mine disaster of 1965 where an explosion led to fire in the mines killing 268 miners. In addition, the burning coal creates vacuum below the land causing its subsidence that has often led to engulfing whole settlements. Yet, locals refrain from leaving Jharia due to the fear of losing livelihoods. The dual bind of loss and hope is best expressed in the gaze of subjects that Sen goes on to capture in his photographs.

Coal mining in India began as early as 1774, which only picked up with its need as fuel for the steam engine locomotives that came to the country in 1853. The First World War saw the rise in demand of coal subsequently, slumped in the inter-war period, and scaled up again for the Second World War. While several private and government companies existed for extraction and trade of coal for nearly two decades after independence of India, an overall nationalization of coal mines took place by 1973, essentially to prevent unsafe and unscientific mining practices and poor working conditions of labourers.

However, the coal mafia in the region have continued smuggle coal in an organized and sophisticated manner, through a nexus of politicians, government officials, businessmen and locals. Such open violation of the State policy is suggested in a clever framing of the white ambassador on the fuel-laden black mountain in one of Sen’s photographs. The smug play of colours creates a quiet, yet powerful statement.

Photo-sets detailing the explosion process and architectural ruins, laid out on adjacent walls of the gallery, narrate the story of development and decay. The solitary nature of people and buildings bring to us a strange sense of loneliness in looking at the entire landscape, both seemingly awaiting an intervention. The emptying of resources by extractive and environmental processes produces a vacuum that gets amplified and framed in the clinical treatment of the images.

The show is an artistic survey of an environment that we often take for granted. While the exhibition introduces us to the environmental pressures that resource-laden sites in India often undergo, the viewers may find themselves seduced into the surreal calmness of the images. On the other hand, the form of the exhibition – portrait photographs taken through a phone – begs for a discussion on the numerous impulsive criticalities that we freeze visually on our mobile devices. Taking photographs of shock, wonder, amazement, deviance, spectacle, violation and aspects that construct us through the defining of the other has now become a habit amongst many of us. The ritualistic production of documentary evidence allows us to formulate our personal relationship with landscapes and actions of the State. We produce and travel with several exhibitions thus, all the time. What happens to these photographic exhibitions that we carry and share personally across new media platforms? By pulling them out for public display, the exhibition in some way, attempts to demonstrate the soft power of such impulsive criticality to become a cogent tool for mobilizing action. It extends agency to the viewers to observe closely, their own environments.


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