Five Forms of Urban Engagement

Thursday, September 14, 2017

published in Indian Architect & Builder, September 2017 Issue

P.S.: The published article has erroneously missed out the footnotes from the article, which the reader will find in the text here, along with the original subtitle.


FIVE FORMS OF URBAN ENGAGEMENT

Drafting a history of post-liberalization architectural practice in Mumbai through the lens of the film Reading Architecture Practice


Anuj Daga


In the discussion that followed the inaugural screening of the film ‘Reading Architecture Practice’,[1] urbanist Prasad Shetty framed the cultural landscape within which the work may be located as well as appreciated. He mentioned the recent major exhibition, another in making; three books on Mumbai and two films (including the current one) on architectural practice that have been produced in just over a year in the field of architecture in the city.[2] On the one hand, these works have brought architects to the forefront as active producers of culture within the city. At the same time, they also hint at the diversifying profession that attempts to fold in the rapidly changing forces of the built environment within their respective practices. Although insufficient in contextualization of contemporary practice due to lack of historical referencing, the present film serves as a useful index in tracing and recognizing the emerging distinct forms of architectural engagement(s) that both - shape and gets shaped within the post millennial urban geopolitical landscape. The film thus demands to chart for itself the historical transition of architectural practice from a dominant mode of physical production (professional practice) to recognizing forms of preservation, research and teaching as relevant ways of influencing and informing the built environment.

While the first decade after the economic liberalization, i.e. ’90s in India was celebrated in the creation of a global landscape of call centres, BPOs, five-star business hotels, convention centres, malls, multiplexes and commercial complexes in urban centres, the onset of the millennium sees a certain infrastructural as well as cultural crisis on the architectural horizon. Attempts to reclaim the public realm that was exceedingly slipping to the clutches of corporate sprawl is pursued through a form of activism by the practice of architect P K Das. It helped recover the small patch of Bandstand’s mangrove edge with the support of the Bandra West Residents’ Association. The present-day Carter Road interface with the sea was democratic in intent, however worked out through the universal imagination of a “promenade”. On the other hand, fresh global capital mobilizes the restoration of a lot of built heritage in the city that lay in decrepit condition. Architectural conservation of colonial legacy picks up momentum over the late 90s with institutions like UNESCO and INTACH bringing in money for preservation of the Victoria Terminus (now the Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus) as well as the Bhau Daji Lad Museum – both undertaken by Vikas Dilawari in Mumbai. Preservation of natural as well as built heritage of the city thus marks the initial response of architectural practice to new global flows.

Discomforted with the alienated projections offered by international consulting firms invited by Mumbai government around the turn of the millennium,[3] academicians at Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture (KRVIA) had already begun to conduct studies of the transforming built landscapes, including the neighbourhood of Dharavi, as a part of the design studio projects. In large ways, our present distinct understanding of Dharavi’s informality as a networked ‘work-live’ typology (that cannot be simply resolved in providing new housing in remote parts of the city), took seed in these academic exercises. At around the same time in 2003, a group of architects, artists and social practitioners, some associated with KRVIA, came together to formulate the Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT), whose intent was to seriously contemplate on the emerging urban changes within the city. Unlike the academic space, CRIT worked outside the exigencies of the institution, rather, it collaborated with a diverse set of scholars from different disciplines, and conducted independent research projects in order to expand frameworks and methods in deciphering the new form of the city. Much of CRIT’s work was focused on understanding this new urban realm and further through their work provoking to think about projected and possible ideas of (re)development, infrastructure, public space and right to urban space.

By 2005-06 when the city was on the verge of clearing Dharavi from the map – that was now the heartland and a prime real estate in the megacity of Mumbai – KRVIA strongly resisted and appealed to present an alternative imagination for this large informal settlement in contrast to the Mukesh Mehta plan that sought to re-work the entire place through absolute erasure of the rich cultural presence of Dharavi “slums”. As a reaction to the predominant myopic attitudes of imagining the city through tall mindless towers, Aneerudha Paul and Rohan Shivkumar, along with other faculty at KRVIA drove the problem straight into their design studios, involving the students to push for new ways of seeing, and further rethinking the environment, borrowing from their earlier mappings of Dharavi. The work produced over the studio became a valuable base to counter and put hold on the capital-centered, profit-oriented solutions, presenting to the Government optional ways in which redevelopment within the city could be imagined. This episode is enough to assert the creation of knowledge as mainstream “production” in the expanded field of architectural practice.

The growing discontent with the detrimental tendencies of capital driven design, made evident in the academic pursuits of KRVIA and CRIT, was also felt by several architects that prompted them further to look at their own contexts afresh for missed opportunities. The practice of Sameep Padora and Associates, for instance, has come to adapt research as integral to architectural practice. While Padora spends much of his time innovating typological formulations in his studio along with his associates, the firm has also given the dimension of soft advocacy to documentation and research. Experiments with forming architectural collectives, collaborations and associations are critically revisited post the economic depression of 2010. This is demonstrated in new alliances like the Bandra Collective – a group of architects and designers, including Sameep Padora, interested in collaborating on issues of public space primarily in their neighbourhood and beyond. The Bandra Collective looks to preserve and nurture specific urbanities that stitch the mosaic of city together. Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty from KRIVA and CRIT move on to institute the School of Environment & Architecture (SEA) in 2014, in collaboration with city architects and and a community based organization[4] with significant experience in conservation, environment, social work, urban design and research to fill the gap in the realm of architectural education that needs to attune to the fast changing nature of the city. Aligning practice and research strategically to each other has led to the reorientation of both – the profession and education.

‘Reading Architecture Practice’ merely collates these ideological directions that architectural practice has taken in order to shape and inform the built environment in response to the changing economic, social and cultural order of the city post 1990s, without pointing to their geopolitical underpinnings. Further, one should not overlook the fact, as Rohan Shivkumar remarked over a conversation, that these deviations by architects (in addition to many more) have come to be identified as valid and relevant forms of architectural practice in our context only after similar pursuits found place in the Western cultural and intellectual discourse. As we deliberate over the timeliness of the film within this historicization, we must recognize that it performs and provokes three important functions for practitioners of the built environment:

1. Reading: the need to observe and speculate the transformation of the physical, cultural and intellectual landscape we create and come to inhabit

2. Architecture: asking critical questions related to form and space in the urban environment therefore widening the scope of the practice

3. Practice: of how certain aspects of architectural training can be pulled and extended to politically inform and reshape urban history and lives of its inhabitants.

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ENDNOTES


[1] co-created by Rajeev Thakker, Samarth Das, Shreyank Khemalapure, Sunil Thakkar and Philippe Calia that documents five architectural practices in Mumbai: KRVIA (Aneerudha Paul & Rohan Shivkumar), P K Das & Associates (P K Das), CRIT / SEA (Prasad Shetty & Rupali Gupte), sP+a (Sameep Padora) and Vikas Dilawari Architects (Vikas Dilawari)

[2] Prasad was referring to the ‘State of Architecture’ exhibition that was hosted by NGMA in Mumbai, conceived by Mumbai-based curators Rahul Mehrotra, Kaiwan Mehta and Ranjit Honskote, the ‘State of Housing’ exhibition that is soon to take ground by the above set of curators, the books ‘In the Name of Housing’ produced by sP+a (Sameep Padora and Associates), and a bit earlier, ‘Boombay’ by Kamu Iyer and ‘People Called Mumbai’ by architect Nisha Nair who founded the People Place Project, in addition to the recent films ‘Nostalgia for the Future’ by Rohan Shivkumar and Avijit Mukul Kishore and indeed, ‘Reading Architecture Practice’.

[3] Around 2003, several efforts to transform Mumbai into a “world-class” city pushed the BMC to hire the International consulting firm Mckinsey who produced ‘Vision Mumbai’ document, whereas the ‘India Shining’ slogan was popularized by the then-ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) for the 2004 Indian general elections, wherein the dream to transform Mumbai to Shanghai was floated.

[4] The School of Environment and Architecture (SEA) is a joint initiative of Suvidya Prasarak Sangh (SPS) and Society of Environment and Architecture (SEA Mumbai). Suvidya Prasarak Sangh is a community based organization with an experience of over 40 years in running educational institutions. Source: www.sea.edu.in As accessed on 22nd August 2017




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Quip

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

I am perhaps not as interesting as a person, as in text.

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
 

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