Sunday, March 29, 2009

G20 summit

(group photo from previous summit)
As we are confronted by the global economic crises, the hypocrites of the world united, converge for the G20 summit to discuss creative ways to once again attempt to sell the classic oxymoron of "principled capitalism". Reforming International Financial Institution, the IMF and the World Bank seem to be some of the explicitly unavoidable points on the itinerary that shall get discussed in order to collaboratively plot more sophisticated adjustments to global economies to continue 'business as usual'.
Organizations by the name 'Put People First' described as "a coalition of development charities, trade unions, faith groups, environmentalists and other organisations, formed in response to call for a fair, sustainable route out of recession" on their website, have been successful in gathering a collective for a protest march involving thousands of people taking to the streets from Embankment to Hyde Park.
I personally don’t believe protests by themselves bring change, but they are very important and extremely instrumental in forming a collective conscience and asserting conspicuous pressure on representatives that we elect. This point in time, the protest is not for a comparatively small project affected population (Mill lands or Narmada Bachao Andolan), neither is it for a niche cause not apparent enough to our everyday lives (Purple snails in the 6 sector of Amazonian rainforest) but it may come to be one of the first truly global protest that may sow the seeds for further sporadic global representations of discontent against systems of state and private oppression. (please note as I desperately refrain from using the R word)

Thursday, March 26, 2009


If silence had eyes it would had seen the world somewhat similar to Michael Kenna's photographs. The photographs are taken during dawn or night, under low light conditions with the exposure lasting sometimes upto 10 hours which gives the photographs an ethereal light and high contrast. They reminded me of some of Ranjit's paintings that had similar ideas of distant, secluded landscapes of silence.
On one of the sites one can see him having experimented with using similar technique for photographing cities, but the noise of the city seems to prevent the silence from being recorded.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Watchmen and Architects

We are all humans and so are the super humans, and to err IS human. But in a world that exists at the end of History 'to err' is filled with complications that can only be observed and comprehended as a viewer of the film. But in order to achieve such a vantage point of being able to comprehend (the oppression that one is inflicting and is being inflicted on) the choice lies between Rorschach and Dr Manhattan. Rorschach with his moral absolutism, operates at the scale of streets, alley ways and trail along local networks, thereby clearly defining the crime and judging the criminal. But at the same time he cannot have the view of geography and time as Dr. Manhattan, whose world unlike Rorschach's clear mirrored inkblots is filled with a spectrum of colours that he himself has no control over.

His powers make it necessary for him to intervene and his interventions provide him the power; Somewhat like Rem Koolhas's interventions in the Middle East. His ability to enter and cater to a closed circuit of rich oil barons, sheikhs, dictators in the middle east, provide him the power to voice opinion through his projects, but this voice is at the expense of supporting a dictatorial regime with all its flaws. These interventions provide his parallel journalistic endeavours with fertile data and statistics that further build a complex pattern of the world. A view informed by networks within inaccessible information circles of capital and power, highly skilled labour, hired specialised consultants and finally a lot of support lobbies among various states.

But at the end when the two dialectics meet and the choice of Right to Information has the possibility to result in complete chaos, the days of the small but sternly aligned architect are over. Rorschach loses his capacity to intervene and dies a hero. I wonder what the film would be like if instead of Rorschach, Dr Manhattan would had been the narrator/ the sutradhar...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Unfair and Square

I always believed no place could be considered to be Tabula Rasa in the present context, not even the desert, till I started working where I work. Somehow there are certain contexts where not only the geography but also social life is a desert devoid of public life, filled with suppression and a dictatorial administration asserting all forms of social injustice. In such a scenario it is not very surprising when numerous design offices come up with a square plan as a symbol of refuting the existing context, like a square floating raft (like Thomas Moore's Utopia) where the designer can build his own imagined worlds, where women have equal rights, spaces have active democratic public life and people earn and live with dignity. The square raft has public spaces, green spines, market squares, towers, villas, institutions of democracy and even artefacts and symbols of culture and history...roads and infrastructure spin out of this raft and anchor it within this sea of sand and oil that it desperately refuses to acknowledge.Below are some of the square master plans being developed in the middle east:

(image source Dezeen, which has renderings at street level)
in addition to this below are some video links advertising the city like one would advertise a new gadget like a mobile phone:
a) Masdar initiative
b) Design promotion by Foster
c) City aerial fly through
d) City zones
e) Masdar headquarters and built form branding

1) The plan of MASDAR (UAE, 2007), by Foster + Partners epitomizing creation of sustainable utopia with carbon neutral and zero waste community for UAE. All these good intentions surrounded by a property market already advertising this city as a brand to be sold and speculated in the name of sustainability!

(image source from Archidose who also gives a glimpse into the petty fight between 2 starchitects over originality of idea)

(images sourced from Dezeen, the site also provides ideas of concept, landuse and project teams)
2) OMA's plan for CITY IN THE DESERT, (UAE, 2006) Ras Al-Khaimah, in the northern part of the UAE. coincidently OMA provides a brief that represents the city building activity as a design enquiry and not an urge to do social or environmental good.

(images sourced from Dezeen which also provides details of areas, floor space, projected populations and other interesting statistics, in addition to the rendered views of the project)
3) This is another plan developed by OMA called the WATERFRONT CITY (Dubai,2008), that floats within the lagoon formed by the crazy embroidery of egos that surround it.

(image courtesy B&M architects)
4) This plan is done by B&M architects for Jeddah harbour area master plan .Their website has very little description of design development or brief but it being designed in the year 1996, clearly makes it a predecessor to most other square plans being developed in the middle eastern context or should I say acontext.

Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

China Photography

For people who are interested in hyper densities, manufacturing sector, people and images from china but have always been stopped by the inaccessible Chinese wall of media control and censorship, Michael Wolf's photography website might be an important source of visual images.His website describes him as having "born in Munich, Germany. He grew up in the USA and studied at UC Berkley and at the University of Essen in Germany. He has been living and working as a photographer and author in China for ten years...Wolf has been intensively concerned with the topic of vernacular culture for many years. His most recent work deals with the issue of the cultural identity of the city of Hong Kong. The exhibition "Architecture of Density" shown in New York in February 2004 is a part of Michael Wolf's Hong Kong project. Thames and Hudson will publish Michael Wolf’s new work "Hong Kong, The Front Door/The Back Door” in 2005".
On his website the section particularly dealing with Hong Kong contains some really beautiful images that seem to smoothly balance between art, archive and politics of image making. Within his China editorial work, his classifications of images and the archive itself is simple but extremely powerful. This seems to be one of the very few sites spared by the Chinese authorities. Below are some of the images by Michael Wolf from his website (the Hong Kong hyper density section)...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Recession as an excuse for exploitation

The economic recession and reduction in the global job market has created extreme competition within people (with different priorities and access to opportunities) for jobs. This in turn has led to the recession being used as an excuse by the employer to negotiate with the employee for the cost of his / her labour. If you are one of the many professionals being exploited by recession, it is important that you do not allow this to devalue (if you are thinking about working for free) or undervalue your skills and capabilities. Form small groups with your equals or friends, work for a competition or towards developing visions and ideas, take shelter within academic spaces and find venues through floating culture capital but by no means let your value be decided by a desperate employer wanting to keep his office profits afloat at your expense. So beware of underpaid office internships promising a learning experience!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Pictures of the Floating World (Ukiyo-e)

An art form that grew with the 'floating' and unbound (from the traditional Japanese class structure) merchant class between the 17th and 20th century came to be known as Ukiyo-e literally translating as pictures from the floating world. These being wood block prints could be mass produced and were affordable. The subjects for the images range from Japanese urban life, landscapes, everyday activities, public spectacles like sumo matches etc. As this art form also started with the intention of being illustrations to books, stories, theatre scripts that were being churned out by the merchant class, the paintings are easy to comprehend, simple but powerful in their compositions and carry some amount of text explaining the plot of the image. Around the mid 18th century certain technological advancements allowed production of full colour prints that came to be known as nishiki-e which are my personal favourites especially the ones of Hiroshige and Hokusai.
One of my Japanese friends Hiroshi also informed me that these prints were also used as covers of wrapping papers to protect the official document, making the protective cover as important as the document. Maybe it is exactly this combination of mass production, beauty and easy comprehension that must have made this art form most threatening to the state and higher classes that asserted strict rules against use of political subjects, individuals above the lowest strata of society (courtesans, wrestlers and actors) and sex as subjects for the prints. Going by present times and an urgent need for Agitprop this may be a very important tool for designers to contribute through.
Below are some of my favourite Ukiyo-e prints.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Corbusier @ the Barbican

There could have been no better venue to exhibit works by Le Corbusier in London other than the Barbican. The Barbican estate came into being just after the WW2 between 1965 and 1976, on a 35-acre site, designed by architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. The central water body, the podium connected with numerous and often confusing bridges as public spaces and grey towers that form walls protecting this concrete utopia are prime example of Modern Brutalist architecture. Interestingly the conception of this estate started in the same year when Le Corbusier had his last swim towards the setting sun in the Mediterranean Sea on 27th august 1965.
The exhibition includes some really good drawings and models besides the modular furniture and some art works. A dark monochrome wooden block model approximately 2 X 2 meters with Chandigarh city being represented through carved relief work was beautiful, reminded me of the time when I had the opportunity to look at the Chandigarh complex from the terrace of the secretariat building. The models of Ronchamp and the recently completed Sainte Pierre in a small French town of Firminy were stunning. The exhibition also has some really interesting models and drawings of unrealized mega visions like plan Obus in Algiers and Ville Contemporaine in Paris.
If we go by the words of Ludwig von Mises "[The planners] are driven by the dictatorial complex. They want to deal with their fellow men in the way an engineer deals with the materials out of which he builds houses, bridges, and machines. They want to substitute "social engineering" for the actions of their fellow citizens and their own unique all-comprehensive plan for the plans of all other people. They see themselves in the role of the dictator—the duce, the F├╝hrer, the production tsar—in whose hands all other specimens of mankind are merely pawns. If they refer to society as an acting agent, they mean themselves. If they say that conscious action of society is to be substituted for the prevailing anarchy of individualism, they mean their own consciousness alone and not that of anybody else" (The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science) I believe Le Corbusier fits this profile, every time he left architecture and went for urban planning and design, but none the less this man did it with suave!

A lot of us urban planners and designers get such opportunities while we cater to benevolent dictators, rich clients and even important institutions of democracies but very rarely do we see such cohesive utopian visions formulated and asserted on the urban landscape. Most of the times it lands up becoming a muddled up patchwork of egos, bureaucracy, client's desires, miscommunication, regional and global political upheavals and we land up with a Frankenstein of a plan that no one and sometimes not even the design firm is responsible for. One thing we have to accept is Le Corbusier can be critiqued because he designed and design is commitment that goes beyond statistics and words and he seemed to have managed the design part of his life quite successfully.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Fairy tales & Illustrations

In the book store not so surprisingly I often find myself spending more time in the children’s section. I relish going through very minutely detailed illustrations of surreal narratives that have taken root in various cultures and time periods, and stand to reflect the value systems embodied within every society. The text and illustrations feed on each other but at the same time possess the ability to be independent works. The illustrations sometimes do not necessarily illustrate the text but build their own narratives to play a game of curiosity and intrigue, where one leaves the text and gets engrossed within the illustration, absorbing every line, detail, colour and composition. But of recently I find the pages having become glossier and the illustrations less detailed, with the narratives sterilized by our political righteousness. The stories seem to have lost their sense of imagination, .Maybe these new glossy, simple, sterile fairy tales are reflections of our current society...
Some illustrations by Ivan Bilbin (1876 – 1942) and Arthur Rackham (1867 – 1939) two of my favourite illustrators, who played an important role in rendering some of the most beautiful stories with their imagination.