Sunday, December 09, 2012

Elephants in Bombay

1) A City Ages
Mumbai over the past few years has come to be a city that is in a constant state of construction. As if the audacious concretization aspires to compete with the speed and scale of natural deterioration within the city, where built forms catch dust, moss, cracks and crumble, very often at a rate faster than the human bodies that inhabit it. Signs of age seem to climb over every object, building and person like creepers that grow slowly but with a fierce determination rooted in consciousness of the inevitable outcome.
Presently raising the FAR/FSI is seen as a solution to trigger regeneration, but I only wonder what would happen in another 40 to 50 years when these 20 to 25 storey towers grow old and are crumbling, what would be the collateral then? How would the deficit between the true cost of maintenance and affordability based on earning capacities be rationalized  What kind of maintenance model will be required if the option of raising FSI is no longer viable? Or will a constant flow of infrastructure projects allow continuous expansion? Either which ways, this dialectics of ageing and reconstruction are here to tango till the bubble bursts or life here becomes unbearably agonizing and people migrate to second tier cities.
Through this turmoil of injections of new infrastructure, new construction, old decaying fabric, the city is in a state of constant change and that too with rapid speed, making it unable for someone to completely be able to grasp or even conjecture the nature of an intermediate state it tries to evolve towards.
Most of the spaces of my childhood memories have been forgotten by the city only to be replaced by skeletal concrete monoliths that form a wall depriving the city the very symbol of future hope, the line where the sea and sky meet, the horizon.

Most of us are now old enough to savour nostalgia, a feeling that comes when the balance between past reaches a critical limit in relation to the future, enjoying memories of what it used to be like and city that Bombay once was and how it has come to be Mumbai. The utopian optimism of being able to fight back, small intervention-big change attitude has been replaced by either proposals that are geared towards damage control (Zizek's capitalism but with a human face) or intense mapping exercises (AMO's this is the present, now and here and no use resisting it), and so interestingly most sentences in most conversation seem to start with the word "interestingly", summing up the total disconnection that professionals have from the built environment, restricted to purely being witnesses that record, re-record and represent these recording in subversive ways to balance the guilt of impotency.
Like everything else, age has caught up if not with them then with people close to them, as they try to find solutions to the state of ageing in this city.
My grandmother who has crossed 85, recently moved in our home. Her frail and fragile body bears witness to this city she lived in, her entire life, Dadar Shivaji Park (1937 to 1951),Thane Charai (1951 to 1960), Goregaon Pandurangwadi (1960 to 1962), Cotton Green Kala Chowki (1963 to 1985), Mulund (1986 to 2012),Borivali (2012 onwards). Having short term memory she constantly enquires of her grandchildren once an hour which my father patiently responds to, in manner as if the question was never asked before.
My maternal grandfather lives with my aunt and struggles through with similar problems of age.
This state of vulnerability and return to innocence according to me is the most merciless but yet in some ways appropriate form of redemption to our existence, and deserves the dignity that this fast paced, aggressive city very often cannot afford.
A Thesis on old age homes:
A friend of mine, Namrata Kapoor, few years back had researched and designed an old age home as a thesis topic. One of the issues that she dealt with was the relevance of having old age and its supporting institutions within the city and and not exiled outside the city limits as is the case with lots of old age homes here. I wonder given the changes that have taken place within this city and the aggression that seem to increase exponentially with increase in density and shortage of resources, would the question of "is old age relevant to this city?" needs to be reframed as "is this city relevant for old age?"

The process/state of ageing here is not a noble one, dignified with responsibilities of holding our collective past, neither is it Clint Eastwood commanding respect and a farewell with a finale, rather it is a sad process of decay and suffering and old age only inhibiting memories...bearing witness to this nature of change to me is somewhat like asking a grandparent do you remember me and seeing their eyes desperately search for signs of recognition in your face, just as i search for fast eroding spaces from my childhood in the city of Mumbai.

2) A City comes of Age
As Bombay grows in infrastructure and density, amid all the chaos there seems to be a sense of optimism from some people whom i spoke to, of things changing rapidly (for good or for worse was not of much concern, but the speed), and within that rapidity one has to fish opportunity at the precise moment it jumps towards you (think of Alaskan bears catching salmon). This strange optimism only seems to be growing, as if with a little more toil, little more risk and little more compromises the battle with the city would be won; dreams, desires and aspirations fulfilled. As one of my friend back in Bombay said, over the past 1 year he can see the boom of a booming economy. 
Another one explained that a lot of things presently seem to work purely out of good faith, like the experience of crossing a highway and having good faith in the driver that he wont run over you, while the driver having complete faith in you breaking the traffic signal and crossing from unexpected places, so his speed is slow and he is more alert than an average driver abroad. 
The complexity that Bombay shelters provides for a constant source of study, research, mapping, representation and interventions, built and unbuilt, professional and academic of various scales. the opportunities and potentials are endless..the unrest will follow..."it is only a matter of time...have faith..."

3) Elephants in the City
To me witnessing changes in Bombay is like the experience of seeing elephants in the middle of the city. One is immediately struck by awe at the magnificence of the beast, only to dwell on how the animal survives and then looking carefully at damages that the city life has done to it. It is surreal experience with certain sense of strange optimism mixed with melancholia(?). There are no absolutes here, as even elephants dissolve away in the noise and smog of the city.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Ball Project

Prajakt Patil a friend and former classmate from KRVIA, has done something which very few of us have been able to, an active on field intervention within the context that we so dearly love and love to talk about.
While we remain bar-tendering each other various bottom up theories of understanding, mapping and intervening in a city like Mumbai without thinking of the interface or re-representation required so that these mappings go beyond the closed socio-economic circles and to the people, community and groups being mapped and represented, Prajakt and his colleague have done just the opposite. 
The sheer simplicity of their method and clarity of intent absolves them of any naivety that may get leveled onto them by anyone (bearded academician doing complex mapping exercises to gain funding from contradictory sources but intending to subvert the hierarchy through 'wink wink it could also be read otherwise' paraphrasing).
Vitriol aside, but this is a truly brilliant work that needs all the support and appreciation that it deserves. Here is a slide show that Prajakt was happy to share and explains the aim and method adopted. Truly brilliant work.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Fully Finished

Some photos of completely finished Guglee Indian Restaurant, London. 
All photos courtesy of Engineer turned professional Artist and Photographer Ranjit Kandalgaonkar.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Recent Spat

A recent spat between Chipperfield and Wolf Prix over the brief for Venice biennale  represents the contradiction that exist within our profession. There are architects who believe their contribution works towards making this world a better place, while some like me are always suspicious that we are assisting in creation of environments that will only assert and strengthen the same socio-economic hierarchy, so the true exploration of 'Common Grounds' should be represented differently.
RIBA as an institute that provides licences to architects to practise in the UK and thereby maintains quality but has very little power when it comes to the market forces that govern the price or even the size of the dwellings. According to a recent survey the dwelling sizes in many cases are as low as 77% of the recommended size. so in such cases the 'element of humanitarian effort' is often shouldered at an individualistic level, in the spirit of trying to do our best within the constraints which ofcourse comes with an asterisk of if the developer permits. These endeavours often become personal battles waged with option 1 which is more profitable and option 2,3,4 and 5 developed during late after office hours by some underpaid intern or worse, a slaving optimist, to have the opportunity to do some good. The choice of the preferred option is determined by the profitability, so option 1 wins, but there is always a warm feeling that we tried out best, and the saving grace skewed block from option 2 did get accepted in option 1. So it wasn't all that bad, we lose some we gain some...and many other self congratulatory phrases that I feel go along the lines of Zizek's anecdote on subversive politics.
To be blatantly honest as architects we have very little control over the environments we design, if the economy and market forces facilitate shoebox houses with bad light and ventilation and on the condition they start selling, we would be very soon presenting each other case studies and precedents of such "interesting high density" housing types.
A very basic preliminary survey of all the new developments taking place around London mostly due to the coalition government's policies geared towards first time buyers and faith in the idea that we can build ourselves out of recession, shows a considerable reduction in floor heights, this in itself is an excellent example of how even the best practise standards are manipulated by the market, so if an architect were to design such a residential project, he/she would ofcourse do the best one can but within the specifications of low ceiling heights as kindly requested by the developer, or if you are BIG who follow the motto Yes if More, you could reduce the height even more so that ones hair brushes against the ceiling, but with an advantage of a beautiful lush garden on the rooftop with collages of happy families enjoying the views to the city.
So what should we do? one friend suggested, "just make a choice, either this side or that". I wish it were as simple. to print my ticket to global occupy movement and become a farmer, or take refuge within academic space.
Another said think of it as subversive..with and against, fighting the system from inside, this unfortunately keeps bringing the happy Russian farmer (from Zizek's link above) to my mind...or the example of university professors who teach in Columbia but their true heart resides in Cuba. (Zizek you bastard! I was happy once!)
Though another friend who was more sympathetic to the confusions brewing in my head explained, life is like driving, if everyone drives strictly by the rules there will be accidents all around, so instead we look around, negotiate with the context and continue driving, but with an acknowledgement that contradictions do exist and we have to drive none the less, because there is no choice.
I hope by the end of our drive, atleast some of us, reach a destination that we pride in as architects living lives filled with constraints, complexities and most importantly contradictions.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The presence of absence of presence....

Camels in Koran
Luis Borges in 'Argentine writer and Traditions' responds to Edward Gibbons doubts overs Koran being an Arabian work, "Gibbon observes that in the Arabian book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubts as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work", and further elaborating that camels being a part of everyday life, it may have never occurred to an Arab to mention it, and thus the absence actually is a stronger evidence than the animal being mentioned.
Canary Wharf

Trailing along this narrative we can say that the role of industry in Britain may have been such that it never felt any necessary need to invest energies in branding (a strategic word that comes into effect when people try to sell shit for more than what it is worth) itself, its role and relevance was rest assured within the bigger scheme  of things, say as against banking which comes across as a more abstract entity with people clueless about why banking is more precious to British economy than Industry that it gets a state intervention (bailout) when in need...or what is it that they produce? or make? that makes their presence in the middle of urban areas more legitimate than industry or agriculture especially in an era where the image of transaction of numbers with light speed can be done from and to any place on this networked globe.

Pages of record
In Tomas Alfredson's film, 'Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy' based on a book by John Le Carre, the audience is introduced right in midst of 1970s cold war era's British intelligence suffering through enemy infiltration and its efforts to purge this enemy within. This plot further layered with signs, symbols and dialogues that only arouse suspicion of every character, including the lead detective on the case George Smiley played by Gary Oldman, the audience by the middle of the film looks at every occurrence as a plot. But there is only one moment in the film where, both the audience so well trained in suspicion and the detective are absolutely sure of the evidence, which is the absence of pages that record Ricki Tarr's (played by Tom Hardy) message sent on the stated day. This absence of pages is a stronger evidence of his innocence than say them finding the pages with his stated message, wherein there would had always been doubt if this record too is a part of a bigger plot! 
Maybe it is this absence of industry that provides a stronger evidence of its sincerity to put it naively (In "Extracts from L'Organisateur" 1819, Claude-Henri de Saint Simon (1760-1825) having baptised by the French revolution in his lifetime makes a sharp distinction between the idle and the useful in society through the sincerity of effort of production/making). 

Einstein forward
In a viral anecdote that everyone receives sometime or the other as an email forward, an atheist professor trying to explain his students the absence of God through presence of evil, is proved wrong by a young student who replies back that the presence of cold is purely the absence of heat or presence of dark is only the absence of light, just as presence of evil is purely the absence of divinity. Maybe the absence of industry purely proves the absence of much needed state interventions of Olympian proportions to encourage industry, which instead were going towards development of special economic zones for the service industry?

Maybe all this tirade is only a reaction to my recent visit to the Olympic Park. Its landscape changed beyond recognition, having successfully turned into a place with no memories..a clean slate, we don't know the industry that existed here, the people who used to work, the inventions that took place here, nothing. The confidence provided by the massive investment of global capital is so strong that it was never felt at any point in time that maybe somethings could reflect the history or some idea of the pastThe surrounding area which once was strongly integrated with people, their livelihood and the community is reduced to artificial manicured background landscape of canals, canal side walks, jogging tracks and bridges for the urban bourgeoisie content with having a matchbox house within a sketchup building surrounded by an equally sterile landscape devoid of any complexity/contradictions, to finally feel at home....smells like a rotten cat to me.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Guglee 2

Recently Nora and me collaborated to design a 50 seater Indian restaurant  with live kitchen by the name Guglee located in West Hampstead, London. The client team is a group of young enterprising people from various streams of restaurant and hotel industry who have come together to form a combination that provides good food, great service and most importantly facilitates opportunities to fresh ideas. The design is a result of us as designers and them as clients working together towards a constructive buildup of the final product.

The restaurant opened few weeks back and was well received by the customers, so if you do happen to be around west hampstead do drop by and let me know what you feel.

Additional drawings, details, 3ds and photos to follow very soon.

Paris Trip

Day 1 (6th April 2012)
Arrival at Garde du Nord.
Monmarte, Basilique de Sacre Coeur,
Artists Square (Place du tertre)
Pigalle, Moulin Rouge.
Lunch @ Suffren on Avenue de la Motte Picquet
Tour Eiffel
Muse'e du Quai Branly (Jean Nouvel)
Rue Cler (pedestrian street with restaurants)

Day 2 (7th April 2012)
Centre Pompidou
Hotel de Ville
Walk around Notre Dame Cathedral
St. Louis, Siene Riverside, Islands
Cite Square
Walk along Bvld St Michel
Luxembourg Gardens
Dinner @ St. Germaine

Day 3 (8th April 2012)
Place de la Concorde
Jardin des Tuileries
Place des Pyramides
Muse'e du Louvre
Institute du Monde Arab (Jean Nouvel)
Notre Dame Cathedral
Dinner @ Quartier Latin

Day 4 (9th April 2012)
Arc de Triumphe
Walk along Champs-E,lyse'e
Citroen building, Rond Point,
Grand Palais, Petit Palais
Av. Winston Churchill, Pont Alexandre 3 bridge,
Walked along river Cours la Reine
Jardin de Trocadero
Lunch @ Monmarte.

In Woody Alen's Midnight in Paris one of the character rhetorically asks "has there been any painting, movie, photograph, book or poem that can compete with a city?", One thing here is certain him asking this in Paris certainly strengthens his case. Beautiful city and a very appropriate one for a film that celebrates nostalgia and retreat from the present, just as we retreated from our present day routines of everyday life designing single serving city-like, banal geographies Paris....

Saturday, March 10, 2012


In the world of our friendly neighbourhood underpaid intern or rather intern who pays to work...a world where architects eat their young, and RIBA cant do shit...and magazines are filled with glorified egos of slave driving practices...there is some hope for venting frustration if not changing situations...Archleaks.