Be­yond pretty things

Domus - - CONTENTS - Kai­wan Mehta

As the In­dian aca­demic year sets rolling for an­other an­nual cy­cle, it is al­ways an oc­ca­sion for one to be­gin think­ing about the broader field of prac­tice. We ed­u­cate stu­dents to be­come ar­chi­tects so that they can en­ter the pro­fes­sion and prac­tice, as well as par­tic­i­pate and con­trib­ute therein. How­ever, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween ed­u­ca­tion and prac­tice is more nu­anced, vexed and com­pli­cated than that; ed­u­ca­tion is surely not, and can­not be, sub­servient to prac­tice. But of­ten prac­ti­tion­ers are heard grum­bling loudly about how ed­u­ca­tion is in­ad­e­quate and does not give a ready­made prod­uct — a per­son who from day one at the work­place can de­liver all nec­es­sary tasks per­fectly. And then there is the de­bate on whether we pro­duce prod­ucts that can fit of­fices, or whether we make thinkers who will hope­fully, some­day, con­trib­ute to the wider field of ar­chi­tec­ture. The prob­lem is in the imag­ined di­vorce be­tween skill and thought — not only at the level of the schools and col­leges but also at the level of prac­tice.

A sim­i­lar prob­lem ex­ists when we imag­ine books, jour­nals, pub­li­ca­tions, ex­hi­bi­tions, col­lo­quia, and pub­lic dis­cus­sions on ar­chi­tec­ture as sep­a­rate, or worse, as sub­servient, to prac­tice. The for­mer forms of prac­tice are as much sites of pro­duc­tion as the nor­ma­tive arena of prac­tice — that of build­ing-de­sign­ing and -mak­ing. As much as the cen­tral task re­mains that of build­ing pro­duc­tion — a build­ing is pro­duced in brick, mor­tar, and steel, and con­crete, as much as it is pro­duced in dis­course, the re­cent dis­course on con­ser­va­tion, es­pe­cially that of Mod­ern or 20th-cen­tury struc­tures in In­dia, in the wake of the de­mo­li­tion of the build­ings in Pra­gati Maidan, fails to un­der­stand that it is not about His­tory as much as it is about the con­tem­po­rary imag­i­na­tion of ar­chi­tec­ture prac­tice to­day in In­dia. Ar­chi­tec­ture in to­day’s times is so rel­e­gated to the world of life­style and in­tri­cate de­tail­ing, and falsely cel­e­brates craft as po­etic skills, that it sits out­side the ro­bust dis­cus­sion on cul­ture and cul­tural pol­i­tics, and is way be­yond the imag­i­na­tion of pol­i­tics. Pol­i­tics, in fact, is seeped into ev­ery grain of ar­chi­tec­ture — nei­ther ar­chi­tects, nor po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists see ar­chi­tec­ture as the site of pol­i­tics. This is not to say that ar­chi­tec­ture has to be sym­bolic, mon­u­men­tal, or ex­pres­sive of some po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy overtly via its form or con­struc­tion. How­ever it is about the ev­ery­day pol­i­tics of place and be­ing that ar­chi­tec­ture ad­dresses, and can ad­dress, in good and sen­si­ble ar­chi­tec­tural works. How does the ed­u­ca­tion of an ar­chi­tect re­spond to some of these is­sues of dis­placed ar­chi­tec­ture prac­tice in con­tem­po­rary times, and the role of ev­ery­day pol­i­tics in the ev­ery­day act of de­sign­ing and build­ing? Pol­i­tics is in the ethics of imag­i­na­tion and mak­ing of build­ings to­day. It is about the sense of what de­fines a pro­gramme and a project, how far does the ar­chi­tect play along and where does s/he draw a silent and sub­ver­sive, or in­tel­li­gent twist to the tale. How much does the ar­chi­tect stretch her/his role in his ev­ery­day work­ing? In what ways can s/he stretch that role within the prac­tice of ev­ery­day de­sign­ing and build­ing? Pol­i­tics is not the overt ex­pres­sion of an ide­o­log­i­cal po­si­tion or a form of ac­tivism only; although those are ob­vi­ously at times re­quired as much. But pol­i­tics re­quired to­day is about the re­spon­si­bil­ity we need to have, be­yond ar­chi­tec­ture, and to be played out through ar­chi­tec­ture. Ar­chi­tec­ture has its ev­ery­day ex­is­tence — and so it is the site of ev­ery­day pol­i­tics. Ar­chi­tec­ture de­fines the fab­ric and phys­i­cal plane we oc­cupy in ev­ery­day lives along with the in­her­ent pol­i­tics, as well as the in­ter­ven­tion of de­sign that is then the key to un­der­stand­ing and recog­nis­ing the ev­ery­day sense of be­ing.

De­sign has to ad­dress the na­ture and sense of ev­ery­day pol­i­tics and cul­tural strug­gles within which it builds. Con­text can no longer be as nar­row-minded as cli­mate and soil, but is the cul­ture of pol­i­tics and the economies of cul­ture. This is why we bring to you, in this is­sue, a con­ver­sa­tion on a re­cent and very fine work of art his­tory, a book that art critic and cul­tural the­o­rist Nancy Ada­ja­nia writes on the artist Navjot Altaf; at some point both claim it is a col­lab­o­ra­tion — the book as a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the­o­rist and artist, be­tween thought and ac­tion, be­tween writ­ing and mak­ing. Prac­tice has been boldly re­de­fined in this book as an arena of ac­tion, ques­tions, shar­ing, and ar­gu­ing. In the same is­sue we go on to dis­cuss Beauty — an idea that is most dif­fi­cult to trap in a def­i­ni­tion or con­ver­sa­tion, and a con­cept most de­cep­tive and il­lu­sive. But the craft or words, the techne of po­etry and draw­ing out sen­tences, as well as the conceptual de­bates over his­tory and time — are all drawn upon to in­ves­ti­gate, and ask, what is Beauty af­ter all? There is an­other ques­tion — is Beauty out­side pol­i­tics? Is Beauty held be­tween mak­ing and think­ing, think­ing and mak­ing? Fi­nally, we in­tro­duce, from this is­sue on­wards, a clear and elab­o­rate en­gage­ment with Po­etry — the ar­chi­tec­ture of ideas as held within the con­struc­tion of words and word-im­ages; the fleet­ing na­ture of words as they leave be­hind mon­u­ments to mem­ory; and the crafted ge­og­ra­phy of sen­tences. This sec­tion, cu­rated by poet, cul­tural the­o­rist and critic Ran­jit Hoskote fea­tures, in fact, the ar­chi­tect Mus­tan­sir Dalvi, who is also well-known as a poet and trans­la­tor. In this en­gage­ment with po­etry, the arts of video and in­stal­la­tion art, or col­lab­o­ra­tions with tribal com­mu­ni­ties, we try to wres­tle out the ideas of prac­tice and ac­tion, think­ing and mak­ing, Beauty and pol­i­tics.

The two projects fea­tured are pur­pose­fully those that strike a bal­ance be­tween the ideas of life­style-mak­ing and the work­ings of de­sign. In the con­ver­sa­tions, we try to see this fine bal­ance and ar­gue for a more dy­namic role for de­sign; jug­gle the dilem­mas of pret­ti­ness ver­sus de­sign, the mis­con­cep­tions on craft or su­per­fi­cial and ba­nal as­sump­tions on what makes art; and what stands as clear and crisp de­sign. Let these read­ings stay with us as we look for­ward to re­view­ing soon the ideas on what shape ar­chi­tec­ture prac­tice is in, in In­dia to­day.

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