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Multi Functional Spaces  

shankar-narayanaThe practice of SHANKAR NARAYAN ARCHITECTS was started in 1988 by G.SHANKAR NARAYAN as an individual taking up residential projects. right from the beginning the practice was known for its innovative design, cos effective and eco sensitive techniques of construction, professionalism and financial integrity. over the years these values have not changed, but we have grown into one of the most recognized and respected architectural practices in Hyderabad. Today we handle projects varying from campus designs, software facilities, mass housing and corporate interiors right down to individual residences. We have deliberately resisted specialization in any one genere of buildings because, as architects we feel it is our mandate to deal with human shelter in the largest sense of the term. We relish innovation and fashion our designs after thinking deeply about the profile and the psyche of the user. We avoid gimmicky architecture and rely on the fundamentals of scale, proportion, light and honest use of materials to create spaces and forms in which man feels an eternal sence og belonging.

SHANKAR NARAYAN, Director

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NOTHING CONCRETE design process starts with the careful consideration of program and site as part of the overall matrix for generation of ideas.

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Connecting to the Cosmos

The topic of Vaastu raises passions among people, especially in our state. There are very few you would find that are ambivalent on this issue. You either have the believers – and their tribe is growing – or the non-believers. But either way, the fact that people are sensitive to the issue, itself shows that they are concerned about how they live and how their houses and the spaces they inhabit are designed and built. And that is a good thing. Vaastu rules are sought to be applied to improve the comfort of living in a built environment – both physically and psychologically. That itself is not enough, it seems today, as the space has to be made to work for you to provide you with even more health and wealth.

My previous piece “The Horrors of ‘Vaastu Shaastra’” tried to look at this subject in a half funny way. What it spoke about was the popular dos and donts in the field today expounded by so called experts. Things like the clockwise direction of staircases, odd or even number of doors, floors sloping in a particular direction etc. I compare these dictats to something like the icing on the cake. It is superfluous but adds to the look and feel of the cake. However, today it has become all-important, often to the neglect of what lies underneath, the real cake itself!

Since time immemorial, man has been trying to connect to the cosmos. And he has been using architecture to do so. The ancient temples of the Mayan civilization in South America have been found to be distributed across the landscape in a way that mirrors one of the stellar constellations. The Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt has the king’s funereal chamber deep within, positioned at such an angle that the sunlight on a particular day of the year pierces through the darkness to travel down a narrow shaft to momentarily illuminate the Pharaoh’s grave. Even today, in Hindu temples, the sanctum sanctorum with the presiding deity faces east, to catch the rays of the rising sun, considered to be cleansing. But if you are discerning enough, you will notice that these grand cosmic designs are for large public buildings, especially of the religious and spiritual types. This is where Man’s spiritual search leads him to somehow relate to the vast cosmos that lies beyond his tiny world and try to make sense of it and interpret it to his convenience and understanding.

While temples and tombs are the places where the spirit resides, it is in houses that man lives a practical and sensual life. The house, therefore, has to accommodate all the practical necessities of comfortable living, such as light, ventilation, privacy etc. And this has to be so for every room as per its function. For instance, the kitchen should have good ventilation, the bedroom should be cool at night and have privacy, the study be well lit and so on. Not just this, but the amount of light and ventilation would vary from place to place depending on the prevalent climate of that region. Today, popular Vaastu makes it mandatory to position certain rooms in certain directions, for example, the master bedroom in the South West, kitchen in the South East, entrance and pooja in the North East and guest bedroom in the North West. The SW of the building is to be higher than the NE and so on. Do we understand why we do this? Or are we content to robotically follow the written down rules. In my opinion, the position of these rooms has evolved in a purely logical manner specific to the climate of our country. For instance, the SE location of the kitchen must have probably evolved like this. In the olden days – and even today in villages – the hearth is lit with firewood or dried cow dung cakes, which would have been stored outside the house. Naturally these would have become moist with the overnight dew and had to be dried in order to fire them in the morning. The first rays of the sun in our part of the world strike on the South East and by stacking it in that corner of the house they would have dried quicker making it easier to light a fire. The stove would also have been close by and this gradually became the kitchen corner or ‘agneya’. The breeze also generally blows from the south, so the smoke also would have been taken away from the house rather than into it. Similar kind of logic probably applied to the SW position of the master bedroom or the ‘nyruthi’ corner. As the SW is the hottest corner of the house due to the blazing afternoon sun, the walls of this room must have been made thicker to insulate against the heat. The windows too would have been kept small to keep out the harsh sun. Automatically, this corner turned out to be the most secure part of the house due to the thick walls and small openings, so all the valuables of the family like gold and jewellery may have been stored here. The owner would have slept here to guard them and this became the main bedroom. To keep this ’valuable’ corner farthest from strangers and intruders, the main entry to the house would have to be diagonally opposite, that is the NE (eesaniyam). The only remaining corner, the NW (vayu) naturally fell to the remaining function of the house – probably what we call the guest bedroom today.

Technological advancements have to a large extent made many of these room positions irrelevant – for example we no longer cook with firewood in the city and hence there is no logic anymore to the kitchen remaining in the SE. We have fans and A.C’s for cooling, so the master bedroom can be any corner, not just the SW. But despite this, a lot of this positioning logic still remains valid in independent houses if one wants to take advantage of the natural sunlight and breeze, as the sun still rises in the east and breeze blows from the south. However it is in apartments that are built in our state that a literal interpretation of Vaastu is taken to almost absurd lengths. With every individual apartment in the block trying to follow Vaastu, we end up with dark unventilated kitchens opening on to corridors, bedrooms without privacy and natural breeze, drawing and dining rooms where a tube light has to be left on through the day. Certainly this is not at all good for the health of the occupants – what it does to their wealth is open to question.

Vaastu rules were written so that the best of the natural elements could grace the house and bring good health with prosperity to the occupants. But today Vaastu is being practiced more out of fear of some evil descending on you if you do not conform to the dogmatic fossilized set of commandments propagated by the ‘experts’. Vaastu Shastra, as far as places where people live and work are concerned, has to be a living science that has to be constantly upgraded as newer forms of buildings emerge. The bottom line as ever should be the total comfort of man in the built environment. No two ways about that.

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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Doctors, Staircases and Round Buildings

Doctors, we thought are unemotional beings given the imperatives of their profession. But it looks like they go weak-kneed when it comes to staircases! A recent news item had the president of the Alumni of the Gandhi Medical College saying that they wanted to shift the old staircase in their college building to the new campus and build their new building around it. To quote him, “For nearly 19 years I have gone up and down that staircase innumerable number of times. For every GMC pass out there are several memories associated with it. Thus we wanted it to remain with the students of GMC.”

Undoubtedly spaces evoke memories. I remember my school summer holidays spent in my grandfather’s village house and the courtyard where all the cousins used to play cricket and the backyard where my grandmother used to tell us stories while we ate sitting on the floor. Man’s memory patterns are always contextual. Whenever we remember events, the images at the backdrop are invariably architectural, which is why we want to conserve architecture to keep our memories alive.

The whole subject of architectural conservation is an outcome of man’s sentimental attachment to memories. Why would he spend often more than what a spanking new building would cost, to repair and keep going – sometimes with steroid-like inputs – a creaky old building? Note the difference here with protecting historical monuments, which is what the ASI does. They are preserving history and a way of life for present and future generations to study. Their job is not to make the structures habitable but just preserve them as icons of an age gone by. On the other hand, architectural conservation is all about continuing to use old buildings by rehabilitating them, not necessarily for the same use that it was originally built for. It could be a more contemporary use – for example Paigah Palace being used as the HUDA office and palaces and forts in Rajasthan being converted into five star hotels.

What is important here is the exterior form or façade- never mind the insides hollowed out and transformed into an ultra-modern interior fitted out with the latest gadgetry. After all man can’t do without his creature comforts! And this I found was law in the west, especially in Edinburgh in Scotland where entire streets had old building facades hiding swanky office complexes behind. (In that sense vintage cars enthusiasts are more genuine, in that they continue to run them with their old engines and not a new Peugeot diesel!) Therefore more than the interior, the public face of the building – the façade becomes important. And the exterior belonging to the public domain connects to the collective memories of a city or culture. There is generally a public hue and cry when there is any disfiguring or transgressing of this external form, even if the property is privately owned. The recent demolition of the ‘Round Building’ in Vishakapatnam and the subsequent public anger bears this out. If that ‘midnight builder’ who razed the building to the ground overnight had retained the external form and redone the interior to suit his needs, no one would have batted even an eyelid. Now the building and the memories it represents are lost forever. But the moot point is – will its reconstruction, as proposed by some, evoke the same spirit and memories as the original did? Can the new stones speak the same language as the old ones? I think not. Time moves only in one direction. What is likely to evoke a feeling of melancholy is to retain the ruins and the rubble as a lesson to the defacement of history. If technology permits I would even suggest a 3D holographic image of the original structure hovering ghost-ily over the ruins to remind the people of the haste with which we often play with history and public memory.

Strangely, even though we talk so proudly about our culture and history, which is considerably more ancient than the west where old buildings are painstakingly conserved, we tend to have an extremely callous attitude towards conservation. At every street corner of our cities there is a heritage building standing on its last legs, but we don’t care. It is a typically human and more specifically Indian attitude – anything that is in plenty has considerably less value. In India, the two things we find in abundance are history and people and we do not care about either!

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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Does Style strangle Creativity?

Bernardo Fort-Brescia was in town recently. Who is he? An American architect whose firm Arquitectonica, has offices in some 10 cities across the world, ongoing projects in 27 or so countries, a staff of 300 architects…big, certainly by architectural practice standards. At the visual presentation of his works we saw a repertoire ranging from super high-rise apartments, million square foot malls, corporate headquarters, entire towns! But the impression one got was that if you have seen one, you have seen them all. Acres of reflective glass clad every façade be it in Chile or Hong Kong and bright colours and bold angular forms dominated. Talking to him at the informal tea after the presentation, Fort-Brescia came across as a down to earth person alive to the economics of the society he designs in, conscious of its ethnicity and idiosyncrasies and sensitive to local environmental issues. But why did that not reflect in his architecture?

Take any creative field – music, dance, cinema, painting…the connoisseur of music can instantly identify the vocalist as M.S. or Bhimsen listening to no more than a note. Hussain’s strokes or Vaikuntam’s palette of colours are easily recognised, even predictable. The same with Satyajit Ray’s evocative frames or Rahman’s foot tappers. The greatest artistes become slaves to style.

Ditto with architects. A glance at a façade or even a small part of it and I can say whether the design is by Correa, Doshi or Laurie Baker. The signature is so evident. Correa has a penchant for low-slung white walls with brightly coloured windows and graphics and a free flow of space. Doshi, on the other hand has a strict control over the materials (mostly exposed brick, concrete and stone) and large double heights with pergolas. But it is probably architect Laurie Baker whose style has acquired the status of a brand, just like Louise Phillips trousers or John England shirts. Baker’s approach to construction is essentially one of using materials in their natural form, without unnecessary finishing, to achieve economy. With good quality brick and tiles being abundant and cheap in his home state of Kerala, his architectural language has evolved with these materials. Clients have often approached me wanting a “Baker” house in Hyderabad, where possibly you get the worst quality brick and hardly any tiles at all. What they want is a house that looks like a Baker design never mind the cost. So you see how style has risen to become a brand.

So what is it that makes each one of us so individualistic and ‘stylistic’? Apart from things like our childhood environment, upbringing, parentage etc. in a field like architecture, the most telling influence on one’s style is from one’s mentors – the architects’ one works for in the formative years just after college. Creative fields require hands on learning, not just theoretical knowledge. So this is where, like in a gurukul, the mentor moulds one’s thought process. A set process and a stream of thought naturally lead to one kind of solution, which becomes one’s style. So in order to change one’s style, in a wholesome way and not just superficially, one’s very thought process has to change. This is something many of us will find difficult to do particularly after the formative years.

The question that now begs an answer – isn’t getting stuck to a style a sign of stagnation. Like actors who rehash the same lines albeit in new costumes, artistes become famous for their style and find it unnecessary to change, comfortable in their popularity. Creative people are supposed to evolve – but most of the artistes (and architects) are only refining their style and not doing anything daringly different each time. Their style becomes their shadow. Is that creativity?

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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Gateways to…?

“It’s a bird, it’s a plane – IT’S SUPERMAN! It’s a temple, it’s an ashram -IT’S THE ENTRANCE TO THE SECTRETARIAT!” Any tourist doing the rounds of Hussain Sagar would be forgiven for flipping over his guide book trying to search which “must see” this could be. Alas! He may not find this in the book. But were he to be observant and culturally aware, he would question why should the entrance to the seat of government look like a temple? What is the government? What is it trying to say? Is it some individual or an entity that says to the ‘aam janta’ – here we are your loyal servants, so loyal that we have taken upon ourselves the burden of protecting and preserving your culture. And being secular only skin deep, we in our wisdom chose the temple form as an appropriate symbol of majority aspirations. (Poor atheists and agnostics do not have any cultural form they can call their own!)

Our city seems to have a peculiar weakness for gateways or ‘entrance arches’, as they are popularly called. They are found adorning every major thoroughfare and they are a must for even the most non-descript real estate project in the wilderness of the outskirts. Historically a gateway was a functional necessity to a fortified town – for obvious reasons of protection and access control. Gradually, as happens with all human interventions, the local art started showing up on the form and surface of the gateways. Thus the Kakatiya gate, the Buland darwaza and the Sanchi gateways. But today, with our cities becoming more porous, open and cosmopolitan, gateways have become merely symbolic. So you see the imitation Kakatiya gate, horribly distorted and out of its original proportion, adorning one end of the Tank Bund. The other end has one of the so-called Vijayanagar style.

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But one of worst excesses is the entrance to the Agricultural University at Rajendernagar on the Bangalore Highway (see photo). What was till recently a perfectly proportioned, understated pair of pointed arches has been rudely superimposed with a ‘Cultural Gateway’ in a most insensitive and crass manner. The very dignity of entering a place of higher learning has been marred. Do we see here an undercurrent of politico-cultural one-upmanship?

Institutions, especially those of a public nature, have this peculiar weakness for ceremony. They are forever trying to project an image, trying to be more loyal than the king, so to say. See the pomp, grandeur and ritual at a foundation laying or inauguration function of a government-building project! The inaugural plaque, mandatorily etched in black granite, is often as tall as the building itself! The protagonist may ask – when Mohammed Quli could do it 400 years ago with the dada of all ceremonial expressions, the Charminar, why can’t we do it today? Yes, we can and how! Look at the apology of a Charminar that stands at the entrance to the National Academy of Construction at Madhapur. When it was built, the Charminar (the original) must have been the most contemporary, modern and technologically advanced structure of its time. But after 400 years of travel are we just capable of coming up with the poorest and cheapest of imitations? Sadly, as a society, though we have the technological prowess we lack the moral courage to be proud of what we are. Perhaps NAC’s ‘Charminar’ is a cultural comment that even hundreds of pages cannot chronicle.

There is a curious parade of values here. The entrance gateways to the Indian School of Business or any other private or corporate institution are sleek and streamlined without any adornment. Aren’t they projecting their multi-nationalism by deliberately avoiding any culturally interpretable form? ‘Entrance arches’ to private real estate layouts provide an interesting insight – they are invariably in the Roman or Greek style – they wouldn’t be caught with their pants down in a ‘temple’ style. Aren’t the developers exploiting our weakness for anything West? Conversely, no government institution today will ever have a colonial style gateway – we have achieved independence, haven’t we. Image, you see, is everything!

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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Homes or Museums? – Part 2

It is the era of sequels in the world of films, so why not one in the field of architectural journalism! So, here we are with “Homes and Museums – 2” on the lines of “Home Alone – 2”. For those who missed the first part of this article a fortnight back, we had ended with the observation as to why homes are increasingly becoming more of a museum where objects of display overwhelm the objects of use. Increasingly the elite are surrounding themselves with things that are bought rather than ones that are familiar and inherited. Earlier it was only the drawing room and to an extent the dining room that were specially decorated. This was understandable as these were the two rooms that were the most public ones in a home and thereby important image builders of the family. But today one sees that even the most private of rooms like the bedroom and the toilets are designed to the extreme – up to the point of becoming embarrassingly self-conscious. Why is this so?

Firstly, the woman today is more than just a ‘housewife’ or to use a more politically correct term, a ‘homemaker’. She is a career woman and a social butterfly rolled into one. She sees her home interior more as a status symbol to keep on par with her peers than just a comfortable abode for her family. She has to have the latest objets d’art on prime display and every room in the house has to live up to the images projected by glossy interior magazines. Secondly, the trend towards nuclear families has led to more independence in decision making on the home décor front. Thirdly, society is becoming increasingly narcissistic and looks have become all important – see the spurt in the number of beauty parlours and the popularity of ‘Miss World’ shows and film based programmes on TV. This coupled with the emergence of the professional interior designer has lead to a stratification of styles and a curtailment of spontaneity. When the woman of the house is not particularly intuitive about design choices, the interior designer (or decorator?) becomes the arbiter of the family’s living style and taste. He or she is the one with the magic wand who can conjure up the space of your dreams. Akin to the field of fashion, the interior style can change as easily as the blowing wind. One can choose from a menu of oriental, colonial, ethnic, techno and sleek looks to name only a few.

The media too plays no small role in shaping ones aesthetic preferences and rousing one’s aspirations. ‘Inside Outside’ magazine has been a pioneer in this field in India and has today many glossy rivals on the bookstands. The pretty pictures (again without any human ‘contamination’ in them as observed in Part 1) they serve up from around the world are a strong aphrodisiac to the gullible idea seeker. But ‘Inside Outside’ has stolen a march over its more glamorous upstarts by organizing a yearly exhibition of interior products in metros all over the country. Judging from the crowds thronging these shows, one can only infer that home décor has become another way of whetting the appetite for the new elite. Notice that not one single product in these exhibitions is affordable to the middle classes – it is meant only for the upper crust.

In the past it was only the royalty, which could retain the services of a professional designer. Today as access to design percolates down the social ladder, it behoves upon the professional designer to eschew his personal creative fantasies and give people interiors that are homely and lived in and not just visually striking. We do not want a society of robots inhabiting sterile museums, do we?

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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Homes or Museums?

The setting was fantastic, and in a way ironic. But the event was memorable. The Occasion: The national awards ceremony for the best Interior Design project hosted by the Indian Institute of Interior Designers, Hyderabad Chapter. The Location: The rocky banks of the Durgam Cheruvu lit in a soft nightly glow. The Irony: An ‘Interior Design’ function held under the open sky! So, whats next? A ‘Landscape Designers’ award function inside the confines of Ravindra Bharathi? Just joking!

Jokes apart, photographs of several short listed entries from all over India were put on an exhibition. The main categories were residential, commercial and office spaces. On show were the works of the high and mighty of the ID (for once, not IT) world. And not surprisingly, the maximum nominations come from Mumbai. You see, there is hardly any open space in that city to build new independent bunglows like in Hyderabad. So even the rich have to make do with 1500sft apartments into which they put in as much money as would easily fetch them a plot with a house in Jubilee Hills!

The photographs were pretty. In fact, too pretty I would say. And there was one striking commonality among all the entries. In the visuals, across all projects and all regions, there was no sign of people in the photos! It was as if to say that these interiors are for seeing only and not for using. Everything was in its place, beautifully lit, objects right down to the pen holder deliberately positioned as the designer must have ordained. Made me wonder whether what we were seeing were homes or museums? Even the children’s rooms were as clinically arranged as a pharma lab! Agreed that some amount of dressing up would have to be done in order to look good in print, but my point goes beyond the photograph. It was about the design of the space itself. There was the highly glossy vitrified tile flooring in the drawing rooms (not for small children and the elderly), thick glass dining tables with sharp corners (most uncomfortable for a homely meal), glass wash basins sitting atop wood counters (into what does one swipe the spillage on the counter?) and so on. But it was the lighting that took the cake. Simple open fluorescent tubes are considered infra dig, it seems. So you have all sorts of hidden recesses and coves to make the light come out in a soft glow. And halogen bulbs (the heat generated by them not withstanding) like in a jewellery showroom spot lighting the Husains and Gujrals on the wall, as if in an art gallery. It didn’t seem to matter if four hidden tube lights were needed in the place of one open one for the same amount of light. And what about all the cobwebs and lizards that will hide in the inaccessible recesses. Though aesthetically pleasing, false ceilings (fashionable in a house today) are the most unhygienic of things. All sorts of insects, rats, etc., would make their home in the dark cool space between the false ceiling and RCC roof. There is also no access to clean this hollow gap.

In a true home, every decorative object would also be one of use – like pots, pans, vessels, and the tulasi plant in a village home. But the chic urbanite’s idea of ethinicity is to have prohibitively expensive lacquered designer pots (some of them strategically dented) arranged in the corner of the entrance lobby, mandatorily spot lit with a halogen from above or for even more drama, up lighted from the floor! Increasingly, in “designer” houses, the objects of decoration (collecting has become a mania as evidenced by the crowds you see at the ‘Society’ exhibition) are outnumbering utility items, which are hidden away in melamine sprayed cupboards. The village home has no specific decorative object save a few family photos and the God picture on the calendar. The middle class urban home typically has a ‘show case’ in the living room with memorabilia gathered over the years on pilgrimages to holy towns or family trips to Ooty. This is proudly and prominently positioned in the living room wall in a grotesquely over decorated cupboard. The rest of the house has only the most utilitarian and familiar objects, such as the grandfathers’ cupboard and easy chair. This lends the space a homely lived in feel. But for the elite the whole house (including the most private space – the toilet) becomes one big art gallery to proclaim their social status. Why is this so? We will discover in the coming article a fortnight from now.

(To be continued)

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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House of Horrors

“Home Sweet Home”. Really? I remember the day my 3-year-old nephew came for a holiday from the US, a full-length wardrobe shutter that was perfect for ten years suddenly decided to come down crushing his little right toe. What was to be a fun filled month was spent in a bandaged foot and endless trips to the hospital. How safe are we in our own homes?

Your home is your cocoon. It is there for you always. You come back to it after a hard day’s work. It gives you more than just physical shelter. And when it is your own, it also offers emotional comfort, economic stability and social status.

But lurking behind the charming façade is danger. Most accidents happen coming down the stairs, not climbing up. A misstep can send you tumbling down. An odd unequal riser can make you suddenly lose balance. The sharp corner of a stone step (the nosing) can be lethal enough to cut your skull. A split-level house is fashionable but not very safe or comfortable. When there are level differences in the normal walking path within the house, especially in the most trafficked route of kitchen – main door – bedroom, there is every likelihood of a slip or a trip. More so, when you are rushing to pick up the phone or to answer the doorbell. Children on tricycles and the elderly with walking sticks beware! Spiral or helical stairs, which again are quite fashionable nowadays, with their tapering tread widths, are tricky to negotiate particularly in the dark. And a staircase, which you have to go up and down at least twenty times a day, becomes a source of tension

Floors can literally floor you! With the new beauties in town – vitrified tiles and polished granite- you can get all the adventure you need, at home itself, without going to a skating rink! Add a dash of water and the excitement becomes heart stopping. No wonder that so many bones are broken in the bathrooms. With improper floor slopes, water tends to log and stay in puddles. This encourages fungal growth, which is treacherously slippery.

How many times has your child caught his fingers between a closing door? A heavy shutter shutting against the rebate in the frame is akin to a vice like crush. A sudden gust of wind can send door shutters banging and to have your fingers at the wrong place at the wrong time can’t be a pleasant experience. If doors can be villains, can windows be far behind? An open window shutter jutting into the balcony or veranda can really get in the way. Very often it is the head that gets it. Standing up from a squatting position with the open shutter hovering above and before the person watching it all happen can scream “nooo..”
…..crunch!

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bhooth bangla by a 4 yr old

Balcony railings, particularly in high-rise apartments, are an endless source of worry for parents with young children. If the verticals in the railing are too close there is the danger of a small head or knee getting caught in between. If the verticals are further apart, there is the fear of the whole small body going through. If there are horizontals, it becomes a convenient ladder to embark on a journey down to earth.

Of late the use of thick plate glass in home furniture has increased. A material that was confined to boardrooms and hotel lobbies has found its way to the dining table at home. (Courtesy the professional interior designer?) With perfectly right-angled corners, the generally invisible glass is a like stealth dagger floating in space. Depending on your height it can gash you in the waist or stomach or pierce the eye of a running kid.

And I haven’t even spoken about electric shocks, gas leaks, breaking glass, insects and reptiles, fire, floods and the big daddy of them all – earthquakes. Will you go back home tonight?

P.S: One has not heard of too many cases of the swirling swords above our heads – the ubiquitous ceiling fan – slicing down, have we? Thank heavens.

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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How much for Design?

“Architects are expensive. Only the rich can afford them.” That is the common refrain of many prospective house builders building on a limited budget. Let us see if there is any truth in that observation.

First of all, expense can only be weighed against the worth of what one gets in return. So what do architects generally charge and what do they offer in return. It is relevant here to talk about the Council of Architecture, India. To make you more aware, the Council of Architecture is the apex regulatory body governing the practice of architecture set up by an act of parliament under the Architects’ Act 1972. Much like the Medical Council and the Bar Council, it has a legal status and its stipulations are of a mandatory and not merely recommendatory nature. The ‘Services and Fee’ section of the Act lists out the duties, liabilities and professional ethics of an architect and also stipulates the fee chargeable for various types of projects. Broadly, distinction is made here between custom designed individual houses for which a minimum fee of 7.5% of the cost of the project is stipulated to 2.5% of the cost for mass housing projects like group housing where due to the laws of basic economics, volumes drive the costs down. Somewhere in between are the institutional works where a minimum 5% fee is specified. The operative word here is ‘minimum’ so as to create a level playing field among architects and have them compete on their design ability (which is their core job) rather than on the quantum of the fee. Any fee more than the minimum is left to the mutual agreement between the client and the architect. Quite appropriately, no minimum is specified for works of charitable nature and the architect can work for free if he/she so desires.

So, even if one takes an average of 5% of the cost of the building as an architect’s fee, is it too much to pay? Read on to see and judge for yourself. All architects are trained to design functionally efficient buildings, using space and materials appropriately, without sacrificing aspects of good ventilation, lighting, view and privacy. Lets award 1.0% for that and that’s not too much for getting healthy and pleasant environs to live in! Very often, architects are involved from the site selection stage and advise the client on pros and cons of various choices available from the locational, legal, town planning, technical feasibility angles. One can set apart 0.5% for that. Architect’s services also include preparing designs and drawings for the structural, electrical, sanitary, air conditioning, landscaping etc., components of the project for which he appoints and pays specialists from each field and coordinates and integrates their work to get a technically sound building. This takes about 1.5% of the cake bringing the total till now to 3%. During construction, the architect deals with contractors and the building crew on the client’s behalf, negotiating prices, supervising their work and advising the client on various aspects of quality, progress, cost reduction, sequence of construction etc. Is 1.0% too much for that? The architect’s job is not a one-man-show but he has a team of assistants, runs an office, pays taxes etc. One more percent for all these overheads makes the total five! That the building has to be aesthetically pleasing goes without saying – that is the architect’s job, so no more marks for that. Even long after the project is over, the architect continues to be the client’s trusted advisor on all building matters – nothing extra for that. That an architect designed and supervised building fetches a premium to the client in the event of a subsequent sale is a known fact – no more percentages left, please! That the 5% design expense is actually to be apportioned over the life of the building, say at least 30 years, is not considered at all. And possibly, that the building may sail into history books as a monumental record of its times, a heritage building symbolising an entire society, is incalculable in terms of mere percentages.

So, while even the middle of the middlest class person may easily afford an architect given the benefits he accrues, it is the unfortunately the government – the Lord who makes all the rules – that breaks it first! In a ‘penny wise-pound foolish’ approach, government departments and corporations call for tenders – in total violation of Council of Architecture norms – from ‘almost anyone associated with the building industry’ so that the one quoting the lowest fee may win the commission to design the project. And in a blind ‘all are the same’ approach, they do not even see the difference between a professionally qualified, registered architect and other associated building professionals who are experts in their own fields, but are anything but architects. This has forced genuine practitioners of architecture to lower their standards and vie for interesting public projects that only the government can commission. Among many other government institutions, the master in this art, I am sorry to say, is our own MCH. Being the custodian of all things public, it is beholden upon it to give its tax paying citizens the best that they deserve. That it forces architects to compete on the quantum of fee – often a paltry 2% or less – and not on the quality of design, shows in the declining quality of public architecture in our city. Where are the public buildings today that can even stand upto the Arts College, High Court, State Public Library, Moazzam Jahi Market or Ravindra Bharathi, all designed by eminent architects of their times? I am sure that the citizens won’t grudge a mere 3% more in architect’s fees to continue the proud legacy of our architectural heritage which is a source of pride to even the man on the street.

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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Lessons from Kumbakonam

There is something poignant about children getting caught in a helpless situation. The feeling would not have been so melancholic had 90 adults died in the fire at Kumbakonam. Not that it would have been any less tragic. But to see effervescent innocents hopelessly perish sears the heart. Newspaper editorials are awash with copy blaming the administration for neglect. They do it every time a tragedy like this happens and yet nothing changes. Public memory is so short that Kumbakonam will soon be a forgotten word and all will return to usual. Politicians and administrators thrive on this.

Buildings are essentially protectors. But the wrath of nature in the form of fire, earthquake, storm or flood can turn them into devourers. Ideally, a building can be designed to meet any of these exigencies. There are guidelines in the National Building Code, there are municipal bye-laws, there are fire safety norms and any number of rules and regulations. But it is an open secret that not even a fistful of constructions – an optimistic estimate may be 20% of all buildings in the city – follow these norms totally. Why is this so? Because these rules are for ideal conditions and most of our cities have grown in a far from ideal manner. For instance, the HUDA rulebook stipulates a minimum plot area of 5000 square metres (i.e. more than an acre) for a primary school. And out of this not more than 35% is supposed to be built on! If every primary school in Hyderabad were to follow these norms, either our city will be full of only primary schools or every school will be an Orchid or Oakridge affordable only to the rich and famous.

Let us now look at the case of the Kumbakonam school in a logical way. The owner put up a building in the space available to him and maximized its usage to achieve the best possible return on investment. The thatch roof – the culprit here – was a way of cutting cost further but is also a popular roofing system in Tamil Nadu. So, even the municipal authorities may not have looked at it twice. Judging by the number of students studying there, it must have been a popular school. The parents were probably comfortable with the ‘fees to facilities’ ratio without realizing the danger lurking around the corner.

If the owner were to follow the rules, there would probably have been no building there going by the narrow strip of land it seemed to sit on. It is most probable that this school was built with the full knowledge and active connivance of the sanctioning authorities. It is nowadays common to hear officials openly telling you, sitting at their office desks, to submit the building plans for approval as per the rules but to actually build however one wants. As long as it is OK in the files, what is on the ground does not matter! And this is where the buck starts.

So where do we go from here – impractical rules, greedy builders, corrupt officials, gullible users and a price paid by innocent children. Is it a ‘dead’ end?

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May be not. Let us first accept the mess we are in and the reality that to put the city in order as per the rules would mean bringing down eighty percent of it. One answer may lie in insurance. If it is mandatory to insure the vehicle we use for maybe an hour everyday – and keep that insurance alive year after year – why is it that it is not required for the buildings we work, play, live or learn in for almost all of the day and night? Suppose insurance is made compulsory for all public buildings and the premiums are based on a ‘risk profile’, which is computed using factors such as the nature of use, material its built with, safety features it incorporates, number of people using it etc. Builders would then prefer to pay lower premiums by following the rules rather than flout the rules and pay higher premiums. By this method, a gym with few users will be at the lower end of the risk scale whereas an inflammable circus tent with thousands in it will be at the higher extreme. Won’t this then increase usage costs for the less privileged? No, because the costs are divided amongst the large base, that is if the owner decides to pass on the heavy premiums. But at the same time, in the unfortunate event of a mishap, he is not burdened with a large payout – the insurance takes care of it. Now how is this going to be implemented on ground? We can safely leave that to our city administrators to mull over and find a way.

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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One Candle on the Cake

A year ago, April 2, 2004, to be precise, the first article of “Nothing Concrete” made its debut in these columns. Titled rather provocatively “The second oldest profession?” it was an opening gambit to the world of architecture. It sought to lay the tracks on which the future writings would ride on and signed off thus – “Architecture emerges from the interface of functional necessity, human aspirations, technological prowess and cultural ethos. “Nothing Concrete” will explore the penumbras of man’s built environment. We will not always be treading on solid ground- there may be marshes to negotiate and quick sand to beware of. And by the end of our journey – we may not even reach a destination! We would have discovered that it is only in mathematics that 2+2 should always equal 4. Hence “Nothing Concrete”.

Twenty six episodes later we are now here. The truth is, I had not imagined I would get even this far. After all, how much can one write about architecture related issues, I thought. If it lasts for six months, that would be good. But, happily, I was wrong. We are a year into it and still going! Which only goes to show that design and matters of built space touches our lives in many more ways than we imagine.

The feedback I have been getting through e-mail responses and personal opinions from acquaintances is encouraging. Moreover one of the most heartening things has been that the column has appealed to both the lay reader and the professional architect alike. The ‘bouquets’ have said that the writing is down to earth, practical and offers enough food for thought. ‘Brickbats’ have been rarer and I particularly remember one e-mail from a reader on “Connecting to the Cosmos” who said that my understanding of vaastu was vague and he virtually berated me in an angry tone to keep away from issues I did not fully understand! Of course, the previous one to that “The Horror of Vaastu Shastra” featuring Sushmita and the Ghost was a big hit, while “The Tale of Two Cousins” about the Taj and Charminar kindled the hearts of several non-resident Hyderabadis who wrote from far and wide as to how proud they felt for their city after reading the piece. “The Story of the Cat in the Pot” amazed several readers about the construction quotient of our animal friends and one animal lover was overjoyed reading it. While “The House at Bomminapadu” looked at vernacular architecture and the art of simple living and brought back, as one reader said, memories of his childhood in his village, “Homes or Museums” in two parts focused on the vanity of urban man. Looking back, I find the ‘City’ has hogged quite a bit of the limelight, being the main character in no less than four articles like “What really is the City”, “Flyovers-a sign of hurry”, “Politician and the City” and “Whose City is it anyway?” That is not surprising as it is the place that makes the world move today.

I have always tried to keep the articles topical like in “Lessons from Kumbakonam” about the tragedy we all have forgotten now or “To Die and Yet Live” which was triggered by P.V.Narasimha Rao’s cremation on the banks of Hussain Sagar. This generates interest in the readers and offers an ‘architectural angle’ to events that are otherwise reported solely from a political or social point of view. But there are several subjects like “Honour these Craftsmen” which have been there in the back of my mind for long and now was the time to share it with others.

I do not envy my journalist brethren as I have come to know what it means to keep the deadline, luckily not daily as they have to but only fortnightly. Of course, I also have a sounding board in my wife, a writer herself, who offers editing tips before the professionals at DC lay their hands on my copy – a task they must be itching to do but, I am grateful they have restrained themselves from doing. So, where will we go from here, will we see a second candle on the cake? Only time will tell!

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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Our Earth, Our Home

Haven’t you found over the past week the air at RTC crossroads is crisp and fresh to breath, Hussainsagar waters are clear and sweet to drink, the Musi is gently flowing, birds are chirping happily and everyone has a smile on their faces! Last Saturday, you see, was World Environment Day.

If only…like Sorcar, we can wave the wand and change the world!

Of all man’s interventions on the earth, from agriculture to industry to construction, it is construction that impacts the environment in the most severe way. From mining to logging, processing to finishing, transporting to storing, buildings (as a major segment of the total construction industry ranging from dams to highways to bridges, etc.) consume materials and energy like a glutton. But what one has to remember is that we live in a closed ecosystem. Except for sun’s light and heat all materials are of the earth and are only transformed and transported by man using various mechanical means. Even the much derided plastic is essentially of the earth and is in that way a ‘natural’ material. It has not come from outer space. All materials are born out of and perish on the earth. The sum total in the equation remains constant. It is like ‘2 plus 2 equals 4’ and ‘5 minus 1 is also 4’. Man’s endeavor has to be in choosing the numbers, minuses and pluses in an enlightened way to keep the pot from boiling over. That is the general eco-philosophy. But can we specifically do anything to help balance the equation when we build our homes. Thankfully, we can. Read on for some of the ways…

  • As a thumbrule, the cheaper the material, more eco-friendly it is. Ready to use, local and plentifully available material is cheap, eg: stone, bamboo, mud etc. Processed, transported, scarce material is costly, eg: aluminium, teakwood, polycarbonate etc.
  • Build with ready to use (nature processed) material rather than a man processed one. Just as raw food is considered healthier and more ecofriendly than cooked, fried or garnished delicacies, materials of the simplest variety like stone, wood, mud do not consume extra energy in their making, like steel and plastic.
  • Use local material simply because it cuts down on transportation. In Hyderabad, it is appropriate to use granite stone, tandur slabs etc., as against marble from Rajasthan or Italy. Of course the definition of local is open to question as some may argue that the whole world is local considering that there is a big universe out there!
  • If there is an alternative to an accepted norm, go for it. Stone door and window frames instead of wood or steel are dimensionally stable, maintainance free, termite and rust proof and long lasting.
  • Given a choice between two materials with the same end cost, go for the one where the labour and craftsmanship component is greater than the material value (eg: dressed random granite) to one where the material component scores over the labour (eg: polished granite). Putting your money in human resource has more beneficial spinoffs.
  • Choose long lasting material – for every extra year it lasts, its processing cost is cut exponentially and its replacement is saved. Go for a natural stone floor vs. ceramic tile.
  • Reusable materials have utility beyond their normal years. The Blue Cross building has doors and windows salvaged from various demolished buildings. This has saved new trees from being cut down.
  • Build less, if you can afford to! While planning your house, ask if that hall can be multifunctional, do you need that extra bedroom and why have so many toilets. It is common to see today a three bedroom house having as many as five toilets!
  • See if you can use materials with less regeneration time. A tree grows to maturity in about 50 years and a rock takes millions of years. In that sense, wood is a wonderfully eco-friendly material…if only we can keep regenerating our forests.
  • Think logically, not emotionally. Keep asking the questions – do I really need this. Do both sides of the wall, inside and outside, require the same plaster? The beating from natural elements that the outside takes is infinitely more than the interior. Do you need the same kind of wood for both the frames and shutters of your window – frames are fixed to the wall whereas shutters are mobile and have to take a lot more abuse. And so on ……

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Finally do not go by preconceived ideas on beauty and looks. Nature is utterly logical. It does not waste anything and it does not do anything just to look beautiful. That is real beauty. That is real ecology.

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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SPACE, TIME AND FLYOVERS

It looks like we need no longer go to amusement parks for a bit of thrill and fun. We are soon going to have them on our roads. We are used to the ‘swoosh’ of a simple flyover, but there is soon going to be double the excitement. HUDA, it seems, is planning a double flyover at Punjagutta crossroads. There will be long one connecting Sanathnagar to Khairatabad and another crossing it perpendicularly from Rajiv Gandhi Circle to Nagarjuna Circle.

Flyovers are a sign of a city in a hurry and a double flyover would signify a city in a tearing hurry. Seems uncharacteristic of the Nawabi easygoing Hyderabadi, doesn’t it? Try looking at the city not just in a physical sense, but also in a space–time kind of framework. What you see emerging are a great overlay of patterns. From morning to night, day after day, week after week, the same patterns are endlessly and unvaryingly replayed. You have the trains, planes and buses arriving and leaving in the morning, the army of school buses moving children around 8am, the office goers heading to work, almost herd-like, from 9 to 11. And the pattern repeats itself in the reverse in the evening. Year after boring year the same thing plays out in a most predictable manner.

It is easy to see that it is in the peak hours – 8.30 to 11.30 in the morning and 5.30 to 8.30 in the evening – that there is total madness on our roads. This total of 6 hours is only a quarter of the 24-hour day cycle. For the rest of the day the roads look quite empty and the flyovers seem like a runway. At these times the traffic signals – actually superb space-time regulators – are sufficient. This means that the flyovers are meant only for those crazy 6 hours to dissipate the sudden burst of traffic. But flyovers are at best a short-term solution as one can see on the Airport road. Even the widest one over Begumpet Railway station (it is not a flyover but actually a Road Over Bridge) is prone to choking. This is only going to get worse as two and four wheelers are multiplying like rabbits.

The effective use of flyovers – just a paltry 25% now – is bound to go down in the coming years, something like a silting canal whose water carrying capacity diminishes with time. The planners have a standard solution to this problem of urban congestion – they recommend increased use of public transport. In today’s world of easy loans, nuclear families and an upwardly mobile middle class, personal transport – first a bike and then a car – becomes the chosen means of getting around. Isn’t this amply borne out by the sale and registration of almost 600 new vehicles a day in Hyderabad! Urbanites do not seem to mind the high cost of vehicle ownership and the frustration of traffic jams to the low cost and tension free travel on a bus or suburban train. The ultimate freedom that your own car offers is too tempting to resist. The roads have been widened, flyovers built, suburban trains launched, bus services improved. We seem to be running and yet staying in the same place. So are more flyovers, even double decked ones going to be the permanent solution? Doubtful.

Till now, we have been stuck with ‘space- based‘ solutions to urban traffic congestion, that of building bypasses, flyovers, widening of roads etc. It is time we explored an oft forgotten but powerful facet, that of ‘time’, to try and bring things to an equilibrium. This is where the usage patterns of the city, discussed earlier, come into play. One way would be to have staggered weekly offs for different sectors/facilities of the city; this already happens in some industrial suburbs but has to be extended to the entire city. Why for instance should all schools and colleges, government and private institutions close on Sundays only? On a daily time scale, offices in demarcated areas can function from 8 to 4 and some from 11 to 7. Shops can open at 2 and close at 10, schools can be from 7 to 2 and so on. This will bust and even out the peak hours – in fact there may be no peak hours at all! And then our roads will seem like runways all the time!

Yes it will be a huge and complex jigsaw puzzle to solve and there will be a certain amount of social disorientation. And new unforeseen problems may crop up. But imagine the pay-offs – less investment in underutilized infrastructure, less vehicular pollution, less fuel consumption, less jangling of nerves and a more enjoyable experience of the city.

What is beyond doubt is that we will adapt soon to this system – aren’t the software guys now working through the night, something which seemed like an impossibility a few years ago. With the invention of the light bulb man has extended his natural day into the night. The urban man is slowly evolving into a 24-hour animal and the way things are going, that day may not be far off when we will have traffic jams on the Begumpet flyover upto 3 in the morning. Unless of course we recognize ‘time’ as a resource and use it sensibly. And it is something that is available for free and won’t even cost as much as a simple flyover, leave alone a double-decked one.

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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The Architect in the Media

Last week saw the inauguration of two building projects in Hyderabad. One was the National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality Management at Gachibowli and the other, the renovated British Library. Both were covered by the media – the former more prominently as it was thrown open by Sonia Gandhi. The leading newspapers carried the news with photographs – “The Hindu” even had a colour photo of the new British Library interior. The copy in both cases described the projects in terms of square footage built, facilities offered, the cost, the funding agencies, the dignitaries who attended the opening, even down to the detail that the British Library had new wooden flooring imported from Sweden! But nowhere in the news items was there any mention of the architects who had designed them. Naturally, it is the architects who would have been involved with these projects from day one, transforming a barren site into places that would adorn the city for decades. Projects that often take years to complete. Doesn’t the press think that they deserve a mention in their columns? Is the ‘enlightened’ fourth estate so ignorant of an architect’s role in shaping our built environment? Not that architects are hankering for publicity – the best publicity is their work, which by its very nature is always in the public eye.

However, a true press is not one that just feeds the public hunger for the sensational – it is one that respects facts and gives credit where it is due. In a similar situation – the release of a film, opening of an art show, the inauguration of a music or dance festival – would not the names of the director or the painter or the artiste been splashed all over the papers? How less of a creator is an architect compared to a film director that he does not even deserve two lines of precious editorial space? Or is it that architecture is not as exciting, photogenic and saleable like the creations of “fashion designers” who seem to hog the limelight all the time. Open a newspaper or magazine and you have weekly reviews of movies by film critics, where a director’s work is viewed from all angles and a verdict given. There are music and dance reviews where an artiste’s performance is looked at with a sharp eye and every note and nuance analysed in detail. Art critics, especially in highbrow papers like “The Hindu”, pen columns on painters’ and sculptors’ latest creations, often following their creative development through the years. Food reviews have, of late, become popular, where a restaurant is graded with “stars” ranging from excellent to poor. Though the fashion industry is a kiddo when compared to the field of building design, fashion critics have sprouted quickly, looking at every warp and weft of clothing design and then voicing an expert opinion.

But can’t you see that there is a big void when it comes to critical appraisal of architecture – buildings in which we live our lives and spend every moment in. There is no newspaper that has a regular column looking critically at built spaces and their use, reorienting public opinion and shaping public taste. With burgeoning cities, this kind of analysis becomes not just necessary, but imperative. One is not talking here about the articles that fill up the typical ‘Real Estate’ supplement – like the one you are reading – which contain nothing more than populist, market driven spiel. (Excuse this column, please!) Specialist journals do exist, like ones on the building industry, but they talk to the professionals in the field and their reach is nowhere near that of a daily. What one needs is an in-depth analysis written for the common man, from the functional, environmental, economical, historical, socio-political and aesthetic perspectives – especially of the public buildings that thousands use. This will gradually lead to an enhanced level of understanding of architectural issues, which now is abysmally low among the general public.

If not forthcoming from the journalist community, architects themselves may have to take the lead in the matter, so that they are better understood and critical introspection can lead to better living spaces for all. So, let us see which broadsheet is going to bell the cat and give us our share of “shelter writing” in the popular trinity of roti, kapada aur makaan?

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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The Cat in the Pot and other stories

It was the beginning of summer and the days were getting unbearably hot. One lazy Sunday afternoon, our little son came running in excitedly, shouting “There is a cat in the pot, there is a cat in the pot!” And sure there was. From an unused earthen pot in a corner of our backyard we saw a cat peeping out! We then discovered that it had given birth to three kittens in there. What a place to be – that too in summer. Brilliant, I thought. How did that cat discover that space – so appropriate for the purpose. It was cool, the kittens were totally protected from predators and their mother could keep a watchful eye from the mouth of the pot. Was it basic instinct or was it acquired intelligence?

How do animals build – aren’t they their own architects and masons when it comes to building their homes. And what beautiful homes they build! The termite mound, popularly called the anthill, is one such. Just digging into the ground and heaping that burrowed earth above, the insect creates a stunning cathedral. To understand what a feat that is, compare the size of the mound – some are known to be up to 10 feet high – to the size of its builder – a mere 1/8th of an inch. That translates to a structure that is a thousand times the height of the insect. By the same ratio, humans should be building skyscrapers that are at least 5000 feet high i.e. 500 storeys into the sky! That is five times the size of the ill-fated World Trade Center, which was a mere 100 storeys tall. Don’t forget to add 500 storeys below ground, as anthills are as deep as they are tall. The weaverbird, another great builder, puts its nest together with dry grass and the form that it comes up with is as mind boggling as it is functional. Remember the next time you raise the broom to sweep away a spider’s web from the ceiling of your living room, to just pause and admire its inimitable beauty.

There is one thing common to all animal architecture. Unlike man, animals do not use any tools to build with. Their body is their tool. The ant has its antennae, the weaver bird its beak and claws to move the material and put them together. The spider goes a step further by manufacturing its own material – its web is woven with its saliva. Another difference with the way man builds is that all animal shelter is made of only one material – soil for termites, wax for bees – not with a combination and composite of different materials as man does.

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The fact that birds and insects have been building the same type of home for ages means they are born with the blueprints in their brains. But there is a curiosity here. The larger animals tend to ‘take’ shelter rather than ‘build’ one. Has anyone seen a dog, cow, elephant or giraffe building its home? It’s the birds and bees, rodents and insects that do it – they are the master builders. Was primitive man (that is before he became “corrupted” with his own intelligence) too born with such pre-installed software to build his home or did he belong to the breed of larger animals that took shelter instead of building one. History has recorded that man evolved from taking shelter in caves and trees to building his own – as today’s tribals do – with grass, leaves, mud, stone or wood. Which means he is a unique crossover being who changed from a ‘shelterer’ to a ‘builder’. That ability to evolve and adapt to the changing environment and the use of more and more composites and complex manufactured materials has catapulted him to being the dominant species on earth. Animal species that were not able to adapt to change by reinventing their building materials – as some materials may have been lost to environmental upheavals – have had their entire race wiped out.

Coming back to the cat at the beginning of our story, it must have been an urban cat – not wild like its more ferocious brethren – for at least twenty ‘cat generations’. Yet it had retained its original instincts much like the weaverbirds, spiders or bees that share the city with us. They still build the way their forest cousins would do, though the city is a total antithesis of a natural environment. Is that one more crucial lesson there for man to learn from the birds and the bees (pun intended)?

We went out the next morning to see the kittens. They were not there! Their mother, like all cats do, had taken them away to a new hiding place as their old home had been spied on and their security compromised. Another instinct!

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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The Design Factor

My father-in-law had an interesting theory about GTB’s collapse. He said one should never believe and get taken in by looks alone, implying that the bank’s designer look was in fact hiding some basic flaw. Discounting some generational prejudice, isn’t there some truth in his observation? As you are reading this you may be sitting you at home, working at office or driving your car. Just look around you and to see if there are any objects that are not ‘designed’. From the watch on your wrist, to the goggles you sport, your striped shirt, the car itself, the desk at which you sit, even the graphics on the pack of mouth freshener you pop in, all have been designed by a professional designer working overtime somewhere in the world.

Today’s urban world is a jungle of products. Just count the number of things a typical urbanite uses. You will come up with not less than 100 different objects, that too generic ones, not variations. These range from the safety pin to the motorbike, water bottle to the cell phone, toothbrush to the briefcase….and so on. Even if you consider a minimum of five variations per generic item, it adds up to about five hundred odd items. That is in our country. In the super urbanized west the list would virtually explode to beyond a thousand. Their pet dogs too have about twenty or so different items of everyday living as evidenced by exclusive pet shops. Doesn’t one often hear from the US returned that the supermarkets there are at least ten times the size of our biggest one here.

Each of these items has to be manufactured and obviously they have to be industrially designed to enable their making simpler and cheaper. Then they have to be made user friendly and attractive to be able to sell in the market against all competition. This is the field of product design. It is a field that has evolved from the merely functional put togethers at the beginning of the industrial era to one which today involves softer fields like gender attitudes, aspirational values, societal psychology and futurism. In contrast to yesteryears projection of stability and solidness in the design of objects (the old radio set with art deco features) today the aspect of speed has become the hallmark of design. One understands the necessity of a jet plane or a sports car being aerodynamic and thus sleek in form, but to apply the same principle to as static an object as a pair of goggles or a washing machine can only be for the looks. But these looks sell, it seems. Note the popularity of the new age moulded suitcases that seem like they will take off from a runway themselves, instead of sitting in an airplane!

The question is – has the professional product designer sacrificed function for the sake of looks. It seems so. Designed objects have become more moulded and rounded with no protrusions. The classic example is the electric switch that has transformed from a ‘katak’ toggle type to the noiseless modular piano design. A further advancement is the on/off button on the CPU where a tiny LED lights up to indicate that it’s on. Often I have found that when the power goes off suddenly and the LED goes blank, there is no visual clue to ascertain if the computer is on or off, something that would be easy to make out in a toggle switch. Compare now the new cuboidal post box with the old cylindrical one. I somehow feel more reassured to drop my letter in the old one as there is a very visible padlock securing it. The new post box has a concealed lock with just a keyhole visible. It is difficult to make out whether it is locked or not and one feels uncertain if the posted letter will be safe. This shows a trend toward making things concealed in order to achieve a smoother look. Function has bowed out to the visual.

All the objects we use in our daily lives are of a western origin. My brother – a mechanical engineer – used to joke that the closest anything comes to a genuine Indian invention is the idli grinder! And that too is really an adaptation of a mixie – not a true invention. But we seem to be not even adapting objects to suit our cultural conditions. Take, for example, the basin mixer where the cold-water knob is to your right and the hot to the left. We Indians eat with our hands – and overwhelmingly with the right hand. When you wash up after a meal, to turn on the cold water you have to do a complex yoga with your left hand. Companies spend crores to make taps look like stealth bombers with a satin finish but do not address this obvious design problem.

Product design is an infant compared to architecture, which is probably the grand daddy in the field of design. Yet architecture is nimble enough to adapt to the times. So much so that a lot of buildings have started resembling the products we use. The Taramandal building is as shapely as a filing cabinet and Cyber Towers – the new icon of Hyderabad – a huge water drum. Doesn’t the Imax theatre remind you of something familiar – yes a HP DeskJet printer! So can we expect the new international airport to look like a sleek DVD player?

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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The Horror of ‘Vaastu Shastra’

For those who have not heard of Bomminapadu – and most would not have – it is a picturesque village of seven hamlets about 50 km east of Vijayawada. Located bang in the middle of the rice bowl of the Krishna basin, the landscape for miles on end is a Sushmita Sen walks into the house with her screen husband and asks him with a flourish, which direction is east. He immediately points to the main door and she excitedly exclaims that the house is perfectly as per Vaastu and they should buy it. That is the opening scene of Ram Gopal Verma’s horror movie ‘Vaastu Shastra’ which hit the big screens recently. From here the story meanders in a mundane manner with the house becoming the scene of murders galore and being visited by many ghosts, making life miserable for all its inhabitants. One struggles to find the connection between Vaastu Shastra, the ghosts and the climax of the movie where Sushmita’s son, husband and sister finally end up becoming ghosts themselves! It made one really wonder what made the house so special that the family could not move out to another one. Also as to why the movie was called ‘Vaastu Shastra’ when there is no further reference to it after the first scene. One eventually finds out that it is the old withered tree outside that harbours all the ghosts and not the house itself! With due apologies to RGV, the story could have moved in an altogether different direction. And if you want to know what that direction could have been, just read on.

Sushmita, a doctor in the movie, talks to her close friend about their unnerving experiences in the house. The friend readily suggests they call in a Vaastu expert. And the next Sunday at an auspicious hour the friend lands up with a famous Vaastu Pundit in tow. As soon as he enters, the Pundit promptly takes out a magnetic compass from his kurta pocket and going to the virtual centre of the house and holds it in his palm. He then glances around the house and asks where the kitchen and master bedroom are. A quick tour of the house and the Vaastu expert has diagnosed the problem, much quicker than Dr.Sushmita can diagnose a common cold! All of them sit down at the dining table (the Pundit making sure that he is facing east) and the conversation begins:

Vaastu Pundit: Madam, no doubt your main door is facing east but it is in the centre of the house and not in the northeast corner as it should be. This could lead to liver problems in your husband. So immediately break it and shift it to the northeast corner.

Sushmita: But Pundit Garu, my immediate problem is not that. There is hardly any chance of such a thing happening, as my loving husband does not even look at drinks leave alone touching them. And even if such a thing happened I know the treatment he should get.

V.P: Also you can see that there is a step up into your husband’s study in the northeast, where it should actually step down. All his earnings will flow out like water as NE is the water corner and it should actually collect in there. At once dig up the study and lower it with new flooring that slopes to the NE corner of the room.

S: (Muttering under her breath) As it is he is just sitting around the house presumably writing a novel while it is I who am going out and slogging my backside to run the show.

V.P: Even though the kitchen is in the South East, it has a diagonal cut in the corner making it five-sided. You see, as per Vaastu all rooms have to be either square or rectangular. You will have cooks and maids with crooked minds who will always try to rob you.

S: (Taken aback) Vaastu Garu, you are absolutely right. We had a maid who was not only a crook but she also tried to murder our son and in the bargain she got killed herself.

All this while the Ghost is sitting on the withered old tree outside listening to the conversation, as it has nothing to do on a Sunday, being its day off too! It chuckles to itself and thinks, “These humans I tell you are sometimes even beyond my grasp. They have nothing better to do and at the whiff of a white chiffon curtain they get into the ‘other’ world – my world. Why can’t they sort out their problems remaining in their own world?”

V.P: Madam, see your staircase. The first step is facing south instead of north or east and it is going up in the anti-clockwise direction and not clock-wise, as it has to be. Your son’s career will never take off and he will always be going around in circles. So break the staircase and rebuild it in the right direction.

S: Pantulu, here also you are absolutely right. Although my son has more than 20 years to make a career for himself, the whole day he is going around in circles on his tricycle. But that is not my immediate problem!

V.P: Madam, have you counted the number of doors in your house? They should be of an even number either eight and less or more than ten. Otherwise the evil spirits will be roaming around inside the house only, without any way to go out. So make more openings in your walls and fix extra doors in your bedroom, bathroom and wherever else possible.

S: Ah! At last you have come to the point. That’s precisely why I called you here.

The Ghost smirks and thinks “Ten or eight or more or less. What difference does it make to me, as if I need a door to go in or get out? I can practically sail through walls and doors like all experienced ghosts can. And why do they want to make the rooms either square or rectangular, when in nature you never find a straight line. Makes me wonder whether they are the ‘unnatural ones’ and not me!

V.P: (Looking at his watch) Madam, now that we have found the solution, I have to run off to another appointment. These are the basic alterations I have told you. Please carry them out and call me back for the final touches.
S: But, Vaastuji, are you sure all that you have suggested will solve the problem?

V.P: Why are you doubting, Madam? I have even discovered that the farmers are committing suicide as their houses are not as per Vaastu. The government has now ordered the correction of all village houses to stop the suicides. See you again soon.

The next few days are spent by the family pondering over all that the Vaastu Pundit has suggested. They come to the conclusion that there will be virtually no house left if they do all that the Pundit said. They finally move out.

The Ghost on the withered old tree is sad and angry. While it could not drive the family out of the house with its terror tactics all these years, the Vaastu Pundit had done it in just one sitting with them! It hangs itself on the tree and becomes a Ghost of a Ghost.

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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The House at Bomminapadu

For those who have not heard of Bomminapadu – and most would not have – it is a picturesque village of seven hamlets about 50 km east of Vijayawada. Located bang in the middle of the rice bowl of the Krishna basin, the landscape for miles on end is a verdant green of paddy fields punctuated with soaring verticals of coconut and palm trees. The land is criss-crossed with flowing canals spanned over with narrow footbridges made of coconut tree trunks. The men and women are busy working the fields. Children are giggling away to school (almost all of them with school neckties but no shoes or chappals!) and there is a general sense of well-being. India looks good here.

This is where I saw Padma’s house at Bomminapadu (see photo). What struck me immediately was the grace and poise of the structure, which, in fact is not more than 12 feet long and 10 feet wide. It is just one room with a small veranda in the corner and a cloth curtain shields the bed”room” portion. Another corner is taken up by the chulha with a few cooking vessels. The living room, of course, is outside on the grassy grounds and its size is naturally as far as the eye can see. So too the toilet, I guess! The roof of the house is its most distinctive feature. It is made up of dried stiff stalks of grass, growing in the pond nearby, which is packed into a thick-cropped mane. This is supported on bundled straw beams, which deflect gently to give a pagoda like form to the roof. The famed Chinese pagoda roof probably evolved as an imitation in wood of a similar straw roof. And it is fashionable in the city to force concrete into the same form with no structural logic at all. The walls of Padma’s house, a mere 3 inches thin, are of clay plastered over a mesh of grass stalks finished with a layer of cow dung, an excellent water and insect repellent. There are no doors – after all what valuables are there to protect inside? The windows, if you can call them that, is the same wall mesh left without the mud plaster, high on the wall, shaded by the eave of the roof. Padma and her family – husband, sister-in-law and her two kids – built this house with their own hands in a month’s time. All the materials that went into it were gathered from within a radius of a mile. There are no manufactured materials used here and virtually nothing has been bought. The cost of the house is just the loss of potential labour income for the time spent by the family in building it.

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This is what urban professionals fashionably classify as ‘vernacular architecture’. It is building by the people and the most common form of construction the world over. Did you know that a mere 2% of the world’s buildings are designed by the professionally qualified? The rest is built by people themselves, with knowledge and insight gathered through the generations, finely honed to the local climatic conditions, material resources and cultural practices. It is almost like animal architecture (discussed in an earlier article) and as spontaneous and ingenious.

Vernacular architecture is so varied and responsive to the local conditions that, as architect Laurie Baker has observed, in India one finds a variation in building type and style roughly every 200 km one travels in any direction. It is something like the local dialect, which often changes from district to district. Notice how, for example, traditional food habits and way of dress change as one travels up from Kerala to Punjab. Rice and fish gives way to roti and dal. Down there men wear the mundu and go around with bare torsos to deal with the high humidity of the coastal environment whereas up north the kurta, chudidhar and pagdi protect men from the dry heat and biting cold of the Gangetic plains. Similar to the roti and kapada, the makaan transforms from ethnic Kerala house with the sloping tiled roofs which drains the rain and pavilions and verandas that let in the sea breezes, to the thick mud walls with small windows and mud topped stone roofs of the dry north that keep the heat and cold at bay.

While it is true that vernacular building systems have evolved over the ages and are almost the perfect solution to a given local set of conditions, they are not immune to changes. Increased urbanisation, communication and transport have exposed the hinterland to the “corrupting” influences of industrialisation. So we now find the ingress of the ubiquitous RCC roof and cement walls into the village landscape, especially amongst the well to do. But in a curious inversion of values the city dweller desires his house to have a sloping tiled roof, albeit in concrete and an ethnicised style of building, probably reminiscent of his ancestral village. The classic “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome.

But what is absolutely galling is the government programme for rural housing, bureaucratically called “weaker section housing”. Huge government departments and corporations with budgets of thousands of crores or rupees, with a hierarchy of engineering staff – down from the chief engineers, superintending engineers, executive engineers and hundreds of assistant engineers litter the countryside with costly concrete boxes, which turn into hot ovens in the summer. Despite the awesome technical knowledge that goes into making these buildings they crack up and leak within a year of their construction.

They are no match for Padma’s house at Bomminapadu, which is by far the most culturally relevant, environmentally friendly, cost effective and climatically appropriate. Makes me wonder as to who really is the ‘weaker section’!

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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The Politician and the City

The defeat of Chandrababu Naidu in E-2004 has been endlessly analysed and chewed upon by the papers and TV. The consensus – Naidu spent all the energy (and money) on Hyderabad to the neglect of the state’s numerous villages. (But why he fared poorly here too has been left begging for an answer.)

The attraction is magnetic – that of the ruler and the city. It is amply borne out by history. To cite a few examples – Krishnadevarayya and Vijayanagar, Akbar and Fatehpur Sikri, Nehru and Chandigarh, Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Paris, Hitler and Berlin, Deng Xiao Ping and Shanghai…the phenomenon cuts across the political spectrum from the feudal to the democratic and the autocratic to the communist. Don’t miss out the other commonality here – they are all capital cities where the ruler himself would reside! What does a city have that compels rulers to fall prey to it?

The ruler is forever looking for a place in history. That is probably the greatest achievement in humankind. And what better instrument can there be than a city that will outlast his living years several times over and continue to remain in people’s memories for ages. Architecture and as an extension, the city, is public in nature. It is there for all to see, something that even illiterate masses and the rustic can comprehend – the “patnam” factor as glorified in several south Indian movies. Unlike literature and the fine arts, it is not exclusive to an elite group. Thus the city turns into the rulers’ canvas.

The capital is to the district, state or country what the drawing room is to a house. However unkempt the other rooms may be, the drawing room is always spic and span. This is where we also display all our sundry collections in showcases. The flurry of activity one witnesses in sprucing up the city before a Clinton or Gates comes along is akin to dusting up the drawing room and putting things in place when one is expecting important guests!

The city gets the most number of eyeballs and with our visual media becoming all pervasive and hyperactive any “development” in the city gets maximum sound bytes – something a politician thrives on. Moreover because of the technological skew in human aspirations, the city that in a way is a concentration of technology, every flyover, Imax theatre or MMTS gives instant mileage to a politico as an achievement to boast.

Taking off at a tangent, I used to wonder if Gandhi was being a tad impractical when he stressed the development of villages. I thought it is the city and with it the media projection of a happening place which would appeal to and satiate the aspirations of the janta. Wonder why one only hears about the “Greatest Cities of the World” and not the “Greatest Villages of the World”. But happily E 2004 can be a pointer to a different direction and possibly Cherlopalle in deep southern Andhra Pradesh and not Hyderabad will be vying for that unique title in E 2009.

An Aside:

Strong rulers leave their imprint on the cityscape. In NTR’s time the architecture he was patron to derived directly from Telugu “Atma Gauravamu” – the very basis for the creation of his political party. Witness the buildings that came up during that era – Telugu University with its traditional gopurams, the secretariat with a whiff of Buddhist fenestration, the cultural corridor on Tank Bund…everything to reinforce his image of a true Telugu. Come CM Naidu a decade later and Telugu pride was already well established. The focus, in keeping with the policies, turned to Hi-tech – which in our political vocabulary inevitably seems to mean the western model. So you see the advent of glass and chrome. Even in as “cultural” a building as the recently opened State Art Gallery in Kavuri Hills the architectural language is of glass, space frames and aluminum – can one imagine this happening in NTR’s time. Naidu may have lost this election but he has booked his place in the history books as the creator of Cyberabad.

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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THE 2nd OLDEST PROFESSION?

Everyone knows (I presume) what the oldest profession is! Probably not as exciting but more fundamental to living is the business of building shelters. Man’s impulse to take shelter is as spontaneous as, say, the act of quenching one’s thirst. Notice how even in this day and age, a sudden sharp shower sends people scurrying instinctively for cover to the closest bus shelter or tree.

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The human body is really quite a fragile organism- infinitely more so than man’s co-creatures on this planet. Animals do not wear clothes! Their first line of protection is their skin- the thickness or density of the fur adapting to the prevalent climate to keep them cool or warm. But man has to resort to clothes – a sort of second skin – as his first line of defence against a violent earth. Yes, our earth is harsh- it serves us blazing summers, freezing winters, gales, thunder showers and dust storms. Clothes, though effective to some extent, are not sufficient protection. Man needs shelter – or as the cliché goes – a roof above his head. And of course walls, to hold the roof up and ensconce him. Thus is born space – enclosed space. From a lowly hut to the most imposing palace, this is one inviolable constant. Not just on earth, but even in outer space, man just cannot exist without this “third skin”. Just as the animal has adapted its fur (skin) to the surrounding environment, man has designed his shelters to suit the climate. So you see that the darkened mud huts of Rajasthan are a world apart from the breezy pavilions of Kerala.

But alas! man does not live by bread alone- he needs the jam, the butter and the chutney! So four walls and a roof do not merely remain four walls and a roof. They transform, depending on their function- from the coziness of a bedroom at one end to the vastness of a theatre at the other. But space also transforms according to man’s aspirations and ideals. It transforms in proportion to the political clout and economic power of a nation, it grows as a reflection of its technological prowess and mental courage. In short it is a mirror of the culture and age it is built in. How would archaeologists study history if they did not have architecture to show them the way? A building embodies all the values of a culture in such a way that it becomes a symbol of that nation. The Sydney Opera House for Australia, the Pyramids for Egypt and the Leaning Tower for Italy!

Architecture emerges from the interface of functional necessity, human aspirations, technological prowess and cultural ethos. “Nothing Concrete” will explore the penumbras of man’s built environment. We will not always be treading on solid ground- there may be marshes to negotiate and quick sand to beware of. And by the end of our journey – we may not even reach a destination! We would have discovered that it is only in mathematics that 2+2 should always equal 4. Hence “Nothing Concrete”.

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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The Tale of Two Cousins

The Taj Mahal is 350 years old. That has put it in the news recently, but for all the wrong reasons. Its caretakers – and there are many – are quarrelling over how to blow out the 350 candles in celebration. If the Taj’s stones were to speak, one would probably hear it pleading for some quietude, weary as it would be from being constantly in the glare for three and a half centuries! But talking about the 350 year old Taj got me thinking about our 400 year old Charminar. It was for a moment difficult to digest that the Charminar was older than its more glamorous cousin by over 50 years!

What is common between the two? They are both commemorative buildings – not functional in any way like a fort or a mosque. While the Taj was erected in sorrow, as a tomb to mourn the death of a queen, the Charminar is understood to have been built in joy as a memorial to the victory over an epidemic that plagued the city. Both are relics of Islamic regimes of the 16th and 17th centuries. Both are monumental in scale. Both have spawned a host of commercial products from Taj Mahal tea to Charminar cigarettes! And one obvious feature no one can miss is that both have four minars as a distinctive part of their design. And do you know that the minarets of Charminar are taller at 186 feet than the Taj’s, which stand at 150 feet!

But the similarities end there. The Taj was built with the full force of Mughal might and hence it is a grander composition. The marble it seems was transported down the River Yamuna from Rajasthan and the designers came from faraway lands. (Foreign experts were employed and if Shah Jahan had a planning commission we would not have had the Taj at all!) The pristine white marble and the manicured gardens in which it sits give the Taj an aloof feel. It seems to say, “See, but don’t touch”. All the same, one cannot but admire its beauty. The sheer scale and grace of the whole composition is breathtaking to say the least. In comparison, the Charminar is a desi product built by a provincial king. Built with local granite and plaster it stands on nothing more than a traffic island. Buses and lorries pass barely twenty feet from its walls and it is pounded through the day by a deadly concoction of vibrations and exhaust fumes. But the Charminar is a people’s monument. Open in all directions and located bang in the middle of a bustling bazaar, it has that friendly neighbouhood feel, far removed from Taj’s detached arrogance.

The Charminar, completed by 1591 is a good 63 years older than the Taj, which was finished in 1654. The fact that it has survived quite well despite the hostile environment it sits in and far from being pampered by the ASI like the Taj, speaks volumes about its construction quality. But the crux is this – and this may ruffle the feathers of experts in Mughal history – did the Charminar actually inspire the design of the Taj Mahal? Particularly the idea of the four minarets of the Taj seems to have been borrowed from our own Charminar! There was no structure on the Indian sub continent with four distinct minarets until the Charminar was built. All structures with four minars such as I’timad-ud-daula’s tomb (1628) at Agra or its contemporary, Jahangir’s tomb at Lahore were built much after the Charminar. Even its closest Deccani neighbour – Gol Gumbaz at Bijapur that has a semblance of four minars in the design – was commenced only in 1626, almost 40 years after Charminar’s completion. Shah Jahan’s reign (1628-1666) covered most of the Deccan, so there is every possibility that he or his architects had full knowledge about the Charminar and possibly even seen pictures of it. In the process of design, it is natural for buildings to inspire one another. If today I can seek information about a structure in Tokyo at the click of a button, in those days a messenger on horseback wouldn’t have taken more than a couple of months to reach Delhi from Hyderabad with the blueprints of the Charminar securely in his bag!

Funnily, for all its pioneering design and innovative construction, the Charminar does not find prominent mention in the architectural history books. Is it the bias towards Mughal history or Delhi-centric media attention, one wonders. However, what is sure is that we have in our midst a path breaking and unique piece of architecture. Are we caring for it as it deserves to be?

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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Those Wonderful Craftsmen

Roughly a month back there was an interesting advertisement in the papers. In fact it was more than an ad, it was a notice released by the Housing and Development Board of the Government of Singapore for the exhumation of graves from a cemetery located in a central area of the city-state. The ad said that the land was now required for redevelopment as commercial and For Laxminarayan and Ramnath, a slab of granite or shahbad stone is like a slice of butter. They cut, grind, mould and polish stubborn stones into smooth floors, clean kitchen platforms, neat wardrobe shelves, precisely staircase steps and if one wants, ornate puja mantaps. They even fashion door and window frames out of the ubiquitous black cuddapah stones. Coming from Rajasthan, well known for its variety of stones and stone architecture, they probably have the talent in their genes and most certainly have imbibed the art from their fore fathers.

Like Laxminarayan and Ramnath, there are others in every segment of the construction industry who craft our built environment, working with their own hands to give us wonderful places to live in. There is Thangavelu and his sons who shape chunks of rough granite, dressing and fitting the pieces like a perfect jigsaw in to rugged walls or a cobbled pathway as the architecture demands. They carry the Tamil legacy of great temple building to this day. Do not mistake them for sculptors – they are essentially masons, but of a special breed. When maistrys Mathaiah or Narayan lay an ordinary brick, the wall takes on a different dimension. With each brick and mortar joint perfectly in line and level, the texture of the wall begins to look more like a finely woven cloth. Carpenter Dil Ram from U.P. works quietly and unassumingly but his dialogue is with the wood, which responds to the strokes of his chisel to become doors, windows, tables and chairs with the most perfect joinery. In Rajesh’s hand, also from U.P., steel pipes, rods and sheets transform into myriad forms, bent, welded, turned into the most exquisite of railings, door handles and furniture.

These men are not artists or sculptors, but skilled craftsmen who fashion contemporary and practical objects with traditional material. They have a special bond with the material they work with, knowing it intimately, feeling its strength, always aware as to how far they can push it into the desired form. They have had no formal training in their trade. Probably they have not even finished school. They have picked up their skills, which today earns them their livelihood, working from their teens. Picking up the expertise first hand from their seniors in the field they are living examples of the much touted ‘guru-shishya parampara’ form of learning. And it does not stop there. They pass on these very skills to another generation down the line. The important thing here is that even if the tools they work with have changed from the manual hammer and chisel to the mechanical diamond cutter and drill, their skills remain in tact and it is in the end their hands that do the magic. As time goes on an interesting transition takes place in their professional lives. From mere helpers assisting a master, they pick up the skills to become skilled workers themselves and next, like in the corporate world, become managers or contractors marshalling a large workforce, coordinating their work, interacting with clients and scouting for newer jobs. At this stage, they stop working with their own hands except to intervene and solve complex construction issues.

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A building is the one entity that harnesses the skills of so many different trades – at least ten at a fast count. They are the ones that literally shape the environment we live in. While the government every year gives away “Master Craftsman” awards to potters, weavers, jewellers etc., one hardly gets to hear of such a recognition being bestowed on a mason, carpenter or welder. Are they any less of an artist than one making decorative objects? If not the government, at least architects, being designers whose creations these men give life to, have to formally recognize their contribution. Let the Indian Institute of Architects, apart from rewarding its own fraternity at the annual IIA awards for the best designer, institute an award to be given to outstanding building craftsmen. This will be an appropriate ‘thank you’ to the men who actually build our dreams.

A shahbad stone wardrobe, door frame and wall by Laxminarayan and Ramnath

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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To Die and Yet Live

Roughly a month back there was an interesting advertisement in the papers. In fact it was more than an ad, it was a notice released by the Housing and Development Board of the Government of Singapore for the exhumation of graves from a cemetery located in a central area of the city-state. The ad said that the land was now required for redevelopment as commercial and residential complexes. It advised the kith and kin of those buried there to take possession of the mortal remains within six months, failing which the government itself would cremate the remains and the ashes would then be stored in an urn in a crematorium with an appropriate marble plaque for identification.

Your first reaction, I guess, would be no different from mine – can this ever happen in our country? It would be considered sacrilegious to even think of such an option, leave alone carrying out such a plan. There is a lot of emotional baggage we carry within ourselves when it comes to the dead, that often we accord more respect to the dead than even to the living. Does this then mean that Singaporeans are insensitive, unemotional creatures who have no sense of respect for their departed? On the contrary, looking at it from a practical standpoint, in a land scarce country like Singapore the needs of the living takes precedence over the comfort of the dead. If there is a city in our country that should have followed Singapore’s footsteps in this regard, it should have been Mumbai. The fact that one hasn’t heard of something like this yet shows the chasm between the two cultures.

In cities, conventionally graveyards were situated on the outskirts, but the urban sprawl has engulfed these spaces turning them virtually into city centre open spaces, which, however are out of bounds for the living. Memorials erected on graves are more of a ceremonial construct than a functional requirement. Man is probably the only living being who remembers the dead and builds elaborate monuments and conducts complex rituals for them. This is a common trait right from tribal cultures and royal empires to modern times, cutting across civilizations. And standing testimony to man’s obsession with the dead are the age old Pyramids to the memorial being built for the victims of the 9/11 tragedy at the World Trade Centre site in New York.
Hyderabad does not lag behind any other city in glorifying its dead – in fact it may be a frontrunner in this! Recently former Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao was cremated on the banks of the Hussain Sagar on Necklace Road. The irony is even while he was the Prime Minister of the country, Narasimha Rao would probably never have lived on such a wonderful site with a glorious view, a privilege he now enjoys after passing away!

Ditto for other departed politicians. Channa Reddy dead, lies in a wonderful corner of Indira Park, while when alive he resided on a non descript road in Tarnaka. N.T.Rama Rao’s spirit again overlooks the Hussain Sagar, whereas when alive, his house was on a crowded street in Abids. So are the banks of the Hussain Sagar slowly becoming a necropolis, a playground for the famous dead? Rarely does a city have such a fabulous recreation and relaxation zone right at its heart, which people flock to in droves. And now, while they enjoy their evening out, they have to trip over grave looking tombs. It jars the other way too. The solemn dignity which a tomb should have is lost when people picnic and party around it.

Agreed, our departed ‘leaders’ need a more fitting grave than us mere mortals. A practical solution would be for our city planners to immediately do two things. First they should not leave any site vacant without a specific use in and around Hussain Sagar. This is precisely what happened in Narasimha Rao’s case, where an unused, unkempt piece of land was quickly usurped by the powers that be. And given the polarised political atmosphere in our state, rivalry to occupy prime land around the lake is only going to intensify, as there are a lot more leaders left to ‘go’! The second thing that planners have to do is to identify and earmark land for the specific purpose of politicians’ memorials. I propose the banks of the Musi River in line with Bapu Ghat after the Tipu Bridge. Something on the lines of the Yamuna in Delhi with the Raj Ghat, Shanti Van etc. This linear piece of land, as such, is not suitable for any other functional purpose. There can never be a dearth of space as a line of memorials can extend endlessly for generations all along the Musi. Planners also have to start thinking creatively as to how to use city centre graveyards as they are bound to become sticky issues in the future.

There is yet another way the political class seeks to entrench itself in the public consciousness. That is by erecting statues – and again our city has a distinction in this too. Every prime location and traffic roundabout is being appropriated to plant a statue of a political leader. The originals of course were those of Nehru at Abids, Gandhi on M G Road and Ambedkar on Tank Bund – but the later day pretenders are many. We all know that the Airport to Jubilee Hills road is the most sought after real estate. It seems it is no different for statues either – starting with those of NTR, Rajiv Gandhi, Channa Reddy etc. But one of the most pathetic is that of Vengal Rao, that has somehow been squeezed onto the median in front of the Lifestyle building. Indira Gandhi – oh, how could we forget her for so long – is going to grace what was till recently a lovely roundabout with a cascading waterfall at the junction of Necklace Road and Khairatabad flyover near the IMAX Theatre.

Apart from the parade of statues on Tank Bund, which in fact is a cultural corridor of sorts, we find absolutely no statue of any leading light from a field other than politics. I can only think of L.V.Prasad at Jubilee Hills Check post and a slain police officer at S.R. Nagar. Is it only politicians who have a right to a public space with which they continue to haunt public memory even long after they are dead and gone?

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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Towards a New Vernacular

‘Vers une Architecture’ was the name of the epochal volume written by the famous architect Le Corbusier and published around the year 1923. Translated from French it means ‘Towards a New Architecture’. It was a manifesto (not just political parties, but artists too issued manifestos in those days!) laying out the principles of a brave new architecture – all encompassing in its sweep, international in its approach, uncompromisingly brutal in use of form and colour and deliberately thumbing its nose at the local milieu. Le Corbusier did not merely stick to penning pompous manifestos, but was a prolific builder who had projects all over the world and significantly in India. He was invited by Nehru, in the flush of newly gained independence, to design Chandigarh, the new capital of the divided Punjab. For Nehru, it was an apt choice, for, through Corbusier’s architecture he wanted to project India as a bold new nation-state, modern in its outlook and industrially integrating into the world. It is, however, ironic that immediately after being unshackled from decades of colonial stranglehold, Nehru sought a foreign architect to design on Indian soil! But nevertheless, Corbu’s – as he was fondly called – buildings in Chandigarh and later in Ahmedabad were powerful enough to change the direction of contemporary Indian architecture. Fifty years on, we can see vestiges of it in government buildings built by departments like the CPWD, which were once headed by architects who had worked under Corbu on Chandigarh’s plans. Corbusian style buildings quickly sprouted all over the country from Chandigarh to Cochin, totally ignorant to local building traditions. We can see it in our city too in the Telephone Bhavan at Saifabad, Rail Nilayam and Andhra Bank building at Koti. Even today, Corbu’s ghost is seen in the way the government builds in the form of concrete boxes that are strewn all over the countryside. Curiously enough, while increasingly architects have moved on in their architectural vocabulary – and Corbu today is often spoken of derisively in intellectual circles – the engineers who plan buildings have appropriated Corbusier’s style, which is essentially RCC driven and formulaic in approach. Corbusier is supposed to have famously dismissed native Indian architecture as not worthy of a second glance!

Wonder what Gandhi would have had to say about that, had he still been alive at that time! It may be just conjectural rumination, but it is interesting to wonder whether Chandigarh and thence modern Indian architecture have been the same had Corbu dialogued with Gandhi when he came to India. Or probably he would not have been invited at all!

Gandhi’s approach to building, like everything in else in life, was to reinforce the local, work with the vernacular and assimilate the immediate environment. Proof of this is the kutirs and ashrams he lived in and worked out of. They were just a little more than mere huts built with the simplest of materials, in forms that were elementary. Inside too, the space was sparse and the floor was the furniture like it still is for millions in our country. Not for Gandhi grandiose palaces and ornate chambers without which most of our leaders are unable to wield power. Isn’t it true that the moral stature of a person is inversely proportional to the complexity of his dwelling!

Though Gandhi may be accused of romanticising the vernacular, the need to study and delve into local systems has gradually dawned on architects over the past twenty years or so. The very definition of architecture, which commonly meant a ‘designed’ form for a specific function in a non-cultural banal style has changed to one of appropriateness to given location, climate and the cultural milieu. Architects, who were earlier looking at only the classical forms of building (which architect can forget Bannister Fletcher’s ‘A History of Architecture’ of their student days?) are today beginning to explore the hitherto unsung world of folk architecture. Courtyards, an integral feature of a rural house has made a dramatic entry into the urban architectural vocabulary. Architects are today experimenting with supposedly lowly materials like mud and stone. In Delhi, architects Revathi and Vasanth Kamath commonly build with mud walls while K.T.Ravindran explores the meanings of traditional building forms in his works. In Kerala, Baker has reinterpreted the local vernacular in simple modern materials. And in Bangalore, architect brothers Shankar and Navanath Kanade have innovated a building system using abundantly available local rough granite slabs for walls in a unique kind of ‘mechano vernacular’. Here again, Jaisim constantly pushes the boundaries of the expected with his juxtaposition of materials, forms and structure drawing deeply from the vernacular and yet bridging to the future. Goan architect Gerard Da Cunha conjures up a melange of forms with mud brick and stone to give a fairy tale look to his buildings. Nritya Gram in Bangalore is path-breaking project in this genre. While the older generation of architects has made the difficult but compelling transition from ‘thinking for the people’ to ‘thinking with the people’, today’s crop of architecture students are tutored in the college itself about the virtues of the vernacular and are better equipped for the future.

The emergence of a new vernacular may not be as bombastic a phenomenon as the new architecture expounded in Corbu’s ‘Vers une Architecture’, but there is a definitive movement in Indian architecture towards reinterpreting vernacular building systems for today’s living. Gandhi should be smiling.

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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Want to be an Architect?

Maybe this piece is coming a month too late. By now admissions to the professional courses would be virtually over and eager youngsters would be on their way to becoming doctors, engineers and lawyers. But this is not for those who have already made up their minds and know what they want. Rather it is for you, fence sitters who are wondering which way to go. You are on the verge of choosing a track on which you have to travel for your lifetime. It is an irreversible choice. Your parents obviously will be the principal guides in help making this choice. But when it comes to choosing architecture as a career, many parents Maybe this piece is coming a month too late. By now admissions to the professional courses would be virtually over and eager youngsters would be on their way to becoming doctors, engineers and lawyers. But this is not for those who have already made up their minds and know what they want. Rather it is for you, fence sitters who are wondering which way to go. You are on the verge of choosing a track on which you have to travel for your lifetime. It is an irreversible choice. Your parents obviously will be the principal guides in help making this choice. But when it comes to choosing architecture as a career, many parents are not fully informed. They may tell you that architecture is a profession where future prospects are dim and incomes low. They may say it is limited in scope and is very specialized. In fact I have heard many confuse architecture for ‘horticulture’ and that is a better option, they may say!

However, not all of what your parents say is untrue. They are right in their assessment that architecture is not as popular as, say, mechanical engineering, computers or medicine. (But do you want to end up being one in a herd?). It is true that initially incomes are low compared to other fields like software design. (But running a marathon can be infinitely more fulfilling than a 100m dash!). There is also a feeling that this course is suitable only if your parents are architects so that you can inherit their practice. (Someone has to start off for the first time, isn’t it?). Yes, employment opportunities in the public sector are miniscule – 90% of architects end up having their own practice. (Doesn’t everyone dream about having that freedom?). It is probably the only profession in which you will be called upon to produce an aesthetic entity while working within the constraints of building byelaws and structural safety. Also the building has to stand up to vagaries of nature and at the same time be built within a given budget. (It is often like fighting with your hands tied at the back. Isn’t that a challenge?)

So, despite all this, are you ready to become an architect? The popular conception of an architect is one who just makes artistic drawings of facades with beautiful doors and windows. Read on to see how way off the mark that notion is and then make your decision.

  • You will be in a profession, which literally has a stupendous past. Your creations will outlive you many times over and bear testimony to your artistic skills and talent.
  • You have to develop a keen sense of culture and history, as buildings – especially public ones – are repositories of cultural values unique to a civilization. Isn’t the history of the Harappan civilization studied through the ruins of Mohenjodaro?
  • You must develop psychological and sociological insights into human behavior as ultimately you are building for people and they have to be mentally comfortable in the spaces you create. You may, for instance, be simultaneously designing projects as diverse as a nursery school and a prison!
  • You should be able to analyse and comprehend environmental impact of the building you design because you are dealing directly with the earth and ill planned buildings can destroy habitats as they consume lots of material and energy in their making and maintenance.
  • You have to have a good grasp of structural design, civil engineering and construction technology because buildings have to stand for generations. This requires in depth knowledge of the behavior of materials and manufacturing processes.
  • You should have a sound technical knowledge of electrical, plumbing, air-conditioning and mechanical systems since buildings are not bare shells but have to be technically fitted out for the comfort of man.
  • You should have fingers for finance and the capability to make estimates, work within budgets and project costs by studying market trends. Your client virtually puts his money in your hands and you become responsible for how it is spent.
  • You have to possess basic legal knowledge, as you have advise your client of rules, regulations, tender conditions, contract clauses etc. He depends on you to guide him through the complexities of the building process.
  • You should have good negotiation and persuasion skills as you have to deal with hard-nosed contractors to safeguard the interests of your client. At the same time you are required to be a fair judge in case of any dispute between the client and contractor.
  • You will have to develop human relationship skills in dealing with diverse people on a project. In the morning you may be required to interact with your client who is the Chairman of a company, sitting in the paneled boardroom, and in the afternoon explain construction details at the dusty site to a mason in his own language to make sure they are executed accurately.
  • You need excellent communication skills, as you have to often present abstract concepts and ideas to juries and building committees, which they should be convinced are build able.
  • You should have an abundance of patience and the tenacity to hold on to your ideas as building construction is a slow process and projects can often take years to complete.
  • You have to be versatile enough to design anything from a door handle to an entire city. That has to be the range and breadth of your thinking and vision.

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The architecture course is a unique combination of technical and creative learning. So it often serves as a springboard to other careers. There are several architects I know who have become professional photographers, journalists, animators, actors and businessmen. Did you know that novelist Arundhati Roy, cartoonist Ponappa and business tycoon Ratan Tata are qualified architects?

India is a growing economy and still has to house her millions. Our cities are growing furiously and this combined with growing design consciousness points to an even better future for architects. There were at last count only 35,000 qualified architects in India, whereas there are 3,50,000 engineers. So don’t you see here the opportunity that lies in the field of building design and construction? So, become an architect without hesitation and show your parents that you have made the right choice.

(You can interact with the author at shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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We are like this only!

It is really very irritating! Driving home late in the evening, you turn the corner and you suddenly find a group of young guys on bikes in an animated conversation bang in the middle of the road, totally oblivious to the traffic around. Despite the inherent danger, they do this almost compulsively and repeatedly. In the public realm why do we behave the way we do?

Man’s sense of self induces varying behavior patterns depending on the environment that he lives in. The same bathroom singer who unabashedly displays his talents within the comfort and privacy of his bathroom transforms into a shy, self-conscious introvert in a public place like a bus stop. Enlarge the same phenomenon to an entire population or culture and one can see broad but distinct patterns emerging. In fact one can even go to the extent of saying that cultural attitudes of a people can be gleaned from the way they use space, both public and private. Obviously, a comparison between ‘our’ Indian (Eastern and tropical) and ‘their’ Western (European and temperate) behavior bears out the differences more starkly.

Climate has determined our collective behavior very strongly. In hot climes like ours, people tend to spend more time outdoors in the shade of a tree or a verandah, to catch what little breeze there may be. But in cold climes with snow and chilly winds people like to retreat indoor to protect themselves. When you are outdoors you naturally tend to see and talk to more people since you are part of the public domain. You become more extroverted and are forcibly turned into a more sociable creature. You talk loudly, in order to make yourself heard as open spaces are large and more spread out. You also gesture wildly as it is crucial that you are clearly visible to be understood properly from a distance. Even the dressing style is influenced by the environment, precisely why Rajasthanis wear vivid pink turbans, vibrant browns and reds to stand out against the dreary backdrop. But living mostly indoors as ‘they’ (Europeans) do, one becomes closeted in a confined space making them talk softer, hardly make any gesture and be less flamboyant. (The western suit predominantly is in gray or black). ‘They’ become so used to their seclusion that they guard their privacy zealously. Even today <strong>‘we’</strong> receive unannounced guests in a nonchalant manner, but <strong>‘they’</strong> get totally flustered when someone just drops by, even if it is a close friend.

In the tropics we tend to use the floor a lot – to sit, to sleep, to eat – we have absolutely no qualms about squatting on the floor as floors are the coolest surface in a warm house and we want to maintain body contact with that most of the time. In fact even our traditional dressing style with loose dhotis and saris instead of trousers allows for greater flexibility for squatting cross-legged on the floor. But ‘they’ have had to use furniture like a chair, sofa or cot to be bodily away from the floor, which is uninvitingly cold. The close fitting trouser that evolved from the need to give effective protection from the cold also inhibits squatting, making the chair the most comfortable sitting arrangement.

The staircases in our public buildings are yet another mirror of our inane urge to spit wherever we please. The stair corners are decorated with a display of ‘spit art’. Spitting in public is probably a hangover of dislodging the dust getting into our mouths which is common in warm, windy, dry climatic conditions like that which prevail in the deserts of Egypt and the Middle East. Catch a Westerner spitting on the sidewalk!

Sidewalks bring to mind another notorious trait among Indian men who contribute to irrigating the compound walls and footpaths of our city. In a hot, sunny country, as drying up is faster, we are not averse to using the open space as toilets. Can you imagine this happening in Europe?

we-are-like-this-only

Space use is transformed with the changing times as cultural determinants evolve. It is a slow process and takes generations. For Architects dealing with design of spaces for individuals or a family is simpler as attitudes are discernible. But the measure of success in design of large public places where the user is anonymous, like we did in Shilparaamam and the MMTS railway stations, lies in how spontaneously people ‘use’ the space rather than misuse it! We are what we are but often our public spaces speak of what we are not!

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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What really is the CITY?

It is a question that every thinker down the ages has been trying to find an answer to. What exactly is the city? What is its raison d’etre? Leaving behind all the thousands of hectares of fresh open fields and green valleys, why do humans crowd onto a few square miles of land braving the innumerable difficulties that go with it? Looking down from the air, you see this in a visually stark form. The city is a small patch in a vast wilderness with tentacles of roads, rail and power lines clawing into the countryside in all directions. These are its lifelines. The recent truckers strike has brought to the fore the city’s total helplessness when its lifelines are endangered. Just imagine what would have happened if the strike had continued for the threatened three months. The city(zens) would have been starved of basics like grains, vegetables and milk. Just think about all other essentials the city survives on. The water that quenches Hyderabad’s thirst, for instance, travels in huge pipelines for hundreds of kilometers before it reaches our taps. The power that lights the bulb in your bedroom is generated thousands of miles away and is transmitted to the city through cables hung from huge pylons. All the materials the city is built with – the cement, the steel, the wood is sourced from afar. To cripple the city you just have to cut it’s lifelines – just one of them would do. Cut off the power and the city will come to a grinding halt in less than a day. Shut the water supply and the city will die of thirst in about a week. Block the oil and gas that drives the city and you will literally have a sitting duck. The city is like a huge vacuum cleaner that is relentlessly sucking up all the resources of the countryside. The physical footprint of the city might be just the patch visible from up in the sky, but its sphere of impact extends miles beyond. So, what does the city give in return for all that it takes? Or is it an ungrateful glutton, voraciously gorging on resources beyond its boundaries and belching out smoke and vomiting sewage.

One should get to the genesis of the modern city to better understand its character. The city is essentially a huge processor. During the industrial revolution it started out as a processor of material to produce industrial goods. With all the factories coming up at one place due to reasons of logistics, people too started living around them. But in today’s scenario, with improved connectivity, communications and changed government policies, manufacturing has been shifting to the countryside and suburbs. The city is thus evolving from a processor of material to a processor of information, which is essentially what all the offices in the city do. Data keeps pouring in from all over; by the end of the day it has been processed and sent out. So the concentration of all this information centred activity (controlled by the educated) within a few square miles has turned the city into some kind of an intellectual cauldron. The larger the city the bigger its intellectual quotient. A Walt Disney or a Vikram Sarabhai could have emerged from the intellectual fusion that only a city can provide – how many thinkers do small towns and villages produce? That is, till date, probably the only worthwhile contribution of the city to humankind.

But the flip side is its narcissistic character. Every city becomes a being unto itself, always looking into a mirror to beautify and adorn itself constantly. Its people turn self-centred and with their superior economic clout ride rough shod over their country cousins. For how long is that going to happen? Not very long, it looks. Communications – the internet and the mobile phone – are already leveling out the historical rural / urban divide. Unlike the traditional postal address or a telephone number that are place specific, the e-mail ID and the mobile number are place independent and person specific. Which really means is that you could be in any remote place and yet participate, direct and benefit from the goings on in the rest of the world. So, by throwing up a technological tool such as the computer and the telephone, has the city, as we know it, sounded its own death knell? It is ironic but it looks like that could become the city’s greatest contribution to humankind!

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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Whose City is it anyway?

Two events of the past fortnight have brought to the fore, once again, the question of equity in public spaces. The first in Mumbai was the willful demolition of over 6000 squatter houses in a government drive, ostensibly to convert the city into another Shanghai. The second was the fire, which destroyed over 1500 shanties in our own city. Both together have thrown lakhs of people on to the streets – not that the place they were already living in was any better. The question of how to deal with slums has never been addressed satisfactorily by the city administration except for a name change from a totalitarian sounding Slum Clearance Authority to a more muted Slum Development Board. But the mindset does not seem to have changed, going by the Mumbai example.

To deal with this issue we have to understand why in the first place are slums, or to use a politically correct term, squatter settlements formed. The city is a great magnet and because of its complex web of interconnected lifestyles and trades it throws up myriad work opportunities, which the comparatively prosaic rural hinterland lacks. And one of this is simple manual labour, so essential even in an increasingly mechanized and digitized world. These are the people you see digging up cable trenches by the side of the road, maidservants who wash your vessels, cart pullers, hamalis (coolies), rag pickers, etc., in short the daily wage earners. From the skill set point of view they are at the lowest rung of the labour hierarchy, but they make up the largest single group. Because of the highly unpredictable tenure of their jobs they are migrant in nature going wherever they find work, either within the same city or to different cities.

But they too are people like you and me and they also need shelter and a place to stay, and above all some dignity. So you see impromptu colonies spurt up in the nooks and crannies of the city in the “quasi-legal” or “no man’s” lands which only the government can lay claim to. Their mode of building is with material discarded by the rest of the city i.e. broken asbestos sheets, cardboard, plastic sheets, rope, etc. It in itself is a kind of urban vernacular but much less prettier than its rural counterpart (as we saw in an earlier piece “The House at Bomminapadu”). From every other standpoint other than the legality of it, the squatter is as ingenious as a bird building a nest for its family. To arrive in the big bad world of an alien city, to strike a claim on a patch of land, to put up a shelter to protect one’s children and to face up to the vagaries of not only nature but local authorities as well, is not something we, the educated, securely employed can even dare to contemplate.

The government here, wants to build multi-storied apartments for those displaced in the recent fire. But this will never work. With no guarantee of employment, no assured income, and the nature of their job being migrant in nature, a permanent place of dwelling will only hamper their lifestyles and be a deterrent to their economic growth. In fact what is most likely to happen – and this has happened several times before – is that the house allotted to them will be leased out or sold by the squatter family to make that extra buck and they will then move on to their old ways of living in another nook of the city. So what is the solution?

The first should be the creation of legitimate migrant labour colonies in land that is centrally located to their place of work (which is usually the city center where they can easily find work) provided with basic sanitation, power and other amenities like schools. Simple prefab material can be supplied which they can erect themselves and also carry away with them when they move on to their next abode.

The second is a far more radical solution, which I had proposed in my graduation thesis 20 years ago, but was pleasantly surprised to read about recently as an idea from the present Hyderabad District Collector himself. This is to use government schools as night shelters. This would be an ingenious use of available resources with virtually no extra investment and the two disparate functions of study and sleep dovetail into each other effortlessly as schools are used only from 9 am to 3 pm everyday, are closed on holidays and have basic sanitation facilities. A small addition of secured storage for their belongings, a separate eating area which could double up to serve midday meals to the students and a sick room would help. Both these schemes are best left for Non-Governmental Organizations to manage.

Further, there has to be more equity in city planning. Today the “haves” who have everything including the best means of transport – a car and more are the ones who clamour to live in the centre of the city closest to their places of work. This is amply borne out by land values which spiral up towards the city centre. The “have-nots“ whose livelihood depends on being close to the city centre are, however, forced to spend on public transport to get to their places of work from government housing invariably built on the outskirts of the city or have to find ‘grey’ zones close to the city centre and risk inviting the wrath of ‘Singapore’ crazy administration. The other aspect is equity in open spaces. If you see Banjara Hills and Jubilee Hills, not only do the houses have significant garden spaces themselves, there are any number of MCH parks dotting the landscape which none of the residents use. Contrast that with the packed housing of migrant labour, which have no community space. And they are the ones who virtually live in the open, their shelter being not more than a few square feet in area. Maybe it is high time we asked ourselves the question – who does the city really belong to?

(You are welcome to interact with the author on shankar_lakshmi@yahoo.com)

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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The Nature of Architecture

At the Hyderabad airport lounge a few days back, I noticed a European tourist gazing intently at one of those ubiquitous India Tourism posters which you find in any tourist infested hotspot of our country. The impressive picture on the poster was of the interior of Medak Church, an early 20th century stone masonry landmark in the town of Medak about 100 km north west of Hyderabad. The shot was a typical one – a sort of one point perspective – looking down the nave towards the altar. What did the lady see in that picture, I thought, that held her gaze for a full minute in the din and clutter of the airport? Was it a longing for her culture and her home from which she was obviously away? It did not seem so. What I imagine captivated her was simply the architectural space – the sheer scale, grace, beauty and proportion of it. It is the kind of immersed feel which we all experience where we are drawn into the picture and held captive. I wondered, if a mere photograph could do that, what would the actual 3D spatial experience have done? That got me thinking as to when was it last that I held my breath in awe being in an architectural space. And get that sense of fulfillment that we all feel in wonderful architecture. I could not recall any recent occurrence. Atleast not in many of today’s built environments– the malls, airports, hotels etc. Why is that happening?

This brings me to the factor of what I would call the ‘comfort zone’ of architectural beauty. It is that spatial condition which both the connoisseur and the commoner agree as being beautiful. That is the space that touches something in every human deep down inside and arouses a sense of total meditative fulfillment. It could be from any one of the various strata in architecture – the historical, folk, contemporary or classic. I don’t want to say it but can’t help doing so – the Taj Mahal is an obvious example. In our times – Geoffrey Bawa?

I have observed that many of us architects rarely talk nowadays in terms of scale, proportion, composition, light….when discussing our designs or presenting them to our clients. Maybe we feel these values are infra dig for today’s architecture. That they are schoolish (foolish?) and bookish attributes. We seem to have become ‘building experts’ servicing the client on real estate matters, marketability of features, attractive finishes, translations of foreign forms and so on. There must be a reason for this …let me try and unravel that.

Architecture relates at two levels – one is with the human it holds within and the other is the landscape it dialogues with outside. A harmonious blend of the two is what appeals to our senses as good architecture. At the same time we experience architecture by two means – one is the real and the other virtual. The virtual world consists of paintings, photographs, cinema and the written word (evocative descriptions of architecture often set the stage for drama in many works of fiction!). As the dominance of the media spreads – TV, internet, magazines like this and increasingly the mobile phone – the virtual experience of architecture as opposed to the real gains primacy. Our virtual experience today, which is actually a 2D visual experience, is dominated by the looks of the object rather than the feel. And what we see in a picture is a very narrow representation of the whole limited to form and colour. No wonder why ‘elevation’ and ‘architectural features’ are the two most bandied about jargons in popular architectural discussions today! Tomorrow in some queer sort of time warp, are we going to ‘see’ architecture through the medium of virtual reality, where we may ‘feel’ the space though it is not the real one? At that point will the eternal values of scale, proportion etc make a come back into our real built spaces? And possibly some decades from now that European lady’s grand daughter at Hyderabad’s spaceport will get into a India Tourism hologram showing one of India’s most modern buildings and live out what her grandmother felt visually a couple of generations back!

These are some of the issues that have been raised before and continue to be asked as I have done now. There have been no definitive answers and there may never be. Therein lies the delectable paradox of architecture or in fact of any art form – but certainly of architecture as it is a functional art. At one level there is nothing material or physical about architecture, yet it is engineering and all concrete. The irony is this – that we architects have to mould physical materials into forms and spaces which then transcend our senses and caress the inner most recesses of our minds. Out of concrete we have to create something that defies definition. Hence ‘Nothing Concrete’. Is that an apt name for a column that will try to probe the penumbras in our field? I welcome your feedback at shankar@shankarch.com.

G.Shankar Narayan
Architect

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One Lakh Car...One Lakh House?

The launch of the Rs. One Lakh car is probably one of the most awaited events of 2008. This is not without reason. Starting with Ratan Tata’s breathtaking, almost brash announcement a couple of years back, operationalising the idea, the vast number of potential family customers and not least of all the copy cat global car makers wanting to get onto the bandwagon following an Indian’s lead, all this and more has been headline making news. Add to it the spice of Singur and all that has happened there and you have a cinematic mix of a pot boiler! But my focus is going to be on the car itself. I have been thinking – if a one lakh car, why not a Rs. One Lakh house? Why not? Imagine the market for that in our country with crores of families with inadequate shelter. Can it be done? Will a brash entrepreneur take up the challenge?

It looks like it can – with one caveat – the land component cost should not be added, for that is a highly volatile entity. Unlike a car, a house is rooted to a place and thereby cannot be divorced from the land and its value at that place. There are imaginative ways to address this issue too, but that’s for a future piece. Here I am going to look at the house per se from a basic design and feasibility point of view. Assuming the size of the car to be a smallish 10’0” long x 4’3” wide i.e. 45 sft (something between a Reva and a Maruti 800), the cost comes to a little above Rs. 2000 per sft of car footprint. That is what it costs for a normal house construction, nowadays. So, how are they able to pack so much costly material like steel, aluminum, copper etc., turn it all into machinery, and come up with that kind of costing?

Where is the catch? The answer seems to be in large volume production combined with some intelligent ‘start from scratch’ and ‘think out of the hat’ design methods. You see, when there is a mass market for a product – housing obviously has one in our country – it makes eminent economic sense to mass manufacture it. This drives down cost per unit thereby becoming affordable to a larger section of people. We don’t realize it, but everything that goes into building a house today is already mass produced be it the cement, brick, steel, G.I. pipes, wires etc or the W.C’s, tower bolts and screws. But when these are put together to form the final product – the house- it is done in a non-systemic, non – standard way whereby the economics of mass manufacture is lost. It is akin to individuals assembling a car or bike, buying parts like the steering, engine, wheels, transmission, headlights etc. separately. Imagine what then would be the cost of the car or its quality. Now one may argue that apartments are in fact an example of mass manufactured housing. Yes and no. They are repetitive but not mass manufactured. Their repetition is born more out of ease of construction than out of any real cost advantage. Cost effective mass housing will happen when integrated solutions emerge. For starters why not an integrated ‘kitchen-toilet’ module with everything in place including for instance, the fridge (the body is integrated into the module thereby further saving cost). One buys this module – available in various models – and plugs it into one’s apartment structure. As architects, we know that toilets and kitchens are the most expensive parts of a house – if we say that Rs.2000 per sft is the cost of construction, that is only the average for the whole house – the services and finishes intensive areas like the kitchen and toilet cost twice as much. Imagine the cost reduction if we can co-opt this technology into making these modules. And by logical extension, the entire house. With the growing automobile industry, India has the technological base and manufacturing prowess to venture into this greenfield area and address its burgeoning housing needs in an appropriate, logical way. There are of course many questions to answer. Will the whole thing turn into a mechanistic, soulless, Soviet era type of venture. Where does it leave space for people’s spontaneity, so important in an object like a house?  What about the environmental balance sheet?

These and many other ifs and buts have to addressed as we travel along, if we think that the basic idea is feasible, worth trying. So, who is to bell the cat? I invite IA&B to kick it off – invite ideas from the professionals, students, designers, out of the box thinkers to come up with a feasible solution for a Rs. One lakh house. There are literally millions who will be grateful if we can get it right!

G. Shankar Narayan
Architect
Email : shankar@shankarch.com

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Bye, bye Butter sheet!

Give or take a month or two, it was sometime in mid 2004 that the last drawing board in my office with the parallel drafter, was consigned to the attic. On that day we could proudly claim we were fully computerised! The process of computerisation was however gradual – it started in 1995 when we got our first Pentium on a bank loan for a princely Rs.80, 000! One after another in a sort of melancholic last salute, the drawing boards were first laid flat from their proud and typical sloping stance. On them were placed their nemesis – the CPU, the monitor and assorted sidekicks. Suddenly looking too huge, ungainly and space devouring, they were finally booted out. I wonder now, how many architects’ offices still have a drafting table they use – for drawing, not lunching.   With the computer revolution, CAD as a subject in the architectural curriculum made its debut, I guess sometime in the early 90’s. Since then students have taken to it most eagerly and have mastered the medium often to the detriment of their natural drawing talents. I must admit that I missed the CAD bus, having graduated in 1985. I am still not being conversant with ‘AutoCAD’, except the basics of panning, zooming, trimming and erasing.

I am very happy though with butter sheets and am the only ‘butter sheet man’ in our office. All my colleagues – they are roughly half my age – do not touch a butter sheet. They get on to design directly on the computer screen. They do not even need a pencil and paper. That is something I can’t do. Even to understand a design, I need to see a print out. I overlay a butter sheet on to that and scribble and squiggle to come to a satisfactory solution. My question is – does the mode of design affect its nature and the final outcome. That is, does the ‘hand – pencil – paper’ method lead to more mature, creative, wholesome design solutions. As I pick up the pencil and start sketching a hundred possibilities come rushing forth. The design is forming in the mind and the hand translates that and gives it structure on paper. It is a synergistic act, each feeding off the other. As I imagine people moving in my virtual building, the pencil glides to form pathways, walls, steps and spaces. If my virtual user reaches a dead end, the pencil immediately senses that and routes them through another path and another space by erasing lines and redrawing them. The design evolves as one thinks – it is real time.

On the other hand the ‘fingers-mouse-keyboard- screen’ routine curtails ones ability to explore beyond a limit, desists from trying out forms which are difficult to draw on screen, eliminates thumb nailing quick sections or views, like we do on sheet corners, thus leading to a design that is determined not by your mind’s ability and agility but by the computer’s limitations. The mind’s eye is seeing the evolving design but by the time the command is typed in and the cursor moved to select the right icon either the mind has moved on, or worst of all the mind has stagnated to keep pace with the slow act of drawing. Thinking loses out to acting. An idea dies.

The computer and CAD are at best a drafting tool and not a design aid. They are great post-design apparatus with which we can edit, save, create 3D models, simulate and fascinate. They enable us to walk through an un-born space and live our buildings even if they are never built.  But they positively hinder ones design ability if one goes to design directly on the screen as lots of young architects are doing today. This does not bode well for the future of design and architecture itself. Am I being plain old fashioned? Is an entire generation of potentially creative young minds being stunted at the altar of convenience? Is technology that is supposed to lift man to a higher level of being, silently and painlessly sounding his death knell? Can we engage technology to work for us as we choose it to? I think we can.

At an Autodesk seminar to which I was invited, I told the company top brass after their sleek presentations – “You have given us a wonderful product but made us all glorified typists. Even to draw a simple straight line, I have to go through the painful process of punching keys and clicking buttons. You have shackled our natural flow of thought. But this is the very stepping stone you can use to take us to the next level. You can give us back the pencil – only it will be digital this time. With this I can use my hands again and move it the way I want to and not how the hardware demands. I can doodle, scribble and be free again. I can then save my sketches in their sketchy form in the memory inside the digi-pencil or when I touch it to the screen, viola I can transform them into neat dimensioned working drawings ready for execution”. The top boss smiled an enigmatic smile and didn’t say anything. It gave me a feeling that they already had such a product ready and were biding their time to unleash it in the marketplace.

Today I asked my office assistant to get me a butter sheet. After five minutes he returned to say there was none. I think I will wait for my digi-butter sheet.

G. Shankar Narayan
Architect
Email: shankar@shankarch.com

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An Architect for the Bharat Ratna

In the clamour for nominations to the country’s highest civilian honour, which we witnessed recently, I want to add my own voice. No, I am not proposing the names of Vajpayeeji, Kanshi Ram or Mulayam Singh Yadav. That is best left to the lot of our political bhaiyyas. Nor am I vouching for a music maestro, film director, litterateur or painter. These professionals have been walking away with the Bharat Ratna and the assorted Padma awards with unflinching regularity. I want to nominate Architect-ji, not one of whom has yet reached the summit and many are still lingering in the foot hills, so to say.

A little about the awards themselves. They were instituted in 1954 and in the fifty odd years since, 5733 awards have been given to prominent individuals. They are presented in the following descending order of prestige (the total number of awardees is given alongside) – Bharath Ratna: 40, Padma Vibhushan: 235, Padma Bhushan: 1003 and Padma Shri: 2095. (Source:www. india.gov.in/myindia/bharatratna_awards.php) This includes the likes of M.F.Hussain who has been elevated over the years from Padma Shri to Bhushan and then to Vibhushan. The awards are further divided into 12 different fields like Arts, Medicine, Science and Engineering etc. In the higher two awards category more than 50% has gone to ‘Public Affairs’ and ‘Civil Service’ (read politicians, IAS officers and lawyers). No surprises here. Next in line is Social Work, Arts, Literature and Education which together account for only 10% of the higher awards but about 50% of the lower two i.e Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri. So much for the importance we profess to give culture!

There are some surprises in store too. For all the importance our public polity gives to Science and Engineering, this category has received only about 6% of all the awards till now. That includes only one Bharat Ratna – Dr. Kalam. Architect recipients are grouped under this category rather than arts which would be the common perception. By now you must be curious to know how many architects have actually received the honour. I will come to the point, but be prepared for a shock. Scrolling through the list I could find 8, yes eight! In 54 years of the awards and among 5733 recipients! And all the eight are Padma Shris with Habibur Rehman and Correa being subsequently promoted to Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan respectively. The list is short, so I will name them, starting from the earliest. Habibur Rehman (1955 and 1974), Man Singh Rana (1968), Correa (1972 and 2006) Kanvinde (1974), Doshi (1976), J.R.Bhalla (1985), Laurie Baker (1990), Joseph Stein (1992). Any omissions here? Raj Rewal came to my mind immediately.

It should be said here that the Padma and Ratna awards themselves have of late lost some of their sheen and credibility due to backroom politicking. Accepted that the system has some serious inaccuracies and glaring omissions (Medha Patkar, for instance, will never be nominated though it is doubtful if she will accept the award even if she is). Even so, I would imagine that the balance has not yet fully tilted towards the undeserving and worthy persons are still in a majority. So one can say that the awards remain some kind of barometre of achievement in different fields.

Given all this, the question staring at us is – why so few architects and why no one in the top league with the likes of Ravi Shankar, Lata Mangeshkar, Bismillah Khan, M.S.Subbulakshmi, Satyajit Ray. Why no Bharat Ratnas in architecture? Is there something to the field of architecture itself that keeps its practitioners from getting the kind of adulation that other vocations have. In our country, architects are rarely in the public eye as other professionals are. We seem to be publicity shy as we hardly talk about our work in the popular media. Films, books, music, dance, even food and fashion have critics and columnists writing regularly in the papers and this keeps the protagonists in the limelight. I have yet to come across one for architecture. If this is an undoing from our side, the media, on the other hand, shuts us out. I have often noticed that when they report a building inauguration the architect’s name is never mentioned. Can you imagine not crediting the director at a movie release function or the author at a book release event? This is so even with reputed and enlightened news papers and TV channels. We seem to lack the public facade that others have. It is ironic, isn’t it, for there is no other profession whose work is as public as ours. So when the awards committee meets next time, they have to go the extra mile and seek out the worthy architects. After all, if Shahrukh Khan can get a Padma Shri, why not Hafeez Contractor?

All the same what are the qualities that one must possess for the highest honour? One, the person should be very well known across a broad spectrum of the populace. Atleast among the educated classes. Wide recognition apart, the person should be loved and respected amongst not just one’s peers, but in the media too. The professional accomplishment of the prospective awardee must be of the highest order – world class. And it will help to be non controversial and certainly not anti establishment! Want to nominate a deserving candidate for the first Bharat Ratna for architecture?

G. Shankar Narayan
Architect
Email: shankar@shankarch.com

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This slumber is not good for us

To do or NATA do!” That is the question which will be ringing now in many students and their parent’s minds as they choose a career in architecture. The countrywide confusion caused by the National Aptitude Test in Architecture (NATA) – as to whether it is the only authorised way to get into an architecture school or not – could not have come at a worse time for our profession. Just when we are facing an acute shortage of employable architects, this unseemly confusion must be putting off several prospective candidates from opting for the B.Arch course. Without going into the merits or otherwise of NATA, I think the Council of Architecture (COA) must sit up and quickly resolve the issue to the satisfaction of all and for the future good of the profession. Here is why it should act and act fast.

Architecture practices across the country are, in the last five years, finding it difficult to get junior architects to work for them. It is a difficult situation, but there is some good in that too – it points to a spurt in demand for architectural services from society at large. Salaries have leapfrogged.  Established firms though, had a tough transition time having been used to freshers working for Rs.2000 to 3000 a month. However in the overall analysis this pay hike has done well for the fraternity and its self esteem. (It was quite pitiable to see fresh graduates working for a pittance after going through a 5 year rigorous professional course compared to the software crowd, earning in 5 digits after a 3 year undergraduate course!) The downside of all this is that we may not be able to service our growing urban economy and a large population moving up to shelter-able status just at the time when there is an opportunity to do so.

Architects are predominantly urban animals, more acutely metro ones (Maharashtra being the exception). And let’s face it, more than 80% of our clientele is from the middle and upper classes. Assuming the metro population of India to be 10 crores (about 10% of our national population) and the upper and middle class component at 30% of this, architects are servicing a client base of 3 crores – a niggardly 3% of our country’s citizens! And there are 40,000 registered architects today (COA figures reinterpreted). That works out to an architect – serviceable client ratio of 1:750. Experts are forecasting that India will be 50% urban by 2030 – i.e about 20 years from now. Even if half the 50 crore urban Indians at that time were potential clients, at today’s architect-client ratio of 1:750, we would require 2, 50,000 architects. Today around 130 schools of architecture churn out about 5,000 architects every year. If they continue to do that (distressingly I know of atleast 3 schools that have closed down in the last 3 years!) we have to discount the 1, 00,000 architects they would produce in 20 years and the 40,000 that are already in the field from the figure of 2, 50,000 above. So we need a little over 1, 00,000 new architects in 20 years or 50,000 in 10 years. What does that mean?

We have the following options to meet this requirement, atleast partially, if not wholly:

  1. Open almost 100 new schools of architecture today to bring out about 5,000 architects every year for the next 10 years. Actually, even if we were able to do this today itself, there will be only half the number as the first batch will pass out only 5 years from now.
  2. Virtually double the output from today’s schools. Of course there are the infrastructural issues to address – like space, teaching staff, equipment etc.
  3. Condense the B.Arch course to 4 years so that we accelerate the number of architects coming out of our schools in the same time frame. This will require some tweaking to the syllabus, but remains a viable option.
  4. Allow Dip. Arch. students to attain Council registration by undergoing an intensive bridge course of two years so that they can join the mainstream much earlier than they can do now.

The following ideas are half in jest, but can become real if we do not wake up from the slumber we seem to have gotten ourselves into.

  1. Allow foreign architects to come in hordes and set up their practices here. Or alternatively, in an ironical twist to the present day scenario, out source our work to other countries.
  2. Accept the right of engineers to practice as architects. Interestingly, if civil and diploma engineers stopped designing buildings today, we would be in the same state in which we will find ourselves 20 years from now, if we didn’t act.
  3. Accelerate the rate at which we design – hopefully there will be an Auto Cad Extra Power – CAD software on steroids with appropriate hardware to go with that will halve our design turnaround time thereby doubling our productivity!

Any more ideas?

G. Shankar Narayan
Architect
Email: shankar@shankarch.com

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First slice of America

Taking on a 10 year old invite, my family and I eventually landed up last month at my brother’s place at Huntsville, Alabama, USA. Our travels took us from warm Florida on the SE to cold Montreal (Canada) on the NE, spending time on the way at Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Washington and the inevitable Niagara Falls. But for architects it is difficult to keep a holiday purely personal- our professional antenna keeps popping up to observe and store nuggets of architectural information wherever we go. And of course the camera never stops clicking, often to the annoyance of the family where they are reduced to mere figurines in the frame to give scale to the building we are focusing on!

Travelling through so many cities, one finds a remarkable consistency in the urban geography. There is a well defined downtown (even for a small town like Huntsville, comparable to our Salem or Satara) which consists of office towers and an adjoining area of closely knit period houses – generally the historic part of the town pretty well conserved and on proud display with descriptive signage. Driving past this through a maze of interchanges brings one to the commercial beltway with a long line of Wal-Marts, Targets, Home Depots, Toyotas etc. on either side. This in turn gives on to the suburban residential sprawl dotted with archetypal American suburban houses. I must qualify this statement – we stayed with Indian families in American styled and designed homes as in that country you generally buy a developer built house choosing from one of the standard plans that he offers you. To go to an architect to have your house custom designed, you have to be a Bill Gates or there about! It is so rare to see a designer house even in a metro like Chicago –the ones we see featured in architectural journals – that I chanced upon just a couple of them in the 2000 km (same as Delhi to Madurai) we traveled. Made me feel architects are more in vogue in India, where it is quite common to have the middle and upper middle classes as our clientele.

The drive through the housing precinct on neatly paved concrete roads with manicured lawns (no compound walls or gates here) with similar looking (not same) houses all aloofly spaced and virtually no people on the streets gives one a surrealistic feel of being in some fairy land, having been used to the chaos and colour of roads back home. The experience of the house in fact starts with the car. From the drive way itself – like Ali Baba saying abracadabra – a remote control opens the garage doors and in a seamless act the house gobbles the car and they become one. The garage (2 cars or 3) is the functional entrance to the house though there is another formal main door which is rarely used (no milkman, post man, newspaper-wallah or hardly any nosey neighbours here to ring the door bell). The garage, which occupies almost a quarter of the footprint of the house, doubles as the workshop and is strewn with lawn mowers to screw drivers and everything in between. A door from the garage leads to a small lobby that gives on to the kitchen, the family lounge and an utility room (where the clothes washer, dryer and often the mechanical equipment like heater, A.C. equipment, boiler etc. are installed). In the modern suburban home, the kitchen is quite literally the centre of the house affirming the importance of cooking even in a country where ready to eat foods are dime a dozen. One would have thought unlike our culture, less time in the kitchen due to modern conveniences would have relegated the space to a more obscure location in the house but that is not so. A lot of home time is spent in the kitchen/breakfast room area, this virtually becoming the heart of the house. Not only because there is no domestic help, but all the cleaning and dish washing is a do-it-yourself affair. The breakfast space typically opens on to a patio (verandah) to the rear of the house and it is this largish open lawn that is the family garden with play pens, swimming pools et al. This area is generally fenced off from the neighbours to afford some privacy. Quite true to Blondie and Dagwood, the American family has their barbeque here. `

The bedrooms are quite compact in relation to the overall area of the house except the master ‘suite’ and its attached washroom where no expense is spared. There may be just 2 or 3 toilets for a 4/5 bedroom house and unlike here there seems to be no great desire to have every bedroom with an attached toilet. In fact one is seeing that Indians are nowadays going overboard with number of toilets provided in homes. A three bedroom house commonly has up to 5 toilets (3 attached+1 Powder room+1 on the terrace in case of parties). This is considering that just a generation or two back we were used to one ‘latrine’ in the backyard! However, what the American house does not lack is the number of closets and box rooms which are found in every nook and corner of the house to stuff all the things they keep buying over time. And they buy a lot. Even these spaces is not enough it seems, as a new business has cropped up where secure storage rooms are being built in scores in the city suburbs and offered for rent where families can store all the things they use only occasionally that no more fit in the overflowing homes.

From our travel up north across varying landscapes, it seemed that regional and climatic changes do not seem to have any bearing on the suburban house form. Sloped roofs are default – snowy region or not. Brick or faux stone clad exteriors are common. So are imitation wood shingles in PVC or steel. The whole suburban-scape seems to be in some kind of time-warp. What we see are new buildings but the imagery is of the pastoral countryside dotted with quaint cottages from about half a century back. Its only when the sleek cars zip by, that one is jolted to realize that this is the 21st century. Therein lies one of the paradoxes of the U.S. of A.
(To be continued)

G. Shankar Narayan
Architect
Email: shankar@shankarch.com

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How they Build - Construction of the American suburban house

If you are a regular viewer of the “Discovery” channel, you would not have missed the images of violent tornadoes swirling across the landscape uprooting buildings and flinging them effortlessly into the sky. The cardboard like mangled form you see flying in the air is of the typical American suburban house. Yes, the houses are virtually built of cardboard like material – actually gypsum board and particle board. And this is how they build it – the foundation up to the plinth is in RCC shear walls or concrete block masonry.  The superstructure above is a frame work of timber (usually, treated Pinewood) battens nailed (not even screwed) together to form a skeletal structure for the walls. This lattice is then fitted out on either side with gypsum board, the ones we commonly use for false ceilings. A coat of leveling putty and paint and the job is done. That is as far as the internal walls go. For the external walls, while the inner surface gets the same treatment, on the exterior a sheet of particle board is nailed on to the timber framing over which a layer of Poly urethane foam (PUF) is fixed for insulation. A wrapping of PVC film over this takes care of dampness. To protect all this from the vagaries of weather and give the whole a desirable look, a variety of cladding materials are available. The more common ones are exposed brick (called fair faced brick) available in a range of colours and textures – a single layer of which does the job. The other is shingle which is in powder coated sheet steel or PVC. This is obviously a development of the traditional wood or slate shingles. You also find imitation wood shingles in PVC, so detailed that you can see the grain, knots and cracks you would normally find in real wood!

The floors are also in wood framing fitted over with ply boards or particle board panels with carpet laid on top. Or it is in genuine wood parquet. The windows are commonly PVC and the doors laminated MDF. The roof is invariably gabled irrespective of the region, whether snowy or not. This is probably because the materials that make up the roof are similar to the walls. Timber framing with gypboard false ceiling on the inside. On the rooftop you have the same particle/ ply board with bitumastic sheet like tar felt glued on for water proofing. It is as simple as that! No problematic centering or steel reinforcement, messy concrete, curing, plastering etc like we have here. The building is almost wholly a carpenter’s job and the entire house can be up in 3 months time. Even apartments up to 3 floors are constructed this way with intermediate floors also with timber framing. The hollows in the external walls and in the attic above the false celing are filled with a layer of insulation like glass wool.  For all the wood in the construction, surprisingly there are no termites seen, probably because of pretreated components and constant pest control. Houses which are 30 years and older also look fresh due to high levels of maintenance.

Huge building materials supermarkets like Home Depot and Lowe’s cater to anything from a nail to a tractor and everything in-between. All lengths and widths are standardized and the builder merely brings the pieces together like a Lego set. You even get the stringer of the staircase in standard rise and treads, cut in shape and ready to use! The house is so integrated that the whole construct can be dismantled as one piece from the plinth and shifted to another site, just leaving behind the foundation. It is a common sight to see entire houses on sale, parked on trailers ready to go. An instant house, like instant coffee!

Comparisons are inevitable between our way of building and theirs. They are exactly the opposite – our methods are slow, materials are heavy and of a larger variety, processes are highly site dependant (like RCC), customization is higher etc. But the most revealing is the cost. I got to know from an architect classmate of mine practicing in Atlanta that the finished house would be about $50.00 per sft in construction cost. These are the houses which are typically bought by those earning around $1,00,000.00 per year. That’s a factor of 2000. In our country, a comparable individual would earn about Rs. 15, 00,000.00 per annum and an equivalent house would cost Rs.1500.00 per sft to build. That’s a factor of 1000. Our buildings are doubly expensive on a normalised scale. We have some thinking to do and I think it is primarily in wood that they use that the answer lies. In terms of renewability, it is the quickest of all building materials (< 30 years), it is virtually ready to use with hardly any processing required, it is most versatile in its structural behaviour and in terms of energy input (seed, soil and sunlight) it is a clear winner. How to make its cultivation sustainable?  A lot rides on the answer to that question.

G. Shankar Narayan
Architect
Email: shankar@shankarch.com

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Death of the Public Space

Language is not a static entity – it evolves to accommodate and reflect changes in social mores and technology. Thus we have expressions like ‘SMS’ and ‘googling’ making their debut into the English lexicon. There is already a word for the fear of open spaces – agoraphobia. This probably came into being during the Roman times when large plazas and grand streets dwarfed and overpowered some individuals. Soon we may see an addition to the vocabulary to mean something like ‘the fear of public space due to the threat of being killed in a terrorist attack’. How does ‘Agora-terroro-phobia” sound?

Looking through the eyes of a potential terrorist, our country offers many juicy opportunities for causing maximum havoc with minimal means. A remote controlled bomb, random firing and ramming explosive laden vehicles extract heavy casualities. Our cities are crowded and dense and our public transport is always brimful of people. So are our public spaces. Due to climatic and social reasons, Indians tend to spend a lot of their time outdoors. Market streets are crowded because of the burgeoning middle class. Railway and bus stations are packed because Indians are one of the most mobile populations anywhere in the world given the number of festivals spread through the year and the tendency for relatives to get together for familial events. Our economy is also one in which hawkers flourish as a trade adding further to the use of public space. Many of our social and religious functions have people using the street as in a ‘baarat’ or ‘rath yatra’. Political rallies add to the colour and din of the ‘chowk’ or the ‘maidan’. Public spaces are thus more public and extensively peopled than in other cultures.

In the aftermath of the terror attacks in Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and most recently Mumbai, there is a creeping fear of the use of public space. Something that was second nature and spontaneous, like going to a movie or just window shopping is now done with some trepidation and forethought. One sees it in the elderly advising youngsters to curtail their outings. There is also the increasing awareness and aloofness to one’s immediate surroundings – borne out by the impulse to check out spaces under seats in trains and cinemas for any suspicious looking baggage. Constant reminders by the police to be stay away from unattended objects are only adding to the paranoia. Isolationist and fort-like mentality is not new to humankind. Segregation and protection was one of the oldest ways of securing a community from unwelcome intruders. We seem to be going back to that scenario albeit in a high tech way. Metal detectors, physical barriers, surveillance cameras, bomb sensors, baggage scanners et al are fast becoming part of our urban landscape. We are being watched and frisked at every step be it malls, stations, cinemas, even streets (see picture of Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi). Gates are coming up on residential colony streets and security men posted to keep vigil. Like in other walks of life, the economically well off are better protected. Malls and multiplexes, star rated hotels; airports cannot be entered without escaping the watchful gaze of the uniformed security guard. The recent Taj and Oberoi hotel incidents in Mumbai will only serve to deepen this division between the haves and the have-nots. Here too, the proverbial man on the street loses out – in the literal sense.

Gradually every space outside of home is being transformed into a bubble, visible and oftentimes invisible. With public space in our cities under assault and a creeping fear of using them, the question to be asked is whether their nature will metamorphose or will public space die altogether? Can we imagine a city devoid of public space – replaced by an agglomeration of secured private or access controlled spaces. Zones may be marked out as sanitized and normal. Sanitized architecture and interiors may be a new trend. Forms will be smoother with no alcoves, dark corners and hiding places. Materials will be developed to be explosive resistant. There will be bullet proof glass and probably nets with high impact strength offering protection from falling debris and flying shrapnel. Much like the battlements of fort architecture, these elements may acquire aesthetic overtones and become features in themselves. Structural design, apart from being earthquake proof will have new codes for blast proofing. Are we moving towards another phase of bunker architecture? The challenge for designers will be to continue to keep the humane, open, friendly, non discriminatory feel of a true public space.
Is it just a coincidence that the virtual public space on the internet like ‘Second Life’ (www.secondlife.com) is growing by the day as real physical space is threatened? Is it the first sign of the times that home is the safest place of all and increasingly public interaction will be virtual. Technology seems to be pointing in that direction. After the telephone and television, the internet now offers the choice of being connected to the outside world without moving out. However the chink in the armour – and a silver lining in a bleak scenario – may well be the tiny cell phone. A liberating instrument that celebrates the freedom of movement and open space!

G. Shankar Narayan
Architect
Email: shankar@shankarch.com

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