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What is architecture?

By R.L.Kumar

All the pillars of the Parthenon are identical, while no two facets of the Indian temple are the same; every convolution of every scroll is different. No two canopies in the whole building are alike and every part exhibits a joyous exuberance of fancy, scorning every mechanical restraint. All that is wild in human faith and warm in human feeling is found portrayed on these walls, but of pure intellect, there is little.

(J.Fergusson, A History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, 1897)

It would not be wrong to say that the craft of stone sculpting and masonry occupies in Indian civilization, roughly the same centrality calligraphy and painting occupies in the Chinese civilization, especially the Middle Kingdom of the north. Our history and mythology is sprinkled with a fair number of popular architects, sculptors and masons. Jakanacharya the legendary architect of the Hoysala Empire in South India was a builder of palaces and temples. So was the celestial Vishwakarma the builder of the wax palace that the Pandavas were almost burnt in. Acharya, shilpi, sthapathi, thatchan, kothanar are the various names that architect crafts persons were referred to in India till as late as this century. I am not aware of any systematic study that has looked into the demise of this ancient and unbroken tradition. They were rapidly replaced first by the "Department of Public Works" and then by the tradition of Lutyens and Le Corbusier, both town planners and architects who have left behind the two modern soulless cities of New Delhi and Chandigarh for us. What are the essential differences between the meaning of architecture for a sthapathi and for a Charles Correa today?

I pose this question polemically in order to imply that the differences between these two traditions is more important than continuities like vatsu, the new found fad of our urban elite, or the theories of technology transfer with regard to say, roofing systems or pre- fabricated building materials. Continuities like these serve to obscure the worldview of the stapathi, and often reduce it to a primitive and "ethnic" version of modern architecture. There is an economy-mediated relationship between these two traditions, which again does not interest me here. Titled variously as "housing the poor ", "cost effective technology", and "alternative architecture ", such nomenclatures and perspectives too write off the worldview of the stapathi as anachronistic or defeated. In a country like ours, where the idea of an architect as a service professional is confined to a handful of cities and particularly in the commercial and government sectors, it is important to ponder the social existence of architectural traditions. I discuss below three aspects of this difference between the two architectural traditions and conclude with a discussion on the notion of waste. Waste in the 20th century has profound cultural and psychosocial dimensions which most debates on environment, technology and ecology miss. Waste management is to post industrial societies what alchemy was to medieval Europe. The elusive alchemical search for gold parallels the equally elusive search for perfect waste disposal. Our notions of waste define our ways of life and our ways of life produce our notions of waste.


The first thing that comes to mind is the idea of scale. Rashtrapathi Bhavan, the residence of the President of the modern Indian Republic, is unmatched in its scale and vastness when compared with any palace or temple of ancient and medieval India. Even the Viceroy of the Empire, who ruled over India, Pakistan, Bangla Desh, Burma, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, did not occupy the kind of building the President of a Third World Republic like India occupies today. In the Contemporary scheme of things, the Viceroy's former residence is thought to be adequate only to house the office of a mere Vice Chancellor of an University. The World's biggest building, the office of the Pentagon, has corridor spaces alone, which run close to a 30 kilometers. This single building is the place of work for about than 30000 people. It is this preponderance of such scale, which prompted Lewis Mumford to coin the phrase " Human Scale". The Scale of modern architecture is completely non-human or inhuman. Why is this so? I think it is because the fundamental axiom of modern architecture is the management of space. And in the Industrial world space is a function of "real estate". And Real estate is by definition scarce. It is not farm land, it is not a forest, it is not a valley, it is land connected to electric power, piped drinking water and a system of under ground sewage disposal. A land defined not by its location in nature but in the economy. It is the land of the city. It represents a model of life removed from the basic life sustaining activities of agriculture and craft. It is the management, distribution, utilization of this space that modern architecture is preoccupied with. Under these conditions wealth and power acquire a meaning only by defying scarcity, a display of wealth is simultaneously defiance. What Veblen called conspicuous consumption is an act of negative agency. Scarcity makes its appearance in Europe as a permanent feature of social life, begging to be theorized upon, in the 18th century at the same time that mimetic desire is exalted by economists like Adam Smith as the essence of human desire and the source of a Nation's wealth (see Nicholas Xenos ). It was Adam Smith who argued that envy is an engine of growth, so to speak. Marx and his followers too haven't anywhere seriously disputed this formulation. This vast and stupendous disparity between rich and poor, which singularly marks modernity, is rather coyly described by Marxist economist Samir Amin as the "degree of polarization" between classes. I suspect what such disparity really means is that the conceptual and perceptual limits to scale which existed in "pre scarcity" societies in the form of anthropomorphism disappears in post scarcity societies. Scale loses its human reference point, its location in the natural world and becomes purely a function of technology. Along with this, scales tends towards the spectacular with an objective of formal impression (awe inspiring) and in one paradigmatic case at least, I mean Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon here, scale tends towards the banality of surveillance. In this sense the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal are of a human scale. Their inspiration is neither the banality of mimetic desire nor of instrumental technique. They were not built for presidents or kings. They were built for the non-humans-- the dead. They are the affirmation of memory against forgetting. They are monuments of memory, not of residence.


The second thing that comes to mind is the idea of craft. Weaving, carving, calligraphy, sculpting, farming, pottery and many other such human practices are age-old activities, which we understand as craft. The industrial revolution wiped out these life-giving activities completely. We have to just look at the association of the word "crafty" in the English language to understand this phenomenon. Life giving activities since the 18th century acquire overtones of criminal and dishonest behavior. How were the crafts destroyed? Two examples that Ivan Illich makes are illustrative. Contrary to common belief that necessity is the mother of invention, invention demanded, harnessed and engineered human nature and social practices to fit its own needs with the help of the nation state. The "Factory Police" of 18th century Germany would round up the new destitute displaced from rural Germany and train them in the monotony of factory work by enforcing repeated and monotonous actions of operating machines. The theory went that the spirit and the body of these destitute had to be first broken and then remolded to make a pliant and efficient labour force. In Lancashire when the first cotton mills were established, the mill owners did not have enough laborers to fill their factories with! The State and the mill owners would round up potential workers by knocking on their homes every day and even waking them up! People would go to sleep with a piece of string tied to their toes and the end of the string would be left hanging outside the window. The police and the mill owners would go around tugging at this string in order to wake the man up! Craft unlike industrial labour never had to be managed or engineered in this way. Crafts are human activities whose utilitarian and aesthetic dimensions are not split into two separate domains by economic considerations. Building is also a craft. A kothanar is a Tamil stone mason. He is versed in the craft of sculpting, masonry, geometry, astronomy, weather science, arithmetic and accounting. A thatchan is a malayalee carpenter, the first person to be consulted when a home or temple has to be built. He is proficient in the knowledge of timber, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, soil stability and so on. It is in this sense that building was also a craft like activity. It had a scholarly tradition, an apprenticing practice, a sacred worldview, a life sustaining professionalism and a human scale. Like other crafts, teaching is through practice, by observing the master and acquiring an intimate knowledge of the materials involved. This wasn't a stagnant tradition. There was plenty of innovation, experimentation and professional communication. Modern architecture is far removed from this dimension of its predecessor. It separates the knowledge of architecture from the practice of building crafts. The loss of the craft nature of architecture is most prominent in the industrialization of its raw materials. The return to the practice of using local skills and local/natural materials urged by architects like Laurie Baker and Hassan Fathy is a search to reconstitute architecture as a craft.


The third point that one can make is the idea of regeneration. Now this word, regeneration, is a curious one. It implies the giving of life post facto. It acquires significance when generation itself is dislocated and in crisis. Regeneration makes sense only as a strategy to counter this crisis. It is by definition a self-conscious act, very dissimilar to generation (not production). Marianne Gronmeyer points out how "helping" as a simple direct act of recognition, is transformed into a strategy in modernity. This is the context of our social life today where poverty is an "illness" to be "eradicated" through macro economic policies, legislation and micro executive procedures. But in the popular imagination poverty is still a matter of basic necessities which no amount of planning commissions, scientific planning, and white papers have been able to deal with. I am reminded of Indira Gandhi's populist slogan of Garibi Hatao in the 1970's. Garibi hatao, the removal of poverty, is linked to another homily, that of roti kappada aur makkan. Food, clothing and shelter, the basis of life for humans. There is a strange hubris in the way that these necessities are denied to the poor in an age of over production and consumption. Industrial life first removes the production of all these three things from the daily life of people. Then reconstitutes them as commodities packaged and sold, the doublespeak for which is "value addition". So it is a familiar irony where farmers with cows sell all their milk to National Dairies and are undernourished themselves, where weavers clothe the urban elite, while they themselves are dressed in rags or nylon fibre. It is this economic organisation itself which is unprecedented and the fundamental marker of modern production and consumption. That is why many economists and ecologists talk of concepts like food miles (the distance traveled by a food commodity like say butter, to reach our dining table) and the cost (and politics) involved in maintaining such long distance production and consumption of the most basic things in life. They argue that when industrial production removes most people away from the food production process, it is expensive and ecologically unsustainable if we include in their cost, the infrastructure such distance production depends on, roads, power lines, trucks, fossil fuel and so on.

Such a system of long distance production dramatically alters the notion and experience of waste. It transforms waste into something permanent, immortal and therefore into something which links anomic individuated urban communities. Like death complements life, waste always complements production. This is fundamental to the notion of generation and regeneration. A regenerative cycle of production, consumption and waste is mostly a closed one, which is sustainable, and not waste accumulative. An excellent example is the traditional Indian mud pot, which is used to drink tea and then smashed on the ground, returning it back to where it came from. The trendy word is of course "bio-degrading" and "recycling". While food and cloth production has to some extent eluded such attempts to be non regenerative, housing has tended towards precisely such non-regeneration. Modern architecture strives to be "maintenance proof ". Reinforced cement, steel, glass, ceramic ware, plastic, synthetic fibre, all these basic elements of the modern home are not biodegradable. They leave behind enormous quantities of waste in their production process and themselves become absolete and undisposable waste. In this search for permanence, modern architecture has lost the capacity to be regenerative and therefore ecologically sensitive. By encoding a technological immortality into its practice, architecture emphasizes death over life, form over utility, and the defiant over the sublime. The point that India requires ten times the value of its GDP if it has to build simple concrete houses for its homeless populations has been made both by the National Campaign for Housing Rights and by the National Commission on Urbanization.

Yet regeneration has returned in postindustrial societies in a strange way. Bill Gates the world's richest man lives in a cyber house. Blinds adjust to allow the right amount of light, Air conditioners adjust to maintain the correct level of temperature, music is piped in to complement the tastes, moods and feelings of Mr Gates, paintings on LCD screens morph into his favorite for the week or day, so on and so forth. In a regenerative house on the other hand, the New Year would mean a time to clean and lime render, marriages would mean a time to extend and alter, childbirth would mean rearranging the uses of its spaces and the monsoon would mean a time to repair and change worn elements. Regeneration and change are essential to humans. The maintenance proof architecture, which finds human intervention and regeneration anathema found its finest expression in Nazi Architecture. Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and the germ free spic and span Berlin railway station when it was first built, are its finest expositions. Closer home, we have the well-known example of the Calcutta metro.

In the mid eighties, the real estate and building boom caught up with Cairo and other parts of the third world. The story here is depressingly similar like any other "developing" country. Foreign Aid and expatriate funds get funneled into Infrastructure development. The Government sanctifies it by making appropriate noises on housing shortage and housing crisis. As a result millions are poured into Five star Hotels, government offices, offices of International Banks, financial institutions and multinationals. This boom spills over to the housing sector and millions of apartment units get built. In a short cycle of Five to ten years, the bubble bursts, real estate prices collapse and from Beijing to Cairo, national Capitals and other Metros are left with thousands of half built or unoccupied buildings. While almost half a million units are unoccupied or half-built inside Cairo City, the northern suburbs in the desert that separates the city from its airport, is home to a large slum. Any visitor to Cairo will be struck by this sprawling ghetto dotted by close to a million, square 8' X 8', structures which are simple walled units. These are tombs purchased by the new middle classes of Cairo for their own burial. Having "advance booked " their tomb, these new middle classes need them to be taken care off. The solution the urban middle classes find is to rent these tombs as shanty homes for the poor who make up the working class of the city and ensure that the tomb remains vacant for its legal owner. One man's tomb becomes another man's home. There would be something poetic and human about it if it weren't for the absolute squalor that pervades these "advance booked" tombs. A squalor which only industrial/urban poverty can produce. An Orwellian scenario where the poor literally live in tombs while the rich and the powerful entomb themselves in real estate.

Taken together, this view of architecture as human and intimate, craft like and local, regenerative and impermanent provides the only long term and sustainable paradigm for homelessness and a relevant aesthetic. It is the only promise for a livable home. Compare the Taj Mahal with the Washington memorial. The latter is first of all valuable real estate, it is also pure symbolism, lacking any detail and craft, a single stone monolith designed to communicate the formal impression of awe, I spoke of earlier. The Taj Mahal on the other hand is an ode to love. Superb in its craftsmanship and detail it speaks of a way of life which recalls Ferguson's notion of "all that is wild in human faith ". It is a monument for the struggle of memory against forgetting. It is an oxymoron to call it a tomb. The Rashtrapathi Bhavan is a tomb and so is the pentagon building. In the cities of the late 20th century, the living work in tombs and the dead are remembered by getting entombed as real estate.

* This paper owes a lot to my colleagues at the Centre for Informal Education and Developmental Studies, Bangalore, and I hope they recognise their ideas when contextualised in a discussion on architecture. Apart from them, Ashis Nandy and Shiv Vishwanathan at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, have also contributed to my understanding of lost worlds and defeated ideas in ways, I hope they recognise. It is to T.G.Vaidyanathan that I owe the discovery of Fergusson's comparison between the Parthenon and the Temples of Belur and Halebid

References :

1. Ivan Illich, Shadow Work, Marion Boyars, Boston, 1981.
2. Nicholas Xenos Modernity and Scarcity, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1991.
3. Marianne Gronmeyer, Helping, in, Development Dictionary, A guide to Knowledge as Power, Ed. Wolfgang Sachs, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1997.
4. Samir Amin, For a Progressive and Democratic New World Order, Paper presented at the International Conference on Colonialism and Globalisation: Five Centuries after Vasco Da Gama, New Delhi, 1998.