Theory and Discourse
Architecture, Landscape and City of the Future |In Conversation with Gautam Bhatia
LA 50
Gautam Bhatia, the writer, philosopher and architect shares his views on present day architecture, significance of landscape in spatial design and his exhibition, 'City Fragments' that attempts to understand the city by expressing it in comprehensible pieces.
Your professional life has remained interesting and exciting in terms of the many varied creative endeavors that you have been involved in over decades - editing professional journals, writing in newspaper columns on social issues, research and documentation, curating exhibitions, conceptualizing books, writing a graphic novel and of course having a practice. What prompted you to adopt this multifaceted career?

Architecture is one of those rare professions that make you look at a range of ideas related to daily living. What you are asked to build has first of all a social dimension - with the people who will be residing in your building; they themselves are products of the place, with their own culture and history, so architecture makes you an anthropologist, a designer, a historian and an engineer. I don't think I am an exception. Most architects use their own backgrounds, ideals and judgments to build on their architectural ideas. Architecture is such an impossibly critical endeavor that it becomes crucial to test your thesis of design in as many ways as possible, before getting into actual construction. Drawing, writing, sketching, playing with clay or wood or fiber glass are ways of seeking clarity for yourself, your own thoughts. Central to all these is the idea of elaboration, to set out a framework for yourself. There is nothing formal about the work. Bits of writing, sculpture, pencil sketches, molded mud or wax, all becomes a sort of necessary residue around me. Like bits of evidence in a legal battle, they help me build my case - in a court where I am the accused, the plaintiff, the jury, the judge. It gives me a sort of personal reassurance that a process is on towards some unknown end.

Your well-known project, the Monolith Resort in Bhimtal, is a good example of response to the contexts of climate, nature and local building culture. Your competition entry for IGNCA in the mid 80s conceptualized Rajpath as a "river" with the spatial organization of IGNCA centred as a matrix of sheltered indoors, semi-outdoor areas and open areas with steps leading down to the "river-side". In your design work, how does architecture relate to the landscape, and what is the contribution of landscape design to the overall concept?

In a design exercise, context, climate and local culture are given. They are like the tools a surgeon needs for an operation. They can never be justification for architecture. In that sense even landscape is not something you consciously create, but it gets woven into the story of building itself. If you see your architecture as an experience in time, then the movement through the landscape becomes an essential condition of design. Landscape is critical because-unlike building-it is always in flux, growing, decaying, dying. Architecture can only have a subservient relationship to something that is always on the move. I try to site the building in such a way that it gains something from the dynamism of the landscape wherever possible. Landscape is the most critical indicator for architecture. It embodies within itself the scene for any building - where it should be placed, how and with what materials should the ground then transit into wall. We see landscape not much in with what we consciously design, but rather that which is present on site before our intervention. Landscape itself is crucial to weighing up the pieces of architecture that you build on it; ultimately it resolves into what you see on site. We have benefitted immensely by spending a lot of time on the site before starting the work. The site talks to you in a very clear way. It is able to convey its potentials and limitations for construction. But if you start plotting a structure right away, you have already lost the game.

We did a children's retreat outside Delhi many years back. It was a rocky site edged with a lake and additionally confounded by shifting sand dunes. The complicated link between land and water made us place the string of structures between the two, so that the architecture was at once, land, and water. It was a way of consciously introducing seasonal changes into the building. During monsoons water rose around the structures and flooded part of the amphitheatre, while in summer it receded. So the "season" was a crucial participant in defining the architecture. Otherwise, the lake would have become a mere visual counter point, a view to be seen from a distance. In another project for a Church landscape, we wanted to have a seamless experience, from outdoors to indoors, without any boundaries. So rows of trees were planted like a colonnade connecting with the arcade of the church. This way the spatial experience of the arcade was extended outdoors - eroding the difference between architecture and landscape. If you think about it, one of the essential conditions of landscape is in fact its value as a magnifier of space. Architecture begins as an act of confinement, and then moves outward towards the horizon. Every opportunity to connect physical space to landscape is an enhancement of the building - a way first to connect the physical to the visible, then the visible to the metaphysical and the eternal. It is an idea that ties in with the persistent human need to be forever hope-filled and optimistic...

Architectural works are relatively minor endeavors. The real problems lie in the area of landscape engineering, and the question of how to preserve the Indian countryside, given the devastating effects of so called development. The real tragedy of Indian development, its destructive consequences, are really felt outside the city, in the rural landscape. The antiquated technology of bridges, the 4-6 lane highways, and all the unnecessary connections the government is promoting as infrastructure. Without the embrace of new technology and ideas, older societies like our own are rapidly losing the battle of landscape conservation. Technology's ability to take broader physical and imaginative leaps remains largely untested in India. Just look at Norman Foster's Millau viaduct in France - a 120 foot high suspended roadway that cuts through the valley. The engineered suspension is so high above the ground it barely casts a shadow. Its eight lanes deliver two way traffic north and south with an efficiency which would not have been possible had the road been built on ground. Cars and trucks hurtle at high speed above, while life carries on at ground level at a rural pace. A sheep farmer walks his flock be yond the meadow. Threshing goes on a farm, a bicyclist carries baguettes in his carrier. Within the same visual frame the persistence of 21st century technology in a historical 18th century scene is the deliberate juxtaposition of both eras. This is a master stroke of conservation in a country that views its farming countryside as untamperable valuable heritage. We, on the other hand will happily cut and shave whole hillsides to make roads just the way we have been making them a century earlier...The question of public large scale infrastructure is not just a matter of seeking environmental approval, but finding first of all whether it is at all required, and if so, is an alternative technology available.

The prescription calls for broad unhindered leaps of the imagination, a thinking so lateral that solutions are equally unexpected and exceptional. Is it possible to connect north and south Delhi through a traffic tunnel rather than more surface roadway? Can traffic congestion in Nainital similarly be erased with a road under the lake, and pedestrianising the water's edge itself? Could glass viaducts be used to connect different parts of mountain cities like Shimla, Darjeeling or Ooty, without disturbing the hillsides? The answer lies in opening up both, the public imagination and the stranglehold on big works by the government.


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