Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Rabble rousers

There are two types of people in this world; those who say that there are two types of people and those who do not. In a similar vein, there are two kinds of people who talk about design in India: Those who talk about design and those who think that they can talk about design.

Many say: "Architecture has not grown up in India". Of course it hasn't." There is not much original design knowledge around." Of course there isn't. "If only we could start afresh thinking about architecture." Oh yes, I've heard that before: If only we could...whatever. And so it goes.

I used to work at Hafeez Contractor, a very long time back. He is one architect everyone loves to hate and nobody knows where to slot him. I've seen many strawman arguments about him, and some even more subtly veiled arguments where they snicker about his work in darkened auditoriums showing slick power-point presentations on really good architecture (which ironically often means works from outside our country espousing vague untested philosophies or sometimes are commissioned works for the rich like farm-houses, etc.)

Before I give the impression that I am trying to defend the architecture of Hafeez, let me make this clear: I am not defending his works. I think they are mostly terrible and for very valid reasons which can be clearly and objectively explained but I am not going to enumerate those here. I am merely defending his place in our country. He is out there making some impact and that cannot be merely wished away. Many want to brush him off but the bloke is back like a thorn in the side that refuses to dislodge.

But before that, let me share some of my experiences I had when working with him. When I was there, his office had just eight people. I was fresh out of IIT and there were some intelligent and hard-working blokes there. We used to work like dogs, pigs, work-horses...whatever you want to label us. I have never remotely seen any other office putting that kind of energy behind their works. It's almost 20 years since I left him and I still have to see such an office.

Hafeez had a fantastic work culture. He would lead from the front. He did not expect us to come early for work if he himself could not come earlier. He worked quite transparently: Mostly sitting alongside his staff. He still does that. He did not have a cabin. Still does not. If he shouted at someone, everyone knew about it. He was not afraid of his mistakes. He was not in awe of his own capabilities.

One day, he called me to his desk and showed me some of his works he had done when he was a student at Academy of Architecture: He used to put up enough sheets for one design submission to cover all the four walls of an entire classroom. He completed his post-graduation in the US in half the time. (One year instead of the usual two)

He knew the minutest of details of 'boring' mundane stuff such as the nahani trap connection to the outside drain pipe. I have seen him come to construction sites and sketch out solutions to seemingly insolvable problems that stumped consultants. And for those areas where he was not clear about the structure, etc. he had enough people to advise him. (Though lately some of those consultants are probably exploiting him... at least that is the impression I am getting from outside)

I do grant that in all the hurry a lot of mistakes were committed... which was part of the reason I left the office, but one simply cannot deny the knowledge the chap had. Which is much more than what I can say about the nay-sayers who only pretend they can understand Derrida and Zaha Hadid and some obtuse schizophrenic French philosophers.

As explained earlier, I do agree that much of Hafeez's work is crap. I left his office (amicably one may say. We are good friends) when I realized that it was a conscious decision of his, NOT to really use his knowledge but go with the tide. Such a sad waste of energy and knowledge.

I fully agree to the sad state of architecture in India. Many of these so called "knowledgeable critics" do not realize that they are one prime reason why mediocrity exists in India. Let me explain why I state this and this is not the first time I have tried telling this: I have said this before also, and I shall say this again. And I'll indulge in this rhetoric till the point gets driven home.

Excellent path breaking architecture can only emerge from a context of ordinary architecture which is reasonably good. Excellence in any area can only emerge out if it is challenged and chased by other works which are almost as good. The competition to do something good can really make some of the participants in the race rise up to the challenge.

In architecture, the context in a country such as India would be housing for the masses. But which fresh architect would want to do oh these works for the masses? The reason being such works mostly are funded by builders. Oh, which self-respecting fresh graduate would want to work for builders ("Aren't they scoundrels?" is the veiled thought) And why do they get such warped opinions? Because when they were in college as students they were exposed to pseudo-intellectuals who warn them about "bad" architecture and hint that self-respecting architects should stay away from them. They show those slick crisply made power-point presentations where; l0-behold, examples from outside our context are shown and stuff like deconstruction, etc. are discussed and the students rarely catch on that all the intellectual show during the presentation is merely that of an "emperor wearing his new clothes".

The saddest situation is when these chaps talk about cute little farmhouses, row-houses, bungalows and interiors seen in coffee table magazines and proclaim some deep design thoughts. I have always maintained that it would be ridiculous for anyone with some modicum of design knowledge to do injustice to such works. It would be a crying shame if one cannot design a good row-house, bungalow ... anything where the design context is known. (i.e. wherever the end user can be identified) I have always told my students that they should sob into their pillow if they cannot do a good job in those areas. So I don't particularly care to attend seminars/lectures/slide-shows where they talk about such works. Nothing really new to learn there.

But try to take up the challenge of design for anonymous users, where the design is used all 24 hours. Housing for the masses being the best example in this category. Now, do a good job or at least a tolerable one in that category and you may have a point about your design capability.

If only I could drive out these rabble-rousers and tell them to go and take up the challenge, if not themselves, at least they should have the grace to tell the audience to do so. But then they are busy drumming up immature biases in fresh minds.

I know a simple, yet talented architect who was almost crying because a promising student who had initially agreed to join him refused to do so, because he wanted to do cute row-houses and my friend was someone who simply did whatever that was thrown at him.

The pseudo-intellectuals remind me of a joke. They are like those army recruits who collectively take a step back, letting a dumb fellow to come out in front when asked to volunteer for a mission critical job. No wonder the mission of achieving excellence in architecture in India is dead even before it has started.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The emergence of a new paradigm for a design office

Recently my old house at Chembur went in for redevelopment. Part of the reason was the termite infestation in that building. A corner of my mind did not miss the irony: The puny termite actually got the building down... even if they did it indirectly through the hands of a builder.

Scientists have been marveling at the cooperative capabilities of termites, ants and such like insects. If you get down on your knees and see them at work it would be hard to grasp what was really happening. At an individual level; each termite is probably doing very little. But when you put all their activities together something entirely different comes through: something that is distinctly not possible by each of the termite.

In Gestalt theory, there is something called the principle of closure which is best illustrated by the diagram shown alongside. The principle of closure applies when we tend to see complete figures even when part of the information is missing. We see three black circles covered by a white triangle, even through it could just as easily be three incomplete circles joined together. (http://www.usask.ca/education/coursework/skaalid/theory/gestalt/closure.htm)

In other words, a new shape emerges out of the collection. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Equivalently, when the termites are at work; their efforts are greater than the sum of what each one puts in. Scientists have abstracted this phenomenon and have noticed it in several areas. They have given another name to this phenomena: They call it emergence. It is a response to simplify complexity.

What could be the reason why the termites behave in such a fashion? My guess is that left to each individual, the environment around them poses too many factors that the individual cannot assess and respond to. Hence nature has given them a way to work cooperatively together as a collective super-organism. Even if a few oTermite cathedral built by cooperative work of termitesf the termites do not fit into that cooperative (due to genetic malfunction and other reasons) the gestalt will still work because there are so many of them who work together.

There is a lesson for us architects and other designers here: Modern life has brought in so many complexities that I believe it is beyond the capability of even the most talented architect/designer. Earlier, our offices used to be personality driven: i.e. one or a few talented personalities used to spew out the knowledge which was used by the design firm to solve design problems they were given to solve.

Today, the horses have already run away from the stables; so there is no point closing the stable door. We cannot hunker down in our design office and hope that each design office can tackle all aspects of design and provide a good solution. Do we know what all issues we need to be knowledgeable about? Let's see: Environment, climate, psychological, social, political, sustainability, energy, pollution....the list is actually quite vast.

If we need to handle all that, we need to emerge out from our individual offices and that too in masses. We need to set up collaborative systems so that we become a super-organism.

In one area of design; namely software design, such an approach has already yielded results. The open source movement in software brings together large collective of software programmers and users who can pore over the design and improve it. Even if all users do not participate in the actual coding of the software; the potential that they could (if they so desire) is good enough to keep the software clean and powerful. There are no vested interests who can manipulate the software so that only very few people succeed and reap the benefits.

I believe this approach MUST come into all kinds of designing; not just software design. It is inevitable that it will come. Why do I say it? At the risk of repeating myself; not only are the issues that a design office beyond the capability of the most talented among us but the issues are coming in thick and fast. Take for example; housing for the middle-income and low-income group in India. Under no circumstances can the design demands of this population be catered to by the existing architectural offices in India; even if every one of them work full time. The reason is: logistics. The sheer numbers involved in this growing economy of India can exhaust all individual efforts.

Hence an open source movement in architecture is the only recourse. And this is how it will work:

The new design office would not be a closeted cathedral. Instead, the doors would be open to a bazaar of people who can come in and go. The architect who initiates a design will form a temporal organization for a particular project and build up a daisy-chain of fellow consultants and assistants who will work on the project at hand. The same consultants/assistants may or may not work on other projects. Each consultant in that daisy chain would in a similar fashion build up their own "daisy-chains". Responsibilities and rewards will be shared along the daisy chain. I have been promoting TeamTAD to achieve this objective. It is possibly the world's first open source movement in architecture.

Two immediate objections are often presented to me when I come to this point:
  • a) Will my talent get to be seen and recognized? (i.e. who owns the copyrights?)
  • b) How will I make money?
The open source movement in software design were also initially considered non-intuitive and perplexing probably because of these two 'objections'. However time has settled these controversies: Every person who works on an open source software project is acknowledged. In fact, it is illegal to remove the name of anyone who had worked on the software earlier. So the whole daisy-chain of acknowledgments are preserved. At a first superficial glance, it may look as if this is a rebellion against recognition of talent. But that is completely wrong. Architects will definitely get acknowledged and recognized for their work using this system.

Curiously enough, such offices will highlight the true capability of individuals even though each are involved in a cooperative process to do their work. This was proved in open source software. For e.g. The world has sat up and recognized the efforts of Richard Stallman (Free Software Foundation), Linus Trovalds (Linux, GIT), Brian Cohen (BitTorrent) .... and all of them did their work cooperatively along with others.

The second aspect on how money is to be made is a bit more tricky... It is complicated by the fact that many confuse the freedom to take a look at a design and criticize it to be synonymous with "zero price". Richard Stallman, the father of Free Software Foundation (FSF) often clarifies it by saying that the "Free" of FSF stands for "free as in freedom" and it need not be "free as in free beer"

It is important that fellow designers are given the freedom to peep into the source code cauldron as the software is being cooked. Unfortunately, the act of peeping into the source code gives the feeling that one can take it and run away with it to do whatever you want (Well FSF allows even that, as long as that when you give the cooked design to someone else you will give the same rights that you yourself had received i.e. that other person can also look into the design) Many FSF software are also "free as in beer" and that fuddles the issue even further. So how does one really make money with open-source stuff?

This was best answered in a book on the business aspects of open source (and the book; by the way, was also given away using the open source model!) This is what the authors; Ron Goldman and Richard Gabriel, have to say in their book "Innovation Happens Elsewhere: Open Source as Business Strategy"

The phrase "innovation happens elsewhere" captures the essence of the idea of adding just the smallest amount of innovation necessary for competitive advantage. It is common for people working for a technology company to suffer, at least a little, from the belief that all the really innovative people in their particular technology happen to work at that company. This can cause such a company to work too hard to produce every last bit of related technology, which is often not the best competitive approach. Many advantages accrue when a company adopts the attitude that most innovation happens elsewhere and focuses on choosing the best outside innovations and figuring out the right distinguishing features to make its products competitive.

What they meant was that it is wise for a business to let the mass of people working on the open source project do the actual innovation, and the clever business man should be able to wrap a business model around the innovation and be able to make money via the "wrap". He gives several examples on how this has succeeded. An interesting example is the success of Turbo-Pascal of Borland. It was the first high quality, extremely low-cost compiler... where the innovation actually was done elsewhere (by a person/s in Denmark) Though Turbo-Pascal was not an open-source system; it bucked the trend and in a way proved how business models can be built around external innovations.

What we need is to adopt suitable business strategies for the new open-source kind of architectural practices. I do not know what forms such business strategies will appear; but I've already seen some very innovative economic practices among some architectural firms that have grown quite big. For e.g. Cubellis is a firm in US, made from a collection of smaller firms who act as shareholders. Profits are equitably divided among the shareholders as per the work put by them. Though not yet an open-source firm, it is a sign of things to come. They have grown from a 20 man office in 1986 to over 300 people with offices all over the world. They were recently in India scouting for collaborations.

The profit motivations of a business can be separated from the talents that the business itself has. Hitherto the Internet, it was believed that in order to earn money we need to shut down our shutters and work privately, with some tricks up our sleeve. But that need not be the case. Open-ness can be eminently profitable. Much more than what can be achieved through manipulations behind close doors. It is like the builders of my house saying "let the termites do their job...and we'll come and still find a way to do business". We do have lots to learn from the termites... even business.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The relentless waves of art and architecture

This is the transcript of a lecture of mine which I had given at the D.Y.Patil College of architecture, Nerul, Navi Mumbai.

Art and architecture comes at us like the onslaught of waves at a seashore ... relentlessly, continuously, one after another.

The Dutch painter; Vincent Van Gogh's story ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_Van_Gogh ) is one that of intense introspection... his need to contribute to the world around overwhelmed him, made him continuously restless... he never fitted in anywhere. Only his brother (Theo) believed in him completely and supported him as much as he could. (Both the brothers were eventually buried side by side.) Vincent died unrecognised and unacknowledged, except by his brother, and a very close circle of friends- many of them who were as eccentric as he was. You can feel both the "mother earth" inside Vincent and the rise of the male testosterone; the raw energy that propelled him even though it also made him fairly incommunicado with the opposite gender. (He experienced unrequited love several times in his life) He tried many things in his life (tried to be a miner, a priest, ... ) Nothing gave him that sense of complete satisfaction, he even cut of his ear once in a fit of rage...eventually ended up taking his own life.

Many consider his paintings to be a major deviation from the art scene of his time...in fact, I personally believe he paved the way for the west to accept Indian philosophy and the Buddhist way of looking at things. (e.g. the generous acceptance of contrasts and in-betweens) Hitherto, western art and philosophy had certain reductionist approaches which were not easily dislodged. I am no art historian, but even a casual reading of Vincent's work would indicate this.

It was not just his paintings that made many people sit up and think but his life was also a story that simply had to be told. And what a story it is! .... it was narrated by Irving Stone who wrote his biography "Lust for life" That book is so riveting that it almost does manage to stand on its own merit rather than derive the strength merely from Vincent's life. To me, that book is the other wave that got set in motion See http://www.amazon.com/Lust-Life-Irving-Stone/dp/0452262496

And then the movie made after on his life (the screenplay was based on the book). A classic directed by Vincent Minnelli and George Cukor ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lust_for_Life_%28film%29 ) where Kirk Douglas (the father of Michael Douglas, a current hollywood favourite) plays the role of Vincent. This movie is a must-see, and sometimes they used to show it on some Indian TV movie channel. Don't miss it ever, even if you have read the book. The handsome, craggy face of Kirk Douglas and the way he goes about clumsily in his large frame is very impressive indeed (Vincent was a very muscular type -- opposite of what an artist is supposed to "look" like) It was nominated for many Oscar awards, and won quite a few. To me this movie is yet another wave crashing at the seashore.

And then the song: "Vincent" made by a then fairly obscure American musician, Don McClean ( http://www.donmclean.com/ ). He supposedly never compromised on his music and so never begged in front of Music producers/radio stations and hence never went onto the real high end acts. His song, "Empty chairs" is beautiful not just for the music but also for the amazing lyrics of a love gently lost.

Much of his music was redone by many other artists. For e.g. his very lengthy song; American Pie is an all-time favourite which has seen covers done by many other artists. To me, his song "Vincent" is probably a musician's condensation of what Vincent and his work was all about. Here are the chords and lyrics http://www.guntheranderson.com/v/data/vincent.htm ... and here is the YouTube.com video (which is quite a good composition on its own) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gCORHq_-2Y I feel, the composer of that YouTube presentation has understood what it means to be an impressionist (one of the styles that Vincent Van Gogh painted in) where nothing is presented in "pure blacks" but as fleeting impressions of his life and works. In the whole song, there are very few instances of the word "Vincent". The crafting of the words is so subtle and intense -- many interior designers and architects can learn quite a few things from the words themselves! (e.g., when explaining a color scheme to a client!) "Starry, starry night/Flaming flowers that brightly blaze/ Swirling clouds in violet haze/Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue"

Don Mclean did have a few big hits but as he was not willing to compromise his artistry he did not get much airplay. Other musicians respected his talent though, and now ... for another wavelet ... this time generated by Don Mclean

Roberta Flack, when attending one of Don Mclean's performance heard his love songs ("And I love you so", "Crying" are two very touching love songs) which inspired her so much that she wrote a song about Don Mclean himself! It is called "Killing me softly with his song"
Here is a beautiful rendition of the song by another person (on guitar)

Later on at Wikipedia, I learnt that actually Roberta Flack was inspired by another musician Lori Lieberman who was the one who had actually heard Don Mclean. She wrote a song called "Killing me softly with his softly with his blues" Well...how inspiration comes from many directions...

So the waves keep pounding on the seashore, relentlessly, one after another. Where did the waves originate? In the above series; it was from the restless heart of Vincent Van Gogh.

Such things have happened in India enough number of times in the past, though we do not get to hear of them much as they are often not documented. For e.g. the troubled life of Dada Saheb Phalke -- how he went around influencing the Indian art and film scene. (The painter Raja Ravi Varma was one of Phalke's influences ... that "wave" is not known much. Ravi Varma also influenced a lot of calendar art) Phalke had seen an emotional movie about Christ which inspired him to take up movie-making.

Film director, Kamal Saroop is now documenting his life. The life and works of Kamal is also a story waiting to be told sometime... he was one of the directors of Ghasiram Kotwal, the movie and today he is a big influence on the Indian underground alternative movie movement. He was also one of the assistant directors of Gandhi, the Attenborough movie. A website http://www.phalkefactory.net is assisting in the documentation of his movie making. It will take several years before the movie comes out, and I hope we all get to see the intensity that was Dada Saheb Phalke.

But why remain in the past?

I can see many of you, maybe after several whole nights of hard work, finding that wisp of inspiration in the early morning dew; crafting something so intense and with so much thought that it would set into motion waves that will continuously lash at the seashore of art/architecture in India.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Where is the lotus in the marshes?

When I left IIT; I remember rationalizing that either fame or fortune (or both) awaits us IITians! Oh; the naivety of adolescence and the male hormones! Combined with the smugness of architects from IIT. I remember a particular conversation I had with my fellow batch-mate Pratap Singh Khanwilkar on how one could go on with our lives from thereon. He went on to invent a unique left-ventricular assist device and achieved both fame and fortune. I've achieved neither. Indeed I may only be remembered for some immodest noises and some questions I've asked here and there on architectural representation theory. And the answers to those questions will take a long time; surely.

The route Pratap chose was first go abroad to seek his objective. That is a well traveled route. His life story is very interesting and worth told (will do that sometime) But what about those who walk on the road not often trodden? So the question for today's blog entry is where is the real challenge in architecture in India? Indeed where can we get fame and fortune in our field? ("At least fame please!" I can see the plead in some of my students' eyes) ?

I've seen an almost uniformly standard response to this question from many of my students and quite a lot of architects I know. And I am not very happy with it. Good architecture means doing projects that are conceptually well thought of, well designed, well-built and they must look good ... especially when there are nobody in those 'in' projects. What is wrong with that? Nothing (other than the last bit about people) The 'wrong' is not directly in this stance. But it is in the context where such stance is played out. I'll explain what this means shortly.

I've seen this approach in seminar after seminar; slide-show after slide-show. In my youth I have often cockily mocked at this stance. Much to the amusement of my audience: They were giggling in the background ... not because I was making a point but because I never had a great piece of work to boast about and many of them had actually taken the trouble to see my works. I realized this later: An architect from the south who had heard about me was sadly and deeply disappointed by my works when he actually saw my portfolio. He thought I was making great architecture and my portfolio was a damp squib. According to him what I said and what I did were two different things.

The truth is: I've been an honest architect and that honesty to me; includes being honest to the extent of not manipulating the contexts my projects are placed in. (What is this I am talking about? Just a bit more patience as I grapple with my words; please.) I have always put out my efforts at the maximum capacity that I (rather; my office) had at any point in time. It was due to a promise that I had made to myself when I left IIT: I will not refuse a job just because it is too low-down or by some scoundrel with absolutely no taste for architecture.

Now for two digressions that can unravel my mysterious explanation on the issue of the real challenges in architecture in India today :

One concerns a famous violinist who was deliberately misplaced. The other one is about a book I read recently: "The Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell.

Washington Post conducted a now famous experiment : They requested Joshua Bell; a very accomplished violinist, to perform some complicated classical music in the subway -- that too using a Stradivarius violin. The results: Practically nobody even noticed the music; let alone Joshua or his even more famous Strad.

So: The context can often make a huge difference in appreciating or even "tagging" something as being good.

Malcolm Gladwell goes on to prove in his book that it is not just the context that contributes to the success and recognition of a person; but also the right timing and back breaking-work. Talent comes in last and even if one has it; just a bit of it will do. Sometimes even a minor age-difference can be crucial in certain fields ( like sports). Though I largely agree with the book; the point were made rather simplistically; I must add... some of the points were simplified to the extent of making them trivial. For e.g. His points regarding correlating rice-cultivation with success in mathematics were not fully convincing.

When I mulled over both the Joshua episode and Gladwell's book; I thought of a scene from some TV show: A group of reluctant army recruits were lined up for a mission. One person had to volunteer. But nobody wanted to go. Unfortunately; one was a bit dumb and before he could realize what was going on, the rest of the recruits spontaneously took a neat step backwards. The dumb fellow therefore became the automatic choice. The lesson here is very simple: When you change the context; you can easily make something stand out from a group.

Which is what architects and students want to do quite often in India. They would rather hand-pick the context of the projects by simply standing back from works that may not offer them the right exposure. That is the silent aspect of a project that many will not even talk about. That is the part which I find socially irresponsiblle. When such architects display their crisp slides; I would really like to know how many projects were thrust upon them by people who forced them to do stuff they did not want to do. I have not met any one who has convinced me that they did have a wholesome set of projects. The award winning types will always take a step back from those that are destined to go into obscurity. They don't want dirt in their portfolio. That is why we see very few low or middle-income housing among the awards. The clients for such projects are the uncouth and unloving who will insist that the architect must perform at the subway with a hat out.

The "business" of the practice of architecture unfortunately has a very anti-social side to it: Those who can afford architecture don't really need architects and those who desperately require the design knowledge that architects have, those unfortunates cannot afford architects. (The rich can always order workers around and by trial and error get their own architecture exactly the way they want). So that paradox compounds the problem. We architects have not done enough soul searching among ourselves on where our real challenges are.

Now don't misread me: I am not claiming that I am a Joshua Bell. (Whether I am or not will be proved by time. Ahem. It is anyway irrelevant for this article) What I am claiming is that the award winning type of architects who have crisp slides and who have stood out by carefully weeding out projects ... well they may very well be the Joshua Bells of our field. And if they are the Joshua Bells; they surely have never played at the subway. They have always ensured that they will play at the top opera halls. I met one of them claiming: "Oh; we've decided to be boutique designers. We are not for all. We are expensive. For quality you need to be that"

Other Joshuas will have their own explanations. Now I am being generous here: Many of them are only fake Joshuas. Most have used Malcolm Gladwell's methods of getting to the top: Not really much by way of talent or knowledge. Mostly, other circumstantial issues placed them and their works in the limelight. I am simply not impressed and neither are the actual users out there who have to actually live and use their idiotic masterpieces.

If we look at really good architecture in the West; you will find that they are couched in the midst of works for the common people which were of reasonable quality. Those projects were not middling. The rich nations have more checks and balances in place I guess. (There are other reasons too such as the homogeneity of the society, higher standards of living, etc) If we really have to produce real masters here, we need to uplift architecture not just in those cute bungalows seen lifelessly in coffee-table top magazines but also public architecture of the lower and middle classes; even in the 2nd and third tier cities, smaller towns and villages. All nations will have their masterpieces. And such masterpieces have to painfully shoulder their way out of the quality of the rest of the ordinary architecture. Therefore, if the ordinary architecture itself was of good quality then that nation would surely have masterpieces which will be acknowledged the world over and stand the test of time. Today; India is hardly known for any masterpieces. Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier's works do not count. They were in a by-gone era and were couched in an international context. I really cannot see anything worthwhile produced in India in the last sixty years.

I have done a lot of bad architecture in my time. My office never intended it that way. I am not ashamed about them either because I know for a fact that others in the same context would have done far worse. Today; my practice of architecture has turned around a corner. I do not do conventional architecture. Almost nothing. Is this a contradiction? No. The context changed and I am in a new context and I accept that change in typical Buddhist humility focused on each flowing instance of time.

So what do I recommend we do in India or any developing country?

If you are truly honest; don't try to manipulate the context of your projects or even yourself. Take everything and be good at everything. Peer recognition is good but don't get into that self-congratulatory back-slapping mode for our "awards" in order to choose the Joshuas among us. Go to the junta and ask them. How many awards really and truly take in the feedback of the actual users? (One beautiful book called "Personal Space" by Roger Summers elaborates on this) When our office finished the office interior for Konkan Railway Corporation; we got an unsolicited letter from their chief engineer where he acknowledged that our design was the context for everyone at Konkan Railway when they were working on their magnificient project. That recognition is much better than the awards that we give each other.

In a developing country; we have to work in the marshes. That is where the "ping" of the developing comes from. When you are in the marshes you have to wade in it. And if possible you have to make a lotus bloom there. And lo-behlod; a lotus can be seen only in the stinkiest of marshes. That can take time. A lotus also takes time to bloom. Be honest at every instance when doing all of that. If you know what to do at each pure instance; you can be a Buddha. Legend has it that wherever the Buddha walks; there will be a lotus.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Organic Design Process for Sustainable Architecture

This presentation was given a couple of weeks back at Bharatiya Vidyapeeth College of Architecture; Navi Mumbai. The church shown in this presentation is one of my projects at Nerul; Navi Mumbai. When the first hypar shell was de-shuttered; the workers ran away from below. They thought the shell roof will not stand on just two columns. That too the span was around 12metrex12metre.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Braiding: The whole and the hole

The Buddhists tell us to live in the present. What is the "present"? That instance of time which we are caught up in at any ...err... instance. The sharper the definition of that instance; a better buddhist we become. But wont that make our progress disjointed and quite schizophrenic? Of course it will; if we go only by that definition: We may not be able to establish connections to the past and also understand how the future evolves. 

So we need another concept here. I call it "braiding" Here is a WikiHow article on how someone with long tresses braids her hair. The image on the right shows how braiding is done when knitting a scarf. 

Each instance of the "present" is that point in the braid where the hair comes flowing together to meet at a knot. Analogously; we move from one "present" instance to the next one when we braid together what has happened in the past and tie them into the present. What of the past is to brought into the present instance will depend on our skill and knowledge we possess. If we try to bring everything from the past then the hair will get all entangled. If we bring very little; the braiding will get completely disjointed.

And what happens beyond the knot of the present instance? The future opens up into more possibilities... and they are again braided into the next knot. So each instance in our life is a coming together (synthesis) of a previous set of options (analysis) brought ahead and tied. These instances are not at pre-determined spots along the braid (That is where the analogy really breaks) We live through a continuum of instances. So we experience dynamic braiding that is going on continuously.  Or should I say; ideally we ideally would be doing that. Many unfortunately do try to determine what constitutes their present instances they want to recognize. They are the ones who are caught up either in the past or too worried about the future. 

I often explain my students the same concept using another analogy: That of pottery. When we make a pot we have to continuously work on the whole pot. However; at each instance when we work on the whole we are actually analytically braiding the past. You have to have the right mix of both the analysis and the synthesis. Of the two; I believe synthesis is often lost out. 

Some people unfortunately end up digging only holes: They go in a linear direction; continuously analysing. It really does not produce results and it ends up being a bottomless exercise. Fortunately; the Eastern philosophies have taught us a lot more on these matters and I think the time has come to show the world this method of moving ahead in life.

I often notice that people are much more comfortable finding patterns analytically.  Grappling with the whole; especially if it is large and unwieldy; is quite disconcerting. They would rather remain in the analytical hole. 

Here is a very nice paper on Analysis and Synthesis

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Second order and third order patterns

Some patterns and natural phenomena are readily understood by human beings. For example: The position of an object is very easily understood. Say a stone placed on the ground. You can also displace the stone and also understand the next order phenomenon; which is the concept of velocity: It is the displacement of the position of the stone uniformly over a time interval. It is when you get into second and third order or even higher order patterns that human beings have problems. 

For example; if the stone is moved at a greater rate of speed (i.e. non-uniformly) ; you get a phenomenon called acceleration in physics. If the rate of speed  decreases over time then it is called a deceleration. Many cannot intuit such second-order phenomena very easily and they have difficulty in getting a good grip around them. Once you do not understand them; it becomes even more difficult to connect it to other aspects of our reality. It took the genius of Newton to explain how acceleration is connected to force. Force being mass multiplied by acceleration. Mass is a zero-order phenomena (like position) and quite readily understood by most.

It does not stop just there. If one looks for it carefully; one can notice the phenomenon of the rate of acceleration. That phenomenon also has a name. It is called a jerk. If you don't like it for its other social connotation then you can use the UK variant which is a jolt. A jerk is very difficult to understand and come to terms with. (Yes; jerks of all kinds are quite difficult!)  If you want to understand all the various patterns in physics along the lines of position; velocity; acceleration; jerks; etc and how they are connected to other phenomena such as force then look at this page on jerks.

Now you may be wondering about the point I am trying to establish here.

Understanding patterns is intrinsic to a human's effort to come to terms with the world around him/her.  Patterns are not just seen in physical phenomena but also in other spheres of life: economic; social; political; psychological; physiological and whatever branch people have artificially divided life into. 

Some of us are capable of seeing just the zero-th order phenomena. Many can see even the first order ones. A few can dig deeper and notice the working of the second order. So on and so forth. You bring together a bunch of people with different capabilities and you have a rich source of misunderstandings. A conversation between people with different capabilities regarding perception of patterns can quickly degenerate quite fast: "Why don't you just accept the situation as it is? There is nothing more to it!" would be a common refrain by a person who can see the zeroth-order phenomena and nothing much more beyond that. "But can't you see that the situation is actually caused because of this xyz happening?" says the chap who has the ability to digest the next order. A more "deeper" person will then say "You are both wrong. It is important to see the situation as a time-slice of a larger variation that is happening"

I guess that is what makes people interesting. They all seem to be alike but each move in a subtly different direction. Like a babbling brook.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Watch out! The Eagle is flying injured

We are witnessing three seemingly unrelated events: Barack Obama is being enstated as the 44th US president tomorrow (January 20, 2009). The Israelis are bombing the skin off the Palestinians at Gaza. The Sri Lankan army is on the last stages of wiping out the LTTE; the Tamil Tigers.

What connects these three events?

Answer: Money.

A whole chain of events that can be tied to some ill-thought policies of Alan Greenspan and others like him lead to the sub-prime crisis. The US economy started unpacking its house of cards from one corner (the housing market). Fortunately, the US is already an advanced country and so it does not need extra housing. If a housing collapse were to happen in a developing country like India, etc. there would have been a civil war.  Nevertheless, the sub-prime crisis brought down the level of the sea of greed and exposed people who were initially thought to be unaffected by the unfolding crisis. 

Most notable among them was Bernard Madoff who was safeguarding 50 billion dollars which did not exist. But other failures disguised themselves as "institutional" failures (Lehman Brothers, etc.) and tried to escape attention. But they were equally bad failures. Many rich jews were Madoff's clients. Madoff's adventures and other downfalls in the US also rippled into Europe where an erstwhile rich country (Iceland) is literally pan-handling for survival from Russia and other countries. Many have committed suicide. 

The once powerful Eagle is no longer landed, nor is it soaring. It is barely flying with a broken wing.

Terrorism has a nefarious connection with the rich and sometimes famous. The connections cannot be established very immediately and even to explain the connections would require the skills of the likes of Frederick Forsythe or John le CarrĂ©. But the linkages exist all right. The collections from the rich trickle down through possible do-good volunteer organizations and get into hot spots such as the Palestine, Sri Lanka and Israel. (Well,  I suspect some of the money even goes quite directly to Israel without even being hidden because the US government used to be quite blatantly pro-Israel) 

The economic collapse hastened not just the exit of an unworthy president but even the concept of a Republican is considered bad news nowadays. Enter Obama. The Jews have lost much of their money and the prospect of getting the economy to work back in their favour is also not very clear. To them Obama is literally a dark horse: They are not very sure how he may react to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He seems to utter a lot of comforting and do-good words that refer more to Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and their ilk. "Is he a hidden socialist perhaps?" Hmmm... perhaps... bad news for the Israelis. Thus; before Obama came in as a president legally, they decided to bomb the sh*t off the Palestinans at Gaza. They even got a favourable "agreement" signed by Condeleezza Rice just a few days back. So everything is signed, sealed and delivered as per their agenda and their larger motivations.

And now we come to the LTTE. The Sri Lankan army has also got a serendipitous opportunity: (Sri Lanka was once labeled as "serendip" in a book by Horace Walpole. Hence the word "serendipity") The economic collapse has also stripped money from the Tamilian diaspora who collected money for their revolution in the scenic island country at the foot of the Indian sub-continent. With the money disappearing, the LTTE can no longer afford fuel and ammunition required to keep a constant vigil against the Sri Lankan army. 

The LTTE is therefore on the run, with an injured eagle flying overhead. I dread the time when the eagle will land and get its wing fixed. More money will flow back into terrorism and these hot-spots.  What should have been resolved conflicts will again open up for more blood-letting. 

We are living in complex times; indeed!

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Dickensian divide: The physical and social grid in Mumbai

Mumbai in India is a linear city: It was formed by stitching together seven islands into an appendage that hangs off from the main land pointing to the south much like an empty garden hose which is now devoid of water.

This spit of land is one of the most densely populated area in the entire world. Two main highways traverse the length of this land from North to South; roughly parallel to each other: One is the Western Express Highway and the other; the Eastern. In the usual mayhem of a developing country called India; these two highways are punctuated by various traffic intersections serviced using traffic lights that many do not follow, if the cops were not looking. These intersections serve busy collector roads that divert people into the local train stations or other business and residential areas. All the roads, including the highways, are criss-crossed by pedestrians who were never really catered to when the city was planned. It is no surprise that traffic accidents are high. Fortunately; all the obstacles such as the afore mentioned intersections -- however haphazardly managed and followed, do slow down the traffic. Hopefully that reduction in speed should have reduced the severity of at least some of the accidents.

With the rise of the economy in India, one saw the rise of the automobile. Where we once had exactly two kinds of cars to choose from (something akin to Henry Ford's old joke: You could choose any colour as long as it is black) we now have  a large variety to choose from. The lip-smacking auto industry has come into India wanting to occupy suitable positions in the Indians' minds.

Hmmm... so where does this story evolve? 

Somewhere down the line; there was this sudden spurt of flyovers all over Mumbai. Let us not get into the political and economic interests behind the infrastructure changes because those motivations can be quite easily guessed and left at that.  The idea of these flyovers were to simply fly over traffic intersections so that those with the new cars can now get an uninterrupted passage from North to South (or vice-versa) of Mumbai.

When these flyovers were being constructed, I got a funny sensation at the pit of my stomach: Not only because of the obvious effects the automobile would have on the environment; but also other attendant problems they would bring in. I was afraid that now that the pedestrians did not have any "interrupted" points in the traffic flow; the severity of traffic accidents would be much higher. 

Sure enough; after the flyovers were commissioned and the rich started zooming up and down these two highways using a new-found freedom to press on the accelerator, really horrendous accidents started happening at both ends of the the flyovers ...where the speed is usually the highest and the motorist accelerates the most in order to get into or out of the flyover. Obviously there was a hue and cry about these accidents and the "lack of civic sense" by oh-these-terrible-pedestrians. 

And the solution was effective but equally thoughtless: Take these black ribbons of the highways and lift them up a bit at both the ends of each flyover and neatly tuck in a pedestrian subway underneath. The accidents may have got reduced (well, I have no statistics to confirm that but I can assume that they have been reduced because one does not hear of such accidents in the media) but now the society has got nicely stratified and gridded as per the economic class.

The rich zoom up and down the highways and the poor pedestrians scurry around like rats through Dickensenian sub-ways; criss-crossing the rich at ninety degrees. One cannot possibly get a more ironic  and symbolic statement about the class divide than this. 

If any of us were to visit these sub-ways, you will see a whole different life there: Peddlers selling all kinds of goods including rotten potatoes and tomatoes and suchlike. So much for the "evolved" planning of Mumbai. Though I agree in parts on the progress made by India, I often reflect on the social aspect which is neglected because not everyone are equally uplifted or can participate in the economy. Many are pushed under the carpet. Often literally.