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Notes from the Emerging Architecture of India Conference in New York City

The Emerging Exchanges: New Architectute of India conference was held last Thursday and Friday at the New School Campus here in NYC. Jointly hosted by the New School, India China Institute, and The Architecture League it brought together a great mix of practitioners from India.

Thursday’s first session was an introduction to the theme. Kazi Ashraf gave an overview of the current state of Indian architecture which was basically paraphrasing his article for the “Made In India” AD Issue of 2007. In showing a lot of proposals for projects he tried to cover ground about the typologies of emergent Indian architecture. However as Rahul Mehrotra pointed out later in the conference, most of them were just proposals and never ever left the drawing board. And sadly this would be a constant criticism of the conference over the next two days. More of that later in the article.

Some of the outstanding presentations were:

Ahmedabada-based Rajeev Kathpalia of Vastu Shilpa Foundation gave an overview of some of his latest work and the IMAX project for Ahmedabad stood out for its clarity of thought, site and function response and spatial organisation.

Another Ahmedabad based practise, that of Gurjeet Singh Matharoo gave a wonderful overview of the various materials they work with. A comparative analysis of the embodied energies of Concrete, Steel, Wood, and Earth showed how each material embodies and transforms energy. And then Gurjeet went on to turn his entire analysis over its head and showed 4 projects that did everything contrary to his analysis. Most people did not get the sarcasm which was a compliment to the straight-faced Gurpreet. The projects shown…especially the "House with Balls" and the Crematorium were really well thought of and executed.  By far the most impressive of all the presentations over the duration of the conference, in terms of content and clarity.

Bombay-based Rahul Mehrotra was his usual eloquent self and plowed straight into the issues that his practise deals with. He gave an overview of some of the conservation/preservation work that the practise deals with and then showed some of their recent projects. Notable amongst them were the TISS Rural campus and the House for an Actor in Alibag, and the Orchard house. Rahul presentation also brought forward the point about how presentations can be so intense and inspiring when the speaker has total control and command over his subject matter. Right through the conference and especially during the panel discussions Rahul brought forth a deep understanding of the non-architectural issues to the process of architecture. Be it the politics of SEZ licenses, or the issues of developers as majority clients in India or the reasons for US firms filling the lack of technical know how of Indian practises, when it comes to large scale projects.

Bangalore based Prem Chandavarkar of Chandavarkar n Thacker Architects presented the direction his firm set out on 4 years ago. In a series of questions they posed to themselves four years ago, the practise has tried to find answers to these questions through the work they do. Their Flower Auction House project was really inspiring as was the Valuelabs Software office that was built under the constraints of Vastu and turns out to be a wonderful inside-out building with public and private spaces interwoven. Prem through his presentation and later panel discussions showed a deep understanding of the theory of art and architecture and that was evident in all his work. What was also remarkable was his use of quotes to illustrate his points so succinctly.

Berlin and Auroville based Anupama Kundoo showed a series of projects that she has completed over the years that have dealt with the use of material and the issues of sustainability, way before it became a buzzword. Her use of bamboo, recycled glass and earthernware pots was completely refreshing in approach to design and as built work. Anupama spoke with a passion that comes from having lived in Auroville for years in dwellings that she then builds. Hence her practical know-how of materials and how they function in a built environment made her a true proponent of the sustainability movement in all its manifestations: environmental, economic and social.  One of her most poignant statements was "The essence of the pot is in its nothingness"….something that stuck to my mind the minute she said it.

New York based Tod Williams and Billie Tsien showed the right way that "starchitects" can bring their design talent and expertise to India. Their Banyan Tree project for the Tatas in the western suburbs of Bombay, showed a deep understanding of the ground realities and the sensibilites that are needed to design in a foreign culture. They spoke about the challenges of being foreign architects and hence having to prove more than their Indian counterparts, the "Indian-ness" of their design. Their insistence on understanding the skills and capabilities of the Indian craftsmen and their use of visual mockups before getting into construction, allowed them to sort out a lot of the issues that mar a project as it leaves the drawing board and touches the ground.

Philadelphia based landscape architects Dilip da Cunha and Anuradha Mathur gave a peek at their upcoming exhibition SOAK at the NGMA in Mumbai. They studied and analysed water bodies in and around Mumbai, especially the ecosystem that supports the Mithi River and the surrounding areas near the original 5 forts of Bombay. Through a rigorous design exercise they evolve a series of guidelines for the urban ecology and landscape in Mumbai. The exhibition starts in mid June and is a must-see.

Other notable presentations included the Shillom Spa resort in the Western Ghats by Margie Ruddick and Tom Zook. And a series of projects by Nisha Mathew and Soumitra Ghosh from Bangalore.

The structure and the pairing of speakers in the conference was not as seamless as one would expect. Also the co-chairs wasted too much time in introducing the same participants again and again.

Friday’s session started with an introduction by Brian McGrath who was completely off topic and his use of maps to illustrate some points was vague and ambigious. As was his need for self-publicity at each and every opportunity. In trying to sound too scholarly and academic he completely lost the plot and thankfully the presenters after him saved the day with their presentations and work.

A question that I posed to the co-chairs concluded the conference. The issue I raised had to do with the choice of the participants in the conference. All of the speakers showed great work and are fantastic proponents of their talent and craft. Sadly, however that was but a miniscule of the architecture of India in the past decade. The architecture that has come up in the past few years has been the developer driven, high-rise architecture that has built entire cities like Gurgaon, or enclaves like the Bandra Kurla Complex, or gated communities like the IT Parks outside of Bangalore. No one except Sudhir Jambhekar of FXFowle addressed such projects. It was in hindsight really nice of Sudhir Jambhekar to go out on a limb and present the 300 m tower proposed for South Bombay.

And thank god he did it. It made the entire "emerging" arguement a bit skewed in the typology of projects discussed. Sudhir did get some flak for the project and very professionally addressed all concerns of the audience and the panel. However one heartily wished for a Hafeez Contractor or the likes to present some of their work and discuss some of the challenges they would have faced. More insight into the developer-architect nexus would have made the conference a bit more worthwhile.

Asking the selected presenters to speak to the audience present was like preaching to the choir.

Hopefully the organisers will, in the future be more open to not pandering to just the "published" names in architecture, but scratch beneath the surface and bring about a more diverse array of presenters for a more meaningful and intense debate of the issues.

All in all, a wonderful two days spent. Hope that the next conference of such kind is not 12 years away, as was the case with the current one….following the previous edition in 1997.