An Ephemeral Lab in a City of Fixity

In a series on archival texts, views, discussions and comments on the state of architecture and design education in India,  Architect and Academic Krishnapriya Rajshekar shares from her experience as Assistant Professor at Wadiyar Centre for Architecture (WCFA), the significance of context in a studio culture, ‘making’ of a campus experience, and the intrinsic pedagogical framework embedded in an architectural education. For the curated short series, a prologue by Suprio Bhattacharjee.


PROLOGUE

BY SUPRIO BHATTACHARJEE

When I had set out to write the first essay that in many ways I had thought of as an ‘anchor’ to this series – though not a definitive, dogmatic or instructive one – as points of view, definitions, what can be determined as radical or not, etc. – all of this tends to alter and transform over time – I had never thought it could be seen as a set of ‘implied’ questions or loosely framed inquiries to which one can directly respond.

In many ways, I am indebted to Krishnapriya Rajshekar, Assistant Professor at the Wadiyar Centre for Architecture [WCFA], Mysore, for breaking this aforementioned perception I have had of my one piece of text.

WCFA for me has always maintained some kind of enigmatic and mysterious ground – something that should not even exist in today’s world – but one that I am more than grateful for that it does, showing that finger to the assumed calamity of running a ‘school’ and not a ‘mere business’ – that almost all schools of architecture in the country have become. As such it is intriguing to see how this institution evolves as a pivotal centre for the fostering of future architectural enquiry within the country – something that it should or must aspire towards – and something that its campus – composed of a set of extraordinary contemporary buildings – can be seen exemplary of. At the same time, it is a welcome relief that the school does not see itself as a means for certain individuals to profess and pander a misplaced sense of ideal or principle – as institutions thriving on dogma bring about their own demise. Or at worst, begin to stand out as misshapen intrusions into an already complex and confusing world.

Is there a place for simplicity of gesture, yet complexity of action – something that we are in dire need of? Hopefully, the following text will offer us some insight into this much-needed space of engagement.


ESSAY

A large 1:200 scale map of a half-kilometer-long portion of Devaraj Urs Road, Mysore lies spread across a long table in the studio. Surely, the map has seen better days as a (very large) piece of paper – it is a wee bit dusty, covered with scribbles of complex-looking numerical relationships and whimsical little sections. On one corner of the map sits a tall stack of books on the Mysore City Corporation’s Zoning Regulations – part of the objectives of the studio is to trace the origins of urban planning bye-laws and question their impact on the growth of the city. Pieces of a tiny white, out-of scale 3D-printed model of the same area lie askew across another corner. The west wall bears a patchwork of studies undertaken over the semester, criss-crossed by a complex network of wool threads denoting opportunities and constraints. How would you radically transform what was once envisioned as a lively high street for shopping in the centre of the city so that it may become truly vibrant, much more than what it is today – a vehicular thoroughfare flanked by rows of retail stores that not a lot of people go to? What if it means having to assume the drastic premise that a portion of the street has been cleared away to allow your radically transformative intervention to manifest?

While the seniors’ urban design studio for the day winds to a close, there emanates from the other side of the space, a deep, resounding adhan. The expansive, usually undivided studio has been portioned into two using tag-boards. Half of it becomes home to ‘Indriya’ – an exhibition of curated socio-sensorial experiences from the neighbourhood of K R Mohalla, put up by the students of semester two. The stories of a neighbourhood laid bare through the eyes of its diverse residents – a priest, a roadside samosa vendor, a young girl with eyes uncovered while the rest of her face is veiled by a hijab, among others. Find the stories first, the students are urged by the studio guides – find the stories of the people and their place (or is it the place and its people?) first, so that you may know where yours could fit in. Perhaps, you might find that your story won’t fit in.

One studio; a temporary, permeable divide demarcating two ways of looking at the same city – one drawing trajectories from the past and looking towards a future that could be, like a surgeon poised with a scalpel over a redundant appendage; the other urging us to steep ourselves in stories of the everyday past, present and future collapsed into an unhurried whole, finding meaning in pockets of the city resistant to change. 8th century Persian thinker, physician and astronomer Ibn Sina worded the eternal predicament when he asked how one could balance philosophy’s restless mobility with faith’s absolute sense of anchorage1 . The coming together within a single space of these apparently divergent yet essentially intertwined ways of seeing is a microcosm of WCFA – Wadiyar Centre for Architecture, Mysuru.

Mysore2 is a city that leisurely ambles through space-time, more in conversation with the past than the future, unlike neighbouring Bangalore that is transforming at a rate that makes it unrecognisable to its own inhabitants. It often gets slotted into the “heritage city” category, excessively attached to its erstwhile aura of the regal-colonial; so much so that almost every institutional building that comes up Mysore even in the present day is automatically made to shoulder the mantle of being “heritage” enough (the mantle invariably comes with gilded domes, arched colonnades and a classical pediment). These are solid structures of masonry that sit squarely upon the ground, representative perhaps of immovable hierarchies within the functioning of the institutions themselves. The city, said to have inspired R K Narayan’s timeless ‘Malgudi’, is one where the small-town and the cosmopolitan rub shoulders, domed shopping malls and balustrade-topped commercial streets concealing tight-knit agraharas and mohallas behind them. It isn’t hard to imagine why the city might come across as a perfect laboratory for observing the contradictions and complexities enmeshed within an urban fabric; the fact that it hasn’t been engulfed by chaotic development yet, allowing the opportunity for a space to ruminate on one’s learning.

The design of the WCFA campus seems to embody this very nature of complexity – new that has drawn the old into its embrace, respectful of what once was, without being stifling, an inward-looking cluster of structures forming a necklace that clasps at a slope-roofed heritage building within the campus – it seems almost symbolic that the oldest building on campus houses the library. It is hard to describe the built here – imagine two layers of pavilions, placed one upon the other, with walls of alternating warm wood and cool glass that one could wilfully make appear or disappear.

What makes the nature of the built perceptible, however, is the courtyard which seems to form the temporal centre around which the school revolves, a stepped expanse of paved brick and red soil, seasonally carpeted in yellow by the petals of the temple trees that spread their generous boughs above.

The fact that the school was born out of a shared dream and passion towards education between 11 professionals (10 architects and 1 structural engineer) who went on to form the Design Foster Trust3 , is not inconsequential. It makes one wonder if ultimately, architects make the best clients for architects, because it is hard to imagine any other clientele group that would be on board with a design philosophy that can be best summed up as ephemeral. In the words of Prashant Pole (who designed the school, along with B L Manjunath on structural design), the aim was to have the ‘new’ sit unobtrusively and quietly within the context of the existing old without drawing a sharp contrast, and perhaps the only architectural statement that was being attempted was to not make a statement. With masonry walls kept at a minimum, what stands out the most are the skeletal steel-frame structural system and the tall timber and glass doors which work on a slide-and-stack mechanism, allowing the outside to permeate within. The building seems to reflect not just a design philosophy but also the constant tug-off-war that has been waged among schools of thought in architecture regarding the nature of the timeless and attitudes towards permanence and impermanence in the built environment.

On the one hand, you have the larger cultural context of a city that celebrates monumentality and the fixity of tradition – functional and sensory obsolescence doesn’t seem to be as much of a concern as compared to the need to project and retain an unchanging image. Here then, you have a school of architecture that could, maybe someday be adapted for a different function with negligible logistical hassle – a versatility of space that comes to fore especially during the workshop weeks organised at the school where design studios transform into theatre, dance or music studios in the blink of an eye. Perhaps, someday, if the land is to be returned to its earlier state, the building could be easily dismantled (the operational word being dismantled and not demolished) and trucked away, maybe to be reassembled elsewhere, serving a whole other purpose, living another life. This too, could be transient. Is that an uncomfortable vision to have for a building?

On the other hand, it is the fixity that also makes Mysore a rather comforting city, especially for harried Bangaloreans and visitors from other bustling metropolises – for the simple reason that it allows you to slow down. Permanence in the built environment provides associational value, a concretisation of common beliefs, strands of nostalgia that allow you to link your past, present and future selves. Erasure of physical cues in cities eventually leads to a sense of disorientation and alienation among its inhabitants, old and new. In that sense, Mysore is a compassionate city. Where then, does WCFA fit in with its ephemeral philosophy, which is today a home for many of us, but built on the notion of impermanence which is almost at odds with “home”?

In this contradiction lies the wellspring of the pedagogical challenges encountered at the school – and “challenges” here imply opportunities and constraints. Here, the word studio encompasses thought and action, space and time, noun and verb. Because there is no exclusive mandate on what architecture should be, that is being subscribed to by the school as a whole, a “design studio” for a single semester could be multiple interpretative “studios” taking place within the same “studio” space. Hence a second semester studio could be one faculty-student group looking at space-making for a fictional user within a natural setting with an emphasis on phenomenology and the perception of light within space, while another group looks at various narratives associated with the idea of “dwelling” within an existing sociocultural context. Yet another group’s enquiry could stem from the possibilities of the wall as a space for living, de-contextualised, dealing purely with the essential attributes of what a wall is/could be. Each group thus forms a different understanding of context through degrees of universality and specificity in design responses, with skill-sets among students also being developed to varying extents, and of course different “end-results” based on whether the studios are more outcome-based or process-oriented. In such a scenario, there cannot be a common yardstick to measure a studio’s “failure” or “success” (both being terms to be handled with great caution).

A pertinent question that we need to be asking (and hopefully addressing) is whether the openness of a pedagogical framework really matters if at the end of the day, our studios and exercises are responses to a set, invariant syllabus and “success” and “failure” are dictated by affiliated university norms. When it comes to the question of what architecture is – a question for which one seems compelled to offer an answer and is simply embarrassed to admit not knowing – the overarching tendency is to seek absolutes. If our contemporary architecture syllabus for instance, continues to circle around the work of “master architects” and “iconic buildings” what happens to the discourse on permanence and impermanence? Where do adaptability and transience fit in when our definition of “success” in architecture, is to have created unshakeable built forms that have been deemed worthy for discussion according to syllabi-makers?

From the idiosyncratic failures of master-architects, do we focus the discussion on their steadfastness towards an idea or the short-sightedness of their obsession? If we do believe that there are multiple ways of practicing architecture, why do we end up referring to some practices as “alternative” in the way that one might introduce an eccentric relative – part admiration & part apology?

As a young school of architecture, we are thought and action, space and time, noun and verb. Faculty young and seasoned, academics & practitioners, bring in a mixture of experimental probing and assured experience. And as is the case more often than not, one’s greatest strength usually doubles up as one’s greatest weakness. Is the openness of a framework negated by its response to the fixed? Or is it the fixed that provides necessary rootedness without which a framework would just be immaterial? What we seek is the state of balance that Sina spoke of – that is a journey well-begun. Whether we veer towards restless mobility or absolute anchorage is something that only time can tell ♦


1 Hoskote, R. and Trojanow, I. (2012). CONFLUENCES: Forgotten Histories from East and West. Yoda Press, p.43.

2 This spelling of the city shall be used for the remainder of the essay – the author, like many others, is often disoriented while referring to changed city names, no matter how minor the change.

3 Members of the Design Foster Trust: S G Srinivas (Dean & Professor, WCFA | Naksha Architects, Bangalore) | Prashant G Pole (Design Chair & Professor, WCFA | Genesis Architects, Bangalore), Anand Krishnamurthy (Director & Professor, WCFA | Firm Terra, Bangalore), Nagesh H D (Principal & Professor, WCFA | Innovarchin, Mysore), Nelson Pais (Professor, WCFA | 2PKM Architects, Mangalore, Mysore), Vidyashankar R (Adjunct Faculty, WCFA | Design Forum, Bangalore) , Anand Prakash (Adjunct Faculty, WCFA | Archi-Technics, Bangalore) Ryan Thomas (Adjunct Faculty, WCFA | Genesis Architects, Bangalore), Manoj Ladhad (Adjunct Faculty, WCFA | Architecture Paradigm, Bangalore), Kukke Subramanya (Adjunct Faculty, WCFA | Kukke Architects, Bangalore) B L Manjunath (Associate Professor, Structures, WCFA | Manjunath & Co., Bangalore), HH Sri Yaduveer Krishnadatta Chamaraja Wadiyar (Maharaja of Mysore)


KRISHNAPRIYA RAJSHEKAR is an architect and academic based in Mysore. She currently works as Assistant Professor at Wadiyar Centre for Architecture, Mysore. Her chief interests lie in the overlaps between architecture, literature, visual culture and the city, which she explored in her graduate thesis titled ‘The Art Biennale Phenomenon: In Conversation with the City’; and continues to examine through her research and writing.

SUPRIO BHATTACHARJEE is an architect now based out of Chennai, India. He has recently been appointed Studio Director of architectureRED (a Chennai-based practice known for their urban architecture), and is the Founder and Principal Architect of S|BAU / Suprio Bhattacharjee Architecture Unit. He has served as a faculty member in various schools in the city of Mumbai over the past sixteen years. Suprio’s architectural writings and critical texts have appeared in DOMUS India magazine, and his contributions have also been published in respected academic and professional journals such as TEKTON, Conditions Architecture & Urbanism, Oris, Innowin, architecturelive.in and Architecture: Time, Space & People. Suprio has contributed to professional conclaves and seminars on architecture, design and pedagogy as a presenter and a curator and has been a vocal critic of the status quo. He has been a recipient of critical acclaim for his architectural works and has been recognised as one of the emerging architects to look out for, by the iGEN2016 programme instituted by Architect & Interiors India.


‘On Education’ is a collection of thoughts on architecture and design pedagogy in India. If you wish to contribute to the discussion, please write to us on think@matter.co.in.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.