Blueprint is a narrative of Gautam Bhatia’s work juxtaposed on his larger cultural projects, and his experiments with complexity and context.
The Building as a Metaphor
A chronicle of work can be many things – a catalogue, a celebration and a critique. This one is an uncanny montage of ideas and images: a personal retrospective into the architectural journey of one of the sharpest spatial thinkers in India.
The architecture of Gautam Bhatia is difficult to reconcile for a casual observer. What are his concerns? What is he trying to achieve? The work itself – as evidenced by the book – is eclectic, diverse and seemingly inconsistent. The projects themselves deal with an array of scales, programmes and situations moving from historic preservation and rejuvenation projects to urban design; From the ‘Palace’ to the ‘Mountain House’.
The Foreword authored by Himanshu Burte articulates the character of the monographs as “a personal account of a creative process that is free of the noxious fumes of selfcongratulation.” This personal account is a multi-layered palimpsest – a juxtaposition of Bhatia’s buildings, his artworks and his texts. As one browses through the pages of the book, one comes to terms with the odd organisation of the one-word chapters. Each segment, a composition of drawings, photographs of the project(s) in question and the text that attempts to articulate the architectural position. An additional layer of Gautam Bhatia’s art – works of painting, drawing and installation – enriches the narrative.
Nonetheless, these architectural positions are messy and as Bhatia admits, a study of contradictions. Evidenced by the dark, satirical works of art that problematise the ideas of typology, context, culture, aspirations, popular taste, wealth, consumerism, opulence, economy and so on, the works of architecture in the book attempt to deal with the inconsistent and messy domains of society and culture in India.
The contests that arise from the politics of space in India are evident from the book. While one may assume that architecture, like any other profession, will ideally be located in the service of the client (more so now than ever before), Bhatia articulates the problems of this world-view in his disarming opening essay ‘Building’. Simply put, for the author, not everything that is built qualifies as architecture. For a work to represent architecture, it must confront social and cultural realities that “straddles art, ecology, landscape, engineering, sociology, history and anthropology”.
The book is also a visual comment. It traverses disciplines of architecture, painting and sculpture that echo Gautam Bhatia’s background as an artist. Often, in the reading of the book, one senses his dark humour and his urge to subvert the forces that shape the profession. One can almost sense the guilty pleasure the author must be craving in breaking the rules of running a practice. The speculative sketches (sometimes made in the process of design and sometime in retrospect) affords the architect a segue into parallel visual domains stealing time from the process of making architecture.
This unique structure of the book also affords one to imagine architecture as a profession that ventures beyond ‘problem-stated, and problem-solved’ culture. The book lays bare the non-linear, erratic and inconsistent conceptual process that enables an architect to be a producer of cultural works. The texts in the book confront misrepresented agendas of the profession and empathise with more humane ideas that deal with scale, intimacy and placemaking.
Confessing to the incompleteness of the work represented in the book, Bhatia outlines the issue of dealing with grandiose ambition of architecture admitting the shortfalls of the building in completely articulating this ambition. In this context, all the projects in the book – built and unbuilt (some perhaps unbuildable) – can be seen as works in progress. There is an irritating order in which the visual content is arranged in the monograph. The drawings are intentionally stripped of tedious legends unveiling the parts that are essential to the idea. By “describing the intention rather than the result”, Bhatia admits to the foreseen failure of the building in translating the architectural idea in its pure form. Rather, for his work, the idea serves as a point of departure and a constant frame of reference to negotiate with the realities of execution.
From a purely architectural perspective, the drawings in the book are a better resource than the photographs in understanding the works of Gautam Bhatia. While the drawings commit to the idea, the photographs are selected to capture materiality and a sense of place. But as one reads on, one senses the virtue in the non-visual representation of architecture in the book. Our world had become too visually biased and spaces seem to be too complex to capture in a choreographed image. By staying away from the seductive representation of architecture that contemporary monographs deal with, this book raises critical questions on the validity of the profession and the inherent contradictions in practicing architecture. “Even if my buildings do not warrant a presentation, I hope the way of thinking about them does” says Bhatia. Certainly!
Select double-spread images in the book are occasional indulgences. But as you look more sharply, these images represent a finer quality of Gautam Bhatia’s work – the experience of the space and the richness of place that he so clearly desires from his architecture. These are movements where the architect relinquishes control and surrenders the work to the will of the world. It is perhaps therefore; the space comes alive. One can speculate the significance of this post-occupancy world in Bhatia’s work. Paradoxically, one can imagine that his architecture thrives in chaos and not so much in order.
Finally, then, what is the significance of this book in the context of many monographs on Indian architects that have been authored in the past five years? Firstly, the author of the book is also the author of works in the book. While this may sometimes be problematic, a genuine self-critique is a refreshing and a rare find! While many contemporary architects do write about their own work, the texts are either dry and descriptive or self-congratulatory. In many cases, there is also a strange urge to force the work to represent a larger, noble idea. This book refrains from being a romantic memoir of a successful practice and sticks to the analysis of the process often making the struggles of an idea explicit. If buildings represent values, this book is a record of the values on which Bhatia’s practice is built. Secondly, this book is painted in shades of grey. By refusing to accept a black-and-white world of professional practice, Gautam Bhatia creates moments of great discomfort for the readers in his images and text. It thus serves as a hazy mirror to the reader and one begins to relate to the ideas expressed therein.
Lastly, it is written with clarity. Brinda Somaya once said, “complex thoughts do not always warrant a complicated language.” While the book does use architectural lingo, but the writing is natural and effortless. The thoughts expressed aim to clear the smoke around an idea rather than creating screens of complexity as contemporary architectural writing often engages in. In his endnote, Bhatia states, “To physically will a building onto site is an act of design, but to set it free onto a course of transformation is an act of architecture”. In India, where the practice of architecture is not about the ability to craft beautiful objects, but about its willingness to deal with real issues that concern our society, Bhatia’s architecture will perhaps outlive the buildings he has crafted ♦
A short excerpt from the BUILDING chapter of the book:
“This is a book of uncertain ideas and mixed sources. It emerged untested, as a collaborative of personal applications that straddle art, architecture, sketch and writing. Much of its content has been derived from my own professional practice, the written diaries, and the speculative sketches and artworks that support particular architectural projects and conceptions. In the search for a method to building, I have been a reluctant problem solver. It is in the nature of any work in India, a country that has an unwieldy, shifting population and few material resources, that everything is seen as a problem. Yet for me, that narrow path of conventional practice remained elusive. I was never at the receiving end of large commissions or a participant in urban resettlement programmes. Instead, the institutional and private work that came my way contained precise and limited building programmes. In it, beyond the resolution of stated requirements, I found possibilities of raising a variety of architectural questions related to modernity, to the architect’s treatment of history and archaeology, to forgotten and misplaced attitudes to design. All this, beyond conventions of style and theory, the lies and evasions which have become a false measure of architecture.“
About the Author
Gautam Bhatia graduated in Fine Arts and went on to get a master’s degree in Architecture. A Delhi-based architect and sculptor, he has received several awards for his drawings and buildings and has also written extensively on architecture. Besides a biography on Laurie Baker, Bhatia is the author of Punjabi Baroque, Silent Spaces and Malaria Dreams—a trilogy that focuses on the cultural and social aspects of architecture. Among his other books are Punchtantra, a rewriting of the original Panchatantra into contemporary folk tales, Comic Century, An Unreliable History of the 20th Century, Whitewash: The tabloid that is about the India that isn’t and Lie, a graphic novel, the result of collaboration with miniaturists. Two of his shows of drawings and sculpture—‘Looking through Walls’ and ‘The Good Life’—examined disparities between the professed goals of architecture and the public perception of building. Bhatia is currently working on ‘Future Building: An Exhibition of Ideas for the Future City’.
Reviewed by: Ruturaj Parikh