Tuesday, 19 February 2019

My (Original) Research Proposal

Notes: As most readers of my blog know by now, I have taken admission in a PhD programme at the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas (CTARA) at IIT Bombay. This is my Original Research Proposal that I submitted at the time of applications. It has undergone significant changes now, and I may not continue with this line of thinking for my PhD.

From the desk of Vitasta Raina
Time: Irrelevant 

The Background

In 2010, Mckinsey Global Institute released the report ‘India’s Urban Awakening’, based on the country’s rapidly changing economic landscape and demographic trends, and soon words like “expansion”, “explosion”, and “chronic under investment” became a staple in urban understanding. Our urban population is indeed ready to ‘explode’ as the Census trends indicate, and the Planning Commission has elaborated on the need to plan for this impending increase. Consequently, the country is looking at the creation of new cities, greenfield and brownfield, and while we prepare for such constructions, the architectural community is up in arms asking, “Can cities really be created or are they accreted?” Other intellectuals wonder if the vocabulary of heavy capital investments, private partnerships and international donor agencies that make up most of the current urban development language in the country, might erode India’s indigenous urban legacy. All these are valid arguments; that money is necessary for building infrastructure, but at the same time moneyed infrastructure, particularly when the equity stake of the State is limited, leads to inequitable use of the infrastructure created. That is to say that setting up a new toll road, while beneficial for some, excludes a vast majority of citizens.

In fact as our cities are growing, some phenomena are becoming clearer, while on one side there is a stress on creating affordable places, on the other side, under crippling poverty, the urban poor are creating their own affordable places. Our cities are thus, growing as, at least, three separate entities, based on their economic means, and this is a worrying fact because limited means leads to limited human potential. We need to understand this from the framework of Manfred-Max-Neef’s Human Scale Development, which illustrates that while unlike Maslow’s theory, there is no hierarchical order to human needs. They are systemic, and without the fulfillment of subsistence needs such as food, shelter and livelihood, the needs of “Sheer life”, to borrow a term from Walter Benjamin, such as participation, identity and freedom, cannot be realised.

Human Scale Development is an effective tool from which we can trace out in its most elementary form, the debates, for instance, between the Students of JNU and the Central Government, but more importantly, the inaction of the larger civil society. While one may consider this an aspect of the bystander effect, in truth, it is a part of the larger developmental dynamics of the country. I’m adding this description here, perhaps for my own absorption. As post-graduate student of Housing at the school of planning and architecture, when asked where I would place myself on the Maslow’s pyramid, a definition of human needs that I have since rejected, I always said, “Tier Four”, the need for self-esteem, striving for the highest rung of self-actuation. But ten years on after leaving the university, after working, being unemployed, being disillusioned, paying bills, travelling on the 6.15 local from Bandra to Malad every day for four years, being deeply involved first with the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan, and then with MMRDA’s Rental Housing Division at work, I wouldn’t say that my capacity for dissent, which is enthusiastically evident in my book, Writer’s Block that came out in 2011, has dampened, but simply that it has become increasing more demanding.

Dissent itself is a fundamental human right, an integral aspect of both participation and autonomy, and while I can sympathise with the students, both because I have been in their shoes, and I understand needs a systemic and prone to continuous change, for a large section of our society, such is not the case. For them, life is indeed still a pyramid that they need to scale, and words with the promise of livelihood and shelter mean more than freedom and equal rights.

We call it the ‘Urban Explosion’ for some obvious reasons. Besides the increasing urban population, which as the now famous statement, is going to ‘double itself in half the time it took to reach the level that it has’, we will be adding 300 million people to our cities in the next 15 years. More importantly, for the first time since independence, we will have more people living in cities than we do in villages. The lobbyist can no longer claim that we don’t know the ‘real India’ since we don’t work in its villages, although to be fair, I did start my architectural career in the villages of India. And so I can say this with an air of certainty that in the process of becoming urban, we are in fact becoming increasing rural. These are very intricate discussions, spanning so many systems. But let’s keep it simple; let’s keep it within the realm of built-form.

The Theoretical Framework

Now, without getting into the economic definitions of rural and urban, let us try and examine them solely from a point of view of built-form. Rural architecture is often associated with materials and systems that can be locally produced with extremely low embodied energy. These systems are also called vernacular systems or indigenous systems; however, their connotation has now come to signify more “cost effective” means of construction. This meaning however, is only applicable when such technologies are juxtaposed with more urbane ones. The other meaning, regarding it being “green”, “sustainable” and “down-to-earth”, I am disregarding for the moment, because that too is extremely relative. Rural structures are usually load bearing and while there are elements of permanence to them, these structures go through seasonal changes, much like the fields around them. For instance, the roofs are relaid, and the floors and walls are replastered every harvest and vice versa.

In terms of their planning, an observation made by an old professor of mine was to look at our ‘villages’ as not being ‘rural’ in nature, but more like small “walled cities”. Indian villages are dense, compact, miniature cities surrounded by fields, and offer the same sense of security, community and social identity that an ideal neighbourhood block in a city should offer. In the wake of our shifting economic landscape, while 70% of the population lives in villages and shares 30% of the country’s GDP, there has been an outward movement from villages to more lucrative cities. There is a mantra for those who are reading this, a mantra you should never forget: no matter how bad the life of the urban poor may seem, rural poverty is always more brutal. At this point, we should also consider that while it may seem like the most obvious choice, in-migration to cities is a very small part of the Urban Explosion.

Back in terms of built form, it is expectant that when we look at the building systems of a large part of cities, particularly when they are ‘informal’, they resemble in their planning and material choices, Kutcha architecture. Kutcha is an official term in the Census of India, it means temporary or makeshift. While in rural India, it is a norm, when we shift to more urban landscapes, the term perhaps implies hopeful aspiration. More and more villages in India now display urban characteristics, more and more are using materials that signify ‘permanence’. On the other side, in the vast jungles of our megacities, more and more kutcha structures come up. The more vulnerable spots for this urban expansion is of course, the peri-urban regions of cities.

To understand this phenomenon of development in urban fringes, we must first get a conception of the power of the invisible strings of law. Some years ago, in Mumbai, on my way back from work, while travelling in an auto-rickshaw, I got trapped inside the perfect urban corollary of sleep paralysis, the traffic jam. Tearing myself from the nightmare web, I think I got a conception of the prime mover: the sole traffic police man. Standing calmly in the centre of a storm, he simply gestured to clan of rowdy car drivers and they like puppets obeyed his invisible strings. He was an orchestra conductor, moving his arms left and then right, up and then down, and the cars and buses, rickshaws and tempos, followed his cues, moving effortlessly as he directed, onward on the viscous metallic liquid of automobiles. He could have been a giant, picking up his toy vehicles, placing them on a black carpet of tar as he pleased. I was awestruck, staring up at him, till my rickshaw moved up the road, beyond the sticky syrup junction.

The invisible walls of law that prevail in urban centres, they govern everything, from how much you can build- FAR/FSI, ground coverage, height restriction, space between buildings, the width of the road, to what you can build-land-use and zoning regulations. These laws mostly restrict those on the bottom end of the economic ladder, and they are compelled to either ignore them or build their makeshift dreams in the notorious forms of 'slums' or 'kutchi bastis' (temporary settlements), or to simply build where the purview of the law ends, the urban fringe. Movement corridors, railways and highways that provide access to urban centers are often the places where such activities occur. But mind you, these are not standalone bastis, because they follow the money, not the other way around.
Private developers, much like the urban poor, do not comply with the laws of the urban land, not because they don't have the money to comply, but simply because they want to make the most of the money that they do have at the expense of the urban land. The World Bank has estimated that almost 55% of India is already urban, a figure that is very different from the official Indian Census estimate of 31.6%. They say that this urbanization is "hidden" and "messy", that is to say largely outside the planning regime of the country, and hence "exploding", but when every large private development agency takes it upon themselves to go out of their way and create an urban settlement where nothing previously existed, placing the blame on one party or the other for this explosion is incorrect. These developments, usually residential, target those who could not afford a place in the formal housing system in the existing urban area, despite being a working citizen of the area, contributing to the city's GDP. While on one hand, this distortion is due to speculation in residential prices, on the other hand, it is also because of the attachment we place on the notion of 'house' and the exceedingly restrictive Rental Housing Act. Again, I do not want to get involved in these aspects of the sprawl or how it creates an environment of extreme dependency on resources, both material and menial, for far more interesting is the fact that sprawl like urban explosion, erodes the 'place' from the land, offering only a space to live out a life devoid of fundamental human rights, the right to daydream, to develop and to dissent.

It is extremely important to understand this, particularly in the context of the building new cities, smart industrial cities and the 100 cities, a project that I have worked on closely, because till the time we continue to look at our urbanization as an 'explosion', we will never be able to assure our citizens their basic human rights.

The Hypothesis: DESIGN FOR DECAY

The Census of India defines 2 main categories of housing :
(i) Kutcha House (or temporary structures) : usually made of wood, mud, straw and dry leaves. (ii) Pucca House (or permanent structures): made of wood, bricks, cement, iron rods and steel.
Kutcha or Semi-Pucca houses are characteristics of village/ rural architecture in India. These structures differ based on the season. For instance, the thatched houses are changed seasonally. In the winter, certain houses grow wheat on their roof tops. However, these systems are losing significance as urbanization progresses across the country side.
Currently in our cities, because of distorted housing prices and unaffordable services, a large section of poor and new migrants to the city live in Kutcha or semi-pucca slum clusters. Kutcha structures made with biodegradable materials are more sustainable and also low impact i.e. do not disrupt the existing environmental system and urban fabric. However, these structures are unable to support the required densities of habitation that make 'cities'.

Rediscovering Bright Green Environmentalism in Architecture.
I have been heavily influenced by Bruce Sterling's Viridian Design Movement that focuses on concepts from Bright Green Environmentalism. While these are largely in the fields of environmental design and technology, I tried to use their design thinking in Built forms.
The two key Viridian Design Principles that I focus on:
Planned Evanescence: "Planned Obsolescence" means that a product will be driven off the market, within a known time-frame, by some purported improvement. The Viridian principle of "Planned Evanescence" extends this practice by demanding that the product and all its physical traces should gracefully disintegrate and vanish entirely.

Theory: Design for Decay (Manifesto)

  1. A city like any living organism is an irreversible thermodynamic system displaying negative entropy.
  1. Through out its lifespan, from birth through youth, maturity and old age, while its metabolism sustains it, it grows and acquires new forms, new additions and variations to its original morphological patterns, displaying a complex adaptive behaviour.
  1. A city is in a constant state of flux.
  1. Systems evolve, devolve and mutate simultaneously within the city regions giving birth to multiple self-organizing and interlinked urban and transurban systems. Its culture, language and physiographical vocabulary change incessantly, gradually fluctuating over time.
  1. The internal entropic processes of gradual fluxion of space over time are essential to design, whether built or imagined.
  1. The living city constantly requires material-energy to maintain itself; on the other hand, it gradually wears out as it ages. The struggle of a city against decay, disintegration and disorder makes its living systems inherently unsustainable. Cities should die gracefully, design should imitate decay.
  1. There is nothing more sustainable than death, and nothing greener than decay.

Test: Building with Living Materials: Cow-Dung Brick Experiment

Currently, there is a lot of stress on capturing and catapulting back into mainstream construction, the vernacular and indigenous methodology of building, and "ethno-modern" motifs of traditional Indian architecture into the modern city building enterprise.

During my 2007 Masters Thesis on "Zones" around a city, which I will expand in the next part of this theory, I realised that perhaps simply updating the way "architects" are building is not enough. We need instead to update the way people on ground most impacted by the pressures of urbanization are building. Thus, a more pragmatic approach of capturing 'decay' is through the use of materials and construction systems that acknowledge the natural evolutionary processes of space. Space here denotes, not an "architectural room" but an entire city region.
Zones Around a City, Based on an Expanded Theory. (C) Vitasta Raina 2018.

The time has come now to write a new architectural paradigm. We must begin recognize that design is organic, that a building is a living organism that grows with us, and finally, we must acknowledge the most basic tenets of life- decay and death. Just as a human is not immortal, and goes through the natural processes of ageing, so does a space that is lived in, so does a brick wall or a stone floor. The entropic processes of decay must become part of our design vocabulary; we must forgo the urge to design for monumental endlessness and focus on designing for our continuing present.

Now is the time for ‘Biodegradable Design’- time to harness the quality of decay into the vocabulary of design, instead of trying to amend or avoid it. We must understand the aesthetic worth of entropic processes like rust and erosion and integrate them into our artist expressions. It is only when we can truly embrace decay that we can become ‘sustainable’.

In our design journey as architects, we often come across the word 'context'. But what does context really mean? The greatest monuments of architecture that we cherish today as icons of style that bring out the best artistic and aesthetic genius were neither of their time, nor culturally rooted in history. In their choice of materials and their application of craft, they did not belong their environmental setting. Take the Taj Mahal for instance; the white marble that was used to build this grand mausoleum was sourced from Rajasthan, while some of the stones used in the inlay work were transported from places as far away as Tibet and Sri Lanka. The Taj Mahal was not in context of where it was built, and yet it by its building, the context for the city of Agra was created. Today, we look upon it as a symbol of India’s rich history.

This phenomenon of ‘transposing context’ holds true even today. We must understand that true Contextual Architecture, one that blends in with its surroundings, is seldom appreciated because it is hardly noticeable. It does not have a unique design vocabulary, nor does it challenge the existing paradigm.

With the coming of the Environmental Movement in architecture, the meaning of the word ‘context’ was bastardized to a large extent. Climate appropriate architecture, that paid heed to the sun direction, respected the water table, and responded to wind was suddenly elevated to ‘good design’, and such buildings were said to be not just harmonious with nature, but also hastily dubbed as contextual. But the practise of architecture that is in harmony with the environment, built using local materials and blending in gracefully with its landscape is not a measure of design, it is a display of ‘common sense’.

We now find ourselves in age where mediocre buildings that respect the climatic and site conditions are elevated to a stature of aesthetic glory. But if you are building using environmental responsive passive technologies, are you also building in context? And if your building is rated green, does it also mean that it is designed well?

As a young student of architecture, I had the privilege of working with Laurie Baker at COSTFORD in Kerala, in the days before being green became mainstream. There are some memories that remain with us for a long time, etched in our consciousness they shape the way we begin to perceive our world. I remember one particularly rainy afternoon, when I shared a cup of tea with the Daddy (as we at COSTFORD called Laurie Baker) at the Hamlet. The much celebrated ‘Brickmaster of Kerala’ spoke to me about growing old, and observed how with age his eyesight was failing and his filler-slab living room roof was leaking. I did not understand then what I know now, that such is the endearment of architecture that it grows old with you.

The reason why an exposed brick wall becomes us is that it goes through the same entropic processes of life that we go through, it breathes with us, and it ages with us and through the course of our lives together, it also dies with us.
The Decay Curve, which is basically the Forgetting Curve indicating perhaps that our 'attachment' with the built is more in nostalgia than in real life.

Over a period of time, through professional and personal exploration, I have discovered that it is indeed not context that we need to pay heed to, because context can be created, be it with the humble brick or the marvellous white marble. Context is a history, a story, or a background within which we place our design; it complements our design because it gives it meaning. But it is also true that the most compelling of designs will often write their own story.

If one were to go back to the etymological origins of the word ‘architecture’, one might read it as a harmonious equation between art, technology and culture that manifests itself in real estate. That it is the built expression of art where culture can be experienced. And herein lays the reason why context alone cannot import significance or meaning to a built form.

Because culture is a dynamic ever changing force, it is often difficult to capture it through the static margins of site, climatological or even historical context. To grasp the nature of ever moving, interchangeable culture, its complex interrelations and memoryscapes, one must understand the phenomenon of continuity- the uninterrupted, gradually changing quality of space that evolve slowly with us throughout our lifetimes.

Continuity is the medium through which we experience and build relationships with places. It is the reason why we are swept by familiarity in certain spaces because they remind us of our lived histories, nostalgic and sometimes melancholic, it is the reason why the terms 'vintage' and 'classic' are always in vogue, and often used to describe a characteristic of high-quality.

As architects, we tend to focus on site specific contexts and ignore the cultural continuity of the larger city space. One way to capture continuity that is fast becoming a fashionable expression across young urban homes in India, is to transpose the motifs and design elements of traditional Indian houses such as jalis, arches, niches and courtyards, into modern architectural vocabulary. Supplementing the architectural design is the use of Indian interior furnishings such as bamboo chics and traditional woven (knotted rope) furniture.

Such ethno-modern styles have found many takers because they appeal to our mental need to find a familiar rooting continuity around us, particularly in today's rapidly globalizing world where traditional ethnic identities are constantly challenged.

Another more pragmatic approach of capturing continuity that goes beyond the use of design elements is through the use of materials and construction systems that acknowledge the natural evolutionary processes of space.

As I test parts of this theory through experiments with building materials, I made some Cow-Dung Bricks and erected a compound wall. It is currently standing the test against Self-Compression. The gober brick structures have already withstood 2 monsoons but there are some obvious design flaws that have manifested, the biggest concern being insect proofing the completely organic material.

Testing and Proofing

Construction Process

Gober Brick Wall


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