IN DEFENSE OF MAGIC
Why is the Champalimaud project called the ‘centre for the unknown’? Why this mysticism for a research institute?
It is not only a research institute, but also treats patients who have cancer and brain illnesses. The patients coming here are desperate, but when they see the cutting edge research, there is some hope. So there is a window of hope in the project and that is the lobby. I felt that architecture should be a part of the therapy. People with cancer usually live a depressed life – the space is very important for their treatment – the blue sky, the water and the openness. I raised the site, I put the cars under – so when you walk I don’t want one to see anything but the sky – that is the unknown. It is not what I see that is unknown – I see the walls, the water. The sky and everything connected to the sky – the light, the shadows – that is the unknown. The site is also where Vasco da Gama left for India – so there was a context of the voyage to the unknown – that is what cancer is to the patient and that is what science is.
When a building starts saying things beyond what it is, it starts communicating with the sub-conscious. The attempt at the Champalimaoud Centre was to make that communication.
The idea of non-building has been active in your works. How do you see it working out at the Champalimaud Centre?
Non-building is too simplistic a description. I wanted to make the space sacred, which is distinct from being religious like the Japanese tea ceremony, which is sacred, but not religious. Sankalp Meshram, the film-maker, told me that it is extremely difficult to shoot the building because what you see in the building is not there – It also happens in Bharat Bhavan. Sankalp further has a better articulation on the space in the Centre, he says, “the beauty lies in the enigma of the form – this building is truly the most enigmatic of all your creations, because even if you plainly see what is in front of you, the mind cannot fully comprehend it. So you look at it again and again until you give up winning the game intellectually. Once you surrender, the phenomenon takes over making it perfect. A non-giving object, even if it is on a plain site”.
So where did the building come from? How did it happen?
Someone asked me if there are references to this building from Surrealist works – particularly Dali’s. I don’t think references are something you figure out ahead of time. A student designing a house in Istanbul said, “I painted the door blue because we are in the city of the blue mosque” and the entire jury noded, “very witty” – that is how foolish it is. In contrast, Gaston Bachalard says that, “art, unlike science has nothing to do with mechanical cause and effect. Rather it is like a depth-charge that explodes in your sub-conscious sending to the surface the debris of recognition. If you have to work things out always rationally it is not art, nor architecture”. Architecture is not always a plodding game of references. And yet a lot of what we do has to be plodded – one has to be rooted firmly on the ground to make the building stand.
There is a lot of magic in what you say and how you say. How does one conceptualize this magic? How does one rationally argue in defense of it?
It is only for people who like it. You can only say it to people who believe in it and think that it is important.
But that is a very arrogant position of an architect producing buildings for clients who would appreciate the work. How does one work with magic while engaging with the city. It seems very important to conceptualize it – because this language cannot be understood by the court: one cannot make it a part of a report or document that can withstand legal scrutiny. So one cannot mobilize discourses around magic to plan cities. How do you think one can work with it? How does one rationally argue in defense of this magic for planning cities?
To put magic into city planning is a completely different problem – and a very difficult one. In olden days people thought Jerusalem as city of gods – it still is. In places like Benares, Fathepur Sikhri, etc. it is not just what you see that is the city, it is what you don’t see that reveals the magic of that place. Planners today, especially in India have lost their ability to explore magic to engage with cities because they are grappling all the time with issues of water supply, sewerage, garbage collection, etc. and I don’t blame them – these are very important issues. But then there is no thought on metaphysics. Not having resources has never stopped an architect – people have built in mud – like Hasan Fathy or even Gautam Sarabai. So you can make great architecture like the mosque in Mali with little money. Then why can’t we make great cities with limited resources.
I think the problem is that while a building is just the architect, the client, the site and few other things; a city is far more complex – it has lot many players – the politicians, the bureaucracy, the businesses, the people, etc. A city can sum up a whole civilization. To build a Pyramid or a Fathepur Sikri one needed to grab all the wealth of everyone around you – that is not unusual – it happens all the time. What is unusual however is the person getting all that wealth has an enlightened mind, has a vision. The concern about how to use all the money that is grabbed is what made Rome and Fathepur Sikri.
You were the Chairperson of the National Urbanization Commission – What happened to its recommendations?
Of all the prime ministers, Rajeev Gandhi was most serious about cities – even Nehru was not consistent. He had understood the Comission’s arguments that cities are important – they generate skills for development, they are engines of economic growth and most importantly, they are places of hope for all those who have been in misery in the villages – we cannot imagine them going to Australia or Europe – they come to cities. But Rajiv Gandhi did not continue for long for various reasons – and people after him had other priorities.
The Urbanization Commission really put cities in the centre stage – it was actually the beginning point of interest that subsequently got generated on cities – research on cities, organizations working on cities, etc. There were also several institutions (that looked at cities) that you were associated with like the UDRI (Urban Design Research Institute) and the DUAC (Delhi Urban Arts Commission). Do you think organizations like these can become institutions that can generate and sustain interest on cities, mobilise public opinion, scrutinize and validate urban interventions. There seems to be a need as universities and government do not seem interested and urban architecture seems to be nobody’s responsibility.
I would be worried about entrusting the question of urban form on any one institution. People of such institution need to be of high caliber and integrity and need to have a deep understanding of issues. Such institutions run a risk of becoming highly bureaucratic. Chandigarh died under the rules which they made themselves. No one is willing to review them or even look at them intelligently. There are no rules in architecture – sometimes you use a tiled roof and it looks beautiful and sometimes you don’t use a tiled roof and it looks beautiful.
The emerging urban form in India does not seem to have been generated from within the city – there seems to be no conceptualization of the existing urban form to derive relevant new form. The new form looks alien.
To some people Paris was the centre of the world, for others it is New York. For people in the oil business it is Houston – they don’t care about Paris or New York. So Dubai has gone straight to imitate Houston. This is meaningless. Now we do things which we are familiar with, which we have seen and aspire towards. London was one of the first cities to reach a million and even ten million – but until after the Second World War, it did not have apartments. The English being northern Europeans loved to have a piece of land where they could go – it’s otherwise so miserable in the cold. So they never built apartments. So you realize that people have a big role in deciding what they want.
Continuing with the question of urban form, Kanchenjunga was an experiment in housing typology and has been a landmark on Peddar Road for many years. But recently there has been a new building opposite it – a large multi-story single family house – the Ambani’s house. This is also an experiment in housing typology. How do you respond to such a building? How do you conceptually start approaching this project in the city?
I have no responses. You should ask the architect of the building.
But urban architecture seems to have been left to the planning bureaucrats/bureaucratic planners or developers. There seems to be no place or interest in discussing it currently. How do you look at this problem?
If you look at Isfahan or Georgian London, these squares are like machines and buildings are like spare parts. It means if I know what the machine looks like, and if you ask me to make a house in the square, then even if all the buildings there are in brick, I might do the house in glass, but that house will be the perfect thing to be in that square. When I design the part, I need to know what the whole machine looks like.
It used to be that the architect did both – the machine and the spare parts – whether it was Paris or Jaipur – one mindset had to think of the machine and the spare parts and made sure that they were compatible. Now what happens is that you have a bunch of people called architects, who have no responsibility towards the machine. And you have a bunch of people called urban planners, who don’t know how to make a spare part – they can’t make a building – they have no idea – so how can they tell you how to make a building, they have never done one. And they make fat reports for a fat fee and what comes out is not their responsibility. That is completely different from Haussmann’s Paris or Jaisingh’s Jaipur.
Given our climate, our contexts, aspirations, we need to figure out what could be the spare part and what could be the machine. Knowing what the machine has to provide for the spare parts to work – the schools, open spaces etc. is very important. Today Mumbai is going in a bizarre manner – no one gives a damn about the overall thing.
That is what is probably going wrong with the Mill Lands of Mumbai?
Absolutely. There was land which consumed about 0.7 of FSI and was suddenly given almost double the FSI and no infrastructure to support it. It is certainly heading towards a disaster. When I was in MMRDA, I had this idea that one third of the mill land should be given to the city for amenities; one third to genuine cooperatives for cooperative housing – I don’t know how to identify them, may be give preference to the mill workers; and one third to be left for the owners, which can also take the FSI from what was left to the city. This later became the regulation. But then the owners connived with the bureaucrats and the politicians to change the rule. Today everything is gone.
You were a chairperson to a committee which was appointed by the government to make a plan for the mill lands. A plan was made with lots of open spaces and other amenities. But why was there no response to the plan?
The Urban Development Secretary who was responsible for appointing the committee was transferred. The government sat on the report for a long time and after the deals were made, the report was abandoned.
We had large planning organizations with good capabilities in the country – the TCPO, the DDA, etc. They have been dismantled. There is no planning capability in Mumbai what so ever. MMRDA does not do planning now. Now planners don’t plan the city. It is the politician and the bureaucrat. The British left us a system where the bureaucracy was made very powerful and that is very convenient to the state government when it comes to city planning and management. The Minister gives orders to the Urban Development Secretary who passes it down to the Commissioner. The Councilors of the city are kept happy with petty contract kickbacks. The big decisions on change of FSI, change of land use etc. is not with the municipality at all – it is taken by the state government and pushed down the throat of the city. As a city, I think we have a long way to go in planning and managing our cities. I think we need to start putting powerful corrupt people in jail to start the process. And that seems to have already started happening.
This is a one clear story – of real estate speculation, corruption, institutional failure, weak regulations, unbalanced systems, etc. But why do you think the mill labour did not respond to the plan, why did they not support the plan?
I really don’t know. The government asked the committee to make a plan and I think we worked out a reasonable plan, which the government abandoned. However, what is happening currently is a mess. There is a lot of development, but I don’t think there is any possibility of putting in any infrastructure and city amenities.
It’s an opportunity lost.
Not only that, I think it makes us feel ashamed of our capabilities as a society. It’s not that we lacked the skills, but no one took the responsibility. It was sheer greed.
The blame seems to be completely on the politicians, the bureaucrats and the mill owners. But it is the architects who are designing these developments. What about their responsibility?
To put it bluntly – the architects are like guns for hire. In our profession, we are hired, so we can’t really blame them. Architects from abroad are hired and they make their building as per the client’s requirement and they get out. However the same architects would do a much better job in Europe or in the US, because they know that the audience there will know the difference.
But you managed a relevant project in Kolkatta – the City Mall.
Yes, I worked with high densities in Kolkatta and managed pretty well. I think it is easy to make bad buildings. Usually they are in a hurry and make one block after which, they repeat it ten times. Then when they do that they realize that they would make lives of people miserable. So they start changing the entrance, etc. What is amazing is that not only are these projects built, but the fact that they are identical is advertised and such images are used as selling strategies to market these buildings.
I realize that we have been affected by the architecture in Singapore and Dubai and we have aspirations to live like that. There they don’t have residences like Kotachiwadi, where, even with all its problems, people have a sense of place. The flats made in Singapore are meaningless and they are paying a huge price for them. But we come to identify that with progress and that becomes part of our aspirations and that is the problem.
Let’s return to the Champalimaud Center, which also responds to the city. Where did the language come from?
The site is on a curve with the public walk on one side and the ocean on the other. I had to do a research building and they have their own inner logic and it’s not easy to shape them – it’s not like the Governor’s Palace, where you can do a lot of things. When I first went to the site, I knew I had to connect the public to the ocean. I made three curved lines which defined a walk along the diagonal of the site upto the Atlantic Ocean and then connected the public walk to this walk. As this foundation was not government, there were several questions regarding a private agency being given so much land. But this walk gave fifty percent of the site back to the city. It created a public space – and it made the public accessible to the ocean. The three walls make the landscape – they give direction and structure the site. They are like ships of stone on a granite sea. I think of this moment as a defining moment in Portugal history and I made this building without the burden of the past – or any kitsch. It is a modern building that I made.
I am also glad that it is not a museum of modern art. In America no decent architect works for housing – housing means that one is working for a developer. The up-market things which the architects seem to relish are either the museum or the airport. Then come some commercial programmes. But housing, health, etc. are not considered glamorous enough. This is stupid – museums have no connections with the culture in which they are built, and airports even less – they have connection with airplanes. These are two culture-less programmes. Whereas, even the Bauhaus, even in its most mechanistic stage dealt with housing. You cannot do housing, even if you do badly, without being connected to real things in life – to people, their families, and their lives. Isn’t it interesting that today housing does not seem to have the glamour. I am glad that it is a science institute of very high caliber for patients– and not a museum.
I see this project as the culmination of many things that I have been thinking and I am really happy to stop here.
I don’t have an office here (in Mumbai), we have shifted to Goa. I’ll do something else. If I do any work, I’ll do it in Goa. I’ll work with a local form. I am starting a foundation which will do work on urban issues of Goa – street improvements, garbage, etc. There are many people with lots of energy and motivation. The foundation will give them a platform. NGOs working on the urban sectors in India have a negative voice – which they don’t have to – they need to come up with new ideas. I hope this foundation would do that. But I will not continue with an architectural practice.