Design Prose

Tall, taller, tallest

Posted in Architecture, City Scapes by designprose on November 22, 2014

Singapore 2012


Why Architecture Matters by Paul Goldberger

Posted in Architecture, Books, City, City Scapes, Urbanism by designprose on June 26, 2012

From Why Architecture Matters by Paul Goldberger:

“This is not the place to delve fully into the homogenization of culture. But it is impossible to think about the meaning of architecture in our time without this fact, for its impact on architecture is tremendous. In an age in which American architects design skyscrapers for Singapore and Shanghai, when Swiss architects design museums in San Francisco and stadiums in Beijing, when McDonald’s restaurants are to be found in Tokyo and Paris, when expressways create a similar automobile landscape almost everywhere, and an age in which suburban sprawl had made the outskirts of London look not so different from the outskirts of Dallas- is the very concept of sense of place now a frivolous luxury? If every city is truly going to look more and more like every other city, and every suburban node more and more like every other suburban node, then what is the point of special architectural expression at all?”

Leopold Café Colaba with Renewed History

Posted in Architecture, Built Environment, City, City Scapes, Uncategorized by designprose on April 3, 2012

This post appeared on World Architecture News Mumbai metro blog.

My recent visit to Leopold Café at Colaba Causeway brought back a few uncomfortable memories from the past; of that fateful day when Mumbai was seized and attacked by terrorists. It was 26 November 2008, which was soon labelled as 26/11 under the burden of sensationalism by the earnest media where one’s own identity is seen through the western lens even in times of tragedy. The American branding had become more essential to the media than the gruesome events that unfolded.

I sat in the café, sipping my iced tea and reminiscing about the good old college days of being broke and still trying new hang-outs. Soon, I was consumed by the memories of the past when Leopold café was attacked leaving 10 people dead right here. It has been 3 years and it made me wonder looking at those bullet marks in the walls, if, with time, we ourselves blur our wounds or wounds themselves dissolve. And how much of it matters of physical traces in built spaces.

Leopold Café reopened shortly after the destructive night of the attack. Owners Fahrang & Farzad Jehani defiantly had stated: “We would never let terrorists win.” The first customer after the reopening ordered a pint of beer for himself and a Coke for his six-year-old son, and said Leopold’s reopening was a sign ‘Bombay is getting back to normal’.

By maintaining those bullet marks on the walls, the owners have attempted to retain that part of the history and curiously many visitors and foreign tourists take a tour and document it through images. In that sense, it may be a continuous reminder of the past.

The Café stills reeks every bit of its colonial belonging from inside and out. Fluted columns, old cream-coloured slow-whirring fans, dark brown partially worn out furniture, arched windows and semi-wood panelling on the upper walls. Its clientele has always been a good mix of foreign tourists, college students and street shoppers. It is always buzzing with activities, is almost never empty and has retained the influx of people to same extent as before the attacks took place.

The much talked-about fabricated impression of Mumbai’s resilience is media generated; people get on and continue with lives often because they may not have luxury of choices. Negative events leave scars on one’s mind and mostly carry traces of it for a long time. But what about the physical scars such events leave to the built environment? By merely fixing the broken surfaces, painting it and giving it a new appearance like nothing ever happened, can we overcome the past? As Salman Rushdie asks in his book Shame: “I too face the problem of history; what to retain, what to dump, how to hold on to what memory insists on relinquishing, how to deal with change?”

Creating a Smarter Planet: City by City, Talk by Rashik Parmar

In The Bubble: Designing in a Complex World by John Thackara

Posted in Books, Built Environment, City Scapes, Sustainability, Uncategorized by designprose on November 10, 2011

John Thackara of Doors of Perception book named In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World is the book which I cherished page by page as it unfolded various design challenges, questioned my perception and provoked me to think deeply as a designer who would claim to design part of spaces, built environment in tomorrow’s world. Book does not provide any packaged solutions but it did not claim to do so ever. It provides a perspective, a different one and perhaps a little more and challenges all of us in this system to critically understand where we are in terms of time and technology from where we were few decades ago and how all this will impact the design world of future.

In the initial chapters he explains,

I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing life of action, over a life of consumption.

Urban planners need to pay as much attention to social networks as soft infrastructure as they do now to the hard infrastructure of roads and railways.

After the initial exuberance its now clear that wireless communication networks are an additional layer of infrastructure- not a replacement of the physical city.

He talks fair amount of what resulted through industrialized model of education and enforced standardized testing of skills that have come to fail, even to a current system.

There is a kind of mismatch between the kind of learning prescribed by these enlightened experts and what many employers perceive to their short-term needs. As a result, of this mismatch, the school to work transition has become increasingly difficult phase, and many employers now take their own training measures. They tend to be heavy on applied skills- light on metacognitive ones. We might reject the narrow focus of much corporate education but its partly our own fault as a society. We have filled our world with such unstable technology and clunky systems; these need to be looked after by people with limited horizons who do what they are told and don’t ask too many questions. Call centers- to name just one of among a thousand support functions in our technological culture- don’t recruit people with metacognitive skills who look at the bigger picture. They need drones.

Stuck inside organizations that perpetuate divisions between domains and that isolate knowledge from the context in which it is to be used, we become less competent at tackling complex and multidimensional social questions. If our connections to the edge are inadequate, we find it hard to figure out what people really need and end up pushing products that they don’t.

This explains our dependency and interrelated nature of existence and why monoculture emphasis will be myopic in its results and often short-term. He goes on to explain,

What we have now come to appreciate is that the more diverse an ecological system is- be it a swamp or a city, the richer it is. Sprawling monocultural suburbs, multilane highways, golf courses, airports and the like are impoverished contexts. Our speed culture fosters particularly barren contexts. Very large grids, very big global hubs and the massive flows of people and matter in between them are functional but not nourishing.

That is why application of ‘high-concept’ design to contexts we barely understand is irresponsible and probably counterproductive.

Because designs based on accelerated time-frame, bloated massive sizes and our fascination towards large and fast may not be addressing the core needs of the human ecology and perhaps not connecting with ourselves internally. In such cases, we might be experiencing things externally but not feeling them internally through variety of emotions.  As Thackara puts it,

Trust accrues through time and is built during encounter and interaction between people; it cannot be digitized and it cannot be rushed.

And thus spaces designed mechanically ignoring the subtle sensitivities of human nature and interactions miss their expansive fertile nature of minds which inhabit them. And much of these office designs still continue to deal with interrelated aspects of materials, flow, adjacency, digital artifacts and much more of digital facilitation of work but puts human beings not as front runners but as a backdrop. So the prime intention becomes a useful backdrop but not the prime subject to be built from or around.

This book opens multiple opportunity of dialogues and triggers you to think carefully as designers and consumers to things and services that we make use of and how it alters our relationship and behavior and system as a whole. It nudges you to be careful and sensitive in our everyday choices, be cognizant of patterns as consumers to passive participatory witnesses and consumers of events and how it all might impact this system as a whole.

Views from the Capital of the World

Posted in Architecture, City Scapes, Urbanism by designprose on April 20, 2011

There is this intangible space in the world where more than one world intersect their paths when you start to look at things more subconsciously into those layers of depth to understand any field. Architecture and design intersects with literature, literature with psychology and so much more and becomes increasingly difficult to typecast into one linear subject. I recently came across a passage in Orhan Pamuk’s book called Other Colors: Writings on Life, Art, Books and Cities. It seems appropriate to cite here, where he talks about City of New York and what kind of internal reactions he gets and impressions mark his mind as a new comer to this Capital of the World.

Until you get used to this city, you spend a good part of the day pondering these absent flavors; because we still know what a real brick wall looks like and how it is constructed, a concrete wall that’s been made to look like a brick wall is a sham that causes most of no pain. But how about when you see them beginning to put up huge buildings that are imitations of things they are not? The ostentatious postmodern structures that are now springing up all over New York City are the work of architects who do just this. These architects go out of their way to emphasize the fact that their buildings are imitations: With their enormous glass facades, their almost medieval twists and bends, they make me wonder whether they have no desire to be actually anything whatsoever. Do they wish only to deceive us, appearing to be something other than what they are? But then, can any deception so obvious be a deception at all?

Migration: A Force in Defining and Shaping Urbanism

Posted in City Scapes, Ethics, Human Rights, Sustainability, Uncategorized, Urbanism by designprose on August 22, 2010

Consider city of New Jersey without Indians, Phoenix without Mexicans or Bombay without Parsis. All these cities have had strong presence of these migrated communities and have, in the process, contributed to the urban landscape in form of their settlements, cultures, rituals, religious practices,

festivals, celebrations and preferences. Migration remains a strong

force in ways urban spaces react and amalgamate these evolving identities. More often than not, migration has no specific predictable pattern and reasons can vary from conquest, to exploration, to access to improved economic opportunities. And settlements are dynamic and take several years or centuries to evolve. Such is the evolution that transformation is a combination of what migrants bring along with them and what they adopt from locally. This architectural adaptation is often an organic process and makes itself clear only with time and the mode of progression or degression of communities cannot be predicted with a definitive foresight.

Urban identity is defined by it’s inhabitants and is largely contributed by different degree of migrants. So while, city of  Mesa, in Arizona remains largely symbolized to Hohokam and now with Mexicans, it remains an emerging urban dwelling often dotted with vernacular architecture amidst growing affluence through economic development and Mesa Arts Center and several business centers make up for a promising growth. Opportunities created through these developments will attract migrants for a newer identity to, once a dilapidated city. Neighboring cities like Phoenix, Tempe have had more vibrantly diverse settlements and this primarily has been contributed through diverse student population from Arizona state university and large IT sectors currently housed in Phoenix and Chandler. This being said, Mesa will benefit by virtue of being in second degree of separation from these Cities.

The scenario is quite different in a city like Bombay, the financial capital of India. Bombay has remained a culturally rich and truly metropolitan in nature but at the same time has managed to attract maximum number of distressed migrants. Distress because these migrants leave their place of origin in desperation in search of livelihood and means to survival. In the process, they contribute richly to the thriving economy, by keeping the cost low. This is mainly offered in the form of cheap labor, low cost of settlements, low wages. This works well for the already affluent class to keep the business operative cost low but in the process it abuses this entire generation of migrants and compromises contribute to exploitation. This presents the governing bodies to regulate in form of policies but that area is still under transformation and dramatic changes. Whether cities like Bombay will be able to address these issues in time will be an interesting study. Although, what it does to the urban landscape in a scenario like this that you see extreme form of disparity in settlements. Compare a dwelling which uses common toilet and water supply shared by many to the fancy sky-scraper within a stone throw distance.

The transition between the two is a knee-jerk one and brings the non-uniform, lop-sided policies too much in to your face. Accelerated migration and uprooting people from their place of origin has seen ghastly impacts and is evident in everyday living in the form of sub-standard infrastructure, poor sanitation, compromised resource allocation, dilapidated, over-populated buildings and much more and much worse. In effect, the city does not speak to it’s dweller in unison or cohesion. It becomes a classic case of inebriated organic development without a conscious foresight of what future expectations should be from the City.

Just like we cannot predict and plan migration in totality, we cannot build a canvas perfect artist impression of the building or urban settlements either. As that impression is devoid of dynamic forces like culture and economic growth. But what we can do is have a critical eye towards capitalism of resources and demand more distributive allocations. Hoarding of economic growth will benefit only a selected affluent few that will sow the seeds of a future uprising and a nasty rebel when this dis-balance will topple itself. Too much poverty and too much affluence cannot co-exist peacefully for a long time, sustainably.

Great City, Terrible Place

Posted in City Scapes, Sustainability, Urban Planning by designprose on April 9, 2010

This is an expression coined by Charles Correa on his impression of City of Bombay. Charles is a renowned architect, activist and a thinker of contemporary architecture and urban planning. In his essay, Great City…Terrible Place he outlines his views on cities and their evolution and how they work occasionally and sometimes fail miserably. A passage quoted below is from the above mentioned essay which captures the essence of underlying urban forces and fabricated sense of ecstasy which is often misrepresented in expressions like great spirit of Bombay or the City that never sleeps.

This is true of Bombay. While it is getting better and better a city, and disintegrating (very rapidly and quite unnecessarily) as environment…perhaps what we are experiencing in the last burst of energy…the spastic twitches before the end. Living in this city we wouldn’t notice it ourselves.

If you drop a frog into a saucepan of very hot water, it will desperately try to hop out. But if you place a frog in tepid water and gradually, very very gradually, raise the temperature, the frog will swim around happily…adjusting to the increasingly dangerous conditions. In fact, just before the end…just before the frog cooks to death…when the water is exceedingly hot…the frog relaxes…and a state of euphoria sets in (as in hot-tub baths). May be that’s what is happening to us in Bombay. As everyday we find it is getting to be more and more of a great city…and a terrible place.

This holds true for the most talked about city of Bombay in a developing India and perhaps this has worked negatively and has brought Bombay on the brink of explosion. Bursting with people, diversities, cultures and its related social implications and grappling to find its identity and some sense of order in all the chaos and confusion. An attempt to create this Utopian  city which will accommodate every Indian and his or her dream and offer squalor and confusion garbed in hopes and misery and a drive to keep fighting in just one single city is a failed strategy. It has become a hub for almost every upward bound economic engine with an exception of Bangalore and Hyderabad which brings migrants in extremely large numbers. Not all migrants want to leave their place of origin if it provided access to basic needs and means to empower themselves and sustain locally.

We need multiple hubs spread strategically around the map of India which will give more even spread of population. So, need for evenly distributed development is not just a humanitarian call but a practical solution for city to sustain. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty will not be able to live too peacefully in close proximity and extreme forces from both ends will create imbalance as we have seen in the case of Bombay’s class divides. One will find people commuting from farthest northern suburbs to work in southern commercial hub. Attempt to redistribute the work force and organize work and housing locally in short distance have been made in places like New Bombay, Bandra-Kurla complex, Lower Parel and Andheri but it hasn’t changed things dramatically and commute still remains a nightmare for residents. Roads remain congested, traffic unruly, urban spaces heaped with garbage littered everywhere and more importantly the complacency and civic sense of people remains questionable.

Lack of planning and unorganized spurts of development remain chaotic and confusing. Dynamic forces like diversity, migration, cultural clashes,  disparities are not given enough consideration & research and it amounts to solutions that do not seem to be working. Thus Bombay remains a place for constant chase, unsatisfactory living conditions and unfulfilled, unrequited sense towards excellence.

Vertical Chutzpah: Social Tale of Tall Buildings

Posted in Built Environment, City Scapes, Urban Planning by designprose on February 9, 2010

World of Architecture is buzzed with a newest addition tearing into the azure: Burj Tower. It has been claimed that it is now the world’s tallest building and it is expected that it will attract tourists from world over. In its basic physiological needs, this architecture and engineering gem will provide, awe, wonder and a sense of supremacy that human race would like to keep it in their tow. Currently, Burj Tower stand tallest leaving behind earlier claims to shame, above Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, Toronto’s CN Tower, Chicago’s Sears Tower. Human scale in this is of  little significance when human greed to become taller, bigger and larger is amongst the front-runners. It would work rather well if only we weren’t clusters of social beings.

Denser developments of cities or vertical towns, are the need of the hour if we have manage our environmental resources sustainably, I am told. What about social, emotional and well-being resources sustainability? Are human beings quick enough to adapt to social viability of class creation through vertical developments? Are human beings adept at tailoring their emotional viability in escaping from fellow human beings where only select few may reach? What about calculation on inculcation of techniques to mitigate fears like vertigo? What about feeling of safety in cumbersome accessibility to towers? What about structural soundness which cannot deflect deleterious air-borne attacks?

Architectural achievement of this height, not only, does not signify distributive nature of wealth but it also violates the law of natural progression of the race. On the onset itself, we see interference with the equilibrium of nature. Migration from one’s habitat space is a highly organic and often a slow process. Hence the experience out of such a feat will mostly be temporary and not transcendental. Why then, do we like to build skyscrapers while extended slums crammed with migrants and congested unsanitary habitation strive to thrive at the bottom of it? Never mind the human rights violations of labor workers, for now, we will just turn our eyes. More such building race up in the sky, bigger the moral and physical squalor at the bottom is going to be.

If we as human race continue and keep living in defiance then nature has it’s own mean means to proclaim the equilibrium. Isn’t it critical that architectural community joins a collective force to intervene with intellectual intervention to understand and disseminate the same knowledge for better and safer built environments?