Afghanistan-based Khalid Dawari believes architecture can touch the human soul, re-tie our umbilical cord to nature, and bring people, history and ideas together. While his statement sounded utopian in the closed environs of the Coomaraswamy Hall in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, it came from a very real place. In a country that has only seen conflict since 1979, and nearly two generations have not known peace, Dawari showed how involving the community led to some remarkable restoration projects. “The conflict has made us prisoners of the past and architecture helps us from what has been to what can be,” he said, through a Skype interaction. Such community projects have kept the youth off the streets and away from joining fundamentalists groups, he informs. But it comes with a price – many of his colleagues were killed by such terror outfits.
Dawari, nominated for the Terra Award 2016, was among the 25 speakers at the conference titled “Windows + Mirrors – Looking at Contemporary Architecture in South Asia”. The audience comprising architects, designers, and academics was gathered for the closing of the State Of Architecture exhibition. The exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, curated by architect Rahul Mehrotra, Domus magazine editor Kaiwan Mehta, and art critic Ranjit Hoskote, was a primer for the contemporary architectural scene in India as it posed important questions: Does Architecture Matter? Is architecture urban wallpaper?
The conference, which was held from March 18-20, was a fitting finale to the three-month-long exhibition. Architects from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and India presented their work against the political, economic and cultural context of their respective countries. From discussions around architectural education to preserving collective memory, from issues of urbanity to satiating aspirations, and bridging the rural-urban divide — the conference provided insights into practices in the subcontinent.
The conference opened with a keynote lecture by author and academic Sunil Khilani, who spoke of how architecture had the “capacity to sit with uncomfortable histories” and how “new buildings have a way to change the way we see old buildings”. If Syed Akeel Bilgrami, founder of Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, spoke of the need to empower people through architecture, Sri Lankan architect Amila de Mel, Vice President of Habitat for Humanity, who had worked with many refugees in war-torn Jaffna, shared how building for displaced people began with clearing the trust deficit among people. Architects from Bhutan, Rajni Chavda and Nagtsho Dorji, were careful in hoisting the benefits of contemporary buildings in the Himalayan landscape, trusting instead the age-old wisdom of the land to conserve and preserve its heritage.
Unlike other architecture-design conferences which sell on their “starchitect” capital, this conference brought home a camaraderie that came from a common knowledge of shared histories, aspirations and identities.