We all owe death a life,” says Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children. The book sees the midnight’s children as “both masters and victims of their times” which is a privilege and a curse. And it’s a bit like that when 13 architects from the country present an exhibition called ‘Death of Architecture’. They enter this traveling show as provocateurs, memory keepers, and time tellers. In their conversations about cities, design tools, and the direction of the profession, they attempt a restructuring of who an architect is and how the imagination can privilege good architecture. Among the architects who showcase their arguments are Mumbai-based Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty; Girish Doshi from Pune; conservation architect Vikas Dilawari; Ahmedabad-based Aniket Bhagwat and Bijoy Ramachandran from Bengaluru. The exhibition is at the Visual Arts Gallery, Delhi, till July 17.
Even as the monsoons flood our cities and grounds are laid bare of trees and memory in the name of development, when the numbers of migrants and homeless increase with each passing day, one can’t turn away from questioning the relevance of the profession that is in the business of building habitats and transforming the landscape. Undoubtedly, it’s a ‘click-bait’ title for an exhibition, predictably zoning into an echo chamber, however, the concerns presented appear real — of forgotten cities; of questions of what’s local; of values and texts; of a lost conscience. It may not be an architectural requiem but it certainly posits important questions.
The presenters of the exhibition, too, find themselves in this maze of conversations, and their discomfort emerges in the panels as well. Pramod Balakrishnan of Edifice, Chennai, presents the story of Thiruporur, a temple town 45 km away from Chennai, where the fabric of a city is bereft of its tapestry with highways and asbestos sheets. Memory maps and drawings show how the soft edges around the temple have given way to coarse concrete and telephone towers. Mumbai-based Samira Rathod looks at the quiet town of Bhadran, near Vadodara, which is now almost abandoned. Her note ‘In the Presence of Absence’ speaks of how spaces slowly weathered by time, like its old abandoned people who are slowly fading into their own absence.
Memory is a vehicle that Delhi-based studio Abaxial uses to arrive at two major landmarks in the city — Connaught Place (CP) and Nehru Place. Their explorations take them to three generations. “Everyone called it Raisina… A military band played every day, Gaylords and Volga have the best bands and coffee,” says Manmohan Pershad, who saw Connaught Circus change to Rajiv Chowk. Ashish Madan remembers the time LIC building came up, it “stood out from the white of the CP”, while Madiha Mehdi, talks about Central Park and its free music concerts, and “how the metro with its crowds makes her feel safer”. “Memories are bricks on which architecture is built. These places exist in memory. The buildings therefore are inconsequential to the space,” says Suparna Bhalla of Abaxial.
Zameer Basrai of The Busride in Mumbai shifts the focus to irreverent poster art that demands new definitions for what’s local. Can the matrix of ‘good architecture’ that wins awards, be reset and make us rethink our manuals? He consciously points to projects and awards that measure architecture by check boxes. “When you talk about local, one is talking about a web of relationships that are human and social. Can we talk about them when we discuss local; can they be more than cladding,” says Riyaz Tayyibji of Anthill Design in Ahmedabad, as he explains the panels. Tayyibji’s own presentation showcases four scales of time — stellar, terrestrial, historical, and momentary — through four well-known projects. “In Khushnu and Sonke Hoof’s residence, the density is that of a temple, with in-built furniture. The question is what happens when you bring the solidity of a temple into a house? While in the Folly House, the furniture pieces open up and close, presenting the transience of life. We present the internal geography of architects, who have the imagination of the four scales of time,” he says.
Rajeev Kathpalia of Vastu Shilpa Consultants celebrates the power of ruins. The installation presents a wallpaper of the Nalanda remains, where Kathpalia is currently building an international university. Two cubicles interpret life and death, through the sounds of a forest and city. “So the question is where do you want to go? In today’s ageless buildings of steel and glass, there is no room for transforming, and weathering of time, of empathy and rootedness. In that is the death,” he says.
In the recent past, architectural exhibitions have pointed to processes and practices, and explorations of space, ‘Death of Architecture’ may seem as a self-conscious attempt at being heard, however in bringing to this wake discussions around the failure of the profession, it presents its vulnerabilities to those who are willing to listen. And that is why we owe death a life.