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Raise High the Roof Beams

A pictorial architecture book that makes visible Goa’s history and culture

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
May 11, 2013 1:56:33 am

Book: The Indo-Portuguese House

Author: Akeru Barros Pereira and Gerard da Cunha

Publisher: Architecture Autonomous

Price: Rs 1,700

Pages: 108

Architecture is a strange profession. It survives on hope,but it thrives in self created ugliness. It makes for beautiful books,but left to itself,creates dreary and ramshackle buildings. Today,in the mutilated reality of the Indian city it is getting harder and harder to discover anonymous places of quiet attraction,places that are not excuses for professional self-congratulation. Yet in print,the beautiful and the beguiling structures of Indian heritage continue to appear in coffee-table books with unerring regularity.

Goa,its architecture and landscape,is however an exception. In a history still visible,the Portuguese home — now a bit squalid and overrun by vegetation — is a stirring reminder that foreign invasions produced some of the more lasting evidence of Indian culture. In the new,beautifully produced book The Indo-Portuguese House,introduced by architect Gerard da Cunha,the history of Goan building — church,palace and home — is encapsulated in a flash of mesmerising photographs and extended captioned text. A pictorial introduction of people,personalities and places lends a somewhat hurried background to the architectural task that follows.

In the main section of the book,Akeru Barros Pereira,a water colourist from Kyoto,married to a Goan,brings to her drawings a bit of both cultures: the Japanese restraint in painted form,applied to the pastel exuberance of the Portuguese house,and landscape. It takes a sensitive Japanese artist to make a significant personal record of such a type of domestic architecture. Of course,the muted assembly of the façade,and the set colonial practices of design and construction made every house only a minor variant of the other. By changing the pastel shade,the colonial trim,the shape of window,and the size of front verandah,each composition altered slightly. The house was merely a careful combination of these architectural elements which,when seen together,made for a casual conformity. As with all great architecture,under the shaded vines,after a while everything began to look similar. The book’s scope seems to lie less in defining house types,but instead capturing a personal and romanticised view of the place.

However,the real relics of personal fetish and cultural claim,that truly distinguish such houses,lie inside. For a great deal of what characterises the architecture happens on the darkened floors,in deep recessed fan-shaped windows,up terracotta ceilings,with local furniture and mirrored accessories. The sociology of people and places is easier to read from interior idiosyncrasy than architectural formula. It is a shame that the author did not extend her inordinate expressionistic skills to the interiors.

Of course,the intelligent coffee-table book on Indian architecture is itself an oxymoron,much like other,better known oxymorons of the profession: honest contractor,clean developer,leak proof skylight. Usually targeted at the foreign tourist,the coffee-table format sells quickly,and is usually an easy and effortless production. Buildings don’t move; they can be made to look good in the evening winter light,bougainvillea adds colour to whitewashed walls,and a domesticated maharaja picking his teeth at a table full of tourist guests,puts history in a convenient perspective. Expensive to produce,they are quickly picked up by the ten-day-nine-night tourist from Ohio to give credible reminders of the blur that was India.

But The Indo-Portuguese House is different. It bridges the gap between the pictorial excess of coffee-table books and the inordinate wordiness of historical texts. In the absence of serious architectural documentation in the country,da Cunha has taken it upon himself to make continual records of the Goa he loves. At a time when architecture’s contributions have largely created a sad and unloved landscape,this is indeed commendable.

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and writer

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