If imagined spaces cannot be built on land, let them inhabit a place in the sky.
At the lobby of the jahanuma Palace in Bhopal–now a hotel–is a formal portrait of Bhopal’s begums. Fully clothed in burqas, they are seated in tiers, as in any formal group photograph. The photo caption below reveals the names, “Seated from left to right: Begum Jahanara, Begum Noor, Begum…” and so on.
For a long while I stood back and pondered the riddle of the photograph. Was this a form of royal social record, even though no identifiable body part was visible? Or was it some sort of satire? The photograph’s essential criteria to reveal were stymied by the Islamic drapery’s criteria to conceal. It was like someone assessing car designs by comparing chassis numbers. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Perhaps the photographer had even asked the begums to smile behind their veils.
Architecture, too, has learnt to distance itself from the observer. To live behind the veil. Like the invisible begums, for so long, my own understanding of buildings was similarly limited to the façade. Limited, in fact, to that first sighting of deception behind which lay a more pugnacious reality.
When it comes to houses, or for that matter any form of building, people become grand in their ambitions. Buying a fridge or pair of shoes does not impart visibility or identity to the user, architecture does. People swear and sweep across the spectrum of possibilities and become like spoilt, demanding children. A staircase remembered from a European trip, a bathroom recalled from a Japanese hotel, an outdoor Jacuzzi from Indonesia. I want it, I must have it; the cesspool of architecture clouds the eyes and makes the impossible possible.
I once knew someone who treated architecture like a great heroic adventure, much like a gruelling and hazardous climb up Mount Everest. Design would begin casually. But as ideas poured in, he would become reckless and bold.
“I’d like a heated lap pool outside the bedroom,” he’d propose.
His instruction would cause a minor blizzard at base camp. I’d warn, “But your bedroom is on the third floor.”
After a while, he’d venture again up another untested slope, “Do you think we could have a drive-in drawing room”?
This from the man who has to have the latest BMW shipped directly from Germany.
“But why?” I’d ask foolishly. “Do you want to park the car behind the sofa?”
No response. He would have already moved on to thoughts of helipads and roof-top saunas.
I realised then that the new house was merely a stage-set of expensive products assembled like a personalised showroom.
Finally, in keeping with the drift I would suggest, “Have you considered a bathroom inside the lift, that way you are always on
If he could be silly, I could be stupid.
‘I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and turns and spits and extends and is blunt and coarse and sweet and stupid as life itself’.
I often remember the Oldenburg line, only as a continual reminder of the necessity of stupid in architecture. Clever had been the desired apprehension in buildings that had long pretended to be more than what they were. But without the bittersweet experience of risk and pleasure, architecture fell lamely into a professional trap. The monochromatic practice of building with a straight face and following the stifling rules of cultural obligation, social status, and the physics of gravity, left every new design a mere mock drill in industrial assembly, tinged with the architect’s personal aesthetic armoury, a defeated deflated spirit.
Architecture, to me, had become the most scathing indictment of failure, my failure. So I began to move away from the proper and the just, and all the singular entanglements of professional life. I knew if I thought too long about all the things precious to me, there was always the fear that little by little, they would invade my mind and make it infertile. Architecture’s memory is the hardest to ignore; it is reinforced day and night, in the mind, in the neighbourhood, in the city.
I have caught myself on occasion with a deliberately destructive and perverse urge towards my own work. I want to make privacy public and take public actions into the innermost sanctum: a bank vault made in glass, exposing money and gold to the street, a man urinating in public knowing full well that he can’t be seen outside, a woman bathing without a wall surrounding her but in complete privacy. Then blur the definitions of inside and out: make a road that runs inside a building, a building that sits on top of a road. Even reverse the conventions of movement and repose: build a home as a bridge between the two banks of a river, make a living room in a moving elevator. Or confuse the relationship with the Up and Down: a basement with a glass floor viewing the mud ground beneath, a sky experienced in a basement, an attic without a roof. How about furniture hung on walls or attached to the ceiling, paintings on the floor, a mall with no glass, a hotel without corridors, a bookshop that is also a diner, a restaurant in a moving bus. The dual nature of such buildings is a myopic, almost obsessive claim.
In my neighbourhood, I see a woman buying fresh flowers for her puja room every day. The florist display is against the local market’s public urinal. Strangely, the urinal’s stench and proximity don’t seem to diminish the sanctity of the fresh flowers and their intended place in a religious setting. Choosing to be blind to all that you don’t want to see makes life tolerable.
However hard I’ve tried, I am unable to cultivate that blindness. Every time I move out of the house, onto the street, it is with fear and trepidation. Something of what we build, the way it relates to its surroundings, the way it eventually falls apart, grates on visual memory. If there is a professed spatial, humanist or artistic spirit to architecture, it is impossible to see it in the daily encounters with the city. Flagging in spirit, unsightly, blemished and depressing, the clutter of shops and houses and offices and malls are like wounds on the skin of the earth, spreading like parasites, smudging skylines, and slowly sucking out the visual pleasures of ordinary life. The city is a wasted place, and the architecture that rises within it only contributes a daily dose of hostility and conflict in an already chaotic environment. Even when buildings are made with grandiose intentions, collectively they become a jumble, inseparable from each other–like garlands of marigolds piled on a dead body.
When that happens, there is little to do but retreat. I want to move away from the clutter and chaos, to the quiet promise of the drawing board. With pencil in hand, there is a desperate wish to break free, to build in imaginary space, unconnected to the ground by gravity, to make an earth yet uninhabited, where architecture is an idealised presence. I need to draw that which I will never build. A house in an apple, an office floating in the clouds, a hotel made of suitcases, a car wash as a tub. Apartment houses so precious, they are enclosed and protected inside a cabinet. For a while such drawings help me escape into childhood and I begin to redraw the world in mechanical simplicity: a tennis club in the shape of a racquet, a villa as a WC, public baths as a string of tubs, a log hut inside a log.
But not for long. Sometimes, architecture’s most persistent refrain does not just demand a rebellion against convention, but a complete physical reversal of convention itself. The absence of water in the desert concludes with a silver faucet that drenches revellers suspended in a well. The absence of groundwater in an ancient water tank is substituted with a mineral water bottle. Partly, such drawings are done to state the persistent irony of Indian architectural juxtapositions, the phenomenon of puja room flowers against the urinal wall.
My own break away is not diminishing the importance of architecture, but an enlargement of its possibilities for me. It is hard to expect that ideas will assume a personality of their own, that a minor significance in drawing will raise its voice loud enough to be heard. It is only a hope, an architectural missile aimed at a dark threatening sky. Where it will land, if ever, is another matter.
Paintings by Gautam Bhatia
Colouring by Shankar Bhopa