Thursday, 3 April 2014

Seriously Indian

I don't pretend to be seriously knowledgeable about Indian architecture, but anyone who reads this blog would note that I am fond of the place, and I like to use its architecture as a touchstone for more global issues. And so it is with great pleasure, that I came across this particular entry on ArchDaily.

I have never heard of the Delhi based practice Architecture Discipline, but it is clear that its principals and staff are engaged at a very sophisticated level with the discourse of critical regionalism, and that their work embodies a more subtle than usual mastery of some of the pressing issues for incorporating traditional materials and crafts into contemporary building construction in India.

The project is a new boutique hotel very close to the spectacular Jain temples of Ranakpur in the Indian state of Rajasthan.  It isn't very far from places where I have been intimately involved with work that covers some of the same ground.  Last Christmas I revisited the Udaivillas Hotel in Udaipur, several times voted the best hotel in the world, and the masterwork of friends of mine, Nimish Patel and Parul Zaveri of Abhikram.  I have written about their work before: their Singh Havelli in Amber was seminal in local restoration practice, while the Udaivillas is the epitome of a grand project to dignify the architectural traditions of Rajasthan, generating meaningful application of the local building and decorative craft skills.  But as a contribution to a larger discourse, the project is always going to be handicapped by its recognisably traditional formal vocabulary.

In contrast, the Mana Ranakpur is small, and at first glance relentlessly contemporary in its skillion roofed, linearly planned forms, and its material palette disciplined into tight planar compositions.  But reading the architects' description and tracing the unusually generous drawings and photographs, one comes to understand the depth to which the designers have sought resolution by reference to local environmentally sensitive building traditions, overlaid with appropriate contemporary technologies.

I just wish I had known about the project when I drove by within a few hundred metres of it, after my sensual overdose on the white marble wonders of the temples nearby. That said, the post on ArchDaily is so good that my abstracting it would be wasted.  The reader really is better off by reading the full article here.


Shruti said...

Having visited the Udai villas myself, i was able to relate to the comparison being made in this post. Indian architecture, especially that viewed in the states of Rajasthan speak of grandeur and opulence inherited from the kings (maharajas) that ruled the place many years ago.

Udai Villas as Steve mentioned is a grand project with great focus on the local decorative skills and intricate detailing. Its a single storey structure that reveals simplicity in its volume.However, it also employs regional forms like the ‘dome’ and ‘cupolas’ that reaffirm the traditions of the place. . It remains minimal with the use of materials on the outside, having a simple white monotone achieved by a traditional lime plastering technique.But again the interiors use materials like marble, glass, and granite that continue to speak the traditional vocabulary. Although some interior elements like furnishing seem modern and do not belong to the place. The building has a single expression that grounds it firmly on tradition and luxury. This makes it an architecture worthwhile to visit as its palatial ambience and aesthetics remain incomparable.

However on the other hand, Mana Ranakpur contradicts the regional architectural strategies applied to the Udai Villas. I think the project acts as a good response to Steve’s comment on Udai villa “the project will always be handicapped by its recognisable traditional formal vocabulary”. As Mana Ranakpur does the exact opposite, it gives itself the freedom to explore and employs the idea of critical regionalism. It aims to maintain ties with its local region but at the same time approaches modernism in a global context. Unlike Udai villa that relied on ornamentation and detailing, Mana Ranakpur employs regional forms but to create an architecture that engages with the future and is not trapped by just a single expression. The building maintains a contemporary feel through its verticality and lightweight materials but stays traditional in its approach by employing traditional techniques that are suited to the place and time.. Eg.Using glass with steel as a structural element represents a modern technique that is carefully applied to meet needs of lighting and give the structure a contrast of heavy and light at the same time. The project succeeds in the way that the contrasting elements within the structure give the building many expressions at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Mana Ranakpur is clearly regional in the ways that it is based and shaped upon its site and context; it mainly employs local materials and craftsmanship and so forth. However, what I find particularly interesting is how the philosophy behind the design intent very much reminds me of the design philosophy of one of my favourite architect Alvaro Siza. That is to use the design as a mean to connect and bring to attention different elements on site, which are seemingly detached and forgotten; to use the interplay between new and old to redefine the site under new and meaningful scopes.
The way Mana Ranakpur using linear walls and linear staircases to open up the view as visitor walk through the site remind me of Siza's use of linear walls and level change to gradually reveal the ocean view in Leça Swimming Pools. The way existing Budh tree is retained so that it becomes a focal view point resonate Siza's belief in discovering potential and interesting bits and pieces on site and use the design to emphasize them. For example the rocky shores that are partly turned into the children's pool in Leça Swimming Pools or the tree that becomes a crucial part of design in Alves Costa House. It is also very interesting the way the stones are locally selected but used in a way that creates a subtle contrast between old and new, past and present, traditional and contemporary.
There are a lot of buildings nowadays that are regional but not all of them can be considered to be of Critical Regionalism. With all those comparisons of Mana Ranakpur's design ideas and Siza's , whose works have helped to defined the term "Critical Regionalism", I just want to point out why I think Mana Ranakpur really does the "critical" aspect. It is not merely the relevant image of its context but capable of giving new meanings to its environment. It recalls traditions but not imitates the past and at the same time opens opportunities to something new.

Jess Wong said...

Reviewing the Mana Ranakpur project, what struck me was how well Akshat Bhatt and his team were able to create a project that could so tastefully mediate between the homogenising forces of the modern commercial culture and his own regional context. He seems to adopt a critical regionalist approach (as mentioned by the previous post) that can also be seen in my favourite architects Tadao Ando and Alvaro Siza.

With modern technology pushing architecture to become ever so more modular and in order to accommodate to economic and population demands, what seems to have emerged is architecture that can sometimes be quite void of any defining identity. And with this there is a tendency to try to bring in regional characteristics to maintain an architectural identity relevant to that place.

In relation to this, Bhatt states that “typically, people engage with tradition in a superficial manner”.

This reminded me of a recent conversation with a friend, a visiting Landscape architect and research director from China about his projects around Qing Xiu Mountain, Guang Xi, China. In brief, I came out of that conversation, a little disappointed seeing how so often in nostalgic pursuit of the local and vernacular, western trained, Chinese architects simply replicate traditional Chinese temple building aesthetics using new modern materials.

Bhatt States: “Architectural experience is about creating memories, and often, in an attempt to insinuate traditional architecture in order to create a lasting image while adopting a universal aesthetic, intervention ends up being kitschy and pastiche.”

Bhatt’s sensitivity to recreating an experience rather than recreating a traditional aesthetic draws parallels to Ando’s Church of Light, Osaka. The interplay of light and shade revitalises Japanese notions of “Shinto” and recreates the “body and spirit” experience between the individual, natural light and the building material.

Both Bhatt and Ando create architecture that develops a relationship to the technological beyond the mindless corporate celebrating of today’s post-modern era. They display a philosophy and concern that I can only hope more architects might be sensitive to and one that i hope to bring to my own architecture. It is a focus on the built form as a creative response to often conflicting contextual demands, not to establish any “style” or “signature aesthetic” but an inspired intervention. - Or in Bhatt’s words an “architectonic intervention”, that enables to connect with a place. All this while still maintaining an acute awareness of sustainability issues within today’s society.