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D2.1 Architect Durganand Balsavar – keynote speech

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Ar. Durganand Balsavar

Editor, Journal of Architecture, Arts and Ideas

Good morning

It is a privilege to be here for the Kochi Design week. Yesterday, we had some really awesome amazing presentations which were very inspiring; which also kept me a little awake late in the night because I had to rethink my whole presentation. And I think that is the way it should go. This is more consciously a fragmented presentation and the reason it is fragmented is because I would attempt to raise some ideas, thoughts and paradoxes. I have been involved in disaster mitigation on the large scale for the last 25-27 years. We have dealt with the Gujarat earthquake with the government, we have dealt with the almost the entire Tsunami belt with the Tamil Nadu government. I am happy that the IIA has a very significant program, which is evolving for Kerala.

So, what I am going to attempt here is not some evangelizing – I would think of it as just a provocative concepts of what we went through. Some of what I say is a work-in-progress. And in each of them the core we attempted was to – “not  be an architect”. So we have not worked like architects in these disasters. We have worked in a very catalytic way where we are just supporting – in a very fragile and amorphous manner, the manner in which the community can become self-reliant. So our benchmark is when the community ask us to leave the place- we know that we have succeeded in the rebuilding. And if we are entrenched in the place it means our process is wrong somewhere because then they are not self-reliant. So, we have inverted the entire process of meeting a disaster.

So these are some images of the Ghats. Each time one drives through the Ghats of Kerala, you almost philosophically wonder – “ Is nature against us as human beings that they come and get at us or are we or our infrastructure paradigm, in the way we have built cities, against nature?”. That is the question that comes up each time.

This is the door of the Chandigarh assembly where Corbusier after coming to India decided to build. He just saw the biodiversity around India, he was drawing animals, he was drawing cows, he was drawing birds, and he had been here tasked by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to design a new city, and what he was doing is looking at these relationships and he felt that this had to be featured on the door of the assembly.

When we look at disaster, when we look at rebuilding, it cannot afford to remain human centric; it cannot afford to remain man-centric. It has to be involving the larger biodiversity in which we are just probably one part and I think that the whole idea will explain why so many species are going extinct.  We are in  the Anthropocene age and we have to be more conscious that anything we do is beginning to disrupt or impact environment. Anything we do.

Another inversion that we were planning is that the very notion of architecture, the very notion of why we build is because we cannot bear nature in its harsh reality. So forget the disaster; if I were to stand in the sun in Chennai from morning to evening that is going to be a great personal disaster and that is the source or birth of architecture. So, if you look at architecture, the way in which it has been built over centuries it has been either a slow disaster which means that the climate and the temperature, the rain, is very harsh for us or it can be something which erupts like the Vesuvius volcano.

For this reason I thought I will bring in one example of an indigenous architecture. What indigenous architecture does is  – it responds to disaster in the long term. It acknowledges these forces and responds to it. So if we look at the way in which the floods happened in Vietnam and these areas, it was just natural that you built on stilts, you accept the floods at other times.  And the entire way of life is surrounded or acts with the idea that the nature is cyclic, nature is not linear. Nature changes, nature is dynamic, and I think the large part of the problem has emerged due to our fetish for permanence. So, we as human beings now want something, permanent we want to build huge monuments, we want memory across centuries, and I think that is somewhere against the grain of the dynamic, cyclic nature of nature itself.

If we look at the materials used, it is almost as if one watches a bird’s nest, I do not think the bird has this whole thing of setting a nest, which is iconic or which is different from the other nest. I am not saying that this is wrong, but I have rarely seen a bird doing that and what happens is that the materials used are what? Twigs fallen on the ground, it becomes a nest; the whole cycle of eggs, the next generation and the twigs are back on the ground and it is a part of that larger eco-cycle. But somewhere humanity seems to wants to stop time, we want to build and make permanent, and I think those are also issues which lead to a new kind of disaster.

Disaster mitigation does not mean that we should build, because of scale, monotonous large scale housing. If you look at Gujarat, this is a research done by Professor Vasavada who headed the Ahmedabad UNESCO citation. They have done some amazing documentation on how the elements of architecture, way of life, the aesthetic, the craft – all grouped or aligned to deal with this idea of resilience. So, resilience can be a craft, resilience can be something aesthetic.

So if you look at the Bhungas, they were at the epicenter. In fact when the second earthquake shock happened we were very much closer to the epicenter and we were just thrown off our feet like a surfer on the sea. Standing there we could just feel the waves under our feet and we were just thrown off.

So, this is the Bhungas you will see, which were at the epicenter in mud and they withstood the earthquake and this was about 400 kms away and these concrete buildings collapsed. So, the questions we ask is what is going wrong in this? Are we losing indigenous knowledge of centuries, on how to deal with disasters? These are only questions. I am just creating some provocations.

The same thing happened in Nagapattanam. I had given a presentation to the Chief Minister at that time. It was called “Why the mud house stood”, so I had a photograph of a mud house on the coast of Nagapattanam that bravely stood after the tsunami and all the concrete buildings were down.

Why did this happen? One belief I have developed in these last 20-30 years is that nature already creates the protection that is required for a disaster. What we do is we tend to remove that protection and then we get the disaster heading straight on us. A simple example – we were looking at the coastal patterns of sand dunes. If you have the natural coastal vegetation and you have the sand dunes development, I quite frankly while building near these, I ensure that the government removes from my contract that “this will be disaster resistant, this will be tsunami resistant”. You know, the minute I am going for a project, the chief secretary that they want ‘tsunami resistant’ houses. I said “Let us remember that the tsunami hits at the force of a plane crash and for 80,000 rupees you want to build a bunker which will hold the tsunami, I think we are just joking”.

So, I think when we are talking about disaster resistance, we have to work with nature, we cannot work building structures which are resistant towards disaster, it is impossible. So if you look at the sand dunes and I showed the whole pattern of traditional villages in Tamil Nadu, which were built beyond the sand dune. The purpose of the sand dune was to absorb the tsunami, absorb the cyclone and that alone can save a building. There is no building, and I would challenge any disaster specialist in engineering who can build on the face of a tsunami and have the building stand. I doubt it for 1,00,000 rupees. I doubt it.

I think these are all issues which we need to raise. Otherwise we start believing we are building disaster-resistant structures. I think it is the disaster resistant ecosystem with nature protecting us that we need to look at.

So this is the photograph of Chennai airport, we will see the flooding. It has been built on wet lands. It is built covering a river that was there and we need to understand that water is dynamic, water is not static. Volumes of water keep changing, we know it through history, we know it through the history of Mohenja Daro. So, it really needed an entire system.

This is Chennai under water and this was the time I was working with the army and we found that all the IT systems failed. There was no mobile, there was no way of communicating.  We create a whole lot of back-up for the disaster mitigation and find everything has failed. It is either dependent on electricity, and the minute there is a little water, the electricity board switches off the electricity to the whole city and this was the condition for 15 days.  And so we decided – we got in touch because we have not planned for it. We got in touch with NDTV, we got in touch with CNN and we started sending them signals which would come on the screen to control this whole thing. Now, that was a strategic decision. It would have been easier to control from the control room rather than do it ad hoc, but we had to do ad hoc at that time. So we will see the patterns, these patterns were all predicted almost 15 years ago that India would get excess rain and that we need to be prepared for this excess rain, so whether it is Chennai or whether it is Kerala. We are getting excess rain to the extent of anywhere between 25% to 165%. Now, that is the kind of excess rain that is coming in, and over the last few years we have not increased the capacity of reservoirs despite the population going up. So we need to know that there was already a population growth and if the water system and reservoirs were evolved to that, we would have mitigated a lot of this disaster.

So we will see that in original times, in earlier times, these were wetlands. This is where the migratory birds came. This is where the excess water was absorbed, but today we have built there, we have built these large high-rises. I am not saying we should not build. I am saying let us look at how we build. I am not that fanatical environmentalist who says “Don’t build anything” where it almost goes to  -“we don’t need human beings on earth” if you stretch it even further. But I am not that kind. I think we need to search for a balance between development and ecology. So you get these migratory birds, which are disturbed. You get ecological patterns disturbed, you get the rainfall disturbed, and then you find that the amount that was projected of jobs created, turnover, GDP with all these large cities, you have 20 times the amount lost because of the disaster. So it even makes the economic sense now to look at how we have been building.

So generally that is not counted into the argument. So we had spoken to the ministry that you need to factor in the cost of the disaster and then you will know the economic sense of it because otherwise if you look only at only that landline fallow and you know what you build there it does not make economic sense, but I think if you count the disaster 25,000 crores, 40,000 crores and I think it makes economic sense. In return, if you see the kind of traditional planning with the series of interconnected reservoirs and many of them were not perennial, many of them empty. Then when you get the heavier rain, they actually absorb that water. So, we will see that when Chennai was completely under water, the regions which had these reservoir and tanks were not flooded even one or two inches. So you had Milapur and these areas which were not flooded at all because they were responding to that water flow, you know they were responding.

Similar with trees, nowadays the aesthetic value of a tree is now more important, especially when we are building these new towns, than the indigenous value. I fly down to Cambodia or South America, I love that great tree, I am building a huge township, I get 400 of them. That’s definitely going down in the next cycle. The root structure does not match, the soil structure – they are structurally not strong. There was a controversy I was heading the Vardah cyclone committee for the government and there was a huge controversy on whether we should have indigenous trees or not. It was almost like the migrant issue. Are they belonging to us or not or they have come from Bangladesh, they have come from Cambodia (I mean the trees) and are they indigenous or not. I said I have just this one thing, if a tree has been there for 100 or 400 years, it is indigenous. I do not think we have to go to Mahabharatha times or Mohenjo Daro times to check indigenousness. 100, 300, 400 years it is indigenous. They have morphed in a certain way, but if we bring trees which were not structurally strong, I mean, look at the coast. The coast has a coconut tree. Now even if the oak or the mighty Neem thought it wanted to come to the coast, he will be down the next minute. The character of the coconut tree is to allow the breeze, it bends, and it is back up again, so it is also a notion of character and the place. So, it is not about the mightiness, the more resistance you give on the coast and the tree is down. So I think those are the issues that we need to look at.

I have been part of the Barcelona masterplan and the UN Post-Habitat III deliberations for the sustainable goals and there the challenge really is how do you structure a block in a city to make it more resilient. The medieval block is outdated because the car has come in and so we really need to restructure the block. We are part of the process. It is amazing to see how the planners are opening up these internal courtyards to the city. They are changing the scale of walking and movement. The metro has come in and it is a real transformation of the city to meet the resilience of the city.

Similarly, I have been part of the Berlin 2050 climate discussions and there you certainly realize the complexity of energy – energy used in the city and the garbage. It is very complex. (I can reveal these secrets as I have got the rights right now.) For instance, let us say Germany decides we will not use nuclear energy. Shut down the nuclear reactor. What happens to the 20,000 who have been trained for that nuclear reactor, what happens to them? Now this is what we don’t see. We banned plastic on January 1st, but there is an entire ecosystem of human beings and livelihoods dependent on it and we are not questioning what happens to them. So that is one issue. The other issue is that the minute you stop one source of energy, you are dependent on another source of energy. So, now Germany is dependent on Russia for natural gas what does that mean? If Russia attacks Ukraine again, Germany cannot be a part of the sanctions. So there is a geopolitical reality to these energy decisions that are taken at the city level. So we need to know that the ramifications are across. I can be an enthusiastic environmentalist, and say close the nuclear reactor we need more solar. You do more solar. We have to be more dependent on China of course because they have the rare earth which no one else has. So I think we need to know what these dynamics are.

So, there is a tsunami here. So this was one of the largest tsunami projects we did as a self-build process, developed the entire Nagapatanam coast about a total of 25,000 homes, 40 different institutions healthcare, hospitals. So there are these three types: one is the self-build, which was done by Professor Doshi in Aranya and I was a young architect at that time working on that project. Second one is the project that we did in the tsunami region and the third is what the normal model house rebuilding that happens.

So we see one is very incremental it looks like the home almost like a living being; like an organism it grows and the city grows. So you don’t have a fixated cookie cutter, rubber stamp home that gets multiplied 10,000 times till I do not know which house I am living in; and if the number of the house falls off by some reason, I don’t know which street to enter. We will see how this really develops like an organism. People color, there is variation, there is diversity, it is decentralized even though there is a centralized hidden latent plan. It is not free for all, but at the same time there is a lot of diversity. It is very similar to Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, or Venice and each is different. When a gardener is given a task of building a huge forest, I doubt he is going to manicure each street. His focus will be on the seed, his focus will be on the soil quality, the nutrient and then the forest that grows is a self-reliant forest and that should be the nature of rebuilding. What we are doing is we are trying to manicure and curate the final product rather than the substrate of how a forest is grown and I think that is where the challenge lies.

Since we were parallel to the Kochi Biennale, I just brought in this. We cannot forget art. There is an artist called Karen Knorr and just look at the celebration of life in all this. Because sometimes in all these large scale activity, the disaster, the trauma, we can forget the reason why we live; and I think it is to celebrate life, celebrate art! Against that – this is what we are building today. So I don’t know whether it is Mumbai, I don’t know whether it is Jaipur, I am not sure if it is Kochi, but this is what we have build in the name of “large scale” in meeting housing needs. And this is what we have built.  Most of these tsunami houses were abandoned because they did not meet the lifestyle need.

So this is a project we did where we worked with the village community. We went there recognizing that they know more than us and that our role would be to facilitate a latent hidden frame work, like a catalyst, and they would build their own homes. The village that built their own homes- their workmanship was 100 times better than my supervised contractor’s home. I will be honest about that. He was building his own home, he was checking the mix of cement and sand, he was checking the plumb line, he was checking the door, all -because he is living in his own home. And it made my life easier. I could sleep building 25,000 homes because now I would go to the site, and you don’t have a client asking “You see your contractor has built not in plumb”.  I can ask the client  “why are you not building in plumb when it is your own home?” and he would feel “Yeah, I am not building it properly” and he would ensure the quality. The onus was on him. And that is why I could sleep safe knowing that the quality at that large scale is guaranteed. And if it fell also, it is not on me because he has built it himself.

We also ensured that the planning will not be done in my office. The planning was moved from the office to either a temple or church. We just pushed our way and we just cleared a church or a temple and we built there. So you will see, we use the craftsmen – in fact the craftsman who are in the region they asked “can we do bricks?” The boats: the carpenters came in and they are the same carpenters who built Padmanabhapuram and that the substrate that exist there; but the irony is that usually we get a contractor from Calcutta to deliver this project!

And this is the capacity with building we did for alternative technology. A lot learned from architect Laurie Baker. He was alive at that time. I would come and sit with him and he would just keep talking about his life experiences, and then we built it. He did train some of our office staff.

And then you start seeing how a plurality develops from the seed and these were projections we had made to the village, we had made models on what can happen.

This is the kind of village that is emerging now in Nagapattinam. And that is the kind of seed that we put in.

We had mapped the kinds of indigenous homes there and the Chief Secretary said “For two rooms you want to map indigenous patterns? I can do in three minutes. You are a trained architect with twenty years’ experience and you are saying you need three months to map it?” It was difficult to convince him. I said, “ No we’ll do it in three minutes. Give us the land.”. It took him two years to get us the land. That was enough time for us to do our studies and find out how it had to go. So if it is an architect doing a design testing, it has to be done in 3 minutes but if we have to get the land, it is three years and everyone can wait.

I think the lessons we learned is that when you go into an indigenous community, let’s not carry “I am from SEPT”. Yes I have the pride of being from SEPT. But when I going to a village, I go there to listen. I do not go there with a fact that I have been trained. And I am shocked at their connection with nature. We have been separated from nature. I think just listening to tribal stories, the mangroves there, it just amazes me each time. So there is a huge repository here, which is not there in our schools of architecture or engineering.

There is a book “New directions in sustainable design” that documents the works we have done over the last 20 years. There were 10 practices chosen by University of Cincinnati and MIT. These 10 practices are on looking at sustainability in a different way.

President Kalam had come down to our projects, and he said something which kept me thinking. We have worked a program on farmer death, basically on that. He said “we think of technology as only Hi-tech knowledge”. He said, – “I used to tell my scientists this at ISRO in the evening when we were sitting or a Saturday, Sunday, or a sitting. They design the most hi-tech satellite. And they also  sat and designed a smokeless chulha (stove), a small mud pot- a vessel which is 50 rupees or 20 rupees.” So, I think technology has no boundary. He said when we do that, we really have a diverse holistic world. So let us not believe that only Hi-tech is going to deliver. So, hi-tech is fascinating, we all love it, I love it. But I think there is a whole diverse existence that we can celebrate.

This is another network that has overlapped with our work in the villages – a data network – this is accessible to anyone who wants to do rural work. So I thought it would be good to talk about it.

Today the fishermen in Nagapattanam gets a NASA satellite image, on which info is obtained about where the fish is to catch – for just 5 rupees. You can go, and get the GPS fitted, that is the kind of dynamism of the latest in technology. So this is my work now. Earlier it used to be very stark, white, and grey. Now I find a complete infiltration of the colours of the village, and all that is beginning to come and broken elements.

I will end with this. This is a NASA competition. NASA is the “National Association of Students of Architecture”. They were incorporated before the American space agency NASA. This is the largest student body in the world. There may be NASA students here. They had asked me to curate a competition for them. I curated a competition where the students would have to go into the city. Look at derelict spaces, talk to the commissioner, raise the funds, and deliver a clean environment where the community actually lives. Because, I think this is the source where all disaster begins. For the first one month, I had sleepless nights with Deans of various schools calling me saying that I had introduced the most dangerous project into the schools. Because the students are going out into the city, they would be don’t know what happens there, and all kinds of things. It was dangerous. So, I said the minute you see danger, please return to your university. But, let us do this project.

So this was a competition where in the end 700 schools participated. 700 Different zones all over India and different cities were actually transformed. I think this is a kind of student innovation and power which even we hadn’t bargained for when we started. Or imagined to exist when the students actually went into different projects. They met the commissioner, they met the community, they gathered funds, and they had BOQs and checking contractor rates, and actually built it. This is just a one example. If you google “ANDC NASA AMACE”, you will get 450 videos, where the students gathered and recycled waste.

They did something even in Kochi here, where they transformed it into a yoga space. These are derelict spaces which are there by the millions in our cities, which need to be appropriated back by their citizens. I will end with this because it humbled us – something which we never imagined would happen; we hardly expected  even 40 entries or 80 entries. 700 entries? Never! They documented the entire process. They convinced the commissioners that they have to do it, and actually transformed those spaces.

So, I will end with that. I am very grateful for the presentation and being part of the Kochi Week. Thank you






(All pictures used on this page have been taken from the Cera Kochi Design Week 2018 website , with permission)
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