Z Axis 2016: Of Architectural Heritage and Contexts



‘Everything is our heritage’, was one of the memorable statements made at Z Axis 2016, the second conference on architecture organised last month by the Charles Correa Foundation (CCF) in Goa. It was said by Chinese architect Yung Ho Chang, while speaking about how he looked for inspiration to ancient China, Soviet-era China, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, Modernist Germany, and all buildings anywhere. At a time when attempts are on to force people in Goa and India into nationalist straitjackets of what is ‘our’ culture, diet, language, history, etc, it was refreshing to hear an argument for global heritage, even if only from the limited realm of architectural practice.


And it is limited. Architecture may include all buildings, but the practice of architecture, or what architects (are expected to) do, touches only a small fraction of them. According to Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum, winner of this year’s Aga Khan Award and another speaker at Z Axis 2016, as many as 90% of buildings are built without architects.


Even so, thinking about architectural practice is useful. Because the apparently tiny 10% comprises the big projects, the public ones, the expensive ones, and almost all the problematic, wasteful, and destructive ones. We architects desperately need to look critically at what we’re doing, if not stop doing it. The annual conference begun by the CCF in 2015 is thus a very welcome event.


Like most such events, the two editions so far have been uneven, in content as well as diversity, with almost no women speakers in 2015, and non-upper caste and local (Goan) speakers noticeable by their absence both times.


The 2015 conference, on the state of the city and titled Great City… Terrible Place, still set a high standard thanks to stellar presentations by two architects: Kunlé Adeyemi and Santiago Cirugeda. Nigerian Adeyemi’s firm NLÉ (At Home) works with local communities to develop projects like the award-winning Floating School of Makoko, part of a settlement once condemned as a slum. Spanish ‘guerrilla architect’ Cirugeda went further, challenging practically everything architects normally stand for. His architectural firm, Recetas Urbanas (Urban Recipes), is famous for reclaiming public spaces for communities in Seville, with low-cost and self-build projects in which the architect plays the role of facilitator, not for design or technical issues – those are handled by the community – but to deal with the law, politics, and bureaucracy.  Architecture is obsessed with beauty, said Cirugeda, when the really important things should be people and social function.


It was an electrifying presentation, especially for a conservative patron-driven profession like architecture. The discomfort in the student-filled auditorium was palpable, giving the lie to the idea that students love revolutionaries.


There was nothing quite as exciting at the 2016 conference, Buildings as Ideas, intended as a tribute to the late Charles Correa. At the outset, Rahul Mehrotra spoke of how Correa ‘reached into history to tradition’ as the context of Indian architecture. Some of the other presentations also touched upon context, in the realm of form, materials, landscape, as well as tradition. Too many however remained with beautiful-buildings-in-beautiful-settings, with far too many of the vacation homes, art galleries, and monuments that have given architects such a bad name.


Architecture is really a pathetic profession, admitted Chang at one point. ‘We don’t really contribute much, when we could do much more.’ One practise that seemed to buck the trend was that of Hunnarshala Foundation in Kutch, described (in absentia) by its founder, Sandeep Virmani. Hunnarshala’s focus is community-driven projects that are sustainable and make the most of traditional knowledge. One of its aims has been to revive and modernise traditional techniques of building, and train people, often villagers, in them. Some of their students have built successful careers in building techniques and even worked abroad. It has also been trying this—i.e. applying modern science to traditional community knowledge—in water-harvesting, animal husbandry, and other areas.


Hunnarshala thus stood out as a different kind of architectural practice, working with non-elite communities and their need of better shelter and jobs. Its focus on tradition, however, raises questions. How does the strengthening of a village’s traditions affect its normally casteist, patriarchal, and parochial culture? Was it better for marginalised castes and women when traditions were strong, or weak?


Some of these concerns were illustrated in another presentation, also connected to Hunnarshala, by Bombay architect Sameep Padora. It included varied urban projects, a village temple, and a community centre for Dalit Buddhist workers in a factory, the last in collaboration with Hunnarshala. The temple was presented as an exercise in form, ignoring its role of institutionalising caste, while the community centre had a floor made of – guess what? – cowdung. This extremely fragile, rough, and smelly flooring, once traditional for the village poor, was chosen because of the tight budget, said the architect. However, he added, it connects the users to the building since they have to redo it themselves every fifteen days.


But would he or Hunnarshala ever offer this ‘connection’ to the users of their other projects? Then why here? Could it be because of the social location of these users as so-called ‘low’ castes? Or the fact that, in caste society, cow dung and cow urine are traditional ways of purifying space supposedly polluted by the ‘low’?


Some answers were to be had from South African architect Ilze Wolff, who spoke of buildings as bad ideas. Her focus was the Apartheid-era Modernist architecture of an old factory building in Capetown. Pointing out how discrimination based on race, gender and class could be ‘read’ in the architecture, in the separate spaces, differing sizes of space, and differing qualities of space, Wolff too spoke of the importance of context in architecture, but what she meant was the social context, of race and gender.


In South Asia, the social context is caste. Charles Correa had spoken of how all Indian architecture is connected, whether vernacular, Modernist or monumental. One important connect is this context of caste. It is visible all over the place, but especially readable in traditional building and settlement types. This is probably why elites here, architects included, feel so attached to the latter. Our heritage might be the whole world, but what we hold on to reveals our own social location.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 10 October, 2016)


You Want a Piece of This?



I was recently greeted at the airport in Dabolim by a most unpleasant advertisement. “It’s time to claim your piece of Goa” read a large poster for Goa Paradise, a project by the real-estate company Tata Housing. I saw the ad and was immediately consumed with rage.


Querying my outrage, some friends suggested that there was nothing to get so mad about. “Why are you offended?” asked one, “it’s an ad meant to sell properties that exist. I would not read much more into it. Locals sold, others developed, now agencies sell.” To make matters clear, the problem with the advertisement does not rest with “outsiders” purchasing property in Goa. The problem lies in the manner in which the property is being marketed and sold. It is the rhetoric through which the property is sold that goes on to subsequently problematize the purchasing of this property.


Postcolonial scholars have pointed out that the problems with European expansion was located in the act of claiming that agents of European crowns effected when they reached the shores of America, Africa, and Australia. The problem with these acts of claiming, such as the claiming of Australia for the Queen of England was that these lands were not terra nullius or no man’s land, but territories populated by numerous groups with their own laws, sensibilities. This claiming subsequent to conquest disregarded the claims of these people, and completed and continued the act of conquest. The word “claim” continues to have those connotations, and it is this effective call to an act of conquest that ensured that I found the ad offensive. While conquest may have been a part of the game in times past, it is definitely not so in today’s post-colonial world. One is welcome to purchase property in Goa, but when this act of purchasing is converted into an act of claiming or conquest, and opens the path for the consequent disregard of the existing social fabric, it is transformed from a possibly quotidian act to one of colonial violence.


The violence of the advertisement was enhanced by presenting the apartments being sold as “a piece of Goa”. The phrase “a piece of this” is not without connotations. Advertisements work because they often tap into a deeper conscious or unconscious collective understanding. Indeed, another real-estate venture, Aldeia da Goa, seem to have attempted a similar reference to “a piece of this” with an ad line that ran along the lines “If you want a piece of Goa you should become a piece of Goa”. The sexual desire for a person, when expressed as “I’d like a piece of him/her/that” is considered offensive and sexist. It is considered offensive because the phrasing transforms the individual, a subject deserving of dignity, into an object that has no feelings, and can be possessed, used, and disposed of. This understanding is also captured in the slang “You want a piece of me?” Often used to challenge an adversary, in this case, the challenger is affirming that s/he is not an object, and will not stand for such treatment. The Aldeia de Goa ad was saved from substantial critique, only because it suggested that one had to become a part of Goa, a piece of it, not merely purchase one’s piece of the territory.


As scholars have pointed out, the act of claiming, or the act of any conquering power, is an act of patriarchal power. It sees territory as female, appropriate for exploring, dominating and consuming. It is, therefore, not surprising that Tata Housing clubbed the “claim” with “piece of”.


But Goa is emphatically not merely a piece of territory that can be claimed, or broken up into individual pieces. While an exotic destination for some, and alluring real estate location for others, it is also the home to hundreds of thousands of people. Having lived here for generations, they have evolved a certain lifestyle on the land. Purchasing property in Goa must mean creating an option to participate in this lifestyle, and in a way that is respectful of those for whom who live here. To set up the purchasing of property as an act of conquest that disregards the context in which this property is located, is an act of profound violence and disrespect to the persons who have lived here for generations, and for whom this is the only home they have.


Another response to my outrage over the ad argued; “When Goans ‘claim a piece’ in London or Swindon, Melbourne or Lisbon (including the official residence of PM) why should others not clam a ‘piece of Goa’?” This is a common counter to the concerns raised by Goans about the way their territory is rapidly changing. What needs to be underlined is that the relationship between purchasers of property in Goa, and average Goans is not one of equality. A good number of Goans cannot in fact purchase property in other locations where they migrate to work. Many Goans who travel to Swindon are most certainly not purchasing property there, but living in miserable conditions that approximate Dickensian descriptions of the labouring masses’ lodgings in Victorian England. Further, as migrants who move to other locations, they are not powerful actors engaged in conquest of these territories, but persons merely seeking a life that was denied to them in their natal territories. To equate the prospective purchaser of Goa Paradise with the migrant is an act of colonial violence perpetuated by local elites who have no reason to move from Goa, and see a possibility of integrating into the emerging socio-political order where Goa is seen as a location that can be conquered and dominated.


Further, thanks to the inflated prices caused by the big money chasing ‘their own piece’ of the place most ordinary Goans are in fact not able to purchase property in Goa too, nowadays. This is precisely the reason why the tribal activist Antonio Francisco Fernandes demanded that the government of Goa guarantee housing to all Goans from indigenous communities.


The advertisement of Tata Housing is sexist and profoundly offensive and it must be prevailed upon to withdraw this advertisement at the earliest.

See also ‘Rise of the Villament: The New Investment Buzzword that will Hit Goa’, here.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 22 January, 2016)

The Rise of the Villament: The New Investment Buzzword That Will Hit Goa


Villament has already become a buzzword in Bangalore’s real estate lexicon (Anshul Dhamija, TOI: 2011). It is a concept that is gaining popularity, writes Dhamija, with those who want the luxury of a villa and yet crave the comfort and convenience an apartment affords. A villament is a large duplex apartment, usually with a double-height living room, large balconies and, most importantly, a terrace with a garden which gives the feeling that one is on the ground despite living in a high-rise building. Although the Goan real estate market is still rife with villas and apartments as separate building types, one can wager that the arrival of villaments is not too far off.

But before we focus on the impending arrival of villament-type developments in Goa, let us reflect on the current popular building type in the real-estate market, the vacation-house. In his seminal essay ‘A time for space and a space for time: the social production of the vacation house’ (Society and Architecture: 1980), sociologist-historian Anthony King broadly defines the vacation-house as the occasional residence of a household that usually lives elsewhere and which is primarily used for recreational purposes. He argues that the capitalist economy produces not only a surplus of wealth, but also, for a sizeable minority, a surplus of time. King claims that the motives of owning vacation homes include seeking compensation for city living, understood as escaping from perceived overcrowding, noise, traffic congestion, air pollution, and the pressures of city life (p.194). No wonder then that the elites of the large metropolises like Bombay and Delhi seek to own a vacation home in Goa, as it is perceived as a perfect holiday destination with its sun, sea, and sand, apart from the Europeanised atmosphere that they don’t find anywhere else in India.

However, the vacation house is not simply a house; its very architecture differs from a full-time residence. King argues that the ideological preference for ‘nature’ results in a preference for country or semi-wilderness locations, preferably with extensive views. He says that these purpose-built houses have features which integrate the ‘indoors’ and ‘out of doors’ and at its most extreme, whole walls and roofs are cast as windows, giving extensive vistas of vegetation, or views of distant fields and beaches. King further elaborates that in densely settled vacation areas, the vacation homes are of courtyard plan, where their occupants turn their backs on the outside world to gaze at the enclosed vegetation of the court within. The vacation-houses also use artificially produced ‘natural’ materials like the rough-cut timber, cane, grass matting, hand-woven fabrics; again these are attributes, King claims, of an ideology that is anti-urban, anti-industrial, and desirous of a ‘simple life’. The strongest criticism that King confers on this type of lifestyle is that “[o]nly for the materially satiated did the ‘simple life’ have an appeal; the ‘Great Outdoors’ was attractive only if one had comfort within” (p.213).

During the 1990s, large vacation houses in Goa were generally the affairs of the super-rich, like the Mallyas, who owned sprawling properties on ‘virgin’sites overlooking the sea. Now, the situation has changed as a large number of the rising urban upper class, from Indian metros, are buying second homes in Goa.The surplus wealth created in metros gives these urban elites an advantage to invest in a comparatively cheaper real-estate market of Goa.The investment though is not limited to buying vacant land and villas, as many are also buying apartments to fulfil their need to have a second home in this Europeanised holiday destination. But it stands to reason that these investors will not be happy with simply buying any apartments. They would want their apartments to have the feel and features of vacation-houses. And this is where the concept of villaments with catch up, as it promises the luxury and feel of a villa yet is relatively affordable due to the stacking of many units on one piece of land. With the villament-type developments, the holiday homes in Goa are all set to go high-rise.

Increasingly, Goa as a tourist destination is not just in demand to be consumed for its ‘sights’, but worryingly, through ‘sites’, by the process of ownership, of this land and properties, by tourists (Raghuraman Trichur, Refiguring Goa: 2013). So,“What can we understand about a society by examining its buildings and physical environment?”(King: 1980).To say the least,the current real-estate developments in Goa reflect the aspirations of urban Indian society much more than the local needs of average Goans. While popular belief directs attention against the nibbling away of land by the poor migrants, one should be aware that the large, elite, property sharks from the Indian metros, ably aided by the local real estate industry, are taking bigger bites of this scarce land, and that too as a second, or a third, helping, in their insatiable lust for property ownership and leisure.

(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 13 September, 2015)