Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Wall as Antithesis of Goan Architecture

An architect friend once expressed his frustration with dialogue with a heritage enthusiast, “Ask them what they want in terms of building design and they say, ‘Indo-Portuguese architecture’, push a little more and what do you have? Nothing! There exists nothing beyond a vague idea”. This is perhaps true, for think about it, the famed Goan villa, is not an entity lifted directly out of Indian and Lusitanian style books, but one that incorporates, whimsically, a wide variety of styles, ranging from the classical to the Art Deco seemingly effortlessly. The problem with building codes, as it is with codified law, is that all too often, it is unable to communicate the core of the idea we seek to emulate, its essence. This essence is outside of the grasp of code, it lies in practice. And yet, as this judge faced with determining obscenity said many years ago “I know it when I see it”.

One has only to have a look at the home of the artists Rudolf Kammermier and Yolanda D’Souza to know that in their home has captured an essence of what it is for a building to be authentically Goan. It rises from the same red mud on which it is built on, its multiple roofs like the ant-hills that for generations of Goans represented the Mother Goddess. The force that sustained life in the region. The building conforms to no standard understanding of what the ‘traditional’ Goan home looks like, and yet, for having engaged with essences that they believe mark the lifestyle, the home emerges as instantly authentic.

This essay is not a paean in favour of the Kammermier-D’Souza home though; to another and more detailed essay much that honour be reserved. This essay seeks to deal with the anti-thesis of Goan architecture, one that can be identified as The Wall. Truly the boundary wall has to be the newest arrival into the Goan architectural tradition. While the great mansions of Goa are marked by boundary walls, they performed the aesthetic function of providing definition to the mansion and the utilitarian one of keeping animals out. They did not operate as we see the boundary wall operating today, the marker of various attitudes. Driving past the home of one of Goa’s rich, and former Town and Country Planning Minister, the multiple meanings of the boundary wall emerged as truth to a savant as the mind drew comparisons with the gigantic walls of the Red Fort. Those walls fulfilled a purpose, and these walls perform a similar function. They indicate the attitude toward power, absolute control, and non-transparent; and the manner in which this sort of wealth may be generated, through the constant grabbing of more and more land. But leave his sins be, what do these walls mark for more humble denizens such as ourselves? For this we may once more return to the city of the Red Fort. The experience of Delhi, especially its more upper middle class neighbourhoods, is of a city walled in on itself. Not only is every home walled away from the other, but each neighbourhood is walled off from other neighbourhoods and thus from the city. Rather than born from the lack of security in the city, these walls are in fact the reason for the lack of security in the city, marking the lack of concern for what goes on outside ones walls. Security primarily for me. These walls then, produce and are indicative of the unconcerned and anti-social individual. Not that they do not have a society, but their society is determined on who they allow in, or rather, who they keep out.

Walking through Machado’s Cove, one of Goa’s ‘prime’ localities one comes across this more or less commonplace home, but one distinguished by walls as high as the roof of the ground floor, and a gate just as large boarded up with plastic sheets to prevent one from looking inside. Strikingly odd, an inquiry as to the identity of the owner followed. The guard on duty indicated that, and this is no lie, the owner lived in Delhi. This wall then, was the anti-thesis of Goan architecture. The balcaos, the wide open windows of Goan homes, the lack of boundary walls meant primarily to block animals you will realize were features of our architecture. A society built on the sharing of experience, resources and property. Despite the factional infighting, and the land grabs by the privileged (yes even under the communidades) this was a society primarily founded on sharing, allowing for the urbane and urban environment of this state. The environment creates the individual and while you cannot prevent people from building higher boundary walls, you can be sure as to the kind of society it will produce. Follow the logic into policy and now lay the norm for Goan architecture.

(This essay is dedicated to the charming Lisel Britto, whose observation on Dona Paula made these thoughts see light of day)
(Published in the Gomantak Times, 17 Sept 2007)