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)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Say A Little Prayer For Me: Panjim’s Parks And The Fate Of Urban Design

Sitting through the release of the memoirs titled From Goa to Patagonia, we were informed that the Panjim Municipal Garden had been lavished with particular attention by Dr. Froilano de Mello while he was Mayor of Panjim city. The man, it appears was responsible for the large number of bandstands that one sees in many parts of Panjim city. Bless his soul, for surely it must now be in need of your prayers given the sad state of urban works he initiated. If you are familiar with Panjim then you know that the bandstand exists no more in the Panjim Municipal Garden, it lies broken and ruined, as does the rest of the park. Lets not get into the blame game however, fact is that it is now only a whisper of its former self.

And despite all of this, I don’t know whether we should rejoice or just sink even further into despair with news that the garden is to be- hold your breath-rejuvenated. There are a great many problems with urban design as we see it evolving around us today. As should be obvious from the concrete monstrosity that is the New Panjim booming all around us, there is in Panjim, no urban design. The lone attempts at urban design seem to be the greening of the circles and road dividers in random locations in the city. These attempts are not only isolated, they are also superficial, attempting to invoke the idea of the tranquility of a garden in an urban space that is fast going cuckoo.

The manner in which the gardens are designed too leaves much to be desired. Rather than recognize that we live in a tropical climate and public spaces would be best served with shade, with plants that require minimal care and water, the designers go in for lawns that demand open spaces and guzzle huge amounts of water. Rather than rely on the garden traditions of this continent that range from the Sanskritic to the Persian pleasure gardens, we attempt to mimic the gardens of the northern climes that flourish with plenty of rain and shade. The result ofcourse is one that pays homage to the stylistic tastes of the great Indian middle class- kitsch.
The Panjim Municipal Garden before it invited the attention of the British-Indian (read independent India) babus who ruined it, ran on a simple plan. A central axis hosting the walk, a monumental column and a bandstand. Benches lay along this axis and the rest of the garden unfolded almost symmetrically around it, echoing the Moorish influence in Iberia. It appears at some point that the garden was marked out for the tree-planting quotas of the Forest Department, beautification programs by the aforementioned British-Indian babus and finally an attempt to make it more Lusitanian than it already was. The rest as they say is history.

The more serious challenge to this garden though is in the proposed plan to build a multi-level car park in the garden. The Goa Heritage Action Group has for sometime now been pointing to the heritage value of the garden. Be sure then that the car park will take that value away, for its heritage value lies not in the fact that it is a garden, but in the design of the garden, but in the relationship of this garden square to the buildings around it. The two constitute a single unit and to divorce the relationship of these built structures from the natural space located at its centre would challenge the whole heritage effort.

And yet heritage and aesthetics is not the most serious issue that challenges the location of a multi-level car park in the garden. This car park is obviously intended to address the lack of parking space within Panjim. Question is however, will it? One can with certainty argue that it will not, since what we will be addressing is the manifestation of the problem and not the problem itself. The problem lies in our equation of development with consumption, and the logic that a higher consumption of cars will lead to greater development. This logic left to run wild will result in an ever higher number of vehicles on the streets of our cities and villages, until we literally drown in a sea of these vehicles and their fumes. While on the issue of fumes, be it known that enclosed parking spaces have been shown to have dangerously high levels of vehicular emissions, allowing us to conclude that the same would apply to this proposed car park.

No sir, the solution to the parking problem in Panjim lies in reducing the number of vehicles moving within the city. And this project is best served by improving the public transport system within the city and the villages that surround it, so that one is not forced to rely on a private vehicle. Public expenditure on an improved transport system would work in fact work to reduce the household budget’s need for a private vehicle, putting that money toward other needs for personal development, which eventually is what development seeks to achieve. As we hammer out a new Master Plan it would be worthwhile if we rethought some of our approaches to development, allowing us in Goa to conceptualize a more organic and holistic model of development that builds on our unique strengths, rather than simply going the British-Indian way.
(published in the Gomantak Times, 3 September 2007)