Saturday, 4 November 2006

Architecture and Biodiversity in India

Architecture and Biodiversity[1] in India

A Context to Aesthetics in Our Times

by Remigius de Souza

(This paper has no visuals or graphics or photographs of any examples of architecture for obvious reasons. You, however, can draw any number of examples from your experience, of from the folk architecture from any region.)

Prologue: Way of Nature

THE ATTRIBUTE TO DESIGN IN NATURE is cryptically described by Martin Jones, bio-archaeologist, “In whole organisms, randomness structure is uncommon. Everything seems finely tuned by brutal rigours of natural selection. There are no spare limbs to be found and hardly any dispensable organs. This forced economy of organism design has always limited the use of bodily form as evolutionary timepiece" (The Molecular Hunt, Penguin 2002). This is most relevant definition of design even for manmade objects or institutions. Nature – within and outside – is the first and the last guru, irrespective of the tools – arts, sciences, religions or trades. All wisdom and knowledge originate in the nature. It is time now for ‘Srishtiyog’ – union with Nature.

Garden under a Glass Cage…

WE ARE THINKING OF ARCHITECTURE at primary level it is everyone’s need – from a shelter to farming to damning a river. It has emerged as a most costly commodity not merely economically but also environmentally.

Architecture – good or bad – is concrete manifestation of abstract thought. Any thought is always abstract. Language, script or graphic is abstract. So also, sciences, philosophies or religions are abstract. We comprehend abstraction by our perception of reality. Art also is abstraction; it is surreal. A farmer is an artist, who works with elements on the canvas of soil, where thought and senses are unified in action as a way of life. He works at tremendous risk. His work is concrete and spiritual at the same time. We are not referring to industrialised farming.

Architecture is primarily a utility; its interpretations, however, are abstract and various. A thought involved in architecture is abstract; it may even be superstitious, whether it is scientific, philosophical, social, economic or religious, or legal such as, building by-laws or development control rules for cities and regions. The superstition may appear by way of imitation, reproduction, adoption or mass production. Architect is a thinking person, unless of course one is physically, mentally and spiritually involved in the construction, even if it may be a modest artefact, where thought is dispassionately tested in action. The word architect is variously to various occupations, for example, building a nation in politics, writing a constitution for a nation, or creating virtual reality on computer.

Buddhist religious thought, for example, we assume, is translated in its religious structures, such as, Stupa, Vihara and Chiatya. However we are not informed about any example of Buddhist secular architecture. Hence we presume that when Buddhist religion is a person’s way of life it’s a concrete form. Can we interpret any architectural edifice – secular, religious or monumental – of any time or place as a way of life? The archaeologists do that taking help of many disciplines, though with their perception. Or is Buddhism yet another brand for mass conversions in defiance of another brand? Or is Buddhism, in our times, merely an intellectual kick in discourses or at coffee-table-talk? It is said that Vihara was derived from the tribal village halls or men’s clubs, and cave ethos share with ‘Gotuls’ or youth dormitories of Muria Tribe. This has been the way of life of the tribal, even now. The tribal communities were, still are, republicans. Knowing such facts, now even vernacular architecture is acknowledged along with classical, historical, ancient or so-called modern architecture.

Zen Buddhism has enriched daily living in its expressions in gardening, painting, poetry, drama, Ikebana, Tokonoma and tea ceremony that are elements of architecture and planning. In the India too there are innumerable such expressions. Call them customs, rituals, religion, or traditions or whatever you may. Undoubtedly they originate in and relate to Nature.

The industrial civilisation emerged with the Mechanical–Industrial Revolution (generally called Industrial Revolution), in the West. It started mass production; so much so, that communities turned into a homogenised mass society, which took to monoculture. It also started many institutions. It has institutionalised almost every aspect of private and collective life of an individual and the society, and reduced their autonomy.

It took a few hundred years to build (!) Ajanta–Ellora. Here we notice a remarkable consistency and diversity both in the edifices as they materialised over a long period of time. How was it made possible? It took a few decades to build Taj Mahal. Now it takes a few months to build a skyscraper or a township.

Today technology renders several buildings and building types obsolete before their building-life is over. The West now has developed “controlled demolition technology” to ground multimillions dollar worth new buildings in the heart of cities, with total disregard to environmental-energy-ecology cost. The large industrial establishments are decentralising and shifting their manufacturing units to different places and countries. Technologies and products including those for modern buildings are abandoned. Some prove hazardous to health.

We are in state of flux than ever before. Whatever may cause this flux it is man-made. Where can we draw a line between that which is permanent, universal or timeless and that which is transient or temporary? Homo sapiens have not changed biologically ever since they appeared.

Are the architects merely going by conventions of the past, or by those set elsewhere? Do they comprehend the present and foresee the future? Are architects obliged to accept, follow, or imitate blindly or piously the architecture of the 20th century that originated in the West? It, of course, is a by-product of the Industrial Revolution. A 20th century “form-giver” aptly said, “House is a machine for living in”. Now the investors and profiteers, hand in hand with science and technology, after exploiting the resources of the earth, have turned their eyes on biology and biotechnology[2]

Biotechnology is now becoming the buzzword of the 21st century in the industrial society. It, of course, is motivated to investigate and exploit new avenues for profit and power. It is banking on genes of every kind of species of animals, insects, plants, including man, after defiling land, waters and air, and biotic and abiotic nature, and after causing extinction/ annihilation of fellow human beings. Biological diversity however is the lifeline for the survival of mankind.

Who shall be the next master to be the 21st century form-giver? Who shall write the guidebooks? What shall be the new slogan of 21st century? It may be perhaps, “Garden under a glass cage is a house for the clones” who will live at the command by remote control in New York, London, Paris, Brussels, and Tokyo… or New Delhi, Mumbai!

Built Environment and Biodiversity

WE ARE THINKING HERE OF ARCHITECTURE ALSO because it is major consumer of energy that affects ecology in a major way and modifies environment through its six design fields. Architecture is no more “a plot and a monument”. The scope and context of architecture has widened with environmental awareness. Here we consider architecture as “built environment”, which has six design fields: Product Design, Interior Design, Architectural Design, Urban Design, and Town Planning, now added by Regional Planning. Any of these six design fields have bearing on all other fields, which include land, water, air, and biotic and abiotic nature. These could be verified in any example at any place and time.

What legacy the Industrial civilisation has given us? We know that industrial civilisation only takes from the earth but never returns. We may generalise it in brief. About 10 percent people of India may have made it theirs. They rule and force others to accept it. It is not a willing acceptance or by understanding it. It has left increasing gulf between the educated (now armed with computer education) and the illiterate, the rich and the poor (including those below poverty line and the starving, the unemployed whose skills are redundant in industrial society and the educated unemployed).

Yet in spite of environmental and ecological degradation all is not lost in India. There are a large percentage of people that still remains outside the folds of industrialisation. There are still a number of social and cultural sub-groups who are not trapped by the cult of monoculture. These diverse subgroups have their kinship with biodiversity in their regions. Their languages, culture, life-supporting skills, traditional wisdom, and of course architecture, are akin to the biodiversity. There are fifteen regional languages recognised by the State, leave aside fifteen hundred vernaculars, and as many bioregions and as many “styles” of vernacular architecture.

The ruling minority has made persistent efforts to colonise them or to bring them into its web of economy, education, planning, law and institutions but they have remained outside. Are they defiant in spite of being a weaker section or is the system not keen? Perhaps both. The system has failed them again and again though no one will want to admit it. It is happier in self-gratification. In such a situation the people – the masses – become easy target for attacks by either the State and the power mongers or the terrorists.

We fail to recognise even at the turn of the last century in the historical context, if not democracy, that no person or a group has any credibility without people. There is no credibility for any brand – economic, social, religious, political or any other – without people. We mention religion not with any bias but it is our mindset, irrespective of rites, rituals, castes, sects, creeds, or superstitions.

It is a historic flux. We are parting our ways mentally, morally and culturally from nature and the living traditions, while dilly-dallying between old and newfangled ideas. We easily begin by falling for commercial brands issued in attractive packages and with compulsive justifications through multimedia and propaganda in the name of information and communications. Leisure, for example, is free for anyone, but now it comes as entertainment with a price tag of money, time and health. We are indeed destitute in time by being helpless, complacent, or contented, or irresponsible to the society and the posterity.

In such a state, we – individually and collectively – have only one option left to our discretion. It is to sift, screen, and select between the needs and wants: personal, social and beyond personal. While the needs are permanent, universal and timeless, the wants always remain transient, temporary and passing fads. No one ever needs to justify needs. But the wants, now and then, need justifications. Manufacturers and traders tell us what we must want and have. Architects are not far behind them to advocate through their products and designs to tell people how they must live in a mass society. This is a joint venture to make people opt for the ways of industrial society.

All products (and ideas) supplied and sold, or even donated, by the industrial society in the name of needs, wants, conveniences, or altruism, must be tasted in the laboratories of environment, ecology and energy for health of man and nature, and scrutinise their price, cost, benefit and value. But it may not be our priority, not being a profitable venture.

Science, religion or philosophy, unless responsible for the sustenance of all the living beings, may remain a dead irrelevant matter. In spite of all the glamour, the Einstein and the Nobel Prizes are irrelevant, even irresponsible to the large majority of the needy. Perhaps that is why mythologies have lasting value for people. Sooner or later we, and the future generations, may even loose them, or get them distorted. Why does an arrow (archery) have a symbolic meaning and not the ICBM? Why does ‘Hermit’s Hut’ come in the discussion on architecture? Is there any example of mythical value in the modern architecture?

Modern architecture is a by-product of industrial revolution, and born in city. A city has always been a symbol of power. In modern times, Metropolitan City has emerged not only as a symbol of unlimited centralised power but also as a parasite on the planet. It has extended its footprint beyond its physical boundaries for its sustenance into the regions near and far. It extends even beyond the sovereign state and beyond continents. This (globalisation) does not mean that any place should adopt the dictate of International Style of architecture. It is not obligatory.

Regional planning becomes a pressing problem in India due to the accelerated mechanisation and industrialisation, migration and the neglect of hinterland, large population and biological diversity of the country. We must note the difference between the conditions of developed countries and India. In the West the urban population is about 80%, while in India it is about 30% that includes a large number of slums. In 1890 almost 30% of entire US population was living in the cities.

Environmental awareness has brought up the grave issue of destruction of biological diversity and the need to conserve it. It is time now for architecture or the built environment to bring biodiversity into its discipline. Or revive itself in the realms of biodiversity instead of becoming an instrument or expression of inequity and exploitation of people, land and waters. This revival, having sufficient understanding of the Indian agrarian society, should bring forth the ethical and new aesthetic values; their roots are already in the land and her people.

But who will bell the Cat?

THE LAWS AND ACTS that affect built environment must first understand the aesthetics of biodiversity. They were made to venerate industrial civilisation. In the wake of biodiversity, it is not only the prevailing standard building bylaws but also the development plans and the development control rules of towns and cities will need to be overhauled and changed. They were devised for the delight of the regimental officials of the departments. Every town and city – old or new – and the region will have to device their own codes based on its people and the region, i.e. its bioregion. The same should apply also to the “ghettos of development” that mushroom in the rural areas as public or private development projects.

Look at any development plan. It typically shows land-use zones, floor space indices (FSI), and road network for automobiles and centres for services/ shopping. Of course the grey zones of the existing slums are not visible. People rarely figure in except as population densities or numbers, which mostly go topsy-turvy. The boundaries show as if there exists nothing beyond the city – an island in ocean. There is hardly any thought given to the ergonomics in social, economic, political and physical context of a person and the society, land and waters, flora and fauna, and biotic and abiotic nature. Sanjay Gandhi National Park at Borivali in Mumbai is a classic example. The panthers at SGNP recently started attacking humans. So the easiest ‘curative’ measure devised by the ‘authority’ was to deport the panthers to other place. Ironically the Warli tribe living in this forest for ages venerate their ‘Vaghdeo’ – tiger god – as a keeper of the forest.

Typically the regional plans look like replicated, enlarged city plan. The major features indicate more industries, services and infrastructure, of course, to serve the main cities. These do not offer any solace to the locals, particularly the weaker sections – children, women, the poor and the marginalized. The rich elite, industrialists and the real estate developers purchase large tracts of land in these regions. One could hardly imagine the plight of the small farmers, the landless labourers, and the tribal. There is no succour for the land and water from pollution or deforestation. The consequence is that the diversity of the region turns into despair.

In the preparation and execution of any plan or law, the following important and most essential issues emerge.

  • To ascertain the likely fall out due to a plan or a law in the affected areas – people, land and waters, flora and fauna – directly or indirectly, in the near or distant future, and within and outside the planned area.
  • To prepare appropriate policy, infrastructure and measures for implementation to preserve, conserve, rehabilitate and restore the affected areas mentioned above, as an essential part of the compe4nsation package.

  • To create and use appropriate means of communications to inform the citizens – the starving, the illiterate, the half-naked, and the elite – of the planning action at every stage of its process, from the inception to after-implementation of the plan or a law.

  • These measures should be taken before the plan or law is sanctioned and enacted.

  • To file regular returns to the public of the planning and implementation actions, the success and failures, and functioning of the project every year till the end of the project period.
We are in the age of information and communications. We have made large investments in satellite and other technologies. These should offer the means of direct communication to inform and educate people about the planning process. It is the first step towards the “public participation” and “transparency”. It is as worthy as, even more than, any election at a national or state level.
The issue of biodiversity needs to be taken up on emergency basis before it is totally destroyed. (Here biodiversity is not limited to plants and animals only, but also include people and their cultural sub-groups.) The world has seen the worst effects of industrialisation. Now under the auspices of biotechnology the GM foods are already taking the world by storm. No one knows its full implications. Experiments on the dumb animals for cloning are already on the way, which may facilitate the powerful to start with human cloning, though, of course, not without a strong opposition.

It is high time the legislators, policymakers, lawmakers, executives, architects and planners educate themselves in biodiversity and ecosystems at the ground level, and then evolve the plans and designs. Even the Supreme Court (SC) has admitted at one stage (‘Clean Ganga Project’) that it had to educate itself on ‘environment’. But SC should note that it is only a beginning.

Learning is possible with the help of the locals. Planning and designing without user participation amounts only to self-glorification. The so-called masses are the people with body mind intelligence and creative ability. Anonymous people in millions have understood biodiversity over millennia in its multiple dimensions for their sustenance.

We are thousand millions now, and that’s our strength. For example, there are about hundred colleges of architecture in the country; of course this is a negligible number. Unfortunately even they are ill equipped in the domain of biodiversity. India will require over one thousand colleges of architecture to work with biodiversity on their agenda.

We are not talking here of any established theories of aesthetics. The essential action first, theories will follow as has been happening throughout the history of mankind. There is no hope of help from the foreign consultants. It is also not possible with bureaucratic, regimental mindset. The volumes of information must be tested at the ground realities, because every place is unique. The planning ‘authority’ then cannot be a dictator or demigod but is only a facilitator.

We are looking down to earth, as is, where is, for help and succor, here and now. Biodiversity-oriented architecture and planning is a collective action; it anticipates people’s autonomy and participation, decentralization of power, human scale and collective creativity.

Epilogue: Architecture of Diatoms

DIATOMS – microscopic algae – are known for their beautiful and elaborate glass shells, each with uniquely shaped shell. Nanotechnologists are interested for their several commercial applications rather than their aesthetic merits. Our challenge is what wonders we – the hundred crore people, particularly the silent majority – could work in harmony with nature in true freedom when we look up to humble algae!

We end, or rather begin, with optimistic note by quoting Ben Okari, Nigerian writer: “The full potential of human creativity has not yet been tapped. Along with the ever-increasing miracle of love, this fact is one of the brightest hopes for human race.” (Ben Okri, A way of Being Free, 1999, p 28).


Remigius de Souza
Postal Address: 69, 3rd flr. 243, S.B. Marg, Mumbai 400028, India.
16-11-2002 (23-8-2004)


1 Biodiversity: ‘Biological diversity means the variability among living organisms from al sources, including interallia, terrestrial, marine and aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species; between species and the ecosystems.’ (Article 2 of the Convention of Biological Diversity, UNEP 1992)
2 Biotechnology: (a). Biotechnology is the application of biological organisms, systems or processes to manufacturing and service industries (Spinks, A. ‘Biotechnology’ report of a Joint Working Party, HMSO, London 1980).
(b) ‘Biotechnology is the art of manufacturing living forms as though they were machines’ (Stephan R. L., and Clark K. “Modern Errors and Ancient Virtues” in Ethics and Biotechnology, Eds. Anthony Dyson and John Harris, Routledge, London, 1994)

(Note: This paper was presented to PAITHRUKAM 2004: Seminar/Workshop on Aesthetics in Indian Architecture: Past, Present and Future, at MES College of Architecture, Trissure, Kerala. December 16 – 18, 2004)

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