Louvered aquariums: Salvaging Indian architecture of space from the architecture of the facade


Some years back I was invited by a corporate house to do a third-party review of the architectural design of their “state of the art” corporate campus being designed by an “international” architect.

A young kid who was sent by the “international” firm to deal with the nuisance of presenting to a third world idiot thankfully knew that his wisdom was beyond my ken so he stopped at stating that the great piece of architecture was designed around the concept of “sustainability”, leaving it to me to figure out how.

With the onus of proving that (even though educated in India) I too was intellectually at par to understand the great design, I sat there staring at what looked like multiple aquariums, each with a 3D maze for rats to feel busy (while fighting a rising wave of claustrophobia as I could see myself getting trapped in it) looking for where the “North” was.

As I didn’t see it marked anywhere, I meekly requested the young man to point it out to me. After a couple of minutes of struggle, neither of us could find the “North” arrow on the drawings but I found one interesting feature that I thought could help, and that were continuous louvers running along on each glass façade in one direction.

While I was busy looking for North marker, the international genius had proudly opened a tool of his era, i.e. Google Earth, a high-tech novelty in those days to show me the campus location. When I asked him the direction faced by the louvered façades, he nonchalantly pointed out that they faced “North”.

As someone trained in a school where “north-lights” have an emotional value, I knew that my reaction would be biased, so I left it at that and watched the rest of the 3D renderings trying to look impressed by long lines of disproportionately scaled birch and other alpine trees concealing aquarium like buildings. In the end I congratulated the young man for the amazing work and left the room to have a social tea with the corporate promoter beaming with pride of having a “world-class design”.

Indian architecture is now standing at a cusp (Please don’t leave. I am not planning to write about CoA) at a strange point in our cultural history.

On one hand, we do see a rising awareness about the traditional wisdom that our ancient culture had once evolved in every sphere; but, on the other hand we are overwhelmed by the desire to belong to the first world and want to ape it in every which (superficial) way.

Armed with the brute force of air-conditioning to deal with one of the biggest climatic challenges of our tropical nation, we are now heading towards an architectural form that has completely departed from the traditional screened (with jalis) and shadowed (with overhangs) built-form with ventilating courtyards and open and semi-open terraces and are using glass to envelope air-conditioned and thus enclosed spaces.

The louvered aquariums have their conceptual origin in screened walls with jalis but they ignore that the real essence of mainland Indian architecture was spaces with ventilation and openness.

With harsh weather outside, we had opted to build internal open spaces where most of the activities were conducted. This obviously must have had a deep psychological impact on how we sense spaces.

The glass architecture that we are building today has completely forgotten to create the spaces but as they look impressively modern, they are trending across India. Thanks to this we are creating an urban spatial environment in every domain that we are not psychologically aligned to.

These buildings impress us from outside but they cause an underlying claustrophobia and stress because of the alien nature of the spaces they create.

If louvred aquariums are what we must build, simultaneous to it, onus of reviving Indian architecture of spaces is also upon the Indian architects, especially those with the power to be heard.

The modern architectural masters at the helm need to realize that an average architect has no real say in the construction industry. If the market wants glass boxes, most architects will have no option but to design them. This is where architects with a strong identity and power must step in and showcase designs in prestigious projects to change and mold the public opinion.

We need the architecture of space to be saved from being overwhelmed by the architecture of the façade.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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