The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1946] Beyond the physical realm (Fifth dimension of interaction)


Kathmandu as a city has a great architectural heritage; it is therefore hard to comprehend the various palaces, temples and other structures of the past judging by the dismal architectural state today. It is no longer a statement of it's past but is on a fast track to nowhere losing its ability to excite the mystical abstracts of the human spirit. For some strange reason we have not been able to give an appropriate continuity to our building tradition. Architecture today is like a confused man roaming around the street trying to find and fit himself within the everyday fluctuations of the city and its people. We are easily influenced by everything around us and in the process, tend to neglect what we have at hand. View Kathmandu City from the top of Swyambhu Hill, the building chaos becomes all too apparent. The city as a whole does not look congenial but one where every building looks out of place. These buildings may offer indispensable living/working spaces to the user but do not compliment each other. Almost eerily they ridicule the natural landscape! The resulting lack of interaction between these spaces leaves a vague void in the middle. Walk in any typical street of the city and the confusion becomes all the more apparent. We are trying to do everything but not achieving much in the process. There is a three hundred-year-old building whose shadow falls on a movie hall whose image in turn is reflected by the dark glasses of the nearest shopping mall! To top everything there are those private buildings, which look innocuous at the surface but add to the building confusion. Whose fault is it? We must not let modern trends encroach sites of historical importance; must preserve these buildings/monuments for tomorrow and for our own identity as well. Go on erasing your footsteps as you move forward, you may never find a way back, try and hold on to everything, you may never proceed forward. It is a fine balance indeed.

More recently there have been works that have tended to give priority to local building tradition but most of it is still cosmetic in its approach. Is conservation/preservation just cosmetic surgery? Probably not. Take for instance the traditional Newari House, it is a typical three-storey building with an attic at the top level. Everything from the thickness of the walls, the placement and size of the windows/doors, positioning of rooms is defined by the function. The building was no doubt responding to the then way of life. The use of materials is also an interesting aspect of the design; the different types of bricks used at different places, different types of mortar all make practical sense. All credit goes to the thought process that must have evolved it. Today, if we just use the outer shell of the design neglecting other vital aspects, won't the built form suffer? By doing this, are we providing the much necessary continuity to the process of conservation or slowly feeding upon it. Anything that stops growing is likely to lose its charm. Evolution is a natural process, after all what we are trying to preserve is also a result of architectural evolution and surely hasn't taken shape over-night! This is where the trick lies, how can we provide continuity to the design process without compromising the originality of the design? I think the answer is fairly simple, it is to move forward taking what we've learnt not discarding it as we please.

Monuments do not become great overnight, initially they might be referred to as exemplary works but its greatness evolves through time, constantly nurtured by society's perception. Ingrained human values influence the design process, the actual design and how it is perceived eventually. A designer can only design a monument but he cannot guarantee success nor predict failure. I feel he can achieve (x, y, z, time) but the level of interaction "!" will eventually play a vital role in determining its fate. This factor of communication to an extent is within the realms of the designer in the sense that he can narrow the perception to a certain set of parameters by respecting the basic factors that sub-consciously dictate the design process and how it is viewed. The charm of the object is derived from its liveliness, which is beyond our grasp but is very vital to the eventuality of the built form. The building has to give back some part of what it has taken away from the environment. There are many different levels of interaction such as between the built form and the physical environment that surrounds it; interaction between the building and the living world and in most cases a proper interaction within the built form also determines the fate of the structure. The design provokes a response from the world that perceives it. For example, make a huge cross beside the holy Pashupati Nath temple, it will be subject to endless criticism from the whole society but make a monumental post of monolithic stone (something similar to the one in Kailash temple, India) shaped as Shiva's trident, people might actually love it! The latter directly communicates with the people that see it first hand, whether it will provoke a positive or a negative response will be a matter individual taste, while the first one will be out rightly rejected. The reason of rejection is quite simple; it does not respect the social, religious and cultural sentiments of the people and the place it stands in.

As a student, you think of great things and believe that your work will encompass all others; reality however remains the same for all. Once you are out of college and out there, things will most certainly be different. How do you satisfy your client without compromising your own ideals? I am sure you don't go around thinking about how to make a great structure. In trying to answer this simple question, I feel we have to understand the factors that make some buildings/monuments successful while others fail miserably. Surely all these buildings must have some form, a function and some significance but also that special spark which sets them apart. Let us look at a few monuments of the world; take for instance the Taj Mahal. What makes it special? Taj Mahal, the larger than life expression of one Mughal's love, emotion spills through the design, everything from the choice of color to the texture/type of material help this process. Would the Taj Mahal have been successful had Shah Jahan used red sandstone like his forefathers instead of the white 'Makrana' marble? So one of the reasons of its success along with the factor of scale will have to be choice of material. Everything has to come together for any structure to work; type of material, its location, its relationship with the surrounding environment/people, functional criterion, time, all have to make sense. It has to be the everyday mundane, the most prosaic and the greatest splendor put together! All this put together it will breathe, live and essentially age gracefully. It's appeal lies in the life it holds, just like humans, who can either come across as exuberant, a pessimist, an eternal optimist or the filthy jerk; its aura is what it projects. Any one can build a structure but to give it life, it has to truly touch the lives of the people that matter to it the most and vice-versa.

Just like any invention, the first spark always lights up in someone' s mind; surely every building has that moment of inception. In that respect, every structure is someone's fancy. It is a different matter that while some go on to become significant landmarks others live in obscurity. I will provide two examples that are within Kathmandu to support my reasoning about communication being a significant factor in determining the relevance of a structure. There are various types of interaction, the effectiveness of which illustrates the success of the structure. The monument has to be responsive to its immediate surrounding, to the people of that place and must be closely connected with the way of life of that place and time for it to communicate clearly. It can achieve something close to optimum communication when the natives know and appreciate its significance; everything from the design aspect to use of certain material to its color and down to the simplest detail will affect this interaction. Dharahara is widely referred to as Bhimsen's folly, one of those structures present within Kathmandu that has sadly failed to make much of an impression. It was created as a monument, someone thought of it; it was and still is a unique structure yet it lacks something. Perhaps it is mass appeal due to its unusual form and undefined function. So although it has become one of the symbols of our city, it stays at the back of society's' favorite list. An interesting point to note; it may be for the wrong reason but it does give you an impression of not fitting in with the rest.

On the other hand, a few minutes walk from Dharahara will take you to the Kathmandu Durbar square, one of the highly revered architectural sites of the country. It has great significance in terms of history, culture as well as other prevailing social factors. One important reason of its success is that it appeals to the people it is connected with; the people by responding to this make the process of interaction a mutual one. When King Pritihvi Narayan Shah decided to shift the capital of his newly united country to Kathmandu, he constructed palaces giving continuity to the local building tradition. He was responding to the society then, which did the same. Today however if someone were to build a similar structure it would probably not evoke a similar response. This is due to time; buildings must respond to the era in which they stand in, and this is directly related to the people that live around it. When there is a healthy give and take relationship between the built form and the people, proper interaction can be achieved. This act of mutual communication is deep rooted within our human psychic; our mind either segregates the unknown or recognizes the known immediately. Thus the existence is not communicated rather it is understood. Similar examples of such monuments/buildings are the Mysore Gopuram, Tanjore temples, Taleju temple (Kathmandu), Nyatapola (Bhaktapur), Pyramids, Sydney Opera House, Empire State building. Most, if not all of these monuments/buildings, not only represent the era they stand in but also have a healthy mutual relationship with the people, made possible because they were/are connected with everyday life. People's religious beliefs, social behavior, cultural marks, necessity, deepest fear, love, happiness and amazement seem to somehow transcend into and out through these designs.

I believe that architecture has no relevance if it is neither admired nor ridiculed. Contradiction therefore, is another way by which a monument can become visible. Take for instance the Center Georges Pompidou, its physical form is contradictory to its immediate physical/ built environment. Very often we find ourselves sheepishly gazing around the city looking at different structures, buildings that stand as testimony of defiance of local building tradition get discerned quickly. We as students love to remark, "oh that building looks so out of place!" but we tend to forget that the very reason we are noticing them in the first place is because they are peculiar additions to the perceived perfect picture. In a way, the designer has made her point. Sometimes something totally irrelevant can still be successful because it provides that much needed visual relief to the viewer. After all, nature has a unique balance; the very fact that makes life interesting, if there is success it is sweet because there is failure too.

We can also classify the 'unsuccessful' buildings as being too ordinary or common. A result of repetition, when there is too much of the same thing, its vitality stops growing. When you have to pick out a green plate from a bag full of green plates, what difference does it make which one you pick as long as it is unbroken! Very often designers make the mistake of duplication; either in the name of preservation of certain built forms or some inane reason known only to the designer. There is so much life visible in a crowd than a group of manufactured robots; the crowd has spontaneity that the latter clearly lacks.

Lack of simplicity or too much complexity is another fact to consider. Usually the more successful structures are simple by nature. The Dabalis (raised platform) of ancient Kathmandu flourished because they were simple structures with defined uses. Simplicity of the structure affects the communication factor. For, very often designers strive to create objects of great forms, shapes and take a lifetime explaining its relevance; great structures do that for themselves. Scholars might take interest in the complexity of the structure but the society perceives the object as a whole, the common man's level of understanding is not same as the learned scholar. This is an important fact because most of our historical monuments seem to be made for the Emperor or his life afterwards, it is interesting to note that the common man has always remained hidden; his life has never really been glorified in any way. In this context I suppose, it is relevant to understand whom you are designing for!

It is crucial to keep cultural identity alive and challenge to go forward without mocking the past but if we let building culture evolve, it can be fun. The cave of ancient man has evolved to the present day sky-scrappers (to the space station), halting this will be unhealthy. Culture and religious aspects are time bound, and so is the society practicing them; hence the requirement of the society at large will be specific to their time in history. Lets be clear, we are not building for the past nor the future not only because they are unseen but more importantly because we belong to the present.

Lastly, architecture is somewhat abstract; it is more a play of the mind than a well thought out plan. Can we imagine a world without the Pharaohs and the Pyramids? Most of the successful buildings created in the world have been results of dreams and visions; just as the world history is made up of 'biographies of great men' architectural history is no different. Wonderful landmarks (immortalized in time) have been result of unquenchable thirsts of the human spirit. Thus when it comes to acknowledging these buildings, the men (mind) behind it cannot be left far behind. So lets not ward off the ingenuity of the human mind for it supersedes all others.

As it is often said, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, everything put together people still have to like it at the end.

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