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

[ID:4167] In Search of Muted Narratives : The Beginning of Architecture for Equity


The question was simple, “Why architecture?”

It was a humid day, as are most days in Kolkata. The afternoon sun shone, almost unapologetically, through the glass windows on the western façade. The students huddled on the other side where the scorching rays could not spread its reach and pondered on the question presented to them on their first day in the department. 


For the community at bay

Nimai hails from the deltaic region of the Sundarbans. His first architectural feat was reconstructing his homestead on the debris left behind by a devastative cyclone. Having spent eighteen years with the sea, he is familiar with the drill after each such spell of disaster------ clear up the debris, rebuild the shanty. It has taught him that resilience is never about the out-thinking catastrophe; it is about being able to “spring back”, absorb shock and adapt through renewal. A permanent concrete structure cannot always qualify as more resilient than the wobbly shanty simply because it is a thousand times easier to rebuild a demolished mud-and-straw structure than a buckled concrete work. On one hand, the rising climatic crisis, acute poverty, and lack of vital infrastructure incessantly put the community’s resilience to test. On the other hand, the government’s eco-tourism policy has its primary focus is on capital flow with little regard for the needs of the community. Faced with such circumstances, Nimai only envisions to enhance his community’s resilience through architecture.

The first step to building resilience is to ensure communal well-being. The well-being of a community is like the stored health a person owns before illness strikes him. It is integral to promote health or well-being in advance of disasters to foster resilience needed for recovery. When communities are healthy before large-scale traumatic events, they are likelier to stay healthy after them. To promote communal well-being, Nimai looks forward to the creation of “community hotspots”. They will primarily be centres for recreation and skill development. Here, the women can gather at the end of the day and perfect their sewing skills over careless banter. The farmers can assemble here to talk about the day’s yield and discuss how to enhance productivity. They can become a space for children to take after-class lessons from the headmaster, complete the homework together, learn dancing from someone capable, or simply play after dusk. The lack of electricity in every household and difficulties of transportation dim the possibility of each of these actions presently. The design of hotspots equipped with essential facilities lacking in individual households and supported by the needed systems of transportation and community know-how will disseminate equal opportunities for development alongside instilling communal solidarity.

A few community hotspots will also serve as a space for experimentation with resilient built forms and building techniques. Composite structures of mud and cement may be employed and curved forms built to resist the gale. All villagers will be a part of this conversation. They will be suitably assigned specific tasks for the rehabilitation work undertaken after disaster strikes. Accordingly, they will be imparted the needed skill-set and knowledge. It is here that the community will gather to devise a system of response in times of crises. For so long, the community awaited for control-instructions from the government that did not guide them through a process of preparedness, response and recovery. The new system devised by the villagers will take into account what is most effective and suitable for them.

Each minute elapsed during a cyclone feels like a lifetime in itself, nearly static. Post-calamity recovery is excrutiatingly stressful amidst all the losses incurred. Nimai is certain that the hotspots will transcend into a space where the community can heal together as one. For him, architecture is all about breeding communal resilience.


For the parity of pronouns

Gajgamini grew in a small village, four-hundred miles from Gwalior. Here, women mostly remain confined to the andarmahal, with their heads under the veil of the pallu and their indomitable spirits chained to menial domestic chores.

When the Panchayat sanctioned the construction of the first-ever girl’s toilet in the secondary school, Gajgamini perceived the enormous potential of architecture. She saw for the first time what freedom for the girl child could look like. Growing up in a village that always prioritised their boys, she could never fathom the mere possibility of such an exclusive treatment being meted out to her tribe----- an entire toilet block constructed categorically for girls, keeping in mind their necessities and needs. In the queues outside the cubicles, when she overheard girls talk about the lessons they are missing out while having to wait their turn to use the loo, she could not help but recall, how for ages the lack of sanitary facilities compelled girls to drop out of school after attaining puberty. For the girls, that ordinary toilet now stands as a symbol of empowerment as they strive to be academically at par with the boys.

In the evening, the toilet is used by the women of the village. The scene then is equally heart-warming for Gajgamini. With their veils out of place, the women happily dwell in a space free from any power struggle. They exchange stories of their long-forgotten ambitions, their little achievements in the way of scheduled domestic chores, their passions and desires. This sight repeatedly tells her that a toilet can evolve beyond its inherent function of sanitation. In India, over fifty percent of women face sexual violence due to open defecation. A toilet in each of their households is an essential requisite. It was in a dimly-lit cubicle of this toilet block that the proposition to bring about a sanitation drive in her village first dawned on Gajgamini.

The drive would start with spreading awareness about sanitary health and hygiene among the villagers, impress upon them the need for toilets and break the taboos associated with them. Initially, each mohalla (neighbourhood) will receive its own toilet block. For Gajgamini, it is not just about creating a toilet. What is more important is designing a “safe” toilet where no one feels threatened. Hence it is essential to ensure that the toilet is not situated in some desolate corner of the neighbourhood. The site for the toilet block should thus be an area that is always thronging with people. At the same time, the women should face no inconvenience to avail its services.

In Gajgamini's vision, a toilet has the potential to become more than just a space for ablution. The toilet block will thus house other auxiliary functions that the particular neighbourhood needs. In the morning it can be a space for the locals to sell their daily produce. In the afternoon, it can assume the role of a pathshala (school). Evenings can see the space change into small mela (fair) ground. Through her design, she hopes to shatter the very idea that a lavatory is a “dirty” space. She envisions the toilet, not as a row of cubicles, but as a multifunctional space interspersed with cubicles. Its design should embody the architectural richness of Gwalior and should harbour the potential of becoming an identity of the mohalla. Gajgamini is certain that her architectural education will enable her to achieve her lofty ambition of transforming the notion of sanitation in her community.  


For the unmapped neighbourhoods

The changing cityscape of Kolkata inflicted a barrage of questions on Ritabari. It started with the redevelopment of her ancestral house into a multi-storied apartment block. The building's highly modern outlook depicts no coherence with the traditional architecture of the neighbourhood. 

Ritabari has spent many an evening in the chilekotha (attic) of her ancestral house, soaking in the rugged dampness of the lime-washed walls. Seated beside the small louvred window, she would stare in awe at the intricate floral plasterwork on the ceiling. Awed simply by the fact that aeons ago some nameless architect took the time to mould an elaborate florid design for the attic ceiling, hoping that the gloomy soul who’d come to find refuge in the loneliness of the room would look up to discover pure joy. All of it now stands obliterated by a giant cubic block that shows no reverence for what it has replaced. 

The architecture of an indigenous neighbourhood (para) of Kolkata is very distinct. Here, streets form a web and lanes split into ever narrower alleys. How unlike the British cartographic partitioning system of corridors and blocks. In these para pockets, the city resembles a capillary system penetrating a dense and complex material. The buildings alongside the winding alleys resemble pearls in a garland, some of them over a hundred years old. Their outer façades create the inner skin of the street, infusing it with a character similar to an enlarged community space. The architecture of each building plays its part to help the para gain a sense of enclosure, that ushers in a feeling of security and togetherness. The new construction, high on modernism, does not even hesitate to destroy the serene aura of the neighbourhood. Is urbanism all about meticulous planning with no room for intimacy with the existing community?

Ritabari fears that as forces of gentrification keep burgeoning, these close-knit para communities might go extinct. What defines them the most is the architecture and spatial organisation of the neighbourhood. A sound marriage between development and urban conservation is thus highly essential to ensure that the historic past can thrive alongside the present developmental needs of the people.

It is hard to fathom the architectural nitty-gritty of the para spaces as it has never been comprehensively documented. Ritabari plans to start right there----- an elaborate mapping and study of the labyrinthine locality. From the master plan at the neighbourhood level to the individual plans of each built form in the neighbourhood, the study will aim to understand how the locality interacts with the greater city and other localities around it. It is important to holistically determine the position the locality occupies in the economic and social front, the heritage resources it houses and their potential to contribute to modern development. The answers to these questions will facilitate best-fit land use.

A detailed study of the built forms will unravel the cultural significance of the buildings and the para in totality. It will further highlight the architectural language predominant in the locality and hint at the spatial hierarchies the newer developments should favourably implement in their designs. It will vividly demonstrate the architectural nuances and details that need to be applied to façade designs to maintain the sense of continuity of the street.

Along with these architectural titbits, Ritabari plans to capture the narrative of the community in the documentation. The exhaustive study will include income information, ownership details, spatial needs and housing conditions of the people alongside their vision of the para. As the aspirations of the community get amplified, so will the development of community-sensitive architecture that will foster communal vitality and rehabilitation of the neighbourhood.

She hopes to bring to the fore the suppressed voices of the community as it faces the heat of urbanisation. Her intention is to create a readily available database that will fully inform urban planners of the cultural context of the para and how best to mediate developmental endeavours amidst the tangible and intangible heritage links. Ritabari believes her proficiency in architecture is crucial for the smooth execution of the initiative she has so extensively envisioned for her community.


For the community under the carpet

Mohomay’s fascination with play areas dates back to his childhood days when his mother would hide him in the cupboard while she engaged in business. The dingy lanes of the red-light area hold no space for unfettered play of unfortunate kids born in the brothels. His mother knew that if she did not lock him in the cupboard, there was only one place he would run-up to----- the terrace.

Locked in the cupboard, he would dream of the open sky dotted with colourful kites. His heart would yearn to play marbles with his best friend, chase him around blindfolded, show him the new tricks he has learnt with the ball. But the nearest playground was only so far away. The buildings in this part of Kolkata more often share a common wall. The proximity of neighbouring terraces has always left Mohomoy fantasizing of a giant terrace space created by uniting all the smaller terrace tops and transforming it into an enormous playscape. He could never give up that fancy---- a playful haven over and above the dingy lanes, a safe space for the children in an otherwise unsafe locality.

The idea at heart is very lucid ---- connecting the roofs of a cluster of neighbourhood buildings and designing it as a safe space for play. Roofs at the same level can be connected and converted into a space for playing football or cricket. Level differences between adjoining rooftops can be exploited to create slides. Intermittent shaded areas can be designed as playful study spaces. Furnished with swings, hammocks and book corners, he desires to design a space that can steer the wholesome development of a child.

The supervision of the entire playscape can be handed over to the members of a willing NGO. All that the kids will have to do is take the flight of stairs and run-up. The playscape can be accessed from each building that it connects. Such easy accessibility of the space is not just endearing, but an absolute necessity for the children who are most often left unattended by an adult.

Mohomay knows, that the significance of such a space in the life of a child growing up in a red-light area, goes beyond play. It has the potential to become their support system, a space that can assist them to forgo the scarring memories they gather. He thus envisions to wield his architectural knowledge to gift the brothers and sisters of his community a safe haven full of fun and frolic.  


Seated on a rickety stool of the design studio, I listened with rapt attention as my batchmates retold stories of their communities; communities far and wide whose narratives have always been muted by the dominant culture. For the first time, it dawned on me how massive the small can become. I never viewed architecture in the light of the ordinary. I hardly knew of the many ways architecture can enlighten the lives of those who have always gone unheard. In the end, as guilty as I am, I have to admit that never before did I ever think of applying my architectural skills to empower my community. I only consider myself blessed to have around me friends like Nimai, Gajgamini, Ritabari and Mohomay. They inspire me to strain my ears to hear the muffled woes of my community. They continually teach me of the extraordinary ways in which architecture can positively transform the ordinary, empower the ordinary, because ordinary is all there is. As each architect strives a little harder to bring to the fore the hushed tales of disenfranchised communities, it will see the gradual evolution of architecture as a tool for promoting equity.


Community hotspots promote health to survive a calamity, resilience and post-calamity recovery

Safe toilet blocks conceived as a sustainable multifunctional space embodying architectural vibrancy

Urban conservation is needed to protect indigenous communities from gentrification and urbanisation

For kids growing in red-light areas, a dedicated playscape can become their support system

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