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understanding the place

sometime in 1959 this writer had represented the faculty of fine arts of baroda university in the debate on: “is architecture an art or science?” at the school of architecture.  he had begun with a line of a popular song: ‘ek bangala bane nyara’ (let there be made a perfect bungalow), and then delved into the matter with the dictionary definition of the words: art (sanskrit. kal: - to understand, regard.  hence kala): - skill, understanding; science (greek. scire > latin. scientia: - to know): - knowledge.   here, too, the subject is of understanding of the human habitat.

what he has experienced and observed since then, is that at least in the modern mode of education educators themselves lead a compartmentalized life, being trained to learn only a single facet of the prism that creates an intriguing pattern of colours; and hence fail their students to experience the infinite hues of rainbow colours that life expresses in; and thus miss out all other joys emanating in various other forms in their pursuit of the singular field of expertise, be it architecture or medicine or anything else.

place is a subjective form of space framed with the purpose.  place is where beings live, things are done or placed.  a dwelling, a museum, a mausoleum, a school, a concert hall are all places. a place has a purpose, such as school, where one learns to find one’s place in the commercial set up of placements, or it is an abu ghareb prison that was, and is meant to place and torment the societal misfits.  a humane habitat is where the humanely human beings live.  the first place one comes to understand experientially, but not intellectually is the mother’s womb.  there, both the dweller and the dwelling come into being simultaneously, and evolve in purposefully symbiotic way.  both their forms justify each other.   when the purpose is served, neither the fully formed baby can survive there, nor can the womb hold on to dead baby without itself – the woman – dying. 

so is with any other place.  it must come into being in a symbiotic form, function and manner.  and then it must cease to be, as birds do.  it enables every newborn bird to build its own nest and thus understand the place experiencing-ly   in this instance, it is the human species alone that builds castles in the air using the concrete materials.  a castle, too, is a place, except that the purpose there is to hide the frightened dweller from others.  and this frightened dweller desires it to last forever.  desire is a thought.  any thing that is conceived as thought first, creates a split between the thinker and the product of his/her thought.  that is how most man made things are.  that is how buildings are first built on the drawing boards of the architects.   and the architects and their patrons create each other in their individually thought out senses of safety.   a place thus becomes as many different things as are the people who had their thoughts put into it.  it is thus that an entire human existence becomes ways of life on which the thought in its many types of attire travels.  then, as time as thought progresses, man’s thought out places are crowding the space creating a labyrinth in which even the not yet born new generation will be required to make do with a living place as are prisoners required to adjust their limbs and organs to the confines of the prison cells.


so let us first sort out a place from the thought of it, the thought out place.  temple, church, mausoleum or any thing that houses a thought out thing or being that exists only as thought, is a thought out place.   and only the humans, and in them, only the frightened ones create such places.  such places not being created out of the real necessity are not accepted to be real by every one.   the hindus and muslims fighting over a place called babari masjid is an example.  or the very creation of india and pakistan is even more compelling example when in fact, in the era of global communication and global trade the political boundaries are losing their power and romantic tales. 

a place is defined by its contours.  a real place has its contours formed of its practical usage.  a house for instance; it has walls to keep the elements out.  but then, man also builds walls to keep the other people out, such as a fort, a berlin wall, a “security wall” around a place called israel, carved out a place called palestine.  like all other religions, nationalism is a religion, and as a religion, it can survive in only minds that subscribe to it.  as a thought out place, a national identity is always in danger of being replaced by another new thought.  india, for instance, it has changed so many descriptions.  as a place it is just a country where many people try to survive right under the shadows of world’s many famous places of thought out things, taj mahal, red fort, etc.  mumbai has changed its looks and names.  it has even a gateway that opens into a mere idea of a place.  gateway of india is a symbolic entrance to an abstraction of place called: ‘the raj’.  but since the imperial architects, like any other single tract expert, did not know any other forms of expression, built the gate out of sandstone.  taj mahal, too, is thus an earthly dwelling for the royal couple who has left the earthly form of existence. the earth is littered with such structures erected for the unearthly subjects.


for the past several thousand years, since the time of pyramids, the human mind has been thought of as a possessor of thought rather than experience-r as a sense organ of the dimensions other than the ones related to the five senses, that is, the world of sensory perceptions.  there, the mind is nothing more than the prototype of a sophisticated computer.  like computer, it can work on only things that it is fed with, but cannot perceive any thing out of the blue.   minds are made up of thoughts, the thoughts about things and beings and systems; their forms, modes and manners of movements.   and then, it passes on from parent to child, from teacher to pupil and from leader to the led.  this limits the minding organ to a mere tool of linear thinking.  this creates the need for school.  from pyramids to the most modern design in the making on a yet unknown famous architect’s drawing board, it is nothing but a confused struggle to formulate the idea into three dimensions.  it is handed down in a linear form of a place --  a work sheet vague as what the emperor shah jahan mumbled into his wife, mumtaz mahal’s ear, or as specific as the vietnam veterans’ memorial.

whatever understanding of any thing comes to a student in the form of a theory forms an outline of student’s limits of the perceptive range of any thing that is non linear, non descriptive.  this is more obvious to a student of architecture than to a literature major.  in the latter, the symbolic representation of a place or act manifests variedly but only in verbal form. its effects are felt only by those who read it.   in architecture, the architect first learns to formulate the thought into blueprint and then into a three dimensional form.   what is built, affects even the surrounding space.  new york, for instance, the high rise trend that it has set, is only multiplying its effects upon the environment, including the marine life of the hudson bay.  and yet, in the end, what is created rarely reaches the level of satisfaction for both the designer and the patron, for the simple fact that neither of the two are symbiotically related to the created place, as does a bird to a nest, or an ant to anthill.

of the four primates, the humans are the only ones who subjugate other humans.  this subjugation is reflected in the place both the slave and slave owner live in.  the notion of one up-ness is not found in other creatures.  even the chest thumping big gorilla picks berries for himself and makes his own bed.  so do those humans who are cognizant of their self-nature.  all other specie live alike, on equal footing.  and yet, no two dens of bears, nor two nests of the birds of the feather that flock together, are alike.  but the modern city builders churn out the pre-fabricated forms of housing for those dwellers that have no say.  this, too, is a modern trait of the mechanical kind, arising from the notion of monopoly.  in this game of sameness the architects have joined last.  so now we have people wearing the pre-fabricated clothes also live, work, and eat in pre-fabricated buildings; they go to pre-assigned (promoted) places, study subjects that have questions and answers forethought.

in the non commercial, non political global perspective, the human biology relates to the globe locally, much the same as do all other specie and primates, including the primitives and enlightened modern humans.  the differing ones make believed-ly try to paint the globe with the abstract colour that exists only in an unopened tube. that is, in spite of all the theoretical concepts and solutions, the physically biological body of the master urban planner fails to adapt to all the modern designs of dwellings, dress and shoes and the rest.  man (he) is unable to master nature.

understanding the place means knowing it as it is; in this instance, not what it is in, for and by itself, but in context: whom for, for what purpose and for how long.  it is for humans.  is it for their dwelling or work?   if it is a dwelling, then who are the dwellers?   the dwelling place is primarily for the protection from the elements.   one needs to know the geography of the place.  its climate and weather and the terrain must be observed.  do the earthquakes occur?  if near the sea or river, then the high water marks must be taken into consideration.  one can’t just fill up the marshlands and drain the water.  there are other dwellers of the place.  they may be invisible to the human eyes, but nevertheless as much the part of the eco-system as are the humans.  are the humans the able bodied or elderly sick or handicapped?  in observing the urban dwellings one notices the blatant disregard for the eco-links of the place with its existing and new dwellers.  the main reason for this is that the human beings as a species have  not yet fully evolved as are the other specie, who, having been around longer than the humans, have understood this eco-centricity of their existence.  the human person, though unable to live all alone by oneself, thinks incessantly for one’s own welfare, and that, too, at the expense of others.

so when a man thinks of finding a place to live, he wants it far away from others, and then experiences the need to build a road to the town.  he wants to have a house overlooking the beautiful waterfront, or mountain range or waterfall.  but afterwards he never experiences the beauty of the place.  the beauty of the place when seen as an outside thing, but without feeling beautiful within, is called the scenic beauty that one goes to see, but then returns to one’s not beautiful place.  otherwise, both the place and its inhabitant would be like meadows and butterflies.  now if this man is rich, he also tries to keep other persons away from his beautiful place.  and of course, he hires others to build his dream house. 

since the very notion of accumulating the riches itself is an input of the fear, the what if - phenomena, a thought, not necessitated by the eco- process, his description of the dream house, too, is just the thought, and borrowed thought at that.   he acquires such thoughts from other people and literature that promote a particular architect and his particular style.  architects develop this from their influential teachers who view things only comparatively.  an architect sells his design much the same way as does a psychologist sell his therapy.  since neither of the two is really related to a person’s eco-centric needs, both the demand and preference for a particular architectural style and psychological treatment keep losing out to the newer forms.

if a spoken word stands for some thing, being or thought, then, the utterance of that word creates an impression, an image of that which it stands for.  a word refers to some thing tangible or intangible; concrete or abstract.  we have spoken and printed words beyond measure.  and those who are literate, have headful of words retained as memory or knowledge -- the words of wisdom and poetry and technical data.  the chinese have an expression for it. when bamboo is young, it is stout.  when it matures, it bends down.  they equate this bamboo phenomenon with wisdom. wisdom makes a person humble.  so they  call bamboo an old humble gentleman.

architecture, too, stands for some thing.  its primary function was the usage, as a dwelling, a bridge to cross a stream, and so on.  then it took off from there, and all the useless structures sprang up -- the temples and churches and mosques and monuments.  they do not and cannot convey what never existed in the first place.  that’s why there is more violence promoted by religions.  babri masjid is an example.  creation of israel is another.  north and south ireland is just that.  those who may be materially resourceful, but are not wise yet, want the big and tall monuments erected.  wise people would not.  accepted that every one has to eat and etc., but after seeing the architectural jumbles in every country, it seems necessary that the architectural students be waken up and learn to non-cooperate with those who have been abusing the world’s resources through the architects.   then they would refuse to build monuments and symbolic structures that lose their meaning as soon as the ideology changes -- as what happened to the bamiyam buddha statue in afghanistan.  buddha himself was against image making.  and gandhi’s ashram contained simple kutis.

all human beings are thought of as members of the same species mostly in printed and spoken words.  and, once in a rare while, when an other than human  force, such as the earthquake or tsunami strikes, people do realize the inescapable fact that no body in particular is special.  since the fear of the ‘what if’ is a thought, and as only the human inter-action is thought oriented, most of the fear of the ‘what if’ comes from other human beings.  the human society is conditioned to deal with this fear through the competition, purchase and elimination.  the other forms of outside fear, too, are really thought out by professionals who make a living by keeping the masses frightened.   hence, there are the insurances against fire, flood, theft, as well against the wrath of the heavenly bodies.  but the policy holders are not encouraged to understand that the insurance policy does not stop the disaster or death, it only compensates for the loss by giving a monetary value to a lost thing or being.  and of course, money does not bring back what is lost.

so, knowing the place is also the knowing the person’s mind who relates to the place as a conditioned creature.  minds are made up of thoughts.  thoughts are made up of wishes and fears.  much of what surrounds a modern human being is for living in the time un-manifest.  this makes the urban dwelling place a storehouse of the things not to be touched in the present.  of many manmade things, the architecture outlasts the builder and the original dweller for generations.  a long lasting building made according to the specifications of the then current mode of life and work, unwittingly creates problems for the subsequent generations whose lifestyles and work methods will have changed, their understanding of the place will have changed.   and not every thing of the past or present is a clearly conceived form.  effects of the usage show whether what was made was necessary or made right.  most modern designs promoted as convenience have finally begun to show ill effects upon the humans both in body and psyche.  americans are not a healthy people and american architecture has a large direct and indirect share in the rapidly deteriorating quality of life in america.

when all human beings have the same characteristics of a species, then at some point all of them will have to share the place equanimously as do other specie.  and architects must not be allowed to prostitute their thought patterns to the rich as the standard of dwelling places.  in nature of things, all issues are local and all solutions are local.  food, clothes and shelter are as much local as are the creatures, which eat, protect themselves with some cover and dig a burrow, build a nest or a hut.  between the user and thing used, exists a sym-biotic relationship of their forms and manner of use.  a carnivore creature’s teeth only bite and tear to swallow meat.  a vegetarian creature’s jaws move side ways to masticate nuts and berries before swallowing food. this sym-biotic relation between the form and function is given and is choiceless.  lately we have begun to pay attention the environmental effects and the wrong kind of food upon the person. 

but we have not yet paid any attention to the effects of the kind of shelter one dwells in.  the housing industry is one of the biggest among the commercial enterprises.  and not the dweller, but the commercial builder decides as to what kind of dwelling it should be.  to keep it that way, the governmental bureaucracy has devised an education that keeps the populace from knowing and building one’s own home as does a bird or even an “illiterate” country dweller.  a city dweller is forced to adjust to the confines of the allocated space within an apartment, much in the manner of an animal in the zoo or a prison inmate is required to.  this adaptation being unnatural comes at the perils of the damaged psyche and the luster of life. this is why, in the modern urban mind the naturalness is equated with the wild and untamed; free, and not with the educated or rich.

as seen in the latest several disasters, the globalized urban dwellers fared worst, having lost the touch with the natural occurrences, both mundane and otherwise.  the wild creatures, primitives and those who lived on the fringes of the modern cultures, did not experience the make believe, learnt pains that are the main stay of the urban psychologists.  culture is the culturing of the human consciousness into the collective conscience.  when the culturing agent is nature, one lives using every thing locally available, food as well as clothing and building material, and lives picturesquely beautifully, like butterfly in the meadows.  when the culturing agent is the commercial conglomerate, food, clothes and building designs and materials are shipped thousands of miles, and they not being sym-biotically needed by the people, there is created the exact opposite, the ugly, crude, cruel and mechanical.

what george bernard shaw has said – those who can’t do anything else, teach; those who can’t teach, teach teachers – applies to the school of architecture, too.   missing in the education is the element of the relativity.  not the theoretical, but actual.   the word: architect, in greek (‘sounds greek’ as the expression goes) means the master builder.  in the classical (of the classy people) greek period, the word had already divided into two professions, one the master and the other the builder.  one had the resources, but no desire to dirty one’s hands; and the other, whose hands were rough with the building materials, was actually the master’s builder.   so to please his master, the builder started implanting the ideological usages of the building studded with the symbolic representations connected with the master, such as the insignia and coat of arms, etc.  and that inflated the master’s ego, to feed which the builder had to keep on increasing the height of the roof; to support which the columns were to be made massive.  thus the simple dwelling of the biologically physical body took off and became a thing in itself, became an art; and then, ‘the art for art’s sake’. art is not a person or a thing in and by itself.  it is created by a person.  

as a tool of show of one up-ness of skill and wealth, architecture became separated from its eco-centrically justifiable purpose.  such architectural forms house not the people, but their ideologies, such as churches, mausoleums, monuments or museums, all devoid of the throbbing elements of life.  and the architects, being freed from their royal masters, began to appease the rich, which is: reich in old high german, coming from: rex in latin, meaning royal.  again, to safeguard the egos of the modern day royalties, the various new architectural symbolic styles are invented.  ahmedabad being a city where some of the super rich indians live, thus boasts such cross-section of the modern architectural styles.

where does the designer fit in the problem?   the architecture students, like those of every other field of study begin to distance themselves from those whence many of the students come.  the very purpose of education is to create distance between those who have and those who do not have the skill as well as those who can and cannot afford to use the skill.


is it not possible that in all fields of learning a new subject be added – the subject of relativity?  this unified field of relativity that einstein sought is not missing only in the field of science, but rather in the very realm of conscience in which all fields of science are observed to be inter-related.  then, as would any other professional, architect would not unwittingly contribute to the socio-economic apartheid through one’s design.  then one sees that it is the very notion of ownership – mine, not yours – that has created palaces for the greedy and prisons for those whose labour enables the rich to hire the architect.  and both the rich and the wanting to be rich architect are simply motivated by the fear of the ‘what if’ of the socio-economic insecurity.

buddha and his perceptions of the human behaviour are regarded highly among the western intellectuals, but selectively.  for instance, buddha distinguishes between a pure expression of ecstasy and made to order forms of art as objects of pleasure.  for one cannot be ordered to feel that which is not there in the elemental form within one.  there cannot be a “command” performance, only a poor imitation of a happening, and that, too, done by those poor artisans in want of the socio-economic security.  that makes all art forms that are paid for in currency; make them commercial art, whether it is a sistine chapel, a statue of david or any thing. so one of the ten precepts of the buddha is: “ i shall abstain from dance, song, music and the visual arts.” for they cloud the perception of seeing what is, and offer temporary escape from the dread of a programmed life.  and now we have the buddhist artifacts filling up museums.  and buddha was against the image making and monuments.  what is known as the zen art of "no -- mind".  it happens when there is no mind -- thought -- of the art and artist is arising. so there can't be a professional artist, famous or unknown.  artists, like architects, are reared to serve the rich. 

a truly democratically minded person is one who thinks, feels and acts in awareness of the equanimity of existence of all forms of life.  a people, who are reared with the taken for granted correctness of their way of life, unwittingly and without meaning to harm the relativity between the place and environment, do just that.   just consider the modern tools and machinery used in the building construction.  their sheer size and strength create havoc among the smaller and “lesser” dwellers of the place.


what is  proposed here may sound outlandish at the first glance.  but when given a serious consideration, it becomes all too clear that much of the modern form and function of architecture is devoid of the relativity that affects all concerned.  when a customer comes to an architect, or when an architect hears of a lucrative grand monumental project, he/she must first study the proposal for its justification as a necessary work.  if the proposed project is merely a monument to house an idea or an ideal, then one must voice one’s objection to it.  if it is seen to be a worthwhile, necessary project, then visit the proposed place.  observe the life of the existing inhabitants there, human as well as other.  ask not only their permission, but seek their input as well.  and if the proposed work is found to be of destructive nature for their natural survival, then the architect must have the freedom from the fear of one's own socio-economic survival to enable him/her to inform the customer to make changes in the design to make it eco-friendly, or to scrap it altogether, if another place cannot be found.  this is how all other creatures build their nests and hills and dig burrows; this how the unlettered primitives build their huts, and they all co-exist.  why can’t the modern humans, too, who consider themselves to be the smartest of all creatures, do the same?


before writing this article to present toan international architectural seminar, the 'span' members had already observed firsthand, the effects of the inter-relationship of the dweller with the dwelling upon the environment, when 'span' acquired some 70 acres of land in the ozarks of arkansas in 1976.  the so called "land developers", only interested in the quick sale had bulldozed the swaths of the wooded land treating it as if the patches of acreage were as flat and squares as drawn on the maps.   the effect was that the nearly up and down roads, as steep as the four wheel drive automobiles can handle, became the channels of gushing waters come first heavy rains.  so, too, the financially well to do new "outsiders", struck  with the back to the land fever,  got much of the trees removed for the purpose of being able to see a "nice view" from the window, or to have a vast stretch of lawn. (lawns are an excuse to show off the grand design, be that of the buckingham palace, or of the washington, d.c.)  all such efforts caused  land slides and flooding down hills, as there were not trees and bushes to hold the dirt. 'span' members experienced the effects of such flooding the very first year, which carried away  some food stuff as well as papers of writing and documents.

then some of us undertook another experiment, that, though seemingly not relevant to the art of ecological architecture, showed the effects of architecture upon the socio-economic apartheid.  we took some menial works, since the women and the dark skinned foreigners were not considered good for anything else.  arkansas  gets blamed for being the buckle of the bible belt for the 1957 racial crisis where the state governor had blocked the first black students from entering the high school in little rock.  but the racial apartheid existed everywhere, as it still does.  only now we do not refer it by the colour of their skin.  now we call them the labour workers, which now includes the "fair" skinned people as it did in the greek and roman times.

we observed that any one who gets one's dwelling entirely  built by another person, gets it done in a proportion larger than life.  this larger than life is the image that one wishes to portray in other people's eyes.  this puffing up is the animal impact triggered by the defense mechanism.  it's a device to scare away others.  greeks used to cherish the power of physical strength, and have made larger than life statues of their strong men. but in the modern urban culture,  the muscular men are the lowest in the hierarchical wrung of the society.  they do the slave labour.   there, the powerful are the people who are the slave owners, the rich< reich< rex:- royal.   so their dwellings are the largest.


but since, this over-sized dwelling also needs maintenance,  the house servants are required.  the architects, who make a socio-economic niche by pleasing the rich with their ever enlarging designs, add to the maintenance work.  no architect, even if environmentally informed, ever concerns oneself with the amount of slave labour required in the upkeep of one's prized design.  just imagine, what happens to the modern metropolis, like new york, and buildings like buckingham palace and taj mahal, the ultra modern airports and the dwellings of the rich, if all their maids and house servants and the maintenance crew refused to work?

there is a saying: "all talk and no do makes one an intellectual."  like al gore, perhaps?  just consider how many trips he made all around the globe to promote his idea of the awareness of the global warming, including the last one in bali, indonesia.  that, too, is the larger than life image of an ecological mind.  otherwise, it is as the american indian expression goes: "let the person sitting near the fire place ignite it."  that is decentralization of power and the powerful image.  al gore may still have his say.  and today he has tools available that negates the long travels.  gandhi reached more people the old fashioned way than most people today do despite their extensive and expensive world wind travels.  gandhi had also told the labour workers that, " it is not in the interests of the rich to co-operate with the poor; it is in the interests of the poor to non co-operate with the rich."   but when one feels poor by comparison, more than by lack, one is likely to prostitute one's skills to get rich, rather than by finding an enlightened solution to poverty.

what may sound absolutely outlandish is in fact a proposal for knowing what one really is, and not what one is led to think or believe one is.  for only then would one see and feel what one's needs are in terms of motions and rest; nourishment and protection from the weather.  only then would one see that not only the architecture, but every thing that the modern urban person thinks, speaks and does is to make oneself appear what one is not, for the fear of being seen to be smaller than everybody else's exaggerated images --  the larger than life images of things, beings and thoughts one is fed in the name of country, culture and education.  in terms of the commercial art, the art of advertising is referred as the psychology of inducement.  in politics, it is the speech writing for the leader who is  otherwise dumb.  in the consumer market, it is the "sexy"-ness of otherwise genderless automobile. in woman-man relationship, it is the make-up kit.  every one is taught to feel ill at ease in being seen as nature has made one.  this notion of wanting to look different is in fact a device, a mask to hide behind.  but behind the mask, the wearer has got an acquired face that is made smaller through a life long pre-occupation with comparison that began with the first day in school.


the main article was presented to an architectural seminar in indonesia in 2007.
the picture is a collage of the asian weaver birds from the internet.

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