Closure Review Feedback

Photographs: Sukhmani Brar, Siddharth Singh, Abhinav Pandey & Ketki Bhaskar

Reviews: Kindness, Curiosity & Conversations

In my engagement with the regular academic processes of interior design & architecture since the beginning of 2019, I have been emphasising on the use of the term ‘review’ instead of the prevalent ‘jury.’ Architectural pedagogy has for long adhered to a counter-productive closure of studio processes in the form of getting each student’s work critiqued by a jury of practising architects/ designers. So, while the studio process is expected to be one of creative independence under the guidance of a mentor or two, it all ends up in a circus of validation exchange. Notwithstanding the need for exchange between industry & academia, I prefer intimacy & intensity over exuberant exhibition. I maintain that the need to invite external reviewers is to appreciate and critique the processes in terms of their achievements and shortcomings within the context set by the studio. The jury, on the other hand, tends to drag the processes outside the context to pronounce a judgement against the working or failure of the proposal, which is the best case scenario. While in the worst case scenario, the jury pronounces a verdict against the potential and prospects of the student themselves. The creative process is both daunting as well as exhausting and requires gentleness in engagement and lots of open-ended conversations, particularly allowing those directly involved to be able to hear themselves articulating their thoughts and feelings. I find the anxiety in both the anticipation and experience of the jury detrimental to this essential need to hear oneself. 

It is for this reason that I invited Prof. Neelkanth Chhaya as one of the external reviewers for the closure of the program. I have known Prof. Chhaya since 1996 when I was a student at the School of Architecture, CEPT, Ahmedabad. Prof. Chhaya has been part of all the reviews for the studios I conducted at CEPT in 2021. Besides his vast knowledge and experience of more than four decades as both a practising architect and an educator, Prof. Chhaya is a very kind and generous mentor. Perhaps one wonderful example of his kindness is this instance during one of my studio reviews: Prof. Chhaya abruptly paused to apologise to a student for having started with a harsh critique while responding to her work. Besides managing to bring the student back into the conversation, Prof. Chhaya also shared with us all a valuable lesson in humility and presence.

The other external reviewer was Kolkata based dramaturg & writer, Dr. Rustom Bharucha, whom I’ve known for about two decades now. Dr. Bhaucha’s curiosity and support are the reasons for the conception and realisation of this program.

Creation of Space: Imagination, Pragmatism & Nature

The following notes are a few significant moments from the wonderful conversations we had during the closure review across diverse issues triggered by the four designs presented and discussed in the following sequence: Charvi Sawai’s A Terrace Garden for Performance in Pune, Ketki Bhaskar’s An Urban Forest for Performances in New Delhi, Prachi Strawal’s A Backyard for Play & Performance in Delhi and Mugdha Pargunde’s A Park for Recreation & Performance in Ahmedabad.

Dr. Bharucha’s critique of Charvi’s design was that the practicality of planting the imagined trees needs to be considered seriously. Prof. Chhaya, on the other hand, was less concerned by the practicality of plantation and found the space of dappling light under the trees very interesting. He also appreciated the prospects of the sight of the tree canopies from the office blocks and their reflection in the glass facades. However, he suggested that the new ground of the terrace could perhaps be explored in the third dimension through excavations. Of course, it’s a fascinating idea as far as spatial design exploration is concerned, but, considering that I am keen about the feasibility of the project, I am apprehensive of encouraging it. My suggestion to Charvi in the initial stage of design was to explore large-scale abstract objects – like at Jantar Mantar and Parc de la Villette – to animate the site in the third dimension.

The density of trees in Ketki‘s urban forest was a bit too much for Dr. Bharucha as he felt that it may limit the place in terms of its use for theatre and performance. He observed that not much needs to be done in order to animate space; instead, just making it accessible to theatre and performance groups could be enough.

Prof. Chhaya observed that perhaps a Miyawaki forest was not an appropriate approach. He’d rather explore the possibility of connecting the square with the openings higher up in the buildings around such that movement in the third dimension becomes possible. Trees could then become a strategic reinforcement of this idea. While he appreciated Ketki‘s work, he mentioned that there are perhaps other possibilities which could be explored.

Dr. Bharucha appreciated the raw beauty of Prachi‘s site which he considered to be a long wonderful promenade over the earthen ground. He felt that it is very promising as it is and did not require any development to animate it. 

Prof. Chhaya talked about a very different approach in design compared to the one Prachi had taken. He suggested drawing the elevations of the two rows of houses in great detail. Identifying the relationships of the ground to the various openings and spaces in the facades, he believed, would also make the trees identifiable with the design.

Mugdha’s clarity in the spatial organisation of her site was highly appreciated by Dr. Bharucha. Enlivening such a place, he observed, also addresses the problems that women in particular face because of desolate places being haunted by exhibitionists.

While appreciating the choice of her site, Prof. Chhaya pointed at the possibility of exploring the emerging relationship between the pit, the ground on the higher floor amidst the tree canopies.

The critique and feedback were interspersed with observations and anecdotes across varied issues. On spatial design, Prof. Chhaya observed that as architects we tend to limit ourselves to [the two-dimensional drawing of] the plan in order to organise space. He noted that we have much to learn from theatre artists and performers about engaging with spaces in 3-D and beyond. 

Dr Bharucha added that the scale and dimension of spaces are very critical, such that they allow for intimacy between performers themselves as well as with the audience; large scales only offer spectacles. He recollected his experience of Koodiyattam performances: how the audience had to be witnessing the act at around the performers eyelevel to be able to see the rich intense and nuanced facial expressions.

Acknowledging his lack of any traditional training Dr. Bharucha said that he relied on improvisation when engaging with performers. However, improvisation, he emphasised, doesn’t mean a lack of method or structure; in fact, it requires rigorous disciplined training. This reminded me of the lessons that improv-performer and educator John Britton shared in his residency at Kamshet in 2018. Prof. Chhaya reinforced the necessity of discipline and rituals such as the ones employed during the two phases of this programme.

While the learnings from the program may be more subtle and substantial than loud and pathbreaking, the closure review, in contrast to the final day of the program –  evoked a sense of contentment in me for the intimacy & intensity that it reflected. I am indeed grateful to everyone who participated in the program and the closure, as well as all those who made the two possible.

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