Four Designs for a Place for Performance

The Ecological Approach:
A Continual Practice of Connection

The brief to prospective participants in the call for applications was to choose sites that were either locations thriving with life or lying in a state of neglect, but with the potential of becoming a place for performance. All four participants, as well as other applicants, either chose a park (derelict or vibrant) or the design turned the site into one, within which the place of performance found its space. This has three significant implications which reinforce the programme’s impetus against big-money, consumer-oriented, high-maintenance infrastructure.

  1. The idea of participating in a performance is connected to leisure. Performance spaces need to be located in open discursive environments that allow digressions. This isn’t limited to the audience alone, but performers too should be able to take a walk-break during preparation as well as before and after a performance.
  2. The essential spatial elements of a park are the ground and vegetation, which are self-sustaining. They need little additional maintenance besides basic care, provided exotic forms are avoided. Need-specific infrastructure – such as washrooms or barricades for large crowds or light and acoustics for performances – can be provided creatively on a temporary basis. 
  3. Outsourcing the programming, maintenance and administration of these performance parks will only lead to indifferent and inanimate environments. The places of performance need to be run by the neighbourhood community: residents or people well-associated with the place through business, profession or love.

A Terrace Garden of Performances

Charvi’s site is part of a large terrace garden located atop a two-storied shopping complex and framed on the South and West by ten-storey glass-clad office blocks, while the North and East edges of the terrace overlook the main roads and their crossing. Considering the scope of this program, only a slice of this terrace from its Western end is being considered as the site.

Google & site images of the site; courtesy Charivi

Site Section & Plan
Drawing by Siddharth & Ketki

Charvi’s design attempts to challenge the clinical orthogonality and the sterile symmetry of the planters, stay rooms and other structures on the terrace. The design strategy, however, employs the very elements whose configuration it is attempting to challenge. Half the site is now flooded with trees anchored in plants similar to the ones that exist. This brings about three significant variations in the experience of the terrace garden:

  1. The orthogonal array becomes organic
  2. The symmetry is broken, offering distinct experiences at the two ends marked by the stair rooms
  3. Retaining the large open lawn on the South as an adaptive open space for diverse performances and gatherings, Charvi creates a clearing within the area of newly planted trees. This clearing houses curved rows of seating oriented towards a covered performance space.

Thus, the design creates diverse spaces and experiences along the length of the site.

Part Section ; Drawing by Siddharth & Ketki

The other element that Charvi replicates is the curvilinear roof forms of the stair-room and lightwells. In a clever play, the design employs the curved plane to become the roof of the performance space at one end of the scale and benches in the seating rows at the other end.

The services and amenities required for the terrace garden of performance are imagined as accommodated within the generous veranda skirting the giant glass boxes. 

Model by Charvi & Swati, photo: Swati

An Urban Forest for Performances

Google & site images of the site; courtesy Ketki

Ketki starts by flooding the inanimate Square with trees. This provides mass to carve or discover spaces out. She then creates a simple grid of water channels, part of which uses the existing storm-water drainage infrastructure, to divide the large ground into smaller parts. One of these channels passes between two of the existing seating structures – previously located indifferently to each other. The channel, however, now makes these elements appear as neighbours conversing over the fence. This wonderfully demonstrates that boundaries don’t just divide, but can also help establish relationships.

Ketki’s design integrating the existing seating elements & water channel,
the grid of trees with a clearing for the space of performance and the meandering red path
drawing, model & photos: Ketki Bhaskar  

Ketki then creates a clearing in the forest to mark the space of congregation and performance. The next layer in her design strategy is the creation of a meandering pathway that simultaneously defies and reinforces the orthogonality of the grid of trees and the water channels. The final act in Ketki‘s design is the creation of the pit for performance and piling up the excavated earth on its periphery to create tiered seating. The seating and the pit can be covered when required by stretching over pieces of canvas high up across the trees. Washrooms could be small but multiple and distributed across the site. This decentralisation would allow for independent organic treatment of sewage as well as in avoiding crowding of people in one place. The snacks and beverage kiosks too can follow this decentralised strategy.

A Park for Performative Re-creation

Google location & context analysis by Mugdha

Mugdha appropriates an Amul-AMC park to complete its infrastructure and also add more to facilitate performances of varying nature and scales. She employs her inhabitation mapping to retain the large central congregation space as an open and accommodative place for performances. She reinforces the corner of intimacy and solitude with earthen mounds and additional vegetation of seasonal fragrant flowering trees and shrubs. 

Site Photos and Plan by Mugdha

A square Kund  (water body) mediates the space of congregation and the corner of solitude and intimacy. This threshold is dotted with snacks and beverage kiosks aligned to but at varying distances from three of the edges of the Kund.

Part Sections of the Site by Mugdha

In a somewhat diagonal relationship with the Kund, Mugdha creates a second space for performance: a square pit for intimate performative engagements. The pit is further framed by columns at its four corners with trusses connecting their top ends. The pit of intimate performances and the Kund provide the earth for the mounds in the corner of solitude and intimacy. 

The two performance spaces are separated and connected by a two story structure. Its ground floor houses the green rooms and a props store, while the first floor is dedicated for solitarily rehearsals. The roof above the first floor leans towards the smaller performance space while rising up towards the larger one to provide each with an appropriately scaled backdrop. 

Mugdha imagines rammed earth walls for her buildings with a light frame of steel above. All the buildings on her site are conceived as open structures allowing for generous natural cross ventilation. The roofs of most buildings are flat to allow visitors to inhabit a plane closer to the foliage of the trees. All the earth for the landscape mounds and the buildings come from the kund.

Mugdha’s design strategy employs a fascinating juxtaposition of an orthogonal architectural configuration within an organic canvas of landscape and vegetation. The orthogonality of the buildings too is aligned to the boundary behind such that visitors almost always experience the edifices diagonally when entering the site from the three corners along the access roads.

A Meandering Backyard for Play & Performance

Site Location & Photographs courtesy Prachi

Prachi’s design strategy comprises of essentially one type made up of four elements:

  1. The narrowing and swelling path at the ground level
  2. The meandering troughs of plants running along the edge of the path 
  3. The blob or amorphous sculptural element, which, in addition to being the most conspicuous physical marker, goes beyond being a wall to accommodate bodies in varying postures on its either sides
  4. The pit of congregation and performance

The type is created by following three simple rules :

  1. The trees are always in the pit
  2. The spaces of performance (of three distinct sizes) are centred away from the trees; the spaces of congregation, consequently, are displaced around them
  3. The path follows a meandering profile suggested by the trees and the performance/ congregation spaces

The meandering profile is the most critical spatial device of Prachi‘s design. It breaks the straight line of the park’s existing boundaries, liberating it from narrow linearity and extending its limits till the edges of the row-houses. The seeming randomness of this profile follows intuition and is also reinforced by logic. The intuition behind the profile are the bubbles of spaces presumed from the canopies of the eleven trees dotting the site. In addition, the imagined profiles of spaces of solitude, intimacy and congregation, as discovered while mapping inhabitation on site, also come into play in delineating the components of this site.

The logical reinforcement of the idea comes from the requirement of sewage treatment. The sewage water collected from all the houses lining the park is channelled into an anaerobic compost/ septic tank. The overflowing water from this treatment tank is made to run through troughs of plants whose roots absorb nutrients from it. The meandering extends the length of the trough substantially and consequently increasing the filtration of the water.

Emphasising the backyard character of this park within a gated community, the services and amenities are imagined to be within the houses that hold this space of leisure . Considering that visitors will either be residents of this block or their invited guests, it is assumed that the wash rooms within the houses will be put to use during congregations for festivities and performances. For snacks and beverages, residents can put up stationary kiosks on the blobs or mobile ones along the meandering path. 

Do Not Doubt The Course; Do Not Out-Source

Although the four designs are hypothetical, they have emerged in response to real conditions of the sites and participants’ experiences. All four projects are definitely realisable. If my assertion betrays some doubt it is because I do have some. Not about the practicality of the projects. The designs, in fact, are very practical. I have been wondering throughout the process: ‘Why don’t such places exist?’ Of course, they do, but not enough to become recognisable as a common entity and experience in our daily lives. The question does turn out to be one of daily life, specifically pertaining to the urban middle class context. Our post-industrial socio-economic model is one of outsourcing: care of children and elderly, healthcare, food production and preparation, education, life events and rituals, culture, memory… Almost every need of our lives is catered to by providers of goods and services. In fact, that seems to be the promise and bedrock of urban life. 

Most of us seem to have accepted that we cannot create anything, not even value, for our own self. Even if we do create, there seems to be an immediate pressure to sell. As though making a living weren’t stressful enough, monetisation and upscaling too are essential skills.

So my doubts about these ideas of an ecological architecture for a place of performance stem from the context that demands pucca (permanent) and picturesque structures with zero maintenance and complete outsourcing. However, an ecological approach requires an embodied acknowledgement and acceptance of our transient existence and the need for continual practice in connecting with our communities and our environments.

While we found ourselves short on time in exploring the material and constructional dimensions of the designs, all four designs have met the challenge of enlivening an otherwise rundown or inanimate space through an ecological approach. All four proposals will require a community which will participate in the making, maintaining and running of the parks and the place of performance. 

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