Be it design or visual or performing arts, we are working with multiple ideas to address multiple needs. All these ideas need to come together into a space for design, graphic and performative interventions. Further, the ideas need to converse with each other as well as the context of space they inhabit. The diverse ideas need to negotiate and reconcile with each other and the space that frames them. What follows is the adaptation of the ideas in terms of their form or sequence and relative positions or a combination of these.
Missing Out on Collaboration
The residency has helped the participants take note of and explore the essential process of synthesis across mediums. The first exploration occurred in the collage, where five graphic elements were sequentially placed on a blank canvas. Each act made the participant respond to the preceding situation. Graphic or sculptural forms were not isolated anymore, but created meaning with the preceding context either through composition or association or both. Thus, requiring continuous negotiations and adaptations in pursuit of synthesis. However, only half of the intended work with the collage was carried out. We could not complete the second half of dynamically suturing the four collages to make them one work. This later stage would require successive steps of intentional & incidental collaboration between the participants. Having completed their individual collages, the fact that the participants chose to invest more time working individually on spatial design, is symptomatic of their lack of confidence in negotiating creative processes with others.
Spatial design took away from embodied work more than what was bargained for. The latter was expected to encourage the participants to converse more with each other without the fear of judgement. The participants did well in the available time to create a very short performance. However, the habitually individual engagement in spatial design yet again made the participants blind to the prospects of transferring the collaboration from the performative ensemble into design. I suspect that years of training has made the participants aware of the intimidating quantum of work that one needs to produce to represent the designs for the smallest of spaces. This, more often than not, stiffens them into affording no room for open-ended discussions and collaborations. In spite of repeated instructions to cease, the participants continued to work on their designs at the cost of other processes of the residency. I feel that we missed out on collaboration considerably.
Isolation in Spatial Design Processes
In the design process, participants exhibited a curious stubbornness with certain ideas, which seemed indifferent to the other events occurring on the site. During every review, I’d encourage the participants to offer each other feedback. While they claimed familiarity with each others’ design processes, there was rarely a question from any of them to the other, let alone arguments. I tried hard to break this unsaid rule of niceties, but found little success. Each seemed to be bound in a pact of closely guarding one’s processes by not interfering with those of the others. Perhaps, they behaved differently in my absence, but in the presence of authority, there was no spoken disagreement. Mugdha, who eventually delivered the most resolved and well represented design amongst the four, was inconsistent in presenting her work during reviews.
Limiting Subconscious Parameters
From a strong beginning heading towards coherence, Charvi’s design seemed to have taken an abrupt turn. The suggestion of introducing abstract tectonics – such as from Jantar Mantar – and even absurd elements – such as those in Parc de la Vilet or other postmodernist architecture – was misinterpreted to create a separate building housing a library and cafe. The suggested elements were to be scattered as a strategy to break the clinically sterile orthogonal geometry and symmetry of the site. Charvi, however, created a consolidated building which is beyond the scope of this program. She also placed this building at the edge of the terrace, which, in my mind, was a hidden parameter that Charvi kept following as a strategy to visually attract passers by from the street/ road below.
the amusing building in Charvi’s early scheme
photo: Charvi Sawai
From an earlier fascinatingly skewed configuration of the formal performance space, Charvi moved the canopy to align it with the orthogonality of the site, while the seating appeared in disarray. The orthogonality of the site was another hidden parameter that Charvi could not break out of without help.
digressive iterations in Charvi’s process
photo: Charvi Sawai
Regarding the seating, Charvi said that she was also exploring the possibility of widening the depth of the ones behind so that it allowed for people to pass through as they move across the length of the site. While having wide enough tiers to allow for both movement and seating is good, the idea of people moving across the site through the audience seating area is detrimental to both the performance as well as its experience. No wonder that the seating appeared to have lacked focus. On further prodding, Charvi disclosed a subconscious parameter that she’d been trying to respond to. Two of the interrelated forms of performance that Charvi had studied were Dhol-Tasha and Lezim, which have a professional format of presentation. She was trying to accommodate these processional performances within the site layout without actively engaging with the idea.
I argued that the processional format doesn’t require a passageway to be created on a site. Instead, such a performance is created to exploit the streets and the crowds alongside them. If such performances were held in a dedicated performance space, they are flexible enough to acquire a different format of presentation than a processional one.
My advice to Charvi was that the organic form of the large number of new trees is adequate to challenge the empty orthogonal array on Charvi’s site. She needs to limit the ideas influencing her design and definitely avoid dealing with them in isolation from each other.
Overwhelming Technical Parameters
Prachi’s design comprises a primary type formed of three elements: a meandering pathway which also varies in width, an elongated blob that rises to create vertical markers which can also be inhabited/ occupied and a pit for the trees, congregation, performances and rainwater percolation. This is a wonderfully simple design strategy with incredible potential if detailed out in relation to the changing contexts of their relative positions.
However, Prachi was overwhelmed by the issue of sewerage and created a septic tank which becomes a large proscenium adjacent to the road, in the process reducing an adjoining pit to a trench. Quite an ironic point of arrival, considering the anti-proscenium stance of the program.
the inadvertent proscenium in Prachi’s early design
At the other end of the section showing the platform is the blob. While the side facing the stage has a rising curve that receives the audience, the other side has a deep hollow almost at the floor level. I point out that the hollow is perhaps a lovely cave for children, but it’s rather deep and too low for people to inhabit. However one of her blobs is on the roadside, which makes it unsafe for children but conducive for pets. She argues that it could be used for storage, but my counterpoint question is, “Is it really such a wonderful idea that it needs to be justified by any means?“ particularly by moving away from inhabitation and towards storage…
In Prachi‘s proposal, at the lowest point of the pits are the tree trunks. I argue that this will destabilise the trees. I suggest that she move the centre of the pit, which is also the recharge point as well as performance space. In addition, the pit has loose soil which will get eroded by water running off the surface; perhaps vegetation can help. Prachi points out that no grass will grow here because of the tree canopy above and therefore it is not a solution to prevent erosion. I propose porous concrete paving for the floor of the pit to simultaneously offer a firm ground for performance as well as groundwater percolation.
Following Only Tangible Logic Instead of the Ambiguous Subconscious
Ketki has planted a grid of trees on her site and created another simple grid with water channels. One of these channels creates a wonderful relationship between two of the seating elements otherwise lying in differently next to each other on site. This demonstrates that boundaries are not just for divisions but can also establish relationships.
The clearing for the performance space, however, is at the edge of the forest. I was intrigued with this location and after a prolonged debate on its logic I noticed the evident parameters in Ketki’s model. She had used one of the acute pathways, which cuts the north-west corner of a site, as an axis to locate the clearing and placed the covered performance space at the end of this axis.
Ketki’s early scheme with an orthogonal performance space
at the edge of the forest (bottom-left) at the end of the skewed axis
photo: Ketki Bhaskar
Locating a courtyard at the end of an axis is a strong geometrical gesture and would perhaps be justified in a scenario where the entire public space is being rejuvenated – including the streets leading to it. The scope and limitation of our project, however, are different. We are concerned with only reinvigorating the main square; the streets and other open spaces connected to it are left out. Further, the clearing is not just a courtyard but a place for performance, which I believe needs to be protected from the disturbance from the thoroughfares. Locating it on the axis – the line of sight – and then barricading it for protection is like creating a problem and then solving it. The geometrical strategy of the axis also leads to the covered performance area acquiring an orthogonal form; however, this is uncomfortably at odds with the elliptical clearing. The variation in heights and shapes of this gap covered performance space, which Ketki seems to have explored in sketches, have been sacrificed, perhaps under the pressure of time.
Designing Fewer Integrated Elements
In all cases of spatial design, the struggle appears to be that there are many ideas and responses to different needs and it is a difficult task getting all the ideas to engage in a conversation with each other and the conditions of the site. Not only is there merit in imagining fewer integrated elements that address multiple needs, but one also needs to study the ripples created by each of the elements and how they interact with other elements and ripples. For instance, instead of trying to justify the large proscenium created due to the STP, Prachi can consider a plant-based sewage treatment system, which can be running along the meandering edge of the path. Channels with such plantations will help the roots absorb nutrients from the black and grey water running through them, delivering clear water at the end of the run. This element of planted channels addresses the need for sewage treatment, justifies the meandering edge of the path as it extends the length of the channel and hence increases filtration and also hems the congregation pits.
Curious Disregard for Time as well as Intuition
The other significant difference is the time frame of the graphic and embodied experiences compared to that of spatial design. The collage and its constituent graphic translations were carried out very quickly. The theatrical images too were created in a rather short span of time. Both then tend to rely on intuition and embodied knowledge to be able to respond to the task almost spontaneously. For spatial design, however, the participants’ perceived availability or need for time made them rely less on their intuition and embodied knowledge. Here the intellect seems far more dominant – jumping and skipping between several ideas, but not keen on reconciling them. The indifference of these ideas to each other leads to a fragmented state of spatial design.
By the middle of the residency’s final week I had accepted the limitations of the program and the design outcomes. We were trying to design within four weeks what is academically scheduled for twice if not thrice the duration. Acknowledging that the larger design ideas and intentions were simultaneously exciting and feasible allowed me to let go of the usual need to examine their constructional and material aspects. Considering that four weeks of the program were invested in elaborate studies of the context, it was indeed too much on my part to expect the participants to detail their designs out, particularly since a substantial amount of time also went into embodied work and discussions through reviews. Having made peace with the situation, I was excited to spend the remaining three days in theatrical and performative explorations and conversations. The young participants, however, seemed far too preoccupied with their designs.
I was keenly looking forward to the final day as an opportunity to bring our processes to a closure. I‘d planned it to be filled from noon until evening with design presentations and discussions, performances, conversations and food. One of my friends – Vaishnavi Mannava – was scheduled to perform at the inauguration of an art show later that evening. ‘That could mark a wonderful conclusion to our eight-week journey’, I imagined. Unfortunately though, the participants couldn’t hold on to their committed time and instead of noon, they were done at 4 PM. I was disheartened to witness the typical design students’ tendency of pushing deadlines in complete disregard for other possibilities. “The proscenium of a jury is all they want!“ I said to myself, proceeding into the eve feeling rejected.
final day presentations
We finished the presentations just in time for me to rush my wife and kids to the art gallery, while the participants were busy winding up. We reached there to realise that there was no parking space available. I left my family at the entrance and went to park a long way away. Of course, I walked the long way back, but found the gallery bursting at its seams with people. Elbowing through the crowd, I reached the performance venue only to face a wall of people, which, unfortunately, was not the performance but an indication that something was happening behind it on the floor a few feet away. I was really disappointed, particularly for my little ones. There was no care taken to either demarcate the space of performance or to regulate the crowd such that all those who had gathered around could watch the performance art. “The least the organisers could have thought of was a proscenium…” I mumbled, as we walked dejectedly out of the gallery.