A Broken Civilization??

Opinions Dated:  Aug. 19, 2015
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Architect Anil Laul

– an extract from ‘GREEN is RED’

The homes we build for ourselves or our clients must not differ from those we build for the underprivileged or other sections of society. Their needs may not be as ostentatious or expansive as ours, but the technologies we use for them should be based on the same principles and logic that we define for ourselves. In all their wisdom, would architects, engineers, planners, or the key political and administrative decision makers, live in homes built with the technologies, logic and values that they propagate for the not-so-privileged? This is largely doubtful, though there are a few exceptions and they are far between. In my case, I have applied these principles successfully, which then precisely is the purpose of the series. An architect must first be his own patron and illustrate this through the home he builds for himself and his family. His work must also offer solutions for settlements that provide dignity to those who lack it and help them reclaim their lives as well as themselves.

Be it the power of the Roman empire, the might of the Pharaohs in Egypt, the rich architecture of the South East Asian region or the Aristocracy of the West, major statements of power and religious beliefs have been Architecture driven. Be it the oppressive regimes of the Middle East or the Mughal period of India, promotion of architecture and arts was an integral part of the very existence. The ferocity and brutalism of Hitler and Nazism with all its oppression, is evident in the Architecture of Germany during this period. And all at the same time, even though referred to as a ‘failed artist’, Hitler’s patronage of the arts and architecture has few parallels in the recent past.

Our ancestors did have their fundamentals right. The promotion of traditional arts and crafts in the built form was but a medium of carrying the people with the state. This additionally ensured equitable distribution of wealth and rewarded excellence. One may safely term these practices as ‘future proofed’. The tribal arts and crafts together with the shelter that man built, celebrated both, man and nature. Then man celebrated Innovation and his ability to mould the natural elements. Now, man aspires to subjugate nature and all within sight, including all forms of life. This is the tragedy of our times and the world we live in.

Through taxation, our ancestors always generated a surplus economy, most of which went back to the people and provided employment. Our present day policies of deficit economics in our annual budget imply that the state would always need more than just taxation to meet its spending needs. So, policy makers borrow from the people once again through bonds, various forms of taxation, direct or indirect forms of nationalisation of profit making units of private enterprise. The question that this form of deficit financing raises is that, “If all Nations are in debt, then who has the money?” A very pertinent question that begs an answer. This remains unanswered and whenever asked, is usually met with thundering silence.

This inscrutable world of the protagonists of this business model is designed to benefit a few and is aligned to only promoting unsustainable development policies. They then fund the social activists and the media to push singular issues that benefit them, mostly through CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) practices and the fringe benefits that come with social overtones. Even the education system has not been spared and has spawned a generation where knowledge is not an option. In my attempt to address these issues, the series which when completed would hopefully provide solutions by treading well-known paths which are now considered archaic. Present day paths are at best illusionary promising the route to the “Pearly Gates” and we, as lowly mortals, end up chasing. My vintage peer group could well be a part of the Redundant Architects Tribe (R.A.T.s) and establish a new rating system.

The increasing loss of faith in our urban policies and our lack of convincing directions can be singly attributed to “Failed Crisis Hunters”. Every “manufactured crisis” has a new activist and yet another set of problems to contend with. Their story is rather like a headless chicken, running around flapping its wings before it takes its last breath. Carrying the metaphor forward, the poor creature even in its last joggle expends an enormous amount of energy in a final bid to stay alive. We do have the wherewithal to try and mend this head or even put it back once again and to restore the life being snuffed out. Failed policies need a revisit or we will go down in history as ignorant and irrational people - all this, in spite of being the best informed and having an abundance of technological excellence.

Failure is not permanent but it is triggered. We have to find the ‘trigger-happy’ that triggered the state we find ourselves in and put on the safety lock.

Today’s world believes in and professes democracy together with equity, but this is a far cry from the truth. Discord and discontent are rampant and with it is a growing restlessness that hastens our path towards a broken civilization. Oppressive statements of the power of the high-rise age, feed reckless industrial consumption in the name of progress.Before I go further, a couple of very simple but appropriate facts of the history of development and industrialisation would set the right tone and tenor and put many a mind on track.

 “Elementary my dear Watson”--- Sherlock Holmes

For over four thousand years, the extraction of zinc in the form of metal was unknown to the world. The secret process was existent only in India, which was then the singular source of supply. This process later went to China and only very recently to the west. Zinc is the base of many an essential metal in the present industrial age, in our everyday living as well as in the pharmaceutical industry. Mined in the form of various oxides it has a relatively low melting point. The mined ore offers a small window of less than 5 degrees before the heated oxide turns to metal and suddenly vaporises. The oxides turn molten at about 995 degrees Celsius and vapourise at 1000 degrees Celsius. This would call for an extremely complex and sophisticated furnace design if one were to ask for a solution from today’s engineering giants.

 And yet, rudimentary down to earth analysis threw up a stunningly simple solution which baffled other parts of the world for centuries. The skilled artisans of Rajasthan in India made an inverted truncated pyramid with a perforated porcelain plate towards the bottom half of this marvel of an invention. They heated the top half of the furnace and as soon as the zinc ore melted, it flowed down in the molten state through the porcelain filter and fell into a bed of water, thus receiving and immediately cooling the pure zinc in its metallic state.

 “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” -- Leonardo da Vinci
The above is a singular case in point. Much is written about experiments with “Truth”, “Living”, “The Unknown”, “Way Beyond” and other subjects. Mine is but an understanding of the real purpose behind each of the beliefs and their relationship to coexistence. A similar unravelling of Myth, Religion and Evolution of Human Settlements and their inter-related value base, fascinates me. The devil is in extricating the detail and the hidden message. This whets my appetite and helps me focus squarely on Sustainability as a holistic issue in an equally holistic but simple manner.

History is a harsh judge and our footprint on earth is being recorded better now than at any other point in time. Architecture cannot be a mere elitist profession. It has always been patron driven to a large extent and will remain to be so. But it is the responsibility of the architect to ensure that he himself as his own patron sets the right example while at the same time ensuring that the people and their settlements are the integral part of the whole.

 “The mind is like a parachute, it doesn’t work until it is open” -- Frank Zappa

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