Yatin Pandya - A Man with a Mission

Interviews with Thought Leaders Dated:  Jan. 23, 2015
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Architect: Yatin Pandya

We caught up with the fiery architect Yatin Pandya, a champion for inclusive development who believes that good architecture can positively impact the lives of the poorest of the poor; that the richness of our cultural and architectural heritage must be leveraged upon to find sustainable solutions for the future. An innovator and a researcher, he studied Architecture at the CEPT University, Ahmedabad and mastered at the McGill University, Montreal. Known for his slum development and restoration projects among many, this man of many talents has also authored several publications and is a guest faculty at various colleges.

You are an activist, academician, researcher, author and an architect. Which role do you enjoy the most?
I have enjoyed all the roles intensely and it is the combination that makes me ME. I thoroughly enjoy the role as architect as a privilege to create/ bring forth something new and be able to influence lives of many. I have loved being teacher as it keeps one informed and young in presence of enquiring minds and the satisfaction of learning something in the process of sharing the knowledge with others. Research remains the backbone of our practice and is absolutely vital to take informed decisions and to arrive at contextually appropriate solutions. Research is the key to derive sense of clarity and conviction in approaches adopted. Authorship is a natural polarisation of research and teaching to share the ideas and ideologies with wider group. It also helps one to be clear on stances and publicly commit about them. My writings have been not about preaching but to discuss alternatives and debate development choices. Activism is not a conscious role but has emerged as response to situation that threatens the convictions and collective concerns.

How did you start Footprints E.A.R.T.H? When did you start it and what is the story behind the name?
After 25 years in the field of architecture design, research and teaching in environment, when I had to re emerge as phoenix and re-establish my existence in the changed environment I created my personal establishment. The place and set up is called FOOtPRINTS E.A.R.T.H. I have believed in journey more than destinations. Milestones and destinations are mere excuses; the real essence of the journey lies in meanders, chance encounters, in traversing the path and the footprints one leaves behind. As human and as architects through buildings we leave footprints ( pun intended) behind for posterity. It is combined notion of sojourn and responsibility of footprints left behind I thought of the name. Acronym EARTH is also the pun describing not only the range of aspects we deal with but issues of Humaneness and sustainability that we hold dear as value in our work.

Please tell us something about the mission of Footprints E.A.R.T.H.
Footprints E.A.R.T.H. is a professional service setup involved in environmental studies, architectural design, indigenous research, alternative technology and affordable housing. Research, applied research and dissemination are tri prong activities of the organisation. Contextual relevance, socio cultural appropriateness, affordability, sustainability and humaneness are the primary concerns for the design at FOOTPRINTS  E.A.R.T.H. It deals with diverse scales of projects ranging from eco townships, institutional campuses, mass housing schemes, slum improvement initiatives, residences, exhibitions, interior design as well as graphic and product designs. The practice is research based and the endeavour is to evolve development norms and standards which are indigenous and stems from socio cultural realities of our contexts in India. In addition to architectural practice and research the organisation also is involved in academic endeavours. It conducts short term design studios as training programmes for national and international students. Organisation has also taken initiatives in raising awareness for cultural and architectural heritage of the city, to develop educational material in print and audio visual format, as well as to charter the cause of barrier free/ universal designs.

You have been running programs to raise the awareness of our architectural and cultural heritage. Please tell us more about these programs.
Demonstrative architectural work, setting up of museums and cultural nodes, articles in mass media, making of video documentaries for distant learning, writing books, organising as well as lecturing in seminars, conducting workshops, actively engaging with teaching at various scales,  initiating voluntary visits to landmark sites as well as designing architectural theme maps and souvenirs have all been tools and multi prong aspects of raising awareness amongst different groups about different issues of heritage, humanity and sustainability.

Slum Development Initiatives are close to your heart. What is your design philosophy when it comes to low cost housing for the poor?
Architecture has to strive to improve the quality of life. This is only possible when it is responsive to realities and aspiration of the context in terms of place and people. Housing for the poor has to be envisioned holistically not simply as physical shelter but as wholesome neighbourhood which has hope, opportunity, survival resources and proves to be a resource rather than burden. We can learn from spontaneous settlements about their needs and priorities and the socio culturally responsive living environment within strained economic resources. Spontaneous settlements are the solutions people have provided to themselves without any help. If we can simply see this as solution to housing and strengthen them through land tenure and service infrastructure, it would be a way forward to optimise resource and involve people in processes of housing provisions.

There is a lot of talk on sustainability today. But looking at the sea of construction happening in urban centres, one does not see very many sustainable homes or offices or shopping centres coming up. What according to you needs to be done to ensure that sustainability is not an elitist phenomenon that alienates the large "aspirational" Indian middle class?
Sustainability is a phenomenon and not a formula. When something as ready recipe is simply laid over the alien context it becomes questionable. Rather than imposed guidelines from outer context we need to introspect within our own context to find solutions that will be effective within our resource base, context conditions and socio-cultural ethos. I strongly believe that in India we have repository of traditional wisdom embedded in our traditions evolved over the years. If we can look and learn from our traditional built environment we will find answers to energy free environment management, optimisation of the resource management, socio-cultural appropriateness and timeless aesthetics. This is not the romance of past but rather past having proven over time their worth through their performance, adaptability and endurance. Vernacular architecture has evolved to optimally resolve the forces of the place and have perfected them over time. If we can learn from these principles we will not have to reinvent alphabets but take these knowhow further with contemporary knowledge. Synonym of sustainability is humility- opposite of ego, idiosyncrasies and indifference.

Could you elaborate on the restoration/adaptive reuse projects you have worked upon?
We had been privileged to work on few of the architectural landmarks created by legendary architect like Le Corbusier. Both Sanskarkendra and Mill owner’s association buildings were in utmost state of despair due to neglect of half century of maintenance. We took initiative to restore both in the spirit of their architecture and then put them to sympathetic use for its further upkeep, maintenance and acceptance. We turned the sanskarkendra which was being abused for commercial exploits and vandalised for immediate selfish gains into permanent city museum- arguably the only one of its kind in the country. Mill owner’s Association building was restored with even vertical gardens in addition to exposed concrete restoration. It has been mounted with permanent exhibit on mahajan- the guild-, Corbusier the creator and his creations in Ahmedabad to raise awareness about building and his creator amongst the citizens. Earlier we had our stints at rejuvenation and redevelopment of traditional pol neighbourhoods.

Which have been your most challenging projects? Please elaborate a bit on each.
If we are looking at context responsive solutions then every project is challenging because each context comes with its unique demands and constraints. One of the most fulfilling projects had been the Post-Earthquake Rehabilitation in kutchchh. We worked through participatory development approach and the challenging part was how to maintain the continuum of the tradition and yet bring in the dimension of new. To convince the inhabitants not to get carried away by false notions of modernity that they associate with urban developments from alien context. Challenge was in de learning of our own of pre conceived notions and not to impose them on people but to derive the direction from the place as appropriate to the context.

Another project with high sense of fulfilment has been the Manav Sadhna Activity Centre. Challenge here was the economics, challenge here was to intervene in existing long established fabric. Challenge here was to turn constraint into opportunity. We researched intensely in the context and came up with the strategy of using the domestic and municipal waste and transform them into building components. Convincing beneficiaries as well as the patrons using such material was the challenge. But as long as we maintained their bottom lines of cost, strength and functionality we were allowed our playfield of explorations and innovations with recycled material.

Environmental Sanitation Institute has been another landmark project to apply learning of the traditional wisdom in contemporary times to derive one of the most sustainable built environments. Challenge was to let common sense prevail and maintain core values of the local culture, climate and construction in the times of technology, foreign and global being seen as the signs of progress and modernity. Challenge was to maintain conviction that ideals can be achieved even within the constraints and as professionals it is our responsibility to cater to collective societal good rather than addressing client’s personal whims.

How would you like the world to know you when you hang up your boots?
“YAATRI”- a traveller who walked the path. A wanderer who dared traversing the untrodden paths. An explorer who braved through meanders and chance encounters. As human who embarked upon the sojourn and left some footprints behind as possible clues for the future travellers to derive further path.

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