Interview: In Conversation with the National Award-winning Architect and Professor SK Das

Interviews with Thought Leaders Dated:  April 11, 2016
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Architect SK Das

We spoke to eminent Indian urbanist Architect SK Das with a distinguished career as an award-winning architect, urban planner, and teacher. Ar. Das has worked on projects across Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the USA. Across all these scales and locations, His 3 decades of practice covers work on townships, urban master planning, cultural & institutional buildings, housing developments, mixed-use developments, private homes, urban development, and low cost housing for the poor.

His academic career spans teaching positions at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (HIS), Rotterdam; Sushant School of Art and Architecture, New Delhi; School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi; University of Leuven, Belgium; MIT, Columbia, and Architectural Association, London. SK Das has also served as a project consultant to several multilateral and international agencies, viz; UNDP/UN Habitat, the governments of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

He is the recipient of the National Award for Community Architecture in India. His work on post-cyclone reconstruction in Orissa with CARE-India has been listed among the 100 Best Practices by UN Habitat. The Aedes Gallery in Berlin have hosted the exhibits of his work twice.

Celeste TowersCeleste Towers - Noida

Academics or Practice or Consultancy to Government Bodies – What do you find more enriching?

I find all are equally enriching. Though practice remains the constant, it feeds into academics and provides a foundation and a deeper understanding for consultancy which tends to be a hack job otherwise. For me, practice informs and challenges theory and influences policy making. Every few years I go back to academics with fresh questions and renewed vigour.

Your work tends to capture the cultural diversity of the community. Which of your projects, do you think, truly exemplifies this tenet?

All my projects celebrate diversity and pluralism. From the design of a house to the design of cities. I see buildings and inhabitants as a microcosm of a city, thus containing diverse aspirations and multiple sensibilities.

In the design of a 5 sq km stretch bordering the walled city of Delhi and impacted by the Metro, we recast the idea of a single redevelopment proposal into multiple projects, programmes and activities to benefit diverse users while not deflecting from the idea of a broader transformation on the city. From benefiting the communities inhabiting the space, to making places of urban significance. We had to weave slum upgrading, reconstruction, tourism and heritage proposals, pedestrian flows, transportation and mobility and landscape interventions as well as property development as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in a seamless flow. This project was commissioned by DMRC, DUAC and DDA.

In the case of Andrews Ganj housing for senior civil servants, our design was a reinterpretation and transformation of the morphology and built form of traditional cities and neighbourhoods of the hot, arid regions and dominated by shaded pedestrian movement. The landscape reflected a 'public frame' that accommodates post occupancy additions by the inhabitants. So, you have manicured lawns as well as seasonal vegetable patches coexisting. Here the client was Ministry of Urban Development and HUDCO.

Building ExteriorBuilding Exterior - Mass Housing - Nerul

Mass housing at Nerul, Navi Mumbai for approximately 900 odd families was an exercise in encouraging community formation among hither to unknown families. We relied on social scales in disaggregating the community for spatial ordering, to figure out scales that are appropriate for maintenance and management of shared resources. Day to day urban necessities, sharing of space and facilities formed the basis of self-managed territorial control. This was a case of celebration of diversity as well as inhabitants’ autonomy. The building design was a direct response to the moderately hot and humid coastal climate.

I like to challenge myself to designs that are responsive to climate and culture and have a sociopolitical meaning.

SK Das Associated Architects has been providing architectural and planning services for nearly 3 decades now in India. How do you think we have evolved over the decades?

I returned to India in the mid '80s to start a practice that could be analogous to the Indian train of the period, which carried all classes of people. I was interested in 'public projects', confronting challenges of diversity and pluralism to reflect in my architecture.

I got the chance to work on such projects. But after liberalisation and opening up of the economy in the nineties, the government took a back seat, and planning was relegated to the background. A system of picking up architects based on lowest quoted fee replaced the earlier selection process based on technical and professional criteria. We were either priced out or were unwilling to surrender our ethics to work on impossibly low fee that would compromise what the job demands. Lowering the fee was done in the name of financial prudence but in reality it corrupted the projects, pushing architects to use extra-professional means to service the projects.

The private market on the other hand periodically boomed for architects. Architectural practices corporatized and were reduced to being service providers. Buildings were to be completed "yesterday”. Architecture got mutated into many parts like cancer cells. With excessive consumerism and free import of materials, the focus shifted to facade design, decoration, fashion and making lifestyle statements. The term coined these days is “porno-architecture”.

Many established and celebrated practices closed down while others became like BPOs for so-called international firms. As if the capacity to think and conceptualise is outside India and architects here should be reduced to delivery while carrying all the associated risks to complete the process. 

Rashmi HotelExterior view of Rashmi Hotel - Bhubaneswar

What changes do you think need to be made so that our rapid growth & associated development is not marred by an apathy towards social and environmental responsibility?

At the root for apathy towards environmental and social responsibilities is a neoliberal development process that views cities as engines of economic growth. Ignoring the role of cities as crucibles of culture, arts and creativity, of intellectual growth and long-term sustenance of a society. When financial return becomes the sole objective, planning, environmental and social concerns take a back seat. Commodification of land and housing result in high, unaffordable prices, speculation and hoarding. Slogans such as “affordable housing” or “smart city” are used as a means for dumping of unwanted technologies, hardware and equipments that have no benefit for people at large.

We need to ensure fundamental changes. I think it is Charles Correa who said markets don't make cities. They destroy them. It is crucial to accept the importance of planning as the overall framework that defines, regulates and guides the scope and nature of investments. Second, the historical link between planning and architecture as a continuum ought to be retrieved. Land and making of housing and workplaces need to be conceptualised as social resources. A sort of 'U' turn from neoliberal thinking. The state cannot absolve its responsibility in ensuring this.

Of the varied projects that you do, which kind of projects do you enjoy the most?

There was a time I could have said that I like projects with a number of buildings, mixed use and that have to deal with the larger context. Now I don't have any such preference. I like projects that have a chance to be realised where the client is equally sincere about this and sympathetic to 'receiving' architecture. 

This fact notwithstanding, I would love to work together with others from arts and social sciences as well as communities to make un-gated public places that afford new identity to cities. Public spaces that are truly shared by all, which also brings about a positive confrontation between different social demographics which would bring a deeper mutual understanding. I’m also focusing on new housing typologies and institutional buildings with these ideals in mind.

Which has been your most challenging project?

I would say Andrews Ganj civil servants’ housing in Delhi. The project took almost a decade on the drawing board until the construction drawings were made. This gave us a chance to periodically revisit the project design even after clients' approval, to improve upon the idea as well as the grains and textures. Then came the self-imposed responsibility to address the gamut of issues confronting housing including the philosophical, the theoretical, the political and the contextual.

Civil Servants HousingCivil Servants Housing Apartment

Colleagues in the office often would say that we were into postdoctoral research. I took this as a chance of a lifetime keeping aside the frustration of delays. We questioned and constructed a new paradigm and typology, building upon and going beyond the thinking of stalwarts such as John Turner and Habraken with whom I had an earlier association.

The Andrews Ganj project symbolised for me a self inflicted, tumultuous birth. In this sense, it was the most challenging. 

Between this project, the Kashmere Gate redevelopment and Nerul mass housing in Navi Mumbai, evolved my idea of an architecture of contextual multiplicity, the significance of un-gating the gated, and the shared city.

The Andrews Ganj housing was exhibited at the AEDES Gallery in Berlin, was the subject matter of lectures and discussions in graduate programmes at MIT, Columbia University, University of Leuven, University of Sydney, UN Habitat and many more. 

Please tell us about your work with the UNDP/UN Habitat?

I worked as a consultant with UN Habitat and to a lesser extent with UNDP and UN ESCAP on many occasions. To start with, at the inception of UN Habitat, I presented a study on slum evictions in Bombay in 1976 at the first Habitat conference in Vancouver. In the early eighties, while teaching and practicing at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS), Rotterdam, I initiated a long drawn research project on the revitalisation of inner cities for UN Habitat that led to expert groups drawn from academia and practice worldwide to discuss feasible strategies for revitalization, resulting in two publications.

Governments began to look at it seriously and often adopted strategies that were espoused in this research. In late '80s I prepared for UN Habitat, UN ESCAP and UNDP a project proposal for a network of local authorities for NGOs and municipalities in Asia and the Pacific in the field of housing. In the '90s I carried out an evaluation of the UNDP funded Phnom Penh squatter upgrading programme as part of a team of three. In 1996, I acted as the Rapporteur General for the Planners' Forum at Habitat II in Istanbul.

Could you elaborate on your national award winning project for Community Architecture in India?

I was awarded the National Award for Community Architecture from the Ministry of Urban Development in 1993 for my design of the Subernarekha Resettlement Project for advisasis who had already been displaced by the construction of the Subernarekha dam. It was what came to be known as an architecture of Community building, participation and local development.

resettlement  villagesResettlement villages - Subernarekha

Over 10,000 adivasi families were displaced by the construction of two large irrigation dams in Jharkhand District. This project aimed to house the displaced families in 32 new resettlement “villages.”  We developed methodologies and technologies to support a community process of design and construction which enables self-help construction of dwellings by the families.  The success of the project depended on carrying out pilot experiments with the involvement of the community in each village, and its wider replication by the communities themselves with little or no subsequent technical assistance.

A number of dwelling typologies were designed based on the study of traditional dwelling and living patterns in the region and taking into consideration the transition of the families into a new home.  The government agencies involved provided materials and technical support at the site.  The families had the option of replicating the pilot design or executing their own custom design.  In most cases they opted for the new prototypes.

As much as I am proud of this project and honoured to have received the Award, there is a politics behind these displacements that I fundamentally disagree with. The displacement should not have happened in the first place, and no resettlement can really make up for these communities’ loss.

With so many achievements under your belt, are there miles to go still?

I have had a long and arduous journey. Some of those in the profession who have willingly surrendered to being mere "service providers" have referred to me as a "bleary eyed and sleepless architect". I accept this label with pride.

It is only now that I am somewhat sure about my work and am willing to share every bit of it in the public domain. I want to have new projects and commissions of the kind I described earlier. In a way, this is the beginning after a long period of what I may refer to as "pre-practice".

I have also founded a new kind of collaborative global urban initiative called "Habitat UTLab" (Habitat Urban Transformation Lab), which seeks to put the ideas of ungating the gated, the shared city, an architecture of contextual multiplicity into practice in urban design and architecture, socially and environmentally sustainable cities, settlements, buildings, public spaces and cultural landscapes. We are doing this through collaborative projects, advisory services, research, activism and education to challenge the foundations of contemporary urban thinking, and come up with “constructive interventions and creative subversions. We see planning, urban design and architecture as an ethical and responsible instrument of change.

International Education CenterInternational Education Center

Your words of wisdom to youngsters would be....

Architecture has become muted, as you know. The skills and knowledge you need to practice as a professional are inversely proportional to the incomes. If you want to work for a developer, which basically involves making phone calls and making sure the process moves smoothly, you earn far better than if you work in an architectural practice. You earn even more if you work for a BPO and produce Photoshop 3-Ds. I have no advice to give these categories of people.

My only advice can be given to people who stay within the core domains of practice, academics, and social change. In that case I’m less interested in giving advice and more interested in dialogue. I’ve freed my time to sit in cafes and meet students and younger professionals after 4 o’ clock on most workdays. 

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