It’s foggy and cool mornings here, until about 11 when the heat really comes on. The Martins complain about the humidity at 50-60%, but being used to Boston summers over 80% it feels dry enough to me; it’s cool in the shade.
My first morning John took me on a tour of the property while I tried to understand his plan. He’s full of grand philanthropic ideas and loves to talk about religion and the possibility of the human spirit (although he’s clearly a shrewd businessman as well). The questions I was asking at the beginning were too pragmatic when he wanted to tell me about his vision; it’s a problem I often have — I want to cut to the chase, get down to business. I’m slowly learning that you have to let people tell you about themselves in their own time.
I will learn a lot about the nitty-gritty of building from him if I’m patient enough. He’s a charismatic man, very charming but also easily angered by stupidity, and he dwells too much on foolishness in the world. If I can keep my temper I think we will get along all right. Sangita, on the other hand, is much calmer, obviously a stabilizing influence. From what I’ve gathered, John has had a lot of different jobs and companies in his life (now in his late sixties maybe?), most of which have been in building and property development. He can do all of the trades himself, and he’s slowly teaching the local people how to build, though he’s often frustrated. Just following him around and watching how best to pour concrete for a window sill, how to set up a solar array, things not to do when plastering a wall, has been filling my brain and making me a bit giddy.
Later my first morning I told John of my desire to learn how do all the jobs myself. The ‘girls’, a team of his core workers, were making a rammed earth platform around a water tank that may also be used as a swimming pool. He asked them (through Sangita as interpreter) if they would mind if I joined in; they giggled. We made mud, we patted it down with our hands, and we rammed it with boards. Sounds easy, but I assure you my hands were blistered at the end, and a day later my thighs are sore from squatting. We laughed a lot and said ‘OK’ every few minutes, as it was the only word we had in common. Two things struck me: (1) how incredibly strong these women are; and (2) how clean they keep themselves. I was exhausted and covered in red mud at the end of the task. Their saris (which they had tucked up under cloths) were immaculate, and they immediately began to haul big rocks up the hill in baskets on their heads. The Martins say that the women are much more able than the men – smarter and with a better work ethic.
Today I’ve been drawing. They haven’t got planning permission for any of the structures they’ve already built, which seems to be all right, but they need to submit fairly soon. My first job is to document what’s there. Luckily they had a survey done, although the guy didn’t bother to use the handy government benchmark on the top of the hill and cut down a bunch of big trees because he couldn’t see well enough…! Next I will work on the master-plan for the compound: it’s basically there, but needs some refinement. John’s ideas are many and varied. He’s still trying to figure out the best use for the land and the best stimulus for the people in the surrounding villages, some of the poorest in India. Some of the ideas are: a five-star catering college in partnership with the Taj Group; a hotel as a training ground and employer; guesthouses that could be rented as artist’s retreats; a hospital; a village for children with AIDS; and a solar energy training center. Ambitious.
I have no way of evaluating how likely this is to go through. Call me cynical, but often enough when people tell me stirring stories about grand plans, a little voice in my head says bullshit. But then again there are people who do extraordinary things, and I think they generally have the same driving personality John does.
I’ve been promised the opportunity to design the catering college and hotel, which makes my mouth water – for the incredible site, for ground up sustainable building practices, and for the opportunity to do my part – but every architect has been in the same situation again and again, then it slips away. I’ll just have to wait and see what happens here.