To the North!

I parted with Kerala Friday night without a hitch, though with mixed feelings about leaving Vijanana Kalavedi; two weeks of settled companionship made me remember how nice it is, but also gave me renewed energy to go on alone. Thirty six hours on the train passed easily, although I had been forced to travel in an air-conditioned class because I’d booked too late; I have a bit of a cold now. Non-AC is definitely better: you get fresh air and you can actually see out the windows. I’m not sure I’ve written about how lovely Kerala is – so incredibly lush, greens ranging from dusty olive leaves to neon rice paddies. Really the entire west coast of India, which I have now seen a few times, is worth the bother. Speaking of the joys you can see from the train: early Saturday morning in Southern Goa I happened to be standing at the open door watching the scenery and spotted a man, uh, greeting the train vigorously, pants around his ankles and a t-shirt over his face. What an idiot. The people on the train will never see him again so it doesn’t matter if they see his face, but if he does it often enough his village will hear about it and know who it is anyway. In a village everyone knows.

On the train itself it gradually occurred to me that I was the only one reading, and that’s been the case on every train I’ve seen so far (once again I’m not always the quickest…). Mostly Indians chat a little, listen to music on their mobile phones (at great volume) or just stare into space for hours on end. Sleeper class, my standard, is not exactly filled with the crème de la crème of Indian society, so I suppose the literacy rate of the people I see will be around average. But more importantly, reading for pleasure is an expensive luxury here. Three to five hundred rupees for a good-quality book is beyond the reach of most people.

I arrived in Ahmedabad early Sunday morning and decided to stay the night. I’d been in touch with an old friend’s Gujarati relatives and they’d invited me to lunch at their house. They are a family of architects — mother and father and daughter and son-in-law all practicing together and separately and teaching at the university. The father had worked with Kahn in Pennsylvania and it seems the older couple is on the vanguard of preservation in India. They have done a lot of work in Hampi, and when I told them about the bridge collapse at Anegondi they were a bit gleeful. Although they agree that for the sake of commerce a connection is needed, they had argued to site the bridge a few miles away so as not to route the trucks through the Hampi roads. Having seen how close the monuments edge to the road and how crazy Indian truck drivers are I can’t help but agree.

Typical architects, they outlined for me an afternoon’s itinerary of Ahmedabad’s modern architecture: two Le Corbusier structures and Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management, then the Gandhi Ashram and the Jama Masjid thrown in for good measure. The mother struck a hard bargain with a rickshaw driver to take me around for the afternoon, which saved me a lot of money and hassle.

The Corb buildings couldn’t have been more different from each other. ATMA, the Mill-workers’ building, looks very similar to the Carpenter Center at Harvard but all of a sudden makes sense. In Massachusetts there’s no need for huge concrete shading devices – in fact they just make everything gloomy – and I’ve always thought the ramp through the building is gratuitous: you wouldn’t use it to get from one side of the block to the other. At ATMA the shading and the open-air covered atrium make perfect sense for the climate and the ramp is a one-sided entry rather than a path through to nowhere. Also, the building is covered in greenery, which serves to soften its brutality. The Ahmedabad City Museum, however, is a beast of a building, a brick cube on pilotis with barely any exterior openings. Very hard to love.

Kahn’s IIM is as Kahn as Kahn can be, all interlocking arches and unrelieved brick. His play of light and shadow is masterful, and once again I can’t help thinking that he understood how to work in a hot climate much better than, say, at the Exeter library. At IIM and the Salk Institute (and probably the Parliament at Dacca, though I haven’t been there) the vast expanses of blank wall present an atavistic understanding of the need for relief from heat. The one criticism I have of IIM is that the architectural gestures are stronger than the planning decisions. There are a number of spaces between the buildings that seem left-over and unusable, especially a large paved plaza between the library and teaching block that is reminiscent of the Salk Institute plaza but doesn’t have the focus of Pacific view or the pleasure of the Salk’s fountains. It has no shade or benches and is probably discouraged from being used as a cricket pitch.

Switching gears I rested at the Jama Masjid, a fifteenth-century mosque in the old town. In India I feel the power of mosques and temples and churches much more than I have anywhere else, but I’m not about to ascribe any mystical supremacy to them. Rather, I think it has to do with the disparity between outside and inside. When the streets of a city are loud and hot and crowded and dirty, a place to go that is clean and spacious and quiet and beautiful exerts a potent pull. I imagine the same was true of medieval Europe. I wonder if one of the myriad reasons for the decline of religiosity in the west was the improving condition of the exterior world? Although – this paradigm wouldn’t explain the rise of American fundamentalism in recent decades.

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2 comments
  1. Eric said:

    I have a mental image of all the architect readers sagely nodding and murmuring “Ah yes, the Harvard Carpenter Center”, while I scramble with the Internet to catch up.

  2. mirren said:

    Eric, I love that you care. Makes me want to write more just for you. BTW, how about replying to my emails, mother-#*&%%^? 😉

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