Tradition and Modernity

Over the years I have spent a great deal of time and effort to learn about the traditions that form a central part of the Indian reality. There are two aspects of the learning that are of enormous value for the modern designer. Let me attempt to place these within a comprehensible format for the Indian designer who is presently struggling to integrate the traditional skills and knowledge with a contemporary life style.

The two aspects are namely, the theoretical principle base and the application or building practices.

Architecture as an Experience of Space and Form:

The traditional systems of architecture have accepted the basic principle that the built form is an extension of man's world of sentient experience. This concept has played an important role in the growth of the various fine arts, be it dance, music or poetry. But today the building has become a commodity to be sold and invested in, a product of man's status in the socio-economic structure of society.

Many of us have been to old towns and villages and perhaps walked through the insides of a traditional house. When we recollect the significant aspects of these houses the things that clearly stand out in our minds are the central court, the simple rooms, the elegantly fashioned columns and perhaps the coolness of the entry with its thinnai. It is necessary to keep this in mind before we try to copy the traditional house. In doing so, the modern designer sometimes loses track of the basic form and attempts to fill up the interior with apparently traditional artifacts bought at enormous costs. By doing this again we are again falling into the trap of commercializing the living space. Some old houses are so derelict that even the walls are collapsing and yet, the magic and the drama of the spaces remain to speak to succeeding generations of the vibrancy of the bygone era.

Of what are these walls composed, where does the inspiration of the space emerge?

Compare the stark simplicity of the traditional central spaces to the clever filling up of uninspired living spaces of today's houses, with carefully matched bric-a-brac: A plant just so, a cushion here, a walnut wood antique in a corner and so on. This method of laying out a room with objects gathered from a magazine photograph would only further the illusion of a frozen two dimensional frame. With this the very walls do not breathe and come alive, the air within and the occupier do not commune for decades on end. In fact a beautifully proportioned room or house needs no artifice to exude a graceful elegance.

The space in its barest form is filled with inspiration, vibrancy and beauty. With a little imagination it can be anything - a space for celebration, for rejuvenation, for enquiry, artistic exploration etc.

The lacuna in the modern built space is somewhat synonymous with the life style many of the world over are leading, and the relationship between our own bodies and ourselves. To cover up a paunch we wear a printed shirts, and to take away the focus from an apparently plain face we adorn it with jewellery. If only the mind would think about the body it inhabits and act upon the malise of our overfed, under exposed body, then perhaps it would see beneath the glitter into the pathetic skeleton of our living spaces.

Does it have harmony? Does it exhibit an aura of well - being? Do we communicate to the very space within the walls? Does the home come alive just as it is? The walls, the garden, the floor, the view out of windows, do they breathe with us? Or are they only dead matter?

Indigenous learning has focussed on a holistic appraisal of the sentient world with mutual links between all the streams of knowledge. Thus you had lawyers who were musicians and artists whose hobby was mathematics. Practitioners in the various fields needed to have a basic knowledge and understanding of other traditions so that their action could always be appraised within the framework of human existence. One of the significant results of this action stance was that along with individual action the traditional architect was equally concerned with the nature of traditional materials, the soil conditions the natural vegetation and the extent of forest land. In fact till the 17th century the carpenter was also the maintainer of forests.

In the present context of senseless denudation and ecological disaster facing man, this worldview takes on new meaning. It would be most essential for the modern builder and designer, house owner and funding bodies, craftsman and technologists to re-evaluate their own contribution to the built space as well as their accountability to the ecosystem.

Space / Akasha, Time / Kaala and Energy / Shakti

Human beings do not inhabit the earth alone. They live amidst other natural forms and are in touch with energies and elements that are perceptible and beyond perception. They inhabit Akasham / space. They are linked with Shakti or energy to other energy forms. They are part of a movement, a cycle of life and death which is known as Kaala / time. Space, Time and Energy are traditionally perceived as existing in their free, unlimited state. This is the absolute state. At this level, the movement and quality of the three is only an abstraction, and an amorphous experience.

For the purposes of making Space available in a way that would be comprehensible, it needs to be defined or limited.

So as to make Time meaningful it needs to be held within the constraints of the past, present and future - the time of being, becoming and dying. This is the context for change and for growth.

In order that the energies should be recognised and used in a manner that is conducive to well being and comfort, it needs to be disciplined and anchored within the space and time frame of human existence.

The Vaastu or Bhoomi is vibrating and alive. This is the space of the earth or land. The inner space of the individual or of all living creatures is also vibrating and alive. The outer space or universal space is also alive and throbbing.

The three rhythms are not always in consonance.

To create consonance between the three and also create harmony and well being, is the attempt of the Vaastu Shastras. In creating a resonance between the outer space, inner space and cosmic space, the Shastras have brought into operation the concept of rhythm and time. The application of an ordered rhythm in visual spaces creates a form, which is capable of evoking a spiritual response in the occupants.

In the design of buildings or villages there are three main design principles that the designer has to be conscious of. There are namely Bhogadyam or utilitarian value, Sukha Darsham or aesthetics, Ramyam or psychological well-being/spiritual satisfaction.

To achieve the three aspects of Bhogadyam, Sukha Darsham and Ramyam the designer needs to be sensitive to the following aspects:

a) to understand the need of the user and the various components that go into the design.
to bring grace and proportionate use of design elements to the building, so as to achieve aesthetic appeal.
c) to achieve harmony between the built space and the natural environment, as well as create a feeling of well-being in the user through the employment of Pada Vinyasa and Ayadi calculations.

Vasstu Purusha Mandala Pada Vinyasa is the method by which a site or land is divided into a uniform grid. By this method, more manageable units are created, within which the design maybe conveniently laid out. The planning principle known as Pada Vinyasa has relevance in the design process for several reasons. One is the practical application. The others comprise of meanings and qualities that have been invested into the physical form of the earth which is synonymous with human being.

An important axis that runs through the building is the central axis or Brahma Sutram This is usually the East - West axis. The North - South axis is known as the Soma Sutram. The central point where the axes cross is a extremely significant point since this is the place of the focussing of energies. All intersections of the padas or modular lines are treated as live energy rays. And as such planning of energy is carried out with great care so that the lines of energy are not cut or reduced in any way.

Ayadi Poruttam

In the traditional worldview the auspicious time is an important criterion. Be it the birth of a child, the tying of the sacred thread, the planting of seeds or the building of a house, the right moment has to be calculated. Similarly the right dimensions have to be arrived at for a particular individual before the house design maybe completed. The auspicious measures that are usually adopted are either the width of the building, or the perimeter. Using this as the basic measures, the size of each pada or module is determined. The calculation is based on the astrological chart of the owners/users. This Ayadi Poruttam.

The Natural Vegetation

Before selecting a site for any kind of group housing (be it for village or for a township)it is very important to study the profile of the natural vegetation of the site. The traditional designer checks the soil for its breathing capacity and for its homogeneity in various simple ways. Further, other tests are carried out by the traditional shipi after the land profile has been found to be pleasing.
The designer checks the following aspects :

a) Shape of the site
b) Colour of the soil
c) Smell of the soil
d) Natural features of the site
e) Soundness / hardness of the soil
f) Taste of the soil
g) Composition and grains of the soil to be ascertained through the tactile senses.

Thus the land is tested in the following ways : by observing the shape of the site, by the smell of the soil as well as the smells existing in the environment, the features of the site, the hardness of the soil, the taste of the soil, the compactness and hardness of the grains.

As a result of these tests the site maybe chosen wherein the various positives outweigh the negatives. In such a site the houses maybe built.

Planning Procedure

Next we come to the actual planning of the building. Traditionally the adoption of the square or rectangle have been recommended very strongly. The use of octagons and circles are restricted to limited or special situations while the texts negate the employment of the triangle, it being a source of distortion or fragmentation.

The square shape or cubical form is considered to be the most stable and psychologically pleasing. The square develops into an octagon and then a circle. The fundamental therefore is the square.

The square stands for Satvikam or stability and peace. The octagon stands for Rajasam or movement and action. The circle denotes Tamasam or uncontrollable speed and aggression.

Contemporary Application

We as human beings possess rhythm that tie us to our natural order. In harmony with this he creates a living pattern. The relationship between the land and the human being is the beginning of organised community. Agriculture, farming, livestock etc are only secondary to this. An individual's relationship with them comes out of a need to produce and discover livelihood.

It is the responsibility of the educated and the moneyed city dwellers to help maintaining the natural balance between individuals and their environment as seen in the villages. Degeneration of the village lead to impoverishment of the whole nation, and the eco-balance. The economic sustenance is only one aspect. The critical area is the relationship between human beings and nature. It is this that is being endangered today.

A neighborhood that develops only out of commercial interests can never be a village. This is basically different in its identity. The whole community does not and cannot have a homogeneous identity. Their belonging is based on narrow interests and memberships. On the other hand the village vibrates and lives in harmony with the natural order. Hence their response to natural rhythms and variations in energy patterns becomes a central characteristic.

Gathering of people, celebrations, shared sorrow, are all part of a village profile. The town or neighborhood is probably more economy related and gets into the secondary level of relatedness which is more cerebral, sustaining professional links between people and so on.

Accountability in the Tradition

The idea of accountability or social commitment is not a new fangled notion, which has been taken from the alternate movements of the west. There has always existed the strong value of professional ethics and personal. accountability in the various professions in this country. The vaidya not only looked after the sick and the ailing but also helped in maintaining hygiene, sanitation, diet, etc for the healthy. The architect likewise had the responsibility for the source of materials, depletion of forests, wellbeing of building related craftsman, education and enlightenment of the common man/prospective clients, understanding and extending the frontiers of social metaphors of aesthetics and so on.

Excerpts from the Texts

A sthapati is one who establishes, arranges, and erects structures. He should be well versed in the texts, concepts and theories. He should act from a basic commitment, and with compassion. He should have expertise in mathematics, history, mythology, and painting. He should be well traveled and hence have extensive exposure. He should be a truthful person, who is contented within himself and in control of his desires.

It is also stated that only the mind of a happy designer can create forms capable of creating well being and happiness in the user. The sorrow of the designer gets communicated to the product of his creativity.

The shilpi or designer had to be experts in the following :

1. The designer had to understand the philosophies and the beliefs of the people whom he served. His building designs be they religious, administrative, residential, civic or otherwise should reflect the character and beliefs of the people.
2. The designer should be widely traveled and well read so that he/she would be able to respond to the multiple needs of the client. This does not mean that he would put in a Spanish courtyard in a house in Mettupallayam. After having understood the varieties of solutions he/she has seen the designer would adapt it to the local lifestyle.
3. The designer had to be compassionate and yet confident, sensitive but with strong convictions, open and yet committed to the local way of life, with a strong sense of aesthetics and beauty, but not obsessed with the needs to push only his point of view; and possess deep love for the natural environment and hence capable of designing and building without either laying waste the local systems or dominating the existing landscape. 4. The designer would take on the responsibility for the needs of the craftsman who work under him or her and in exchange they would give their best efforts to the building in hand.

There are many more of these concepts but I will restrict this paper to only these four points.

Redefining the Role

The time has come for many of us to take our role as professionals very seriously, to redefine and extend the contemporary frontiers of architectural consultancy. In the face of the terrifying effects of environment and the needless celebration of wealth in some of our 'fancy buildings' we need to deal with this subject with certain amount of seriousness and care.

Some of the points I would like to raise for all of you to ponder over and perhaps get together to institute are as follows :

1)bThe design of a building is not only an opportunity for each of us to climb up the mythical ladder of success and power. It is essentially an expression of the needs of a group of people. We are channels of these aspirations. The human responsibility would have to be the most primary one to each of us designers.
2) The building cannot stand-alone, it must in its very existence create connections with the existing environment be it buildings, open spaces, vegetation, animals or people. As designer's we have a responsibility to the entire sub system.
3) The design of the fa?ade, the use of certain materials, the impact of the building on the viewer must all be part of a larger perspective and not a result of personal needs, to be different and to be featured in magazines.
4) The work force, which executes the building, is not a faceless 'gang' but multiple sources of energy and creativity. As of now we are not tapping the resources of the artists in our society at all but arriving at the 'workability' of the tasks based only on cost / time factors. Hence the possibility of achieving something skillful and aesthetic which is the result of a team effort does not take place and the design ends up as the personal property of the exalted architect. This process is a left over of the colonial practice of exploiting local resources. It is not the orientation of a leader of a community of builders who serve their own people.
5) New directions and solutions can come up only if the present secretive boundaries of individual offices with the successes and captive clientele can be broken and greater interactions between designers, builders, craftsman, traditional scholars in the field of vaastu, manufacturers, and prospective clients (from industry and general public) can be instituted.

Perhaps one of the first steps in fostering these change would be actual action- based on meaningful dialogues amongst those of us who share this search and consequent field applications by designers and architects.