[beautiful] architecture of imperfect translations
essay written Sachin Bandukwala & Melissa Smith
published in Identity Matters: Architecture between Individualism and Homologation, Riccardo Salvi, Milan, Italy: Franco Angeli Editore, 2014. Released in the Venice Biennale Library, as part of the collection of the 2014 Venice Biennale.
In the Indian subcontinent, architecture has always been rooted in the simplicity of details. Many heavy structures relied on mortarless joints, and lightweight frames on exposed brackets. In these simple connections, the range of elaborations through carving and joinery brought voice to the variation in local craft, according to material. Idiosyncrasies grown upon a basic form, rooted in the artisan, expressed on surface as volume. As time continues, these variations remain with the architecture, though they may no longer be permanently integrated. What was once carved in wood and stone now floats in cement, plastic, paper, steel and light.
In the context of the levelling force of globalization, architecture across the globe becomes increasingly polarized between two extremes: an extreme global chic, buildings directly exported and importaed, reproduced almost identity regardless of place, and another of the purely local architecture of rural, remote or resistant areas, one whose limitation of material and cultural isolation allows it to continue apart from the world outside. But the majority of Indian architecture operates in another system—one in which global expectation and experience influence the type of space created, but do not entirely take over. Those who create this space struggle with the balance of things that are fundamentally universal—the sense of gravity—and combine it with changing expectation and exposure, to produce it in a local climate for people of local temperament, and built with local craft. The result is sometimes grotesque and sometimes transcendent—an imperfect translation of universal aspirations for local application.
In the translation of globalized ideas to local form, some meanings are lost or changed, and some realities are simplified, traded or complicated by local influence, which cannot be entirely wiped out. As the climate is local, so are many materials—at least in their availability—as well as craft and rituals. Some of these translations don’t make sense, or the thread that connects them is so thin it might be hard to recognize the connection. Others are obvious, but ugly. Still more are earnest attempts to reproduce a Western style, which fall short on workmanship. These weird results come out of the local application of sleek expectations—they are the problems of the reality of construction.
The influence of globalization is not necessarily ugly, odd or misguided. Beautiful congruences also emerge, in which the influence of a mainstream aesthetic or system, foreign to the regional type, dovetails seamlessly with changing expectations, though not necessarily working as intended. Massive industrial elements are shipped for construction, welded with precision but wrapped in dented corrugated galvanized iron sheets and chains, and because the speed of transit is so slow, the leisurely movement accommodates a more personal detail than the type wide load flag. Plastic casings for fibre optic installation double as flexible tent poles for installers’ temporary tube houses. Steel structures for regional power lines serve as support for vegetable vendor shades, and widely available plastic sheets lead to innovative drains on ancient wooden pushcarts.
Along with adapted influences from outside, local users adopt the newer, barren structures as canvas for their own expression. The nature of the modern building, which has arrived under the advent of globalization, at a basic level is extremely relatable. And perhaps this is why it has been consumed so intensely by people of all strata of the population. The bare form becomes culturally significant: local grows over it like lichen. The concrete frame that houses glass and aluminium clad façades can also be plastered and filled with brick, carry an additional shade of galvanized aluminium corrugated sheets, and most importantly, can very easily be altered. It is a simple, blank frame, which gets filled in by its users, whomever they may be. Thus the bare form gains cultural latitude—local identity—either through the translations in the construction process, or afterwards when people move in.
As hopeful actors in the building process, we want to see and encourage the beautiful remnants of an aspiration imperfectly matched with local conditions. It is in this incompleteness where a notion of Indian architecture might exist. In this void, nothing goes to waste. It is loosely perfect—ready to adapt, almost like an ever-evolving jungle of trees and animals, where every column acts like a tree trunk under foliage and in every wall comes the opportunity to form a roof. Ideas have travelled, but their implementation is not yet mobile enough to influence the local responses to universal problems of defying gravity and making shelter for climate. The flatness of a globalized world has arrived in abstract, but the concrete reality has yet to level itself, whether by design or lack of it. It is here, rocking in the tension of heady ideals and dirty sites, where architecture, particularly in India, is at its best, evolving ad hoc and ingenious solutions alongside elegant designed responses to the hot white sun, dusty streets, and global outlooks.