Creative Commons License photo credit: Flávio Eiró

Architects begin with programs for building. The program is measurable, quantifiable, a finite entity (something that accountants love). But life is about aspirations, hope, joy and expression. All things immeasurable, non quantifiable but connected to our feelings. Ultimately we are what we are by how we feel. Seemingly impossible tasks can be achieved if we feel that we can achieve them. Can building programs, can buildings reveal the richness of life? Is it the building or is it the space it contains or is it the experience of form, space and light which elicits responses deep within us? How does one synthesise the measurable and the immeasurable

Many years ago, at the beginning of the monsoon, standing and watching the town of Mandawa in Rajasthan spread out below, the day turned dark all of a sudden. Dust laden gusts of violent wind whistled through the streets. Claps of thunder followed, the plaintive cries of peacocks pierced this maelstrom. The air turned cool, dark clouds engulfed the horizon, there was a smell of wet earth and then huge gobs of water fell from the sky. Women and children rushed outdoors. People danced in joyous abandon in the streets. The waters gushed from gargoyles and crashed onto the ground. Swift moving streams of water covered the narrow streets. Children made boats of sticks and paper and ran splashing alongside their creations. Saris and skirts which had a few moments ago swirled in the wind and hidden all, turned diaphanous and revealed unexpected contours. Drops of water caressed the mouldings along the parapet. The delicate patterns in relief on these mouldings seemed to come alive as the contrast between the wet and the dry heightened. In that instant it all seemed so obvious. The oversized gargoyles in a place with very little rainfall, the delicacy of the mouldings, the stone basins where the waters fell, the plinths jutting out to capture the effluence of the walls, all waiting in anticipation for this one moment in time. The purpose of the buildings and their details to heighten this drama of life, to celebrate, to bring joy became apparent. The measurable and the immeasurable fused to produce a passion best summed up in the lines of a seventh century Indian poet:
Flashing streaks of lightning,
Drifting fragrance of tropical pines,
Thunder sounding from gathering clouds,
Peacocks crying in amorous tones –
How will long – lashed maids pass
These emotion – laden days in their lovers’ absence?

Whilst travelling through Italy I discovered a curious phenomenon. This phenomenon seemed common to Sienna, Assisi, Perugia and many similar small but historically significant towns. While walking in their streets, the buildings that lined them though not particularly tall appeared to be tall. The rich fenestration on them cast deep shadows. This pattern of light and dark was in direct contrast to the the narrow blue ribbon of sky visible directly above. The temperature at the time of the day, coupled with varying slopes of the ground led to a posture of walking where the head was held high and the neck taut, the eyes flitting and flitting and roving at the myriad of shadows and occasionally squinting towards the bright sky. From this emerged a pattern of breathing while traversing the street. As the breath rate increased and one became “out of breath”, one would invariably arrive at a plaza. There would be a release of the breath. The muscles of the neck, shoulders and calf would ease. Very often the plaza would also connect one’s vision to the distant horizon. All confinement of breath, vision and muscles would ease. The plaza would be a place of meeting of similar people “at ease”. Cafes spilling outdoors would surround the plaza. The smell of coffee and confectionery would stir the taste buds. Casual meetings, business or lover’s rendezvous, this was the place.
I wondered, whether this was planned, designed,
circumstantial, happenstance? Perhaps, cities with great public
spaces and breathing had a lot in common! I gathered that
architecture was about the body, all the five senses, memory
and time and not only of the eye and certainly not of
measurement alone.

In a dry dusty landscape not far from Ahmedabad in a chaotic village ensemble of mud and brick buildings, sits an amazing structure from the fifteenth century – the stepwell of Adalaj. It was made to provide a necessary utility – the access to water.However, this simple task is enriched by the manner of it’s manifestation. Wherever a stepwell links the brilliant Indian sun to a clear pool of water, two seperate worlds are joined. In the well’s stone corridors people move between one realm and the other. Excavation is balanced by construction – one pair of opposites in a series that includes sky and water, solid and liquid, empty and full.
Although the surrounding village teems with life, gossip, children and animals, the hubbub is forgotten in the formality and silence of the stepwell. Yet in the well every sound is magnified; nothing is louder than a pigeon’s wings moving or a slight splash. Surrounded by stone and sky, you do not see the water until reaching the last flight of steps. At that point, well and sky are presented twice, once by the architecture itself, and once mirrored in the water. This unfolding and doubling is exaggerated after the monsoons, when the well is flooded and only the column capitals show above the water.
You feel weightless near the water, in a peaceful loss of
orientation to the world above, as if you are suspended in
another state of mind. Time in it is so slow that you forget that
anything is urgent. The experience is truly mesmerizing.
Communal celebrations, pujas take place in this space and I
imagine lovers meet and sometimes like I wandered in, an
individual gets a peep inside him or herself.

Perhaps, the wise scholar, statesman and founder of Jaipur, Maharaja Jaisingh built the “Jantar Mantar”, not because the oversized instruments could better map the celestial realm. But to serve as powerful symbols to remind his people of the fusion of the measurable and the immeasurable. To reclaim awe and wonder from the most fundamental act of nature. The movement of the sun. To inspire each citizen beyond the daily, mundane worldly existence of this world and time and connect their aspirations to something larger than themselves, grander and timeless, the heavens, perhaps the infinite.
As life progresses, it reveals it’s continuity and unfolds the absence of our self created barriers and divisions. What is private become public sometimes and what is public, private on occasion. Matter, seemingly inert comes alive and a dialogue happens, gatherings happen, celebrations take place. Public space is giving occasion for this to happen, spontaneously! Doshi often relates an anecdote which I believe is relevant at this point. Once in Mr. PL Verma’s office, the then Chief Engineer of Chandigarh in the midst of some discussion, Corbusier asked rhetorically, “What is the truth really?” Then he drew two parallel lines, with a wavy line in between. “Truth is like a river,” he said, “it flows continuously, changing course, modifying itself, without ever touching either bank”. Truth is the process of evolution. Perhaps, one should say that life is that process of evolution!
Life is not only between buildings – it is everywhere! Embrace it!!

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