Book Review: Travel as Recovery

Bijoy Ramachandran Reviews 'Architecture Travelogues: Drawing Between the Lines', book by Edgar Demello


In February, 2020, in a packed seminar room at the Bangalore International Centre, Edgar Demello paid his tribute to Charles Correa in a wonderful lecture, titled ‘Charles Correa: The Reluctant Saint’. In an evocative end piece, Edgar imagines the first supper laid out to welcome Correa to the afterlife bringing together all of the facets of this great architect through a carefully curated guest list.

Around a square table are twelve friends – writers, artists, engineers, patrons and a bona fide Hollywood movie star. Edgar gives us the chance to partake in this incredible communion and through it subtly suggests that to be an architect, one must find a way to ‘be in the world’ – immersing oneself in poetry, music, art, politics, history and all that makes us human. Whatever you do as an architect is cumulative. One’s ability to absorb and respond deeply depends on this wide net one casts.

Edgar’s own erudition, knowledge of the world, and wanderlust bring us, through this lecture, and now through his new book, ‘Architecture Travelogues: Drawing Between the Lines1, his awareness of what it is to be an aesthete. He has constantly sought out that which is of particular value in this pursuit to experience the world through the eyes of the great seers.

Book Review: Travel as Recovery 1
Book Cover: Architecture Travelogues

There is a long standing tradition of books documenting an architect’s travels. Louis Kahn’s journey through Europe and northern Africa in 1951, documented in sublime charcoal and pastel drawings and published in the book, ‘Drawing From The Source: The Travel Sketches of Louis I. Kahn’2, reveal his discovery of the elemental qualities of architecture that would then preoccupy him for the next twenty years.

His search for ‘Silence and Light’, predicated on the epiphany of discovering deep shadow and incandescent illumination at Giza, Rome and Venice, and the notions of monumentality and the carved-out monolith at Karnak, Corinth, Sienna and San Gimignano helped him produce some of his most sublime work. Like Edgar says in his introduction, Kahn, the ‘American’ traveler, sought discovery3. He was searching for precedent, for what Eliot called the Historical Sense4.

Edgar’s travels are a form of discovery too but are also a way to recapitulate old ideas, revisit old friends and relive old memories. Travel as a form of recovery3. He is often following a path set out by others before him in the hope of internalising their epiphanies, their realizations, and in so doing reveal his own predilections.

The essays bring us places, people and buildings through the lens of other architects, writers, fellow travelers, political moments, and the evocative description of the scene – the light, the air, and the quality of the prospect.

There are in a few of the essays an aspect of the fantastic too – a raven brings us God’s (Le Corbusier) voice admonishing Edgar for not going the whole way with a project. In this clearing just outside Corbusier’s La Tourette, Edgar is forced to introspect on his own work revealing to us his sense of inadequacy. As an architect one is always aware of the essential compromise inherent in the making of architecture and the struggle to give expression to the ‘inner voice’. To experience the great masterworks, like Corbusier’s building, is to feel the immense weight of history.

Edgar’s wonderful description of Charles Correa’s Champalimaud Centre in Lisbon recognises the importance of this location where the river Tagus meets the Atlantic Ocean. This is where intrepid explorers like Henry the Navigator

and Vasco da Gama hung a left out into the unknown, giving Correa’s idea of opening up the centre of the campus with a large ascending plaza incredible gravitas. It at once makes a deep connection back to history and gives context to our enduring fascination with the unknown. Edgar imagines Vasco da Gama returning to these open ‘sails’ – the large curved, limestone bearing walls of Correa’s building. A befitting homecoming.

There are six essays set in Europe (apart from the one in Lyon), two in Holland, and the rest in Vienna, Prague, Portugal and Venice. Edgar’s foundational experience in the Netherlands brings energy and a sense of familiarity to these essays.

There are encounters with John Hejduk’s Wall House #2, on a bleak winter’s day – its pastel colours in a futile battle with the ubiquitous white, threatened into oblivion, ‘only to rise again in spring’; with the Venetian triumvirate, Aldo Rossi, Joseph Brodsky and Carlo Scarpa and the expression of the precarious, tentative and ephemeral in Scarpa’s work – of this particular place, the ‘jewel on the Adriatic Sea’; with Kisho Kurokawa, the Japanese architect extending Gerrit Reitveld’s de Stijl museum with a ‘dematerialised glass sheath’– reflecting the older building – a sensitive homage; with Alvaro Siza’s Museum of Galician Art, an understated masterwork with a ‘cavernous internal volume filled with magical light’ – a lesson in efficiency; with Rem Koolhaas’s Casa Musica, in Porto – a flop-show (!) making no effort to integrate into a beautiful setting; with cafes where the whiff of revolution and deep conversations still lingers; and constantly with the quotidian and yet charming backdrop of Europe’s hinterland – passing by outside train and bus windows, alongside cycles, and experienced on foot. Edgar’s vivid descriptions bring us a sense of being there.

The last three chapters are closer to home. Edgar was part of the BASE (Bangalore Architects Society for Education or colloquially Beer And Slide Evenings!) Group, a coming together of architects from an incredibly diverse set of backgrounds, prodigals all, returning home, in some sense. The essay about the group, their preoccupation with vernacular architecture and a trip to Kerala tells us of the importance of travel with friends – to dissect, deliberate and argue about shared experiences and their meanings. This has had a profound impact on Edgar, the BASE Group and on so many younger architects who had the opportunity to engage with them and see first hand the passion that architecture demands.

At the end of the trip, sitting on those wide steps at Charles Correa’s Kovalam Resort, a series of platforms on a hill from where to survey the oceans, moving from the intimate, nestled interior embedded in the rock – a place of refuge; out to the brazen, sun drenched terrace – a place of prospect, Edgar recalls Varanasi, Modhera and Mandu – places tethered to water and infinity.

The essay ‘Six days in Sri Lanka’ is also framed like the Venetian one by a triumvirate – Michael Ondaatje (writer), Cecil Balmond (engineer) and Geoffrey Bawa (architect and aesthete). Edgar is conjuring up another fantastic soiree posing the important question of identity. What makes them Sri Lankan, if anything? This office trip takes us to the Kandalama Hotel, embedded in the cliff, and unlike Correa’s Kovalam Resort a sheer vertical framework, infested by the forest; to Lunuganga, Bawa’s retreat in Bentota, where the hand of man all but disappears; to Lighthouse Hotel near Galle – recalling Luis Barragan, that Mexican master of colour and composition; and to two small urban buildings. Edgar describes these projects as ‘colluding’ with the landscape, emotionally charged and picturesque. It would be interesting to have Corbusier’s raven tell us what he thinks of this work – all sloping roofs and sleights of hand.

In his most personal essay of the collection, ‘Entering A Time Machine’, Edgar talks about two seminal encounters that led him to architecture. One with a Geodesic Dome designed by the maverick engineer/architect, Buckminster Fuller, erected on Edgar’s walking route to school – a wondrous volume, sixty feet wide and forty feet high with a 360o moving image within and the other with ‘The Red Road’, a searing canvas by FN Souza.

Architecture requires both, the careful, methodical precision of the engineer and the tempestuous, passionate temperament of the artist.

Recollecting the words of a local doctor, a friend of Souza’s, Edgar says that the artist doesn’t just draw what he sees but what he doesn’t see as well. The soaring red road in the painting is an escape from flatland, beyond the village. Souza draws potential, he instigates. The work is commentary and introspection.

Edgar’s book serves only as an introduction to ideas, people and places. Many of the rather profound intellectual and philosophical questions he raises aren’t sufficiently mined. I hope Edgar will consider another book delving more deeply into some of these ideas. Of particular interest to this reviewer are his tentative journeys within, to creative introspection, the relationship of political conditions on cultural production, and the particular importance of early experiences on his life as an architect.

There does seem to be a whole book waiting to be written about Mai, his grandmother and Edgar’s own Aymanam, Saligao. The other book I am waiting for from Edgar is one on drawings. This one has some exquisite collages made up of the detritus of travel – bills, tickets, brochures and the like. All of these rendered in Edgar’s inimitable pencil colours and calligraphy.

Venice Collage - Edgar Demello
Collage from Venice Trip, by Edgar Demello

In ‘Imaginary Homelands’, Salman Rushdie writes, “Suppose yourself in a large cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up,…until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars’ faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions,…it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality’. The movement through time towards the present, and the book itself, as it nears contemporary events, quite deliberately loses deep perspective, becomes more ‘partial.’”

Travel achieves the reverse effect of this. Through our dislocation and distance we begin to see our own predicament more clearly and make sense of our realities. Edgar’s recapitulation of a lifetime of travel brings us a sense of context. It instigates us to embrace the world fully and in so doing truly find ourselves.

Edgar’s recapitulation of a lifetime of travel brings us a sense of context. It instigates us to embrace the world fully and in so doing truly find home.

1. EDA – CoLab A+A, 2022
2. Eugene J. Johnson & Michael J. Lewis (authors), MIT Press, 1996
3. From WG Sebald
4. ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, TS Eliot, 1902

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