When you are a first-year architecture student- you are the lowliest of lows. Not only are you without a voice, but you also try your darndest not to draw attention to yourself, with many of us leaving our sheltered life- home and grade school existence for the first time to encounter the big-bad world outside. One could and did indeed get hazed (a word or concept I did not know at the time) – harmless stuff such as fetching a full glass of tea, without spilling a drop, from Mahabal, who ran the college canteen across the workshop. Mostly harmless, but a shock to the system nonetheless and hence did your best to stay “under the radar.” The Sir J.J. College of Architecture campus that year – my first – was abuzz with excitement! A big event had just occurred- of course, a lowly first-year student was the last to know. An announcement would come at the appropriate time. But, the rumour was that one of our own – someone we all young architecture students could aspire to one day – had won a major architectural competition!
Of course, we all know there are competitions and competitions, but one where your structure is about to be built! Wow!!! The rumour was that it would be built around 400 times throughout the State of Maharashtra. This win was an accomplishment for someone so young. You can almost visualize the idyllic Bollywood scene where Nirupa Roy tells the kid, if only you study this hard, someday you too will become a great architect. One could see this architect- one just like us hanging out on the stage with his buddies Dean and Ajit and a few others. I didn’t know Dean other than as the one with the sonorous voice which all the girls in class swooned over. Ajit, I got to know later as a brilliant political cartoonist (he assured me, when I asked him once, that he was entirely apolitical). But among the small ‘army’ put together in service of the award-winning entry was Ajit. Anticipated by decades of animated computer-simulated walk-throughs and fly-throughs, Ajit had put together a stunning series of charcoal and pencil renderings showing the movement and progression through space and time through the proposed award-winning building. So impressive and sophisticated were these sketches that naively, later in my career, I tried to imitate with abysmal results. As I reflect on this, Ajit is probably no more than a handful of years older than me, but such was Ajit’s impact on the impressionable, young, aspiring architect and many others like me.
If Ajit and Dean were the generals, we were the foot soldiers commandeered by the field marshal appropriately named Professor Godbole: literally, God speaks. God commands (and we obey). Four hundred bases from plywood had to be cut, and, as they had a curvilinear form, no mean feat. The jigsaw at the workshop was put to good use. Lots of greys to show the use of cement and hence ‘Modern.’ After all, Nehru had called our post-independence dams the “temples of Modern India.” Foam-core board trusses, each painted to resemble galvanized steel. Corrugated cardboard spray-painted red to simulate tin metal. Little matchstick and Styrofoam trees. The idea I learnt later was to create 400 replica scale models for each site where this structure was to be built, which would receive a scale model in fevered anticipation of what was to come. The school predictably also wanted to brag about its great accomplishment on the National Stage. As fate would have it, the school that year was to host the annual ubiquitously named NASA (this was the early 80s, after all), the National Association of Schools of Architecture’s annual convention, which would help JJ leapfrog the upstarts CEPT and others to the Number 1 ranking once again. And who was this pretentious usurper from Bandra (or Academy) anyway? You see, Sir JJ, the first school of architecture in the nation, the home of the Kiplings, was better than anybody, and here this major award proved it and laid the debate to rest once and for all.
The same army was employed to haul bricks to build a stage, a plinth, and a parapet outside the canteen and the workshop, paint portions of the new building, and, impressively, create a tensile structure to span the grounds. Much more cutting of posts at the workshop followed. This was the convention to equal the best, also where Sir JJ announced itself to the world. After all, the school boasted of Batley and Correa, Doshi and Kanvinde. The best Academy could brag about was Hafeez Contractor.
But, there was doubt, if not dissent. The runner-up entry was nothing grander than a tree, providing shelter and shade. Where a building would decay and, concrete would crumble with time, a tree would grow and thrive. There was something poetic about the refuge offered under a hot sun and a platform offering a place for an afternoon nap, telling stories, an earthen pot of cool water, and even a makeshift shrine. But who would make money from this? And how would this be modern? We likely lost an architect forever that day, but who is to say that this principled person did not touch other lives in other ways? Many of us who rebelled against the Starchitects found other callings. I haven’t practised traditional architecture in nearly two decades now. However, I’m hopeful that the work I currently do changes a few (or a few million) lives for the better. My interests, thirty years ago, had to do with the question of patronage, at the heart of this debate that we all grappled with and responded to differently. Broadly, these interests included how architecture was employed in the promotion, consolidation, and display of power and how the State could wield this instrument subtly (Vietnam memorial) or bluntly (Nuremberg). My youthful pursuits have given way to questions of climate, creating resilient societies, and how unsustainable our current path is at all levels. My work deals with climate and the built environment. But not architecture.
Ameer Chand is the author’s pseudonym. He graduated from Sir. J.J. College of Architecture in 1986 and works for the U.S. Federal Government in Washington, D.C. with a focus on climate and building resilient communities. A small part of his work deals with architecture.