An eye for the appropriate

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the Barefoot Architects is a recognition for a group that paused to notice the solutions that already existed before them, instead of following alien models.

SINCE it was instituted in 1977, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture has provided a unique platform for the most critical, learned and exemplary talents of the West and the East to come together to redefine, every three years, the vital ingredients of a sustainable yet man-made world. The Master Juries of the last seven cycles of the Award have over the years recognised 76 works of architecture that contribute to enhancing the conditions of life in Muslim societies. The Award is one of the three main programmes of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a nodal agency of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in the field of culture. The network also works in the field of economic and social development, and all programmes are united under the Imamat, the designated spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims.

When the first Master Jury of 1980 bestowed the Chairman's Award on Hassan Fathy, the Egyptian master-builder and guru of mud architecture and the indigenous aesthetic, it set the terms of an alternative discourse regarding architecture, dedicated to the restoration of harmony between the built and the unbuilt. It also positioned the Award initiative and the teachings of the Imamat comfortably within the concerns of all modern, democratic societies. Only 27 countries can boast of award-winning works. They are located in Africa, Asia and Europe and represent vast differences in society, polity and levels of prosperity. That six works from India have received the award until now is clear proof of its non-denominational temper.

During the past two decades, thanks largely to the efforts of such initiatives, architecture has been redefined as the creation of sustainable ecosystems, matrixes of society and culture in which the individual as well as communities find nourishment, work and dignity. This is a far cry from the universalised aesthetic of International Style modern architecture, which dominated architectural culture in the developing post-colonial world for over 50 years. Swayed by the euphoria of nation-building, yet floundering for solutions appropriate to their own condition, countries such as India found the stock of technologies and habitats available in Europe and America positively alluring. Few Indian architects or statesmen paused to notice the solutions that already existed before them. One such has received the Aga Khan Award for the year 2001.

The Barefoot Architects are a group of graduates from the Barefoot College located in Tilonia, a village in Ajmer district of Rajasthan, one of India's hottest, driest and poorest States. Sanjit Bunker Roy, once synonymous with ideologically committed social work, set up the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC) in 1972. The SWRC came to be known popularly as the Barefoot College, where the poor residents of Tilonia and surrounding villages received practical knowledge and skills through a hands-on process of education. The college provides nine different areas of specialisation: drinking water, night schools, health centres, solar power, environment, income generation, traditional media, people's action, and women's groups. All students are equipped with basic literacy, health and first aid skills and are then urged to move from one area to another, understanding their inter-relationships and learning the principles of community building and sustainability.

The achievements of these down-to-earth architects are commendable. Bhanwar Jat and his team of 12 Barefoot Architects constructed the college campus - comprising residences, a library, a dining hall, marketing offices, an open-air theatre, a solar fabrication workshop, a water-testing laboratory, an audio-visual unit, a handicrafts production centre, a theatre, and a blacksmith's workshop - from locally available materials and techniques such as rubble stone masonry using lime mortar. To house facilities such as a telephone exchange, Refeek Mohammed and seven Barefoot Architects constructed geodesic domes using scrap metal, in lieu of traditional wooden structures. Laxman Singh, assisted by Ram Karan, Kana Ram and Ratan Devi, installed the rainwater harvesting system, which collects water from specially designed roofs into a 400,000-litre underground water tank, which replenishes the 145-metre-deep well on the campus. And 60 Barefoot Architects have constructed 250 mud-brick shelters in surrounding villages through the college's Homes for the Homeless programme. A typical low-cost house consists of two rooms, a courtyard and a toilet. In 1986, solar power was first used to energise completely the 60,000-square-foot college campus. Tilonia's solar mechanics have even installed solar panels in villages in Ladakh.

The Eighth triennial award identifies the Barefoot Architects as "beneficiaries of a programme that respectfully augments the traditions and knowledge of a rural community, enabling 'untutored' residents to design and build well for themselves". One notes with discomfort that the majority of architects and their clients in India are unlikely to take such credentials seriously. For a country that desperately needs more of the same, this amounts to a great loss. That most schools of architecture would bracket the Tilonia enterprise as a good piece of social work, rather than as a vital work of architecture, is the kind of misjudgment of goals that plagues the architectural culture of this vast country. The principle of sustainable development, founded on community partnership, appropriate technology and self-empowerment through education, is anathema to the growing horde of architects that would rather vie for lucrative commissions in the cities than work at the grass roots. The average Indian architect would be perplexed by the alienness of such concerns, by the seeming absence of 'architecture' in Tilonia.

One might ask why the preoccupations of our building industry are at variance with the "barefoot philosophy". To a large extent, the blame can be rested on the shoulders of the proverbial white sahib, followed by the brown babu, who systematically removed the local building craftsman from traditional patronage in order to introduce him into a modern building economy based on hired wage labour. Indian arts and crafts were supported only insofar as they supplied a burgeoning global market for exotica and kitsch. The public works regime introduced by the British and perpetuated by the modern Indian state was based on the standardisation of labour rates and the proliferation of pattern-book designs. Together, the depletion of traditional knowhow and the stultification of architectural skills reduced the Indian building industry to a wasteful and inefficient behemoth.

By highlighting and affirming the richness and complexity of architecture, the Aga Khan Award renders a valuable service. Besides Tilonia, the eight other awardees this year include a village in Morocco, a poultry farm in Guinea designed by a Finnish architect, a museum in Egypt, an SOS village in Jordan, an urban park and adaptively re-used structures in Iran, a social centre in Turkey and a hotel in Malaysia. In their variety of styles and differing scales of intervention, the buildings represent a cross-section of the 427 projects that were initially considered and the 35 that were shortlisted. While the Barefoot Architects will receive a fair share of the total prize fund of $500,000, the largest architectural award in the world, the monetary success is unlikely to be their main source of pride, armed as they are with the means to a livelihood. As an exemplary project, Tilonia more importantly extends the resistance offered by the Award to the ravaging forces of urbanisation and the endemic loss of identity and dignity faced by people of the developing world. For this reason alone, Tilonia should rejoice.

AN appropriate figure to recall at this juncture is Mahatma Gandhi, who called for the self-sufficiency of Indian villages as the main force by which to develop a modern nation without succumbing to the ways of Western modernity. Along with numerous other efforts afoot in the villages of India and abroad, Tilonia's success may vindicate Gandhi's stance, albeit many decades too late. But it would do the Award a great injustice if one reduces its tenets into a reworking of Gandhian ideas. The multi-disciplinary and international composition of the steering committee and the Master Jury for the Award guarantees that the emerging concerns of global society will be addressed as imbricated realities, in which divisions between worlds and nations and societies are increasingly becoming redundant. That the specificity of local culture and the universalisation inherent in the global are both worth resisting is an insight that was articulated in the 1980s by the architectural historian Kenneth Frampton, a member of the current steering committee.

In 1985, Charles Correa, another member of the committee and one of the awardees in the last cycle, wrote The New Landscape, a pithy evaluation of the problems and prospects of Third World cities. Correa proposed the path of self-reliance and the collective identification of development goals, thereby involving urban communities in giving shape to their own futures. Correa's book and his subsequent Report of the National Commission on Urbanisation, 1988, were both panned by architects and policymakers, but the principles he defined found application in the city of Indore in two different schemes, which won the Award in the last two cycles. That old concerns can still be realised in the present reveals the essentially reflective mood of the Award and overall rejection of avant-gardism.

Neither Frampton nor Correa, nor any of the other members, is an avowed follower of Gandhi, Thoreau, Ruskin or Rousseau, who seeks to recover a paradisiacal world through a romantic deployment of the architect's genius. All of them are guided instead by the Aga Khan's belief, that "we are trustees of God's creation, and we are instructed to seek to leave the world a better place than it was when we came into it". This affirmation of the human spirit may resound in the schools of Tilonia, as another "children's parliament" comes into session, and an elected body of girls and boys between 10 and 14 years of age undertake the responsibility to ensure the proper functioning of their own institution. Their faith in the future is not represented in flashy forms or overtly modern gestures, for the real architecture of Tilonia is not in the shape of buildings.

Jagan Shah is an architect based in New Delhi, where he also teaches at the School of Planning and Architecture.

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