The most disturbing conflict that one faces while working for an underprivileged community arises when one asks oneself, ‘Is it neo-colonialism if you, a city-grown and educated person, try to find a solution to a problem faced by them?’. This conflict arose at the beginning and was answered only during the next few months of working on the project.
Architecture is not just about a beautiful building but about the beautiful life that it contains. This doesn’t mean that the architecture of the project merely contains the program but that there’s much more to architecture than ‘apple-ization’ of form. It only means that each part of the built whole, every detail and each joint strives to reinforce the ideals of the imagined life. Architecture also doesn’t refer only to a finished building because that would make the people occupying this imagined utopia be looked down upon as mere ‘pollutants’. It means that the process of creating the space itself, positively affects the lives of people working or inhabiting the immediate physical context. All such processes have to be handled in a fine precision of a surgeon so that the insertion that is proposed doesn’t hamper the process of eventual evolution of the man, the place and the interplay within.
Architecture is also a process of building narratives. It also means that various narratives also play their parts in the process of building architecture. Such narratives of user groups as well as natural and artificial entities such as water, dwellings also act as the inseparable steps of the design process. Architecture of the project understands that after all the metaphors, connections and poems that an architect tries to imbibe into his (in this case, me!) space, it still longs to be accessed by all; unlike other art forms. Architecture can be pretentious and yet the ideals behind can be completely transformed by the users of the same. The project understands this process of change and this layer of time tries to fit the insert right inside the ancient society of the tribals.
Interpreting Conservative Surgery
Contextual development is a model of development that demands to be participatory and which studies and responds to the cultural, economic, ecological, political, historical contexts of the selected area. A tribal village in Melghat, Maharashtra (India) was selected as a site to demonstrate how a model of contextual development can be implemented.
Melghat only because of the positive changes it brought to me when I was involved in a teaching program previously through ‘Maitri’, an NGO that tries to improve the education and the livelihoods of the Korku (name of the tribe). The selection of the village was made by carefully analyzing the ‘athawda bazar’ or the weekly market system of the tribal society. The most suitable and potentially well-connected host village of Hatru was chosen for maximum impact after comparative analysis. The site was visited on multiple occasions and the observations related to it’s cultural, economic, ecological, political and historical contexts were recorded.
Published literature on Meghat was studied. Secondary literature that dealt with the post-colonial understanding of politics, economy and sustainability was chosen and studied. Schemes, acts and rights under the state of Maharashtra, India and the Constitution of India were studied for being able to analyze and critique it. Detailed discussions were conducted with the villagers, experts and social workers from Melghat, and the thesis guides. A contextual development plan, a manifesto of sort was proposed that would be implemented over next 20 years. The plan comprises of measures suggested in the domains of local self-governance, economic self-reliance, food security, and ecological interventions, creating spaces for positive social interactions and for several educational initiatives that respond to the micro-context of the local ecosystem. Certain inserts from the plan such as an activity studio, a research studio, a village-library, an educational farm, a parallel school, the ecotourism model, the community kitchen were selected through a process that embraced ‘user narratives’ as a tool for detailing the design. Thus the design approach became narrative-based and not program-based.
All the areas were determined by the local standards (ex. indoor space occupied by the villagers) and the design aimed to be rational, low cost, built with local and sustainable materials and techniques. The architecture had to be efficient, which can contain multiple activities with and without formalization. The scale of aesthetics, poetics and kinesthetics of architecture was purposely kept within the user’s comfort level. The beauty of the project lies in the way it started as a contemporary, rational and secular project and ended up eloping with traditional solutions. The project juxtaposes rationality with tradition when the functional spaces are weaved together by water, forming a contemporary step well.
The thesis also tries to question itself on the every step. ‘Why must this policy exist? Why must any policy exist at all? How much fodder do cows need? Should the by-laws and our conventional ideas of development hold us from valuing our evolved traditions? How does scale matter? How do people get comfortable? Who is going to build the project? Do bananas grow in shade?’ were only some of them. The project addresses the macro issues with micro solutions comprising of individuals, their livestock and their immediate surroundings.
The project focuses on shifting role of the architect from being a mere facilitator to the rich to being a translator for all. The project therefore tries to meet the objective of demonstrating contextual development with a realistic outlook.
The process of thesis tried to find an answer to the previously presented conflict. If you think yourself as different from the society that has thrived right next to you, that itself implies your superiority and falls into the neo-colonialist trap. If you imagine yourself as different, that itself implies the hierarchical structure of the society, reinforcing yourself as being a know-it-all problem solver. Once you start to be an active agent of your society, you try to be sustainable and increasingly more sensitive. The entire built up that the project proposes is in fact an inter-play between the inclusion and the exclusion of the individuals and the groups of individuals. When I look back to the process of designing so as to examine what could have affected the project positively, the ratio of the architect’s capacity and his power in an architectural project should have been questioned rigorously.
A thesis about decentralization can only become a valid project if its methods of design and execution represent the principles of decentralization that it tries to promote. Democratic, participatory approach to any project that deals with defining space should not only be preferable and celebrated but it should be a norm in any society that strives for democracy. Democracy at the end isn’t an event but a process.
This publication is a collaboration between Hashtag Urbanism and Advait Deshmukh, based on his Undergraduate Design Thesis, “Context Reservoir- Re-wiring the tribal systems of Melghat.”, compiled in the document below.
Noteworthy mention – Presented along with 9 others at NIASA (National Institute of Advanced Studies in Architecture) Thesis Awards West Zone jury.