I recently visited Nepal. As it was a recreational trip, I wasn’t really looking at architecture of the region, but I could not escape noticing a very interesting phenomenon that has made me think.
I spent some time in Terai region, in a resort that was designed by an “Australian” architect (as proudly proclaimed by management).
The resort had some wonderful features like open-to-sky bathing areas and water bodies as landscape elements that the Australian architect must have romantically imagined as symbolically linking one to outdoor living. What he had completely forgotten was that Terai region is famous for its mosquitoes and has temperatures that dip close to zero degree Celsius. So, in winter, resort had its clients taking baths while freezing; and in summer, staff was forced to laboriously empty water bodies and scrubbing them twice a week to escape mosquito menace.
While that may sound wee bit absurd, but the real icing on the cake was the swimming pool. In the middle of Terai, thousands of kilometres from the seashore, the architect had dreamt a tropical dream. It was a pool just like the one you would find in Florida or Phuket, lined with coconut palms!
It was my Eureka moment as I realised that architect is a new age agent of Pangaea. He is travelling across the world, getting educated in great academies of the nations he is not born in. He learns his craft from distant lands with different climate, flora and fauna and then moves around the globe to practice his trade.
Often trained in Switzerland, he ends up designing buildings in Ahmedabad, where he transfers his learning from an alpine ecosystem to a desert ecosystem without sensing any issue.
It is a disaster in making across the globe, but for nations like India or Nepal, it is a calamity. Here the situation gets exponentially worse as there a sense of owe for foreigners and foreign-educated.
Our colonial mind-set celebrates architects from nations that are completely unlike us, or worse our own architects who are trained abroad, and hence import design elements from other ecosystems. As these alien solutions are completely unlike local traditional architecture honed over centuries by local climate, they offer visual novelty, and hence are found attractive.
There is one more dimension emerging now. As Indian market opens up, our projects are getting larger in scale. This not only attracts foreign architects but also gives them an edge as our businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians won’t trust home grown talent to produce eye-ball grabbing buildings.
So, a nation blessed with hundreds of the finest architectural traditions gets its next-gen buildings designed by aliens who plant coconut palms in Himalayas and make glazed facades in 40 Celsius weather.
When these designers insert elements from other climates/ecosystems, it is not as harmless as it looks. And to understand this better, we need to visit history of our planet.
Pangaea was a period when all the land mass on Earth formed a single super-continent. There is a possibility that this land connectivity led to mixing of ecosystems and caused the greatest ever mass extinction that wiped out almost 90 % of species, possibly because pathogens jumped across species barriers and wiped out specialised natives.
It may look innocuous at this point, but history of Life on Earth indicates that architects-caused ecosystem-mixing may have similar devastating results for local ecologies across the globe in long term.
I hope that our decision-makers realise that we have unique ecosystems across India and matching architecture evolved over thousands of years and hence we don’t need foreigners to tell us how to design. In addition to appreciating our own local solutions, we also need to encourage our local designers, as it is better to build our own capacity for large projects than depend on outsiders.
At this point, India is about to break into big league with massive infrastructure building ahead and our deep-rooted sense of inferiority is still making us look westwards for designers and consultants instead of allowing our homegrown talent to grow up.
What we need is to nurture the indigenous designers and designs and find appropriate architecture for our unique nation by incorporating modern technologies through interpretation instead of blind aping.