Thursday 5 September 2019

Encountering the 'field': gendering and career trajectories in architecture

Given the long gap, Kuili and I felt that maybe we should restart the blog with a particular theme and since Saythu is a 'field' centric collaborative we decided to discuss our encounters with it. We deliberately use the word 'encounter' to highlight the fact that 'field', which is central to most architectural practice, is dynamic. Unlike how we may have imagined it, during (studio) training, it is not a static entity waiting for us to 'act on it' but equally capable of 'acting on us'.

Specifically for us 'field' includes: 1) the physical location, whether an iconic site like Hampi World Heritage Site or a remote fort on a hill top, 2) people directly involved with the project, whether contractors, colleagues, clients, skilled workforce, site security, other consultants, 3) ‘local people’ i.e. those who live in and around monuments and/or heritage sites, and 4) visitors, i.e. people who are neither involved with the project (whether restoration, repair or adaptive re-use) nor who live in that location but still shape our experiences and understanding of that particular location. Another reason 'field' plays an active role in conservation is because heritage sites are seen as public good and not private property.

In this blog we discuss how expertise plays out in the field filtered through the lens of gender. Our interest was kindled by casual conversations with (new-build) architecture colleagues. They would often tell us that women employees were usually reluctant to undertake on-site work and wished to know what kinds of work-related problems we might encounter, as women actively engaged in fieldwork. Beyond the systemic problems that women continue to face and are forced to come to terms with, here, we would like to start a conversation on a broader issue related to architecture practice. Based on decades of on-site experience (including few years in new-build early in our careers), we suggest that ‘field’ responds to gender depending on whether we are there to ‘instruct it’ or ‘learn from it’. Does this affect one's career trajectory within the umbrella of architecture? Possibly. We discuss below.

Conservation work involves intervening into systems that have existed for a while. Our field demands a certain amount of sensitivity and ability to nurture, such as, caring for the structure (s), understanding local context, how various historic materials used in construction work with each other at that location, construction technologies employed in that specific structure(s), historical usage, assessing compatibility of present and future usage with the structure and its historical usage, to name just a few.  Therefore, in our projects, the first experience of ‘field’ is usually an exercise in learning. We are on-site to understand-the site, its present condition, structural and other problems/issues, socio-cultural context, its history, discuss possible solutions with experienced/skilled labour, learn its particular histories from local people, respond to visitor queries-and not instruct.

Consequently, we suggest that 'field' sees women conservation professionals on-site as ‘non-threatening’  since we are not there to dictate, unlike maybe in a new-build project site, where  the typical role of an architect is to issue instructions and inspect. A conservation architect’s ‘field’ then appears to give room for equations of power to be dynamic unlike a new-build site where power hierarchy is typically well-established. This is not to suggest that new-build architects do not respond to context but as a way to point to a larger problem, which is that societal conditioning tends to attribute the qualities of nurture and sensitivity as exclusively 'womanly qualities'. Does such gender stereotyping limit career choices within architecture for both men and women? 

How can one attempt to understand such forms of gendering in the field of architecture? Could this be why one sees more women in heritage conservation, as society expects men 'to build' or 'create' and not just nurture? Is our choice of profession partly dictated by where/how ‘field’ is willing to accept women/men and not entirely because of our own interests or passion? We throw these questions open for discussion and debate.

[Authors: Krupa Rajangam and Kuili Suganya with inputs from Sonalika Dugar]

Tuesday 7 August 2018

Thinking Conservation: What is documentation? Who documents a site / structure?

This month's blog is the result of a chance remark. Some of us were interacting with a group of professionals interested and working in, though not trained in built heritage conservation or with extensive field experience in the discipline.

In the course of conversation a member of the group rather proudly declared: "we have completely documented xyz [a historic settlement]". I was excited over the statement as I was personally interested in that settlement and requested to see their work whenever convenient.

When I finally did get to see it though, I was disappointed to note that the settlement had been measure drawn (some parts thoroughly and some imaginatively, much like we all do, when time and resources are a constraint) but not documented.

Thinking through I realized this is the typical or general approach to and understanding of documentation. First, it is usually equated with measure drawing and second, it is relegated to "juniors": in work hierarchy some what lower than say sitting at a desk, for example, and analyzing cum compiling.

Quite often conservation experts do not visit or they are not given time / resources to visit the site / structure under question. Instead "less expensive" students, interns, juniors are sent to site to "document" and the expert is given the photos and drawings required to assess the conservation status of the structure / site back in the studio.

In effect, voluntarily or involuntarily, side-stepping a necessary, important step in diagnosing the problems affecting a heritage site / structure first hand, which would lead to an understanding of the larger issues that affect the site / structure's heritage values (whatever they maybe).

What then is documentation?

As noted above it is a necessary part of diagnosing the issues affecting a heritage site. Ideally it is a combination of drawings, photographs, archival work to trace its historiography (not just how it looked, but who used it, how and for what periods of time) and first hand accounts from current users / guardians. All put together they help thoroughly understand the site / structure.

To take an example as a way to stress the nuances of the process - drawings are not one type or of a standard model. Depending on need they could be a record of as-is where-is condition of a site: showing collapsed sections, off plumb columns, missing parts and all. Or they could be a recreation of what the structure did look like when intact (based on an understanding of art and architectural history of course, no guesswork here). Or an overlay of existing condition on a recreation. Or a series of rendered images to satisfy clients and / or funders. All equally valid parts of the documentation process. See examples below.

Image above: partial drawings of a ruined temple structure. One cell (red dotted line, marked no.5) is completely missing, only the pranala (of the lingam) remains as a clue to help us understand where it once stood. 

Image above: part photograph of one of the partially collapsed shikaras of the same temple complex

Image above: archival record of the plan layout of the same temple complex 

Do all sites / structures need all types of drawings to be made or does it depend on need and resources? This is down to the expert, who generally calls on experience to address this question.

Why do I think it important to raise this topic?

Heritage advocates and enthusiasts, much like the group I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, are increasing day by day. Most of them are passionate about heritage which is great. However, in the long run, lack of adequate information and training in the nuances of built heritage conservation, among such groups, might end up harming the conservation discipline as we understand it. An integrated interdisciplinary process, where each necessary step forms an important part of the whole.

Friday 6 July 2018

Thinking, Doing and Teaching Conservation: on-site knowledge sharing

Based on many years of on-site experience, in this blog, I would like to discuss interactions between skilled workers and conservation architect in field based projects such as restoration or reconstruction.
I am always delighted to interact with skilled labour force working at restoration sites. Whether traditional masons, stone workers, carpenters, floor layers or more regular service providers like electricians or plumbers, there is always much to learn from them at every site and project. Usually as conservation expert I decide the larger restoration strategy in consultation with the client and / or structural engineer. However in the actual execution and detailing, the knowledge of craftspeople and skilled labour force comes into the picture.
For example, while attempting to reconstruct a decorative urn and balusters at a site in Mysore, the craftsperson suggested making a form work in wood to get the detail right. He then proceeded to make a full scale drawing of the six feet urn on the terrace, right there. (See image below) I can share countless such instances but the point I wish to raise is such exchanges are knowledge that is worth sharing and must be shared.

One way would be to rethink how architects develop working drawings i.e. drawings that are meant to guide different scales and types of execution on-site. In fact I now believe that we can develop templates for working drawings by keenly observing the work flow and thought process of such skilled labour. 
At our sites we are always open to interacting and learning from experienced and skilled labour, whether it is preparation of materials like lime or carving out a detail in lime / wood or even how to lay an exposed conduit. For example, a lime plasterer I worked with would assess when traditional mortars were good enough for application by feeling the coarseness and stiffness of the mortar with his fingers. His eye / hand would similarly tell him at what stage and how much organic admixture is to be added to the lime mortar as required for that stage of works. Another mason would similarly assess the quality of soil for mud construction (adobe).  Based on their years of experience some of them even developed their own tools to help them restore or reconstruct different features of historic buildings. I have often observed traditional carpenters who, having worked with wood for years, bring their rich understanding of the material, to develop their own joinery details. These details are not to be found in any standard text book or manual. At one site we got miniature samples of such details made which we now use as a teaching resource in our classes on heritage for both children and adults. See image below.

However engaging a trained team is important because after years of working on heritage buildings they are sensitive to the needs of such structures. When I get into a discussion with such a team on what detailing might have originally been adopted, whether we can recreate it, it is almost like a story coming alive as the mason or carpenter starts thinking about how those original craftspeople might have executed it. In the process they provide alternatives on how to restore some interesting yet hard to recreate features.
Interacting with such skilled individuals thus enriches our understanding of historic materials cum techniques and appreciation of their efforts – sitting or squatting awkwardly on scaffolding for hours at a time only to get a detail right is not easy. It deserves great respect. Every member on a restoration site thus has an important role to play in contributing to the building or site's significance. 

Monday 4 June 2018

Thinking and Teaching Conservation: balancing ethics, people, and policy

In last month's blog Kuili wrote about certain situations in the field when we as heritage professionals are confronted with differing needs of different 'communities'. These field instances stayed in her mind as they tested or maybe even challenged our professional ethics. Maybe our morality too? While I'm unsure of the latter I have no doubts that such experiences do cause us to question our disciplinary ethics. I therefore decided it was worthwhile to extend the conversation thread to this month's blog.

Some of you may wonder how or why do ethics or morals come into the picture? For example, quite often I am asked what does conservation have to do with people? Isn't it a science? This question usually comes up when I say I'm working towards a PhD dissertation on Heritage Conservation with a broad focus on how heritage and its conservation intersect with peoples' lives. The question "isn't it a science and hence nothing to do with people" is a huge issue but in this blog I stick to the topic of ethics. It comes into the picture especially since the discipline is increasingly working with people.

Recently I read an essay by Paul Drury, a heritage professional based in England. He argues that "conservation is an evolving concept...a philosophical approach" that seeks to understand what people value and that comes first, much before the physical process of repair...A couple of lines stayed with me: "practising conservation involves judgement guided by professional ethics and public policy" and further along "conservation [is] becom[ing] a more complex and public activity". I interpret these lines to mean: we are often pulled in different directions when our professional training demands a course of action that seems contrary to governmental policy and / or local peoples' wants or desires. In effect our work becomes a fine act of balancing all these varying demands while exercising our judgment - a difficult task. Are we trained enough for this? Are we prepared? Maybe its time to reflect on our training and how well it prepares us for ground realities that are far removed from the studio.

For example, we were called to 'characterise' a settlement located near a protected site. The heritage authority had received a number of applications for No Objection Certificate (NoC) from this settlement because of the rule that 100m from a protected site is a no development zone and further 200m from it is a development control zone. The authority recognised that the settlement had existed before this policy came up and wished to respond as fairly as possible to various applications that sought development permissions. Hence the suggestion that we study and interpret the local context (settlement pattern, typology, architectural style/s, materials and construction technology ...).

While walking around an elderly man started a general conversation when he abruptly stopped and said, "I would like to ask you a question, don't get offended". I replied that he was welcome to ask anything. He said: "you say you are a heritage expert, you tell me is it fair for the authority to construct new structures well inside the protected area of the site in the name of public toilets, ticket booth, visitor facilities and so on but we are denied permission to build toilets or repair our roof or add a floor just because we live close to a site that has been declared protected". 

Of course it was unfair especially from his standpoint! What is the middle path in such situations? How we do balance policy, needs of the site whose care is our professional mandate and needs of people whose lives happen to intersect with the site only because it was declared protected? More so since increasingly there is recognition that heritage is supposed to be of, for and by people.

The questions above bring us back to the statement in the beginning of the blog that conservation challenges our ethical (and maybe our moral?) judgments. How well are we preparing students to face such realities? The answer is not too well I'm afraid. When I am called to review conservation related studio work (documentation, assessment, analyses, adaptive re-use etc.,) I generally notice students being unable to proceed further with their projects as field work has brought such quandaries to light. They are unsure of how to resolve them. Maybe acknowledging that such quandaries exist and are more the norm rather than exception is the first step - than trying to set them aside in the name of 'objectivity'.

Tuesday 8 May 2018

Thinking Conservation: What do we conserve, why, and for whom

What is a protected site? What is a monument? What is a temple?
This blog will discuss the questions above through onsite experiences. The questions were triggered while documenting a protected monument complex. The site, a ruined temple complex, was considered a monument as defined by archaeological acts and not under worship, meaning no puja was performed.
Let me describe the site, its setting and then the incident. We were working in the dark interiors of one of the cells in the complex: the floor was covered with debris and bat droppings, hearing us moving about some bats flew out, others continued to hang overhead in the darkest corners, we treaded carefully checking for snakes. Added to this there were many open joints and cracks on the inner wall through which the mud core of the double wall had spilled out. Many other cells of the complex were inaccessible due to collapsed inner walls which prevented our entry, besides the mud and debris accumulation around them. Such ruins were of course the living spaces of chameleons, large lizards, scorpions, cockroaches and other animal life that we could only hear but not see due to low visibility. We could only guess what they might be. As the sun rose overhead, we felt the scorching heat through the gaps, and the roof overhead which had lost its waterproof coating. The above describes our typical site, an exceptional case would be if we managed to access most parts of the site. The setting was also typical of most of the sites we work in, generally in a small village, with few or no caretakers.
Based on past requests and experience, at such sites, though they are declared monuments not under worship, within the premises our team would work without footwear. This was of course not a stated rule but an understood norm and applies to visitors too. The first incident involved a visitor who got into a tiff with a villager who preferred the visitor remove footwear before entering the “temple complex”. Neither the villager nor the visitor would budge. The villager was a local, likely with emotional attachment to the site as ‘temple’. The visitor on the other hand just saw a ‘ruin’.
The second incident is one we used to see in such monuments / temple complexes not under worship but with ticketed entry. Residents would demand ticketless entry as the monument was part of ‘their’ village. In this particular instance a local said it was “their temple” with a sense of pride and ownership and demanded entry to the site. Another time a resident spoke about how the access to his fields used to run just beside the complex but now it is fenced off.
These above incidents are just couple of many such “situations” where the historic structure is “a monument” for visitors but “a temple” for others. Or a part of their village that ‘outsiders’ are now claiming. All too often we would be mute spectators to such instances with the question of “whom these spaces are being conserved” running through our minds.

Based on field experience and training I could see both sides to the incidents above, i.e. “why can't the visitor respect the villager’s viewpoint as a person who is attached to the temple probably since his ancestor’s times”. On the other hand “why can’t the villager understand that temples were not designed to be visited during peak hours of the day and now that someone is visiting in the heat it would be difficult to walk barefoot and avoid stepping on droppings, debris and animals”.
These are some of the difficult situations that we face as field based conservation architects,who straddle the world between conserving ‘monuments’ that have survived time and appreciating the 'monument' as ‘ruined temple’, that is part and parcel of people's’ daily lives, their homes, and backyards.

Wednesday 4 April 2018

Doing Conservation: being detective and unraveling a building's many layers

In an earlier blog we had noted about not confusing visible problems with root cause which may not be apparent at first glance. In line with this observation this blog briefly touches on being building detective.

By which I mean trying to find and follow the trail of clues that building(s) leave around for conservation folk like us to find and interpret. The appropriate intervention in terms of structure, construction techniques, material detailing and finish of course depends on the 'right' interpretation.

Let me illustrate with a few examples from a recent project - conservation assessment of Napier Museum, Thiruvananthapuram. An intended monument if ever there was one given its location, setting, architectural style and detailing. See picture below.

We started our inspections:

At first glance from below (ground level) the yazhis that are part of the decorative roofing system looked like they might serve a structural role along with the rest of the timber truss. See picture below.

However when we finally managed to get eye level with the truss we realised they were purely ornamental. For example, see the picture below which clearly shows that the yazhi has become dislodged at some point and tied to the truss member in an attempt to keep it in place.

Getting eye level with the roofing truss might not sound too difficult an enterprise but what if there is no clear access (stairs, ladder) which is pretty much most of the time. In this case we managed to get tall scaffolding erected not to undertake repairs but purely to investigate, which took a certain amount of convincing. See picture below.

Likewise from below the painted ceiling looked like it might be composed of wooden panels but when we finally managed to access it and the roofing void above, with the help of the scaffolding, working with a team of art conservators we realised the ceiling was metal sheets. See picture below.

This also gave us a chance to clarify that the decorative elements on the truss members were indeed ornamental painting, in imitation of wooden inlay, though at first glance it looked like light wood inlay on the dark wood of the truss.

To me the most interesting instance of reading a building 'right' came up in the exteriors. Over the years the building had been repainted many times though it still appeared to retain its "iconic" look. That is, from a distance the pattern of painting made it look like a particular kind of exposed brickwork that originated in England. See picture above. However on closer examination (by carefully peeling back paint layers) and comparing with archival images of the building we realised that over time in certain locations the colours had been inverted, elsewhere the pattern had been altered, till broadly it looked like the original pattern but wasn't.

To our whole team this is part of the joy in engaging in field based conservation - putting our skills, knowledge and experience to the best possible use to peel back a structure(s) chequered history, that may not be visible or apparent at first glance, and hoping that we have indeed managed to read the building(s) right.

Monday 5 March 2018

Teaching Conservation: Characterization of historic urban neighbourhoods

Sometime back I was asked if I would teach an elective on Heritage Conservation for 3rd semester undergraduate students of PESU Faculty of Architecture. I initially hesitated a bit as I considered they were still rather new to the field of architecture to cope with a specialized branch of the discipline but decided to give it a go. Rather than have classroom bound lectures on 'conservation' I decided to engage them in the field and introduce them to the concept of socio-cultural significance through studying and understanding a 'neighbourhood'.

I chose Richards Town - a fairly small and self contained colonial period city extension defined by a park at its heart and a church complex at one end.

The first day we met at the park I set the students an exercise in 'understanding the neighbourhood'. I asked them to walk away from the park, for about half an hour, in four different directions and come back and discuss what they considered the edge or boundary of the neighbourhood. I asked them to use visual and sensory triggers to help them define this edge. For example, street names, trees – width / girth / canopy / type, garbage piles or smells rather, age of people, noise and traffic, kinds of vehicles, pavements, the buildings themselves and observe if these various parameters could be typified. Although slightly mystified over the point of the exercise they obediently did their best. I asked them to present the results of their wanderings as a map which we discussed in the studio (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1 - neighbourhood map sketch

I felt they did a good job of observing their surroundings and 'place'. So over the next few sessions I divided the class into three groups. I gave each group the task of studying one neighbourhood parameter: (a) Built Form (structural and architectural) (b) Landscape (physical and sensory) (c) History and Toponymy and then independently arrive at the neighbourhood's boundary based on the parameter they were observing. I explained it to them as "for the given parameter do you observe some sort of consistency and at what point does this fade or transform".

The 'Landscape' group observed older more mature trees planted to a pattern which gradually transformed into haphazard planting / much younger trees / no trees. I helped them understand the importance of terrain in spatial planning and they then observed that the church was on higher ground compared to the rest of the neighbourhood.

Based on a 'sensory' map they noted that there was more waste segregation towards the eastern rather than western part of the neighbourhood - smells or lack of smells guided them. They also stated that the smells were more 'heterogenous' to the west while the eastern part was characterised by an almost lack of smell. They also observed that the eastern side felt more calm - less traffic noise, more birds.

The 'Built Form' group observed the presence of larger plots with either 'bungalows' or medium-rise large apartment blocks with ample setback immediately around the park and to the east. To the west, they noticed far smaller houses with lesser setback with more resident families per plot. They also observed that streets got progressively narrower to the west and the footpath 'disappeared' at some locations unlike in the eastern part.

The 'History and Toponymy' group noted that the blocks around the park had 'English' names. On getting to them dig deeper they realised that the 'English' sounding names around the park were likely people names, Hall Road, Davis Road. Whereas the names along the edge of the neighbourhood, like Pottery Road and Tannery Road, were occupational names. This led to a discussion on hierarchy in spatial planning at neighbourhood level (see figure 2 below).

Figure 2: students attempting to characterise and then analyse the neighbourhood.

We then did an exercise in overlaying the three boundaries (Landscape, History, Built Form) and surprise, surprise, the three sets of boundaries were an almost exact fit. I was thus able to lead their field exercises to an extremely fruitful discussion on characterisation of neighbourhoods - not just spatial / sensorial / historical / architectural but a combination of all these parameters. What I described to them as 'a sense of community' whatever form this might take. Hopefully they will carry this learning with them as they continue to design and respond to increasingly complex contexts.

Figure 3: showing a part of attempt at analysis

I concluded the sessions by briefly stating that socio-cultural significance of a neighbourhood would be the resultant overlap of all the layers above, likely 'unique' to every neighbourhood (see figure 3 above).

To me the only missing element in this extremely satisfying semester of work was the fact that the batch was unable to present its work to the neighbourhood. We were all quite keen on this but the planned interaction finally never took place. Hopefully another batch, another time, another neighbourhood.