brian carroll on 28 Jul 2000 21:26:50 -0000

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<nettime> a b,-a interview

an interview with Anand Bhatt, Architect
conducted via e-mail. 18th July, '00.
see: a b,-a [2]

~ * ~

Q. You have been involved in architectural theory for quite some time now,
how relevant, do you think, is it in actual architectural practice today? 
Also how would you compare the situation hereto that in the west? 

I should make it clear at the start, that I am not involved in
architectural theory. Some of it does creep into the work we do, but it is
not architectural theory per se. 

I have always been fascinated by architecture's abilities to `double'
reality. It is a form of representation that is built, almost
unconsciously, by people as they come together. Architecture is, in my
personal jargon, a Fossilic of the doing, a domain of meaning formed
through consensus or otherwise. It embeds information, significances, and
even knowledges. And as a representation it is a subject of study. 

I am quite curious about the point of synthesis that buildings represent: 
the are shells for a species, the homo sapiens, which is a very delicate
animal. Homo sapiens wouldn't survive without buildings, and buildings are
everywhere, necessitated by almost all spheres of his activity. And at
times there is a sort of self-reflexivity, a self-understanding of this
doubling.  A meditation on its Arche: its origins [not always and not
necessarily by architects], it's significance, its use-value. There is a
practical reasoning and Techne [a discourse on technology and technique,
not always and not necessarily of the engineering kind] which grows out of
it. This latter part separates some buildings from other buildings. It is
this separation I study and call, provisionally, architecture. 

This representation is quite distinct from the deliberate, or as they
sometimes call it, `artistic' representation of architecture, mostly done
by architects and allied professionals for the approval of other
professionals.  The meaning of the representation takes on the form of a
"secret". They have all these architectural theories, these amalgams of
operational hypotheses and dogmas, barring a few, a representation of
dominant opinion[s] meant for people "in the know." 

The profession, as it seems to me, has a greater use for history and
critique. People are rather passionate about the two. 

~ * ~

It would be very difficult to compare the situation `here' to the
situation in the West [and I suppose you mean the English speaking West,
with its specific preoccupations]. The dichotomy implied is very
restrictive in the way it confines our identities. We always compare
ourselves to the West, and that doesn't really work, because in comparing
we alienate ourselves. The urge to compare comes about, in my opinion,
because the west is quite vociferous. They have the money to print all
those glossies and buy tickets for all those professors one sees around,
lecturing. They are quite charismatic: their products are good and look
exciting, mysterious to us in a way. Their statements are constantly
repeated and always slightly differently. Power is constituted through
this proliferation of their representations.

This places real limits on our imagineability. People here are isolated,
and starving for information and are often taught by western trained
teachers.  We find western products everywhere we look. This has become
quite serious with the internet. Western architecture is just two clicks
away, and one looks at it in isolation, from the safety of one's home, or
a library. So people absorb and then the west creeps into our universe
even without our having been there. It creeps into our `internalised'
conversations, into our thoughts as individuals. And then, as we speak,
into our discourses. We often enact the occident, with a local sheen. 

It would be nice to see the shape our universe would take if this
condition is lifted, or at least, if it became unstable. The
under-representation of non-western architecture concerns me. 

I have a web-site, and it is quite a useful one in this context. We get a
number of e-mails from people saying "oh wonderful, finally something that
should have been there long ago," or "explain this," or "this is wrong,"
or "what nonsense!" Some six thousand e-mails went back and forth last
year and the few compelling ones came from Latin America, from China and
Africa. It is those that really made me think. I have had valuable
discussions with people in Argentina, Chile and Peru, for example, because
there is stuff on the web site about freedom and class structures, as they
have sustained periods of dictatorship and inequality. Or China, because
they were never really colonised and therfore they are quite curious,
having never experienced it, about my efforts [and I really have to
struggle at times] to think and breath freely. In Italy and France they
wondered about media technologies and Americanisation, and the limits it
places on imagineability. 

Q. Practice requires a fair amount of articulation that theory very rarely
provides; how often do you think theory affects practice? 

One could establish a number of relations between theory and practice, and
I don't believe that theory should provide for practice, barring a theory
of practice. Because then theory wouldn't be theory. 

Let's take an example, you have to do a lot of theory in order to produce
a car, and in a sense a car only represents a number of issues of
theoretical physics [the laws of motion, e.g.] and chemistry [exothermic
reactions]. In consequence there is a lot of theory involved in a car. But
theory doesn't provide for the product, or even the practice which brings
that product about. That practice comes from mechanical engineering,
safety engineering, quality control and industrial engineering, from
finance and so on. And the car doesn't even stand for the theories that
produced it, certainly not in popular imagination. It stands for status,
the pecuniary, consumption, convenience, style and all that. In other
words, there is a big derivation involved. 

Theory and practice are on distinct planes, sometimes in parallel. And one
does not draw a direct relation between the two. One has to concentrate on
the intermediate, or thresholds by which theory and practice is brought
together, which is "conceptualising." 

I am very short tempered when I teach. I have a reputation for that.
Mostly it springs from the fact that students, even practising architects,
do not grasp the previous point. They stand in juries and in class and
tell me what their concept is [or was], which is quite meaningless.
Because then they try and force me to imagine that their building stands
for a `concept' and some knowledge. That is captioning, same as in
advertising. I would rather they tell me what they experienced in
acquiring the concept, why did they choose [in hindsight] to acquire it,
how did they connect knowledge on different planes [e.g., the plane of
practice and of theory], what they learnt in the process and so forth.
These are the intermediate states one would necessarily have to involve,
and they often don't. They read their theory books as if they were user's
manuals, or guidelines. And then it all becomes very difficult and
untenable. One doesn't learn anything and so everything that is done
becomes trivial. 

So theory doesn't `provide for' articulations. One has to seek
articulations that spring from theory. One has to find meaningful ways of
applying it, and one has to choose the right instruments. The fashioning
of concepts.  Sophistication. There is always, then, the question of

~ * ~

But then there is quite another take on the issue. If you indulge your
sense of humour. 

What makes you think that an architect makes buildings? Don't architects
just theorise buildings? It is the labourers and the contractors who make
buildings. All that architects do is to make drawings and specifications: 
which are unities of architectural representation. And they make a number
of propositions in these representations, which are related. And they rely
on facts to make those propositions. The propositions follow from facts.
And they detail these propositions with information which make them
tenable.  Their drawings `predict' the building which might be there,
because even as they act very sure, they never really know as to what the
building is going to look like, into what it will grow and become. So the
construction and occupation are really an experiment which validate their

So we can say, when one designs, one is theorising. Or faking theory. 
Sometimes they call it a Design Thesis. 

Q. What would you say is your philosophy (or philosophies) behind all that
you build? How much of theory do you really practise in your works? 

I don't think I have philosophies when I build. How could one Philosophize
with a Hammer? Nor could I quantify the amount of theory I practice, that
would be absurd. 

I just build when I build. It is a moment. It is an experience, and I
record the experience: of dealing with people, of seeing things I had only
read about, of making choices and much later of understanding those
choices. It is the experience of freedom, as close as we could get to it.
It is also the experience of truth, in the phenomenal (or
phenomenological?) sense, of becoming-active, becoming-animal and so on.
Purification, if you permit the jargon. And one labours over the drawings,
one changes and feels the quickening. 

Take the SoC projects on my web site for example. I knew, when I started,
that there existed Societies of Control. That they derived from the great
18th and 19th century systems of confinement. That they had certain
characteristics, e.g., they pretended to be `democratic' by allowing
individuals to speak and act freely within narrow margins, much like this
anonymity-thing on the web. But in reality, they were quite something
else.  And then, I was faced with the task of making a building which
would represent these societies. 

Now, as an architect, I could not tell anybody to change the world, not
with an immediate effect at least. All I could do is to work like a
chronicler:  to see and record the fact of having seen. Be a witness, and
find markers [the Piranesian cage, lines of sight] which indicate my
witnessing. In other words, actuate the default of middle practices like
architecture: there is no pure determination of order here, nor a pure
experience. Only play, an interplay. 

The Mapping projects are different. Because one changes in advance the
model we have of reality, and then builds within the changed
circumstances. Those projects `change the world' by default. And they are
especially powerful since we wrote the new CADD/CAM technologies. 

Q. We have a very rich setting here in India for us to evolve our own
theory in architecture, yet there is a tendency to peep to the west and
base our works on their philosophy. Do you think this is a healthy trend -
a step towards globalisation or will introspection help do better

Schizophrenia. That is what I think. We have all become that through the
last century. It is the effect of de-territorialisation. Look at your
question for example. Our bodies act here, our imaginations seem to
dialogue with the west. Our options are curtailed, and that makes me very
angry. Why talk about globalisation alone? That is capitalistic. There is
also, in fact always-already, the aspect of internationalisation.
Specifically, when it comes to labour. There are molecular revolutions,
even though governmental [and non-governmental, I would say with some
justifiable vulgarisation] organisations try and curtail them. The
countryside is becoming-active like never before, the Dalits are
mobilizing as never before. There are new capital flows, there are new
technologies. There is a new self-assertion in parts of South Asia. And
there are stories that need be told, but never are.  The left trounced
everybody in Bengal recently, the Air-Force had women pilots in the combat
zone at Kargil, a number of our cities are actually improving quite
rapidly, there is a new accountability in politics and administration and
all that without globalisation, which is after all a development in
international finance and capitalism. We should be able to think about a
world without globalisation, imagine worlds without globalisation. We
should start imagining other corporate entities, apart from multinationals
and companies. The Army has a corporate structure, our cities have

That latter part of your question implies some sort of crisis, mostly of
confidence, which I don't like. I don't like the assumption that we have
to specifically contend with a certain variant of capitalism, however
dominant.  And that we have to contend by introspection, which implies
crisis.  Introspection is a good method, it is used effectively in
Satyagraha. It is a weapon of war. But the present table of contention has
no urgencies of that sort, we could still comfortably conceptualise around
it and send it out of harm's way.

And what do you mean India? An `Indian' theory will always be a
schizophrenia, or a wish. It is too vast, too nebulous, too mobile. Can't
you see that?

To produce a pan-Indian theory, you will have to amalgamate the State,
which is of an occidental extraction, and its' patterns don't really match
those of its population, not very well. You cannot have a nationalist
approach to architecture, because then which nation will you talk about?
You can't speak of a regional architecture without being a hypocrite,
because you will castigate a fifth of humanity into playing `regional',
and regional vis-?is what? You cannot have a `Hindu' architectural theory
for that will include the pacific rim and the whole of south Asia and will
still be offensive from a dalit and a tribal point of view, the similar
for `Islamic' theories, or `Buddhist' so secularisation wouldn't work as a
method. The `Gandhian' model and the `Nehruvian' models and the
`Socialist' model all are rapidly losing their relevance in light of the
de-classified state archives, here and in the former Soviet Union and
Britain and elsewhere. 

And then to what end? Will theory ever be an identity marker? Or a common
shared truth? A dogma? That would be mystification. Do the Japanese and
the Kenyans have different laws of gravity? 

Q. Theory often addresses the polemics of context, and context is
invariably linked with urban issues. What do you think about the urban
designing perspectives in the country today? 

It really depends on what one means by `context'. The strict meaning would
be parts preceding and following the thing under inspection, and in that
sense a building has an urban `context', because it is definitely a part
of the city. But then I wouldn't know if there is urban design in India.
Sure, some people talk about both, urban design and context. But I don't
know if the two questions can ever be meaningful because all they do is to
describe a certain morphology: specifically, a certain morphology of
ideas. And the two are simplistic constructions, so it is easy to string
them into `talk'.  Far too much is made of contexts. 

Let's see, `contexts' are constructed almost like sets, they are defined
by limits first and then there is, as people here take it, a nominal
positive definitionby identity markers. They are defined firstly by what
they are not, and so are primarily limiting. And then everybody takes them
as identity markers, and define themselves vis-?is what they aren't. That
is limiting to the point of suffocation. It may be rather useful to define
identities in relation to the imaginary, the symbolic and the `real',
vis-?is what it could be, what it imagines itself to be, by not the
relations that exist but by its abilities to bring relations into
existence.  By the abilitiy relations have, especially in affirming our
desire[s]. By what it lacks, and by the way we are propelled in relation
to that lack. And the same applies to identity markers, they are often
rather static. One would prefer dynamic processes as compared to the
rather fixed system of sets. 

That brings us to `urban' design. But then, what is a South Asian urban?
Do we have an operational definition of urbanity here? A definition which
is not of a Hellenic or a Christian extraction? Or not of an ancient Hindu
or Islamic extraction? I haven't seen one yet. So it is difficult for me
to say what Urban Design would mean, because I haven't yet seen a
definition of the subject matter. It may exist, because I haven't looked
too hard, so perhaps you should tell me about it. 

Q. What would you do that would be different? 

Nothing. Firstly, because I use entirely different terms when it comes to
identity [I don't really like identity grids]. I rather a system of voids,
capable of bringing things into existence. I rather like the Cardological
and the Ordological systems we just experimented with at the School of
Architecture, CEPT, with a City-Machine cycle. As Andreas Fluck said it,
"it is a meeting point of lines, a luminous junction in the dark expanses
of space and time". 

And second, `context' and `urban design' are terms that do not denote or
explain much. They represent ideas with little explanatory value. So to
differ from them would be of little use. If I am forced to, I would
integrate them into higher level [by which one means of high explanatory
value] systems of ideas. Like bricks. And then dissolve them, and be done
with them, replacing them with better quality bricks, with a greater `load
bearing capacity'. Thereby coming up with a new construction of ideas, a
new `theory' if you please. 

Q. Do you think that the state of affairs of our urban situation today can
be revived and taken control of? 

To say that the urban system has to be revived would be to assume that the
situation is `dead' in some way. And that definitely isn't the case. Our
cities are dynamic, Our cities are expanding, and they are increasing in
complexity at a wonderful rate. Entire new technologies are going into
them, there are quite some innovations in financing them, they have sprung
radically different organisations of labour and drives of various kinds. 
They even have some fantastic pathologies of their own. So I would contest
your question: I think our cities are very alive and they have some
processes which are unique to South Asia. I sometimes project them on a
large screen, and then take a time lapse sequence over the last fifty
years or so. And the result is amazing, you see all these mercurial blobs
sliding all over the regions and they grow large and then they merge.
Entire cities have grown and fused into one another, it is possible to
drive in a straight line for a couple of hundred kilometres in western
India without ever seeing the countryside. It is factories, and commercial
centres and housing and infrastructures all the way. 

The second part of your question is, are the affairs in our cities
controlled? I am sure they are, or they can be with very little effort. 

If you see the success they had in Surat and to some extent with some of
the smaller towns in Western India, where they worked with the basic
issues of infrastructure, health and so on. The urban situation was
revived spectacularly by the citizens who have had enough, so they didn't
stop and listen to the architect or the non governmental organisations
[both are often seen as a part of the problem] and took charge. And they
had information technology, local television channels distributed news
only via cable which showed the developments in real time, they had local
organisations and it was all very molecular and rather spontaneous. The
establishment was forced to follow. The question is, does an architect or
an urban designer have a role to play in this? 

And I think the time has passed for the so called professionals. The
future will have to do with the citizen's expectations, and the answers
will come from engineering colleges, from the social sciences and from
people who have to work with issues of governance [and not necessarily
planners] it will come from information technology [not necessarily the
internet] and communication. 

Architecture and planning are quasi-academic institutions of a colonial
extraction. And they were never designed to face our kind of cities. So to
transform them to suit will be an extensive and a very expensive job. They
will have to find new ways of stating problems, new techniques of
teaching, new laws, new modes of practising and so on. And they will have
to combat the old colonial or westernextracted prejudices, categories,
modules of thinking and all that. Especially the categories, because we
just don't have autochthonous categories: consider this, all the
professions [architecture, civil engineering, planning] and branches of
knowledge which deal with the city came up in response to authentic
demandseven facts createdin the west.  The Ecole des Beaux Arts had to
invent new methods because Paris was expanding like crazy and there were
all these new things that Benjamin and Harvey have analysed: so they had
the design studio, and then Le Corbusier had to write Towards a [new]
Architecture and say `look it doesn't work, you haven't stated your
problems in relation to the Industrial Revolution, which is a major fact
of your times. Not very well, at least'. The Bauhaus had to work with
socialistic demands and industrial production and so they `invented' the
workshop method. We teach both `studio' and `workshop' in our schools, but
it is hard for me to see a reasonan authentic demand in the city that
makes it necessary to teach so. It is a fossilised transfer, it threatens
our institutions rather than support them. 

I would like to see a course-curriculum in South Asia that asks the first
questions: what should an architect know? What is his mode of knowing?
What techniques of knowing should he learn? Everybody has some sort of a
response to these questions, but I would like to have these questions
asked. Raw, pure and sharp. And their absence concerns me. 

At a b,-a, we think it will be more economical to extract another set of
professions from the dynamic of our cities: a new series of disciplines
and theories to work with those disciplines. This is what we call for all
the time. There must be ways of crossing over the thresholds, we say, we
must work and find fundamentally new methods at the contemporary level of
technology, rather than the late nineteenth century modes used by
architects and planners. We see the tremendous waste of energy in our
cities so we start with the Solar and Industrial Infrastructures. We don't
see much use for the simulation technologies of western extraction so we
wrote IO. We don't see tenability of CAD/CAM technologies [AutoCAD and its
clones, including those three or four desi numbers] so we wrote Machinic
Heterogenesis, and use it. We don't see the relevance of the `theory talk'
and the decision-making most people employ so we wrote Grapheme. And
somewhere we will have to find new pedagogies, and techniques for the
transmission of knowledge. 

Q. What has been the change in your ideas and beliefs from when you
started till date? 

This is a trick question, isn't it? I don't think there is space here to
go into all the stuff I have junked over the years. Or the stuff that got
superseded because somebody else had a better version of it. Or the stuff
that burdens me. Or the stuff that simply went obsolete because the
sciences that I use advance very fast, and it is all very cutting edge. 

I find that I am returning more and more to the training I had before I
did architecture, on the whole. I am more interested in Computing,
Engineering and Production, more in Philosophy [and not necessarily
criticism] and less in aesthetics [unless you define aesthetics as a study
of meaning, rather than beauty. Then I am all for it]. I am more
interested in the necessary, and in criticising the Excessive. I am more
interested in the inevitable demise of the profession. I no longer know
what they mean by `architecture' as defined by the Architect's act. So I
am interested in closing it in its present form, in the strict sense of
the word. In creating spaces for the new institutions which will surely
come about. 

Q. What has been your most satisfactory project till date? 

None, and all. I don't think of buildings, teaching or writings as
projects.  Those are end-products or by-products. The projects for me are
sequences of thought. They are organised in a number of series. IO,
Mapping Heterologies, On Typology, SoC, Solar and Industrial
Infrastructures... some forty-five odd sequences. And each series is a
transformation, by itself. I think along these lines, and progressively
transform my understanding. So at any given time, some are exciting, they
are happening. Some others would be dormant, a matter of patience and
research. Some bring spectacular results, like Grapheme, which has gone
sailing cyberspace. Some are massive failures. One learns. 

Acknowledgements:  Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi for reading through and
correcting the text. Anjali Mahendra and Anubhav Jain.

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