Mystical India: Contradictions & Paradoxes in Architectural Design

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Mystical India: Contradictions & Paradoxes in Architectural Design 
by Peter How

When Khew asked me to contribute to the blog I was wondering what I could write that would be interesting. In the end I thought I should tap on my work in India. For the past few years I had been in India monthly to look at CPGI`s design projects, both to review the work done by CPGI`s architects, as well as to work on selected new projects myself. Initially it was quite a culture shock – not just limited to food, communications and environment – but also the quite different approaches to planning and design. As I believe that blogs should be short and sweet I`ll just focus on 3 aspects which were the most befuddling to me initially.

Vashtu – The Indian Fengshui

This is like Chinese geomancy except it is even more stringently applied. Some aspects regarded as important are strictly non-negotiable unlike in fengshui where the more pragmatic Chinese would mitigate a bad situation through creative use of goldfish or mirrors or some other innovative means.

In vashtu the home is divided into 9 sectors with strict stipulations on locations of various rooms and spaces. Harmony depends on getting this correct. The living room should be in the north or east and the main entrance should face one of these directions as well. Master bedrooms must always be in the south west sector- never mind that this is the worst facing in terms in solar heat gain in India. The consequences of placing rooms in the wrong quarter can be dire. My vashtu guidebook states, for example, that a kitchen placed in the north would result in financial ruin, in the south, family conflict, in the east, health problems among the womenfolk. There are only two good facings to stave off disaster – north west and south east.

An example of a vashtu-compliant house plan. It will not work to mirror-image this plan.

Designing to suit vashtu can be quite crippling. It adds considerably to the long list of constraints faced by the architect already at his wits` end trying to help the developer maximize yield. This is especially so in multi-family housing where there is a need for units to share a vertical core of common amenities like lifts and staircases. In Singapore or China or anywhere else for that matter, the logical strategy would be to mirror-image or laterally invert the plans to allow this sharing. However, in India this is not possible as you will discover to your horror that a house plan, perfected after days of refinement, becomes no longer vashtu compliant once it is inverted! Localised attempts to rectify this result in some positively clumsy contortions, like creating another foyer so that a south facing main door could be flipped to open eastwards. You really have to design a variant for every orientation – effectively increasing your workload without a concomitant increase in fees!

As Indians get more affluent and westernized will they tolerate some vashtu faux pas? Unfortunately no – as the richer they get the more likely they are to adhere to these beliefs, since they have more at stake to protect. Occasionally one gets to do work for a Muslim client but this does not spell relief as he needs to sell to Hindus too.

Just when you have mastered the placement of rooms and got a few house plans cleared, you find other pitfalls. Take the puja for instance. This is the small prayer space or room found in every Hindu household. Not only is there the usual stipulation on its location/orientation (east) you will learn that it can`t be put under a toilet or staircase or have it share walls with anything unclean. Despite its small size the puja can be problematic if not incorporated in the plan early. Strict vashtu adherents look critically even at placement of furniture, room shapes etc. Locating a bed or table under a beam is not likely to endear you to your client if he`s so inclined.

Sites of Extreme Fragmentation
The most challenging sites in the world are probably Indian in pedigree. Unlike say China, where central authorities or even private sector developers have the means to amass huge areas of land for development, land acquisition in India is hampered by the strictures of democracy. Hence a developer has to spend considerable time and resources to acquire his land bank bit by bit and this shows in the highly irregular configuration of the sites.

The site configuration you work on at the project inception stage is unlikely to be the same by the end of the site planning stage. By then the site shape might have morphed further as sub-lots are added or taken out, as is more commonly the case, when the developer subsequently fails for various reasons in securing the land he thought he has in hand. You are then left with a masterplan that no longer works and need to start off from square one.

By now you must be dying to ask if anything can get built on these comically, preposterously irregular sites. The answer is yes – both the local architects as well as the developers have found ingenious strategies to get as much as possible out of these sites – but this will be another story to tell.

Defensive Planning and Design
You need to design defensively in India. The externalities are usually harsh and threatening. Nobody really knows what will be up in the vacant land around your site. Chances are it will probably not be something you would like to have your living room face. Therein lies the big difference between planning in Singapore and in India. Back home you have the confidence that the vicinity will look somewhat like what the Master Plan purports it to be – although the periodical increase in GPR is introducing some degree of uncertainty. But in India it will be risky to rely on these plans as they can change, as they frequently do when local governments get replaced.

Therefore, the only fool-proof approach to design is to create your private enclave and surround it with your own development. In this way you keep the potentially offensive future development out of sight, and at the same time, avoid others from getting a free view of your landscaped oasis.

Indore Hills : An inward-looking development. The concept is inspired by New Urbanism with its emphasis on vehicular/pedestrian segregation but the introversion and the focus on the system of internal green links finds traction with the developer

When we wax lyrical over a river or a water body that adjoins the site, and cite the exciting possibility of creating riverfront promenades and boardwalks, there is usually a distinct lack of enthusiasm, or even incomprehension from the developer who only sees future mayhem from floods and pollution.

Likewise in commercial projects we are programmed by our Singapore experience to seize opportunities of bringing in the outdoors to achieve what we loftily spout as seamless architectural integration of public spaces, forgetting that the external environment in India is regarded as hostile and undesirable. It is no wonder the transition between the external and the internal is very often an abrupt one, so clearly demonstrated at hotels and airports, where not everybody on the street will be let in.

It`s a different paradigm altogether – and nothing you have learnt in school will spare you from the jolts in India.♦

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