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‘Orating History’: Essay Writing Contest, 4th Cycle: Winning Entries Announced

Theme described for the Competition was – ‘Orating History' - Saga of your Choice. Pen it down!


We believe that history is a collection of factual data. Does one wonder if it's open to interpretation? When a historian writes history, isn’t it his/her take on the events of history? As learners of Architectural history, we should ponder over the recorded events and their impacts on architecture or vice versa. It is possible that one may realize and or conclude scenarios that have not been discussed as yet. History is not stagnant if one is constantly questioning and re-looking it.

This essay competition expects you to dive into Architectural History and bring back fruits of wisdom that may add to the discussion in the discipline. One could opine based on various versions of the history of a particular time period/place. One could also cross compare histories of various geographic locations. To further the relevance of history, one can discuss past events and architecture in the context of today. These are just a few ways one can delve into history and come out with nourishing thoughts. We invite the entrants to contemplate, comment and concretize; the questions, thoughts, and opinions that cross your mind while you dig into the caverns of history.

Special Mention Award goes to Priya Sasidharan, Measi Chennai

“Footprints on the Sands of Time”

Does history pen down only the westernized definition of public space or weaves the fabric of Indianness? Public space or people’s realm? – Questioning the rise, reign and redefinition of the public realm in historical interpretation forms the crux of the inquiry.

The reawakening of Indian history through the chronological emergence of public realm in its contextual moorings is the crux of this essay. The interpretation of the “public” realm, is a mired definition as a corporeal construction of the British, rooted in entitlement and codes of practice rather than authentic everyday urbanism. The publicness was jaded though legal shades that mired the socio-cultural connotation of people-place-posterity. Chroniclers of history have recorded the christening of open spaces, design of gardens, events in the space and the dominant Indo Saracenic architectural style - an indelible marker in history of colonial presidencies in India. The chronological recording of typological tenets, transitional traits of public spaces and demystifying the colonized architectural history of Indian public spaces needs addressal. History of architecture eludes the architecture of urban open spaces of the people in its essence of being integral to everyday life, livelihood, collective memories and repositories of intangible urban transformation.

Chennai city in its historical legacy has recorded the Marina Beach, the largest public realm of the city only in its formation and locational significance. Looking through the senses of the public realm, the Indo – Saracenic architecture along First Line Beach Road has been the most manifested, alongside the eclectic memorials with metaphors on the political leaders. The exhibition of democratic power in Seerani Arangam, the humble beginnings of a podium of expression traces a trajectory until the Jallikattu protest to be interpreted as communal voicing for a cause. From being a subservient port town at Mylapore to Mamallapuram and Vasavasamudram of the Pallava empire, to playing a muted host to the establishment of trading post as the bastion of power at Fort St. George, the Marina has a narrative in time, space, people and power.

The ghats celebrating water in its sanctity, the groves and gardens or thottams in its veneration of nature, promenades along the coast and sacred precincts of shrines were integral to life, lore and legacy. An agglomeration of rural ethnicity, Chennai, a city of villages exuded a trajectory of power, commerce, social order and community participation realized in its temple architecture. The protector shrines/deities (ellai kaval deivam, ellai=boundary, kaval=protection, deivam=God) at the periphery of the village were the scaled down version of guardians of crop, water and natural assets while demarcating boundaries of administrative jurisdiction. The celebrated temple settlements of Mylapore, Thiruvanmiyur and Triplicane , beyond architecture of the Pallavas, Cholas and Vijayanagara rulers were the pinnacle of architecture, but history remained silent on its potency as a hub of commerce, ritual spaces that linked nature to people in a sacred triad – theertham(tank/water), vriksham(tree) and sthalam(place). The processional routes, dedicated festivals that celebrated seasons, brought community together and the participation in maintenance of the waterbodies (kudimaramathu, kudi=people, maramathu=repair /maintenance) defined spaces of, by and for the people. Universal access being inclusive by codes and regulations was an integral phenomenon in the settlement history. Historical documentation and recording have to redefine its interpretations beyond time, power and personalities and approach through embodiment of nature, evolution of life, people and practices.

Colonial era embarked on classified typologies realized in the architecture of summer houses, colonial bungalows, clubs, coffee houses and landscapes of esplanades and gardens that defined privatized public realm. The British ushered in an era of creating, fostering and merging the westernized concept of public space in the Indian context presenting a rich canvas for documentation and debate in history. While the exclusivity of the public spaces of the British gained unpopularity on the grounds of discrimination, the strategic ploy of introducing “company” shrines mooted collaborative support from the merchant community. The twin temples (for Lord Shiva & Vishnu) also termed as Pattinam (pattinam – coastal town) temples at George Town & Chintadripet, shrines at Kaladipet and Mint Street were the colonial trails at fostering the public realm of the natives through architecture of the most revered.

The post-Independence timeline of misappropriation and infringement in its myriad dimensions in placing names, siting cultural centers and memorials as a trade-off to natural networks has also reared its tentacles in the emerging traits of the public realm. The cultural icons and the reminiscent memorials of collective memory in public architecture etched in history transcend beyond visible manifestation to identity of language, political fervour and rooted lineage in communal evolution The architecture of the public realm is yet to find an indelible historical recording and an interpretation beyond its celebrated legacy to the negotiated strategies, unbridled urbanisation tactics and vestiges of traditional wisdom.

Certificate of Appreciation_1: Pranaya Reddy, Delopus Pvt. Ltd Workshop Entrant

“Architecture and Christianity – a Symbiosis”

The 4th Century. This was when an overhaul of the highest order in terms of Christianity had occurred. The son of Helena, an emperor of Rome -- Constantine was a man of distinction. Dubbed Constantine the Great and rightfully so, he was the catalyst behind the spread of Christianity and its consequent influence. This century had seen the initial rise and evolution of church architecture and the religion of Christianity as a whole.

Early Christian architecture had an unpresuming scope. It focused mainly on fulfilling two needs of the people; one was provision of space for spiritual needs of the living and the other, was provision of burial space for the dead. The character of the architecture of this time can be described as gradual. Residue of the Roman style could be seen, with elements of earlier Roman temples being reused in the churches. Mosaic decorations depicting fables and allegories were introduced which were rich in culture as well as colour. The church had risen from the necessity of a gathering place for the citizens. Their meeting spaces before the spread of the religion had been their own dwellings. These dwellings were also rebuilt into full scale places of worship.

The basilicas were the token of this time period. Constantine, the mastermind behind the adaptation of these structures, had to make sure the advent of Christianity was well-versed within these buildings. For achieving this, the main focus was kept on the interior spatial arrangement and ornamentation. The apse, arguably the most important element of the basilicas, was placed at the length’s end. This was where any other roles played by the basilica could be performed, including libations or sacrifices during pre-Constantine times. However, with the dawn of Christianity, it was used a place for celebration of Christian rites.

St. Peter’s church, precisely the building known as Old St. Peter’s accurately represents the development of spaces within the church and the meaning behind them. A new architectural form called the ‘transept’ had evolved which was essentially the axis running through the apse, perpendicular to the nave (the main aisle of the church running through the center).

This crossing of the transept and the nave was done in such a way that the entire concentration was on the tomb of St. Peter located in the apse. Through spatial arrangement, the churches found a way to shift the complete focus of the user towards the main deity. Moving forward in the history of Christian architecture, every church has been following this basic skeleton with expanding ornamentation.

In present day churches, this cruciform ground plan format is still being used. This shows that Christian worship has continued to stay focused on the coming together of people towards a common cause. The history of churches has surely played a crucial role in the development of Christianity into what it is today. Different elements of the churches have been modified and adapted according to context in various parts of the world but the holy grail of them all has remained the same.

Certificate of Appreciation_2: Abhigna B, KLE Technological University, Hubli.

"Tales and Times"

A human being stages three constants in his work - his belief in institutions, his sense of accommodation, and integrity. These constants change the necessary changes and create a cycle of evolution. The interpretation of what happened and its relevance to the current day depends on the choices humans make. For instance, Louis Kahn believed that the architecture of his times defined social contact than technology. In particular, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad is a building whose school of thought evolved from the Pantheon along with informal spaces (i.e., the corridors). In the contemporary era, we look at it as a definition of a minimalistic marvel. Quite often, the function or the appearance of a building does not define what is attributed in history, but how one sees it in the current time.

We are the interpreter of the forces but not the makers of them, hence, history can only be interpreted than be put into a particular discipline of action.

Each period in time personifies itself into multiple adjectives seen through time. For instance, Le Corbusier’s buildings will eternally remain institutions of peace and harmony through free planning, the piloti, and roof gardens whereas, the same peace and harmony in contemporary times have been talked about as social and public spaces - the lungs of urbanism. The aesthetics and order of thoughts can be matched with the past just through distinctive characteristics.

Furthermore, as humans, we have encountered faiths and cultures to be rooted and kind. In the early 1800s, humanism was a concept that spoke of devotion to human welfare, along the line, now in the early 2020s, we have avidly used it as a devotion to every living being; though here, through time and now, the interpretation remains the same, the subject changes. Oration of history teaches a lesson from the past for the future, otherwise, it would have been a void with meaningless interpretations each subjective to a certain period alone.

To conclude, Alvar Aalto quotes, “Nothing old is ever reborn but it never completely disappears either, and anything that has ever been always re-emerges in a new form.”

I think as humans, we need to question the following and one will know that there is always a new story each time you question,

- Who decides for whom?

- Does the one who decides really know the needs of the one who it is meant for?

- Does the user know it better than the designer or does the user understand it better than the designer?

- Has it always served the purpose for which it was designed or made? I wonder if the stairs were just to go upstairs or were they a flight of hope for the mother to take and greet her child each morning.

- Architecture is form and substance, abstract and concrete, its meaning is derived from its interiors, characteristics, and particular context. What if there was another way of interpretation - architecture romanticized into poetry, structured into a language of usability, what if the history of architecture was written in poetry through verses talking of how the blue in Casa Batlo created magic like the place was a whisper from the ocean?

The world is a wonderful yet mysterious place for one can never know the complete of it, each element - whether a deep-rooted stylistic tradition or a superficial standardization arising from a misunderstanding of the new architecture - prevents architecture from telling its full story in the battle of life and thus, history in a way, degrades the significance and effectiveness yet somehow, makes what lies today, a better place to be. The challenge remains in how we interpret and see it and go on from there.

Jury Panel for the Competition comprised of

- J. Subramanian, Architect & Design Educator, Middle East & India

- Fatema Kabir, Architect & Researcher, Pune, India

- Pappal Suneja, PhD Scholar, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Germany

- Lola Kleindouwel, Architectural Designer, the Netherlands

- Miguel Castaño, Product Designer & Researcher, Germany & Colombia

- Sarah Emminger, Poetry slammer and Journalist, Vienna, Austria

Poster Design © Rutuja P Sahane.

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