Children covered in blood, children surrounded by dead bodies and rubble, children stripped off their childhood – these are children amid war. While it is challenging to design in urban settings, it is almost impossible to design safe, joyful spaces within war zones. But Indian architect Tanay Narendra Bothara defied conformist norms and displayed humanitarian ideals with his award-winning project Children Uprooted. The Pune-based architect attempts to recover the lost childhood of the Syrian children, by re-adapting war-torn spaces into playgrounds, fostering colour, warmth and normalcy in a socially conscious process.
A winner of the Asia Young Designer Awards (AYDA) 2018/19 (Gold) in Architecture category, organised by Nippon Paint, Bothara won more than US$ 10,000 worth of prizes, and got to attend a fully sponsored six-week Design Discovery Programme at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Bothara donated his initial prize money of INR 50,000 for the education of Syrian kids. The theme for Asia Young Designer Awards 2018/19 was Forward: Challenging Design Boundaries, which sought to bring disruptions to the design industry, and propel aspiring designers to improve quality of living in societies.
Bothara’s design proposes a play network for the kids in the war-affected neighbourhood, transforming into an underground playground space complete with a bike and skating corridor, a slide, a corridor of creation, vertical and horizontal bars to play on, wall climbing, another corridor to learn and play and a run and ball activity area. All these spaces are punctuated with pops of colour, and light wells on the road above act as sources of light for the underground spaces. The architect also proposes various outdoor activities for the children to participate in, such as painting on the debris, an underground seed bank and colourful, lively light wells which will re-inject the space with hues and dynamism.
Delving into his award-winning proposal, the intent behind it, and his experience throughout the process – STIR gets talking with Tanay Narendra Bothara. Here are the excerpts from the interview:
Jincy Iype (JI): Out of art, design and photography, which is your favourite medium for self-expression, and why?
Tanay Bothara (TB): For me, art, design and photography are interconnected. Knowledge of architecture (in terms of scale, proportions and aesthetics) has helped me develop my photography skills. To capture the frames I travel, and stories and experiences from my travels help in enhancing my skills in designing, as I learn how people associate spaces in different geographical locations and various methods of space-making. My love for travel, photography, art and architecture is underlined by the common thread of minimalism.
JI: Do you think architecture, oftentimes, is decorative, as opposed to being functional?
TB: Over a period of five years in academics, I have always attempted to go a step beyond my knowledge/potential to explore the essence of designing. I may not have been successful at every attempt, but this journey has developed me to look at architecture with a different lens.
I believe that art and architecture are tools, which can revolutionise society. But I also learnt that recognition seems to come to those who prioritise formal or sculptural form. But something about this always bothered me - why is it that we always tend to look how beautiful the design is visually, but hardly try to discuss its impact on the user? The space is not just a physical attribute but also supports emotions, senses and memories of the user. The engagement with architecture now-a-days is profoundly visual driven. The architecture of value is seemingly getting lost.
JI: Tell us about Children Uprooted, your winning entry for Asia’s Young Designer Awards (AYDA) 2018/19. What led you to design for war-torn Syria?
TB: During my fourth-year final submissions, I saw a video of Syrian kids, crying about how the war has uprooted their childhood. I was very disturbed by the video; it kept lingering within me for many days and few questions triggered in my mind - can an artistic and architectural approach in a war zone bring a minute of smile for a kid? Can we, as architects, help these kids find their lost childhood?
Children Uprooted looks at transforming war-ridden spaces in Syria, to provide an environment as conducive as possible, for their long-term well-being. I feel Syrian children and youth want to do their part for peace to eventually prevail. Their situations may differ, but as peacemakers, their dreams are the same: to have a future for themselves and rebuild Syria. The tools they need for this are elementary - equipped minds, healthy bodies and most importantly, self-belief. To help Syrian children recover their lost childhood, this design attempts to recreate the original vehicle inspiring creativity and curiosity in young minds – the playground.
The design looks at the adaptive reuse of the basements in abandoned buildings to create an underground play network. So, this concept can be implemented in any war zone. It is not just specific to Syria but can be spread across the world to find happiness for kids who are suffering. – Tanay Bothara
JI: Tell us more about your approach in providing Syrian children affected by war and violence, a semblance of childhood, through your design. How has this process been for you?
TB: This thesis journey has been very emotional for me. The video that I watched on the plight of Syrian kids affected by the civil unrest, made me think of how my skills and knowledge in art and architecture could help bring a smile on a child’s face. I may not be Syrian; I may not have lived through the war. But I am human. And I can feel.
From the very beginning, children have been the forgotten victims of Syria’s horrendous war – facing death, trauma and suffering, and deprived of basic humanitarian aid. The streets where they should be able to play are blocked by checkpoints or littered with explosive remnants of war. Schools and hospitals have closed in the thousands. Today, more than ever, it is a children’s crisis. Millions of children have grown up ahead of their time.
I was stuck for a long time finding an architectural solution to the question. I began exploring various aspects of the Syrian crisis through other media, personal research and watching documentaries. I kept discussing my design concept with my mentors, artists, psychologists and architects, to develop the idea further and eventually came up with a subterranean 'play network'.
After learning about the kids in Syria, or for that matter, kids from any conflict zone, amongst all the rubble and the hardships, they perceive the existing ‘warscape’ as their ‘playscape’. Children are more resilient. Their natural instinctive quality of being optimistic allows them this perception. For example, if there is a hole in a wall of a destructed building, kids use the hole as their ring to jump from one side to other.
JI: How do you think children affected by the war should be experiencing their childhood, as opposed to how traumatic their lives currently are?
TB: Every child has the right to live and enjoy his childhood. Even amid such traumatic situations, children always find a place or a reason to play. Their natural instinctive quality of being optimistic allows them this perception. I believe it’s our responsibility to protect these young souls, educate them and help them build their future, in a safe environment.
JI: Describe your intention and design methodology behind re-adapting warscape to a playscape.
TB: I came up with a simple process and categorised it as followed –
Analyse: Analyse the conflict and its effect on people, to know the primary response of the war and how it triggers the loss of humanitarian aspect.
Understand: Understanding the war zone from a perspective of a kid was extremely important, along with understanding the intangible layer of war, how different people responded to the harsh reality in their own way.
Express: This is where my role as a designer comes in - after analysing and understanding the scenario, how I express the translation of their emotions and memories through my design proposal.
JI: Apart from proposing an underground play network, what other suggestions did you have for the site?
TB: The following were the suggestions made -
Painting the voids: Children painting on debris, the colours and art expressing optimism and joy will psychologically and emotionally strengthen their minds. It will display their acceptance to the situation, with a ray of hope, of everything getting back to normal.
A transformation:An underground seed bank will preserve seeds collected by children - collecting and storing seeds is an exciting act for most kids. This activity metaphorically transforms the ‘warscape’ into a ‘flowerscape’. It sets irony in a frame as flowers symbolise colour and serenity, with a backdrop portraying different emotions.
A view of happiness: With the idea of using bioscope to view ‘happiness’, where the child directly relates to the cheerful frames inside which will capture the infectious joy and emerging smiles of the children, upon viewing it through the colourful popping light wells.
A smile seller: In the war zone of Syria, Altaf is travelling across the country with his bioscope. Where the country is busy tearing itself apart, he is collecting 'a smile' one by one. His business is to show multiple frames to kids through his bioscope and collect their smiles. His frames include the images of spaces which the kid could relate to their own emotions and memories.
... sometimes it’s about crafting a story, reframing a problem, designing a system, designing a toolset, it’s about enabling an experience. – Tanay Bothara
JI: How was it attending the Design Discovery Programme at the Harvard University?
TB: The programme allowed me to go back to basics and learn with a fresh perspective. I enjoyed my time at the Harvard and most importantly, I got to live a complete design experience. My fellow course-mates were from across the world, and between 18-50 years of age. Being a part of this diverse demography gave a rare opportunity to explore and learn different perspectives in designing. I am glad my journey landed me here, and I sincerely want to thank Nippon Paint for giving this opportunity.
JI: What are you working on currently?
TB: I am currently freelancing in architectural design. I also want to collaborate with architects, photographers and artists around the globe, to take up multiple projects, with one aim in mind: to positively impact, in my small way, as many lives as I can.