The Frame Conclave organised by Matter in partnership with H&R Johnson (India) and the Takshila Educational Society was held from August 16–18, 2019 in Goa, India. The theme of the conference was preluded as ‘Modern Heritage’, an oxymoron of its own; however an ironic situation arose a few days prior to the conference that almost redefined its purpose.
The original venue of the conference, the Kala Academy, built by celebrated Indian architect Charles Correa in his own hometown, is now threatened with demolition by government authorities. For the academy to undergo immediate repairs, the venue had to be moved to the National Institute of Oceanography. This bearing, somehow for all attending the conference stayed engrained throughout the event, surrounded by the concerns the premise was trying to state.
Spread over three days, the conference attempted to create discourse as much as awareness addressed by thinkers, practitioners and critical part-takers who spoke about the then and now of the modern movement that shaped and continues to define Indian modernity. Right from before independence when people of India associated modernity to western norms, however deeply rooted in the physical realms and social qualms, to the independence movement led by various leaders including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who attempted to define what a new India should look like. Many speakers pointed out interesting discoveries of their own research that manifest one to think and re-think what really is the ‘Indian modern’?
Prem Chandavarkar opened the conference with a rather heart-warming and eye-opening lecture on the idea of ‘humanism’ that is essential within architecture and the architect, followed by Peter Scriver’s talk who presented an epistemological understanding of the emergence of post-colonial India of which he has written about in his recent book ‘India: modern architectures in history’. Ram Rahman, presented a lucid understanding of the pre and post-independent era through his father Habib Rahman’s valuable contributions, while Ashoke Chatterjee described the shaping and making of the National Institute of Design(NID), Ahmedabad, surprisingly distinctive from what we understand of it today. Alka Pande presented the idea of art and its aesthetic relevance to Indian modernities, while Seema Chishti gave a unique social and political purview towards today’s modern India giving various instances from history relevant to current situations, mentioning that the ‘Right to Information’ could also relate to ‘Right to Space’.
Riyaz Tayyibji offered an alluding analogy, an unlikely dialogue between Le Corbusier and Mahatma Gandhi, presenting a constructive argument of the similarities between these two personalities, in the ways they experimented with the self, documented their work and lived, both having shaped the foundation of modern India in their own ways. David Robson and Himanshu Burte, having researched extensively on the works of Geoffrey Bawa and Laurie Baker respectively, posed perspectives of the architect’s ideologies with a refreshing audio recording of Bawa’s own voice explaining his projects. Pankaj Vir Gupta claimed the Golconde House in Pondicherry to have been the first poured concrete structure in modern India, which could be debatable, however, presented an excellent documentation of the building and its relevance to modern Indian architecture.
A series of insightful talks were presented by Bimal Patel, Rohit Mehndiratta and Vandini Mehta, Sanjay Kanvinde, presenting their respective fathers’ works and its prominence to the time they were built, all having individually published books on them as second generation architects. Mary Woods, though was unable to be physically present, deliberated on the works of women architects in the country, especially Pravina Mehta and Brinda Somaya, extracted from her recently published book, ‘Women architects in India’.
Ranjit Hoskote offered an intriguing analysis on Charles Correa’s works pulling the threads of his ideologies and connecting the ideas to four of his institutional works and, ‘the learning from Ekalavya’, that he strongly believed in. Kazi Ashraf put forward the lineage of modern architecture that was left behind to Bangladesh and the world, by Louis Kahn and particularly in the life of Muzharul Islam that further shaped the architecture of the country.
Pratyush Shankar talked about the emergence of our cities and their development with examples of Baroda, Ahmedabad and Kathmandu which he has conducted research on over the years, while, A Srivasthan discussed the state of sacred architecture in modern India.
Bijoy Ramachandran presented a simple yet introspective consonance of his interaction and experience of having a mentor like Balkrishna Doshi, accompanied by a lucid film directed by his brother Premjit Ramachandran.
The 3-day event was interspersed with many films and documentaries, giving one sporadic breathers from the intellectually heavy content, discussing architecture, art, design and film-making. The movies, ‘Nostalgia for the Future’ and ‘Lovely Villa’, by Rohan Shivkumar and Avijit Mukul Kishore, had an intriguing impact for the context in which they were played and the continuity in which they were presented.
Multiple times references were made to the demolition of the Pragati Maidan built by Raj Rewal and that architects could not do much about it, in the hope that with the Kala Academy we would be heard and respected thereon. An appeal was made by Ruturaj Parikh, the director of Matter, to sign a petition against the government regulation in the presence of Monica Correa and Nondita Correa Mehrotra, Charles’ Correa’s wife and daughter.
What one would assume to be primarily a thinking conference that would provoke thoughts in various directions, the audience remained confined to architects and architecture students, while the part-takers of this process of construction and destruction go much beyond that in the Indian system of building, designing and executing.
Through discussions, inquiries and explorations raised over the three days, multiple questions come to mind -
How can we define heritage, built with a purpose?
Wasn’t something destroyed when the ‘modern’ buildings were made to build the new?
How does one identify what heritage needs to be conserved and what needs to be rebuilt?
Does something old need to be destructed to make way for something new?
Are architects romanticising about our past to obstruct making way for the future, for what could be called the ‘new modern’?