Building future for a billion voices: the best of Indian architecture in 2022
by Jerry ElengicalDec 30, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Jan 18, 2022
The morning of India’s 52nd Republic Day saw an entire state devastated by shock waves emanating from the continental rift beneath the Kutch region in Gujarat, India. The town of Bhuj, after which the infamous tragedy also came to be called the Bhuj earthquake of 2001, suffered immensely, facing the direct wrath of the extreme tremors. The town was virtually levelled, reporting north of 12,000 casualties. The loss of life and property remains immeasurable to this day, despite official figures, and while a disaster of this magnitude is just one of many that the geographically volatile region is prone to, an imbibed spirit of resilience and fortitude now runs deep through the land. So much so, that the unique geography that may be ascribed to be the cause of these disasters proves to be the people’s salvation.
'Kutch', a local translation of 'tortoise', is what gives the region its name, with the form and morphology of the terrain resembling the shell of a tortoise, as if emerging from the seas owing to the geological fold that formed this land. The region is marked by a central ridge, on which the town Bhuj is situated, enabling major rivers to drain into the oceanic bodies surrounding the land. The region, however, is also home to a vast white desert, Rann, formed by water drying out due to the tectonic shifts. Kutch’s ecology, economy, culture, rituals, social structure, festivals and struggle for survival, thus revolve around water, and being intrinsically connected to it. How then, do you build a memorial for a terrible tragedy, while also looking to a hopeful future? Smriti Van, designed by architect Rajeev Kathpalia, partner at Vastu Shilpa Consultants, seems to find curious, sensitive inspiration in the grit of the land, and the regenerative qualities of the life-giving liquid.
Emanating from the originally precise brief of "planting a tree for each victim", Smriti Van, a forest of memories and remembrances atop Bhujiyo Dungar - a hillock on the outskirts of Bhuj - becomes exactly that in its final form: a bio-diverse self-sustaining ecosystem with over 13,000 trees composing the forest, symbolising the diversity of the people. For Ahmedabad-based Vastu Shilpa Consultants, founded by Pritzker Prize Laureate and RIBA Gold Medal awardee, Balkrishna Doshi, the memorial wasn’t to be a monolith or a structured garden, but a place of meditation, contemplation, and being one with the natural formations of the land; a place symbolising rebirth, regeneration, renewal, and above all, hope. For the team at Sangath, the geography was the question, the answer, and everything that guided the journey between the two.
"For us this journey suggested two intertwined paths, one of the families of the victims who would come to this garden as pilgrims in remembrance of their loved ones and the other one - the path of sustenance of the tree,” states the team at Sangath, headed by project architect Rajeev Kathpalia, symbolising a journey through the van as a pilgrimage. It is not surprising then that the final proportions the memorial design assumes are much more akin to a ritual as opposed to a monument, a particularly refreshing stance at a time of hyper-nationalistic statue building, marred by light and sound shows or a tableau vivant. The heart sinks at the travesty that was the Jallianwala Bagh makeover, but the composition and remarkable sensitivity here is as heart rendering as it is thoughtfully optimistic, despite the scale of the tragedy.
Resilience seems to run deep as a thematic through the project, with the underlying emotion of the local people echoed in the overall sentimentality of the project, now in the works for over a decade-and-a-half, and seen as materialising leisurely over a couple of years, just as nature would. In that, Smriti Van is a permanent yet minimal mark on the arid patina of time in the region. Considerable thought has been expended in the understanding of how natural systems work, in order to ensure the sustenance of the trees constituting the forest. The idea is to formulate a complex ecological system that is formed in conjunction with land, water, air, birds, insects, and other natural agents.
"It is only necessary to initially assist nature, and then after the first few years, nature takes over,” states an official release. That assistance occurs in the form of identifying the path the water follows and establishing those sites as leaking reservoirs. A total of 81 reservoirs have been envisaged along the site’s variable terrain to collect the runoff of the Bhujiyo Dungar wherein water is intercepted on its way and stored, and the names of the victims are enshrined. The path of the reservoirs is the pilgrimage, and the spine along which the forest would develop, snaking along the slopes of the dungar, with the reservoirs themselves forming spaces for rest, vantage, and contemplation, along with symbolising renewal and replenishment.
Age-old wisdom and traditional workmanship combine to create these reservoirs, composing the solidity and austerity of the intervention. The project further seeks to be ingrained in the local fabric of the city of Bhuj, with the overflow of each reservoir going to the next and eventually into a series of wetlands along the periphery of the site, expected to recharge wells outside the site and the city fringes. In response to the slope and shape of the precisely located spot on the dungar, the reservoirs are all of different dimensions and form, assuming the physicality of a rectangular or concentric step well, a small lake, or a vari-shaped reservoir at spots, reflecting the idea of democracy and plurality. Constructed of gabions and entirely without mortar, the reservoirs are expected to be the link between earth, water, and sky, framing the horizon lines on separate spots, while allowing water to dissipate into the ground slowly where the trees can draw from. Conversely, the alluvium deposited in the stone gaps is expected to solidify and consolidate the structures.
At the zenith of the site, the memorial’s Sun Point is a near spiritual experience. Perched atop the dungar and overlooking the city, the space’s crest lies just below the ancient fort wall leading to the famous Bhujang Dev temple. “From the sun point, one looks over the many recharge reservoirs piercing into the fabric of the hill,” states an official release. The open spatiality of the sunset point, apart from the melange-inducing sunset itself, is confounded by carvings and slits along the circular crown of the structure - a joyful journey through the lunisolar calendar, marking its festivals and special days.
The aberrations and openings in the concrete's solid body create an ever transforming dialogue with the sun rays, birthing a symbolic play of light and shadow. Anchoring the journey through the memorial and the city of Bhuj is a vast, meandering museum earmarking the region’s natural diversity, its many villages and wild-life sanctuaries, along with showcasing its unique heritage, culture and crafts. The museum currently remains under construction.
The sensitivity of the intervention is only surpassed by its willingness, and forward sightedness to create something that, yet still, nurtures even in its creation. Through cohesive mazes of green and blue, the 'memorial' stitches together memories, yet manages to create avenues for reminiscence, serving an innate purpose for architecture itself. The act of creation, here, finds itself sated. As an apt epilogue, I am reminded of a particularly moving poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye, although the authorship remains disputed according to a lot of other sources. The melancholy ode, akin to Kathpalia's and the world-renowned practice's work here, talks of the dire subject of loss and recuperation, but seeks solace in the many fragilities of nature that create as well as demolish. “I am not there; I do not sleep…I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain,” as excerpts from the poem, perfectly echo the project's underlying narrative, albeit laden with hope. “Where there is loss, there is regeneration. Even in death, there is rebirth,” it states.
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