by Devanshi ShahApr 10, 2021
The unlikely figure of Lee Kwan Yew, referenced in a recent podcast (1), said that independence from one’s neighbours and community brought about an arrogance, whereas dependence brings with it humility. It was a powerful provocation (source not withstanding), more so as one of the panelists extended it to question the self-sufficiency of our architectural projects, and how dependence on ‘the community’ might temper our work. Dependency is a curious condition. While it suggests a presence of something other than us and evokes a proximity to that which is outside of us, it is also what we resist getting too close to. It reminds us of our vulnerabilities, and disturbs the ego. In fact, one can argue that all our creative efforts are geared towards the opposite - to gain independence and immunity - in today’s terminology, resilience. And to put ourselves in a situation where we could be depended upon - be it extractive or altruistically. Short of that, we seek comfort in the more equitable interdependence. I may need you, but you need me too.
The past few months have reminded me just how implicated we are in this model of resilience, and the inviolable sanctity of our body in that we consider immunity as a property of our body, within our body, rather than a relational circumstance that exists between bodies.
And a pandemic that binds us in a double movement of making us discover, yet be terrified of, this common space - an inversion of our own liberalism. But perhaps the most worrying is that it may be the only model we know. It is not by chance that our projects fold inwards, enclosures within the inescapable continuity and collective condition of the environment which we are (still) in the obligation to share. Predicated on aesthetic categories of health, security, order, and beauty they project an overall harmonious relation between materials, techniques, architects, artisans and nature within the boundaries of the site, announcing a voluntary self-immunisation (2) and an architecture of distance. In thus installing an environment of our own, we diminish in our work the need for that which is external (yet proximate to us) and the possibility of relational circumstances. But exteriority is not merely a question of opposition between outside and inside, nor is it simply a matter of genius loci; it is the immediate circumstance and specific ecology in which every project is de facto inscribed. It is a condition of togetherness, a relationship with otherness that belongs irreducibly to the human, shaping our sense of community, our own social self. In this we find the relevance of intent, the meaning of use and the means of endurance. It is not space that is a condition for the possibility of being together, but it is the being together that makes space possible (3).
Emerging from the lockdown(s) is harder than retreating into one for it questions the absolute immunisation of life and the insular protection of an untethered imagination. It calls for resisting floating paradises of self-expression based on wants and desires; instead, insisting on meeting the world with all the acuity and specificity that accompanies inserting oneself into an environment. This is the very opposite of timelessness, in that it needs our presence. Herein lie the beginnings of familiarity, begun not with an abstract or literate reading of the place, but in the pure apprehension of positioning ourselves in a critical and problematic relation with the specific ecology around us. In discovering our relational circumstances - these conditions of the common - and not issues of freedom, is where imagination not only has the capacity for transformative activity, but for relevance and social contribution. An imagination that accepts our mutual dependence and yet extends our capacity to invest in an adaptive understanding of what community means, what it needs, how to create and then sustain a more permeable dialogue that lives outside of ego-based immunity. It is that tangential excitement of knowing anew that binds us; an active manifestation of curiosity in the manner expressed by Michel Foucault (4):
“Curiosity is a new vice that has been stigmatised by Christianity, by philosophy and even by certain conception of science. Curiosity, futility. The word, however, pleases me. To me it suggests something altogether different: it evokes concern; it evokes the care one takes for what exists and could exist; a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain relentlessness to break up our familiarities and to regard otherwise the same things; a fervor to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regards to the traditional hierarchies of the important and essential.”
(1) S Viswanath and Chitra Viswanath, Architecture in the Time of Pandemic. Architecture in India, a Podcast Series by CAU, CEPT University. April 2020. Link: https://soundcloud.com/ceptpodcast/chitra-vishwanathin-conversation-with-vishwanath-srikantaiah-architecture-in-the-time-of-pandemic)
(2) Pedro Levi Bismarck, in his critique of “alternative practices” (to the globalized mainstream, presumably) calls this the ultimate rise of the space of immunitas and the corresponding dissolution of its counterpart: the space of communitas. Bismarck, Pedro Levi. “The Artificial Paradises of Studio Mumbai”. Quaderns, August 2016. Link: http://quaderns.coac.net/en/2016/08/studio-mumbai/
(3) Peter Sloterdijk as referenced by Pedro Levi Bismarck in Bismarck, Pedro Levi. “The Artificial Paradises of Studio Mumbai”. Quaderns, August 2016. Link: http://quaderns.coac.net/en/2016/08/studio-mumbai/
(4) Foucault, Michel. “The Masked Philosopher”, in Foucault Live: (Interviews 1961-84), trans. John Johnson (New York: Semiotext[e]) Double Agent Series, 1996. pp 198-99.
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