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The Many Facets of Architecture: From Physical to Metaphysical


©Samruddhi Shendurnikar & Anvi Singh

Introduction

Architecture plays a definite role in building a nation’s identity. The people of a nation are the ones building it, and the people before them were the ones who paved the way. As Jim Rohn said, “Whatever good things we build, end up building us.” A person’s life may be impacted by architecture in ways they are unaware of and the repercussions of these experiences may go onto shape who they become, what they go onto do and what they contribute to the nation in the future. Architecture, more often than not, transcends the banal realms of the physical onto the deeper, more intangible aspects of a person’s life. One doesn’t need to be an architect to appreciate architecture since is intricately enmeshed with our very existence. The imperative question now becomes– what is being built, what was built and how did it build these people?


Architecture: A unifying tool

Religion and spirituality are branches of human society that may be considered above the physical and onto the metaphysical. (Nelson)Since time immemorial, religion and architecture have run hand in hand. (Alan Gowans)One might claim that an amalgam of the two creates spaces that include only a certain sector of the community- people belonging to that particular religion. But Nirvika Rastogi, a college student from Delhi, believes otherwise. She remembered her trip to the famous Delhi mosque, Jama Masjid. “I was moved by how peaceful I felt while there. I played with pigeons and danced with little kids, without any inhibitions. It was strange to me, that in a place of god, there was no judgement.” Being a Hindu in a Muslim space and feeling this way made her feel welcome and accepted.


The feelings we associate with a place are the feelings that often end up defining our perceptions of the community associated with it. This illustrates that even structures and places built with the staunchest of religious ideologies aren’t limited to just their disciples. They contribute to the larger social fabric of a city and even the country. Love, friendship, and unexpected dalliances form in these places. This goes to show that architecture is not limiting, but a unifying factor.


Architecture and Identity

There are a plethora of ancient monuments from various eras present in India. These structures often become synonymous with their residing city’s identity. Nevertheless, this identity seldom remains static. (Gillis)During his childhood in Lucknow, Gaurav recalled seeing a dilapidated St. Paul’s Church. This neglected building was largely ignored, even rumored haunted. Although it once might have held great importance, itno longer contributed to the city’s identity. So much so, that an adjacent newly built water tank had become a landmark instead. One morning, with typical teen fervor, he and his friends, ventured into this “scary” church. They were surprised to be welcomed in by dark Oakwood floors, lit candles and harmonious songs from the choir. “I think back to how it must’ve looked - three sweaty teens entering a church. We were surprised when the priest offered us a seat and some biscuits instead of shooing us away, as we had expected. Over the years, we found ourselves going back to the church when we wanted to escape our problems and the priest became akin to a friend. Since then, we respected that building and started referencing it as a landmark instead of the water tank.” Every generation carves out its specific definition for heritage and architecture, which continues to evolve.


Other times, the buildings around us become focal points of our growth. Visiting them makes one feel like a part of history - a character, in a story, still being written. For Ayushi S, a Kolkata resident, the glorious Victoria Memorial has always been a structure that inspired awe. As a child, she remembered being enamoured by its splendour, believing the angel perched on top to be a lucky charm. She would pass by the monument on her way to school and make a fervent wish every day. As she grew older, her belief in the angel waned, but the magnificent old structure retained its charm and still managed to exude an air of whimsy. Today she often visits the structure with friends, strolling within its environs, too grown-up to make a wish out loud, but secretly making one in her heart. For her, Kolkata is truly the ‘City of Joy’, steeped with the wonder, laughter and gaiety of its inhabitants.


Every city has its collection of places like these, brimming with character, a part of the city’s progress, and linked with the emotions of its citizens. This forms the essence of architecture and builds the identities of generations.


Architecture: a Harbinger of Change

Architecture can impact people’s lives, but can people’s lives impact architecture? Two brothers from a small Uttar Pradesh village used to walk several kilometres each day, on kaccha roads, crossing poverty-stricken mud houses to reach their school. They used to struggle on rainy days when the roads became blocked and houses started to leak. Defeating all odds, they went on to become civil servants of the Indian Government. The older brother, Dr V. S. Singh went on to build the first school in his village and his younger brother, Dr Ajay S. Singh, went on to build the roads leading to it. As a part of rural development schemes, they also helped underprivileged communities of the area get their first pakka houses. Architecture’s impact on people’s lives is palpable, but sometimes, it can be life-changing. The development of the nation can begin from somewhere as small as one’s childhood struggles and end up transforming several lives.


Change isn’t always as inherent, sometimes it emerges from architecture that is centuries old. The purpose of the inception of many buildings during colonial times was retaining power. As seen in the Viceroy’s house, which is now the Rashtrapati Bhavan and houses the President of India, symbols of power become complex parts of a nation’s history. Their complexity is owed partly to their towering grandeur and partly to the people they house- an elite class. These symbols are, at the end of the day, structures made by people, giving them a sense of release and making them prime spots for protests for change. To Rishika Singh, there's an inherent hope that if we can come as one to demand change so close to these structures, perhaps change can blossom within them, too. People tend to redefine everything with time, so why can’t were define a colonial structure as a symbol of democratic protest?


When slogans are raised with the India Gate as the backdrop, one feels like they are reclaiming the otherwise abstract power structures. (Sen)Sheremembers in 2012, seeing images of people braving water cannons in the December winter to occupy Rajpath, with its red domes and yellow barricading enough to threaten one in even the most "normal" times. Yet people resisted both the symbolic intimidation and the very real lathi charging to speak to power. The Parliament Street area now perennially sees protests. The question of where protests should happen can be answered by the fact that these places form the heart of the city. Not far from here are famous theatres, auditoriums, art galleries and museums. Maybe art is a form of expression, but so are protests. These buildings of national importance have bypassed eras to become monuments that are not only gateways to the nation but also to revolution.


Conclusion

Architecture often becomes the guide leading people through the different narratives of their lives. Sometimes it is a force to behold and other times, a mere spectator. But never is it completely absent. After all, it cannot be denied that we spend most of our lives as an ephemeral part of architecture, absorbed into its confines, or surrounded by its presence. In particular, monuments hold importance to people for a myriad of reasons, not limited to their cultural significance. The interpretations people make of these structures might even lead to social revolution and change. But meaningful architecture is not restricted to buildings that are centuries old or sprinkled liberally with complex elements. Ultimately architecture seems like a fleeting, transient entity despite its very physical presence. Each space calls forth different emotions from all those who interact with it. These emotions too change over the course of a person’s life, until eventually it is not the building that stays in our memory, but the feelings we associate with it.

 

AUTHOR

SAMRUDDHI SHENDURNIKAR


Samruddhi Shendurnikar is an architect in the making. Between trying to keep up with her college submissions, successfully managing her book club for one, and sketching whenever she can, she attempts to write too. Merging architecture and writing to create concinnity is one of her aims in life.

ANVI SINGH


Anvi Singh is a final-year architecture student from India. She believes that our actions as architects can have a real and meaningful impact on people’s lives and the world in general. Her key principles during her design process are attention to context and sustainability, which, in the ongoing climate crisis, she believes are vital. She is a heritage, culture and sustainability enthusiast. She feels most at home in the lush expansive Chaar bagh of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, sketching the grandeur of the days past.

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