India as Classroom: Architecture Students Explore Design and Construction Through New Initiative

September 10, 2012

In India, a land of many contrasts and one of the world’s fastest emerging economies, old and new blend to create a rich tapestry of experiential opportunities.

For 14 undergraduates and graduate students in the University of Virginia School of Architecture’s new India Initiative, India was their classroom and design studio for six weeks this summer. The goal: travel, engage and discover, research and design.

The students, who hailed from six different countries, visited historical and contemporary buildings, attended lectures about history or architecture in the buildings themselves, met with local practitioners and developed their own designs for sites in four cities. They visited two architecture schools and interacted with Indian students. They also conducted individual research projects they had identified during a spring introductory seminar, part of the India Initiative curriculum.

The endeavor is the school’s first traveling design and research studio. “Because it’s experiential, it’s about context,” said Phoebe Crisman, who co-directs the initiative with fellow architecture professor Peter Waldman.

An exhibit of the students’ work, which they finalized in 10 days following their return, is on view through Sept. 22 in the Architecture School’s Elmaleh Gallery. A symposium, “The Emerging Megacity and the Enduring Village,” will be held Sept. 14, from 12:30 to 5 p.m. in Campbell Hall, room 153, to reflect on the research themes explored during the summer and discuss future plans for the program. A reception in the Elmaleh Gallery will follow at 5:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Graduate student Catherine Killien said that studying architecture while traveling is an amazing way to understand a place. “You become very aware of the political, cultural, economic and environmental conditions that shape, and continue to shape, a place,” she said.

The goal was to learn from both the old and the new, from both Indian and Western architects and to develop an ongoing relationship with architecture schools and practitioners across India.

“The key opportunity was to have on-site visits to contemporary construction sites with Indian architects Pankaj Vir Gupta, Bimal Patel, Balkrishna Doshi and others, as well as sequential visits to the ancient sites which inspired them,” Waldman said. “It’s about providing connective tissues between 'the enduring and the emerging' as sites of constructed cultures as well as learning from a vast range of construction methods and materials – always primal, always sublime."

Gupta, who received his undergraduate architecture degree from U.Va. in 1993, is involved in planning and executing the initiative. “I was thrilled to engage the present generation of U.Va. architecture students in the physical reality of India – where the ancient and contemporary worlds remain equally manifest. Introducing the students to the opportunities and influences of our work in landscapes as diverse as New Delhi, Udaipur and Pondicherry shall hopefully perpetuate more diverse conversations in the studios of Campbell Hall.”

The students observed that almost everything is different in India. In America, labor is expensive but materials are relatively inexpensive, graduate student Elizabeth Kneller observed. “In India, it’s the opposite,” she said, “Material use must be kept to a minimum, but labor is readily available. We witnessed how mundane materials can be thought of in new and beautiful ways because of this condition.”

They learned that designers also guide projects through all phases of construction.

India is a country where construction is still low-tech and buildings are built “literally by hand,” Killien said. It’s not unusual to see laborers mixing concrete or laying bricks using rudimentary tools.

“It was astonishing to visit a construction site where most of the workers were women who were barefoot, wearing saris and carrying baskets of stone and brick on their heads,” undergraduate Phoebe Harris said.

It soon became apparent that the handcrafted characteristics not only enhanced the visual and tactile quality of the buildings, but also influenced their proportions.

“Because so much is still built by hand, there seems to be a greater awareness of the scale of the human body in the architecture,” Killien said.

Harsh Vardhan Jain, a graduate student from Delhi who worked in Gupta’s architectural office in India before coming to U.Va., said the trip broadened his perspective toward global architecture and expanded his vision of his country. “It was a joy and a great experience traveling with professors and fellow students as they bring tremendous knowledge and varied perspectives on things that I have known to be a certain way,” he said.

Each of the five years of the India Initiative will focus on a different topic – water, air, earth, fire and ether. This year's focus was water as a spatial generator.

Using sketchpads and pencils, the students designed a village-scale, sustainable water-filtering system and public bathhouse on a polluted lake adjacent to a temple in the historic city of Udaipur. The project took into consideration India’s rich cultural heritage and blended sacred and daily water needs.

A site on the ground of the Capitol Complex in the new city of Chandigarh, designed by 20th-century French architect Le Corbusier, provided an opportunity for the students to design a government institute for citizen leadership.

In Ahmedabad, the students visited the offices of architect Bimal Patel, whose new riverfront development plan is transforming the city. The students designed interventions that connected the city to the different parts of the 10-kilometer-long park and mitigated the changes in the height of the terrain to give citizens access to various activities in the park and to the water.

The students traveled to Pondicherry in southern India, where the group designed a guesthouse for visiting scholars at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Delhi architect Gupta studied and wrote a book about the innovative, early modernist design and construction of the ashram and shared his insights and interpretation of the complex.

Undergraduate Victor Hugo de Souza Azevedo said he took many lessons that he can apply when he returns home to Brazil.

“India and Brazil share some common features, such as climate and lack of reliable infrastructure – roads, water, electricity – and it was fascinating to see how many things you have to juggle in order to get things done in India,” he said. “There is no user’s manual.”

After graduation in May, Hugo plans to return to India to work in Gupta’s office for a year to continue his immersion into problem-solving and design in an emerging economy.

Through connections made with other architects and relationships cultivated with Indian architecture schools, the hope is that job opportunities for U.Va. students will be available and the exchange of ideas between ways of designing and constructing will continue.

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Jane Ford

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