Monday, June 29, 2009

An Identity Crisis

BRAND. Logo. Universal process.... tick, tock, tick, tock ...

It is strange this culture of the BRAND. It is a fight for individuality. A struggle to be identified for its difference. A cry against the cloning culture of society ... ! At the same time, it perpetuates the principles of the cloning society ... the Brand is the same wherever you go, whichever part of the world. Its odd, this. A struggle for individuality and attention subscribing to the principles of universality and standardization culture.

McDonald is a good example. Wherever you go in the world, the Mac is the same - the same look, the same toys, the same look-alike people. Yet, the Brand is distinctive because it has perpetuated a sameness everywhere.

I sometimes wonder why products, their feel and look cannot be subsumed within a cultural context. Can the Mac look and feel Arab-like in arabian countries? Or chinese in china? Or Indian in India? Instead of looking American wherever it is? Will it destroy its self-respect? Will it take away from its sense of identity?

Its not only McDonald. Its everywhere. Clothes, food, magazines, cars, water-bottles (!) .... A struggle for identity perpetuating a sameness.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ethics of Science & Technology

I was making a presentation on the subject of Ethics in Science & Technology (S&T) focussing on the S&T of the Built Environment, focussing further on reconstruction.

When the scientific community conceives and creates an idea, are there any Ethics to it? Is it that every idea finds exploration and expression? Or is there a determining factor that allows some ideas to flower more than the others ? - the classic example being that there is more research and findings for hair-colouring than alternative energy?

Science itself is neutral, or so we would like to think. It is the application of Science and its findings that become instrumentalized to fulfill a hidden agenda which most of the society is not aware of. Or so we would like to think.

But is science neutral? Can it be said that the creation of the atom bomb is innocent? It does not look ethical from any angle. But then this is an example most of us would agree with. But if we start measuring the ethics in the creation of every idea itself, what would we arrive at? What are the ethics in hysterectomy? Or abortion? What about pesticides? ...

I was trying to understand something which my mind was trying to point to. Madhulika, one of the participants in the meeting, finally put the words to it - there are power-relations, not only in the application of S&T, but in the very genesis of the idea, the funding for it, the process of allowing it come to the forefront and become a usable product.

Science & technology do not seem innocent. They seem to be political. In the way the very birth of the idea, it development, application and promotion.

To be explored further ....

I'm lovin' it !

I came across the term "McDonaldization" coined by the sociologist, George Ritzer. It sent shivers of utter delight through my body. I 'googled' it eagerly. Would it mean what I thought it would mean? Happily it did. But no kudos to me ... the word is so graphic that it is difficult to not understand what it symbolized.

Ritzer highlights four components: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control and all of society has been a recipient / victim of the McDonaldization process.

As an NGO, I have been writing proposals for our programmes in the last decade. Time and again I have been confronted with the straitjacket of this method - McDonaldization. Every donor asked for the same - quantifiable indicators, verifiable objectives, defined timelines and schedules, supportable expenses. It was getting more and more difficult to "fit in" with this. How could one calculate the growth of a village's 'awareness levels'? How do we define and verify the power-relations between the local, bureacratic, mafia and the communities? How do we predict how these relations would turn?

McDonaldization forced us more and more into taking up McDonald-like-projects. I found myself mouthing the same standard terms - participatory, gender-sensitive, sustainable, environment-friendly .... I couldn't break away from the prescribed format, even if the situation warranted it.

And as predicted by Ritzer's concept, with these four processes, a strategy which was rational within a narrow scope led to outcomes that are harmful or irrational.

I search for ways by which we can 'de-Mcdonaldize' ourselves.

Cloning culture

As Walter pointed out, Hyderabad airport is a good example of George Ritzer's concept of "Globalization of Nothing". Ritzer defines Nothing as generally centrally conceived and controlled and largely lacking in distinctive substance, while something is defined as generally indigenously conceived and controlled and possesses much in the way of distinctive substance. In other words, something is being one of a kind, and nothing is lack of uniqueness.

The airport has a "global" quality - undistinctive, uniform, like-anywhere-else airport. I often feel disoriented in such buildings. When standing inside any of these buildings, sometimes just for a moment, I try to remember where I am, which city? It was the same sense of déjà vu at the Hyderabad airport. As we entered it felt like the Turin airport and the inside reminded of the Paris departure area.

It is difficult to understand why Hyderabad airport should not look Hyderabadi. Why it should look like an European airport. The materials, the glass, even the so called ‘artistry’ of encasing the innards of the mechanical equipment in glass...

The motto of standardization is seen in airports, hotels, ATMs, malls, super-markets, metros, metro-stations, expressways, flyovers, traffic-lights, facades, billboards.... Even the models in the advertisements seem to look alike. We are now firmly entrenched in a look-alike, be-alike society. Our movies. Our soap-operas and reality shows. Our buildings. Our lifestyle. Our thinking, too, I am afraid.

I wonder whether we draw a sense of community and safety from within these symbols and motifs of the look-alike culture. We feel less alien. We are with the familiar, the understood. We are part of a larger machinery.

I guess with the fall of the many beliefs and systems, the current society is in a vacuum, in a limbo. Nothing has worked – the American dream, the maoist liberation, the communist revolution. The promise of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the ending of the Cold War has proven to be hollow. The liberation brought about by Globalization only tinsel in nature. Do we feel somewhere deep inside that this is not what we wanted? But are afraid to say it, face it? Or is it the bigger, deeper fear of knowing that we do not know what we want?

I would like to think that this not-working out is an indication that something completely different needs to happen. That this is not the path. I would like to think this might be the calm before the storm, the stillness of the turning tide, the pause before the wheel turns. The space where the idea is taking birth.

That the Substance is in the process of being formed, being defined.

Hurray, Tom !

"...some of the greatest innovations in architecture have happened during recessions, when architects have little to do but sit back and think serious thoughts about fenestration"

-- Tom Dyckhoff

Friday, June 26, 2009

Millennium Architecture

There is no better symbolization of the prevalent culture than Architecture of the day and age. Being the one element that reaches deep into the psyche of society to manifest the reality of that day and age, it is actually a visual 3-d representation of the existence of that time. Every structure thus becomes a snapshot.

We currently live in a networked society. Fast-moving, cross-cultural, cross-ethnic, pre-fabricated, primarily services oriented as opposed to production oriented, outsourced, virtual, instant-messaging, instant-gratification, monetarily-valued economy and reality.

In a globalised world, we have global citizens, global professionals, global craftsmen, global education, global methods, and a global ethics and morality. We also have global design, global architecture.

What would be the snapshot today? What does the architecture of the millennium symbolizes and how does it manifest the psycho-social-politico-economic culture of today in the building materials, the design, the process of building, the relationships, the symbols and motifs.

In a fast moving culture that cannot wait for an end-result, concrete very much is the material of the day. An ultra-malleable material for but a short time, it requires fast intervention before it loses this quality. In a use-and-throw society, that wants something new before it has got bored of the old, it stands good as it degrades within half a century.

In a society where visibility is rated high, glass dominates. An insular society that needs a notion of freedom, that needs an expanse of vision from the armchair without a desire to interact with the outside, glass insulates from the natural elements creating an inside reality far removed from that one outside.

In a global world with a multi-ethnic culture, the most common aspects become the least common denominator that proliferate. Universalization of design thus happens. This is best seen in the commonality between any of the structures and cities of the world. Be it soaring skyscrapers or the flyovers and express-ways.

The way the society treats its people is best symbolized in the cubicalized, pigeon-hole apartments and high rises. Nuclear units for nuclear families. Seperatists. Individualized. Faceless innumerable windows, that look into one another eliciting a withdrawal into the self for privacy. Space a premium – socially and economically.

The social structure of today is best symbolized by the gated communities that barricade a section of people inside while excluding the rest of the world. The difference from the olden-day forts being that it is now also for the public and not only the rulers. It symbolizes the paranoia, fear, loneliness, violence and divisiveness that permeates our consciousness today.

The interactive streets have given way to the rushing, blurring expressways symbolizing the way we relate. We interact by choice, at our behest. Facebook-like, we have stop-overs for replenishment. We connect when we want to. Public spaces are marked out areas where people go to. Its no longer the fabric of everyday life. Community has to be invited.

The square and the flat are now the universal shapes. Easily assembleable. Quick to integrate. A quick-fix, easy-to-learn, networkable solution. Prefabrication makes it easy to Outsource and customize.

I guess I could go on ....

Nature of Architecture

i am beginning more and more to feel that actually architecture is not static. Its such a dynamic process. It is one element that can reach deep into the psyche of society to manifest the reality of a day and age, a visual, 3-d representation of the existence of that time. Every structure a snapshot.

In this sense architecture cannot be sanctimonous and rigid as it is made out to be. It cannot be stuck in the rut of form and facade ... it needs to "see" its dynamism, the process, the evolution which is what actually happens when an architect designs.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Conservation cracks

Heritage and conservation have unfortunately become exactly what it has become - a 'monumental' intervention. Not only in terms of the effort it requires but also in terms of its application. The repositories of people's knowledge and traditional systems are now 'museumised' in the forts, palaces, temples and such.

And herein lies the loss.

Why does heritage promotion fail ? I think it is because of this nature of the concept. Because it ignores or neglects the living heritage among people - still alive, still being adapted and adopted. It ignores heritage in motion. It ignores evolving heritage. The 'glamour' is 'frozen' in the palatial hotels and structures. Traditional practices, skills and crafts are 'showcased' in the aesthetics of boutique hotels. Heritage becomes elitist. Access to it is restricted. Its aliveness in everyday lives of ordinary people is eroded and lost.

Heritage dies and becomes a candidate for conservation.