Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Crossing continents to India: a trip down memory lane

In 1990 I spent nine months working and travelling in India. I went with a friend (Ms J) and we worked for the Peoples Participation Organisation (PPP), on a squatter settlement re-housing project in the suburbs of Mumbai. Work was based in Mumbai but we were able to go on quite a few jaunts to the north and south of the country. It was an amazing nine months. One of those years where you fit three into one, where you do so much emotional growing-up you come home a different person. 

On one of our trips we went to Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat, with a population of about 4 million. It's busy. Insanely busy!

If you're interested in architecture, there is a lot to see here. Buildings by Le Corbusier, Doshi, Charles Correa, Louis Kahn, all famous architects who have made their mark in the world of architecture.

We went to visit the Mill Owners' Association building designed by Le Corbusier and built in 1954. I kept a diary during this time. Below is an extract, describing our visit to this architectural landmark.

Mill Owners' Assocation Building - Le Corbusier, Ahmedabad, Sunday 1 July 1990

We push open the rusty gate, nobody is in sight. The garden in front of the Mill Owners building is parched and brown, small sporadic clumps of green are the only evidence of the pre-monsoon showers. The rough concrete is weathered. A brown dusty film covers the grey stone. We walk up the ramp into the building, a thick concrete rail to our left, a metal one to our right, supported on metal posts. Plant boxes with withered greenery stand beneath. In the entrance a solitary wooden chair with a woven seat stands on the stone floor, the cane has fatigued, it is torn and frayed. 
To our left are diagonal concrete fins, they cast sharp shadows onto the facade, between the fins a few plants have crumpled onto the red/brown soil. Behind this concrete screen is a huge concrete drum, vertical stripes of wooden grain textured concrete enhance the curve.
Through the double height spaces and up a free standing concrete stair with no hand rail, a circular half landing canter-levered into space, another straight flight of stairs projected from a wall, again no hand rail. 

On the rear facade horizontal and vertical concrete fins form a three dimensional grid. There is a flurry of wings. On the top horizontal fin is a line of pigeons, one glides across the void, dust flies as it leaves its perch. Below the floor is splattered with a continuous band of white and green. High up on the ceiling are enormous wasp nests, a rich deep golden brown. They hang like giant fungi from the ceiling. 

On the ground floor three men talk, one sits on a wooden bed, rope tied across the middle in a mesh forms the mattress. Another man is squatting on the floor, another is perched on a concrete projection. Children play in the pool in the courtyard.
Two black shining bicycles are parked next to one another, a pair of shoes are clamped in the rattrap of one. On the wall are diagrams of statistics of progress in the textile business over the last ten years. Coloured charts show little has changed. 

In the back garden the fountains are dry. Beyond the end wall is the Sabarmati river. Over a hundred meters wide it is brown and barren, a few rivulets of inky blue water lie stagnant. A woman in the distance walks behind seven white donkeys laden with heavily loaded hessian saddle bags. Children throw rocks into the dark water and run, laughing from the splashes. On the far side many corrugated iron roofs are held down by slates, bricks and palm leaves, over a clutter of crowded hovels. Back in the Mill Owners building two women wearing pink and green Gugerati saris with a transparent cotton scarf wrapped around their bodies and over their heads. They squat in the shade of some shrubs and talk. 

The heat engulfs us, everything is so still and quiet, the hum of flies, the squeaking of a chip monk, our senses feel numbed in this surreal vacuum.

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