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It’s day 21 in India, and with just 3 more days of sojourn left in Ahmedabad before embarking on another long 36-hour journey back to Auckland, I thought I’d be productive and take a moment to recap the conference, which was an absolute blast! Besides, when I return I will be on hiatus from doing any other writing than for my research report which is due on September 1st, let alone any time to reflect on the adventures of this place.

So far I’ve had 3 very distinctive experiences of India in as many number of weeks: first, a voyeuristic western packaged tour through Delhi-Agra-Jaipur ‘golden’ triangle, at the end of which I was monumented-out for the rest of the journey; followed by an epic adrenaline-pumping adventure of two rather naïve 26 year-old architectrices through northern India; and finally the I-Rec conference, which brought about this trip in the first place. I don’t think I could have planned this trip any better than I have, in the sense that I couldn’t ask for a better experience, more perfect companions and all the serendipitous events that ensued due to the latter. After the first couple of weeks, the novelty of being in a new environment had worn off to some extent and I went into the conference feeling mellow and ready to absorb everything without being distracted by the lures of tourist traps along the way. I couldn’t have been more wrong in that this past week was just as intense and dramatic as the previous two, and so incredibly stimulating that I’m on a different kind of a high right now.

The conference was attended by about 70 or so people, around 25 of whom were from outside India. Regan described I-Rec as being somewhat of a middle ground between the Shelter Centre, which is predominately practitioners domain, and the CIB, which is entirely academic in nature. It was a pretty neat, diverse group of practitioners, academics, students and researchers who I got to know pretty quickly since there weren’t too many of us and most of the I-Rec members gave a presentation so I was able to put their research topics to the faces. I’m still terrible with names so I didn’t quite get to more than a handful of names even on our last day!

This year’s I-Rec was different from previous ones and included 2 days of field trips in addition to 4 days of conferencing, which was a good balance, because the field trips were what made concepts stick and fired people up about the research they did. I’m not going to go into details of the papers that were presented since they’re soon going to be uploaded on the official website – yes, I-Rec is completely open source and good in that way – and no offense to anyone at the conference but I might fall asleep while trying to recount them. You can view my paper and PPT slides here <insert link>.

Participatory reconstruction and innovative technologies for post-disaster reconstruction was the main theme of the conference, and our host offered two field trips – one looking at heritage and conservation aspect of important monuments around Ahmedabad city, and one looking at three relocation sites around Kutch some 9 years after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake which destroyed 97% of their main city, Bhuj. I of course, being a novice researcher, opted for the second one, and Regan went to the first one so that we could compare notes later and strategically cover both sites between us.

Bhuj was some 80km away from Ahmedabad but it was a 6 hour drive due to the humpdy dumpdy road condition which I’m still trying to get used to. Our group met up at 4:30 in the morning to arrive at our first destination before the ground began to sizzle, and this is when I properly met Nandan – architect/professor from Chennai who gave a keynote speech the previous morning about his project of rebuilding 10,000 houses in Tamil Nadu after the boxing day tsunami – of course, he is now one of my favourite humanitarian heroes. I felt pretty bad about walking out on his presentation the day before! He sat next to me on the bus and we had the most random, esoteric discussion dealing with everything from evolution to reincarnation, climate change, politics, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Copernicus, Da Vinci, the golden proportion, some very convincing conspiracy theory about the cult that started the modern movement, life, death, and everything in between. I was quite impressed by Nandan’s gift of storytelling and I think he was surprised at my ability to decode many of his riddles he called ‘preposterous facts’. More surprisingly though, it turns out that he has strong connections to all the big shots in India as well as abroad – in fact, his buddy is Charles Correa, B. V. Doshi is his quasi-foster dad and his pen pal was Kenneth Frampton. Yet I was so surprised that he was so humble about his achievements and had already done work that’s at least three times what a very good architect would struggle to achieve in a lifetime. What was more surprising was that in 25 years of practice he had published nothing in his name but his first book was coming out in October.

Another observation I’ve made on this trip is just how political the disaster relief community is. I knew that politics exist everywhere but I had naively thought that the humanitarian sector would have less egotistical individuals than your average professional networks, but at the conference I got a strong sense of political tension and influential forces underlying many of the discussions and chai breaks. Many debates were held around the definition of what is meant by participatory design, and what qualifies for truly owner-driven reconstruction when there are so many complex issues involved such as donor’s desires, NGO’s agendas, economies of finance, culture and people, and of course, politics.

The reconstruction sites we visited were limited to those locations that received extensive NGO support, and the members of community that came out to talk to us were mostly Brahmans, which meant that we got a rose-tinted view of the reconstruction projects. Half of the time we didn’t know whether they were just happy to talk to foreigners or whether they were genuinely happy about how they were treated after the earthquake. It was also difficult to gauge a sense of heritage and tradition in a city that is touted to be known for its heritage, not only because 97% of the original city collapsed during the earthquake, but because the city got a completely new urban design makeover and road layout. Despite these concerns, I was impressed with the professionalism and fairness given for the greater good of all citizens after the earthquake. A lot of people at the conference were of course interested in seeing how the lessons from this particular disaster could be applied in Haiti.

Since then, I have been to: Sangath, Doshi’s office where he still practices but is now run by his son-in-law; acquired several invaluable publications about incremental housing for my research; met a French expat from Auroville who’s been here too long and spoke English like an Indian (it’s beyond hilarious); had dinner with all of them at Doshi’s son-in-law’s private residence; got lost a few times due to auto rickshaw drivers trying to get more miles (thus money out of it); got a ride on a back of a complete stranger’s motorbike; went to visit Gandhi Ashram; bought a few more kultas; went to see a Hindi movie; donated my blood to many of the local mosquitoes; went to McDonald’s; and just this morning I was asked politely by one of the girls at reception to pay the bill because I owe them too much… I guess all that this means is that I’ve been living at my hotel for too long!

As for now I’m planning on going back to Sangath tomorrow to try and meet Doshi himself and ask him to sign my book… and that’s about the only thing left on my itinerary before packing up to go home, sweet home.

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One thought on “A country of a thousand faces…

  1. Ahh… looks like you got more out of the 3.5weeks journey through India than you had anticipated? Clearly a completely different experience to the one I had back in 2008. Different regions, and different objectives and attitude… One thing in common – we would both agree India is a country with many faces. 🙂 Good luck with Mr. Doshi!!! See you in a few days.

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