The Tribune - Spectrum


, September 22, 2002

Interpreter of architectural melodies
Rajnish Wattas

A Moment in Architecture
by Gautam Bhatia. Tulika.
Rs 400. Pages 168.

A Moment in ArchitectureTHE lampooner of Indian architecture turns to limpid introspection. Gautam Bhatia — famous architect-artist-writer — who coined such catchphrases as Punjabi Baroque, Bania Gothic and Chandini Chowk Chippendale, much to the delight of architectural academia and the chatterrati, this time plays a mellowed melody. It’s a symphony of personal, poignant moments of experiencing architecture.

But one always knew that behind the mock façade of caricaturing building-blight; there was a monk, meditating on the true nature of the aesthetics of architecture, separating the kitsch from the classic. It’s a rich journey, both for the initiated and the uninitiated. The sensory delights of architectural realms are yours to savour, if you are sensitive to their presence.

The book, his seventh, is essentially a personal memoir of an architect, a journey of self-discovery or rather rediscovery. Bhatia takes us through the labyrinths of structures that dot our lives, ranging from a solitary hill hut to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. "He casts his gaze, sometimes lovingly, sometimes despairingly – but always passionately profound. In so doing, he lays bare ideas and facts about these buildings, while reflecting on the ethereal and intangible attributes of experiencing them." Written from the vantage point of a practising professional, the book is an intimate "autobiography of architecture". His evocative reflections on Jaisalmer, Stepwells of Adalaj, Ronchamp Chapel of Corbusier and Falling Waters house of Frank Llyod Wright, restate the quintessence of these masterpieces. "Besides the objective assessment of buildings and their performance in climatic, utilitarian and ecological terms, I am intrigued by the spatial and sensory qualities of building, even assessing the kind of life that they generated and the particular values their inhabitants attributed to them," writes Bhatia.


His deepest influences have been Laurie Baker with his austere, true architecture and Louis Kahn of the IIM Ahmedabad fame, with his architecture imbued with the poetry of light.

The book, a unique genre of its own, is neither a scholarly tome nor a flippant paperback, but a private testament. "For an architect, architecture is a kind of memoir. A piece of construction, the making of a building, even the viewing of a monument, is a form of autobiography — as personal an autobiography as an architect can write."

Bhatia walks in the footsteps of Le Corbusier, who undertook great travels in his younger days and filled up volumes of sketchbooks, observing, sketching and recording his impressions of the classical edifices he saw. The book is enriched with exquisite charcoal and pencil sketches by the author of the buildings that come under his gaze. The text and the sketches complement each other to convey his message and mission. The beauty of the mosaic of words melded with the visuals is enough to make it a collector’s item. After all, our lives revolve around buildings, both inside and from outside. "Architecture conveys its intent to those who are to use it, before they use it."

Whether contemplating its forms, play of light and shade or the tapestry of its textures, the building is a perennial source of architectural inquiry for the writer. "It is the nature of brickwork to stain in the rain and over the years turn its red face into black, the petrification of a ruin."

In his writing style and sensibilities Bhatia is the Ruskin Bond of architectural prose. His affinity with nature and its relationship with the organic built forms comes out vividly in his ode to the hill home. "The hut … learned to live without the company of a tree; to be alone most of the time and know only the wind and sun and rain as passing friends. The hut had solved its problem of survival. It was at peace on protected ground."

At times, Bhatia’s pen seems to run away with his heart, making his writings enigmatic and perhaps emotionally overloaded, but the intent is never under a cloud. Even though metaphors like "Parker-ink skies" may leave you wishing for less poetic overkill, the spirit of innocent wonder always resonates. Also, the sentences are at times exasperatingly abstract, long-winded and laden with mawkish overdoses, even if rich in poetic cadence. "Can the tree ever release itself from its surroundings? Can it let its earthly captivity become a sound in the inner ear?" is a case in point. Even if the book is a "personal memoir" it is now in public domain.

The significant point about this "moment of architecture" is its eternal quest for understanding true aesthetics of architecture. When our cities are being overtaken by the blight of the nouveau rich who have turned into patrons of this age-old, noble profession, the dividing line between ‘building’ and ‘architecture’ is getting rather blurred. Architecture in the final analysis is only a matrix of society and its values.

Gautam Bhatia’s elegant ode to the ‘art of buildings’ is, therefore, timely and a much-needed crusade. It may rekindle the sacred light in bricks and mortar and separate it from the garish gloss of granite and marble. His message is clear: "The idea is not to make ordinary buildings out of beautiful materials, but beautiful buildings out of ordinary objects."