The Image is the Building

A photograph I shot was on the cover of this month’s issue of Domus India (March, 2013).

The Cover Photograph
The Cover Photograph

I had shot this at 400 ISO with my Nikon D 7000, and what was published was a fairly tight crop of  the original image (below). Another, less cropped version of the same photograph also appeared in the article on the Museum of Tribal Heritage in Bhopal designed by Kamath Design Studio in the same issue.

The Original Image
The Original Image

It must have taken some very skilled raw editing to get an acceptable cover image out of something shot with what is essentially an amateur camera at what is not a low ISO setting. This is definitely not something I’ve been able to achieve with the Nikon ViewNX2 software that comes bundled with the camera. Since a majority of the photographs featured in the article were shot by me with this camera, I think I might be better off investing in a good raw converter instead of a Nikon D600 which I have been eyeing ever since its release.

My camera geekiness aside, this article on the Museum in Domus has given me a lot to think about, both as an architect closely involved with the design of the building, and as the photographer who shot most of the images seen of the building. But before I go further, I must confess that I have not yet read anything by Susan Sontag, not read On Photography, nor read anything else of significance on the role of photography in architecture and the media. What I write here is a lay person’s opinion based on a single experience –

I had started  working on the Museum of Tribal Heritage when I was still doing my bachelor’s degree in architecture. It was very exciting to be working on this project because it was the first time I was applying my newly acquired knowledge of architecture in a professional setting. Preparing a setting-out plan of the complex, interlinked circular and rectilinear shapes taught me the need for accuracy and discipline in drafting and dimensioning a drawing.

I was also responsible for preparing a 3D model of the building which was used in presentations and discussions with the various stakeholders in the project.

External Views from the 3D Model
External Views from the 3D Model
An Interior View from the 3D Model
An Interior View of the Introduction Gallery from the 3D Model

Despite being involved in the project from its outset, I was not able to travel from Delhi (where I was studying) to the site in Bhopal until after I finished college some two years later. But when I did visit the site, it was quite amazing to see the actual building. What made this experience especially surreal was the fact that the site engineer drove us in his car straight into what was the main visitor’s (pedestrian) circulation spine of the museum. The building was bigger than I had imagined. And yet, when I got out of the car and walked around, it seemed to have a very human scale – a scale of a village street, not the scale one usually associates with a museum building.

The circulation spine where I drove in with a car on my first visit to the site.
The circulation spine where I drove in a car on my first visit to the site.

After walking around the building, I soon got my bearings and started observing deviations from the plan and defects in construction, like any architect would. The building eventually took over five years and many more site visits to build, and the museum is still to formally open as of March, 2013.

When we were contacted by Domus India about their wanting to feature the project in their magazine, we were very excited by the idea. Like most architectural publications around the world today, the team at Domus asked us, as the architects of the building, to provide them with images for the article. What we gave them was a photographic “walk-through” of the building with details of where in the building each photograph was shot from, and what the photograph showed. Other than basic project drawings, this was all the information on the project that the Mumbai-based team writing the article had. Even as someone so closely involved with the design, having prepared its setting out plan and 3D model; actually experiencing the building physically and spatially gave me a completely new perspective on its design. I was therefore fascinated by the article on the Museum that appeared in Domus titled “Debating Tactile Engagements” when no one from the magazine had seen the building other than through the photographic images we had supplied them. The article goes on to talk about the scale of the building, the delicacy of the steel structure supporting large spans, the way the building negotiates the terrain of the site and engages with the local climate. It is understandable that time and financial constraints make it impossible for every architectural critic to visit every building they write about. But as an architect who respects the opinions of serious critics of design, it makes me wonder if I should design for the user or design for the camera in an age where pixels are equal to perception, where bits can travel across the planet but bricks stubbornly stay rooted in walls, where ones geographic location is immaterial but “ecological footprint” is supposed to matter, where global weather data is available at a keystroke but the sound of subtly directed rain water is lost in the din of esoteric discussions on design philosophy.

The Anthropometry of Virtuality

It has been a long time since I have done anything photographic that I felt like posting, my last time being this post over two years ago.

A few days ago a friend of mine pointed me to this article about a set of images juxtaposing archival photographs from World War II with identical images shot in the same locations today. I found the idea very interesting and my mind began to speculate how the same people in the same situation may have behaved in the same space today and I wished the people from the archival photographs would somehow engage with the contemporary spaces in a more direct way.

Turning the idea around, I began to think about some photographs I had taken at Lodhi Gardens last month. Here were contemporary people interacting with relics from the past. What if the spaces of the past could mould themselves around the actions of these contemporary individuals? I have posted the images resulting from these speculations in this set on Flickr.

TableCloth: Complexity From Layers of Simplicity

The TableCloth installation by Ball-Nogues Studio at the Schoenberg Hall courtyard in the UCLA Music Department is a functional installation. It is part art, part architecture, part structure and part furniture. The complexity of this project emerges from the layering of design decisions taken in response to the different functions that the installation fulfils. The installation is meant to enhance the usefulness of the courtyard to the members of the Music Department. It was commissioned as a temporary installation on the UCLA campus for only a part of the year.

Starting with the courtyard as a space a simple ‘drape-like’ surface hanging from one of the walls was proposed. This drape would embellish the building in the same way that a table cloth embellishes a table and marks is as a place for congregation. This drape surface was designed taking into account the circulation around the courtyard ‘relaxed’ by structural analysis so as to ensure that it draped the building smoothly.

The Relaxed Drape Surface in the Courtyard

A strategy was then devised to subdivide this drape surface into tectonic components that were differentiated based on their position on the surface.

The first step of the subdivision process was to populate the surface with points. The points were to act as seeds for the tectonic components. The density of the points was related to the varying curvature of the surface – the greater the curvature the greater the point density. This would enable the components (to be made of flat materials) to efficiently negotiate the curvature of the drape.  This was achieved using a script similar to one posted on this blog earlier.

Points Placed on the Surface Based on Surface Curvature

The points thus placed were used as the input for a Delaunay triangulation mesh which divided the curved drape surface into planar triangles which determine the orientation and periphery of each planar tectonic component. The density distribution of the points determined the density of the Delaunay mesh. A script for Delaunay triangulation was previously posted on this blog.

Delaunay Triangulation Using Surface Points

The temporary nature of the installation was in conflict with the durability and permanence of the materials and resources that would be required of an outdoor installation of the size of the drape surface. It was thus decided to give the individual tectonic components a functional life beyond that of the installation. The design of the components therefore became an exercise in cross-manufacturing where the same physical artefact performed the dual functions of a tectonic component when part of the installation, and a table/stool when independent. The triangular geometry of the Delaunay mesh dictated a three legged object but the function of a table/stool required minimizing sharp corners. Therefore  a Grasshopper definition was used to create irregular ‘ovals’ within each triangle of the Delaunay mesh which were to become the seats of the stools/tables making up the TableCloth.

Irregular 'Ovals' Created From the Delaunay Triangles

The edges of this field of tables/stools were modulated to allow it to act as an amphitheatre with audience seating, a performance area and a visual/acoustic backdrop. Further interstitial components and detailing were added based on structural and constructional considerations to create a structurally, visually and functionally complex installation.

The Complex Installation Incorporating Layers of Simple Design Decisions

Textual Geography

only if everyone, originally uploaded by ayodh.

Cities are full of writing – graffiti, billboards, road signs. This writing has been written by people to communicate with others. In addition to the message of the text itself, these pieces of writing also communicate a second layer of meaning by virtue of their location and setting. The interactions between these layers of meaning may reinforce each other, contradict each other or influence each other in other ways to create deeper layers of meaning or unravel the layers that make them up. This set of photographs explores these interactions in the city of Los Angeles.

Oltrarno, Florence – The Future of Craft

Florence is world renowned for its heritage.  Its buildings and works of art mark key milestones in the development of Western civilization. However, this heritage is viewed as belonging to the past and having nothing to do with the present.

Historically, craft as an activity  has tied the residents of neighbourhood of Oltrarno to their built environment – from window shutters and door knobs to street lights and bicycle stands. The practise of craft in the present maintains a connection with the past. Just as the crafts of Oltrarno are an invaluable resource to the neighbourhood they are equally relevant in the context of the city of Florence and the whole world.

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In order to halt the decline of crafts in Oltrarno, people need to be made aware of the significance of craft as a living connection between the past and the present. The practise of craft needs to be kept financially and logistically viable in the face of the changes taking place in the neighbourhood. Avenues for the development and evolution of crafts to ensure their sustainability in the future and prevent them from being mere relics from the past. Ways must be found to make craft more productive so that it can cater to the many needs of the common citizen and remain relevant to their lives.

I wrote this report as part of a study on Digital Placemaking by the Digital City Design Workshop MIT, in 2007. This study was commissioned by the City of Florence and presented to the representatives of the city in 2009.