The value of the thing

“Architectural conservation programs need to broaden their scope of concerns to reach beyond the material fabric to include the expertise of urban planning and the motivation and vision of local community groups. It will, only through the integration of these diverse actors that architectural conservation will bridge the objects of the past with the motion of the present and the direction of the future.  If conservation of the built heritage in India is to be relevant it will need to embrace the kinetic city and accommodate the dance of its residents.”

Rahul Mehrotra

“Conservation and Change: Questions for Conservation Education in Urban India”

Whether or not this call to rethink the traditional notions of conservation practices in India has its roots in the deep-seeded spiritual notion of impermanence as suggested in my last blog entry, the dynamic urban conditions to which it is responding demand an equally dynamic understanding of the cultural significance of “change”.  Mumbai happens to represent a super-charged, hyper-concentration of the socio-spatial qualities that occur when static form meets social transformation, so it is a perfect stage to explore the perceived value of architecture both as a thing of the past and a thing of the future.

Like silly putty, the solidity of Mumbai’s urban form is actually a very fluid thing.  The dual nature of the combined formal and informal aspects of the city makes for an indescribable ambiguity of form.  Any sliver of open space might be adapted and re-adapted multiple times a da; shelter is just an interpretation of how materials come together to make structure; ownership is nice in theory; fixed prices are a joke; and traffic laws are merely suggestions.  The value of the “thing”, in other words, is weighted less in its form (or intended purpose) and more in how it can accommodate use (or the given needs of the user).  

As such, the role of architecture as an ambassador of the city’s cultural heritage, social values, or global status is not a concept that has much of an audience here.  The architectural zeitgeist of India remains a nameless amalgamation of a host of influences, from Islamic ornamentation to a British, neo-classical/baroque/I don’t know what flavor – assimilating and transforming them into a very uniquely unspecified eclecticism that we have come to know as “Indian architecture”.  The lack of discretionary architecture and design intent is evident in the patchwork of styles and forms in contemporary building developing around the city like a wildfire on the loose. 

With this obscure perception of architecture and its role in the development of the city, the conventional codes of conservation in Mumbai have a shaky foundation.  They revolve around the emergence of what is often referred to as the Burra Charter of 1979 – a resolution made by the International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites to mandate a list of best practices of conservation based on “cultural significance” – defining cultural significance as the “aesthetic, historic, or scientific or social value for past, present and future generations.”  

This presents a limited way of understanding conservation, implying that “significance” can be preserved as a static object or thing, resurrecting debates surrounding the historicism and object-oriented preservation of the Renaissance.  But how can cultural significance be assessed to a city that is comprised of such fluid meanings, ambiguous concepts of old and new, and cross cultural influences?

This inadequate definition of conservation is symbolic of Mumbai’s crisis of form and absence of design intent.  Yet, it is an opportunity to reevaluate what is culturally significant to Mumbai and an invitation to redefine the role of architecture in the city.   What if the value of architecture is based on its flexibility of use and openness to the interpretation of the user rather than the ways in which it represents the aesthetic, historic, or scientific or social value of the culture?

Before one can determine what is worthy of conserving, one must first define what is worth.  

Why not evaluate architectural “type” according to the number of activities and behaviors that can be performed within and around rather than the performative aspect of the type itself?  Perhaps the conditions of Mumbai are calling designers to create form as a function of use –  a less static outcome than Louis Sullivan’s notion of form as a function of function.  The more robust a form the more uses it can accommodate and adapt to while maintaining destination, and thus the more valuable it is to society. Thus the formal outcome of the architecture is subordinate to the cultural activation that it helps to generate. Conservation, in this sense is not in preserving that which is static but in preserving a space that celebrates the nature of change.