The thing with architecture is – it gets old. This is truest for architecture that was built in the mid-20th century and later. The reason is that this architecture is based on trends which quickly go out of date. This article addresses this problem while suggesting ways in which old architecture can be renewed and re-used.
But attention – this article is not about conservation which is a totally different ball game. In conservation we try to maintain the building exactly as it was intended, while re-using old architecture is all about finding new means and methods by which to use it.
The method that we are proposing is quite different and is at least partially inspired from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In her book, Jane Jacobs rues that the heart of American cities is under threat through untrammeled development which takes notice only of rampant Capitalism. The book is further a critique of Le Corbusian Modernism which is individualistic and quite possibly, heartless.
This critique of Modernism and the Modernist plan is quite at odds with Siegfried Gideon’s Mechanization Takes Command, in which he, all the while chronicling the Modern Movement, argues that increased mechanization is one possible solution to the question of daily life being involved in tasks which could quite easily be replaced by machines that would remove the drudgery from daily work through labor-saving devices.
Both Jane Jacobs and Siegfried Gideon were 20th century theorists, who foresaw a lot of things and their work is revelatory in its inspiration and prophetic in its scope. It was possibly a continuation of these concepts, though mutated and transformed, that turned into end-of-the-century films like the Terminator series, portraying Arnold Schwarzenegger as a relentless machine that was best in an apocalyptic world, terrifying though it was, of machines warring against men.
Men build architecture when it suits them, propelled by a primeval urge to house and be housed. Houses of the ancient world become specialized buildings of the new age, and when their time comes, are demolished or otherwise left for dead. Dead men tell no tales, and just like the lifetime of a human being, a house too has a shelf life, long though it may be.
And this is where the concept of re-use comes in. What if we could transform our old buildings into new uses? What about changing abandoned factories into discotheques, and ancient hospitals into museums of art and music? What about turning a memorial building into a play-creche, and a railway station into a moving exhibition? By doing so we would not only be re-using our old buildings in creative ways, but also providing jobs, a fresh lease of life to areas long abandoned, and a spark of creativity within society.
In Anuja Chauhan’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls, retired Judge Thakur oversees his family empire from the safe havens of his house on Hailey Road in Delhi. Refuge for all manner of cousins and aunts, the family house is distinguished by being home to 5 daughters, all with their own eccentricities. It is this eccentricity that provides the vital elan to the Thakur household, a spark of energy that propels the immediate neighborhood to even newer heights of social well-being.
A parallel can be drawn between this saga and the Hussain Zaidi’s Mumbai’s Mobsters. Though the similarity is not immediately apparent, it can be said that what the Thakur girls did for the Judge’s house, Mumbai’s apocryphal mobsters have done for Bollywood in terms of providing impetus for Bollywood’s long line of films on the underworld. Bollywood, too, has been very creative in taking these films toward an ever more ‘reality-based’ kind of method acting, with stellar actors such as Nana Patekar and even the redoubtable Sunny Leone finding place in this saga.
What does all this have to do with old architecture, the reader might be predisposed to ask? Old architecture too is a memory of times gone by, a reminder of when the world was a much simpler place and things could be done with a simple phone call or even that (almost) ancient of technologies – email. The fact that no one – or practically no one – emails anymore is proof that new technologies have a shelf-life, even though they may be resurrected in some form of the other by aficionados.
And this brings us to our newest idea – what about a museum dedicated to email? An email and Internet museum which chronicles famous emails sent throughout the length and breadth of India, and even otherwise and at other places. Such a museum could become a repository of history, provide the opportunity to renew an old building, and collect together a motley crew of people united by the idea of – and the creativity of – a lifetime spent in correspondence and careful scrutiny.