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The Louis I. Kahn Trophy: part 1

Posted on: Jan 25, 2013

Many of my experiences in the following few blog posts will be related to this trophy/competition named after one of the master architects, Louis I. Kahn. As such, I thought I should probably elaborate a little about what this trophy is about.

The whole idea of the competition was to search for sites all over India and evaluate them based on a brief. The aim here was to bring out the 'hidden heritage' of India. There were places in India that were of cultural, social and national importance that were not always known to people. Of course, we were taught history, civics and geography in school, but that is no more than a formality. Such a VAST and colourful fabric that we call India can never be condensed into a textbook (or a series of them). This country was never made by the historic events that are outlined in our syllabus. Or to put it more accurately, it wasn't 'completely' made by the 'macro stories' that we are drilled with. There are innumerable and often more important 'micro stories' that added up and shaped this land over the centuries. I always loved the social sciences in my school. But doing LIK was like discovering a whole new dimension to this entity called history! History could never be understood in classrooms. It could never be seen in the pictures and photos in textbooks. It was dynamic. It could stare you in the face your entire life and you would fail to recognize it! The cities we live in, the towns and villages that we travel to, the people we meet, our friends, our parents, we ourselves are part of this ever unfolding history. Just when you feel you have seen it all, it can punch you in the gut and say, "You haven't seen ANYTHING yet…"

Coming back to the more tangible aspects of history, we went and searched for sites that have been 'lost.' Now this didn't exactly mean that they were remote. As I mentioned earlier, they might have been staring you right in the face! To get a general idea of what we were looking for, we scoured every inch of every library we knew. We went and met people, 'experts' in their respective fields, and had endless discussions and debates. And after a few weeks of this harrowing exercise (along with the ever present burden of academics), we finally got down to a set of ideas as to how and where our site might be. Being a first-year, I didn't always get to ask my seniors what it was we were actually doing. I was always on the run. From one library to another. From one expert to another. It wasn't a pleasant experience at all, but it was worth it. There were always times when I thought about just giving up and focusing solely on my academics. But academics didn't really hold my attention as much as this co-curricular activity. Even after deciding firmly that I would tell my seniors that I was leaving, when I actually found myself in front of them, I just asked for more work. Maybe it was the NASA room, but everyone just spontaneously started working as soon as we set foot in it.

Along with running around the whole city, the practice sessions continued relentlessly. Especially for LIK, we were literally worked to the bone. The reason was that this was the only trophy where everything was done by hand (no computer generated drawings on the sheets whatsoever)! As such, every one of us first-years was basically tested to see where our talents lay. During this practice time, the higher ups sat down to home in on a site. This meant that they had to basically consolidate all the data gathered over the weeks and analyze it. This analysis would eliminate sites that weren't good enough answers for the brief and shortlist those that had the potential to be that answer. The next step was to actually go and visit those shortlisted sites and see if they were really what the research claimed they were. These were the 'pilot' visits. Getting info at the grassroots level. Once these pilots were concluded, there was just one big show and tell before fixing THE site. All this had to be wrapped up in about two or three weeks maximum. It was now November. And it was time for the next phase to begin.

The site could be anything. It could be as simple as a temple near college, or it could be as exotic as an island in a river. The next phase was the site visit. This was one of the most challenging and the most fun-filled days I have ever seen. The entire team, right from the first-years to the fourth-years go on site and stay there for 10 to 15 days! There is virtually no adult supervision. No parents. Just a group of college kids. Travelling and exploring get a whole new meaning here! Whatever your background is, this whole experience is way out of anyone's comfort zone. For one, this trip is not even remotely recreational. The amount of work that we have done till now pales in comparison to what we need to do on the site! And two, there is absolutely no chance of being picky about anything! The aim of this visit is to 'document' the site. Basically, we need to capture every single detail of our chosen site. This is done in the form of measured drawings, sketches, photos, video clips, interviews and a wide variety of other methods. At the end of every day, everyone gets together and compiles this data. This compilation goes on for well over a week. And finally we have everything that we need to move to the third and final phase…

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