Weaving an Urban Fabric

March 28, 2014

Fabric4

Homegrown Settlements and New Metaphors for Urban Practitioners

Rebecca Houze in her essay ‘The Textile as Structural Framework: Gottfried Semper’s Bekleidungsprinzip and the case of Vienna 1900” (2006) analyses how significantly Europe’s rich traditions of textile design interwove itself into architectural practices.

Semper was one of the few architects who engaged with the dimension of architecture that was connected to weaving and the textile industry.  She explains: “The concept of cloth as a symbolic building material is contained in Semper’s enormous, unfinished compendium, ‘Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics’ (2004 [1870-73]). The first and longest volume of this text is devoted to a detailed analysis of the textile arts. Architecture, according to Semper, originated in the primordial need to demarcate interior and exterior spaces with dividers–fencing made of branches, for example, or hanging tapestries of woven grasses. Some of the earliest built structures were temporary tents of real cloth stretched over scaffoldings, often festively decorated with garlands, ribbons, and other kinds of soft ornament that today we might characterize as “fiber art” (Semper 2004 [1870-3]; Wilson 1995: 42-8).

While the use of new materials was absorbed into modern construction practices, what characterized Europe’s dominance in the world of architecture and design was building on its rich traditions of textile related creativity.

Anybody familiar with Indian history will immediately be compelled to make comparisons. And recognize the wide gap that existed and exists between artisanal practices and the development of institutional knowledge linked to contemporary design related professions.

While the great architectural schools, and specialized institutions dedicated to design have paid academic attention to the enormous resource embodied in India’s artisanal traditions, especially textiles, a translation into practice has not always been as successful.

What is particularly relevant to us about Semper’s observation about architecture is that he sees textiles as integral to its evolution, along with the world of masonry, ironwork and carpentry.  European architectural practice seemed to have built on technological innovation of physical materials along with integrating design processes of textiles into it. They evolved masonry, ironwork and carpentry, making technological breakthroughs while also letting loose imaginations from the world of textile design to produce an aesthetic – either through restraint or elaboration – that continues to dominate architectural practice globally.

For many artisanal traditions (including textiles) outside the European experience the path of change was much more complicated. One reason could be in the structures that energized artisanal traditions in Europe – which were based on apprenticeship and a model of skill learning quite different from India. In India artisanal practices were enmeshed with the logic of caste and were responsible for a high level of productivity in terms of quality and scale – but were simultaneously anchored to values quite incompatible with modern impulses.

In contemporary times, to extract aesthetic and design skills while filtering away social bonds that sustain them, became enormously challenging to say the least.

Nevertheless, there were some attempts made in that direction. Government initiatives to preserve artisanal traditions were reasonably funded and their attempts to be integrated into contemporary economic exchanges were partially successful – but the difficulty in reconciling caste based modes of organization with them remained difficult.

How do you preserve traditional modes that are encoded into social structures for their talent and skill and yet demand radical changes in those structures for the sake of modern social objectives?

This contrarian challenge lies at the heart of many urban realities in India and confound visitors. Its poorest neighbourhoods inevitably have some of the most formidable talent and skill in fields as diverse as embroidery, leather work, intricate wood-carving, stone sculpting and others. It is not uncommon to see exquisite craftsmanship embedded in simple designs up for sale in grubby shops on polluted streets. Dharavi, Mumbai’s most well-known settlement that has the distinction of being referred to as a slum, is also considered to be the most productive space in the city. Traditional skills of ironwork, textiles and pottery constantly adapt, like these skills have always done, to contemporary economic needs. In Dharavi, its not just old leather work, that are sold in shops in India and abroad, but manual skills that have adapted to new needs of technologies connected to computers, mobile phones and automobiles also thrive. Not being able to deal with the social and economic knots into which these highly prized skills are tied, has made India pay a huge price, evident in its poor social and economic indicators and under-serviced urban neighbourhoods.

Another example of this state of affairs has been the inability to build on design traditions that were enmeshed in India’s textile related artisanal histories and weave them creatively into a contemporary sensibility of building and architecture. While Indian talent tied down directly to those traditions seem to have made some sort of mark in the field of fashion design, architectural practice in India does not seem to have  built as seriously on those traditions.

What it did manage to do is align itself more with traditional building practices as a source of ideas and creativity. There is a body of work based on older spatial and structural principles and a spirited defence of indigenous styled in response to  ‘western norms’.

The most recognized and renowned architectural practice in India today – is typically embodied in the hugely successful work of an architect like Bijoy Jain, who has developed a practice connected deeply to local artisans. He involves carpentry, iron smith and stone work into his studio that works like a collective crafts workshop. His strength has been recognising these processes and developing an elegant framework around them. His emerging aesthetic often reminds one of Japan, which constitutes a story of similar encounters with crafts and architectural practices.

However, Jain’s work is so authentically embedded in traditional arrangements that they echo some of the problems connected to the socio-economic knots we refer to above. Just as artisanship could not quite escape royal patronage in the past – in fact it thrived on it – India’s peculiar caste story traps Jain’s practice in much the same way. His dependence on rich clients does not allow genuine experimentations in aesthetic terms as well as to explore new markets.

It may well happen that in the coming years, more innovative young architects from India try to consciously evoke the Semper moment by building on design elements from textiles and interweave them into contemporary building materials and practices by combining them creatively with Jain’s processes.

One such Mumbai-based architect, already exploring these themes, and someone we work with closely, is Sameep Padora. Coming from a family historically involved with carpet weaving, originally from Kashmir, he builds on textures of textiles and combines them skilfully into structural principles using parametrics modeling, to come out with flexible and sound designs that move through all kinds of contexts. His works exist in luxurious shopping malls but also slide easily into Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, a re-settlement colony in north-west Mumbai, where he worked with us to experiment with light construction material to create a roof-top office. He exhibited artefacts that residents could use in their homes as well. What we find particularly striking about Padora’s approach is his ability to be adventurous with material, weave in the flexibility of light and heavy moments, derive an aesthetic from all kinds of sources including textiles and carpet weaving, and work with artisanal skills in the way we find most productive – well adapted to contemporary and even futuristic technological and economic needs.

Fabric1

We realise that building on tradition is never easy. Moments from the past can never be revoked or recreated – least of all through simply ideating change.

The European relationship to construction, artisanal histories and textiles produced an equation that still sustains its sense of supreme confidence in the world of design that no amount of mimicking will ever recreate for another set of practices from another history.

What may be more productive is to look firmly at the present – at the existing realities that confront us and – if we want to be inspired by Semper at all – translate his moment more delicately into the present.

What we would like to draw on from him is the observation that building traditions emerging from textile and its rich allied practices – like weaving – are as valid as the ‘hard’ world of stone, masonry, ironsmith and carpentry – as architectural practice itself.

Besides this – what we would also like to pay attention to is the other element of skill formation that our world today is networked into – information and knowledge – and see how these come together to produce a new language of architectural and urban practice.  We see specific processes of thought and practice as having becoming enmeshed to produce new ways of understanding architecture.

Thus a specific building as a starting point – its spatial logic, its dimensions and its aesthetic touch is created through negotiating several anxieties about the role of the mason, the architect and the engineer.  Similarly, when a neighbourhood in a city is the site of operation, the anxieties get enmeshed differently, with the architect and engineer working together and evoking the citizens in a specific way.

In the European tradition the architect, at some historical point, became the master of practices involved with building – in terms of an appointed role. Someone who worked with engineers, masons, carpenters, artists and provided his signature to the work produced. Typically his structure was usually commissioned by the Church, royalty or an aristocrat.

Yet, there remained a world of building outside his appointed role, a world that did not require his signature. This world – for a long time remained closer to Semper’s primitive building spaces in which the metaphors in use were closer to textiles than masonry. Homes made of reeds, cloth and the use of mud as flexible material dominated simpler societies, peasants, slaves and tribal communities. Where the arch builder – the master was not needed. It must be said though that some more technologically advanced societies like China and Japan also used woodwork and paper to produce very sophisticated building traditions that used weaving as a principle rather than masonry – to produce exquisite structures.

This space of weaving homes also produced a rich source of imagery to think about places. Textiles as metaphor related to construction and design is not something that must be reduced to materials and its direct uses whatsoever.  In fact that has been the biggest problem when contemporary societies try to work with the idea of traditional artisanship. Historians point out that all kinds of productive work has been in a constant state of change and transformation and to look at the past in terms of specific material use and skill sets as if they never adapted to markets and changing contexts would be myopic.

For us the richest interpretation we could possibly make of Semper’s observations is to think through new metaphors derived from architecture and textiles. And one very powerful metaphor is that of the Urban Fabric.  In an earlier piece in this blog – we spoke about the Aesthetic of Habitats while reflecting on the idea of aesthetics in urban spaces as a whole – navigating the world of architecture and design and trying to value the gaze that looks at neighbourhoods and cities.

Fabric3

By re-visiting Semper we would like to argue that the patterns and elements of collective construction – as seen in the world of homegrown settlements is something that needs to be valued deeply – both as a practice and as an aesthetic. The idea of an urban fabric is a powerful one. It at once values the role of several weavers – home makers – tied to a logic of relations that produce patterns while being constructed. This represents a completely valid form of urban life that exists all around the world. Constantly improving favelas in Brazil, uncertain occupied spaces in Kenya, highly productive, skilled but marginal settlements in Mumbai, and incrementally grown neighbourhoods in Tokyo have started being recognized as having an aesthetic of their own.

Unfortunately, the reason most people see them as illegitimate spaces is not so much linked to their occupancy rights, poor quality, or misplaced and anachronistic exoticness (as in the case of Tokyo ) but as Ivan Illich would have reminded us – because they are produced in ways we consider illegitimate.

They are made through a collective intelligence, through processes that weave entire neighbourhoods with actors working in dedicated ways – without the master-builder providing a signature. Homes are woven into neighbourhoods through processes that produce their own patterns – which – through a historical gaze – have an aesthetic. But seen without imagination are considered to be without any whatsoever.

Our work in Mumbai’s homegrown settlements, provide us with new learning experiences everyday. And several more questions. What exactly is the role of an architect within such a densely and intricately woven fabric of networked homes? – is just one among them. We get some glimpses of answers in the small moves we make – project by project. A co-designed temple, a mosque, a tiny house – each of them a cacophony of intense dialogues and debates, but collectively being embraced into a landscape that seems to be emerging with its own pattern, its own style. We look forward to see what the future holds for us, as we take these small steps, we wonder what the pattern in the fabric will look like…

(These reflections were stimulated by discussions with Yehuda Safran who introduced us to Semper and Sarover Zaidi, who shared Rebecca Houze’s essay, during the Handstorm workshop organized in Shivaji Nagar Govandi – March 14-20th 2014. Photos by Tobias Baitsch)