Thursday, 1 February 2001

Saffronart Art Cafe I Interview with Edgar Demello I 2001

Pushpamala n. interviews architect Edgar Demello

Architect Edgar Demello who recently opened the first architectural gallery in India, TAG&B or The Architecture Gallery and Bookshop at his old office on Cunningham Road in Bangalore, is interviewed by Pushpamala N.

Edgar Demello (born in 1947 in Abadan, Iran) studied architecture in the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi and Urban Design at Delft University in Holland. He worked for a few years in Europe and came back to Bangalore in 1978 to start his own architectural firm Edgar Demello Architects.

He opened TAG&B in June 2000 in Bangalore.

PN: Edgar, why did you feel the need to start an architecture gallery in Bangalore? In the early 80s some of you had a discussion group called BASE, and then Raj Shetty formed the Discussions in Architecture Forum- DIAF. Has this grown out of that?

ED: Actually, there are not many architecture galleries worldwide. There are architecture institutes. TAG&B is a place for discourse among architects, a mediator between academia and practice. I used to teach part time and found that there didn’t seem to be a platform for the exchange of ideas, which myself and other architects had experienced in Europe.

Also, architects are not very comfortable about putting their work to critical appraisal by their fellows. The important thing that BASE did, which preceded the gallery was to allow us to do this, and put our work in context in a very free for all environment which as you know could get very aggressive sometimes!

Then the idea of TAG&B came about, to give a formal structure and to try and understand the process of design and building and not just the product. In the gallery, one of the most important and popular events is when architects discuss the process of their work – the mechanics of it- sometimes on site. For the students this becomes very important. And we really encourage people not to put any cosmetics on it – to talk about the whole mess- the mishaps, the problems with clients etc.

These events happen on Tuesdays and Fridays. Students come from Bangalore, MIT in Manipal and Hassan when we have video showings, slide lectures and exhibitions.

PN: But the general public is either indifferent or hostile to architecture.

ED: You know Charles Correa said that Mahatma Gandhi is not called the doctor or engineer of the nation, you call him the ‘architect’ of the nation, but in spite of that architecture doesn’t seem to be taken seriously by the public!

There are two things we want to do here: one idea came out the NAI (The Netherlands Architectural Institute). They have something called the school atelier, where school children come to the institute to be exposed to things architectural for instance, what is taking measurements… They are taken around the site and given projects, and exposed to history and processes.

We’ve been talking about this in BASE for ten years. Dev Bildikar the architect now wants to work out a programme for school children.

The other point is that we have to really believe that architecture is an extremely important part of our social consciousness. People say architecture is elite, we can’t afford it – is it possible for a gallery to mediate in this- to have confrontations and to provoke and engage people?

PN: Do you think this is because Bangalore, or Karnataka, never had major architecture schools or a major movement, or influential architects like for example the role that BV Doshi played in Ahmedabad? We never had a modernist movement.

ED: Very often the right patronage helps start certain movements- I think this is where Ahmedabad scores. There the big industrialists were concerned and wanted to invite people of international importance like Louis Kahn and Corbusier. It’s actually about finding the right people. Kasturbhai and Lalbhai got in touch with BV Doshi who had already worked with Corbusier in Paris in the early 60s, to start the architecture school – he had been talking to them about the Modernist movements in Europe. He got people like Bernad Kohn and Louis Kahn to start thinking about establishing an architecture school of excellence in Ahmedabad. A little earlier Vikram Sarabhai had already brought down Charles and Ray Eames, designers, architects and inventors, to set up NID, the National Institute of Design.

Something similar never happened in Bangalore… And Ahmedabad soon started to tie up with important schools in Europe and America on exchange programmes. The Delhi School hasn’t done this in 55 years!

PN: What would you say about the concept of Critical Regionalism?

ED: Critical Regionalism is really a commonsensical approach to the environment. Kenneth Frampton, the guru of architectural criticism first formulated that phrase in a book of the same name in the early 1980s. He was saying that the International style does not exist because Modernism has to do with the region and how you look at it through your culture and your climate. And what Norman Foster, British architect said – and I completely agree with him – is that in the near future the only thing that will distinguish buildings from one part of the world to another is the geographical climate in which it is built. Everything else will be a common denominator including the culture. But cultural expression in building really comes from responding to the climate.

PN: Tell me something more about BASE.

ED: BASE- it’s not an acronym, it’s more like a foundation or basis – happened in the early 80s when seven or eight of us met by chance. We had all got back from various parts of the country and the world- Nikhil Arni, the Kanade brothers, Sharad Padalkar, Venkatraman, Mohan Bopiah, myself and Sanjay Mohe – it was during the building boom in Bangalore. We had all grown up in the International style and we were looking for connections in the region. So we travelled to the backwaters of Karnataka and Tamilnadu looking at local architectures. All this was put into slide discussions but it took a while for us to realize that it was not the physical foms nd constructional inventiveness that was important but the spirit and essence it contained. We were romantics, once we showed these slides with great arrogance to Henri Ciriani a French architect, who BV Doshi had sent own to Bangalore, to show him what great ’indigenous architecture’ we had. He almost ridiculed our rather na├»ve and literal reading of tradition. Tradition is everywhere he said, but what do we do with it as contemporary architects ?  One must look at the vernacular within an urbane and civil context
- civil as in people- as versus civic as in establishment. 

PN: But visually, Bangalore looks crazy- it’s as if every individual or builder wants to fulfil a different fantasy.

ED: Because Bangalore is not homogenous like Chennai culturally, that’s allowed for very diverse ideas and architectural design positions. But there is a new maturity in the way people are looking at the city. I think the phase of Windsor Manor type neo-colonial architecture is over, and the phase of glass-fronted buildings! There’s a great feeling of optimism amongst a new generation of architects in their late 20s and 30s, on the one hand quite angry, and on the other hand, quite impatient that architects are not really looking at the city with the kind of inventiveness it deserves. I want the gallery to be a facilitator in actively involving these guys in the way a city can redefine itself.

Pushpamala N

Bangalore, February 2001