Because architecture is art: Musee d’Orsay, at last!
A jaunt to the gorgeous Musee d’Orsay made my day today. The museum stays open till late on Thursday, so I wound up work early and walked down from Place St Michel where I’m staying along they Seine. The weather has been exceptionally kind and the walk was leisurely and easy.
The museum has been on my hot list for Paris not because of the excellent collections it hosts, including a choice selection of works from my favourite French Impressionists, but because of its architecture. And it is indeed a spectacular transformation of a Beaux-Arts station, which was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Even though this rather nasty review of the renovated buildings that appears in 1987 suggests that a breaking up of the volume inside the station was a misstep, I must say that the beauty, intricacy and monumentality of the vault hit me the moment I entered the space! The building combines both elements of the Beaux-Arts style, the structural metalwork as well as the ornamentility and this is still very visible in the current interiors. I do believe the ordering of the galleries has been redone in 2011 though and it is quite easy to figure out how the collections are arranged.
The icing on the cake, of course, was the special exhibit on the portraits of Cezanne, which I savoured with the aid of the audio commentary!
Ooh-ing and Ah-ing at the renovated Rijksmuseum
I’ve visited Amsterdam’s major landmarks iteratively and the Rijksmuseum has been a family favourite, home as it is to some of the most stunning works of famous Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. This time though, my trip was dedicated to discovering the results of the major rehaul the museum has been through, planned since 2000 and finally executed between 2004 and 2012!
This is a landmark building through which a zillion cyclists ride each day, that shows it’s severe face to the city and it’s fun side to the open grounds called the Museumplein. The beautifully detailed magnificent masterpiece was designed by Peter Cuypers over 125 years ago and has been a museum since. It was heartening to see that the renovation had aimed to restore it to its original Cuypers design and detail even as the atrium that links its two parts has got a modern twist and a slew of technological advancements to better preserve its precious artworks put in place.
Through my visit, my eyes were riveted by the elegant proportions, exquisite brick detail and stained glass lobby. Most fascinating was the library where Cuypers work has been best showcased. Hats off to Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz for their marvellously sensitive and meticulous work.
Of course, on a crowded Saturday, any attempt to see a museums artworks at leisure is a futile one. Still, I swung by the particularly well renovated Gallery of Honour and saw the crowd that was milling around Rembrandt’s famous ‘The Night Watchman’, then detoured to see my beloved Vermeers with a little more peace. Finally, I wandered through a few more galleries paying particular attention to the section on the East Indies, seeing Dutch colonialism in a new light post my Indonesia wanderings.
Stepping out into a drizzle and watching tourists enjoy themselves straddled across the giant ‘I am Amsterdam’ installation at Museumplein, I felt fortunate for this afternoon of alone time in the Rijksmuseum, the moments of contemplation and admiration, and most of all an appreciation for a culture that genuinely treasures its material history and celebrates it with no holds barred!
Saving the Aravallis: Documenting Gurgaon’s persistent environmental activism
Much has been said and written about the urbanism of Gurgaon. Amidst uproar and negativity over the general failure of governance, a core group of citizens has been persistently highlighting pressing issues relating to environmental conservation. More specifically, they have brought attention to the urgent need to conserve the sections of the Aravallis that runs through Haryana. To bring these concerns to the State government, citizens walked together a year ago (I blogged about it then), and we did so again today.
What did our movement achieve and what drives us now to continue efforts to engage with the government on issues that have been particularly hard to raise in India at large, but more particularly in a State where mining and real estate interests are politically powerful and directly pitted against us?
This time, last year: A specific call to action to save Mangar Bani
The trigger for the call to action, when we gathered at Kachra Chowk a year ago on 26th April 2015, was the imminent changes in land use regulation that would permit the declassification of forest land and open it to real estate development. A group of focused citizens, some of whom are ecologists, geologists and environmental experts, made convincing arguments that underscore the need to protect the Aravallis to ensure the survival of cities like Gurgaon and Faridabad. These arguments revolve around the basics, like protecting the main water recharge zone for the region, as well as more evolved arguments that call for a different imagination of the city as a place that embraces nature. As a powerful symbol of what nature was capable of, the group decided to focus on the protection of Mangar Bani, a sacred grove protected by local communities that lies between Gurgaon and Faridabad. I wrote last year about the movement, during which a successful online petition was floated and many citizens, children included, were involved at the time.
These concerted efforts resulted in the Haryana government announcing a protected status for Mangar Bani in early 2016. It is extremely positive that 677 acres of Mangar Bani Sacred Grove has been identified for protection, plus a buffer of between 60m to 500m will be taken up for restoration. This amounts to a buffer area of 1100-1200 acres, which will act as a major watershed for the region as well as restore the already rich biodiversity of the Aravallis. The progressive work on mapping and demarcating these areas has been encouraging, says Chetan Agarwal, who has been deeply involved in the research on Mangar Bani.
Pushing the envelope for long-term benefits
Today’s walk was intended to demand a follow through of the promises made. The final notification for the Mangar Bani Sacred Grove remains pending and the group is highlighting the urgency of this step. After notification, corresponding changes are required to be notified in records and plans, in order for the protection status to have adequate impact on future development plans for Gurgaon and Faridabad.
And Mangar is only the first step. Much more needs to be done to protect the fragile Aravallis that are facing sever environmental degradation. First, the group urges the State government to notify the Aravallis around Gurgaon as a city forest. The city’s only forested area, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, has been developed from a brownfield mining site. A collaborative effort of the citizens and municipal government, ABP has become a paradise for citizens to experience open space and nature. But there is considerable opportunity to do much more. By protecting the existing Aravalli areas and developing them as city forests, Gurgaon will join the illustrious list of global cities that recognize and celebrate the health benefits of sensitively integrating forest areas into urban development. The benefits of forests in improving air quality, and long-term benefits of living in proximity to nature are well documented and practised by cities across the world.
Second, the group requests the State government to identify sanctuaries and national parks in Haryana’s Aravallis. Mangar Bani, for example, should be made into a sanctuary. The Aravallis as a whole should be declared a deemed forest and made part of the Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ). There exist today subtle ways to keep large areas of the Aravallis out of the NCZ in a ‘to be determined’ category. This category must be deleted, so that the commitment to conservation is clear and strong. Areas of the Aravalli foothills that have been currently kept out the the NCZ are equally important and must be included. Further, the eco-sensitive zones for the Asola Bhatti sanctuary must stretch to include major lakes – Damdama, Badkhal, Dhauj, and also the mining pits which have exposed groundwater and the buffer for the Asola Bhatti sanctuary on the Haryana side increased. Finally, privatised land in the Aravallis must be restored to panchayat ownership.
These actions will give firm signals against future exploitation of these ecologically sensitive areas for real estate and infrastructure development. Furthermore, these steps appear critical for the survival of these cities, critical as they are to the recharge of groundwater in the region.
Globally, environmental gains for cities have almost entirely resulted from sustained and informed citizen activism. There is no glamour in this sort of activism. It is extremely hard work and I salute all those who are working hard behind the scenes to keep these issues burning and alive in Gurgaon. Walks like today’s gives citizens like me an opportunity to do our little bit. We must hope that every little bit counts.
Southwark through a local’s eye: A walk along the Thames in #London
I’ve anticipated this London trip for so long and yet have had little time to plan an itinerary. A work trip for the most part, I knew my touristic experiences would need to be squeezed in. I’ve opted to live with a friend, someone I’ve known since college and so, by default, I’ve been let into her little world. I let her lead me through her neighbourhood on my first day in what locals consider “the greatest and most beautiful capital city in the world”!
We started our stroll with a visit to her local square. Kids kicked a football around, a few stalls were selling trinkets and toys. The residential neighbourhoods we walked past were still and sleepy. A dog barked at us, a baby gurgles, the locals stood out in the sun in bunches, satiated with pints of beer and lazy lunches.
My friend lives in the London Borough of Southwark, south of the Thames and close to the London Bridge. And our walk took us river-ward. An area with Roman origins, the riverfront we walked onto is rich with wharfs and restored warehouses. On a surprisingly sunny yet balmy Saturday afternoon, the place had a zippy, young feel to it. Families out with their children, friends catching a drink at the pubs and restaurants that lined the Thames, that sort of thing.
The sun lit up the Thames and the famous landmarks that were spotted out to me dazzled and shone. The Tower Bridge, of course, the City Hall designed by Norman Foster and, as my friend put it, a miniature of the Bundestag Dome we saw in Berlin, and the HMS Belfast right there in the centre of the river. We walked across and around the Tower of London where, along with the swarms of tourists, the sea of ceramic poppies greeted us, a recently installed commemoration of the World War I in its centenary year.
A surprising detour through the upmarket St Katherine Docks where the Queen’s gilded boat rests and where I was amused to see The Dickens Inn, rebuilt in the style of a 17th century timber-framed building and apparently inaugurated by the famous writer’s grandson. That the author spent a part of his life in this part of London is well-known but it was had to reconcile the images of Dickensian London in my head with the extensively redeveloped swank sights before me!
And thus, after being introduced to this delightful part of London, I dragged my jet-lagged self back at last night, happily tired and looking forward to more good times here!
Of Form, Texture, Scale: Exploring Nekchand’s Rock Garden, Chandigarh
I last visited the Rock Garden in Chandigarh in December 1991 or thereabouts. I was born in the city and I was revisiting Chandigarh after my early years there for the very first time. I vaguely remember wandering around the sculptures and there are a few really nice pictures of Daddy, Mummy and me posing in front of the exhibits.
I was, therefore, quite excited to revisit the Rock Garden with my children and see how they react. Nekchand is a legend in the city and beyond. Even as the city was being planned and built by an over-enthusiastic newly-Independent nation along the lines suggested by the world famous architect Le Corbusier, Nekchand was piecing together works of art from bits and pieces he collected from the ruins of the villages that were relocated to create the city. Nekchand was of humble origins and a government servant. He worked secretly at night to create this garden and when it was discovered, illegally built on government land, it took a miracle and considerable civil society action to conserve this wonderland and create it into a public park. It is now a valuable resource for the city, attracting hundred of tourists every day.
Saturday 30th March, the day we visited, was no different and we joined the teeming crowds that ambled through its serpentine pathways, admired its fountains and streams, and were intrigued by the strange shapes and forms crafted from waste material. The park is now a model for environmental conservation, recycling all the water on its premises and even running the waterfalls from recycles water alone.
A new area has been added now and here, the scale changed dramatically. Everything is huge, larger than life. As an architect, I found the effect interesting in some parts but quite ineffective in others. Scale is not always a good thing! Another thing that irked me was the diesel-operated toy train in the park, going against its very philosophy of closeness with nature.
Udai and Aadyaa both enjoyed the Rock Garden, climbing all over the place, touching things. The water bodies attract many colourful insects and Udai was most fascinated with the red and blue dragonflies, and complained repeatedly about the fact that I was not carrying my zoom lens! Aadyaa loves climbing. This place was a dream come true for her and we had to keep stopping her from trying to scale the walls….All in all, a highly recommended outing for families. I only wish they had a better way of presenting the garden’s history and significance, a more interactive exhibit that could involve kids could drive home an important message about the importance of re-use and creativity.
Heritage under your nose: Observations from Nathupur Village, Gurgaon
My first few visits to Nathupur village were way back in 2004-05 when we drove there all the way often to eat at Italiano’s. At the time, I recognized that this urban village adjacent to posh DLF Phase 3 had the potential to be for Gurgaon what Hauz Khas village is for Delhi today, a place full of boutique shops and eateries, an exotic locale with an earthy feel. I did not know then what lay inside.
In a few years, DLF Cyber City mushroomed in the vicinity. Along with the millions of square feet of office space, came a demand for residences for low-income workers who did not have the options of commuting from afar and Nathupur (along with Sikanderpur and Chakkarpur) became the default absorbers of this burgeoning population of migrants coming in to tap this new opportunity for work.
My later visits to Nathupur were more related to this new economic reality. At one point, we tried to look for office space here for Minerva in a bid to be located closer to some of our clients. At another point, I had a frustrating encounter with a placement agency for domestic help located here. I then perceived Nathupur as a messy warren of human habitation, dense and disorganized.
Today, as I explored Nathupur in the company of team members from Agrasar, an NGO working to assist migrants in Gurgaon, these disparate perceptions came together in a climactic realization of Nathupur as a hapless victim of rapid urbanization and changing realities. In the part of the village where we conducted our community interactions today, I saw strewn many stately old havelis, rock solid and beautiful. I saw proud villagers inhabit old homes fashioned in a colonial style. I also saw the old homes half knocked down, making way for higher builder-style construction that would house migrant families, shops and businesses. Amid the buffalo-ridden lanes of this clearly old village, change was evident. The few who are clinging on to their old life of open space and rural habits (we saw women drying grain in the sun, men smoking hookahs and chatting) would be eventually outnumbered. But for now, these older homes in the context of rapid change seem like moments snatched out of a tornado of sweeping transformation.
I am wondering if it would be possible to preserve some of this older lifestyle and architecture. Some sort of adaptive re-use perhaps?
Enjoying the environs of Kashmiri Gate: Multiple experiences in one city- Sep 17, 2012
I am always up for a jaunt to Old Delhi. Today’s trip was made possible by an opportunity to interact with third year students of architecture in Guru Gobind Singh University that is located inside the Ambedkar University campus at Kashmiri Gate.
Perched atop a cycle ricksha from the Metro station to the campus, I took in this quaint part of the city with unabashed curiosity. St James Church, sections of the old city wall, run down but still beautiful buildings replete with rounded edges and the wrought iron details stared back.
Inside the campus, I saw structures that are quainter still. Including the building that houses the archaeology department and the Dara Shukoh library that had a colonial facade and Shahjahani cusped arches inside!
The interaction with the kids was invigorating and layered, and I was satisfied that I could provide some valuable inputs. The walk back to the station through back lanes revealed some decaying structures, the underbelly of the city and some interesting stray dogs! All in an afternoon’s work!
On the ride back, interestingly, I struck up a conversation with a European lady who had lived in this city for six years. We discussed whether Old Delhi would get gentrified soon, how the redevelopment process could be managed to conserve its unique character and how lucrative property values could simply ruin its fabric once the old structures started falling down! Urban redevelopment is what the kids I had just spoken to were also addressing in their studio project. How complex and unresolvable the problems appear and yet, there is a need to take a stand, have a vision for different parts of the city. The sheer enjoyment of the experience of the trip to Kashmiri Gate today and the sharp contrast from the urban fabric of Gurgaon underlines the need for us to conserve older and historic parts of the city. So we can experience the past in the present and take pride in our ability to enjoy multiple slices of time in our city.
Sights, sounds, smells! The bazaars in Istanbul- June 4, 2012
Istanbul has been an important trading hub for centuries and its bazaars are an important aspect of its ecosystem. We walked through a wholesale market not unlike Delhi’s Chandni Chowk to get to the Spice Bazaar, or as the locals call it Misir Charsisi, referring to the historical trade with Egypt in spices. Akin to Khari Bowli, which is located at one end of Chandni Chowk, the Spice Bazaar sells an amazing assortment of condiments. We got educated about several varieties of saffron and the shopkeeper actually dissolved a few grains of the fiest Iranian saffron in water to show us how magically the colour seeps out compared to Turkish and Spanish saffron, which are considered inferior. Indian Saffron, to my amusement, was not saffron at all in this market, but a name used to refer to haldi, or turmeric!
The Spice Bazaar, the Grand Bazaar as well as some other smaller little markets on the way are indoor bazaars that pulsate with activity inside beautiful living Ottoman structures, replete with details in paint and tilework, period light fixtures and much more. Well ventilated, the bazaars do not feel claustrophobic and an entire industry of cafes, food stalls and nargili (hooka) places thrive inside.
We ended up buying some ceramic work and were lucky to find English speaking locals who helped us find a good price and refer the right shops. Carpet and kilim traders were out to get us (in a gracious nice way, none of the pushing and shoving type of touting here!), but we escaped them after a short session of looking at some gorgeous old used Armenian and tribal kilims that had been brought in from the villages for restoration! Did not seem polite to photograph those, but they were similar to the durries we get in India, but with richer colors.
Advice to visitors here. Haggling is fine! We saw some kids for India doing it desi style and it worked pretty well!Find out prices from at least 3-4 shops if you want to buy ceramics, carpets or anything substantial price wise.
Water sagas: Stories of community action and despair about our most precious resource- May 24, 2012
A few days after I read about CII’s initiative to initiate blue ratings in India, probably the first in the world to monitor industrial water usage in a holistic manner, an encouraging story about the revival of a river caught my eye.
Today’s The Hindu supplement carried a great story about the revival of the Hindan river that originates in Saharanpur and joins the Yamuna, crossing Ghaziabad and other parts of the NCR. The Jal Biradari is a community organization comprising environmental activists and citizens from all walks of life that has consistently campaigned to create awareness among villagers about issues like falling water tables, pollution and exploitation of water resources. They do this through padayatra, or simply by walking through villages and interacting with people.
In contrast, the urb.im blog outlines Mumbai’s struggle to put into action measures to clean and manage the Mithi river, a massive gutter that flows through Mumbai. Images of the July 2005 floods in Mumbai are still fresh in people’s minds. Public clamor for a clean up that could create much-needed green spaces for the city grows, but migrants keep pouring in and the poor who live alongside the sad trickle of water are increasingly threatened, by lack of action and potential action alike!
Rampant discharge of industrial effluent into rivers is the primary cause of the sad states of rivers like these across the nation. Coupled with increasing urbanization and the consequent pressure on land (often translated into greed for land), rivers are threatened; and so are we who depend on water for our existence. The ill effects of polluted rivers need no elaboration- among other things, toxic vegetable and fruits threaten to damage our future generations irreversibly!
Interestingly, one only needs to stop discharging the effluent for a river to do its own thing and clean itself up. More importantly, green areas that allow groundwater recharge are critical to our survival. Governments, while they blame private developers for the evil deeds and wish to regulate them, are known to be responsible for the ‘unkindest cut of all’. The proposal to develop the Mangar village area into an amusement park is one such hare brained scheme in the news recently.To amuse the people who won’t be around when the water taps run dry?