In a land of vaguely familiar co-ordinates, the city is bustling with activity. People here are jostling about, moving not with the speed of light but at least as fast as they can. This is a city belong to no one, and its inhabitants accept the terms of living that the city governs .The busy people use the ground below their feet only as a means to an end. Honestly that is the only way we know how to use it.
I was one of this sea of people where commuting to or from work was the only adventure in my life. It seemed unnecessary for me to question the reasons behind or the reasons for all the things that I accepted as a way of my life. Today, perhaps it was different adventure altogether. I was travelling in the bus, going back home in a rush hour as terrible as you can imagine. The perks of travelling in such a crowded bus usually are, that one has to ration their breath here because there is only a small percentage oxygen you could extract per breath without getting killed by the overwhelming odour of an all-day work shirt (to which I was a significant contributor too) .Sometimes there are a mix of other potentially dangerous orders too including the almost decaying jasmine flowers like the lady across me, who was carrying this terrible fragrance around. Typically, on days like these, I would try and stand near the door to get a glimpse of the facades and rear of buildings that fight for space like me and breathe in some rather freshly polluted air.
While I stood there jammed in between the crowd, rationing my intake of oxygen and trying to push an IT techie beside me for catching a seat, I had an epiphany. I guess life has its handpicked moments like these, where you are struck by lightning of a philosophical revelation about the reason for your existence while you are trying to create a territory to sit. Sometimes I wish I could say I was unique. To say that such epiphanies do not happen a million other people like me .people who take part in the same circus of a rigorously mundane life, but to my great delight I am just like the million others out there.
I do not complain about being one among millions .On the contrary I believe that there is a certain novelty in being sheltered by a crowd .As lost as you might feel amidst them, it’s the numbers that matter in this world and you would do anything to make your presence felt in this numbers, with or without the epiphany.
If I haven’t mentioned it before, I am called Alice Murgesan. For the people who live in a world where the definition of a human is concluded by the profession, I am an architect. Usually when I announce my profession to people, they have a vague expression on their face at first. Then either they directly assume that I have built a great building all by myself or I am the future of all the great buildings that are going to mark their everlasting presence on this earth .Thus I usually have to take a huge breath before I begin my rant on how I haven’t reached that stage of being an architect yet .Then I go on to explain that I am only a part of a large hierarchical organisation that builds building in a designer style , tailoring an entire make believe world around the clients whims and fancies.
So while I was travelling home to an apartment which faces railway tracks (which wasn’t built by me), I realised that there comes a point in everybody’s life where you would question your choice of profession. It would have been simple to question just your profession but in the world that I am a small part of, profession equates to the person. Psychologists define such situations as midlife crisis where it is a term coined in 1965 by Elliott Jaques stating a time where adults come to realize their own mortality and how much time is left in their life.
Well, even though I wasn’t in the middle of my life yet, in between fighting for oxygen and a seat, I did happen to question my entire existence, and particularly my choice of profession .Now most of my colleagues would disagree saying that architecture is a profession they could not imagine their life without. Well, until that moment I would have gladly agreed with them. So what changed my outlook towards my beloved profession, other than comparative notes I mentally took looking at the techie beside me who was bargaining her holiday package like it were potatoes selling in the market, while even after five years in the architectural firm I still have to beg to take the weekend off .
In the world that I live in there are two parameters one is reality and then there is theory. Now as a student of architecture I wasn’t one of the most gifted exceptional students of the architectural fraternity, but for what I lacked in gifted talent, I compensated with hard work and ambition. I lived in a world where this combination was sufficient to survive. I also lived in a theoretical world of books and publications, where you grow up with a delusion that architecture as a profession is altruistic in nature. I dreamt about fitting my design processes into a society that had a void of needs. But the reality was right outside my window. The buildings that stand here are definitely no designs that have been insightfully looked into .they are obviously a product of a need, but whose need was the question. Thankfully such thoughts of questioning the repercussions of your profession, in my world, are soon swept away by the self-centred need and the voids of one’s own needs.
The shift from the parameters of theory to reality is very subtle; it’s not like a stark difference of Zaha Hadid’s flying buildings with that of Philip Johnson’s clear lines of a building .It’s not even like the difference in reading a romance novel and then shifting gears to a murder mystery. Reality is a hum drum that buzzes around you while your life just becomes a bit more indeterminate by the nightfall.
My epiphany revolved around an idea. An idea, which perhaps would question my own profession. For being a true architect I had to unlearn the reality of architecture that was posed. For this I had to understand the true systems on which architecture relied. There is no method to madness, and this was my moment of madness.
There were many ways to execute this mad idea of mine. And I did not even realise when my awful journey ended in the bus or when I walked home in an auto pilot mode. For once the only thing I knew for sure were these new ideas I was toying with .After working for years in an architectural firm, I knew politics played a large part. To what extent and how I didn’t know and I actually did not even care to find out until now. I even did not understand the politics itself and hence it was important for me to look into it. With these thoughts in my mind, I pulled a blanket over my head to be voluntarily slipped into a dreamless world.
New York or Nadiad?
The old homeless man sits in the curb smoking the butts of thrown away cigarettes. The street is deserted tonight, with nothing but a few solitary cars cruising by. While he smokes a recycled cigarette like a villain in a movie scene, he watches himself in the mirror on the curb. The smoke coils and dances around him, making a show out of it in the darkness of the night. He has a neat little briefcase tucked away in the corner, although his clothes are in tatters. As I stand in the opposite corner of the same road warding of the early chill of the winter by smoking a cigarette myself, although not a recycled one. I wonder what he hides in that prim 60’s briefcase. For these last few days of a major deadline, I have been up late in my prim studio submitting drawings for yet another soaring structure. I usually run out of work post-midnight to sneak in a cigarette when coffee is never enough. The homeless man gives me a strange company in silence, on those days when fellow architects just can’t.
I venture out today and wave to him, while crushing the cigarette I just finished .I don’t expect him to acknowledge my presence, but surprisingly he does. He ambles over to me with his strange briefcase along. I am a little paranoid now wondering what sort of situation I got myself into but also extremely curious. So I just wait there, in half a stance, ready to bolt if he turns out to be crazier than I. He cautiously crosses the road, comes up to me and in a breathy voice, which echoes in the empty street, asks me “do you have another cigarette on you?” I search my pockets for the pack and hold out one to him, while lighting another one myself, for having nothing better to with my hands.
We smoke in a companionable silence for a while, somewhere a police car siren wails bringing us back into the present. He is almost finishing his cigarette now, out of nowhere in the same raspy voice he mumbles “Transfer, transformation and metamorphosis”. I stare at him in the dim flickering street light, wondering if he would finish connecting the disjointed words.
He slowly rubs his hand on his dirty pants and then points out to the buildings in front of me and continues “it is not about how you look at them, it’s about how you see them. I wander in front of these blown up mirrors everyday looking at myself in different tinted facades. They make me conscious of who I am and what am I doing in this world. But do these buildings know why they are here?” Now I am staring at him with my mouth a little wide open, for I wasn’t expecting a conversation from him. “It might be something to do with the growing need for a building.” I say. He smiles, showing his crooked teeth even more yellow in the flickering halogen light. “It’s all a huge fiasco; no one needs a building that resembles the building right next to it. People using that space would never care. But the people who build it, now they work on different mechanics all together.” I look at him intently wondering if I should tell him that I am one of those people who help in the making of such buildings, but I refrain and let him continue “If I were to build, I would build it only for the money; there would be no rhyme or reason to what I build. I would make sure I had my name plastered on every wall. Maybe that is exactly what these buildings are about. It is pure business and it is also an easy way for generating fast money.” I nod my head, as if I am once again sitting in a lecture, letting people tell me what is architecture all about.
“Some days I am just glad, I do not live in these structures. I wouldn’t be ever able to breathe in them. I often wonder why would people want inhabit a building that has glass for walls and then complain about the lack of privacy. Don’t they realize that the more they encourage such consumerism of curtain walls, the more they will be caught up in their own cycle of web?” he asks me looking at me square in the face as if expecting an answer. At this point I am so shell shocked by this homeless man , his appearance and the choice of conversation , that I gulp down air , like a fish out of breath , opening and closing my mouth in rapid successions.
“I guess architecture of a building is just not about spaces of living, it has to be more than that. Sometimes I think I am just a willing pawn in a huge game, and I do not even have an idea of what role I am playing in this huge game.” I say, surprising myself with the answer too. “Of course you don’t, nobody does. If you unearth the actual truth behind each one of your actions, you would probably be searching for a place to live too, just like me” he replied in all sincerity. I smile back and let him continue “there is politics of the world, and then there is politics of the mind. These buildings for me are about the best of the both worlds, they are the needs of the mind reflected in the needs of a common world.”
He crushed his cigarette under his foot, his shoes disconcertingly shiny except for the two gaping holes in each of his shoe for the toes to fit in. “does the place you live hold any importance to you? What does the city do to you? It does nothing to me. Do you where you are living? “I had an answer for the last question, but before I replied he said “think about it, when it’s a transfer of needs, aspirations and ideal, isn’t it a direct transfer of buildings too? There is no change, no transformation, no relgionalization.What does it mean to you if you are living in New York or Nadiad?”
Delivering his last punch line, he walked away, leaving me looking at his badly clothed back and that classic briefcase. I knew nothing about him, or he of I, but I just once again questioned to as to where be I. New York or Nadiad?
The night around me blurred in its darkness. My bearings for my existence in a place uncertain.