Interview With Romi Khosla(Architect) by Ahmad Zohadi (03/11/2015)

Theme: 2A Asia Architectural Award
Autumn 2015

The interview has been published in 2A Magazine issue #33-#34

Ahmad Zohadi: How can architects, Planners and landscape designers intervene to alleviate the human afflictions in the realm of the built environment?

Romi Khosla: The question is whether architects and planners have special or heightened responsibilities for the alleviation of the human condition in comparison to other practitioners. This is a difficult question to answer in a simple way but I shall try and do this as well as I can. The end of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries has caused more human suffering than ever before. That same period also experienced the most rapid urbanization that the planet has seen. It would be easy therefore to conclude that there is a correlation between the expansion in the areas covered by the built environment and the rise in the levels of human suffering. However, if we recall that same period in history, we would see that in that period, capitalism and colonialism also expanded rapidly and both have been the cause of immense human suffering by its victims while giving immense joy to the victors. As an Asian however, I cannot blame history or the built environment for being the cause of the suffering of so many people. Human suffering, I believe, is caused by the conditions that prevail in one’s mind. If a people are full of desires and anger, or greed and ignorance, then the actions of those people will naturally seek situations, which will allow them to vent those feelings. Such a people will conquer and enslave others and generally cause immense misery amongst innocent people whom the keep trying to defeat. Architects and planners do have one special responsibility and that is to ensure that no action of theirs increases this misery amongst people – on the contrary, they have a special responsibility to use their creative endeavors to reduce human suffering. Whether it is in the realm of landscape or the built environment, I believe that the architect must create an environment that lifts the spirits of the users and brings them immense joys.

Ahmad: Please follow this idea:
Between the countries from different civilizations in the Asia continent, there has been a constant history of trade, migration and sharing of cultural practices, which has extended strongly, even in the field of architecture.
I realized these countries has a deep and true connection with moral principal, which has affected all aspects of its society (Culture, Architecture, Art and their identity in general), their root and identity has influenced their architecture.
I also understood that their traditional architecture has been naturally developed in a sustainable manner, I believe that the underlying cultural, historical and spiritual values has led to creation of this form of natural sustainability.
" It is the differing uses of history, to create varied sets of architectural languages whiten our contemporary framework that is of interest. This is especially true in the context of globalization, which has a powerful tendency to homogenize.”
Hence, I would like to ask you as a member of the jury of Asia Architecture Award, do you consider this thought when you judge the projects?

Romi: Judging architecture is a matter of opinion. There are no absolutes for good or bad architecture. The idea of constituting a jury therefore is an attempt to find a common ground amongst a group of judges in which most opinions coincide and in this way one can be a little surer that one has selected the best. What constitutes value in architecture however keeps changing and in the West there are critics who have made it their business to guide others in the good taste and authenticity of architecture. For a hundred years we have been guided to judge architecture as being good through the ideas of the modern movement and its small band of heroes. It seems to me that such a process of architectural judgment is now out of date. The coming century may restore some of the deeper values of human life and belief that could influence architecture. The Asian region has, for centuries, believed in the interdependence of human life and natural life. I believe that the Caucasians have coined a new word for it called “anthropocene” which is simply a reflection of the age old Asian consciousness that has believed in the integration of architecture, the natural environment and the human technology as part of the larger universe that also has within it the counter forces of pride, anger and endless desires.
Having moral principles and designing the built environment are an integral part of any architect’s priorities. The sustainability of a building is not different in any way from the sustainability of human life.Just as there are moral principles that can guide ones living processes so there are moral principles that guide architecture. They are all integrated into a singular whole and architecture is very much part of our overall desires to be happy and to search for that happiness. Architecture is a representation, deeper down in us, of a search for happiness.
To make a distinction between traditional and modern architecture as being inferior and superior can sometimes be misleading. One can talk about contemporary architecture and the architecture of the past because to day, both words “traditional” and “ modern” are not value neutral. Each of them seems judgmental. There is an implication, that whatever is defined as “traditional” has the values of being conservative, unwilling to change, backward, enslaved and all the other values that oppose the “modern”. In our times, “modern” always has positive values of being progressive and forward thinking and given to material joys. For this reason I personally prefer the word “contemporary” and “from the past” since both are virtually neutral.
The word “modern” as it has come down to us in architecture, assumes the values of uniformity, internationalist, of European inspirations, and therefore also homogenized. Similarly, Modern food has homogenized values attached to it of being fast and uniform. Branded hamburger food is made out to be different to stir fry street food. The reason is that the branded hamburger is a product of a chain of outlets that promise standardized international standards spread universally across uneven multicultural regions. Curtain wall buildings of the International Style share similar values that are attached to branded hamburgers and fries of being standardized and uniformly hygienic and produced by large factory owning vendors who guarantee quality and standard specifications. This is a question that all architects ask themselves – how many of their building components should be international standard vendor products and how much of the building should have a “stir fry’ local flavor.

Ahmad: In order to understand the contemporary architectural and urban landscapes of Asia, in your opinion, what are the emergent manifestations of Asia in contemporary Architecture and Urbanism?

Romi: Asia is just re-awakening after a long period of care and protection by its colonizers. It is beginning to discover itself in the contemporary world. Its highly educated elite is now for the first time in history spread throughout the world as a diaspora that is looking at their own countries and regions as a domestic source of inspiration and thoughts.
Whether it is the Palestinian Edward Said or the Chinese artist Ai Wei wee - each of them are asking questions about their Asian Identity. In their search for an alternative truth, each of them is making a distinction between how others see us and how we see ourselves as Asians. So the whole of Asian identity is an emergent manifestation. Now within this manifestation there is a corner occupied by architecture and urbanism and it is here that we may search for emergent values that will redefine Asian contemporariness.
While there is immense diversity amongst Asian communities, there is also a shared way of seeing which is rooted in this large body of intellectual texts, which is a common Asian heritage. The potentials for discovering an emergent Asian architecture exist not only in this common heritage that is contemporary and historical but also in the counterpoints to the Judeo-Christian heritage. Such counterpoints would primarily point to that which defines the self-standing identity of modernism – its disconnection from the past, its purity and its militant secular project for the world. The values of contemporary Asian architecture may not make those Euro-centric distinctions between the modern and ancient. Instead, the values of a contemporary Asian architecture emphasize qualities of architecture that are contemporary - less volatile than the ever changing profile of The Modern. Contemporary Asian architecture stretches its references across un-modern sources in the past and the present. Amidst our lives and our architecture in Asia, there is firstly a persistence of pre-modernism. Secondly, there is Hybridity in our thoughts actions, ambitions, clothes, food and naturally also in our architecture. Hybridity can be viewed “as something more, something new but at the same time drawing on the old and recognizable.’ Another third important aspect of Asian ways of seeing its built form is the notion of the sacred. Asian values of Contemporary architecture continue to recognize the importance of the sacred as a part of the process of architecture and this is evident in all the cultural praxis in Asia that go beyond architecture.

Ahmad: How important is context in Contemporary Architectural Design? As a professional, researcher and educator working in Asia, what are factors, criteria or even constrains that have influential impact on your profession?

Romi: Architecture, wherever it appears, refers to some context. You can either ignore the existing context or give the tabula rasa justification for ignoring the existing context or you can give some contextual justification and explain the built form in terms of its compliances with the existing context. By and large, modernism is more comfortable with the tabula rasa justification because as a movement, modernism always carries the flag of the future as the context when it charges into the contemporary world regardless of the existing context. The Beijing Olympic buildings are a good example of such a charge into Asia. However, if the realm of what is considered “context” enlarges to embrace much wider concerns such as the role of creative craftsmen, environment, user needs, extreme economy, sustainability, economic multiplier impact etc., then the conventional understanding of context being limited to the existing or future slate seems too narrow. Our work generally refers to this wider realm of context. So as we design a building for a particular site, we engage in debates and juries to clarify the issue of context. We have found, as a result of these discussions, that “context” has multiple reference points. Sometimes, let us say we are restoring or building in a built environment that is overwhelmingly of the past, and then it does not mean that we will simply comply with that. On the contrary, we may argue that the community needs to interact with contemporary forms and functions because there is hope for change in such an articulation of built form. Our Polyclinic for the Destitute is one such project. At other times, we may be building in a context that is of the past but never the less needs support. In that case we would adopt the prevalent practice of building of the contextual area but we would introduce innovations and technologies, which could help, preserve existing skills and yet develop them. Our use of stabilized mud brick for large buildings in rural areas is an example of such an intervention in an existing context. For our corporate building for the Volvo Head quarters we invited creative craftsmen to work on steel and we were able to hand craft a contemporary building that is rated by LEEDS as a Platinum building because it is green and makes the minimum footprint on its surrounding area which is acutely short of water and power and one of the contextual reference for us was this shortage which made us design a highly self regulated sustainable building.