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Indu Varanasi: Design must be 'sensitive' but respond to the attack on cultural identity

Indu Varanasi: Design must be 'sensitive' but respond to the attack on cultural identity

Design director at IRD Design writes a long-form opinion piece for Commercial Interior Design

Smart cities, Future of design

Over a weekend, I happened to see a photography exhibition at a museum. The period was from the early 1800s to early 1900s. Besides the technological advancement and photographs being a prerogative of the rich, something struck me profoundly about the different attire, culture, architecture, and landscape of the people and places.

Somewhere along the next 100 years of colonisation and globalisation, this variety of life seems to have been lost, ignored or decimated.

Throughout history, people, cultures and architecture has advanced, inhabitants adapted aspects and towards a common future, a common goal.

In the past, countries were defined by the extent of geographical mass under one ruler or natural barriers which created the distinction. The definition of countries or kingdoms, sultanates and empires has continuously changed.

After that, most regions of the world were colonised.

The colonial powers, by their very nature, created an atmosphere of subjugation and aspirational value.

During the World Wars, countries and their colonies that joined the war underwent great technological and scientific innovation. The world suddenly became a smaller place. Everywhere, there were people’s movements with common aspirations.

Advances like radio and television suddenly bought other unknown worlds into the known, perhaps along with an aspirational notion.

In the years after the World Wars, a new world order has emerged as a sociopolitical construct defined by economic organisation and political affiliations.

The biggest factor aiding the new world order is the internet. Reducing distances, blurring boundaries, creating hopes – the new world has no barriers.

Mass production of goods and availability of everything everywhere is leading to a new age of ‘sameness’.

Do we have a common future? Do we all want to coexist together? Do all living things survive in the same ‘conditions’?

The answer is uncertain.

At a broader level, yes; we all do live on the same planet and so have a common future.  Do we want to live together? Yes, because the world is a smaller place and we need to have peace.

But does everything need to follow the same rules, same standards of approval, same conditions? No.

Variety is the spice of life, nature is differing from place to place, different clothes, different food, and different lifestyles all contribute to variety.

Design itself feeds off our ability to adapt, adopt and infuse this variety in lifestyles, living, clothing and our way of life.

Design needs to be sensitive to the local climate instead of shaping other design models without discretion.

Architecture needs to learn that people across the world are inherently different, their needs are different, as well as the conditions they thrive in.

‘Conditions’ are geographical, cultural and emotional in nature.

Design is a socioeconomic discipline which should simplify problems towards better a living. If design — which I define here as encompassing all disciplines of architecture, structure, interiors, products, services and lighting — is a problem solver, then thinking a little more deeply about our collective future is the need of the hour.           

Why does Shanghai look like New York and vice versa?

New York is a different city, with different geography, weather conditions, demographics and economy; but why does Shanghai want to look like New York.

This standard aspirational value is notional because New York created problems like congestion, traffic, noise, ghettos, crime, homelessness. And now Shanghai is also creating them. As a result, alien solutions are provided instead of solving the problems.

Do all people want to look and feel alike? No.

We are not clones or robots that are manufactured, humans are products of their genetics, their experiences and their resourcefulness.

Each part of Earth is blessed with different landscapes, flora and fauna. Not to mention different humanbeings, in shape, size, looks, mannerism and collective cultural experience.

Our buildings and spaces need to emulate this variety

When we are used to standardisation and common language being applied universally, we get spaces that look the same all over the world. We lose out on gaining and developing knowledge, which is contextual and needs adaptation.

The level of light required in one part of the world may be very different from another part. Bright atmospheres call for brighter light because the contrast between surfaces is our perception of light.

Why do all the hotels in the region look ‘beige’? I have been told several times that it represents the sand and the dunes. My response is this: ‘have you ever looked at the sands of the region?’ In actuality, there are several colors, with the Liwa sands being pink. How? Sand changes its colour with the light that falls on it. So how can we emulate this dynamic feature in our design?

Our cultural identity and the way of life in our cities is under attack; we have become so mono-cultural with the same coffee shop and restaurant chains that we forget the smells of regional food in the by lanes and identify what keeps the city on its toes.

Believe it is or not, the coffee chains will disappear when you do. It is the people who bring their cultural ethos and being into every cup of coffee that is served are the ones who need to survive to give our cities soul.

Designers are now at a threshold of articulation. We have new technology that will change the way we build with a previous cultural identity that makes us who we are.

New technology allows us to create 3D printed homes, just imagine our walls being built with cavities to provide insulation just like the previous generation built thick walls. Perhaps glass that cleans itself or buildings that heat up or cool down as a whole. Have you ever thought of every drop of water being re-used or that we can harness natural light to light up our nights.

It is an interesting phenomenon to take design to the next stage from merely emulating another alien form of building (product) to being contextual and creating new identities.

Emulating cultural identities with technology will help us mix ancient wisdom in the modern context to create an evolutionary cycle of the humanbeing and the built environment.

I urge my fellow creatives to be sensitive to the context into which they are building from the geographical and social-cultural contexts.

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