The Buksh Museum of Hobby-Craft

Introduction

This article describes the last of three architecture projects carried out over two years’ PhD research in the Indian city of Agra, completed in 2014. The projects aimed to expose ways that residents in the city’s historical Tajganj neighbourhoods had, over four centuries, constructed an urban topography that was meaningful to them. The final project the Buksh Museum of Hobby-Craft explored ways in which re-establishing a civic role for one building could enable those involved to reimagine the potential of this neglected urban district. This was done through assembling temporary additions to a ruined building.

The project was carried out with a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) and ran parallel to an urban regeneration scheme for Tajganj with which this NGO was involved. Several groups with different urban specialisms were involved in this scheme and were committed to fielding their own set of objectives within it: often these goals conflicted. The research project, isolated from these objectives, allowed participants to engage with the conflicting value sets in play, and explore ways of mediating between them without compromising any groups’ role in the regeneration scheme itself.

Project context

Agra is now known as the home of the Taj Mahal. However, in the 16th century it was the capital of the Mughal Empire, and was then an important trading city under British rule, (Peck, 2011, p.31). After Indian Independence, Agra’s population exploded. According to the census, in 2011 the population was 1.8 times that in 2001. Even by 2006, over half the city’s population lived in ‘slums’, (a formal settlement category recognised by the Indian government), according to the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence, (CURE, 2013, p.1).

At the time of research, ‘slums’ in Tajganj contained over 18,000 people. Despite being as old as the Taj itself, and full of historic architecture, Tajganj was generally considered to negatively impact the city’s biggest source of income: tourism, (Edensor, 2008, pp.204-205). It was therefore one of the first places to be selected by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, (MoHUPA), for a pilot ‘slum upgrading’ regeneration scheme in 2013. Arguably conflicting objectives were set for the organisations involved: to deliver new infrastructure and housing whilst protecting the area’s ‘cultural heritage’, (CURE, 2013, p.2).

The Taj Mahal viewed from Tajganj

Figure 1 The Taj Mahal viewed from Tajganj

Intentions

In 2014 the process of protecting registered architectural ‘heritage’ in India, carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), did not include consultation with local residents, architects, planners or builders: groups involved in MoHUPA’s scheme with contrasting urban principles. Understanding the architectural discipline as one that can work between primordial experience and specialist knowledge, and can therefore bring different specialists into a dialectic with spatial experience at the centre, it was felt that residents might be able to use architectural methods to imagine a setting rich enough to accommodate these seemingly incompatible values.

Methodology

The research was guided by an architecture PhD programme valuing practical wisdom, or phronesis, often translated as ‘prudence’ from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, (Aristotle, 2014, p.103-106), refining design judgments through situated involvement, rather than following a design ‘recipe’ and observing the results. The project used craft, or making as understood by Tim Ingold, (2000, pp.172-188), where creating something explores material and socio-political resistances brought about by the act of making itself. Participants learnt from the resistances that presented themselves, and negotiated ways forward.

It was made clear to every involved party that the project was located outside of MoHUPA’s regeneration scheme, which aimed to meet quantifiable goals within time limits. In order for participants to build confidence through trial and iteration, this project required acceptance of outcomes that would be considered failures if measured against MoHUPA’s aims.

The Buksh Museum of Hobby-craft started out as an exercise exploring the relationship between one house and the surrounding community. Surveying exercises and storytelling events were used to build a discussion with residents about Tajganj’s unique architecture.

Storytelling event at the Buksh house

Figure 2 Storytelling event at the Buksh house

Residents reconstructed moments in the building’s history by arranging traditional furniture and materials inside the building. Sometimes these things had to be newly created, but due to a high number of local craftspeople, the techniques were easily developed through workshops. This ‘bringing together’ of pieces quickly turned into a resident-curated ‘show and tell’, which attracted a growing audience. At that point, participants decided to formally recognise their events as a museum of hobby-craft, and modify the house to create a culturally appropriate civic setting.

Before and after participants reinvented the ruined house

Figure 3 Before and after participants reinvented the ruined house

Learning from resistance

Observing the number of ruins in Tajganj, it was initially anticipated that suitable construction skills might be lacking. This was found not to be the case: plans for conservation skills workshops were replaced with creative discussion. The real causes of ruination were exposed during the project. Firstly, coping with low incomes in a dense area, residents were turning every spare land pocket into housing and workspace, and sensitive repairs needed unavailable time and money. It was hard to find a project site for this reason: all the empty plots were already being used.

Secondly, it became apparent that dealing with ‘heritage’ planning legislation was troublesome. The Buksh building, located next to a mosque protected by the ASI, required a planning application for carrying out the minimum objectives of the regeneration scheme: repairs, a toilet and sewer connection. The repairs alone took over a year to be approved.

However, in this disconnect, or gap between ‘regeneration’ and ‘heritage’ protection, an opportunity grew. The Buksh family filed an application to repair their house. This held the site as it was: a roofless shell, during the lengthy application process. This provided a project site because people were not interested in developing or renting the space.

By the end of the project, participants had redefined their definitions of ‘heritage’, and where it was to be found, as unexpected qualities of the Buksh building contributed to its success as a museum. For example, the variety of semi-enclosed rooms on split levels, (characteristic of a courtyard house from this period), enabled different groups to participate with the amount of privacy that they required: the building possessed a historically conditioned sensitivity to existing difference. Architectural experimentation had exposed participants to a way of turning blight into a civic opportunity, and creating a dialogue with the city’s tourism agencies and newspapers. This produced a site where new interpretations of ‘heritage’ value could be used to reimagine the area’s future, if only temporarily.

A discussion regarding use of materials

Figure 4 A discussion regarding use of materials

Implications for architectural pedagogy

In both professional architecture practice and theoretical design education, untangling and exploring the conflict between the values of participating urban disciplines is not always possible, involving guesswork from inside the studio or extra time, money and risk in practice. Research through live projects gives the architectural discipline space outside of these pressured environments to open up some of these issues, and see potential in them.

The project found gaps to exploit between the rigid legislation of ‘heritage’ planning and the relentless constraints of living in crowded, poorly maintained conditions. It could be said that similarly, this particular approach to the live project exploits the gap between studio-based architectural education and professional practice, getting past the constraints of self promotion and risk reduction to create the open-ended and failure-friendly conditions necessary for collaborative learning.

References

Aristotle, (2014). Nicomachean Ethics VI. United States of America: Hackett.

CURE, (2013). Taj Ganj Slum Housing Upgrading Project Phase II: DPR for funding under RAY. New Delhi: Cities Alliance.

Edensor, T. (2008). Tourists at the Taj: Performance and Meaning at a Symbolic Site. London: Routledge.

Ingold, T. (2000). The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.

Peck, L. (2011). Agra: The Architectural Heritage. New Delhi: Roli Books Private Limited.

Rachel O'Grady

Rachel is a PhD Candidate within the Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources Department at the Cass School of Architecture, London Metropolitan University. She is an MArch Unit Tutor, Stage 1 Tutor and Research Assistant at SPACE, Queen’s University Belfast. Rachel’s research has taken the form of a series of live collaborative projects that examine civic possibilities in the existing urban order. Rachel studied architecture at the University of Cambridge and the Cass, and then worked in architectural practice before starting her PhD research. SPACE, David Keir Building, Queen’s University Belfast, BT9 5AG Tel 07799357110 r.ogrady@qub.ac.uk

Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Double Blind Review
This paper has been subject to a double blind peer review by at least two reviewers. For more information about our double blind review process please visit: http://bejlt.brookes.ac.uk/about/double-blind-review/

How to cite this paper.
Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Short Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Subscribe to BeJLT

Get email alerts when there is a new issue.
* = required field

Send this page to Kindle

your kindle user name:
(you@kindle.com, without @kindle.com)
Approved E-mail:
(Approved E-mail that kindle will accept)
Kindle base email kindle.com | free.kindle.com
(Use kindle.com to download on wispernet or wifi, use free.kindle.com for wifi only.)
using kindle.com may incur charges)