How might architecture as urban design develop and embody an appropriate “ecological thought” for the wetlands of Calcutta, India?
Calcutta/Kolkata as a residue of specific historical forces (e.g. East India Company, Raj, Zamindars, Hinterland ecologies/economies, Independence, Partitioning (India-Pakistan), post-independence (Bengali Marxism), secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, contemporary India and contemporary politico-economic Indian development) requires careful recalibration of all aspects of urban life. A re-calibration of urban life necessarily has to operate through a simultaneous rethinking of productive landscape, water ecologies and economies and existing and potential intersubjectivity. Calcutta has an impressive architectural history. However, the edifices and associated landscapes of varying production and productivity are caught in politico-economic vortices of indecision on one hand and a clear urgency to make something happen on the other: between historical and contemporary dissenting evaluations of cultural significance and contemporary urgencies of party political, regional, national and everyday life.
The historical Calcutta condition within which contemporary Kolkatans are inscribed might best be framed by a comparison between two maps: the Simm’s Plan of Calcutta, 1847-49 (revised to 1857), and Romanauth Dass’ Kalikãtãr Mãncitra of 1884. The first describes the city in Western terms using the conventions of geography and a categorical index propelled by the interests of the Raj. This map locates all buildings, particularly the buildings of state and consequently orients its readers by the cardinal points, main buildings and street names. Its categories reinforce the systems of power and knowledge it inscribes. It is official and sits in offices of state. The second is a hand map, for “general use” by Indians, and describes “all places . . . and several other places,” places used in an everyday sense, hence, the map is organised according to how places are known locally and where to find the things that one needs in the city, from food to the departure points of ships. The second map owes much to the previous cartography of the first. Embedded in the second is the ordering and governance system of the first. Interestingly, both maps still hold accurate measures for the contemporary city of Calcutta/Kolkata.
Our project, which will ultimately lead to a very different kind of map, cuts through and across the power and knowledge systems of these two maps. They inform it. However, it is also informed by developing a critical regard of the contemporary conditions of urban life in Calcutta. For our project the situation of Calcutta is developed through five overlapping critical frames: the first is offered by Felix Guattari’s Three Ecologies, which involves the interrelation between the Environment, Human Relations and Human Subjectivity; the second is Michel Serres’ Natural Contract, which poses that society/the world is bound by a natural contract which requires a deconstruction and reconstruction of anything we might think of as a/the social contract (e.g. Rousseau); the third, moving in the same direction as the third, comes from an understanding of Michel Serres’ The Parasite, which puts the human individual, human relations and non-human collectivities in relations of “parasitic chains”; the fourth is Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought, which looks at a “bigger” picture of ecology that begins in the first instance by rejecting the opposition between nature and man and all subcategories of this division, which, echoing Guattari and Serres, includes a rejection of the many forms of environmentalism built upon the premise of the distinction; the fifth, a practical precedent for thinking the previous four frames, considers Calcutta as a Biopolis, taking a lead from Patrick Geddes’ image of the city as an intricate biological mechanism where plants, environment and social arrangements belong to a bigger picture of a cultivated/cultured landscape. In Calcutta is the Burra Bazaar, the context in which Geddes further developed his theory of “Conservative Surgery.” Our project, operating from a Research By Design impetus, architectural and urban, speculates into networks of relations between historical, contemporary and potential productive landscapes, the communities that have or may operate them and the economies they have helped and may yet develop and serve.