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World Architecture Magazine
WORLD ARCHITECTURE Magazine
News Feature on Romi Khosla

"Romi Khosla compares himself to a painter at the court of the samurai, a seeker of wisdom rather than a slave to a style. As the architect and UN adviser publishes a new book, Jane Samuels finds out what he has discovered.".......



Architects used to believe they could change the world. That ambition has
withered in a lot of places, but not in the Indian city where Romi Khosla -
architect, UN adviser and writer - works.'Communities are being destroyed by military ambitions,' says the 61-year-old. 'Whoever said our futures will be decided by the armed services? It is the prerogative of architects to invent futures. We are better trained for it than the military.' Khosla is an extraordinary architect. Trained as an economist, he turned to architecture in the 1960s, studying at London's Architectural Association. While there, he was approached by the Dalai Lama to build the Tibetan government's first building in exile, a national library in Dharamsala, northern India. His commissions since have been no less diverse. For the past six years, he has been a UN consultant to war-devastated countries. He recently presented a new international policy for cities, Removing Unfreedoms, Expanding Development Frameworks, to the United Nations' World Habitat Day in Brussels based on the work of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Yet he remains primarily an architect: for more than 24 years he was principal of Delhi-based GRUP India; and in 2001 he set up a new studio, Romi Khosla Design Studios, in the city.

'Looking at my professional practice as an architect, somebody in the West could term it chaotic and confused,' he says. 'However, I've chosen to address multiple realities that exist in an Asian country like India, which
has over 1 billion people and more than 1100 dialects.

'I work across a vast global cultural spectrum with mud-brick buildings in
rural villages, international hotels, science institutes and war-torn countries. This is the realm of an architecture that strengthens communities and may include but sees beyond signature buildings. Today,there are traditional and modern cultures trying to co-exist and I often work across that conflicting divide. I approach each problem in each location without bringing to it any stylistic baggage, empty of presumptions about stylistic superiorities.'

Khosla likens his approach to that of the itinerant painter at the court of
the samurai, who would take on a new name and style at every posting. 'The Japanese samurai painter conveys the true spirit of the East, where the internal absorption of reality and the fullness of wisdom is given greater importance than the demonstration of external stylistic consistency,' he says.

This search for wisdom over style is one he develops in his book The
Loneliness of a Long Distance Future: Dilemmas of Contemporary Architecture, a series of essays in which he seeks to find ways through what he sees as the increasing polarity between the ideals of modernism and the traditions of ancient lore - what he terms 'abstract futures' (an avant-garde largely Western approach to building epitomised by Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim) and 'ancient futures' (the practice of working based on ancient traditions and religious texts, which he identifies with buildings such as the Hare Krishna Temple of the Vedic Planetarium in Mayapur, West Bengal).

Although he has worked for Unesco and written knowledgably on Tibetan
monasteries, Khosla is not a traditionalist. He emphasises the need for new materials and technologies to support a continuity of craft workmanship.
What this approach might mean is explored through a number of speculative schemes in which architectural solutions are posited to social and economic problems. In Kosovo, where he worked as a consultant to the UN, he suggests that new houses should be built from the rubble of destroyed homes. 'Moving away from traditional images and memories of period houses,' he suggests, reconstruction of this kind would create a whole new aesthetic and future for the region. More ambitiously, he proposes a dual-purpose link between Israel and Palestine (again, he has worked for the UN in the region): a combined railway and water pipe line that would provide much-needed facilities as well as economic and social opportunities along its 10 stations.

'Romi is a special person, not just a talented architect,' says Suha
Ozkhan, secretary-general for the Aga Khan awards – Khosla has just served on the jury. 'He has a wide view of the world. Many other architects
evaluate a building superficially, while Romi considers aspects not
normally considered part of architecture. He has a historical, political
and social understanding. We count on him for the most difficult projects.
Romi believes the role of architecture can be for the betterment of human
life.'

Architects from the East have a greater tradition of recognising the
'social conscience' of architecture. Perhaps the best-known exponent of
this approach is Egyptian Hassan Fathy and the subsequent wave of
architects who believe in the need to address communities and regional
styles. In part, perhaps, this is because 90% of buildings in India and Asia are not designed by architects but are self built. Khosla does work on major one-off buildings - his semi-conductor complex in Chandigarh, for instance. Yet he is just at home with community architecture. Michael Mutter, architectural adviser to the UK's Department for International Development, has worked with Khosla on low-cost community-build projects. He says Khosla is unique in his ability to work at both ends of the scale.

From 1997 to 2001, Khosla worked for the United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP) full-time, identifying solutions to the destructive effects of global conflicts on livelihoods and economies. More than ever before, he believes architects now need to take on social responsibilities. In addition to his work in Kosovo, Palestine, Israel, Tibet and China for the UN, he conceived the 'Beautiful Bulgaria' project - an UNDP emergency project for job creation in Sofia that was subsequently expanded to 33 cities. Almost 50,000 months of temporary employment were created. Most of the work consisted of restoring buildings and social spaces - a process that created renewed civic pride while reviving hundreds of sites, many of them historic monuments. 'I was restoring the dignity of architecture in a society that had become pessimistic about its future,' he says. Antonio Vigilante of the UNDP explains: 'Development architects, those that add human development sensitivity to their architectural or urban technical skills, are a great asset to our work. An architectural mind is usually able to connect different tools and concepts towards holistic area development, including cultural, social, psychological and economic aspects. The case of Romi is a best example of this.'

In his built work for Romi Khosla Design Studios just as much as his UN
projects, he strives to make connections between the modern and
traditional. Schemes such as the Le Meridien hotel in Nepal (still to be
completed), which combines steel columns and ornament, show that this can work to great effect. Critics, such as Charles Jencks, have seen this
approach as postmodern: 'Romi is an adept postmodern architect, concerned with traditional architecture in transition with local materials and crafts to create a hybrid architecture that is complex and rooted in the place of Delhi. He has been instrumental in furthering the Indian discourse with his peers Charles Correa, Balakrishna Doshi and Raj Rewal. With these architects, he has been in the forefront of reconsidering the modernism of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn as well as the ancient Indian cosmic traditions.'

But Khosla himself refuses to be pigeon-holed, describing his work as
'stylistically empty', a concept rooted in Buddhist literature. 'For an
architect,' he says, 'it means there is no unquestioned inheritance from
the past, so one proceeds to each place without any predetermined style. In this state of emptiness, one can experience the depths of compassion for a community.'

This unfashionable notion of compassion is at the heart of Khosla's
approach. He believes architecture will lose its links with the community
if its heroic figures confine themselves to 'haute couture' buildings -
Gehry style. In his emphasis on compassion and conscience, Khosla recalls the founding tenets of modernism and the way social concerns were integral to modern architecture at its outset only to be squeezed out in the latter part of the last century by the pure economic imperative of corporate clients.
So what lies ahead for Khosla? Though in his early 60s, he has no
intentions of slowing down.On the contrary, recent projects included 'A proposal for a 1000-home township in Abu Dhabi, a UN trip to Cyprus to bring the Turks and Cypriots together through a shared masterplan across barbed wires and possibly another mission to Afghanistan.' Even today,his favourite activity is entering architectural competitions.


The Loneliness of a Long Distance Future is published by Tulika Books. It
is available from the Architectural Association in London or from Soma Book
Distributors on
+44 20 7735 2101.
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