Aditya Dev Sood | Reading cracks in design

The trial and error that is humanity’s experiments with architecture is now playing out at a geological scale


Photo: Binh Giang/Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Binh Giang/Wikimedia Commons

On the day that the Vivekananda Road flyover in Kolkata would collapse, two labourers were climbing up its structure when they reportedly heard a cracking noise from the giant nuts in its cantilever. The structure was letting us—its makers, users and future victims—know that all was not well. The engineers of IVRCL Ltd, the construction firm building the flyover, reportedly paid no heed to reports of those sounds. According to an account in The Hindu, the joints were welded and liquid cement was poured over. The bridge collapsed a few hours later.

In some sense, this is the history of all architecture, monumental sculpture, ceramics, drawing, all human striving in general. You try things, and they collapse on you. You try and figure out why the cracks appeared, why the rice pudding tastes of charcoal and burnt milk. Before we had algebra and calculus, the only way to know if a structure would hold was to give it your best and pay attention to the cracking of the masonry: If you see cracks at the base, reinforce it further. Else let it stand and hope for the best. This is how you get the slanted exterior walls of Tughlaqabad Fort in south Delhi.

The materials you’re working with are always telling you things. Years ago, I had a teacher who pointed out the rhythms of the concrete floor in his studio. It had a regular spacer every metre or so, but in one place near the doorway, it was missing. You could see a slow spider web of cracks snaking across from one side to the other. That was a powerful moment of insight for me.

The Japanese ceramic tradition of kintsugi is used to repair broken bowls with gold-flecked enamel. It flaunts that elaborate crack in the original, allowing your mind to marvel at the beauty of something cracked and repaired, now more precious than the original. It’s a pleasant thought, but we all know that the fractures in the Vivekananda Road flyover were never going to be fixed that way. They run right through our social fabric, they cleave our body politic. And inside those cracks you see not gold, but poorly designed incentives and a public system incapable of managing private enterprise.

If, as The Hindu report suggests, some labourers did try to tell their supervisors that something was wrong, they were unlikely to have listened. Engineers in our society aren’t paid to listen to some semi-skilled labourers telling them what to do. Our managers aren’t supposed to listen to mere technicians. Promoters aren’t expected to stand up and take the financial hit when their execution team has messed up.

The collapse of this flyover tells us about the cracks between our public and private sectors, which are unable to agree on how to regulate, collaborate, partner and achieve the larger public good. We’re not listening very closely because we already know all the lyrics to this song.

There are other cracks appearing in the newspapers these days, mostly photographs of dried out clumps of earth where farmers’ fields used to be. As the great drought of 2016 spreads beyond Maharashtra to other parts of the Deccan and central India, many hundreds will die, even as others flee their parched lands. It’s not as though we haven’t been seeing the signs. Every borewell gone dry has sent up a quiet signal. Climate change is here, it’s affecting our temperatures, monsoon and groundwater.

The trial and error that is humanity’s experiments with architecture is now playing out at a geological scale. The difference is that while we’ve had around 13,000 years of playing around with stone and earth, we’ve only been going to town on the earth’s crust for some 200 years. And in that short period of time we’ve stretched our geological system and cracked its sheen in so many different ways. We’re all frozen in that moment, when the first fractures are forming, when the bolts have cracked open, but the entire edifice of the world system has yet to fall. There’s just enough information to alarm us, but we’ve yet to figure out exactly how to respond.

Crisis can sharpen the eye of the mind by many orders of magnitude. That’s the kind of change in our thinking and world view required to fix what’s broken. We need to think about scale in a new way; better conceptualize the extent of our cities, their hinterlands, and the true source of our rivers. We will need to seek out and track data more carefully, and visualize in ways that illuminate our collective understanding and joint action. We need to bring to consciousness the cumulative effects of our small choices and actions, from a garden angeethi (brazier) to the plastic trash that wraps our small snacks and knick-knacks. There is no choice but to band together out of self-preservation, to husband the Himalayan glaciers through this warmest century. These are the techniques of planning and intentionality that will allow us to take responsibility for reshaping the systems that organize our economies, our landscapes and our lives.

Aditya Dev Sood is a failed architect, found artist and accidental designer. He now incubates start-ups with impact through the Vihara Innovation Network. He tweets @adityadevsood

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