The entrance to the Jawahar Kala Kendra (JKK), Jaipur, has turned into a performative space these days. As visitors walk in, a 12x12m floating roof crafted with nets catches their eye. The dense moving datum is like a metamorphic organism, changing shape with every gust of wind. Some try to jump up to reach it, others try to bend under it—but each time, the viewer’s interaction with the roof is unique. “Some say, it’s like a cloud, others say it’s a jaala (web). One gentleman, in his 60s, told me it’s like the net that his father would use to fish," says architect Dushyant Asher of The Urban Project, who has created the floating roof to question the relation between the fragile nature of public and private in a space. It is also an investigation into the spatial experience of temporality, which we observe in our built environment.

It is unique works like these that can be seen in and around the JKK as part of the exhibition When Is Space? Thirty-two participants, including Anagram Architects, Architecture Brio, Dhruv Jani, Parul Gupta, The Busride Design Studio, Raqs Media Collective, from across fields such as architecture, art, urbanism, design and philosophy, have come together to discuss contemporary architecture and space-making practices. “As one architect explained to me, ‘Normally, architectural projects take nearly one-five years to complete. Here, an architect can work on concepts, articulate them in scale and material, and also test them with the public,’" says Pooja Sood, director general, JKK. “An exhibition of this scale has never happened over a shorter period of time in India before and that’s what makes this exhibition unique."

It all started when the curators, Mumbai-based architects-artists-urbanists Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty, asked the participating artists to converse with the ideas of Sawai Jai Singh II, the 16th century ruler who founded the city of Jaipur, and Charles Correa, India’s foremost modern architect, who designed JKK as a modern interpretation of Jai Singh’s nine mandalas. Gradually, artists began to respond to the three underlying ideas: first, the pursuit of the mathematics of the cosmos—the navagraha that formed the basis of the nine sectors in Jaipur and the nine squares at the JKK; second, rethinking typology by experimenting with craft and the environment; and third, looking at emerging forms of city life and ways of bringing the public back into urban spaces. These threads have acted as provocations for some of the seminal works on display.

‘The Wall’ by Samira Rathod.Photo: ‘When Is Space?’ curatorial team
‘The Wall’ by Samira Rathod.Photo: ‘When Is Space?’ curatorial team

For instance, the Samira Rathod Design Atelier (SRDA) has responded to the question that Correa posed in 1989: “If there was any way in which the city streets and sidewalks could respond to the needs (of pavement dwellers)?" So Samira Rathod, of SRDA, has created A Wall As A Room, an experiment in the hidden geometry of the body, material and the habitat. It redefines the wall as a container of space rather than a divider. Three feet broad, everything fits within this space—right from the water tank, cabinets and the chulha inside to the vegetation on top. “It has to be sustainable for us to create mass, as land is a precious commodity. This wall can be thermally insulated while being a storage space and at the same time being a living space," says Rathod.

The Raqs Media Collective, on the other hand, has worked with the idea of the “forms of collective life". It has looked at the space between the dome of the skull and the dome of the mind and all that inhabits or is lost between the two. “We looked at the questions of density and thickness, and the way we think about our own world, whether it is about animal life, vegetation or social life," says Jeebesh Bagchi, one of the members.

Anagram Architects’ work responds to the very title of the show. Their diagram is based on the role of time in the creation of space. “While territories evolve with time, unfortunately buildings remain static, remaining out of sync with the changes. Also, how do you create a relationship between private spaces and publicness, between the country and the street? We have questioned all of this in our work," says Madhav Raman, co-founder.

The first and foremost provocation—mathematics of the universe—finds a place in Parul Gupta’s site-specific work about how people inhabit spaces between different positions in built environments. She has questioned this by drawing lines, using cotton thread and needles of different sizes, which are drilled into the walls. Working with minus spaces between different positions, Gupta is interested in seeing forms get constructed and erased as one moves. “Numbers are my material, which guide me towards my drawings. Precision is critical as each needle needs to be cut in a particular size and placed at exact points on the wall, as per the vector drawing made before. It’s only then the drawing will shift as one moves," she says.

The curators have also put in place certain interventions, which make both the public and the artists look at the works in a new light. For instance, if one walks around, one will see quotations by Correa and prominent historians of Jaipur on the walls, next to the works. The works are in dialogue with one another. “A lot of artists have told me that the quotes have made them look at their works afresh," says Gupte.

I ask her whether the show has been able to answer the question that it set out with: When is space? “We have realized that one of the biggest ways in which space gets created is through friendships and dialogue. And that is something which will continue, through exchanges on our website," she says.

When Is Space? is on till 31 March at Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur

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