Composition of Loam

Below is short extract from the online discussion between Niall McLaughlin and Dominic Eley on books, reading and architecture. A great combo, which this blog seeks for.

Dominic : I think it is important to note your slight reluctance on addressing the literature that impacts your architecture. You were apprehensive about the insinuation that book equals building; that it could easily be misunderstood as you read a certain piece of literature and a building magically appears. During one of our discussions, you spoke about loam as an analogy for your relationship to reading and literature.

Niall : I do have a scepticism about architects showing off all their books and laying claim to a deep intellectual life that somehow has an equivalence in their buildings. I think I am sceptical to a degree about the idea that there’s a whole set of texts that I have read and a building that I have built and there is an equal sign between the two of them. It’s perfectly clear that many architects are extensive and careful readers and that reading must have some impact on the buildings that they are creating. However, unpicking the nature of that relationship seems to me to be trickier than creating any direct equivalences. I worry when I find myself, or others, at lectures reading from a text, and then the next thing is there’s a photograph of the building, a direct equivalence between the two appears. So, this is the idea of loam; the layers of soil that build up in a garden or a woodland. Whatever grows out of that loam is naturally dependent on it, but the relationship between the nourishing substructure growth is not as direct, or as necessary, as some people think. That was the metaphor I was using when discussing the tension in this lecture.” (emphasis mine)

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I felt this metaphor of the ‘loam’ is apt at so many levels. If we zoom out a bit, it could be between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’. There need not be a ‘direct equivalence’ but it can be a ‘nourishing substructure’. The metaphor can be interpreted at multiple levels – the seed in the soil can grow into any form or shape. It can also be about how different constituents (sand, silt and slay) make the soil fertile. The heterogenous nature of the constituents – a framework so well suited for the composition of faculties in a school and the triangle being the ‘school of thought’. Each component can be distinct and also co-exist with another component with a common ground / interests to operate. This also attaches well to the gardener metaphor used by Alison Gopnik for parenting (and teaching too) that “When we garden, on the other hand, we do not believe we are the ones who single-handedly create the cabbages or the roses. Rather, we toil to create the conditions in which plants have the best chance of flourishing.”

I came across a similar diagram by Anupama Kundoo – which she has labelled ‘inventory of battles’ – in which she talks about her ‘projects’ stemming from the process of ‘knowledge’. In this spectrum, I was curious that how teaching is an underground process – slow, unseen yet foundational. A good reminder for teachers to do what they do. 

Link to Anupama Kundoo drawing reference :

10 Books : Graphic Novels

Introductory Note
This is an invited post written by Shreyas Baindur . Shreyas and me have been teaching together for few years now. He introduced me to the amazing world of graphic novels. It was through the WCFA Book Club that we became friends. Shreyas used to bring frequently these graphic novels to the discussion and completed them at an alarming rate, when the other members like me were moving at a snail’s pace to complete the books. I had my prejudice then that these books were easy to read as they had a lot of pictures or only pictures . A shallow reading of what graphic novels meant from my side then. Then he introduced us to brilliant book – Unflattening, by Nick Sousanis – a Phd thesis in the form of a graphic novel. This book unfastened my opinion on what graphic novel means. The structure and the format is so suited to architectural thinking – this is thinking in visual from. So I invited him to put together a list of ten books as a starting point for those interested in this genre. Shreyas is well known between students for his sharp observations and the quiet sarcasm in design discussions. You will recognise a similar tint in this text too. Here is a pic of his envious collection of bookshelf (one of them) dedicated only to graphic novels.

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10 Graphic Novels : A curated list by Shreyas Baindur
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By Guest Writer – Shreyas Baindur
(His blog :

As a child, I hated reading. Seeing a book with words on every page brought nightmares. Though I might have exaggerated the scope of the issue, it was crippling enough. To alleviate my aversion to books, my mother introduced to me the Amar Chitra Katha series. Short, manageable and colourful, the graphic format of the books made me feel comfortable and were easy to consume. After reading quite a few of them, my mother found it difficult to find Amar Chitra Kathas that I hadn’t read. With this began my foray into reading graphic novels (though I would discover this joy once again many many years later), and subsequently reading in general. 

For a long stint, I didn’t pick up a graphic novel. During this stint, reading was a bit slow. The lethargy to read sank in over many years and I once again grew averse to reading. Rather than reading, I chose to wait for the film adaptation of the same. As part of my architecture undergraduate studies, we were never encouraged to read books other than the standard boring textbook-like manuals. The college had a measly little rack of books for architecture concentrating on filling the shelves with engineering manuals and coffee table picture books. It was only when I got to CEPT, Ahmedabad to do my masters in architecture that I felt stupid for not having read for years. Students there many years junior to me were discussing topics I had no clue about making me feel inferior. I would occasionally pick up a book or two at a bookstore at an airport or a street-side vendor, books that sounded fancy or had colourful covers, something to make me look all intellectual while moving around such places. But the curiosity to read a book never set in until CEPT. I was reintroduced to graphic novels thanks to a friend and housemate in Ahmedabad. The book was Citizens of no place: an architecture graphic novel by Jimenez Lai. And that is where the list begins.

  1. Citizens of No Place: An Architecture Graphic Novel (Jimenez Lai, Princeton Architectural Press, 2012): In my humble opinion, this is a must-read book for all architects, no matter how young or old. If I had the power, this book would be the first thing a student should read on day 1 of their journey in architectural education. The book is broken into 10 chapters each with a short one-paragraph introduction leading to a story that is imaginative, yet at the same time, presented as if it were plausible. 
  2. Unflattening (Nick Sousanis, Harvard University Press, 2021): Though the list started off with an architecture graphic novel, I hope to diversify it as it grows. The book’s description does most of the job when it says, “The primacy of words over images has deep roots in Western culture. But what if the two are inextricably linked, equal partners in meaning-making? Written and drawn entirely as comics, Unflattening is an experiment in visual thinking.” Sousanis uses the graphic or sequential art format to challenge the way we perceive text and images, creating pages that can be read both as a whole or in parts. What is most interesting about this book is that the author shows his process of how he put together the artwork for the chapters as mind maps at the end of the book.
  3. The Complete Maus (Art Spiegelman, Penguin UK, 2003): We have all heard and seen stories of the holocaust and the atrocities wrought upon the Jewish people by Nazi Germany many times over. But, The Complete Maus brings it too close to home. Spiegelman uses the graphic novel format to tell the story of his own father who survived Hitler’s Germany. In this book, people are depicted as anthropomorphised animals; the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, and the Poles as pigs. Other ethnicities are shown as other animals as they appear in the storyline. The Complete Maus is the only graphic novel to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. 
  4. The Complete Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, Pantheon, 2007): In another of my humble opinion, which I seem to have too many of, graphic novels must be read as physical books, held in hand, to appreciate the art work. But, Persepolis was one of those rare books that I happened to read as a pdf on an ipad mini that was way out of date. The book is simple in structure and follows the life of the author in Iran as the country went through its cultural revolution. Reading (or seeing artwork) of this sudden shift in the political tectonics of a nation through the eyes of a child, herself at the cusp of womanhood, is poignant. The artwork itself is simple, bringing the story they tell to the forefront.
  5. Shenzhen: A Travelogue through China (Guy Delisle, Jonathan Cape, 2017): This book forms part of a series of 4 books, all by the same author and in the same travelogue format, by the author Guy Delisle. He seems to have had the good fortune to have travelled to some of the most restricted and highly sensitive countries in the world. From Shenzhen to Burma, and then to Jerusalem to Pyongyang, Delisle seems to find himself as an outsider looking into places he isn’t supposed to. His style matches the dreariness of the places he visits making the situations he finds himself both hilarious and extremely concerning. The first book I encountered of his was Shenzhen, on recommendation from a friend in Ahmedabad, and loved the story telling so much that I ended up reading all 4 in the series in quick succession.
  6. The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (Sarnath Banerjee, Penguin Books India, 2007): When Kiran spring cleaned his library, he found a bunch of books he wanted to get rid off. One of those books happened to be Sarnath Banerjee’s book, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers. I snagged the book immediately and happened to read it soon to realise that it was not an easy feat. The story is about a man who goes on a hunt to find a book, through Kolkatta, by the name of The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers. The book is about a man trying to look for a book that is in your hands. The whole book is a search for a book. I don’t recall if the man finds the book at the end or not, but the whole premise of searching for a book that is titled the same as the one you are reading is simply mind boggling. This also happened to be my first introduction to Indian graphic novel artists.
  7. Ayako (Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, 2013): Originally published in Japanese in 1989, the english translation of the book was published much later. Tezuka, I found out only after having read this book, was one of the first artists to contribute to the genre of graphic novels now popularly known as Manga. The story of Ayako is of a girl by the same name born out of incest in a rich land owning family who try to keep her entire existence a secret. She escapes and the story follows her life. The story of Ayako is tragic and triumphant at the same time. For readers of Manga, the artwork will be very familiar. 
  8. Kokaachi: Kokaachi is not a book, but the name of an art studio under which 2 artists (Pratheek and Tina Thomas). They published an anthology named Mixtape, which are 3 books each showcasing stories done by young graphic novel artists. They also make Matchbox Comix, stories so short they fit in an accordion fashion into a matchbox. 
  9. Department of Mind Blowing Theories: Science Cartoon (Tom Gauld, Canongate Books, 2020): Please read this book as a physical copy, never on a kindle. That is the mistake I made and I hope no one repeats it. The book is a series of small cartoons that Tom Gauld had done that were published in newspapers as single or 3 tiled stories. This book is all about science and all the hilarious ways things can go wrong.
  10. I Will Judge You  by Your Bookshelf (Grant Snider, Harry N Abrams, 2020): Another book I made the mistake of reading on Kindle. Well, I would justify this grave mistake by saying that it was the first lockdown and I was bored and desperate to read this book. For a person who reads, this is probably the best book to read. It displays in simple graphics a lot of things that we as readers take for granted. Graphs that show what genres we read to the various silly positions we take to do so, and the weird and the odd place where we read. Though heavily fictionalised, the book is a joy to go through and the cover graphic is cute.

Reading List : Theory

Here are a list of 30 books I picked for an assignment for the second year students for the ‘Theory of Architecture’ class (WCFA Batch 2020) . I have been intending to do a list which could become a sort of a starter set, if at all anyone is (still) inclined to read ‘theory’ books.There is general apprehension of theory being ‘cerebral and elite’ (1), both in profession and academics.This assignment is to soften that apprehension. The structure of the assignment is borrowed from an assignment I did as a student at CEPT under Prof. Sebastiano Brandolini. (Link  to the earlier post describing the framework). So I picked up books which fall into a wide spectrum ranging from phenomenology to ‘form’-al to basic analysis and which has the possibility to feed these 20 questions in diverse ways. One could also argue that some of these are not ‘theoretical’ enough – giving an opportunity to discuss in the class first-of-all what is ‘theory’ anyway. I feel ‘theory’ is somehow placed on the opposite deep-end of ‘experience’ in the spectrum of knowledge. Even though the student might not be inclined towards the book initially, the framework allows him/her to explore the overall structure and get an overview by reading parts of it. A sort of ‘case study’ of books.

Question no. 1 begins with a sharp note in that way – “Why does a theorist make a book rather than something else?” When the question is asked to diverse books like – Thinking Architecture and say Complexity and Contradiction – we can have a rich discussion on what made Zumthor and Venturi write a book – when they both practised architecture, in the ideology they intended to. One could argue that if Zumthor’s ‘Thinking Architecture’ is even a theory book at all? To me it is a ‘theory’ book, because it is articulating perception and memories and relaying it across space and time. Zumthor’s book can also be a response to Question 19 “Does such a thing exist, as an anti-theory book? “

Question no. 14 can be revealing, particularly for a mixed range of books we have listed – “Is it possible to spell the differences between: a theory book, a history book, a monograph, a handbook, a catalogue, an illustrated book, an interactive book?”. S,M,L,XL checks all these boxes, and hence radical in a way on what can theory book can do and cannot do. The book weighs 2.7 kgs and is 1376 pages long. An exaggeration on the physicality of a so called ‘theory’ book but still explored its format in eccentric and accessible way. 

Question no.12 “What does the cover actually say? How do the different editions vary?  reveals some interesting ideas of the different variations of the canonical ‘Modern Architecture : A Critical History’ by Frampton. The final chapter has been evolving till the recent 5th edition (2021) from the original first edition (1980) reflecting the deep and critical reading of Modernism and evolving the proposition of Critical Regionalism. There are dedicated sub chapters to less discussed counties like Peru, Chile and Bangladesh. Mary McLeod observes that “Frampton’s writings – a mixture of history, criticism and analysis – have inspired architects, especially those practicing outside of United States ( in places where the notion of “regionalism” or “locale” may have more resonance and meaning than in the states” (2) . It was this inclination from the beginning made Frampton to explore works of (then) less known works of architects like Siza and Barragan. This thread of thought has evolved fully in the fifth edition by including distinct interpretations of modernism across the world. 

In some ways the “the mixture of history, criticism and analysis” in varying proportions has been the DNA of the various books listed. In the class we discussed the multiple possibilites of interpreting architecture though these books. All 20 questions are not equally relevant to all the books. The sub-selection of the 20 questions will already reveal something about the book. The questions and the comparative analysis between the books provides an engaging platform to talk about what is ‘theory’?

The assignment shared with students (Click on the image to view larger)
The list of 30 books – each student picked up a title (Click on the image to view larger)
Here is a delightful moment from the class (WCFA Batch 2020, B) where everybody (almost everybody!) had managed to issue and bring the book to the class with some homework done. If you are a full time faculty, one would appreciate how rare these moments are. And if you belong to small tribe of history and theory faculty like me, this is a day of celebration!

Notes :

(1) In the introduction to the book ‘A Primer on Theory in Architecture’, Karen Cordes Spence has a detailed argument on this point

(2) In an essay ‘Kenneth’s Frampton Idea of he “Critical”‘ by Mary Macleod in the book ‘Modern Architecture and the Life World: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Frampton’ edited by Karla Cavarra Britton and Robert McCarter.

Scalar Comparison

Understanding and modulating scale is one of the fundamental acts in design. Particularly while teaching in design studios, i am looking for tools and methods which can help modulate scale. This simple method of drawing different projects in the same scale has immense potential. I feel this tool is underused. Putting them together digitally has made it much easier. Just imagine pre-computer days, where one had to draw them to scale again or take scaled photocopies (and struggling with the copier to assign different percentages). I usually have the habit of drawing the room (say like 12′ x 18′ room) in which I am making the drawing in the same scale as the drawing I am working (say 1:100) to get better sense of space i am designing. I feel the responsibility of any conceptual idea is to modulate scale first. Chipperfield brilliantly notes in Theoretical Practice that scale and time are the biggest challenges of our profession. Here i have selected some drawings which uses this method effectively.

This brilliant drawing is from Henri Stielin’s book Architecture of the World: India. This drawing was a revelation – i have never been to Gol Gumbaz, but looks like Pantheon (with some diet) can fit inside Gol Gumbaz. I can sense the scale of the buiding i have not visited (Gumbaz here) through a building i have visited (Pantheon). Taj Mahal’s has an exaggerated exterior form (by the means of the double dome) compared to relatively smaller interior volume, but its presence is as monumental as the Pantheon or the Gumbaz.

Form, Space and Order : D K Ching

Prof. Kulbhushan Jain uses this method consistently in almost all his books. This drawing is from Architecture Conceptual to the Manifest. In this case when both the scale and the orientation are consistent, the reading of the project gets more sharper.

Residential Design : Maureen Mitton and Courtney Nystuen. This method is also effective at much smaller scale. When I refer this book for toilet design, I notice even a 6″ difference can make significant impact on design of such tight programs.

Rahul Mehrotra used this comparative diagram (In a TED Talk) by overlapping a 30 area of Kumbh Mela over the map of Manhattan to make the point of the largeness of the temporary city of Kumbh Mela.

Le Corbusier Redrawn : The Houses by Steven Park. This book has drawings (plans, sections, elevations) with brilliant cut views of all the houses designed and built by Corbusier. All of them at 1:200! – and it is deep diving experience reading this book. Villa Sarabhai is one of the few project which covers both the spreads : )

At one the of studios we tried to print all the case studies in the same scale (I think it was 1:500). It was very revealing. And we made a site plan with a hole in it at 1:500 scale to overlap against these drawings to get a sense of the scale.

(Drawing Credit : Bhamini Mehra)

Again in one of the studios we tried to overlap the precedent we were studying (Niall McLaughlin’s Bishop Edward King Chapel) on the site at Srirangapatna. We didn’t realise the scale of the precedent till then, the project (at least the main chapel) will fit in any ubiquitous 60’x40′ site in India. There are no small projects in architecture.

In this study for adaptive reuse of the iconic Central Beheer, Herman Hertberger’s office is trying to understand the different program possibilities and configurations for the 9m x 9m grid. It can also become an independent study of how a certain fixed area (50 sqm here) or a grid pattern (9m x 9m) can cater to different programs. We can test different possibilities to suit the site and program requirements at hand in design.

Why Density? – Debunking the Myth of the Cubic Watermelon. Here the same method is used for exploring the different massing strategies. A three dimensional comparative method.

Point of entry / departure

In the recent online COA Social talk on pedagogy, Sarah Whiting (Dean of Harvard School of Design) spoke about the movie Julie and Julia through an interesting perspective. If one is not familiar with the premise of the movie, here is a short note about it. In the movie, Julie, who is a struggling writer grappling with her identity, decides to cook all the 524 dishes within a years time from the legendary book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” published in 1961 by Julia Child. As she cooks, she also blogs about it. So the movie is inspired by the book Julie Powell wrote about this experience. What the screenplay of the movie does is very interesting. In the movie there is a parallel story from another time of how the actual book came into place. How Julia struggles with her identity in a different culture, age and time. The viewer of the movie engages in both the process of creativity simultaneously and that is a wonderful premise to dwell in. To see both the struggles of formed and yet to form.

In this talk, Sarah spoke about using this movie as a premise to talk about learning to her students. Sarah said that she asks the students to be more like Julia, who took liberty with the medium of French cooking and explored and adapted it further. It was a wonderful point Sarah made here. I am paraphrasing a lot from memory here. This notion stayed with me. Just to probe this notion a little further, my impression is that this surrendering to the recipes gave a Julie a purpose and a tangible direction to do something which led to the book she wrote. In the movie, she is portrayed a struggling writer. And this act of surrender, even though arbitrary, helped Julie find some ground. Inspite of not being as exploratory as Julia Child did with French Cooking, I think these both ways of creativity are equally sound. For a beginner like Julia, the aligning to an idea /school of thought helped to move ahead, whereas for Julia it was taking liberty to depart from French cooking and what it meant to American middle class.

For Julie, this way of cooking and aligning to a school of thought became the point of entry whereas the same premise of cooking became a point of departure for Julia. I feel this notion extends across all the creative fields. We can start from a point which resonates with us. 

So in preparing for new design studio for 5th semester students at WCFA, i am planning to engage in a similar playing field. where we ‘reinterpret a canonical project’ to act as a point of entry into the semester. This way of learning from the masters has been a familiar trope in design studios. It is just here i am looking at the project rather than the architect . A perspective i learnt from Prof K B Jain at CEPT. He always talked about the project, rather that the architect. I think this is a more accommodating way to look at ideas, as every architectural project is a result of a collaboration. Below is a note from SCI ARC, on a possible method of enquiry in this direction.

Here is a slide i use recurring-ly in my theory classes, which became base on which i am folding these questions discussed above – What is notion of originality in the history of ideas? – Take the instance of the British version of the Sherlock. They made a brilliant adaption, just by changing the context of time. We would have been devoid of this project, if they had brushed this as a naive, or not an idea original enough to be pursued. This is a very fragile stage in every creative process, and one has to deal with it delicately.