In his 2013-Ted Talk ‘What your design says about you’, American designer-researcher Sebastian Deterding, says, “[Designs] have a moral component just in the vision of ‘the good life’ that they present to us.” Over the years, Deterding’s comments have been reiterated by several architects, designers, and academicians who feel that these domains serve a function beyond the obvious. Kolkata-based architect Gita Balakrishnan (53) is one of the many voices propagating ‘Architectural Social Responsibility’.
Balakrishnan refrained from the usual route only to embark on a 1,700km journey from Kolkata to Delhi on foot. Her intention was simple: meet and interact with stakeholders to spread awareness on how conscious design can change the world. Titled ‘Walk for Arcause’, Balakrishnan’s endeavour spanning seven states—West Bengal, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh (MP), Uttar Pradesh (UP), Haryana, Rajasthan, and Delhi—that commenced on February 13 from Kolkata concluded on Sunday as she sprinted from Raj Ghat to Red Fort. “Architecture and design are central to lifestyles, to connecting, to growth, to living, and to life itself,” she comments.
Garnering architectural insights
For Balakrishnan, this walk brought together her favourite activities of architecture and running—she embraced running as a hobby eight years ago for “the many meditative benefits”. Treading 849 cities, she walked for about 30 kilometres every day on an average. “I am driven by targets,” she says. Her keen interest in architecture helped her make numerous observations as she sprinted across towns and cities. Thatched roofs and mud shelters in West Bengal sublimely transformed into roofs made using tin sheets in Jharkhand. In MP, there were stone roofs and dome-shaped temples. Red tile roofs or khaprail are common to both MP and UP, she shares. For Balakrishnan, observing the local architecture substantiated the importance of regional identity and why it is important for architects to consider the same while designing spaces.
Balakrishnan and her team also organised various engagement programmes with stakeholders to shed light on the contributions made and the responsibilities of the architecture and design community. “I carried a few presentations as well as flashcards on my way. I would place them on a table, say at a shop, and people would come over, read, and understand what I had to convey,’ says the founder of Ethos Foundation, an organisation that seeks to empower students and professionals from the ACED (Architecture, Construction, Engineering, and Design) fraternity.
The highlight of this journey for Balakrishnan was the conversations she had with the locals. “A lot of them would welcome me and show their homes very proudly, telling me how they built it,” she mentions.
These engagements also helped her gauge the various sustainable practices dominant in small towns and how these could be implemented on a bigger scale. During one of her stays in UP, Balakrishnan spoke to the women folk of a town who told her how they had to walk several kilometres only to fetch water.
From the lack of toilets to scorching hot weather, the challenges in completing this tedious journey were galore. Balakrishnan interacted with a few people about their experiences before starting her journey. However, she mentions, “It is about completely going into the unknown, not knowing how you are going to ensure the changes that come your way.” While ‘Walk for Arcause’ may have concluded, for Balakrishnan, it is a never-ending initiative. She looks forward to using her takeaways from this experience to further strengthen her cause of using architecture for social transformation. “For me, this is another step for what I intend to do next in life,” she concludes.