Contextual Scripting: A Critique of Performativity

Architecture enables a certain human behavior, and interaction is channeled into being a monitored, definite movement, not necessarily one that is momentarily influenced, but as a series of continuous structured loops influenced by a fixed dimension-space. Performance is typically not thought of as a medium in itself – it is an element of certain media that manifests itself differently in different media.[1]  How can architecture aim to provide an agile environment, where the users are driven to an extreme sense of being and belonging? How can architecture encourage people to become performers? This article ties politics and architecture through this veil that is performance, to emphasize the cliché that most things are scripted, something architects are highly skilled at doing.

“The process of planning is very valuable, for forcing you to think hard about what you are doing, but the actual plan that results from it is probably useless.” – Marc Andreessen

At most times, the practice of architecture is antithetical to performance. Drawing parallels across politics and architecture illustrate an ideology conducive to understanding how agility and the legibility are a part of the architectural discourse. There is an intersection in the times we live in where complex roles are carried out by individuals (who could be placed in different levels in the hierarchy of organizations if need be) in pursuit of shared goals. The architect could be an ideal example to illustrate this argument, by identifying four major archetypes.

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Archetypes of the Architect

 

 

Note: These archetypes are all mutually exclusive, with no intersections between one another. The academician uses heavy programming conducive to the freedom of performance, making the discussion more subjective and agile. The builder is the pragmatist, designing a programmed, legible order of events and functions. The journalist in this case is the architect who is critical in a focused way, bringing out issues and formulating theories that may or may not be based on hard fact, reflecting on the subjectivity of the profession. The innovator is the designer, academician and the journalist, striking a balance between practicing and analyzing architecture.

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Comparing the Galaxy Soho, COSMO by Andres Jaque or the Monterrey Housing by Aravena in Mexico, not by typology or scale, but strictly through the performativity of the space by the agency of design could further the discussion on designers, their buildings and performance. These examples almost contradict each other, asking the all-important question whether a building needs to be more agile than legible for it to be successful. The contrast between private and public space is harder to gauge because of the role public spaces play-as places of protest, as camp grounds, as places for leisure. From the Ganesh Visarjan processions in Mumbai that see tens of thousands of people take to the streets in celebration to the recent ‘Subway Therapy’ wall at Union Station in New York, the performativity of public spaces is now perceived as more malleable and conducive to varying degrees of occupancy.

Part 1: Legibility

Milo Yiannopoulos-Technology editor for Breitbart news

Whether it is Trump making Breitbart founder Steven Bannon Chief Strategist after he managed the former’s campaign, or whether it is Breitbart’s expansion into France and Germany, the growing success of the alt-right is far from being ignored. According to the Economist, Breitbart’s website had 45 million unique visitors in July this year and between May 13th and June 13th, they had the highest social media interaction for political content beating out all competitors. Heidi Beirich, in the Bloomberg article, about Milo Yiannopoulos says “It’s like he’s joking: ‘Haha, let me popularize the worst ideas that ever existed’. That’s new, and that’s scary.” The alt-right was hard to interpret, until now. We were introduced to new characters and interesting links making the narrative stronger and now, there is a plateau in mainstream media that I’m curious to see break. Richard Spencer’s recent speech reiterated the position of the alt-right, only heightening the base the alt-right have been building up and almost channelizing their statements through media in a pattern sequence that makes it seem rehearsed, and therefore, less interesting to me. What makes the alt-right different from other conservative groups is particular their way of performance and interaction with people-through the internet, media and designing their narrative to be provocative to anybody with a seemingly sane conscience. Our interpretation of the broader picture – trolling, wars in comment sections on alt-right videos on Facebook, racism on Twitter- it reminds me of a quote by Jack Bowman who said, “It (performance art) is difficult to censor since it has a good possibility of never being done before”. Their first step towards mainstream success was incorporating an unfamiliar ideology to most people in the context of a political campaign.

 

Patrik Schumacher followed this trend, and with his recent comments on de-regularization and the privatization of public squares in London, he claimed that his was “no more than a media caricature constructed to shock and entertain”. The example of the Galaxy Soho is relevant here because of its heavy contrast to the courtyard homes and the narrow alleys around the site.

When it comes to architecture, legibility by design, navigating through physical spaces and especially virtual representation techniques have constantly been evolving with the rise in technological interventions. It is almost harder to identify the architects behind the limitless designs and renderings of projects we see on the internet, because they speak a similar language, to strive for legibility amongst the broadest audience. Running grasshopper scripts for form finding based on parameters that are not necessarily well defined becoming commonplace in schools to the line blurring between vernacular and contemporary design, in the case of architects like Caruso St John reflects on the performativity of the built form and the perception of it, affecting both agility and legibility. For design to be legible means for it to be scrutinized by people on social media and other platforms, allowing for it to be judged on the agility of an entire scheme.

Part 2: Agility

In an article by Peter Pomerantsev on Surkov in the London Review of Books, he says that in today’s Russia, if you’re smart enough, you can be free socially and exercise your creativity as long as you comply to political ideologies when required. I find a great similarity to the work architects do. Whether it is for a competition for a public open space or meant for a private developer, the agility of the architect to perform, present and cater to multiple scenarios is noteworthy. Being optimistic and indeterminate may be lead to heightened agility, but that is a compromise on the legibility of the project. To be safe and ‘legible’, it’s safer to stick to the quadrant on the bottom right. The convenience of it seems like layers of agreements to portray stability in an unstable environment.  The reference to Derrida in Russian political discourse could be drawn in parallel to the duality of a performance- who is the performer and who is the audience, or in terms of architecture, how do you place users within fixed brackets today? In Russia’s society, this is hard to gauge. In architecture, digital tools for form finding, limitless resources for flexible programming, virtual and location independent design take center stage. Do we need to deconstruct and define one in order to define the other? The complexity in the system, and the complexity of a good performance or good design, in the context of Russia, US politics or architecture should be deconstructed to understand that dichotomies upon which the entire discourse is based are too simplified.

[1] Mal Alhern, Performance/Performativity, Winter 2003, The Chicago School of Media Theory

 

Memoriam // Memorandum

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The introduction of the National September 11 Memorial to Manhattan’s dense urban fabric garners a feeling that is intense and far from equivocal. The Twin Towers contributed to the much revered New York City sky line that made for a perfect photograph and to the stereotypical painting that had their silhouette against a bright orange city sunset. For the world to see a massive change from that perspective, and for the resident who lives or works around the area, the absence of the buildings that contributed to the language of Lower Manhattan is apparent. The stark contrast of the ‘hollow’ plot in the dense urban fabric also reinstates the lifestyle of the quintessential New Yorker. The design of the memorial is one that attempts to translate the meaning of the ‘void’ from perspectives of the victim, the passer-by and the tourist, which are distinct, into one physical entity. Here, the classic association of a memorial with monumentality is challenged. This memorial is more a virtual occupation of the mind, with its third dimension being one of depth, symbolizing loss and embodying a particular sentiment.

Apart from it being solely a memorial, the nature of the design is instrumental in not isolating the casual passer-by from experiencing the space. The absence of a vertical visual element and the aural accessory of the continuously flowing water that is an integral part of the design of the memorial activates the space far from the center. However, this is also the reason as to why the whole memorial being experienced as a whole is not fulfilled. The experiential difference through different parts of the memorial is distinct. The two pools being separated by the 9/11 Museum are identical and constructed exactly the same way, with the details and geometry reflecting each other. The void surrounded by the One World Trade Center and the Oculus, which is the Transportation Hub designed by Calatrava suggests an idea of resurfacing from the tragedy, which is conflicting when it comes to the idea of the irreplaceable, deep loss symbolized by the depth of the void that seems to be visually infinite. On the contrary, the South Pool has no immediate interference, questioning the cohesive experience and function of a singular memorial.

Having a large retail space that has a style unique to Calatrava’s work and is of a magnified scale in the context of Lower Manhattan, office spaces that cast their shadow on the memorial pools during a few times in the day and the construction of the five other World Trade Center towers in close proximity is contradicting to the sanctity a memorial space has to offer. This immediate setting with the skyscrapers “exploits its own contradictions to monumentalize, in exemplary “post-critical” fashion, the neoliberal consensus regarding new “opportunities” opened up by techno-corporate globalization.”[1] Another paradox surfaces when it is noted that the water cascades into a bottomless pit when viewed from around the parapet on ground, but the floor profile of the pit is visible from a section of the 9/11 Museum by Snøhetta that opened to the public in 2014. The underground component of the pool suggests a finite space to the otherwise infinite nature of the “void” which is symbolic in its true sense of sentimental purpose.

The changing concerns of the void make us wonder if the idea of an isolated memorial was embodied, further questioning the relevance of the monument in this context to the city and its people. “As architecture is a communicative medium that provides a focus for identity discourses of many kinds, the tensions around landmark projects encourage reflection on sociological questions, such as how buildings come to represent collective identities at all.”[2]

The National September 11 Memorial to Manhattan is symbolic of a relationship of one that is an unchanging, eternal memory and one that is constantly changing and developing, creating a conversation and setting a sense of authority of its presence in city and global dynamics. The memorial in the context of New York, a city that has a status in the financial milieu that is less volatile but is constantly keeping up to adhere to the changing global economic realm makes a statement that convinces the city on a micro scale to project an instrument of remembrance, but also positions itself in an environment of avarice, altering the degree of purity it was meant to have, especially because of its understated form and immediate setting. The setting makes it almost emotionally disputable because it reminds us of an event that was driven by terrorizing forces, almost making people aware that “buildings are much stranger than we are willing to admit. They are tied to the economy of violence rather than simply a protection from it”, and that “security” in industrialized, capitalist countries, more commonly known as the First World is not dictated by buildings that offer comfortable spaces for the stereotypical white-collar worker that also suggest a sense of place in modern society.

Emotional conflict and logical opportunity are best explained by “declarations of faith (which) offer a way into the problem of the abstract relationship between architecture and money, understood at a philosophical level.”[3] Declaration of faith is apt mainly because of the undeniable tension between the September 11 Memorial and the abutting built environment, which is controlled by an authoritarian capitalist market at its external periphery, projecting boundless expansion. Symbolism of capitalist power and particularly of New York’s place as a strong player in rapid globalization is evident and hard to ignore when the line between the “memorial (here in a literal sense) and the routine industrialized spaces for offices”[4] is vague.

As I stood at one end of the North Pool, I noticed that tourists with selfie sticks had these prominent buildings that are symbolic of New York’s position in the capitalist market, surrounding the memorial as their backdrop in photographs, while standing close to the water body of the memorial. This was confirmed when I was requested to take a young couple’s photograph with the One World Trade Center building in the background as the man rested his hand on the bronze parapet of the pool with the engraved names of the deceased. There might be an individual case where an employee in an office building adjacent to the memorial uses the memorial, in which way the memorial is successful as it is an accommodating public space, to escape the monotonous cacophony of an urban lifestyle, further reflecting upon the capitalist economy and its practices in major cities across the world.

This further leads us to question the relevance of memorials and their significance in a metropolis like New York City in particular. Comparing extremes of black and white in this situation is relevant where something as quantitative as architecture in the financial district spearheaded by private developers and political influences is analyzed by its contrast to something as qualitative and pure as a memorial.

While acknowledging the success of the design by Michael Arad and Handel Architects in its micro-environment, it is also perhaps the intangible aspects of the personal and the public space (mental and physical) that brings into focus the symbolic eternity of a memorial juxtaposed within an actual “heavy” yet mundane milieu. This is perhaps an indicator or signpost of an architectural genre which might become more visible because of the times that we live in.

[1] Reinhold Martin, “Critical of What? Toward a Utopian Realism”, Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005, Number 22

[2] Paul R. Jones, “The Sociology of Architecture and the Politics of Building: The Discursive Construction of Ground Zero”, Sociology, Vol. 40, No. 3 June 2006, pp.545-565, Sage Publications, Ltd.

[3] Reinhold Martin, “Financial Imaginaries: Toward a Philosophy of the City” in Grey Room 42, Grey Room Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2011

[4] Mark Wigley, “Insecurity by Design”, Open! Platform for Art, Culture and the Public Domain, 2004

Vive la France!

There’s a certain romanticism synonymous to France- Paris in particular. I would watch Marion Cotillard talk about Paris in that Woody Allen movie and only wonder how I couldn’t identify with anything she said. With the excessive photographs of a myriad coloured sky behind the Eiffel Tower, my hatred towards baguettes balanced by my equally measured love for the idea of an espresso-at-the-street-corner and lavender from Provence, France seemed like a crochet of a few things familiar and those I’m not naturally drawn towards. I was reading this book called Glory Road the other day and was reminded of my time there.

With popular places for tourism in the world, it almost feels like you’ve already been there vicariously through your favourite travel blog/show. I believe that sometimes, there is an advantage to that. Borrowed memories push you to make your own better, and there are a few overlaps that words can describe. My mother would underscore that a week for Paris alone is just too less to experience any of it and I disagreed until I got there. Seeing the Eiffel Tower blink on a casual stroll at night, hearing ‘Viens sur le trampoline’ by a duo in a subway in a completely bizarre arrangement after thirteen years (my French teacher at Alliance Française used to sing it to us in class when I was a child) and stumbling upon the first edition of my favourite book at Shakespeare and Company were the first few moments I was sure I had to extend my time in Paris.

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I don’t know what it is. I was looking for a particular dessert shop (eternal search for real choux pastry would come to an end) and stumbled upon this gem of a store that had an excellent compilation featuring a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young live show that I’ve never heard before (The owner of a record store in Amsterdam told me about it but I didn’t end up buying it there). Following me, but ended up buying a rare recommended French Blues record instead. Apart from the little things, there are pockets of enormous inspiration everywhere you go. I love how the city is water-centric. Acitivities become water-centric, making it so ideal. Watching ripples on the Siene with vin dans la matineé , spending an afternoon by Canal Saint Martin because of a missed train, walking through a cemetery that is the least bit banal- everything seems like it’s part of a grand, beautiful Parisian plan.

I extended my trip by almost a whole week. I enjoyed staying at Montmartre more than the 7th arrondissement which is close to the major attractions, firstly because the Airbnb was way more comfortable than the hostel I tried and also because if Paris is a walking city, Montmartre is a walker’s dream. Quaint alleys, stairways that lead you to independent art markets and really great crepes while you’re walking are a deadly combination.

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You know some musicians are legendary. You grow up listening to them and see their sound evolve into something outstanding if you’re lucky. I watched Thom Yorke at the Pitchfork Music Festival the same night I watched Rhye, whose performance videos I watch everyday. Thom Yorke was someone I wanted to watch with company and as strange as it is, meetup.com worked for me. What are the odds of going to a music festival with an architect your age you spoke to only an hour ago online? Only in Paris.

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In Paris, it’s better to skip the metro and walk. Sing, walk, stop for a crepe/beer/ magic cup of espresso, read a book and walk on. I walked to the 12th arondissement from Cimetière du Père Lachaise with multiple stops to see an abandoned rail road I read about. 79 years since it last functioned, this rail road is now shrouded with overgrown weeds. You can see empty spray paint bottles strewn around and if you look down, even the iron rails have art on them. Three kids smoking marijuana was all I saw sadly, but this place has such potential to turn itself into an artists’ paradise, currently being used only by a certain few as an open canvas.

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To take a break from the city life I decided to go on a day trip. Here’s some advice: Skip your usual chateau visit, take a detour and visit Provins an hour from Paris. Charming medieval town with unique French food, unlike anywhere else in France. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site- has castles, caves and a grand church, known primarily for it’s medieval champagne fairs. Stop by at Little Cafe on your way back. Warm, delightful, cosy with great coffee and a reinvented bruschetta recipe you won’t regret trying.

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Provins, France

As hard as it was to leave Paris, I got myself on a train to Nice. The smell of lavender and the blue sea reflecting the undeniable, very welcome sunshine for a tropical being and scaled down intimacy sum up Côte d’Azur. Nice, Èze and Menton were my destinations of choice. It helps that it wasn’t tourist season so I had to share the beach while the sun set  in Nice with two other people. I heard someone read out from a magazine that in France, cooking is an art form and is treated like a national sport. Niçoise seafood has flavours that I crave for every now and then accompanied by musicians playing on the streets long after dusk, complimenting the salt and a slight chill in the air. If only. Magnificent colours and too much beauty to take in in just a week. While I was on a hike in Èze, there was not a single cloud in the sky and the ocean was so blue-almost blurring the horizon. I love when the sun commands everything else to be a mere silhouette. There’s a quote from Glory Road that’s relevant here. He says, “Yes, sir, there are things to see and do on the French Riviera without spending money.”

 

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Part III of the series ‘Chasing Lights and Parallel Stories’.

 

 

Chasing Lights and Parallel Stories Pt. II

“We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.” Maybe travelling helps us expand and define the landscape somehow. I was extremely lucky to be in sunny London and involve myself in numerous discussions about the weather (there’s no end to it), watch the sun set over snow capped mountains while I flew over the Arctic Circle, watch the Northern Lights two nights in a row, watch legendary musicians play my favourite song of all time and live in a house in Norkisa with two beautiful cats. There were too many influences through this trip that changed my perspective of culture, design, cuisine and living. I learnt from music- watching smaller bands as well as legends; visits to great design schools, art- street/ graffiti and classical contemporary, museums, food and people.


London

Walking through charming old central London streets and exploring museums with my darling sister who is a financial consultant, exploring record stores and hipster markets in Shoreditch with my friend Jordan-an architect like myself; eating my first proper English fish n’ chips meal with Maria, a  friend I met after ten long years who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Physics, gave me such varied perspectives of London. Apart from people discussing the weather, standing on the right on escalators and sticking to a monochrome wardrobe- there is no stereotype I can think of for Londoners. My favourite experiences aren’t limited to the following.

– A coffee and walk through Neal Street in Covent Garden

Sipping on bitter, delectable Monmouth coffee from their tiny store while strolling through quaint, pretty streets until your feet start to hurt is always a great idea. Walk through Neal Street and Covent Garden towards Leicester Square to experience street artists and stores that range from upscale to quirky boutique. Lunch at Abeno Too- locally sourced, organic meat in something called an Okonomiyaki was fabulous. Another stand out was Inamo, which has a brilliant, digital table top that lets you play games, oversee your order or change your mind by picking something else on a drop down menu. All on the table. And they have a great sushi menu. What’s not to love?

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Neal Street, Covent Garden

– Spend a Sunday afternoon exploring Shoreditch

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Eclectic, vibrant, urban Shoreditch in East London is a living canvas. Explore old warehouses reformed with interactive art exhibitions, vintage retail or food markets that extend onto the streets with graffiti in the background by Banksy and the lesser known Brazilian artist Luis Bueno, whose art I absolutely loved.

The Boxpark market caught my attention while I walked back from Brick Lane street to the subway station. It has shipping containers as pop-up shops that change periodically; uber cool, pedestrian friendly and a great example of revitalisation of an empty urban plot. Another must-do in Shoreditch if you like music is a visit to the Rough Trade record store. I read that it was previously a Stella Artois brewery (I’m unsure if it makes the store any cooler than it already is). The USP is that every vinyl record has a written description, making it easier for people to educate themselves and browsing fun. Proceed to The Blues Kitchen or the Old Blue Last (if you’re an Arctic Monkeys fan) for a meal and beers before heading out of this grunge scene.

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Rough Trade, Shoreditch

– Walk, walk, walk.

To museums, art galleries, that hipster cafe you read about on your hipster friend’s blog, through Kensington/ Hyde Park, Tate, Canary Wharf, wherever. I ate at Borough market, at St. Katherine docks, visited the inside-out building against the fairly classical surrounding that I appreciated very much and experienced a beautiful sunset by the Tower Bridge after an interesting time at the Design Museum amongst other things. Another concept close to London Bridge that made for a unique experience was ‘Alcoholic Architecture‘ by architects Bombas and Parr set in an old Victorian building. You don’t get drunk in the cloudy room of breathable cocktail, and it makes for fun, unusual night out. The Design Museum will have to be my favourite in London. They say “someday other museums will be showing this stuff”, letting you know there are innovative and remarkable exhibits to experience or see. Exhibits from the Design of the Year competition included work by Alejandro Aravena (this year’s Pritzker prize winner) and an ‘air purifying billboard’ by the University of Engineering and Technology of Peru. Revolutionary, this.

– Experience live shows

I explored Camden Lock Market on a weeknight and watched The X Ambassadors at Dingwalls, a hole-in-the-wall performance venue. The small, intimate setting added to the effect songs like Unconsolable have had on me. I got a spot right in front of the stage and caught a copy of the set list. It was my first time hearing Hidden Charms, who opened for them. So so much great energy! Proper Brit Rock. Check them out on their Soundcloud page. I got my dose of the London underground live scene here.

On a much larger scale, I caught Odesza, who were phenomenal live- both visually and aurally. Koko, an old restored theatre seemed like the perfect venue for them. Loud, live drumming by the two, trumpet and trombone players over their dreamy digital tracks and absolutely fantastic visuals by Luke (@japanesedad on Instagram) made for an incredible night.

You know when you’re in the queue to get in to the venue and everybody seems close to your age, waiting to watch their favourite high school band that the night’s going to be special. Death Cab for Cutie was nostalgic and emotional. 24 songs made up the ultimate set list, my favourite being the piano solo beginning of Brothers on a Hotel Bed. The entire audience shed collective tears (everybody around me including myself). The progression of I Will Possess Your Heart and the audience singing along in unison to Transatlanticism were hauntingly beautiful. Forever memory right there with the few friends I made at the show.

Apart from looking forward to a natural phenomenon, I was counting down days until I watched Dave Matthews, Carter Beauford and Tim Reynolds slay it on stage to make the most diverse, seven piece band in performance existence seem like a dream. The Prudential Blues Fest had the Dave Matthews Band and  the Tedeschi Trucks Band perform at the same time. Made of stardust. It was towards the end of my trip and considering this the culmination of nights of listening to their music for years, a tattoo and only dreaming of their live performance closer to home, the company of my sister and brother was ideal. Experiences like this are infinitely better when shared.From loose, jazzy blues and tons of sass, a heartwarming performance of Satellite, my all-time favourite thirteen minute rendition of Jimi Thing packed with extensive solos and a dream closing with Two Step, this was the best I’ve experienced. I looked around as Carter rolled on and couldn’t see the end of the space. It was like an infinite array of light and the most beautiful sound. At the O2, Dave Matthews Band made my world absolutely alive and magical.

There are delightful plays to watch, fireworks to see, absurd, interesting activities to be a part of and fine cuisine from anywhere in the world to indulge in. However, the most endearing character of this wonderful city is the scale. Beautiful juxtapositions of the built, the people and a constant factor of high relatability made it one of my favourite cities in the world.

Note: This was earlier 2/2, but is now part 2/4.

 

Chasing Lights and other Parallel Stories

I was having a conversation with a friend about how music is so influential in everybody’s lives, more so in mine, to the point where I planned a sequential exit from my job and decided to start my own architecture firm because of one band. That’s almost trivializing the conclusion of my five years of architectural education and two years working at a firm in Bombay that helped me develop and figure out my unique design quotient. That being said, its almost strange to separate my love for the two because music and architecture cannot be seen as two very different entities in my life. Both stem out of passion, both involve human interaction without which they have no emotional value. Both are influenced by such varied ideas from the past and the future- history, psychology, science, culture or social contexts, which is why I probably have a liking towards both equally. Speaking of common ground, while reading an article about the history of recording studios and the evolution of sound recording, I learnt that people would use large rooms meant for public gatherings so they could play in their usual arrangement or form and record through a large acoustical horn. Eventually, spaces started catering to music production and mastering techniques became more sophisticated. Music changed (evolved is too linear to use here), and popular music changed genres as fast as every five years. I appreciate electronic music as much as I like listening to an acoustic guitar by the sea, but the craving I have to listen to ‘true sound’ and my preference of a simpler mastering process made me choose my research subject during my final year studying architecture.

Recording music is an art to create something eternal, like a building or technology or space- and to be able to attribute the quality of a record to the space it was recorded in is something I’d strive to achieve then. Music has varying depths and techniques with contrasting trebles and tones coming together to create a beautiful sound. This makes it challenging, and to have one sole space to record varied instruments was an impossible task. Designing efficient spaces to record the true sound of these individual instruments to achieve what could be the best reproduction was my aim. This would mean listening to old records, newer ones, understanding what I could about production techniques and even questioning some. I met A. R. Rahman’s chief sound engineer as part of my research process, who taught me the basics of production and made me understand the importance of material used for creating an efficient space. Form is never secondary, but the material used to bring that to life  would mean years of producing close to true sound each time. Aversion to these developments in material technology and going back to earlier forms for recording true sound is what set me back during my design process before this valuable interaction. Meeting people, discussing ideas even if they’re premature, experimenting with words while doing that lead you on to something you never thought of earlier. This reminds me of a discussion I had with a Landscape Architect in Akershus in Norway which was probably one of the highlights of my year. Relevance- whether limited by climate, culture or history is of prime importance. I casually spoke out loud  about how my experience with tropical architecture would set me back if I had to analyse Nordic architecture and my points would be invalid, considering my lack of local knowledge. But then I realised that good design is a response to a problem, issues created by situations everyday. How you hold a cup of tea determines the shape and handle of the cup. Problems sometimes governed by local issues couldn’t be addressed universally, but once your mind is trained to address or analyse a user-based issue in a certain way, the possibilities are endless. I was travelling for a while last month and at so many points during my time abroad, I would try and understand the local context of design form prevalent there, and this would lead me onto reading or learning about influences I would’ve overlooked otherwise. Maybe that made my experience richer.

In an earlier post I mentioned how rhythm, form, space and time define both music and architecture. Sometimes, they define travel too. “What’s your travel style?” A quick two day break to a new city might not be ideal for me. A slower rhythm with maybe varied forms of activity is what I aim for. There would be restaurants I must eat at and museums I definitely have to visit, but there’s also going to be the time when I find a spectacular record store on the way to that restaurant, spend too much time there and realise the lunch session at that restaurant ended an hour ago. It is then that I discover a quaint eatery, have the best grilled fish, followed by an espresso and sit around reading the first edition of my treasured ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ that I scored at a bookstore in Paris. The space and time will always be perfect.

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The trail

It’s humbling to see and experience things of such great scale, and when it’s a part of the built environment, I still feel old Indian architecture’s probably up there. There was rarely a time when I walked into a building and felt taken aback by the sheer scale of it. Intricacy, technology and technique- is something that was obviously incomparable during my time there. Whether it’s modern architecture’s structural wonders I saw in a Renzo Piano building or the buttresses in Notre Dame, techniques that rose because of requirement, or a response to an architectural problem- stayed and evolved over centuries. Walkable cities are Europe’s biggest strength and things you don’t see when you take a metro to the next stop, you experience on the streets. It was sort of magical- I saw three boys and a girl reharsing for their school play audition on a street in Republique and the boy said proudly, “You know I’m the only one in my class who could choose which part of the choir I wanted to be in?” and then for a full fifteen minutes sang the soprano, alto, tenor and bass vocal parts of a French song. He was 12. Humbling experience, one out of so many.

I made the plan for my trip based on the tour date of Dave Matthews Band live in London. What followed was multiple checks on tour dates of other bands and musicians I love and a close watch on the Northern Lights activity in October. I would spend a good part of my day reading articles and statistics on the activity and phenomenon and how to increase my chances of seeing them and where to go to do that. I zeroed in on Tromso because Norway has a landscape that’s hard to experience anywhere else in the world. The fjords and the Norwegian sea seemed so different from anything my tropical being is used to. The food, culture and Arctic history seemed too interesting to not explore, making the diversion to Scandinavia well worth it. I convinced myself that Tromso was an apt choice and Abisko in Sweden or Iceland should be done another time.

Food and music are memories, so every place I went would mean taking suggestions to eat the best local food as much as I can (I wouldn’t get too adventurous with sea food sometimes so I lost out) and listen to music at renowned local venues. I was lucky enough to do that because some bands that I liked and are relatively not as popular played in some beautiful venues, large and small. Also, here’s the thing about a big city. There could never be just one London or Paris. After this trip, my London could very well be different from yours.

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Of Horizons and Home

Comparison makes you quantify an experience. Happy, happier, ecstatic. I don’t like that too much. Being here makes me feel the happiest I could be, no doubt, but it would be hard to pick a superlative to describe what being in Goa feels like to me. The time I lived there, all the times I visit, it feels the same. Floating on. I don’t know it all. It’s a tiny state you think, but it’s so rich geographically, you’ll need much more than a short trip to even skim over the place. I keep going back, solo or with friends/ family, each time to a different part, unless I long for the same. It’s best to get past the sun, sand and sea cliche, though I feel like I was born to walk on granular comfort. These are my most favourite- restaurants, places to stay and the best views, in no particular order.

1. A monsoon afternoon at Reis Magos Fort

My country has a piece of history on every street, so it isn’t surprising for another fort to pop up, restored and glorious. You can spend half a day here. There’s not much ground to cover, but the 15th Century structure, the moss covered laterite and listening to the stories of the prisoners who escaped will make you want to sit in the galleries and admire the beautiful panorama. I’ve had too many good memories here, from the opening after restoration to spending the best time with my parents and closest friends. If you like watching the sun go down over the limitless ocean not far away from the center of Goa, here is best.

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2. Butterfly Beach

A little piece of my idea of paradise. Sit on a rock that seems like it’s the middle of the ocean, watch dolphins or sunbathe on glittery white sand, it’s a happy time. You can hike for approximately an hour from Agonda beach or take a boat from Palolem to get to this tiny beach. The slope isn’t gradual and the tide is rougher than usual here, so it’s better to be a confident swimmer if you want to swim in the clear water. The best time to be here is post monsoon, in October for the perfect contrast of the blue sea and lush forest behind.

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3. Enjoy serenity at Avanilaya, Aldona

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Think quiet- quiet enough to hear birds chirp and the river flow and warm tropical earthen colours. Avanilaya is everything I love about Goa in a home. People definitely make the place and Avanilaya has the most hospitable staff. Charmaine is the most helpful manager and Milagre, the chef is extremely talented and made the food effortlessly gourmet. The place is the perfect scale complimented by a great material palette. Well designed rooms with a central courtyard and partially covered dining made for my favourite kind of luxury. It’s not an impersonal hotel, but a private abode. I love a good bathroom and the one in my room was perfect with an in situ bathtub and a door on the same axis to the gorgeous coconut grove right outside. The sweet smell of benzoin complimented the lush green Goan monsoon, leaving my family and me with memories to treasure.

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4. My favourite pizza in the country at Magic Italy, Palolem

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Gorgeous. You can pick which vegetables or meat go on your pizza. The crust is perfect. Good ‘foldable’ authentic pizza that goes best with the amazing fresh fruit cocktails they serve.

5. Breakfast at Cafe Inn, Palolem

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Mushroom, cheese and tomato omelette with frsh sesame buns, hummus, pickled beetroot, cajun spiced potatoes, spinach, olive eggplant, carrot and cabbage salad and homemade marmalade. On the side is hazelnut cold coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. All top class. Definitely going back, every time.

6. Playing with crabs at Vagator

I like rocky beaches a lot. They have so much character because I’ve witnessed some incredible reflections of rays off the rocks, sat with my friends midst crashing waves, tiny white crabs all over the place and experienced one of the most incredible sunsets. Head to Bean Me Up or German Bakery in Anjuna after, for the best comfort food.

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7. Serradura at Maracas, Porvorim

This has to be my favourite dessert in the world. It’s simple crumbled biscuit with fresh cream and frozen. Typically Goan Portugese, the chefs at Maracas make this the best. There’s nowhere in Bombay I can find this, which makes my craving for it much worse. The mains and appetizers are to die for as well. With the cutest decor and a warm owner ready to make the most apt suggestions, this is one place I’d travel 400km for to satisfy any food craving I have.

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8. Watch a foreign film at Sunaparanta, Altinho, Panjim

It’s just one of those things. Still, cold November evening, the perfect amphitheatre and lovely cinema. They also have great photography and art exhibitions on through the year and the cafe, which is small and quaint has amazing tarts and pastries.

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9. Stay at Olaulim Backyards, Pomburpa

Truly a labour of love. A ride to get there through the Goan countryside lined with tall coconut trees by the Mapusa river and the narrow by lanes of Ucassaim and Olaulim lead you to the home of Savio and Prikko, who are the warmest people I’ve met. It’s home to three dogs, two goats Billy and Lily, a donkey Mantra and Richard Parker, the cat apart from their two kids who I unfortunately couldn’t spend much time with because they had school the next day. Time stands still here. It’s the ideal marriage between the wild landscape and the four cottages made with natural material- rammed earth, coconut leaves. The Mapusa river flowing through the property adds to the peaceful undercurrent. The dewy mist in the morning, kayaking on water watching it reflect deeper shades of orange at sunset- it’s perfect. Home-made food with organic fresh fruit grown right there served to you reminded me of my mother. You can cycle and discover run down churches, canoe, go fishing or lie down with a book or stare at swaying palm leaves while the sounds of free flowing water makes it a beautiful, tranquil experience. Mon repos for sure.

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10. Coffee at Coffee Haven, Anjuna

69662_10151733100798356_850708296_nIt’s frothy, made by hand and not a fancy machine, strong and tastes incredible. No frills.

11. Tilari Dam, Chandgad

Okay, not really Goa, but a 70km drive/ride from Panjim. I stumbled upon this with a friend on a rainy, August Sunday, but easily one of the best bike rides ever. It’s illegal to take your bike up onto the dam, but heck, 70km isn’t a small distance for you to sacrifice a view based on a loose rule. Go here if you have additional time on your holiday to Goa and you’re not in the mood for a beach and cocktails, but a drive/ride through bumpy roads and hills to lead you to the best surprise. It’s always better to not be aware of what awaits and I’m glad it was that for me.

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Definitely a few more that almost made it to this list. There’s so much beauty, peace, love and food this region of the country has to offer, some indescribable, but it’s best discovering some on your own, one at a time, for a wonderful, underived experience.

For Michael

Remember that the song that takes you back to the first time you heard it is the most powerful. Your song. The moment just flashes across your mind. There’s always that special song, or many for some. Songs that remind you of your childhood- the first song you danced to, the first song you sang in front of a large audience, the songs you listened to in full blast when you got your new music system or in your car while driving on a perfect day with the perfect company and just smiled, listening to every lyric. I was listening to ‘The Earth Song’ by Michael Jackson and remembered the time when my parents, my sister and I would watch the video on MTV at home with all the lights off. My mum would turn up the volume and we would listen to MJ sing. I was what, 10 then or younger. I remember the time when we bought the 3 cassette set of the ‘History’ album. Cassette players! From cassette players to CDs to mp3, MJ lived through all of it. I remember how fascinated I got looking at the ‘Dangerous’ album art. I wondered if I could redraw the graphics on it in my book but I never ended up trying.

I believe and know that the greatest contribution a human being can make to the world is influential music. I am reminded of great moments shared with the people I love while listening to some of my favourite music. Michael Jackson contributed to many of those. It was compelling, meaningful, special music.

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world
A better place
Take a look at yourself, and
Then make a change”

I believed then that he was the person who taught the world how to dance, how to be kind and protect the planet and everyone around us. That will always live on in my memory through his music. There were two six-year-old kids sitting next to me in the theater when I went to watch ‘This Is It’ for the third time, and they knew every word of every song and clapped after every performance. The relevant gem through time. There’s this benevolent attitude and honesty about the King of Pop that you can’t help but admire. My mother made me listen to Dire Straits and the Doors and made me love them. Michael Jackson came much later in my childhood, but I always picture myself in my living room with that MJ record playing fifteen years from now in an ideal, peaceful time.

Evolution

I didn’t enjoy taking photographs until a couple of years ago. That might not be a good thing, but I remember a lot more details of places I visited without having a photograph to take me back there. I was walking around in Fort sipping on my cappuccino and came across a street artist selling images of the Taj Mahal. I asked him why he had photographs of just the Taj, considering our country has so many beautiful architectural masterpieces. He didn’t know. 

That conversation took me back to my visits to the Taj Mahal. I’ve been there thrice. I was too young to filter in the magnificence the first time, but I remember it being a warm sunny day. The sky was clear blue and the white monument looked just wonderful with the rays of the sun reflecting off it. Let me tell you this. In architecture school, there’s a lot of twisting words around. The ‘play of light and shadow’, ‘degree of surprise’. Well, it’s not an exaggeration of a building analysis but it sort of makes it seem like a caricature of the built form to be honest. Applying intellect and analysis sometimes ruins a perfectly normal emotional experience. 

You walk through gardens and through a gateway that frames the Taj so beautifully. The walk through to the huge open vista with the most graceful linear axis leading to the monument is unreal. I think the contrast of the raw calligraphy on the coloured gateway that opens up to viewing this pure built form provides you with an experience you need to understand and take in. It got better the second time for me. It was when they used to keep the gates open until late in the evening. It was a full moon night and the semi precious jewels on the marble glistened like nothing I’d seen before or after. I remember it so clearly. You could see the spirit of the workmen almost shining through. I never wanted to leave but sights like those never leave you anyway. The third time I went, it was a dull grey sky. It got even better this time. The spirit of the monument wasn’t all bright. The history after was bloody. Seeing this monument mean something different each time is something that taught me the quality of the built form being timeless. Not just physically, but in terms of giving any living form the pleasure of evolution, anticipation and experience. That’s a power tough to possess and being able to create something as timeless? That’s probably the biggest character test there might be. 

Solo Female Traveller

It’s strange. I took my first flight alone to a foreign land at 14, but when I took a bus to a city 500 km. away in my own country, my family panicked and worried about variables that are really out of anybody’s control- What if the bus topples? What if the man sitting beside you is indecent? What if the bus breaks down at midnight? Well, what if? I think for approximately four seconds and decide it’s too much of a loop to get into. Put my earphones back on and stare out the window.

I graduated in April last year and before I started my first job, I decided to take a trip by myself to an unfamiliar place. Regular exercises like visiting forums online, typing in keywords- “female+solo+traveller+india+safe” and beautiful image searches followed, and I zeroed in on Sikkim. Tsomgo Lake, Nathula Pass, all seemed unreal in the photographs. I had to make it to the Chinese border. My trip extended beyond Sikkim and my itinerary changed- I met with an old friend in Shillong and stayed at an army cantonment with another, a little further away from there. Quaint little town you will want to go back to for the people, food and the local beer.

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Insanely talented, the most humble, makers of the best momos and oblivious to all negatives is what I inferred of the people I met there. Driving through the most scenic routes through the clouds, jamming at 6200 ft. above sea level and looking across the border into Bangladesh- it kept getting better. The living root bridge was however, the highlight. Step left and across, walking on roots of a tree? Strength and resilience.

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If it starts with a sunset, it has got to end with one.

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My first train ride alone. Girl. Overnight. Sounds worse in your head, sounded like an adventure to me. But frankly, it was prosaic. No better way to describe it. Travelling on a shoestring budget exposes you to better things than otherwise. I shared a cab ride to Gangtok from Jalpaiguri (the closest railway station) with 5 construction workers from Calcutta. It’s on a first come-first serve basis so you don’t get to pick who you travel with unless you book a cab all for yourself. The clashes we had in our conversation with the horribly different Hindi accents was definitely one for the books.

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NH 31A. Cheese maggi? Never tasted better.

Gangtok- fresh black mushrooms, the best blues musicians, the promenade with the view of the hills straight ahead and cute notes on the walkway. Seriously, step forward, look down, read and smile, look up and you have the best view of the Himalayas. Being able to watch the Kanchenjunga turn orange at dawn from my hotel room was the biggest add on.

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ImageNo trip to Sikkim is complete without smiling monks, swivelling roads, kinema and raksi– locally made rice beer which is mild and goes best with a great book and a view you wouldn’t trade for more dumplings.

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A meal at 9’ine, a restaurant featured by Ian Wright was inevitable considering my love for food. Local cuisine is the best, anywhere you travel. Made with love, of course. So good.

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My trip to Nathula Pass and the Chinese border was due and I was discussing it with the restaurant owner, who gave me a travel agent’s number. The next day, I went to the common cab area (50 tourist cabs get permission to go up to the border for security reasons) and was well on my way with two couples and some students from Assam. The couples from Amritsar and Lucknow asked me if I ran away from home while passing on the fifth pack of chips behind. (Couldn’t call shotgun because well, “ladki toh aage nahi na”) I remember a Choir of Young Believers song playing and I looked out of my window. No road. Straight drop. Long, long drive up and probably the most introspective I’ve been in my life. I made it. Teary eyed and all worth it. Tsomgo Lake, the Chinese border and Baba Mandir which is a faith temple based on a true story of a ghost soldier looking after the Indian border and the jawans there. “Jo chahe milega agar wahan pe dua maange” was what our cab driver told me.

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That’s it. I was leaving for home the next day with those stills etched in my memory for a long long time to come. There are always the pictures anyhow. It started to rain. The drive back seemed different with the half smile and side glance of the Punjabi woman turning into a proper one that seemed devoid of a negative meaning. The rain got heavier but I enjoyed seeing the canvas in shades of grey and blue. 25 kilometres from Gangtok and our cab was stopped by army men. I figured it was the regular en route checking and notched the volume one up to avoid listening to everything around me. An hour passed and it got much darker. “Aaj toh impossible hai vaapas jaana. Two landslides and they can only clear it by morning. It’s raining too hard. We have to spend the night here.” “Where?” “In the cab. No army camps close by anywhere” No network and the same “poor girl” look from the aunties in my cab. I definitely had to get back the same day because I had a flight from Bagdogra back home the next. It would be too much explaining to do if I hadn’t been able to text my family before midnight that I’m safe.

After arguing with the people in my cab about how it’s impossible that ten of us stay in the car freezing all night and paying our driver a few extra thousand, I finally unplugged my earphones and got myself prepared for the trip of my life. I had to take the route all the way up to the border, cross multiple frozen lakes and 7 hours later, crawl into bed. Easy. The Guru Granth Saheb(the holy book of the Sikhs) playing on loud on my co-passenger’s phone didn’t help calm the situation. Dark roads, passing through waterfalls and moonlight on the snow capped peaks. It was in my destiny. I wouldn’t care if it was the last journey I took, but the full moon that night almost made it symbolic. Tsomgo Lake had never looked so beautiful in any of the photos I had seen. The rain had it being selectively visible and I had to control blinking too much because I was afraid I would miss the most beautiful frame. I was the last one to get dropped to my hotel but the first thing our driver told me when it was just us was “You’ll get home and tell your family about this wonderful journey. I’m going to do that too.” I smiled in agreement because I knew it was a life changing one.

Love Excellent Food Presentation?

How Michelin Star Restaurants put the Best Design Principles on a Plate

Using food as merely a metaphorical reference in design is long gone. Michelin star restaurants have been the epitome of not just the quality of food, but the superior visual experience fine dining has to offer. Now, with food shows hosted by celebrity chefs and Michelin star rated restaurants having websites, who wouldn’t be inspired to create dishes that are appealing visually as they are to taste? You must be wondering if it requires more than just creative genius and great instinct to present a dish that’s worthy of a Michelin star. The verdict: Of course! After all, “food is edible art”.
These are a set of design principles banked upon to create these culinary wonders. For those of you interested in any field of visual art or architecture, these would be familiar in an instant.

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Photo Credit: Ken Thorne

Colour and balance: Red and black is a combination we’re all well versed with. This attractive dish, created by Michelin starred chef Matias Perdomo who is from Uruguay, speaks volumes about how understanding the balance of colour and contrast promotes the character of a dish. The sharp glossy finish of the main portion of the dish truly stands out when it’s set against the black base. It intrigues you in a glance and leaves you wondering what it would taste like! It surely is non-conventional, but that’s where excellence begins.

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Photo credit: Pont de Ferr

Density- Tranparency and Opacity: Have you ever wondered how to make a large portion of food seem light? This eye pleaser is a signature dish at the three Michelin star rated Fat Duck located in Bray, Berkshire, England. It is considered by most conoisseurs to be the best restaurant in the world. Run by chef Heston Blumenthal, one can only expect the technique to be extraordinary. In this dish, the transparency of the snail on the opaque julienned ham and puree creates an illusion of different textures that is tempting, don’t you think? It certainly looks worthy of being a star rated dish because of the fascinating textural contrast it creates.

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Photo credit: Charles Haynes

Sculptural technique: With the rise of food pictures on Instagram, how about eating something that is so beautiful, you decide to take a hundred photos of it before, without doing enough justice! This is a delicacy created at the Fat Duck that has people going back for more. It signifies perfect harmony even though it is asymmetrical. The vertical focus is right at the center with a gradation of ingredients around that leaves a strong impact. The technique and skill that goes into crafting a dish like this one is indeed very hard to match, but you’re welcome to try this at home!

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Photo credit: Charles Haynes

Line, space and focus: With the most basic skill, the gradation and perspective this masterpiece creates is astounding, simply because the focus isn’t obvious. Another fabulous example from the Fat Duck menu- the line of vanilla mayonnaise diminishes into the poached salmon, which is the focus of the dish. The little spaces around the grapefruit cells and artichoke make it visually perfectly balanced. Apply this principle to a dessert with cake and vanilla finishing it off with chocolate chips, perhaps?

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Photo credit: Charles Haynes

Geometry, texture and form: The duo Frantzen- Lindeberg have a restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden that is listed as one of the top 50 in the world according to the Restaurant magazine and we know exactly why. Here is a little trick that only the masters seem to put into practice. While plating a finished course, try experimenting with the cutlery and arrangement. Use contrasting textures to bring out the form of the delicacy. It’s quite straightforward and looks spectacular too!

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Photo credit: Ann-Carlotte Jonsson