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 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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I like Green too

There was something about the upturned, newly developed, transformed garden. I could no longer see black and grey and sing “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” She made jam from the plums that grew on the trees there and sold them in broad square glass bottles. I love it.

It was not a place that you would associate with any shade of unhappiness. The flowers were in full bloom on a March morning and the stillness in the air felt strangely good. Children smiling at their distorted faces in the lotus pond and distorting those reflections even further by throwing in the tiny pebbles we used to line the pathways was a beautiful sight.

My favourite couple- together since forty two years, childhood romance and all that; sat in the gazebo that patterned their skin by allowing selective light to come through to the bench in the center. They looked beautiful. I waited for her to come join me and write lyrics to the new tune we composed so we could sing it to them. Starting at the blank page didn’t even feel like it was writer’s block. I was just taking my time to absorb my surrounding. Creating that green space continues to be a journey, a massively satisfying one because it gave birth to something that wasn’t just personal; it gave birth to a community.

Musings of an Architect

I proudly mention to people I meet that I am an architect because I love the built form and have acquired a positive sense of space.

2008, and I wasn’t as open to the idea of the study of building and construction, as I understood it. I had the aptitude. I could draw a straight line on an A4 sheet and had a vague idea of complimentary colour. Straight into college, a lecture about a dot on a plane didn’t hold any relevance to me primarily because I was ill-read of the subject and unaware. I was too lazy to ask questions but in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t. Architecture is like music in so many ways. Fine art. Subjective. The beauty lies in the difference. There are principles that define the science that took me a while to understand and philosophies I linked them to. That was when it all started to make sense.

It is unfortunate that I cannot look back at my five years at architecture school and remember quotes from lectures or workshops that taught me the value of this art. Conversations about architecture with my mother and one of my closest friends through college were probably what acted as the cornerstone. Just like your favorite song playing during that perfect sunset by the sea, it is overwhelming at times. You realise that it is all a part of the oldest story ever written; that every human, social and cultural condition continues to influence built form and habitable space.

Architecture is design. A very cohesive term. Good design to me would mean great aesthetic with a usability quotient that is either well defined or limitless. I’m not sure I would be a practising architect for the rest of my life but I’m certain there will always be moments I look fixedly at a facade for a long while or maybe a tile or fixture in a cafe only to be interrupted by the smell of a well made cappuccino.