Friday, November 23, 2012

The SPA Effect

Even when you leave SPA (finally!) after five years (hopefully), and bound forward, relieved or regretful at successfully negotiating the endless ‘crits’ that had occupied your mental and physical horizon, you can’t really shake it out of your system.

Neither can you escape bumping into an SPAite every now and then.

You may back into one on a seemingly deserted train platform. Or discover another lurking amongst the leafy plants in the quiet elegance devised by Joseph Allen Stein at the Triveni Kala Sangam. Or yet another determinedly drifting amidst a den of tourists anywhere in the multitude of ‘hill-stations’ in India. Or spot one casually draped around the paintings in an avant-garde art-gallery. I haven’t been to the Arctic (yet) but I have a feeling when I do land up there, there is sure to be at least one SPAite already dawdling or doodling there.

Considering the fairly small numbers that made up the undergraduate course – at least till somewhat recently – this is a fairly remarkable phenomenon. I suppose what it means is that we are a fairly diverse and adventurous lot. The question is, whether we were always Like That Only, or is it some change that SPA hath wrought in us? Like the famous and deluded prince in English literature, we may well wonder if it is our stars, Horatio, or us?

Not having the ability to read the stars, I vote for ‘us’, aided by The SPA Effect. The SPA I joined – by lucky chance since this was practically the only college of architecture I applied to – was chock-full of ‘characters’. It was a great relief after a tortuous week of Economics classes among a gaggle of more or less similarly clad and trained population at the Lady Sri Ram College. SPA, by contrast, ran the entire gamut from khadi and kambals to Levis to lehngas. Before architecture got to be as mainstream a choice of study as management, those who joined the School of Planning and Architecture were (some more visibly than the others) an individual lot. Architecture wasn’t so respectably middle-class as engineering or medicine; it wasn’t obviously understandable like administration or law. It certainly was a professional course, unlike merely studying Physics or English or History, but what the heck architects did – and why they took so long to do it – was a mystery to most.

So, the varied populace of SPA, whether those who wandered in via the SAARC and NAM route from Nepal, Palestine, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malayisa, Afghanistan, or via villages, towns and cities in Orissa, Nagaland, Assam, Himachal, etc. were a combination of those trying to unravel the mystery – and those who revelled in adding to it. The more exciting and excitable ones had run away from home to join the course, or having finally made it here, dreamt of running away somewhere else. Even the apparently more conventional types, had a streak of embedded eccentricity. All in all, they were certainly not standard types.

And by the time, most finished with SPA or SPA finished with them, whichever way you look at it, they became even less of a standard type, and acquired unmistakably SPA overtones. Perhaps it was the sheer variety of subjects trained at us – structural mechanics, mathematics, history of Western and Indian architecture, plumbing, photography, arts and graphics, air-conditioning, housing, theory of design, building construction, etc. etc. You may have flunked a couple of these or more, but it wasn’t really possible to get seriously bored. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had made it to IIT and missed, well, at least some of this.

But an encyclopaedic course is presumably common to all colleges of architecture. So, what’s so different about SPA? I suspect it is its urban, melting-pot quality due at least in part to its location, in the heart of Delhi, away from the rarefied university campus air. The School of Planning and Architecture is probably the only college to have its Architecture and Planning departments housed in two separate ‘plots’ linked by a length of slip road bordering as public a space as the Ring Road. We sit cheek by jowl with a graveyard and the magnificent ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla, and within sneezing distance from the IP Power Plant, Vikas Bhawan, ICCR, and Mandi House. We are almost on the banks of the travesty that Delhi has made of the Yamuna, more-or-less in line with history and the City Of Shah Jahan and the other cities that came before and after it.

We cannot help an acquired acquaintance with the high road and the low road. It also probably explains an average SPAite’s elusive tolerance to noxious substances and the nonchalant ability to pass by or bypass everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. In fact, it may be the very lack of an identifiable, enclosed territory, and the relative isolation of an academic institution ‘doomed to be a university’, which gives us our peculiar ability to appropriate everything in our vicinity and beyond, and to rise above the state or size of our ‘campus’. A sort of ‘At Home in the World and at Home with the World’ syndrome. Which may be the reason I was foolhardy enough to negotiate the way back to the hostel in the Planning Block alone, at 2 am after a party in the SPA Audi.

On a less flippant note, there was a more focused larger engagement with the world, through our faculty and the course-work which paid at least lip-service to the social and ethical aspects of architecture. And since we didn’t have recourse to a larger academic fraternity, we were actively engaged within the college (sometimes with rather tangible results) that used to make it such a heady place. The SPA building itself, was a practical lesson (some called it a practical joke) in what not to do. And successive generations of students had a lot of scope to work on it to picaresque and picturesque advantage – from the Art Thesis sculptures that doubled up as outdoor and indoor seating for the canteen, to the boundary wall that worked as space to careen, exhibit, and receive mud missiles at Utopia, to the superlative quality of cartoons that passed for graffiti on the staircase walls. The library, almost always full of students from 8 in the morning to 8 at night, was scarcely the quiet, hallowed place sacred to learning in most educational institutions. It was a favourite hangout for dozing, debating, dishevelled students feverishly finishing assignments – or not. A piece of SPA lore recounts one senior’s exasperated holler on a day when the noise in the canteen was more than usually deafening, telling everyone to “Shut up, this is not the library!”

So, it was rather a shock when I walked into the library after returning to teach intermittently at SPA, and found it a sad and silent space, with books piled all over the tables and no one but the librarian in sight. Surprising too, since SPA is bursting at the seams with about 120 students in each undergraduate batch. The distinct, tightly knit community with its special ethos, has seemingly mutated into a distant cousin of DU – in its attire, in its architecture and its attitude. It may be an uphill task for the SPA Effect to thrive in the midst of the shiny floor-tiles of the canteen in its new avatar of a cacophonous Call Centre lobby-like space. Like the poet hoped for Abou Ben Adhem, ‘may the tribe increase’ – but not immoderately or inordinately, and certainly not at the cost of the qualities which gave SPA its distinctiveness, its intense engagement within the college and with the city.

© Anisha Shekhar Mukherji


  1. Well said Aneesha.. and you are right.. and I know of at least one SPAite who has been to the Arctic and trying to do a subterranean housing project in North Alaska for the tribal community of Inupiaqs. Keep up the good work.Love reading your books and blogs.

  2. its intresting to know how SPA used to be.. anisha which batch u r?

  3. "Doomed to be a university" , is what Im gonna take home.

  4. Sid...I agree...thats indeed a catchphrase....and Anisha....Well strung words there! They precisely echo my sentiments about The SPA Effect and its current sad state. Newness it needed desperately but not in the way that I see it today. Pray the Effect returns!

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  6. Although the number of students is increasing every year, I can assure you the "SPA Effect" is still lingering around the corner. You just have to grab it. Once you have it, you have it for life! This article can be comprehended only by somebody who has felt the "SPA Effect" :)

  7. Love the... Doomed to be a university.!!!!