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Conversion of Architectural Space

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Ghats: An introduction

The Ghats are made up of steps and landings that allow clear access to the water body. Ghats respond to a particular hydrology where there is extreme difference in the water level throughout the year. The steps get submerged in the monsoon seasons whereas they are fully visible in the summer months hence creating different urban scape at different times of the year. The Ghats exists all over South Asia on the periphery of lakes, ponds, water bodies and mainly rivers.

Architecture is related to culture. Out of cultural and traditional requirement arises the need for a specific kind of architecture. Similarly, the Ghats emerged out of the need of immersion and ablution in the waters of the holy river: a practice by Hindu devotees and pilgrims who walk down the steps of the Ghats to access the river water for holy rituals and worship. They were built by the rich merchants and kings for the benefit of public. Even though Ghats were built initially for religious practices, daily activities such as washing, bathing, cremation and cleaning also took place here. Here activities associated with private life like death, worship, bodily functions are on public display. ‘The Ghats are a liminal space between the Holy River and sacred land where the eruption of the sacred in the profane creates meaningful pauses in everyday life. Here pilgrims engage in rites of passage, aghori ascetics in subversive practices, and tourists in stepping outside their cultural frame of reference in a quest for spirituality, creating a ‘third space’ ….’ (Bhabha 1994)

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The Ghats architecture responds to the changing levels of the water. The Ghats are aligned with octagonal and circular platforms which divide the steps into bays and protect them from erosion. These bays form places to meditate and carry out various religious practices. According to the location and the behaviour of the water body, the Ghats vary in the size of the steps and the platforms. For example Flower Ghats (refer fig 1) on Hooghly river in Kolkata, India have a sloped platform as compared to Ghats in Varanasi, India which end with steps.

This Ghat architecture has thrived from the 16th century because of the river being the heart of urban layout of the city. The Ghats establish a relationship between the city and the river where all its social, cultural and religious institutions thrive. Hence the skyline of Ghats are defined by the various religious and cultural built structures whereas the water line is defined by the placement of landings along with the continuous steps. Hence the two combine to form a rhythm at the river banks. The Ghats defer from each other through the skyline and the function.

Responding to the water levels the Ghats adapt the dual role of protecting the banks of the river and protecting the alluvial terrain from washing away by letting the water spread on them. It hence creates a continuity between the city and the river. It doesn’t create a barrier between the two but on the contrary unites the two allowing free flow of the water.

Design Process

The site was located next to the river in Gothenburg. The ideas of Ghats began from this point as a response to architecture next to a water body. Conversion of a flat public space typology to a building was the next challenge. The major architectural element of Ghats are the steps. Hence, the conversion from steps to a building began with exploring different options. Finally I decided onto one that had symmetry, rhythm and rigidity – elements that are common within the Ghats. The building hence had open and closed arrangement of rectangles onto a stepped base.

The conversion of the building space was based on the simple understanding of the habitable space. Ghats are typology of open public space and the steps are used for access to the water. Converting this into habitable space simply means having the stepped topography of habitable spaces or rooms rather than a connector to the water.

There is no enclosure / boundaries in the Ghats. Each step merges with the other and the spaces overlap. There is no demarcation between the open and closed.

The Ghats have different activities taking place on different steps. Each step provided a different environment for the user. Starting from the top, there is the usual circulation space which converts into space for street hawkers. Moving lower down comes the space for seating. The last few steps are a mix of activities like bathing and washing for daily users and playing with the water for the less frequent ones. This change of environment was basis of my function.

Trying to create the same environment, I tried converting the building into a sculpture by merely extending the floor plates on the opposite side and creating semi closed facade. The design that I have conceptualized is a proposal of multiple restaurants of different scales at different levels. The different restaurants range from small food trucks to cafes to larger and formal restaurants. They hence create a different environment on each floor but are connected with the same element that is food.

Ghats merge the city with the water. Hence the openness and the permeably on the ground floor was to provide and easy access to the water and a continuity from the existing connections to the water body. Further down, steps give final access to the water.

Design Process: An analysis

The famous theorist Q·D·Quincy once described in “Encyclopedic Dictionary of Architecture” that type does not mean the copy of thing’s image or a perfect imitation, it means a factor concept, this concept is in itself a law of forming model. His description has illuminated that the appearance of “type” aims to extract the common feelings and spirit recognition about historical buildings from human beings, then according to the extraction, the specific architectural model can be formed with guidelines. As human beings would have different feelings and spirit recognition about historical buildings as they see the “type”, the specific architectural model can be formed based on their visualisation or extraction of feelings.

Hence the design type was first reduced to the basic geometric form and then this geometric form was used to form an architectural form which thus incorporated the basic principles and language of the Ghats.

The selection of “Ghats” type:

Looking back at the basic principle of typology i.e. “When faced to similar conditions and situations, similar strategies should be adopted”, the project was an adaption of this strategy when faced with the similar conditions of water architecture.

The processing (conversion) of “Ghats” type:

The project was not a direct conversion of the typology, in other words, a ¨copy¨. It evolved, abstracted from the basic typology to give a form that suited the project requirements and the surroundings.

Conversion of building scale

The basic requirement of the project was a building and not a landscape architecture. Hence the conversion of scale took place via making the Ghats habitable and accessible spaces.

Conversion of architectural space

The Ghats are a mix of steps and platforms where the platforms serve as halt points. Conversion of this space factor took place where the platforms were converted into terraces for a direct view of the water body i.e. as halt points and the food kiosks as activity zones.

Conversion of functions

The activities around Ghats are governed by the water body. But in the design, the water body takes a secondary place in defining the functions. Food forms the major defining factor of the function. Even though these factors vastly differ, the environment so created had similar qualities. In Ghats, each step offered a different environment to the user. Conversion of that through different food stalls/ restaurant, the different levels in the building provided different environment to the user.

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