The hostel building by Thirdspace not only offers some relevant answers to the physical and economic contexts of the city of Belgaum but also addresses the dilemma between ambition and economic means. The text that follows will elaborate further on the ideas of architectural or typological responses and the idea of ‘aesthetics’ of means’.
1. Hostels as part of the expanded idea of housing.
Most cities across Karnataka, and also in many parts of India, have adopted for several decades a particular idea of land subdivision. This idea of land subdivision is based on the economic classification of society visa-vi the capacity to purchase a certain size of land with typical land parcels of 20’ x 40’, 30’ x 40’, 40’ x 60’ and so on. Land subdivision of this nature already assumes in its genesis a certain form of a single family house and hence an idea of family living. Across many cities in Karnataka one finds a vast urban-scape of low rise sprawl with individual bungalows.
To locate this project critically one has to understand the changing forms of economics in other cities in Karnataka and the corresponding changes in the built form. For instance in Mysore the individual houses in these plots are used for wide range of programs and only the ground floor of the building is used as the house of the owners . Rest of the house is utilized for paying guest accommodations,yoga centers -especially focused on foreign tourists, cafes, companies’ holiday homes and so on. Ironically, not a single project reflected a deliberate formal response to this changing economy or programs.
It is precisely here, to offer a formal response to those potentials already present in the urban field, that this project becomes critical. It challenges the status quo of the relation between the built form and landivision corresponding to land-use.
The hostel by Thirdspace is located in one such typical suburban neighborhoods where the houses are built like the watered-down houses from the Truman Show and are rented to students and new migrant population and so on. This neighborhood is abutting the industrial and educational zone of the city. There are two large campuses within a radius of two to three kilometers where thousands of students study engineering and management courses. These campuses are located amidst dusty metal workshops, automobile showrooms and midsize factories. There are a few private hostel buildings being constructed in the neighborhood but the typical response in most cases is the straight forward stacking of floors without any consideration for light and ventilation let alone the idea of quality of life.
The basic unit of the project is a derivation of the bare minimum space needed for a student to inhabit the space. In many ways it fondly reminds of Corbusier’s Swiss Pavilion in Paris and Sainte Marie de La Tourette where Corbusier explores the spatial ideas for minimal living.
The plan of the project is derived by the configurations of the most basic objects for the act of living- 2’6″x6’ bed, 2’x4’ study table, 9″x9″ chair, a wardrobe and a light bulb. The most economical configuration of these objects in plan results in a 8’x10’ floor plate. Each unit is has two of these floor plates distributed in section, sometimes three, with a shared facility at the mid level between these floors connected by a narrow and extremely thin mild steel plate staircase.
The split section does two things, on the one hand it allows for two three people to have their own individual space -without necessitating doors- and yet the possibility to come together -at mid-level- for shared rituals of living. On the other hand it allows for a greater densification of the site without compromising on light and ventilation.
It’s like a compacted and compounded version of the Loosian Raumplan or Correa’s Boyce Houses. But it also has its roots in one of the consistent themes in the works of Thirdspace, the idea of densification of programs using split sections.
3. Frugality and aesthetics of means.
To describe Euralille -and what is evident in projects like Kunsthal- Koolhaas describes it as sort ‘Calcutta Intelligence’ where it is not so much about finesse as much as it is about realizing the intention -or what he refers to as ‘program’- despite the contradictions between ambitions and available means. There is a resurfacing of the discourse on means, ambitions and its resultant aesthetics under the bracket of ‘economy of means’. It certainly is a necessary discussion for our contemporary conditions. However, I would like to propose the another term for the same idea; aesthetics of means.
Similarly, the logic behind the density of the project is derived from the budget for the project. The site is roughly around 100sqm. Usually a family of 2-6 lives on this size of the. In the case of the hostel, the rate of return on investment determined the overall rent that the client should receive from the project and based on the average rents in the neighborhood per bed the number of occupants were determined around 29. To top this there was a height restriction of 15 meters beyond which the building would have to have a lift which meant additional cost and loss of space. Instead, the really compact unit plan and section, in that sense, became instrumental in achieving those numbers yet at no point compromising on the quality of space in the project.
Like in the description of the project provided by the office, there was a complete optimization of resources to ensure the completion of the project in a really meager budget. The wall are rendered white without plaster on the inside, toilets are made out of thin kadappa stone slabs, ceilings are left bare and unpainted, railings are minimized to a single red pipe, window shutters are simple metal frames with filmed glass, cane rolling screens and so on; yet at no point giving a sense of being unattended.
Hence, one cannot really look at the building through the usual contemporary lenses of aesthetics that put shine over intent. This project, like Charles Correa’s works, opens up the discussion, once again, on the idea of aesthetics of means where beauty is the result of spatial articulation of the means at hand and not an ideal form that is only possible in opulence.
Moving out, the project at no point appears to be excusing itself as a low-budget production. In fact, the deep red color of the building with the staggered and shallowly recessed windows and of course the way the flamboyance in form gives the building a certain Scandinavian or Dutch characteristics of playfulness and yet economical.
There are however several places where the idea of aesthetics of means could have been pushed with a little more sophistication. However, the project successfully opens up the discussion on this idea and paves way to think beyond the idea of jugaad to think about architecture in India. Not only that it also stands as an exemplar, a very potent archetype, for many other such projects to come which will be able to critically engage with the emerging urban programs or contexts.
Before we get into looking into the project I would like to visit the idea of the hostel itself for a brief while. Hostel, hotel and hospitals actually come from the same etymological root of host and in all instances literally meaning large shelter or inn. However, host coming for hospitem meaning stranger. To that degree, hostels, hotels and hospitals are literally large houses for strangers. This also brings them closer, both in form and spirit, to the monastic forms of living#. Where the hostel can be seen as a portal for experimenting with life which can be in equal parts liberating and traumatic. Nonetheless, hostels do make room for augmenting one’s self. See Pier Vittorio Aureli’s “Less is Enough” for a wonderful understanding of our contemporary forms of living streaming from the early rituals of monastic living.
The orientation of the paper derives from the on going housing research at the School of Environment and Architecture.
The text was published in the February 2017 edition of Domus India.]