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How can architecture answer questions of identity?

A young architect highlights connections between architecture, displacement and living memory in her award-winning project

Neha Harish's project was the winner in the architecture category at the India edition of the Nippon Paint AYDA (Asia Young Designer Award) 2020

It was in 2018 that a young architecture student, Neha Harish, visited Sri Lanka. Although it was a breeze to travel through the southern parts of the country, her group couldn't travel to the north. However, when she read up on the history of civil war in Sri Lanka, between the Sinhalese government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, she realised the powerful story of displacement and its accompanying ramification. “Due to the situation in northern Jaffna peninsula of Sri Lanka, many Tamil-speaking civilians were forced to evacuate the land they called home,” she says.

This further led Harish to look at the architectural implications of constantly being in a state of finding refuge. And she decided to base her thesis on this topic itself as she pursued a bachelor’s degree from the RV College of Architecture Bengaluru. “We are taught to look at solution-based designs. But how can we incorporate ‘placelessness’, memory and loss of identity into the architecture designs. My thesis intended to highlight connections between architecture, place and living memory, in turn questioning the need for a hegemonic continuity in archetype,” elaborates Harish.

She conceptualised a project around this, basing it in a fairground, along the banks of the river Cooum in Chennai. She chose this city for the largest number of refugee camps. “When someone is getting displaced, no one is looking for architectural expertise while getting resettled in a new place,” she says. “How can we look at this problem architecturally, beyond meagre emergency aid shelters? How can we incorporate the challenges they face, in terms of loss of identity, into the spaces for them?”

Also, these solutions have to stem from the very unique challenges faced by the displaced communities in different geographies. “For instance, in Sri Lanka, the Tamil-speaking communities in the north, have very strong memories of the forests. They are also largely fishing communities. They relate to water. And thirdly, they have memories of hiding in rectangular dug up spaces during bombings,” says Harish. In her project, she has tried to draw on all three associations to envisage an urban installation—a museum combined with a research centre. The building is designed not as a direct memorial, where people just observe and move on. “Rather, there is a discourse on why this displacement happened. And hopefully this interaction with memories will lead to empathy,” she says. By locating the space next to Cooum river, she has drawn on associations with water. The project features subterranean rooms and libraries, a nod to the dug up bunkers that people had to stay in during the bombings. “At times, it leads to a space where only one person can stand. It shows the claustrophobia that people had to go through, with often five to six persons huddled up in this tiny space,” says Harish, who graduated six months ago.

Titled ‘Requiem for Tolerance’, this project has now caught people’s imagination. In fact, recently, it was the winner in the architecture category at the India edition of the Nippon Paint AYDA (Asia Young Designer Award) 2020. Harish now gets to enter the Nippon Paint AYDA (Asia edition) to be held in Shanghai in June 2021.

    19.02.2021 | 10:45 AM IST

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