MArch - ECA ‘19
Blotting Ornithologics: The Calcutta Institute of Aviculture
A bird doesn’t see an aerial view of a city. It sees an intrinsically biological landscape. It sees where it can exist and where it cannot. It can no longer exist in Kolkata as it has become, but instead demands the ecology of what Calcutta was, a new patterning of co-existence and architecture as mediator in an “Ocean of Wetness”. This manifesto by Indian architects Dilip da Cunha and Annuradha Mathur makes the case that there is no hard line between wet and dry except those we humans have drawn ourselves. Instead, there is a spectrum of wetness which blurs between moisture in the air, in the water and in the saturated land. Calcutta is the most at risk city in the world from the rising sea levels, with constant flooding, especially in monsoon season, exasperated by the concrete of the modern city blanketing the wetlands which once embraced the aqueous context. Blotting Ornithologics harnesses the avicultural wisdom found in the Calcutta intellectual Satyacharan Laha’s book Pet Birds of Bengal (1923), prioritising the logics of birds to challenge human lines of territory between city and jungle, and to design with rather than against wetness – a strategy which will become more and more necessary across the world in the coming years of climate change.
This reintroduction of the ecology of the wetlands as “blots” of white, public space into a figure ground plan dominated by the private, is given specificity by ornithology. Finding their territories between layers of species-specific requirements, architectures arise from logics not limited to our own. Analysis of proximity to water bodies, man-made structures, differing heights and species of tree create overlaps which suit certain species of bird and situate architecture within varying landscapes throughout the metropolis. The main test of this thesis was that of the oriental skylark, embodied as a new school of ornithology in the dense northern heart of the city, which learns from Laha’s descriptions of the bird and how it adapts to the Ocean of Wetness in his aviaries. Along with the supporting programmes of the Blue Whistling Thrush by the Tolly Canal and the Common Iora in the Botanic Gardens, the Institute of Aviculture draws in wetness as a network across the city. The sites form infiltration basins which slow water down and soak it away to alleviate runoff, while creating public landscapes from which the environmental and structural cores of the architecture rise.
The Ornithologics of the Skylark manifest themselves in a way intrinsically linked with the wetness of the climate it inhabits. Laha’s observations of infants’ strategy of shedding water in their exposed ground nest informed the way architecture could achieve the same. Ground-based in all habits except the one for which it is famous, the verticality and pattern of the skylark’s spiraling, singing flight path draws up the height of the building, while still allowing the architecture to prioritise its relationship with the earth. Open envelopes provide shade, rain cover and air movement, creating outside buildings which hold moments of environmental control, all drawn in different ways from the wetness below and all around. Heavy brick walls soak the wetness up into the building and emanate its coolth into the space. They align with the prevailing wind to carry that coolth through the building and teak classrooms and offices between these walls are calibrated and refined to control the passive cooling. Through the oscillation of wet and dry seasons, each territory becomes increasingly inhabitable to its chosen species, until even the densest parts of the city bloom with that which once made them home to not just us.
The permeability of the multi-layered clay tile facade embodies the essential attitude towards Calcutta as an “Ocean of Wetness”: there is no clear line between wet and dry, and at all scales these ornithologics work with, not against, the omnipresent moisture: an entirely contextual architecture applicable only to Calcutta’s climate. Yet it also introduces a method of designing according to the logics of species truly native to a region, an entirely transferrable method that would result in an incredibly broad range of architectures as diverse as the species from which they grow and the climates in which they exist.
Blotting Ornitologics has been nominated for the RIBA Silver Medal, the A&DS and RIAS Scottish Student Award, the AJ Student Prize and awarded the 3D Reid Student Prize, the George Simpson Postgraduate Prize, and the Blue Riband for Blueprint for the Future. To get in touch with Findlay, head to LinkedIn, where you can see his full body of work.