UVA architecture students’ cross-cultural study reflected in exhibit

UVA architecture students gather at the Sarkhej Roza, southwest of Ahmedabad in India’s Gujarat state during a new study abroad program this summer. Photo: Michael Petrus UVA architecture students gather at the Sarkhej Roza, southwest of Ahmedabad in India’s Gujarat state during a new study abroad program this summer. Photo: Michael Petrus

Walk into the Elmaleh Gallery at the University of Virginia School of Architecture this month, and you’ll find yourself suddenly processing a myriad of sights and sounds. Sketches, models, photographs, and video images flood the gallery, the final products of the India Initiative, a new study abroad research program offered by the UVA Architecture School.

“What’s on the wall was not India itself, but our view of India, our vision of the future of India,” said senior architecture student Victor Hugo.

In summer 2012, the UVA Architecture School kicked off its first year of the five-year studio initiative, which included a six-week intensive course in India followed by two weeks of processing and preparation for the exhibit back in Charlottesville. The exhibit opened Monday, August 20 in Campbell Hall, and it will stay open until Saturday, September 22, following a multidisciplinary symposium on Friday, September 14, “The Emerging Megacity and the Enduring Village.”

Architecture professors Peter Waldman and Phoebe Crisman, who organized the program in conjunction with former student and now praciticing Indian architect Pankaj Vir Gupta, said the new initiative gave their students the chance to learn from both Indian and Western architects, blending the idea of the ancient and the new together. After studying Indian culture in a biweekly four-hour seminar course throughout the spring, 14 graduate and undergraduate students traveled all over the country and worked on projects in four cities to learn about the way water is used in public spaces. The exhibit was set up to allow them to show off the fruits of their labor.

Crisman and Waldman said they wanted students to have a visceral experience. India is a place that layers the old with the new, Waldman said, where architecture and the past have a sacred place within society, and where people have a “different sense of time and different sense of progress than we do in the West.”

Students were forced to confront more than just building structures; they had to pay attention to cultural and social factors. “It moved people out of their comfort zone and into a more receptive mode, because you couldn’t fall back on your typical behavior,” Crisman said.

Graduate student Nick Knodt, who focused on the idea of connecting water and architectural structures with the public space, said he found the projects in India to be a new challenge.
“There’s this delicate balance between this higher culture and getting water to residents who at this time really cannot afford it,” he said.

The participants said working in a foreign atmosphere while trying to analyze, observe, and synthesize in a limited amount of time was challenging. Hugo, who got a job offer from UVA alum Gupta during the course of the trip, said they had to develop their identity and confidence as architects beyond Campbell Hall.

“This process of getting lost and finding yourself again is very valuable,” he said. “Not only for architects, but for everyone.”

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