Reminiscing architecture

Kodaikanal

If buildings could talk, what interesting stories they would tell. They know all kinds of secrets that have been hidden away and otherwise forgotten. Waves of history would have passed through the rooms leaving persisting traces. Over the years they would have collected stories of joy and sorry, of mystery and intrigue, of grandeur and squalor. Would it not be a fascinating experience if we could visit grand old buildings and be able to read all signs on the walls and the marks on the wooden posts?

As in some magical movies, the protagonist is swept back in time to the black and white world of past centuries. One joins the ghosts of time rewinding back in search of memorable moments. The visualisation of such experiences has been made possible through digital recreations of the past. For example visitors to the Chateau de Chambord in France can see how the rooms used to be decorated. We could even recreate the entire experience as with the holograms of the lost Buddha statues at Bamiyan.

The experience of walking around a place from one’s past is enlivened by memories. Each visit to my old school in Kodaikanal brings back more detailed and vivid memories of my high school days. For me these were good times, sometimes complicated, but my memories seem to cling to the exciting, fun and pleasurable. The covered court where I spent many hours playing basketball with the exhilaration of hearing the ball swish through the hoop. The corner room at Phelps dorm where we opened up a small window to allow us to sneak off at night. The benches in front of Kennedy dorm were I sat awkwardly with my first girlfriend.

The auditorium suddenly resounds with someone practicing violin. I used to do lighting for the plays shooting a 2,000 watt spotlight onto the stage while sitting in a cubicle dangling from the ceiling over the audience. The lighting has been upgraded ending the experience of climbing into the rafters envisioning the phantom of the opera. As the school board discuss improvements to the facilities I hang on to the things that carry memories for me.

I visit the various school buildings scattered around the lake with names such as Claverack, Benderloch, Lockend, Bartlet and Penryn. These are stone cottages covered with ivy built by missionaries to recreate an idyllic European world. Over the decades the cottages have retained the expression of the visions of the early settlers as they adapted to the changing occupants. In contrast was the Swedish house that presented a more rational Scandinavian design. For me these empty sanitised dorm rooms somehow conjure emotions of the psycho-thrillers of Nordic art and literature. This is a personal interpretation which is just a single dimension of multifaceted significance of the campus for hundreds of students, faculty and staffs that have lived, studied, worked and played here.

After great disasters such as last year’s Gorkha Earthquake in Nepal, people grapple with the dichotomy of rebuilding and moving on while holding on to the comfort of past memories. The historic settings soaked in past events create a bond, a feeling of belonging to those who know and understand this history. The day after the earthquake I visited our old home, now known as 1905. The house that holds so many memories of my early childhood did withstand the tremors but will supposedly soon succumb to the ravages of developers. A certain part of my past will be wiped away.

Places have stories to tell. Some structures are there to remind us of what happened, sometimes good and sometimes bad. Memorials that are set aside as symbols. Most places however sit back and summon us to contemplate and remember.

(The author is an architect and can be contacted through paharnepal@hotmail.com)