The picture postcard Romansh village of Zuoz, high in the Swiss Alps was the unlikely venue of the Engadin Art Talks, which was held on the weekend of 27th August.
We were here at the invitation of Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Co-Director of London’s Serpentine Gallery and one of the directors of the event. Our brief was vague. This year’s talks was called Mapping the Alps, although as far as we knew, we were free to present anything that was somehow connected to mountains and architecture.
Earlier this year, while spending time at our home in Sidhpur near Dharamsala, we were preoccupied with building a small home for our cow, Tara. We had decided to build the house in the local style, using mud, stone, slate and bamboo. Working with a small team of artisans, Ritu took charge of the design and oversaw the construction. Watching the process unfold was a fascinating experience and we decided to document it on video. From the beginning we were taken by the meditative quality of the work – the focus of the stone-cutters, the making of mud bricks, the measured laying of river stones, the artful of splitting of bamboo. There was a sense that man and material were one, that the structure slowly emerging out of the ground was organic and a part of the landscape.
We understood how even something as basic and simple as a cow house was imbued with centuries of tradition and wisdom, and began to appreciate the natural aesthetics of a building that is in harmony with its surroundings. This seemed all the more significant given the rapid decline in traditional architecture in the face of a ubiquitous and characterless explosion of brick-and-cement structures.
It took three months to build the cow house. We filmed several hours of footage from which we decided to edit a 15-minute rough cut to show at the Engadin Art talks as part of our presentation.
Hans Ulrich and co-director Beatrix Ruf of the Zurich Kunsthalle had gathered an interesting and eclectic mix of people. We were particularly thrilled to meet Hamish Fulton, the English “walking” artist who had over the years made a series of art walks across mountains and countries, including in Tibet. Hamish turned out to be a true Tibet supporter, knowledgeable about the current situation and constantly highlighting it through his work.
Others included the American artist Lawrence Weiner, Berlin-based Iranian artist Nairy Baghramanian, filmmaker and artist Sarah Morris, and the provocative New York-based Lebanese artist Walid Raad, along with the architects Gianni Pettena, Andrea Deplazes and Peter Zumthor.
The reaction to Mud Stone Slate Bamboo was more positive than we could have expected and the screening generated an interesting Q&A session, much of which turned on the question of how traditional architectural techniques can be adapted to a modern context. Our presentation was followed by Andrea Deplazes who described the process of building the ultra high-tech and environmentally friendly Monte Rosa hut in the Alps near Zermatt; a more perfect and fascinating counterpoint to our no-tech cow house would be hard to imagine!
For two days we talked, ate, drank, and talked some more, beguiled by the fairy-tale beauty of Zuoz and its surroundings, locked, for a brief moment, in a bubble where art, architecture, landscape and intellectual stimulation were all that mattered. And then we went our own ways.
Now it is back to the grinding reality of Delhi…and the editing suite.