Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur is inconspicuous, despite its sprawl. You come upon the sandstone structure almost suddenly as you turn off Shaheed Abhimanyu Singh Marg and on to Nyaya Path. Cab services will almost always drop you off at the rear entrance that leads to the new café and souvenir shop.

Inside, the multi-arts centre is laid out in a grid of nine sections – much like the city of Jaipur was built in nine segments to reflect each of the nine planets in the solar system. For JKK is as much a reflection of its architect Charles Correa’s views on space and building as it is an anachronistic conversation between Correa and the architect of Jaipur, the astronomer-king Sawai Man Singh II.

Early this year, architects Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty invited 27 participants (architects, artists, designers and social scientists, as well as collectives and institutions such as the Sir JJ College of Architecture) to take this conversation forward. They curated a new show at JKK called When is Space?. Among other things, the show encouraged the participants to engage with the ideas of Charles Correa and Sawai Man Singh II as well as explore the mechanics and experience of space today.

'Toilet Manifesto' is the result of two architects thinking about ways to improve public toilets. Photo credit: Whenisspace/Facebook

“Our brief to the artists had provocations that came from Correa’s work and ideas, as well as the city of Jaipur,” said Gupte over the phone from Mumbai. She added that the initial brief she and Shetty sent to the artists included one more provocation: the idea for a wooden puzzle that would eventually become part of the show.

Simply called Spatial Puzzles, it was developed by product designer Milind Mahale and comprises a series of wooden blocks that have limited mobility on a board. Players can combine the blocks to create buildings and organise the space on the board in many ways. An idea that is both simple and close to the way Correa designed buildings – such as the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad – in blocks, so they could grow incrementally if the need arose.

One of nine 'Spatial Puzzles' created by Milind Mahale and a team of architects and designers. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

Plotting the map

When is Space? is a thought-provoking show. The first installation visitors see when they enter JKK (from the main entrance) sets the tone for what to expect. Called The Floating Roof, the work comprises a net and a gas-filled balloon. The net hovers 30-odd feet off the ground in a way that makes the installation not quite grounded nor an aerial structure. It isn’t quite built-up or empty space either. Instead, The Floating Roof challenges received notions of boundaries or walls and their importance in the making of a space.

From here, visitors have two options. They can go straight into the administrative building to see M Pravat’s The Malleability of All Things Solid (a stone sphere that takes inspiration from architectural drawings) or they can turn right towards the gardens where three works challenge firmly-held notions about architecture. In one, for example, the architectural plan for a home is realised in canvas and cardboard. Fabrics and plants act as separators in the home. In places, the canvas roof gives way to open sky. There is a clear separation between the rooms, but there is also a continuity of design and experience. The work is called Five Gardens and was conceived by a team of architects headed by Samir Raut.

'Notebook Series' by M Pravath is based on architectural drawings. Photo credit: Whenisspace/Facebook

Many-layered story

When is Space? takes a broad view of space making, and engages with it on philosophical, architectural and historical planes. “All of us make, organise and reorganise space,” said Gupte. “It’s not just the architects. And it’s not something that just happens.” A large show, When is Space? covers multiple spaces and floors within JKK, including the administrative block, all four galleries, and the central courtyard.

When is Space? showcases old as well as contemporary works. For example, artist Gigi Scaria’s Elevator from the Subcontinent recreates the experience of a lift. Only this lift opens into apartments which reflect the socio-economic status of their inhabitants. It also comprises historical works like architectural drawings of Jaipur from 138 years ago (Jeypore Portfolio).

'The Incremental House’ by Anthill. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

Architectural works in different stages of completion have found a place in the show. For example, it includes the Coimbatore Crematorium by Mancini Enterprises through photographs, a model and a quiet bench. The work was completed on site in 2013 and was included in the show because of the way it brings dignity to a public space like a municipal crematorium. The Toilet Manifesto by Mad(e) in Mumbai, on the other hand, has generated interest in the real world, and some of its ideas on providing privacy in public loos have been built into projects on the ground.

The show straddles art (for example, photographer Randhir Singh and artist Seher Shah’s Mammoth series), architecture (Artrovert: Conversations in Grey, by Anagram Architects) as well as an actual landscaping project (Garden of Desire, by Messers Prabhakar B Bhagwat). And it includes physical (Spatial Puzzles) as well as virtual games (An Indivisible Margin of Error, by Dhruv Jani).

'Mammoth', by Seher Shah and Randhir Singh. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

The common thread that runs through all of these is the engagement with the idea of space. How it is made. How it lives in the world and in our imagination. They challenge received notions of architecture and space-making. And engage with Correa’s path-breaking, yet beautifully simple ideas. Like Correa’s opinion about open spaces, and how buildings should incorporate courtyards. Or his ideas about public spaces, and how to democratise them. As he showed in his design of Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal which allows the public to use its grounds as a park even if they don’t feel compelled to go into the cultural museum space.

Keeping tabs

Throughout the show, the curators have signposted the exhibits with excerpts from papers written by Correa as well as thoughts on the architecture of Jaipur city. “You’ll see the yellow tabs everywhere,” says Gupte.

There are two reasons for this. One, to bring visitors into the conversation by showing them something Correa wrote as well as the way in which an artist or architect has responded to the same ideas today.

'Drawing in Space', by Parul Gupta. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

The second reason had to do with the participants’ process, which Gupte says didn’t end when the show started. The idea is that artists too will revisit Correa and Sawai Man Singh II’s ideas and their responses to them when they see the two juxtaposed, and interpreted in a hundred ways by visitors.

When is Space? moves back and forth in time,” said Pooja Sood, director-general of JKK. “From the 1980s and 1990s to a couple hundred years ago and back to contemporary times.” Correa designed JKK in the mid-1980s, and the building was opened to the public in 1993. Sawai Man Singh II built Jaipur in 1727 on a trade route, an ingenious and atypical move for the times when most cities in the area were built on top of hills for security. Sood said it’s incredible to see how the ideas of space are interpreted by artists, architects and makers across 300 years.

When is Space? is on at Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, till April 21.