AI11_30_2018_4_06_15_PM_1_West_Wall.jpg

Tracing histories :Robert Stephens and his trailer video for Ahmedabad Walls

Khanjah Triangle (July 2016) - PM 2.5: 183 (average for year)

“The long triangular space outside the walls is of great beauty and interest; a range of informal and varied landscape, of ghats, tombs and temples – natural river front and wild-wood mingled with half-ordered river-park-way, which makes this, towards sunset especially, the most striking excursion from the city, the shortest and easiest also.” - Patrick Geddes, Note on Ahmedabad, 1915

Kankaria Lake (November 2017) - AQI: 290 (Very Poor)

"It is not too much to say that here [Kankaria Lake], awaiting but simple and inexpensive completion and slightly improved approach, is one of the very finest Water-Parks in the world." - Patrick Geddes, Note on Ahmedabad, 1915

Sarangpur Gate (May 2015) - RSPM: 80; SO2: 12; NOX: 20

“Even if the prevailing wind were to be stopped by the West and South walls (which are in reality far too low to effect this), malign agency could not be ascribed to the East and North walls, to which we come next in order.... From the Raipur Gate the wall sweeps round in a circular curve to the Sarangpur Gate. Along this range of south-east outlook and defence the bastions are more numerous.” - Patrick Geddes, Note on Ahmedabad, 1915

Prem Gate (May 2015) - RSPM: 80; SO2: 12; NOX: 20

“Though the impression one receives on arriving from the railway station, and on viewing the walls from the outside alone, may be of their limiting the town, this is corrected by observation....The town, here especially, stands upon its mound, which the wall largely conceals from the outside...So low is the wall, from within, that it may be broadly affirmed, that these houses are in better, not worse, conditions than they would be in any ordinary street.” - Patrick Geddes, Note on Ahmedabad, 1915

Shahpur Gate (November 2017) - AQI: 290 (Very Poor)

“The more this patient study of the walls and their neighbourhoods is continued, the less does the proposed demolition maintain itself in any way, whether as a business proposition, an aesthetic or a sanitary one. In no respect is the game worth the candle; whereas, with that considerable amount of candle, what an amount of improvement, economic, sanitary and aesthetic to boot, might be accomplished?” - Patrick Geddes, Note on Ahmedabad, 1915

Old is gold

A few of Robert’s rare books collected over the years

AI11_30_2018_4_06_15_PM_1_West_Wall.jpg
Showcase 03 Dec 2018

Photostories: Robert Stephens and his bird’s-eye view of Ahmedabad, his latest muse

Diving into historical narratives and weaving urban stories around his aerial photographs, Robert Stephens of RMA Architects gives us a unique perspective of the cities he documents. CQ interviews Robert Stephens on his latest project – Ahmedabad Walls – that traces the history, evolution and development of the city, juxtaposed against Scottish town planner Patrick Geddes’ Notes on Ahmedabad, produced in 1915.

The point of departure

Robert Stephens: Something unique in the human spirit awakens when provided a synoptic view of the natural and man-made world. To see a megacity of millions, reduced to urban textures surrounded by seas of water (as in Mumbai) or seas of agriculture (as in Delhi) is, for me, very powerful.

Tracing histories :Robert Stephens and his trailer video for Ahmedabad Walls

Zero-carbon aerial photography

Robert: I am a Principal at RMA Architects, and much of our work over the last four years has been in Ahmedabad. Therefore, my aerial photography work followed me! While air travel is not at all eco-friendly, all of my aerial photography work has been carbon-zero footprint, as I have never flown just to take photographs.

Khanjah Triangle (July 2016) - PM 2.5: 183 (average for year)

“The long triangular space outside the walls is of great beauty and interest; a range of informal and varied landscape, of ghats, tombs and temples – natural river front and wild-wood mingled with half-ordered river-park-way, which makes this, towards sunset especially, the most striking excursion from the city, the shortest and easiest also.” - Patrick Geddes, Note on Ahmedabad, 1915

Architecture and the urban fabric as the subject

Robert: The world of urban history is essentially a graveyard of wonderful ideas waiting to be exhumed. Owing to the scale of aerial photography, the work of our hands, our cultural expressions take center stage: buildings, bridges, monuments, power plants, and in some cases, parks – these are the subjects of my images. And while I am not an activist by nature, much of my work can easily be perceived with an activism bent – a critique on the current state of our cities.

Shahpur Gate (November 2017) - AQI: 290 (Very Poor)

“The more this patient study of the walls and their neighbourhoods is continued, the less does the proposed demolition maintain itself in any way, whether as a business proposition, an aesthetic or a sanitary one. In no respect is the game worth the candle; whereas, with that considerable amount of candle, what an amount of improvement, economic, sanitary and aesthetic to boot, might be accomplished?” - Patrick Geddes, Note on Ahmedabad, 1915

The underlying intent

Robert: In his publication Biophilia, Edward O. Wilson, a myrmecologist, states “The role of science, like that of art, is to blend exact imagery with more distant meaning, the parts we already understand with those given as new into larger patterns that are coherent enough to be acceptable as truth.” This is what interests me – blending imagery with distant meaning in the pursuit of larger truth patterns.

Kankaria Lake (November 2017) - AQI: 290 (Very Poor)

"It is not too much to say that here [Kankaria Lake], awaiting but simple and inexpensive completion and slightly improved approach, is one of the very finest Water-Parks in the world." - Patrick Geddes, Note on Ahmedabad, 1915

Owing to the scale of aerial photography, the work of our hands, our cultural expressions take center stage: buildings, bridges, monuments, power plants, and in some cases, parks – these are the subjects of my images.

The evolution of his artistic expression

Robert: Some images have become less ‘precious.’ I no longer have tunnel vision regarding the ‘artistic’ quality of images; in fact, there is a strong journalistic feel in my photography.

Sarangpur Gate (May 2015) - RSPM: 80; SO2: 12; NOX: 20

“Even if the prevailing wind were to be stopped by the West and South walls (which are in reality far too low to effect this), malign agency could not be ascribed to the East and North walls, to which we come next in order.... From the Raipur Gate the wall sweeps round in a circular curve to the Sarangpur Gate. Along this range of south-east outlook and defence the bastions are more numerous.” - Patrick Geddes, Note on Ahmedabad, 1915

In my first few exhibitions, people would verbally comment on the power of the photographs. After my recent Ahmedabad exhibition, I received letters about how inspired people were to learn of Patrick Geddes, his time in Ahmedabad, his thoughts on the (then) 500-year-old City Walls. They would then end with a comment on the photographs, which visually summarized the whole experience.

Prem Gate (May 2015) - RSPM: 80; SO2: 12; NOX: 20

“Though the impression one receives on arriving from the railway station, and on viewing the walls from the outside alone, may be of their limiting the town, this is corrected by observation....The town, here especially, stands upon its mound, which the wall largely conceals from the outside...So low is the wall, from within, that it may be broadly affirmed, that these houses are in better, not worse, conditions than they would be in any ordinary street.” - Patrick Geddes, Note on Ahmedabad, 1915

So, essentially, my work began as a visual impression, and is now moving in a multi-sensory experience.

The influence of archival, rare books

Robert: Rare, old books provide rich opportunities for unexpected discoveries. I recently discovered that Hyderabad was a dense settlement on the southern bank of the Musi River, surrounded about 30 kms in all directions by gardens!

Old is gold

A few of Robert’s rare books collected over the years

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a book from 1954 titled “The Birds About Delhi.” Unaware that Delhi had such a diverse bird life, I started doing more research. This chance discovery led to the commencement of Delhi Birds, an in-process series that looks at the intersections of urban development, the homogenization of varied ecosystems, air pollution, birdlife and human migration – all of which are incredibly intertwined, one with the other.

Robert Stephens is a Principal at RMA Architects. He has been documenting urban India by aerial photography since 2007, and in 2017, he founded Urbs Indis, an urban aerial photography studio and archival library based in Mumbai. You can see more of his work here.