The CapAsia field studies program will resume in spring 2022. In preparation, we’ve asked students from past CapAsia trips — there have been ten in all! — to reflect on their experiences.
BY MATHEW HART, CapAsia IV
During five years of undergraduate architecture, I tried to align my studies and research with how technology was changing the design, fabrication, and construction process. While I longed to be on the cutting-edge, I always found myself running into technological road-blocks. Upon graduation, I was given an opportunity to continue graduate studies. Starting my graduate studies, I endeavored to investigate less about technology and more about the craft of building. A big part of that study was to learn how non-architects designed and built spaces for living, learning, and working.
Before Ball State, my cultural knowledge of India came from the summer interactions I had with my best friend’s cousins (other teenagers). That was limited to say the least. Ball State didn’t quite prepare me either. Preparing to leave was a semester-long set of meetings, readings, discussions, and shared experiences from past CapAsia participants. So the months leading up to our departure the readings of colonialism, religion, gender, and the caste system really shocked me. I didn’t understand the gravity of how this really played out in India, but it all came rushing at me once we landed.
The first week felt like a time to get acquainted with a new place. Somewhat like it didn’t matter that I was India, because chores like getting keys, finding restaurants or food, and getting my bearings in a new neighborhood kept my mind from engaging in this new experience.
If normalcy was a distraction the first week, it captured my attention from then on. During my daily walk to class in the morning, I saw a family living along the backside of a fence. On my walk home, that family was playing along the street and preparing food. For weeks I watched the family go through the cycle each day. I was always wondering if they had joy, contentment, or hardship from day to day. I hoped for joy, but to me, it always seemed hard.
Morning wake-up calls consisted of the woman pushing the fruit and vegetable cart down our side street and announcing the day’s fare. Selecting a fruit snack by pointing and paying however many rupees she deemed necessary was something I never thought I would experience. At times it even seemed cinematic.
One evening, a big truck came chugging through our neighborhood. Something about the braking, shifting, and grind of the engine reminded of garbage trucks doing their weekly suburban pick-ups. Was the truck out of place, or was I? It’s obvious, but I found it interesting to be in two places at once.
Living in India was regularly uneasy and wonderful. I spent a lot of time questioning what I knew, what I saw, and what I would do with this new perspective.
After all the cultural exposure and life experiences of India, I was in for an overwhelming and eye-opening experience as we traveled to Sri Lanka following the December 2004 tsunami. The majority of our time was spent in Kalametiya starting one of the first rebuilding projects in the country. Kalametiya was a small village of about 110 people that lost eleven friends and family. Everything they owned or lived in was gone. Southeast Sri Lanka’s coastal cities were devastated by the tsunami.
We saw scenes of loss and devastation that left so many people in a state of shock. Before visiting Sri Lanka, I assumed people in need wanted help. We shared stories, meals, and games with everyone in between digging trenches and laying foundation stones. We provided labor to help with rebuilding and tailoring the temporary shelters, but it never seemed like enough.
There really hasn’t been a week that has passed in the last 16 years that I haven’t reflected on the challenges and experiences of CapAsia. Personally and professionally, I have a richer outlook on life and how to interact or design for people.
Why I chose CapAsia
CapAsia IV has constantly been on my mind since 2005. Making the decision to embark on CapAsia was easy and exciting. Hoping and waiting for it to change me was sometimes agonizing, but when I returned from CapAsia everything started to sink in. Over the first couple years, as I explained my journey to anyone who would listen, I realized I was changed forever.
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, it always felt like I lived in a diverse neighborhood. My best friend was a Canadian whose parents emigrated from Uganda to Canada. And their families lived in Gujarat and England. Meeting proper English-speaking cousins, and Gujarati-speaking aunties was normal during the summer. It was always interesting to hear how their families made the travels around the world to see each other, and it piqued my interest for travel.
Like many Midwesterners, I also had the desire to get away from where I grew up. Studying architecture at Ball State was the start of that move towards another place. When the opportunity to study in India with CapAsia was presented, I knew I had to go and start connecting the dots of my childhood with what I was learning in architecture.
A large part of my undergraduate studies revolved around digital design tools, the use of new technology in architecture, and frequent fits with said technology. My graduate studies shifted that focus to look more at the architecture of non-architects. My hope was to come out the other side of these studies with a better understanding of two extremes in architecture; digital design and working with found materials.
Wes Janz’s graduate studio “Leftovers” was the start of this new study, designing for leftover people, in leftover places, with leftover materials was the immersive studio experience that helped me evaluate my connection to different scales of architecture. I always knew I wanted to do architecture of significance, and this studio helped me realize that significance is a matter of scale and personal connection. Downtown redevelopments may have small significance to tens of thousands of people, and small housing solutions may have huge significance to a few people. Both are important to me today, but I don’t know if I would feel the same without taking this path. I knew I needed to finish this exploration in India.
For information about the spring 2022 CapAsia trip to Thailand, Nepal, and Russia with Profs. Nihal Perera and Tim Gray, contact Prof. Perera at email@example.com