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Ideas man is a hard act to follow

BALLATER-born Patrick Geddes, biologist, town planner, and general lad o' pairts, is more appreciated almost anywhere else than in his native Scotland, it seems. You will find small bands of Geddes enthusiasts elsewhere in Europe and in the Americas.

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India has perhaps the strongest core of devotees, hardly surprising since it was there that Geddes spent much of his working life - he produced plans for 50 Indian cities between 1915 and 1929. It is also a country where his ideas are as relevant as they ever were. ''The issues are the same now as they were in Geddes's time, overcrowding, lack of services, and poverty,'' says Mrs Sofia Leonard, until last year director of the Patrick Geddes Centre, set up 12 years ago. ''Geddes's objective was 'the ascent of man', lifting people from their present level of living to the next.'' Mrs Leonard first heard of Geddes from a French lecturer when studying planning in Peru 30 years ago. She was re-acquainted in Edinburgh where she heard talks by Professor Percy Johnson Marshall, the initiator and first director of the Patrick Geddes Centre. Geddes has been an inspiration also for 26-year-old architect Ratish Nanda, who himself started studying science before switching to architecture. He has just returned to India after a year working in Scotland, initially with Edinburgh architectural practice Benjamin Tindall and then with Historic Scotland. ''While in Edinburgh I have taken the opportunity to 'chase' Geddes, though he has been as elusive as he was to people contemporary to him.'' Ratish entered architecture school in Delhi aged 16. His survey of more than 1200 of Delhi's historic buildings, the first such comprehensive work, will be published soon after his return by the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage, with funding from Delhi's local authority. It will lead to a significant raising of awareness of conservation issues, he hopes. Ratish was first introduced to Geddes, and to Edinburgh, as a student in Delhi's School of Habitat Studies, while working on his thesis on the urban renewal of Kotla Mubarakpur, for which he was awarded the gold medal. Ratish's main objective was to look at the conservation of the monuments in the area, which include tombs and a mosque, while recognising that they were in a state of disrepair for a complex set of reasons. ''Total redevelopment would be unacceptable, but some high-rent establishments would be needed to be established to enable more variety and to bring some sophistication to the place.'' In a dense neighbourhood such as Kotla - having built alternative accommodation for the occupants - he would select only the most dilapidated houses for demolition, and in this way aim to make the remaining housing a much better place to live. ''For such urban renewal schemes as Kotla, Patrick Geddes suggested a preliminary survey of the geology, climate, economic life, social institutions. ''He advocated simple measures, reducing amounts spent on too-elaborate mechanical sanitary facilities, increasing the number of gardens and playgrounds with the money saved. He advocated the reopening of all tanks, and proposed measures to retain them in an effective sanitary state,'' says Ratish. ''Geddes visualised the historic aspect to an unusual degree. He was always on the watch for traditional customs in order to co-ordinate them with present-day science. Town planning should not restrict itself to place planning but find the right places for each sort of people, places where they will really flourish.'' Mrs Leonard says: ''For Geddes, the whole area around historic monuments was relevant.'' Says Ratish: ''Saving buildings can provide an upliftment for the whole community. I really believe that conservation can be the cure for many of India's problems, converting some buildings to uses such as adult education centres or schools, and with improved access to these areas, all this brings a higher standard of life.'' One of his concerns on his return to India will be to save the craft skills required for building conservation. They have traditionally been passed on from father to son, with children starting work on-site aged 14 or 15. Maharajas were the main employers of craftsmen. Now there is no formal training structure, and craftsmen are reduced to making ornaments for tourists, to the detriment of their skills. ''There is the need to get craftsmen to architects and architects to craftsmen,'' says Ratish. His time with Historic Scotland's Technical, Conservation, Research, and Education Division has been invaluable, he says. There he has been completing a TAN (technical advice note) on post-Reformation memorials and their setting in Scotland. ''It has opened up the idea of working for government in India. It might not be as organised as Historic Scotland, but would provide the opportunity of working with the best of India's buildings.'' The Archaeological Survey of India has some 5000 monuments in its care across the country but hasn't a single architect on its payroll. ''New buildings in historic contexts are often designed by engineers, rather than architects, let alone architects sensitive to the context. Since independence India has raced to catch up with the West. Monuments have become like museum pieces in completely alien environments. ''Working on the TAN has taught me much about the manner in which materials such as sandstone, lime, granite, cast iron, and wrought iron 'behave', and how they should be treated, all materials coincidentally prevalent in India, and materials I will be dealing with all my life.''

He explains: ''We in India need to find our own way forward with regard to conservation philosophy. Conservation has no straight answers, anyway, and that's what helps keep it interesting. The most valuable gain has been the exposure to such knowledge, and being able so readily to approach so many experts, helping to broaden my horizons. ''I hope to continue my links with Historic Scotland when I return, and with contemporary research going on internationally, while having my hands firmly in India. I return to India with my knowledge, skill, and experience much enhanced. My commitment and enthusiasm towards India's heritage remains as great as ever.''

n There is to be an exhibition of work by Patrick Geddes from May 15 to June 12 at Glasgow's Collins Gallery. It will include plans created in the early 1900s for Edinburgh Old Town and Hampstead Garden Suburb. The collection has not been on display since the 1940s.

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