The following interview was conducted by GBSNP Varma and published in Fountain Ink Magazine in their February 2020 issue. To read the whole interview, please visit https://fountainink.in/qna/the-social-life-of-concrete-
Things around us shape us, influence us, and create an experience. They shape our environments, our economies and our life in perhaps not so obvious a manner. Things around us are part and parcel of our lived experience.
Human geography delineates and details how people relate to the world around them, including the human response to landscape. Going beyond immediate factors like economic conditions, the human geographer may study, for example, the materials used in constructing a house, architecture, morals and others, qualitatively researching a facet of culture. As such, it combines geography, philosophy, psychology, religion, art and most importantly, the human self.
Among many ways of studying human geography is a methodology based on open-ended conversations, which allows researchers to collect data about what people say and what they do.
A built space, a piece of concrete, a dam, a water pipe—any piece of infrastructures can ease a human geographer into studying equations of power, poverty, access and deprivation, of power and politics.
For Siddharth Menon, it is built space. Rather than focusing on aspects of design of built space, he focuses on the tangible: the actual materials of the built space, with what materials buildings are made, where they come from, who are involved, what it is doing for them, what it is doing to the landscape.
That way of thinking connected him to places and people.
“That was my focus as a practising architect and I have continued to think about building materials as a critical social scientist,” he says.
Menon got his undergraduate degree in architecture from Mumbai University in 2011. The degree took him to drawings—plans, elevations, sections of the built environment, but it did not prepare him to ask critical questions about the built environment. He then worked as a professional architect in rural India from 2011 to 2016—Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, West Bengal, and Odisha. He encouraged building with local materials, techniques, and skills. In 2016, he decided to study the structural conditions under which communities across rural India are shifting house building materials from kuccha to pucca or mud to concrete, and entered a Masters programme in Geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder, USA. He is now a PhD student in Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA.
The social sciences have traditionally used cultural and social categories as frameworks of analysis. But the recent direction has been to study how materials around us shape our social life. Menon is writing a thesis on the ethnography of concrete. He is exploring the social and material life of concrete in rapidly urbanising South Asia, especially in Kerala and documenting its impact on economies, environments and on us.
As we have a social life, concrete has a social life. Oh, sand has it too.
For Fountain Ink, Menon maps the terrain of his thinking and walks us through the geographies of his work.
To read the rest of the interview, please visit https://fountainink.in/qna/the-social-life-of-concrete-