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Lion Quest


An unexpected interruption enhances Professor Mustansir Dalvi’s visit to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

There is a plaque near the entrance to the Alhambra with these lines, attributed to the Venezuelan writer Francisco Alarcón de Icaza: “Give alms, my dear girl, for there’s nothing worse in life than to be blind in Granada.” Amongst the most beautiful built spaces in the world, the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, holds a special place.

This palace and court, built by the Nasirid ruler Muhammad V between 1362 and 1391 during the perigee of Islamic reign over the Andalus, has attracted lovers of architecture ever since it was built. They came to experience the delights of its red ramparts, white stucco, marble vaults and muqarnas, verdure, reflective water channels, but most of all, its beautiful inner courts.

At the heart of the Alhambra is the Court of the Lions, where a stone fountain flanked by 12 marble lions is situated at the crossing of water channels forming a ‘Charbagh’.

The court’s framed symmetries have inspired poets and artists alike, and its sentinel beasts arouse perpetual fascination. It was with this fantasy, this over-fuelled imagination that we walked, delighted, through the Court of Myrtles in the Alhambra and turning into the fabled Patio de los Leones.

We were in for a shock. For the lions, all 12 of them, had gone walkie, leaving behind a forlorn basin in a new wooden box. Why build a cage after the lions had bolted? The marble lions, the centrepiece of the court fountain, had been removed to a safe haven to be restored.

Over the centuries, lime and grime had coated their noble visages to a point where their leonine features were in danger of being obscured. Conservationists would toil over the course of the next few years to bring the beasts back to their pristine state.

No consolation for us, though – we, who had paid good money to see them. However temporarily, the very purpose of our visit was frustrated.

The tableau of our imaginations collapsed like a card-castle, only to be replaced by an entity as alien as the monolith among the primates in Kubrick’s 2001. What appreciation remained for the surrounding court and chambers, with their exquisite ornament of geometric and calligraphic finesse, when the vellum itself was botched with spilt ink?

What were the conservationists thinking? we wondered.

Any infill in an existing environment will be viewed critically in inverse proportion to the time that environment has remained pristine. Any change that is not incrementally invisible is bound to affront both memory and ‘good taste’.

Part of our mooring in life is to be able to take some things for granted, and the environment in which we physically move – that of the home, the street and the city work best when they background our own lives.

So change, any change, in effect, can be undesirable. We would be fooling ourselves, however, if we thought that we could live in the vacuum of our own imaginations forever.

So what kind of intervention is the more acceptable — the harmonious or the unpredictable? In recent times, architects have been called upon to make these choices in an increasingly built environment.

For example, there are few tabula rasas, especially in our ageing Indian cities so full of spaces, so long in use. Many of these are constantly being remodelled for a variety of reasons. Conservation is a constant in Mumbai, Delhi, or in our historic smaller towns.

Fresh needs require insertions that will inevitably be new. What attitude of conservation, or conservatism then, should an architect adopt?

Consider the insert in the Court of Lions. The central fountain of marble has a large lower basin and a carved upper fount.

Twelve lions flanked this basin radially, facing outwards. Positioned more or less in the centre of this ‘Garden of Paradise’ of water channels, the fountain is at the crossing of both axes that lead in from the entrance to the court, and lead out from the surrounding chambers. For now, both lions and upper fount are significant by their absence.

The lower stone basin is large, simply too large to be removed from its central location. Its rim is inscribed with a calligraphic eulogy in marble praising the Emir, while describing the building of the court and of the lions.

“Those who gaze at the lions in a threatening attitude,” writes the poet Ibn Zamraq, “(know that) only respect (to the Emir Muhammad V) holds back his anger.” This basin is in need of conservation, too.

So it is enclosed, not by a tarpaulin or some such, but in a ‘camera’— a room of its own. This room is made of slatted timber on a metal frame, with glazed front and back along the shorter side of the court.

Visitors can view the basin as it goes through various stages of restoration from the glazed ends, while the slatted end gives a new foreground to the axis leading on to the Sala de las Dos Hermanas and the Hall of the Abencerrajes.

Under this roof, a canvas canopy can be moved as desired. The outer box can (seemingly) be slid out along its axis to allow for a larger inner volume, making the canvas roof on the metal frame a shelter against the sharp south Mediterranean sunlight.

The wooden slats permit cross ventilation, and the glass is perforated too. This entire system sits lightly on the pebbled base of the court.

With this intervention, the conservationists and their precious object are protected from the elements — both from insolation and the droppings of thousands of swallows that inhabit the Alhambra, providing a constant ambient chirruping and casting abstract patterns on white walls in the various courtyards. All very functional, of course, but does the intervention really work?

It does take getting used to. First, the disappointment of the missing lions needs to be overcome, and then a reconciliation with the wood, glass and canvas replacement.

The ‘camera’ is a small room, proportioned not to overwhelm the arcade of the court, allowing space and light enough to appreciate the existing architecture. It forms a new element, an installation, in this space, that creates its own presence, becoming part of the stepped visual axes as it rises from fountain to arcade to roof to dome.

The glazed ends form a portal, framing the basin with the arches behind, modifying the existing axis.

The Court of the Lions in the Alhambra now offers an alternative view, for a limited period only, as long as the conservation process lasts. During this time, the arcades themselves have come into their own, not having to remain secondary to the impressively iconic lions that dominated the composition of the court.

The ‘camera’ can be appreciated, in and of itself, as a well-crafted modern device, or seen as an interim scaling device between basin and arcade in a larger unfolding of spatiality.

The conservationists have made the right choice by not replacing the lions (for the time being) with plaster or GRF casts. The absent lions intrude in our imagination constantly (see Wikipaedia image by Fernando Martin), becoming vivid, almost larger than life, now that we cannot see them.

For too long, for most part of the last 200 years, has the Alhambra been exoticised and orientalised, mostly by visitors from the Occident (Washington Irving, Richard Ford, et al) who came to wallow in its ‘perceived’ decadence and relegated it to a ruin by treating it as such, occupying it with unseemly callousness, vandalizing it with graffiti.

After centuries of stoic suffering in such ‘timelessness’, the Alhambra, or one part of it at least, has with its new intervention, once more, become a dynamic space.

Contemporary artists like Christo and Anish Kapoor thorough their installations in well-regarded public spaces have made us renew our relationship with familiar environments — by shaking our own perceptions and asking us to seek new meaning in places that we take for granted.

Perhaps this was not what the conservationists at the Alhambra had in mind, but the new enclosure in the Court of the Lions forces us to look at the former Moorish palace anew, and refreshes our experience of it.

Note: Mustansir Dalvi is Professor of Architecture at the Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai.

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