Instruments of precision, pt. 2

In the 18th century India, the Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II built astronomical observatories called Jantar Mantars, which in Sanskrit translates to « The Formula of Instruments ».
The motivation for building these structures was to correct discrepancies of time for the planning of religious events and military operations. The Jantar Mantar structures were radical departures from traditional construction, –temples cloaked with abundant sculptural texture. Also, they are programmatically detached from the mosques, temples, palaces and tombs that encompassed the Indian built environment. In fact, the idea of building a city of astronomical observation is in and of itself as departure. The tendency of technical progress is towards miniaturization and portability. In the sciences, tools for measuring the cosmos, even in the 18th century, were hand-held instruments like an astrolab. In the arts, we can trace representational techniques that progressed from using nature, a cave or the human body, as image support, to marble and granite, tiled mosaics and plastered walls of Roman , textiles, wood boards for medieval painting, bronze plates (etchings), framed canvas painting beginning in the 14th century, to the video projections of the 20th… always a tendency towards portability and a detachment from the natural or built environments.
Why construct these measuring sticks at the scale of a city park, when the fabrication of a simple astrolab could have sufficed?

Part of the answer is revealed through looking at his intellectual and political ambitions, and the means he engaged to realize them. Jai Singh was responsible for the design of the city of Jaipur. Constructed on the grid system with nine rectangular zones corresponding to the nine divisions of the universe, the city had different zones allotted to different professions, boasted 36 meter wide main streets that were perpendicularly intersected by 18 m. wide auxiliary streets, which were further divided by 9 m. wide lanes and 5 m. wide alleys.

Thus, he fabricated an essential and functional link between city and observatory, citizen and science, cosmology and control. Both the city’s functionality and its fundamental symbolic vocabulary were orchestrated to converge through the movement of people through the space and time of the public forum. It was a question of control and expression of the ceremonial and political activities orchestrated through « a common body of tropes » and allegory. The convergence of polis, science and Hindu cosmology projected its creator as a « master of time » in which the city of Jaipur engaged as its device.

Despite the sites’ formal innovation, the instrument’s information design was largely based on existing astronomical tables « derived almost exclusively from the work of Ptolemy and Islamic works directly indebted to it, which was already in disrepute in Europe ». It was unclear, and perhaps besides the point, whether Jai Singh was aware of Europe’s ongoing scientific revolution at the time the observatories were being built.

Thus, the interpretation of these instruments that calculate temporal data by precisely measuring astronomical flux, is secondary to their means of expression and diffusion of this information –through the media of architectural form and urban space. Their form, the relationship between shape, material, solid & void, scale & proportion is determined more by the exigence of representing scientific precision, and not necessarily the representation of that precision. The city is placed in dynamic tension by these objects, expanding and contracting around these structures through the passage of the time of generations, mutating and regenerating, to constantly redefine the relationship between science and religon, politics and the people, control and freedom, architecture and the city…

The static form within a dynamic context of Jantar Mantar is reversed in the virtual environment of Second Life: the inherently dynamic nature of virtual world materials, the prims and textures with which that world is constructed, permits the constant mutation of form within the context of its relatively stable surroundings.

See> Instruments of precision, pt. 1

All quotes are from an article from The Cornell Journal of Architecture, « Jantar Mantar » by Bonnie G. MacDougall.

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