Anthony Acciavatti is a cartographer, architect and historian whose work focuses on mapping built and natural spaces along waterways. He spent a decade researching and traveling throughout India and produced the most comprehensive mapping and history of India’s Ganges River basin in half a century. The following texts are excerpts from an interview, honing in on dynamic and static variables interacting along a river system.
Because of the way the Monsoon transforms the landscape along the Ganges every year, it’s hard to look at the river as two parallel lines, but instead it is better understood as an entire watershed… it’s not just that the river expands and contracts in its bed, and sometimes overtakes it, but also all of the surface water bodies are growing and shrinking… There’s this transformation from dry arid landscape to one that’s wet and gelatinous silt, every year; with 1.6 billion tons of silt being shed every year from the Himalayas, very few things are stable in this area. So, what I found was that people would constantly redraw lines every year in relationship to the rhythms of the monsoons.
There are cities like Allahabad, which every year during the pre-monsoon season have a temporary camp-city built where 5-6 million people come to camp for a Hindu festival known as Magh Mela; the grid for the temporary city is drawn by the government… electricity lines are hung, tents and pandals (temporary structures for a religious event) line the avenues and streets of this teeming metropolis. When the festival is over, the tents are pulled up, but the grid of the city remains tattooed on the landscape; farmers move in and use the grid of the city for agriculture. So, it goes from 5-6 million people to hundreds or a few thousand living in this very large floodplain. The farmers harvest their crops, the monsoon comes and it completely floods the area, washing everything away.
One of the nice things about working in India is the nature-culture divide breaks down pretty quickly. What is human and what is not human is kind of difficult to tell when you’re dealing with such a high level of density and monsoon and variability. At one time of the year there are dust storms, and during the monsoon it’s hard to walk or drive anywhere because the earth is like quicksand. You get stuck everywhere. So, you have to be willing to negotiate with these natural factors.
In the “west” there’s a real desire to keep things dry. Living in a context like the Ganges, things get muddy all the time. And so, you accept it. There is this really beautiful way in which people use the rhythms of the monsoon to choreograph their lives, from agriculture to religion. There is an ongoing choreography between people and soil and water.
In my work I try to capture how the river expands and contracts over time, by using both cartography and photography. Over the course of a year we can see how much a river shifts… the river at one point is like a rivulet, you can walk across it. But then when the monsoons happen it becomes a huge stain, 4 kilometers wide. It does this every year.
There’s a lot of value in being able to draw slow motion change. So much of building and landscapes deal with the making of lines, the undoing of lines, the conflicts that arise from them. A lot of times, these lines are drawn at moments of hypertension that fit very nicely within a newscycle, but not within a larger slow-moving set of issues or problems… So I think the value of what we do as architects is trying to draw change over time: what stays the same as a set of datums and how do those datums change and move?
I think historically, cartographers have tried to do more haute couture (if you put it in fashion terms): they’ve tried to be very precise, drawings made to fit one body. I’m interested in making drawings that are ready to wear. You gain a few pounds, you lose a few pounds, it still fits. How do you make drawings that are like Uniqlo and Zara…the drawings that I make are always about a loose fit. A building might move, a road might shift, the river changes, but there’s still a larger structure to it, and that structure is flexible.