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Raising Questions - the education of architects in India today -

Let’s face it – we do not know where we are going with our architectural education. A legacy of the British Raj - designed to create technicians more than thinking architects and after more than half a century, this burden still haunts us. It is strange that barely a handful of institutions in the country are seriously involved in evolving a place and culture-specific programme for architectural education. Our design studios which should be hot-beds for creating architecture that will define our place and identity in complex political, social, cultural, economic, technological and ecological circumstances are ill-equipped and unwilling to accept this state of post-colonial, post-globalisation flux and uncertainty. The design studio needs to be a laboratory of thought – a place of thinking through design, where each project forms the basis of raising questions and challenging what is accepted as possible. Is the built reality around us to be numbly and unquestioningly accepted, or does it obscure and colour our vision to make it ‘seem’ that ‘the rest is impossible’? Most of what we see around us tends to inform us about what we start believing as real and acceptable – an attitude that can be called as ‘conformist’ – in the absence of investigation and exploratory journeys made, first by ourselves as individuals at our own behest, and later as a society that is trying to widen its scope of knowledge. Design studios tend to have severe limitations. Projects are not seen as tools in achieving a certain ‘opening up of the mind’ –

Suprio Bhattacharjee

whether through conscious questioning, thinking, hypothesising and strategizing, but rather end up being ends in themselves. This can be exemplified through a simple example of say, projects for housing – where the pursuit of ‘fitting in’ a certain number of units takes precedence over larger questions of community, socio-typological investigations, complexity and difference, engaging in exciting processes involving organisation systems that produce spatial variations and heterogeneity, using renewable resources considering the volumes of housing that need to be built and the strain that would result on the earth’s resources – the list goes on. Design needs to be more than mere mechanical problem-solving – it needs to be an assimilation and synthesis of diverse factors, influences and circumstances. The ability to make readings, interpretations and draw analogies is a complete must – over more parochial and narrow objectives and definitions of architectural education as a preparation for practice, building production and function. Product versus process, and a case for the ‘empirical’. . . This brings to the fore the crucial question of processes – or at a larger level, teaching methodologies. Teaching of design (can it be ‘taught’? – but this is another investigation altogether) must involve dimensions of methodology and philosophy.


Traditionally, the education of architecture is based on form & typology. Principles of ‘form’ are investigated – students tend to be told what looks or is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – they are told what to do. So architecture becomes mere problem-solving – considered the ‘logical’ approach - mostly because reasoning derives out of scientific data and technology is deemed to be the abstract provider of solutions. This stems from the fundamental basis of modernist thinking that evolved from ideas of “the New Objectivity” i.e. looking at architecture removed from culture, tradition, history, meaning and deeper purpose. ‘Objectspecific’ and ‘form-oriented’ teachings (what Hügo Häring once presciently denounced as ‘form-setting’ in the 1920’s) led to oversimplification and reductivist mindsets and methodologies – that were claimed to be ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’. This resulted in the production of impersonal and sterile buildings that negated place, climate and context – ‘qualitative’ and ‘intangible’ aspects that included (at a broader level) myths, legends and aspects of ‘phenomenology’ - in a mindless quest for the ‘new’. This was the pitfall of modernist teaching methodologies where, the lack of respect for the empirical rejected ‘found potentials’ inherent within individuals, contexts, cultures and situations concerning each project. ‘Product-oriented’ studios tend to be linear – the learnings are not ingrained to respond to a wider set of complex conditions, and there is an unwillingness to accept empirical data. This is most obviously so, as empirical information tends to threaten most linear and scientifically structured processes which are detached from their contexts (place/peoples), as learnings and assumptions tend to be ‘generalised’.

Students tend to be ‘taught’ - how to handle and deal with larger and more ‘complex problems’ (the catchphrase here) – ‘complex’ referring primarily to the extent or largeness of functional program and not density and layering of the idea or conception behind the response, and ‘problem’ referring to the possibility of a ‘scientific’ solution. It is strange that in many ways we continue this flawed modernist-flavoured teaching where universality is prioritised over specificity – we still tend to ‘quantify’ our description of architecture in terms of ‘measurables’ – so that, for example, ‘rural’ is equated with sloping roofs and a usual design ‘process’ is often relegated to a mechanistic task of ‘functional planning’ to accommodate ‘activities’ – a mechanistic view of people and life in general. This completely disregards individuality, uniqueness, difference and perception, and each human being is thus reduced to a ‘category’ and ‘type’ – to facilitate ‘easy’ explanation and assessment. This attitude has also affected the larger classification of architecture into ‘recognisable’ styles and ‘isms’ – something that is increasingly being questioned in the world today. ‘Product-driven’ design studios are flawed and limiting, as comparisons tend to be drawn to a certain model or standard that is deemed ‘acceptable’ and ‘familiar’. As such, these studios tend to discourage explorations into unfamiliar ground or territory, as it tends to challenge the very ‘restrictions’ that are set upon the project – thus neither the project nor the student is in the benefit, as newer learnings are not welcome, even less appreciated. The attitude tends to be very deterministic (a modernist legacy) and hence even the slightest ‘ambiguity’ is unwelcome –


there is a stress and desire for ‘definites’ and homogeneity – at the cost of diversity and difference. Studio projects should be seen as a medium of conscious and unhindered exploration. Projects need to be tools for research – as an investigation, and as a means of raising inherent questions to recognise latent potentials. But what is crucial, is the willingness to recognise and accept that these questions exist and need to be addressed, and acknowledging with humility that we do not yet know the answers, and that they will not come in a ‘jiffy’. The problem with most design studios and their instructors is that the answers are already known before even the questions are asked, and hence the project fails because the end is known. Thus the project as process and its ‘representation’ is lost – and it becomes project as product and ‘presentation’. The boundaries of knowledge and the acceptable are not questioned and broadened; as a result, the learning that comes through rigorous process is completely lost. The emphasis on product is no different than that of the disgraced Beaux-Arts methodologies – reinforced by modernist teaching although under a different guise.

culture, dealing with historicity, urbanity, typological investigations, experientiality and phenomenology, programmatic articulation and variation, ecology and questions of sustainability, emergent technologies, continuity of building crafts and traditions, mapping and diagrammatic processes, as well as many other intense areas of research that is shaping education (and architecture) in schools worldwide. Ideas, conceptions and possibilities are celebrated, even manifested in the profession by winning entries in international competitions (that are published everywhere); and these take precedence over the ‘final manifestation’ of the project. As such, ‘process’ is given importance over ‘product’ – an important shift in contemporary thinking in architecture and education. Thus form for form’s sake is relegated to irrelevance – what is relevant today is response to the (often complex) ‘forces’ that affect each project, and how these forces are articulated into an idea. Thus there can be no ‘finality’ or ‘product’ – as the idea will undergo tremendous upheavals and would be liable to adapt and grow.

The shift

Open-endedness

Today, ‘Beaux-Arts’ pursuits of wonderfully presented drawings is strictly and rightly regarded as irrelevant, limiting and passé. As are universal ‘rational’ ideals and selfindulgent form-making which have long since been questioned, challenged, implicated and abandoned from the late 1960’s.

As has been described earlier, pedagogy is moving (rather has moved away) from fromoriented pursuit of massing, stereotomy, and autonomous architectural ‘objects’. Also avoidable are grand and flamboyant gestures that pursue meaningless glamour, imagery and ‘flashy’ presentations.

Architecture worldwide (especially since the early 1990’s) has been witnessing a shift toward more rigorous pursuits of identity and

Today, the architect is no longer regarded as a heroic ‘creator’ or ‘form-giver’ as was projected by the modernists. This ego has


instead been substituted by a search for relevance in contemporary society where the role of the architect is being continuously questioned and redefined. Serious, uninhibited and unbiased inquiry is most essential if the studio project needs to move beyond petty discussions of form, right or wrong and enter into debates that delve into issues of, say, appropriate-ness and relevance. Relentless investigation and the ‘accepting of difference’ will lead to production of work that is intuitive, innocent, forceful and yet mature, provocative, opinionated, informed and expressive. Sensitivity and awareness of the conflicting situations that need to be addressed, as also appreciating the range of responses that can then be generated, is crucial in bringing about the synthesis of a multitude of factors and conditions so that meaningful dialogues are evolved with place and contexts. Architecture needs to be seen fundamentally as a ‘response’ to stimuli / situations – a resolution of a certain ‘vast-ness’ involving diverse issues, concerns and interests that are embedded in complex contexts. Conscious ‘strategizing’ is essential to negotiate these ‘forces’ that penetrate each site/place – far removed from labels, categories and ‘isms’ (so essential in the current ‘post-ismatic’ world of architecture). This would perhaps, then lead to an understanding of the true intentions of universal world-views such as, say, ‘sustainability’ and why it cannot be considered an ‘alternative’ but the necessity or for that matter, what we now consider as ‘phenomenology’ and how it is embedded in ancient cultures and ways of building. The ‘appropriate-ness’ of an architecture needs to

engaged with, which would mean a critical questioning of present modes of operation within architectural practices and a realignment of priorities – e.g. globalisation versus sustenance of local crafts tradition, or whether there needs to be a ‘synthesis’ of the two. Students as drivers of change. Students can be dreamers, only if they are allowed to. They are not yet conditioned by what is considered impossible, and the best student work unknowingly pushes the boundaries of architecture. They are often the best barometers for gauging the intensity and depth of inquiry that a studio project generates. Often, the lack of such conscious questioning as part of the project ‘brief’ leads most students towards a process of selfdriven investigations. It is then left upon the initiative of the student to present provocative arguments and highlight inherent and overlooked contradictions and issues through their work. Generally these investigations are not unwelcome, but neither are they encouraged and considered to be an essential aspect of the studio project. Thus, these initiatives get relegated as ‘subversive’ and are unable to inform and broaden the scope of the project or the objectives of the design studio. Studio projects should enable students to be in control of their decision-making, within broadly structured parameters or through open-ended investigative frameworks to evolve exciting yet place-specific visions for our built futures. This is evident in the exploratory nature of ‘student-driven’ final year projects, which are far removed from the often insular, restrictive and controlled nature of most design studios.


Strategies for the future There is a dire need for projects to be structured such that the students experientially engage with what they are doing, their surroundings and themselves. Students should be enabled to broaden their mental horizons; and the ability to make connections, references and draw analogies across disciplines and diverse contexts needs to be inculcated. Studios should be re-framed as places for conscious questioning, and projects as a re-evaluation of accepted notions, thoughts and ideas. Perhaps there is need for a complete and conscious restructuring in the way one imparts ‘designeducation’ – by an understanding of the complex ecological, cultural and social constructs that we are immersed in. Architecture and its education needs to be freed from restrictive tendencies that trains a student merely for ‘practice’ and ‘building production’, as in the current state of flux and uncertainty, modes of practice and the definition of ‘what constitutes a building’ are themselves being questioned and re-invented. The future of our built environment, and by implication, our natural heritage, is at stake.

The author is an architect involved in teaching and research and is based in Bombay. The author wishes to thank the students of Sir JJ College of Architecture for the provocative and investigative nature of their work and would also like to thank Prof. Vidya Raghu. [November 2005]


Suprio B - Raising Questions: the Education of Architects in India today [Manuscript]