The practice of architecture is today a near impossibility, given the political arena architects have carved out for themselves. The boundaries of this arena, whether academic or tectonic or speculative, are not anymore clarifying the architectural definition internal to the profession or what is externally projected to its audience, described either as clientele or those we serve.

Architecture is an ancient discipline. Some time ago when I had to present its image to a distant audience I made a diagram of three axes in a simple conjunction of familiar subjects – geography, history, and philosophy, to represent the architectural matrix. This image served to remind us of the clues inherent in the diversity of our environmental conditions, in the lineage of ideas embodied in monuments across time, and in the power of ethical systems which have shaped our view of the world. The question which confronts us today is how close to the centre, that is the crossing of these axes, is our practice of architecture?

In the last century or two we have witnessed an overlaying of social institutions expected to modernize our ancient society. The building of the edifice of modern India was quickened, at least metaphorically, in the heroic period immediately following our political independence in 1947. Within a decade or so of this we were confronted by the harsh realities of a very large majority living in conditions which could only be described as being almost sub-human and a very far cry from the modern ideal. A statistically impressive effort was launched to develop modern infrastructure, and the architect was expected to make a significant contribution to this cause. However, the definition of infrastructure was derived from a nineteenth century European viewpoint, and this created a perceptual gap in our societal framework which is yet to be bridged. As a consequence the architect remains marginal to the provision of infrastructure in our settlements.

The philosophical axis of architecture has generally been responsible for making the notion of civilization very dear to architects. This made it extremely difficult for architects to negotiate the differences between the institutional configuration of the ancien regime and the imposition of a somewhat alien modern framework.

 It may be necessary to elucidate the nature of this difference, the perceptual gap, and our relationship with architectural philosophy. We think about architecture, as commonly understood, emerging as a refinement of the practice of shelter from the elements. In this process our understanding of the elements is configured by the orientation of our body in the cosmic realm, both spatially and temporally. This leads to the notion of a construct of materials and energy guided by the awareness of the universal self. To keep such a pattern of relationships alive was easier in ancient societies and indigenous cultures where reason in action was tempered by conscious emotion. Once reason becomes the predominant driver of human emotion and this gets reflected in the structure of social institutions, we get the beginning of the modern sensibility, which was projected in architectural terms as a powerful vision at the beginning of the twentieth century. This vision called for a new society which was urban in nature, international in reach, and relied on mobility for its sustenance. The pace of urbanisation increased throughout the twentieth century to the extent that for the first time in human history the majority of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by the end of the first decade of the twenty first century. In this period the urban problematique has shifted away from concerns of public health to those of mass transportation. The notion of physical infrastructure changed from human life-support systems (like clean air and water, as well as healthy soil) to transportation systems, on the surface, below the surface, and above the surface of the planet.

This vision of a new society created another major perceptual shift by raising the civilisational status of urban existence at the cost of life in the rural habitat. It should, however, be noted that in those parts of the world where ancient societies are still predominant, the majority population still lives in rural areas, and this includes most of Asia and Africa.

The societal and environmental changes brought about by the enterprise of modernisation and industrialisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have resulted from what is commonly understood as technological progress, often at the cost of evolution of human values. This has created the gap in our understanding of institutional frameworks which will enrich the cultural matrix and sustain human civilisation. All attempts to bridge these gaps by radical means which are primarily driven by technological innovations have relied on the disciplines of engineering, an area of specialisation taught formally only since the late eighteenth century in Europe, and in India only since the twentieth century. In a country like ours where a syncretic view is common, we cannot become comfortable with the separation of building from thinking. Yet engineering practice tends towards increasing abstraction and specialization, thus distancing human endeavor from its life-enhancing inspiration which is a metaphysical whole. This has led to a widening of the perceptual gap in our understanding of societal infrastructure, instead of the anticipated synergy of means and ends required to solve old problems in a new way.

Architectural education adopted a tangential trajectory to escape from the rigors of the real world of a degenerating human habitat, even within the heroic framework of industrial progress. There were architectural high-points with the introduction of a cubist vision of Cartesian spatial abstraction by Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, and the Mandu-inspired monumentalism of Louis Kahn in Ahmedabad (which sadly got transformed from the city of pleasure to a management utopia dominated by lucre), but these only served to convert the ostrich like posture of architects to an alien-administered third world leadership aspiration. This led to the younger generation of architects being singularly inspired to become coolies in the international professional marketplace and forsake their legendary ancestral heritage of symbolic wealth and ethical responsibility.

The inescapable fact of the current economic boom does present for the architectural profession an extraordinary opportunity. I don’t think, however, that this is an opportunity for competing with the so-called industrially developed societies; but its power lies in demonstrating the validity of the ancient truths embedded in the societal genetic code which allowed the flowering of the arts in a time not yet forgotten.

This may appear to some as a recipe for swimming against the current, and therefore a wasteful exercise. It may be useful to note that the ability of human beings to address the causes of suffering is the time-honoured way of rising out of ignorance and making a contribution to the evolution of the species. It is important today, as it always was, to remember that the practice of architecture is an art form which deals essentially with the evolution of human civilization. The means may be tectonic, but the guiding principle is that of universal action, or ‘vishwakarma’.

MN Ashish Ganju
2 March 2008