There is a general misconception that buildings are built by engineers, while the architect only provides information about the appearance of buildings, or at best, can discuss requirements for the use of a building with the potential users in order to make the building plan. This belief about the role of an architect is not prevalent across the world, but is shared mostly among societies/countries which have emerged recently from a colonial past, such as India.

It is generally accepted that India has a glorious architectural heritage, and some of the most admired monuments in world history have been built in this country. Therefore it may be worth examining why in contemporary India the overwhelming majority of buildings being built, especially in the public sector, are badly built, awkward to inhabit and use, and difficult to maintain.

It may also be noted that while the profession of architecture is ancient, the discipline of civil engineering (which today has a pre-eminent role in the building sector) was introduced in its present form in this country by the British rulers of India. In Europe the discipline of civil engineering emerged only in the 18th century AD after the first polytechnic was started in France in 1794. Whereas in Europe the profession of architecture is well-integrated with the civil engineering discipline, this integrated practice was not transferred by the imperial powers of Europe to their colonies in Asia and Africa. In British India the traditional native building practices were neglected and overlaid with procedures and techniques introduced at first by the colonial military engineers, and later institutionalized into the working code of the Public Works Departments which became responsible for construction of practically all public building throughout the country.

The pre-eminence of civil engineering in the building trade was further reinforced in the education of architects in India. In the beginning of the twentieth century, formal education of architects was started in the Sir JJ School of Art in Bombay, the Delhi Polytechnic, and the Thompson College of Civil Engineering in Roorkee. The curricula and teaching programmes were devised to train architectural draftsmen who would work as assistants to civil engineers. This skewed orientation of architectural education has persisted over time, even as the number of architectural schools has increased exponentially over the last few decades.

In the second half of the twentieth century the general awareness of the role of architects was significantly changed with the building of Chandigarh, the new capital city for the truncated State of Punjab. By importing architectural expertise from France and Britain (in the persons of architects Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry, and Jane Drew) the Government of India gave a strong message of the pre-eminence of architects in the building sector. However the customs and practices of the preceding fifty years of dominance by civil engineers had become entrenched and developed vested interests. This led to the emergence of a twin track system in the building trade – the private sector was flexible in approach and recognized the value of architectural design; whereas the public sector, dominated as it was by the Public Works Departments entrusted with the construction of major institutional building works and infrastructure, developed a deep vested interest in preserving the bad practices which flourished in the pre-independence era. This may be one of the most significant reasons for the growth of ‘black money’ in the building trade, eventually leading to the dubious practices rife in the real estate business especially in the period preceding the era of economic liberalisation. This ‘under-the-table’ economy, for which the building construction trade and real-estate business became notorious, has undoubtedly led to the steep rise in price of land and building infrastructure, and it has contributed significantly to the housing shortage, especially for the economically disadvantaged sections of our population.

The number of registered architects practicing in India is increasing steadily. There are now over 140 architecture schools in the country approved by the Council of Architecture, which has statutory authority to regulate the architectural profession as well as its education. The social prestige of the profession is also growing. However the self-image of architects is still burdened by the recent history of the construction sector. The stalwarts of the architectural profession developed their practices, post-independence, in partnership with civil engineers. The architects exercised their skill in spatial planning and aesthetic control, while their engineer partners took care of cost estimation and site supervision. Thus building construction became the primary responsibility of civil engineers who monitored and controlled the building trades and contractors. This is perhaps the single most important factor contributing to the decline of quality in the built environment.

Civil engineers are trained to evaluate the strength of materials, calculate and size structural systems, estimate quantities of materials and labour costs, and work out details of plumbing, electrical, mechanical and airconditioning systems. They are not trained to assess the human requirements of the built environment, nor are they trained to understand and predict the behaviour of the building envelope with respect to weather and climate, which is essential for maintaining thermal comfort indoors and sustaining life of the materials used in construction. Consequently architectural designs and specifications are not adequately appreciated by the construction supervisory team of engineers who misrepresent architectural intentions during execution as a matter-of-course. This results in unintended distortions in the administration and management of  building projects, leading to cost and time over-runs as well as increasing maintenance costs in the life-cycle of buildings.

The gap in understanding between the architect-authors of a building design and its implementing-engineers creates a situation which is exploited by building contractors eager for opportunities to maximize their profits. Often this gives rise to the development of an unholy nexus between the contractor and supervising engineer, who together siphon off the unearned income and share it with the administrators of building projects, especially in the case of public buildings and infrastructure projects controlled by committees.    

In the last decade or two, there has been the rise of a construction management discipline, through professional training courses and programmes. Consequently we have now a number of professionally qualified construction management teams to assist with building projects which are becoming more complex technologically and require uptodate scientific expertise, especially in the area of energy efficient building design. However this section of building professionals is becoming dominated by engineers retired from government construction departments, like the Public Works Department and the Military Engineering Service, whose expertise and training is circumscribed by technical knowledge obtained 3 or 4 decades earlier at the beginning of their professional career. Such knowledge has been overlaid with their experience of working in public construction projects where the bad practices described earlier have been the norm. Such badly qualified engineers are able to dominate construction works, simply on account of the many years of experience they have in the trade. Administrators of building projects are unable to distinguish between relevant and professionally uptodate expertise and the  simple fact of decades of experience in construction projects, however inappropriate. Understanding and appreciation of architectural values, including resource-efficient building design, is obscured by considerations of expediency and prevalent corrupt practices. Institutional administrators are all-too-easily drawn into the murky world of systematic leakage of public funds through the contractor and construction supervisor nexus which ends with the delivery of unaccounted money to feed the funding of elections and the political class.

If we examine the leakage of public money in building works throughout the country we find that, in quantitative terms, the amount is staggering. The Tenth Five Year Plan of the Government of India estimates the expenditure in the building sector being 5.1 percent of the GDP (as calculated for the year 2002). Some senior architects and engineers have, in private conversation, estimated the leakage of public funds in this sector to be 30 to 40 percent of the total investment (at a conservative estimate). This means that 2 percent of the GDP is annually contributed by the building sector to the reservoir of black money in the country. Quite clearly this is an aberration of the national developmental process which the country can ill-afford.

Is there a way out of this dangerous quicksand of societal degradation?

The root of the problem described above is the demeaning of the architectural profession. This process of demeaning is caused by the external forces outlined above, as well as the related dissensions and loss of confidence within the architectural community. A substantive correction of this situation is possible only by improving the autonomy of the architectural profession, and by improving the rigour of its intellectual base.

The architects Act of 1972, through the constitution of the Council of Architecture, set out the statutory framework for preparation and maintenance of a register of architects, for prescribing standards of professional conduct and etiquette and a code of ethics for architects, and for prescribing minimum standards of architectural education. In its short history of just over three decades, the Council of Architecture has only begun the process of defining the identity of the architect in India as the provider of a distinct professional service. The Council has faced hurdles in this task, mainly on account of the colonial heritage of the building sector, as outlined earlier. In recent times the Council has made a significant advance in establishing the pre-eminence of architecture by freeing itself from the control of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) on the strength of judgments from the High Courts of Chennai, Andhra Pradesh and Mumbai. Inspite of these judgments, the AICTE is persisting in denying the autonomy of the Council of Architecture. A concerted action is needed by all members of the architectural profession to restore and consolidate the autonomy and distinctive character of the architect as envisaged in the Architects Act.

The other area of corrective action is the framework of architectural education. There is a great lack of teaching material which focuses on the local environment, both cultural and natural. This has resulted in students apeing the forms and norms of foreign architecture as glamourised by the few architectural publications in India. There is the immediate requirement of serious research by the faculties of architectural colleges to understand and systematically document our local architectural forms and traditions, our ethical norms and local customs reflected in built form, as well as the great diversity of environmental conditions existing on this sub-continent – from high mountains, to huge river basins, to great desert landscapes, to the rain forests, to extensive coastal plains, to the diverse landscape of the Deccan plateau, to the off-shore islands – all of which have given rise to a beautiful variety of architectural form over time. Such research, sustained over a decade or two, can result in building up the intellectual reservoir necessary for a relevant and meaningful architecture to emerge.

The tasks outlined above are only the beginning of a quest for re-establishing the identity of the architect in contemporary society. It is eminently possible that we can as, a consequence, produce in India a contemporary architecture of sufficient merit to take a position of pre-eminence in the emerging global community of planet Earth.

MN Ashish Ganju
September 2007