Architects and Architectural Practice in India: Some Imperatives

This ACHR publication, on the occasion of a regional meet on the “Community Architect” rightly focuses on the work of the community architect. Though the definition varies, in development circles he/she is the one, an individual or a group, who works for the homeless, inadequately sheltered and the ‘housing poor’; who engages in slum upgrading, disaster reconstruction and rural settlement development projects; who works for job satisfaction rather than money and in response to his/her inner calling and social consciousness rather than the academic qualification; who respects tradition, culture, `people skills’ and knowledge and believes in and practices participatory methods; who is committed to low cost and appropriate technology and ‘local’ wisdom and context; who is sensitive to psychological aspects of people’s living and to socio-cultural dimensions of habitat development; who respects climate and environment, is sensitive to concerns and is committed to sustainable construction and development; whose creative struggle is confined not so much to inventing new forms and designing daring and bold structures but doing more with less, and seeing big in small; whose clients are not only individuals, groups and communities but the `class’ (the ‘poor’, the ‘disaster victim’, the ‘homeless’); who works’ with’ rather than ‘for ‘people; whose concern is up-scaling and whose dreams and fantasies are changing the system, establishment and set perceptions and practices. That, in nut shell, is the community architect’s work, universe and challenge.

On the other end of the spectrum is the conventional/mainstream architect—who just about in every way and manner is what the community architect is not. Of course, with some exceptions.

For good or bad, I have been both—a community architect and a mainstream architect—in equal measure. In both capacities I have had a long innings. Considering that the two career streams ran parallel, save the first five years in the early ‘70s, I have worked in these two fields for over 35 years. In both forms of work, the engagement has been long, intense and sizable. Keeping in mind that all articles and papers in this publication detail the work of the community architect, I have chosen to look into the work and the universe of the mainstream architect. And as I am based and work in India, the focus is on the Indian architect and architectural practice in India. Moreover, as it is just about the only paper in the publication, it does not describe this or that project but the architect, his/her persona and the universe he/she operates in. The making and working of the mainstream architects deserve a look in as they form an overwhelming majority and determine, to a large extent, the nature, quality and form of the built environment in our cities. It is important that there are more community architects as the needs and aspirations of the bottom half of the population are to be met and conditions in their habitat are to be improved creatively, fast and with limited resources. It is equally important that the mainstream architects imbibe the spirit, orientation, attitude and concerns of the community architect. The future and long term sustainability of our settlements are at stake.

Role: The Larger Context

In the South Indian city of Trichy  on  a site visit  some time ago , the local chapter of the Institute of Architects invited me to address the group and meet its members. The town, approaching a million people mark, has over hundred practicing architects. While discussing state of the architectural practice in a small town in general and Trichy in particular, a senior local architect’s comments on the role of the architect generated passionate debate. He observed that he felt a fringe player and a marginal actor in his own design projects, as his contribution remained mainly in the non-tangible areas of `aesthetics’ and ‘beauty’, while other specialists offered hard core services-- such as structural design, plumbing, electrification, air-conditioning, costing, construction management, etc.—which his clients valued more. He further added that the architect had become ‘light weight’ having handed over everything except the ‘aesthetics’ to others and consequently did not enjoy as much confidence and respect of the client.

The introspective architect was probably a bit too honest and harsh in his judgment on himself and a bit too critical of his professional contribution. He did not account for the space planning, co-ordination and other services that an architect rendered in a building project, as also the architect’s leader-of –the team –status. No architect ever thinks that he or she is light weight and hardly carries the burden of ‘content’ inadequacy or ‘substance’ lightness. It is also true that unlike the small town client mindset that the architect friend referred to, majority clients in the big cities have a much charitable view on the role and contribution of their architects. However, with the unprecedented real estate boom and increasingly prominent role that the architects are called upon to play in the changing skyline of the globalizing Indian cities, there is a real need to look at the professional and the professional practice objectively.

In order to get the balance correct, it is also necessary to see the architectural practice in the context of fast deteriorating quality of built environment and deplorable housing and living conditions of the less fortunate ones in the same cities. Though an architect never considers a village to be a part of his/her ‘project constituency’, to put the matter in perspective, it is helpful to see the architects and their work in the context of rural habitat and the built environment in the villages, where a majority of the country’s thousand million plus people still live and work and, believe it or not, would stand to benefit if some of the architects’ skills, know-how and time were available in preserving and improving the quality of rural  built environment.

The Client

In analyzing the profession, the first set of questions are on the clients: for whom are the architects working or not working. For whose benefit, to meet whose needs, are they using their skills, knowledge and expertise? Which segment of the Indian society are they reaching their services? Certainly not the villagers, as hardly any architect practices in a village. That eliminates 75 percent of the population and their building needs from the work sphere of the architects. How many and who are practicing in small and medium towns  which are growing chaotically and haphazardly, and where the ‘projects’ and the ‘clients’  exist with capacity and willingness to pay, but are not able  to access a ‘good’  professional’s services? Very few. Architects are concentrated mainly in big cities. And who are their clients there? Not the lower middle class, also not many in the middle- middle class. Their clients are the rich, businessmen, industrialists and public and private institution builders: mostly the upper crust of the society.  Also the builders and the real-estate developers. As a class, the upper one or two percent of the society. What about others? Aren’t they building? Aren’t they investing? Don’t they need services of an architect, a designer? Wouldn’t an architect’s skill and expertise, if available to them, make a difference to what they are building on their own or using para-professionals? Why aren’t they seeking a professional architect’s services? Why aren’t the professionals reaching their skills and services to them? Leave aside the ‘social good’ or addressing their unmet needs, don’t they constitute a ‘market’? Aren’t they potential clients and a business opportunity? Isn’t meeting their needs, within the limited resources they possess, a professional and a design challenge, a creative opportunity? With the over-crowding of architects that the big cities are witnessing, subsequent competition for jobs and projects and resultant survival struggle, why aren’t they seeking new pastures? Why are they not exploring un-chartered territories? What prevents this from happening? Why are they not entrepreneurial in that sense? If that happens, architects will have more work and newer challenges and the less affluent people would get the services they need and deserve. It will be a win-win situation for all.

Why is that not happening? Has it something to do with the mindset of the architect, definition of what constitutes ‘architecture’, his/her perceived role as an architect, their education and training? What is that prevents a professional architect from engaging in and contributing to the larger, ‘popular’ world of built environment? Is it selectivity, exclusivity, a misplaced notion of ‘professionalism’, professional ego, status concern, or elitism’ of which the architects are often criticized? The main questions are: why are there no architects for not so rich? Why are there no village architects, architects for rural India? Why don’t we have architects specializing in repair, upgrading, and retrofitting, rural habitat and disaster reconstruction? Aren’t these services required, isn’t there a market for it? Equally important, why are those few, exceptional ones, who work in the villages, in slums and for the poor, looked down upon? Why are they seen as an inferior race, a lesser god’s children? If this changes, the chance is that an unexplored world would open up for some architects.

The second set of observations and questions relate to the narrow client base and the limited ‘universe’ the architects operate in. It is a revelation that out of all ‘formal’ buildings constructed in the country not more than six to seven percent are designed by the trained professional architects. They need to ask why so few use their services rather than canvassing for legislation that only the formally trained and `qualified’ architects and only the member of the professional association should be permitted to practice.  How do the remaining construct their buildings? Why are they not using their services? Is that the architects are not available, not accessible? Is that their services are expensive and buildings costly? Is that their services not relevant for them don’t fit into their plans and budgets? Or is that the other set of service providers--the non-architects, non-qualified, non-members of the practicing architects’ association--- more accessible, more client friendly and more relevant? Is health care service without doctors, legal service without lawyers, and accounting service without accountants and primary education without teachers conceivable, proper? The marginalized role of the professional architect in the on-going construction activity deserves some thought and reflection. In a larger societal context, the quality of the overall built environment, not only an isolated building design, should be the architect’s concern. And in a narrow business sense a less qualified competitor taking away a large volume of potential business should be their business concern too.

The Bare-foot Architect

That brings me to the third point. And that is: should that be a big concern that a formal professional architect’s services reach  only a select few? In India, architecture without architects is a glaring, an undeniable reality. The figure quoted earlier, the 94 to 6 division of work, is the situation generally. Take for instance housing. Roughly speaking, in big cities, out of ten houses that get constructed, just one is by the public sector, two are by the private sector and the remaining seven are by the slum-dwellers and/or by other non-formal builders/suppliers. In rural India, the entire existing housing stock and a substantial part of the newly constructed housing is by the people-- by the ordinary, common people. By a thumb rule, out of the total housing stock of some 180 million units in the country, more than 60 percent is through the “people process”, what the Latin Americans call the “social production of housing”—no architects, no engineers, no real estate developers, no housing finance agencies  and no building bye-laws!

Should this change? Should this equation be altered? Does not this ‘people’s movement’ in settlements development deserve a greater recognition, facilitation and more creative response? Should we not take a more constructive, accommodative and positive view of this people process? Should we not recognize these bare-foot architects? Should we not see them as different kind of professionals? Would it not be proper to recognize their role and give them space to operate? And would that not be a service to the community to organize skill upgrading for them, their capacity building? HUDCO’s Building Center initiative, though proper in conception, is only a limited and feeble response to that need. Diverting a portion of the public investment that goes into making of the university trained architects—and civil engineers – in skill upgrading of these `bare-foot `architects’ will go a long way in improving their performance and thereby quality of the built environment they create .

Making and Working of the Architect

Now, let me turn inwards, from a wider societal—and somewhat nebulous-- concern for meeting the unmet needs of the ‘non-clients’ to how the practicing  architects service their chosen clients, to the working of the professional practice on the ground. As done earlier in this paper, a good way to dig in without hurting feelings and disturbing sensitivities is to ask questions. Isn’t it true that most  practicing architects understand little---- and care even less-- for the external environmental factors such as climate, energy, water, etc. while designing buildings? Aren’t they victims of external-- mostly western--influences and practitioners of unsuited, inappropriate ‘styles’? Is not a ‘curtain wall’, a full glass façade in the blazing sun, which necessitates an over-working air-conditioning system to cool it, an insult to the local climate and the energy crisis? Isn’t it true that most architects are not cost conscious in their design solutions and that, generally speaking, cost consciousness is looked down upon as the preoccupation of the inferior, the struggler among the architects?  In some ways, aren’t the architects alien in their own environment, in their own place and in understanding and responding to the demands of climate, energy crisis, resource crunch, social complexities, and life style choices?  Aren’t they divorced from the rich local traditional practices in building construction? Don’t the architects’ stylistic preferences, their `isms’, over-ride functional needs of their clients? Someone big in the profession once told me that the client was ‘incidental’. Put crudely--- and the fellow architects may kindly excuse my saying this-- aren’t the architects taking their clients for a ride?--partly through ignorance, partly through arrogance, partly through alienation, partly through design and partly through default?

Education and Influence

While examining the professional, it is essential to recognize the influences that make and shape him/her. Does not the architectural education we impart and learn carry a hangover of the colonial past? Aren’t our systems and institutions still burdened and influenced by the British systems and institutions? Isn’t our education, planning and practice under the  influence of the past? How much has really changed? How much has been the indigenization? Earlier, a ‘foreign’ tag had premium, the foreigner and the foreign trained architect carried weight, called the shots. Has that weight lessened? Has the mindset, mentality changed? How much is local and  indigenous in our architectural and planning education ? Aren’t architects still looking westwards for ideas, inspiration, examples and masters? In a globalizing world there is nothing wrong in looking westwards—or to Singapore, Dubai ,China and Malaysia-- for inspiration or ideas or technology. What is crucial, however, is to be firmly rooted to avoid being swept away, and having a reference frame to make balanced choices. It is also to be appreciated that those solutions and ideas—the ‘foreign’ ones-- are not the most relevant, not the most workable in solving our local problems and meeting our local needs.

The Working Environment

Not much is said –or done--- about the Institutional environment within which the architects operate. It is highly restrictive and constraining but to change it the architects are doing nothing or precious little. The reference is to regulatory framework that includes building bye-laws and regulations, the building permit system and the compliance monitoring mechanism put in place and managed by the local bodies and/or the urban development authorities. They seem to have been made to kill design, creativity and innovation. The stipulations and provisions are kept deliberately vague. Interpretation varies from the officer to officer, desk to desk, time to time. Arbitrariness is the order of the day and corruption is rampant. The system stinks. Yet, one sees little pubic articulation of concern and little joint action with other stakeholders, on part of the architects’ community, to protest, to fight against the wrong, to mobilize opinion, to find and present alternatives and to work for and influence change. Subservience and accommodation to the system’s irrationality and tyranny and acceptance of its creativity neutralizing power is simply amazing. And it is beyond doubt that the architects are the most qualified- and the most equipped--  to bring it to the notice of the bye-law framers and the administrators that making supportive, positive, facilitating and enabling by-laws and building regulations costs nothing  in money terms-- that it only demands some imagination and openness to learning from others-- but they go a long way in making the cities beautiful, their sky-line exciting and the urban form richer---something the administrators admire so much in foreign cities but do little to promote and ensure it here.

The architects are the principal stakeholders in this matter. They and their associations need to take position on these issues and organize efforts to bring about the needed change. If this does not change, the architects and their creativity are the principal losers besides, of course, the cities and even the towns.

The agenda for institutional reform is much wider--- and deeper---than rationalizing and improving the building bye-laws and the regulatory framework. The architects need to muster courage and stand with conviction against unethical practices and corruption. Shortly after the earthquake in Gujarat in 2001, the Home Minister of the State publicly confessed that a majority of the buildings constructed in Ahmedabad city in the previous decade —a staggering 90 percent, according to him– were either illegal or unauthorized or violated building codes or norms in some form or the other. The reference was primarily to the builder promoted construction. The earthquake also exposed large scale irresponsible practices loaded against public safety. If the architects raise their voice against such practices chance is that they would be probably heard. Even if the results do not materialize instantly, the process will build a new solidarity, a fresh togetherness, a new awareness on part of the authorities of their public accountability and a new identity of the architects among their present and potential clients and the society in general.

Leadership

Identifying systemic deficiencies and bringing about institutional change demand a committed leadership with a vision. What kind of leadership does the profession has? Who are the leaders and what are they doing? I have never understood this matter sufficiently but I am told that the star architects are the leaders of the profession. The professional associations also play the leadership role. Do they? What and who are they leading? What initiatives? What sharing? What mobilization? Which issues are championed? What remedies, options and strategies are suggested? A leader must lead, give, inspire, set example, even sacrifice. Whom are they inspiring? What are they giving? Is the word `sacrifice’ heard anywhere at that level? Is not the public good versus private interest the most obvious feature of the leadership issue?

Insider’s View

This seemingly critical and what could so easily be seen as ‘negative’ portrayal of the profession is not borne out of negativity or frustration or anything of that sort. It is also not an outsider’s view based on ignorance, prejudice or ideological baggage. It is an ‘insider’s view, based on experience and borne out of a concern that the architects, as a community, as professionals, as privileged citizens could do much more, serve many more and contribute so much more meaningfully. This stems from an understanding that given the attitudinal and orientation changes, they could be leaders in making our cities and settlements better places to live and work.

Architecture is a noble profession. In the hands of its conscientious practitioners, it is a medium to serve the people and also the environment. It combines both art and science. Culture and technology are its pillars. It is a vehicle to translate ideas and dreams into reality. It embraces both: reality and vision, creativity and practicality. It has been there from the dawn of the civilization and will always be there. However, the way it is  perceived and practiced, it needs to move from the monuments to the people, from magazine pages to practical lives , from the elite to the common people and, in a way, from top to bottom, from a pedestal to the ground. That would take nothing from its hallow, its mystique and its nobility. It will only be richer.

Architecture as a subject, as an art form, as a Shashtra, is too big and ancient to be treated casually. But the architecture profession, as perceived and practiced now, certainly needs a rethink, a paradigm shift. The multiple crisis—energy, water, space, resources, ecology and governance—the new technologies, changing social equations and emerging realities in the globalizing cities make it imperative that the building professionals re-educate – both de-learning and re-learning are called for----and re-equip themselves. Moreover, a degree of de-professionalization of the conventional professional, in terms of attitudinal shift, client choices and priorities, are necessary part of the change.