The amount of building work that is being done in the country today is something that gladdens every architect’s heart. But what is less gladdening is the fact that our entire system of building organisation is not yet geared to dealing with all this rush of new work. Before Independence, the kind of work the Government was called upon to deal with was more or less limited to such things as roads, post offices, railways, Government housing, etc. Plans for these were inclined to be standardised, and their execution could be entrusted to a specially set-up organisation. It was a good system as far as it went: the work was standardised, so the organisation too could be standardised and could safely and smoothly run in the grooves that had been laid down. Today there are no such grooves. Building no longer runs to type but is varied and manifold. The Ministry of Health wants hospitals and hostels, the Ministry of Education schools and colleges, the Ministry of Commerce factories and offices; there are laboratories and atomic plants, foundries, townships to be set up. The country is developing at an enormous rate and, as it develops, it calls for ever more and ever new buildings.
Ever new buildings—that is really the key phrase. Many of the buildings we have to put up today are not the kind of buildings we have ever put up before This sets a special problem for the architect, for before he can begin designing, he has to set about getting the data for the buildings he has been commissioned to design. This is not as easy as it sounds, for the simple reason that the data is by no means readily available. Let me give an example. When the small-scale industries were first started in this country, no one had anything but the vaguest ideas on what the factories that had to be put up were meant to house. After getting all the info he could from the organising bodies, the architect had to start seeking out the manufacturers to whom the buildings were to be allotted and get an exact idea of their requirements. There might, for instance, be a manufacturer of scientific instruments, who for purposes of his manufacture would require a small storage space and a large working area; a manufacturer of toys, on the other hand, would require the exact opposite—a large storage space and a small working area. It is only after much patient research that the architect would be able to work out a ratio of how many small buildings to how many large ones were required, and how to plan entrances, and exits and circulation and ventilation to suit the requirements of all the different types of manufacture. Often the manufacturer himself would not be able to tell him what type of machinery he would be installing, since the Government were importing new machinery for him, of which be did not yet know the workings; so it would be the architect’s job to find out about these workings. It is only after he has got a thorough grasp of all these intensely relevant details that the architect can as much as start to design his industrial estate. In other words, he has to learn as he goes along, so that all building work today is, in the fullest sense, experimental.
But one can only experiment if one is given complete freedom and trust. And that is just what the architect is not given in our present set-up. That set-up, as I have said, is still geared to the old type of building work where everything was cut and dried and no architectural thinking had to be done. It is a set-up which has no need and so no respect for the architect. He is, at most, a man to give a pretty look to things, to slap on a photogenic elevation while the real true solid work is done by the engineer. Architects today still have to put up with an attitude of “Give us a nice plan and we will do the rest”. How pernicious this attitude is perhaps best illustrated by the kind of buildings it has produced. No better proof should be needed that there is no such thing as a “nice plan” to be drawn up by one department and executed by another, with neither department knowing what the other is up to. Supposing an architect, who has been asked to draw up a plan, specific exposed brick-work for his elevation. The estimate department, which has been appointed to work out costs and specifications decides characteristically enough to economise, and substitutes 2nd-class brick for the required 1st -class brick. The engineer, who has been appointed to execute the building, finds that this 2nd-class brick does not look well enough for the exposed brick-work the design calls for. He paints it red and draws white lines for pointing. Result: the whole building looks—and is—sham. For a building to be alive, to be good, to be real, it must be thought out in every detail and supervised in every detail by one man alone and in full control. This can never be stressed enough. A building is an integrated whole, in which every detail counts and is dependent on every other detail. Change one, and the whole thing changes: it is—or should be, if the building is well designed—as finely balanced and adjusted as that. The man who is responsible for the design must also be responsible for its execution, for no one else can interpret his drawings and details and specifications as thoroughly and as intimately. Few laymen ever seem to grasp that a building cannot be conceived only on paper. An architect must be there on site to see it through and deal with the manifold problems that arise in the actual process of building. For actual building is a gradual growing and merging of the original design into the realised one on site. Only the architect, as I have said, can direct this process; and to be able to do so, he needs complete control and self-reliance, so that he does not have to get every decision of his ratified by someone else, who in his turn will have to get it ratified by someone else, and so start up a chain of paper-work and opening of new files to enmesh the architect and his building in a skein of frustration and delay. To build fast and to build well means one man making snap decisions on site and off site, responsible at this stage only to himself. There is no other way.
But far from achieving this complete freedom, the architect is bogged down right from the beginning, before he has even started on his design. For, before work on any building of importance is begun, a committee is assembled to deliberate on it. These committees consist exclusively of laymen with only the vaguest ideas on the subject they are supposed to deliberate. Yet it is they who are mainly responsible for getting the money sanctioned for the work. On what basis do they ask for a particular amount? Frequently on a basis no more solid than some experience of private building work one of them may have once had or through referring to other amounts sanctioned for other buildings. All too often, therefore, the amount finally asked for and sanctioned bears no relevance to the needs of the work in hand; and, of course, a sanction once obtained is regarded as sacrosanct and no one ever dare ask to have it changed. So the architect finds himself financially straitjacketed right from the beginning. Further he has to face the committee and try to explain his blueprints to people who do not know which side to hold them up—a fact which, however, never deters them from delivering themselves of weighty criticisms. And naturally, since they have no idea of what is wanted or needed, they are afraid of assuming responsibility. So the building starts off in a flurry of indecisions and delays, with no one knowing what is to happen and why. If only these committees could be prevailed upon to devolve the responsibility they fear so much on to the architect, who is only too willing to take it up! But that they cannot and dare not do. They do not trust the architect; their very existence is an expression of this distrust, for they have been constituted to act as a check on him. But this “check” tends to smother to him here and initiative and originality in the architect. All too often they insist that the building to be designed must show “national character”. But “national character” in building changes and develops as building techniques change and develop. Since reinforced concrete has replaced stone, the domes and arches, so highly recommended as evidences of national character, are outmoded building forms, bits of anachronism stuck incongruously on to buildings which have no need of them. But the committees are too concerned with playing safe to realise that “national character” is some thing that can only be evolved if the architect is allowed to work freely within the social conditions and with the materials and techniques available today.
Perhaps, though the committees are not alone in failing to realise that we have to work out our own kind of architecture, we ourselves are, or may be, too much influenced by what is being done in technically more advanced countries. This is not altogether surprising. Technical education in India is still not advanced enough to dispense with further training abroad, so that many of us come back from our foreign studies with our heads filled and our imaginations fired by all the architectural innovations that we have seen and studied, and which, naturally enough, we are eager to introduce here. Moreover, we are constantly seeing foreign technical journals, which further influence us to adopt foreign architectural forms. But these forms have been evolved under conditions radically different from those under which we have to work. If you cannot get pre-fabricated parts or a certain type of fittings, it is no use copying building forms based on the use of these pre-fabricated parts or fittings. That is as false and artificial as sticking on domes and arches. But that is just what has happened with all too many of our “modern” buildings: they copy foreign-evolved building forms—developed from materials such as steel, aluminium, wood, concrete—without having the necessary materials or techniques. It is all done with paint and powder, so to speak, and is, therefore, bad architecture. What we have to do is evolve our own forms, based on the materials and labour conditions available to us (not to speak of such things as different climatic and social conditions). Of course, this necessitates a lot of research into these materials and conditions, and here we come up against another problem: the shortage of technical men on the one hand, the mass of urgent building work on the other. These make detailed and thorough research an almost impossible luxury, and yet it is something that will have to be done if we are to work out an architecture of our own suitable within a framework of cheap labour and costly materials—a framework, in other words, the very reverse of that of the foreign architecture we are trying to copy.
The most pressing problem today, then, I would say, is to release the architect from the drawing-board to which the present system is all too inclined to confine him, and bring him out on site. If he is to develop his own technology—and this is something no one else can do for him—he must have a thorough knowledge of materials, their quality, texture and cost, of the kind of workmanship available, so that he may cast away dreams of what he can’t get and learn to work with what he can. He must get to know various kinds of contractors and he must learn to supervise them and guard himself against all the little tricks they have evolved to trap inexperienced architects. He must know how to draw up and invite tenders, and how to check bills. There is, in fact, nothing remotely connected with building and builders which is not his very intimate business. And it is only when he has learnt all that for himself that he can start to devolve responsibility. It is at this stage that he can begin to build up a team to work under him—a team consisting of engineers, estimators, clerks-of-work and checkers of bills, etc. It is with such teams—well-organised and under the full control of a highly experienced and knowledgeable architect—that we can begin to specialise, each team being in charge of one group of buildings and constantly researching into the needs and possibilities of that special group. In this way we may eventually be able to master our own architecture instead of continuously floundering on a mass of new building work, which we have neither the time nor the experience and nor, indeed, the freedom to tackle thoroughly. But as things are now, with our present set-up and with the architect in his present—what I can only call—subordinate position, there is little hope of our ever evolving a good and true architecture of our own.