An article on the work of Ar Nirmal Kulkarni, (Architect, Educator, Design Activist). This work has been undertaken with students of architecture but not through the usual curriculum but through the trophy programs of NASA. The brief encourages students to not only to venture outside the classroom walls but also to re-interpret the space in which architecture normally functions.

Each year thousands of students emerge fresh from schools of architecture, starry-eyed, dreaming either of building magnificent edifices or of being propellers of social change by providing revolutionary design solutions for the underprivileged. Nothing in their formal education prepares them for reality.  Dream jobs are hard to come by; and will get progressively remote as the niche market gets more and more exclusive. And the ‘idealistic’ ones cannot function without an inside knowledge of the target community (comprising mainly of the urban poor), their power structures and cultural mores. Unfortunately, the changing face of urbanism and the ground realities involved therein are not part of any architecture college syllabus.

On the brighter side, the National Association of Students of Architecture (NASA), India holds events and competitions that provide some scope for hands-on experience and out-of-the-box thinking. The annual G-sen trophy and the zonal NASA competitions are a case in point. The typical G-sen brief attempts to reinvent an existing structure or space to comply with the changing demands of urbanism.

The Urban Paradox

As a fallout of large-scale migration to cities, a staggering 70% of the urban Indian population today classifies as the ‘urban poor’. The situation has given rise to an existential paradox: we despise the presence of ‘their’ slums in ‘our’ midst, and yet depend heavily on the wealth of human labour that the bastis provide. Gender insensitivity and social discrimination are as much a reality in cities as the abundance of opportunity that cuts across caste, class and gender. Transport and technology ensure better communication, but the large-scale intrusion on common spaces has reduced human interaction to an all-time low. Now, more than ever, the country is in need of humane design solutions that focus on inclusive placemaking rather than iconic structures.

The problem in India (as, in fact, in most of the Global South) is this: At one end of the spectrum, we have the ones with the know-how; namely, the architects, engineers and urban planners. And at the other end, we have a huge unorganised sector that forms the corpus of the urban slum dwelling crowd: the ones most in need of this knowledge but with no access to it. Any attempt at the redevelopment of their space ends up being a lipstick job by the former set. The change is neither consequential nor sustainable since it is not powered from within. Add to it the real estate market pursuit, unfriendly government policies, miles of red tape and rampant corruption, and we are left with a very fragmented society with no contiguity in the different areas of development.

Is there a solution?

There is, according to architect Nirmal Kulkarni. “The solution is to empower lay people to become co-creators in the developmental process”. Nirmal is one of the founding principals of Aum Architects (Gurgaon). He also runs community programs with active student engagement at the centre. As an educator and practising architect, he realised early on that a feasible solution to the urban paradox can only be wrought through a kind of ‘design activism’ that interweaves value education with design thinking.

To find a viable and lasting solution, we need to tackle the problem at two levels. One is to acquaint the educated elite with the nitty-gritties of basti life, so as to generate empathy and start a dialogue. The other is to see that lateral thinking and design ability percolate to the bottom of the pyramid so that the subjugated are empowered to BE the change with minimal external interference. “Engagement is the key”, he says. “We need to realise that there is no ‘other’. We are all part of the same ecology. What impacts the part will impact the whole, one way or the other”.

For 5 consecutive years, from 2013 through 2017, Nirmal has been the moderator for the G-sen trophy and the zonal NASA competitions. He is pretty much a pioneer of the ‘socially-driven brief’ for these competitions. His briefs emphasize the structure or intervention in relation to society or social issues, rather than ‘structure’ as an end architectural product.

The idea of the socially driven brief

The architecture syllabus needs a serious overhaul. The system, as of now, provides little scope for hands-on experience and community engagement. The socially driven design brief is Nirmal’s earnest endeavour to plug this gaping void in the curriculum.

The briefs had different design intentions each year, but were marked by a few common denominators:

  1. They were always situated in the informal sectors of the urban sprawl.
  2. The briefs had 2 to 3 seemingly unconnected ideas to pursue. These ideas were from different spheres of knowledge but had to blend together in the final composite.
  3. The brief was structured in 2 to 3 different sections. The first was for data collection from site or secondary sources. The second was for collating the data as instructed. The third was for the application of this data in processing the final product, which was mostly an intervention. The process always called for interaction with the target community and active participation from both the sides.
  4. As a means of presentation, drawings had to be generated along with documentary videos of the data collation process, and any intervention that evolved through public participation was also to be documented in the videos.
  5. The jury members who judged this overall presentation were curated by Nirmal (himself the moderator) and were not always from the design field. For instance, in 2014 and 2017 sociologists were also called alongside architects to evaluate the overall process.

The ‘Why’ of the Social Brief

In 2005, Dr Olaf Sporns at Indiana University and Dr Patrick Hagmann at Lausanne University Hospital independently and simultaneously suggested the term ‘connectome’ to refer to a map of neural connections within the brain1Building upon this analogy, Nirmal argues that all conscious beings are innately connected in a much more palpable manner than we care to believe. Since we are all part of a giant connectome, what affects one segment of society necessarily impacts the other. This makes it essential raise our levels of awareness and empathy. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to problems that have hitherto been sidelined. The process of sensitizing must ideally form a part of youth education, and this is precisely what the socially driven brief hopes to accomplish. (The Connectome analogy was first introduced in the G-sen 2013 brief, but it forms the underlying philosophy of all the briefs till date.)

The ‘What’

The briefs explore a variety of topics: the misuse of the ‘commons’ or shared spaces; gender insensitivity; the lack of inclusive spaces for the physically and socially disadvantaged; and the problem of garbage disposal, to name a few. Each theme endeavours to create the much-needed awareness among youth as they embark on a profession that forms the core of urban planning.

  • G-sen 2013: ContextualityThis brief explored the theme of ‘Democracy through Design’. It encouraged participants to uncover self-similar patterns within all urban poor habitats, and then to (re)design spaces or structures within the existing framework in a way that - a) fostered self-sufficiency without having to go through creaky government machinery, and b) created a platform for knitting the communities together rather than fragmenting them, as insensitive planning does.  The central idea of the brief was this: Can ‘Architecture’ be used as an instrument of social justice? Also, can lateral thinking and design ability be cultivated from a young age, especially in the informal sector, through active engagement with the community?
  • G-sen 2014: TransformationThe brief explored gender-sensitive placemaking. The challenge was to redesign public spaces known to incite aggression against women, like transportation hubs, parks and wholesale markets, and generate ideas and interventions for making them more women-friendly.
  • G-sen 2015: The BackdropIt challenged the notion of ‘building smart cities’ (sadly, a brainchild of the bureaucracy, where architects were merely cheap service providers) and urged the students instead to uncover smart features that distinguished their own city. Participants were asked to design a ‘Center for Human Interaction’ that would showcase these features, while simultaneously identifying areas that needed improvement with the help of cutting-edge technology. The objective was to foster a sense of pride in one’s environs along with the will to bring about a positive change.
  • G-sen 2016: Parallel ProjectionsIt explored the threshold between ‘contextuality’ (what is) and ‘transformation’ (what needs to be) through the lens of gender sensitivity. The challenge was to create a design intervention within the existing basti space that would serve to address the problems of the local youth of both genders (youth being, also, representative of the threshold between childhood and old age). Engagement with the community was necessary, and the project had to be substantiated with relevant stories and documentaries.
  • ZNDC 2017: Communal DesignThe 2017 zonal NASA contest was a seminal one in terms of participation and long-term engagement. The theme was ‘Connect the Dots’. This was designed as an ongoing educational program and had three major aspects: (a) Engage with youth of both genders from the informal sector and identify the problems in need of design solutions; (b) Engage with the municipal authorities in the area and get to know about schemes, funds etc.; and (c) Scourge the landscape for buildable waste material and design an intervention. This part of the brief touched upon the problem of garbage disposal.
  • DHFL 2017-2018Design for Change:: The challenge was to create a replicable design for an Aanganwadi Center in an area of 120 square metres. The centre had to be optimally designed to accommodate the needs of the staff, lactating mothers, toddlers, older children and health professionals.

Does it work?

“The seeds have been sown, and there is certainly an enhanced sense of responsibility among the students”, muses Nirmal. But, while the enthusiasm of the participating colleges was heartening, the results did not always match up. They corroborated what Nirmal had known all along – that an erudite education is far removed from the ground realities of a developing nation. “Students suggested all sorts of elite interventions, from Sydney Opera House type structures to open-air theatres, bang in the middle of the slums, as a solution for all problems”, he laughs. The will was there, but it needed guidance. The highest points in the 2017-2018 contest were awarded to the college that had actually done some constructive work in a potters’ community. “Most of the others were just seeking to ‘uplift the downtrodden’ based on their own stereotypes”.

This realisation had earlier led to the conception of INDES – Investigating Design, a non-profit organization that holds pro-bono workshops with students of architecture and communities of school going children. The INDES team of mentors includes architects, students of architecture and other professionals with a keen interest in design. The students are a mixed group – parents, teachers and children mostly from the informal sector. Together they explore and decode the city in which they dwell “to create an enhanced sense of belonging to the city space”.  They also ideate workshops in which complex topics like design fundamentals and the handling of materials are explored in a simple and playful manner. There is a lot of give and take, and each benefits from the other.

The answer to the question “Does it work?” is as yet ambiguous. We have design activists doing their bit, but they are a mere 10 percent of the architectural community. However, the growing enthusiasm among the students paints a promising picture. “After all, the youth is where the action lies, since they are the ones with the energy and the freshness of vision”, says Nirmal. “The task is uphill, but it’s just a question of shifting gears. If we shift the focus from structures to communities, we will eventually get there.”