On 11th August 2017, I was invited to speak to the batch of students entering the first year of the Bachelor of Architecture programme at Wadiyar Centre for Architecture in Mysuru. This is what I said:
It is an honour to be here today, for a talk that (while open to the whole school) is aimed at the entering batch. Welcome to the discipline of architecture.
This is a significant moment in your life, for the move from high school to college is more than just a progression in your education. It is a move that happens as you have just reached, or are about to reach, the age of eighteen: that threshold in time when society formally acknowledges you as an adult. This recognition carries with it legal privileges such as the right to vote, to drive a motorised vehicle, to marry, or to join the army. Among all the rights of adulthood that you have been granted, I urge you to focus on the right to vote. It indicates that you have not just moved on to adulthood, you have also moved on to citizenship: a change that asks you think not just about yourself, but also about how you embody obligations to the socio-cultural, economic and natural environment that envelops you. The education you receive in college cannot be treated as solely for your personal benefit, it is also granted to you so that you may learn how to meaningfully contribute to your context. You may think you are just one insignificant individual, and what you do does make such a difference. But remember that our nation is nothing more than the space where all individual acts intersect, however small each one of them may be.
My talk centres on four questions that follow from this fact: four questions that I feel you should be continuously asking yourself when you are in your course. The questions I focus on are:
- How should I approach studying for a college degree?
- What is architecture?
- Why is architecture meaningful?
- Why am I here?
These may sound like heavy philosophical questions, but let me assure you this is not the case, for they are rooted in your intuitive spontaneity. In fact, I would argue that you should never treat any question as a purely philosophical question, especially in college, for a common failure of higher education is its tendency to intellectualise every question. You should resist this tendency.
This brings me to the first question:
How should I approach studying for a college degree?
When we think of the “I” in the question “How should I approach studying for a college degree?”, we tend to envision that “I” as a single unitary entity. But that is not the case: that “I” is made up of multiple selves. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on decision theory, speaks in a TED Talk of two kinds of selves. To explain his idea, he narrates an incident that somebody told him during the question-and-answer session after one of his lectures,
“He said he’d been listening to a symphony, and it was absolutely glorious music and at the very end of the recording, there was a dreadful screeching sound. And then he added, really quite emotionally, it ruined the whole experience. But it hadn’t. What it had ruined were the memories of the experience. He had had the experience. He had had 20 minutes of glorious music. They counted for nothing because he was left with a memory; the memory was ruined, and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep.”
Kahneman suggests two selves: an experiencing self and a remembering self. The experiencing self lives in the present, can remember the past, but basically it only has the present. To the experiencing self, every moment is relatively equal. The remembering self is a story-teller, constructing stories made of memories. And often, more recent memories will override those that have faded with time, and will colour the story differently.
I would extend Kahneman’s model by adding two more selves, and suggest that each of us is made up of four selves:
- The Experiencing Self: This forms the foundation, for the life we live can only be accessed through the experiences we have. This self defines the experiences we perceive and the key question is what the other selves do with these experiences.
- The Feeling Self: This self offers authenticity to our life, for it is the self through which we come to know love, joy, friendship, family and emotion.
- The Thinking Self: This self enables us to step outside our skin, to look at the world from different angles, to understand what we have not encountered so far, and to acquire new knowledge, abilities and skills.
- The Remembering Self: As Kahneman observed, this self is the story-teller, and these stories are necessary for unifying our other selves. The stories we construct about ourselves determine where we will go in life. Experiences fade into memory, and we need the remembering self to connect past present and future to find meaning in our life.
Now college is very good at dealing with the thinking self, but is weak in its ability to deal with the feeling self. This is inherent to its nature, for the operations of academia centre on discussion and reading, and it is the thinking self that translates easiest into language. The feeling self is not taken seriously in academia, for it does not readily convert into words or concepts, is inherently resistant to intellectual critique, and is therefore believed to be idiosyncratic, subjective and non-rational: all qualities that academia seeks to resist.
A fragmentation of the self subsequently occurs because there is an implicit bias that results in an unspoken instruction delivered by colleges, “When you enter college, please bring only your thinking self inside, and leave your feeling self at the door”. So, when your remembering self seeks to make sense of your experience in college, it can only construct a partial story.
And if when leaving college, you leave your thinking self behind in college (perhaps recovering it only when working on your assignments) then your remembering self constructs another partial story of your personal life, able to look only at your feeling self, unable to effectively connect these two incomplete stories of your academic and personal lives.
This fragmentation of the self is problematic in many ways, and I will name four dangers here:
- Abstraction: When the thinking self is isolated from the feeling self, the communities within which it lives turn inward and away from the world, constructing abstractions that rest solely on academic and professional jargon, disconnected from the authenticity, emotion and meaning that anchor the human condition. Eventually, the very purpose for which the thinking self exists can be thwarted because of this fragmentation.
- Habit: When the feeling self is isolated from the thinking self, it can no longer critique itself and often degenerates into habit. And habit is like an anaesthetic. Imagine yourself walking in an unfamiliar city, faced with the challenge of navigating from one place to another. You continuously look at your map, then keep referring to your surroundings, needing to check whether what you read in the map corresponds with what you see around you. You are keenly observant toward your surroundings and where you are. Imagine, in contrast, a walk in a neighbourhood you have lived in for most of your life, walking a route you have walked so many times before that you have lost count – such as walking from your home to the home of a close friend in the neighbourhood. Because everything you see is something you have seen many times before, you tend to travel on an autopilot of habit, thinking of other things, often arriving at your destination with no conscious memory of the journey. Perhaps a beautiful flower that lay along your path had bloomed that day, but you did not see it because you were moving habitually. Habit blinds us to what is in front of our eyes, and deprives our life of substantive richness. But habit can also be comforting, we need a certain amount of it to manage the stresses we are subjected to, so we all have an inbuilt tendency toward habit. When we become dependent on the comforts of habit, we find it difficult to accept that the world is not limited to the blinkered gaze of our habits. Inevitably, something we had been blinded to interrupts our comfort zone, and we are shaken such that our instinctive reaction is one of tribulation and fear. If we want to avoid being excessively bound by the chains of habit, we can only maintain the balance we so badly need through a thinking self that continuously challenges and critiques our feeling self.
- Compassion: When the feeling self is isolated from the thinking self, it undermines itself. For only the thinking self can ask the “what if” questions like, “What if I were somebody else?” This question forms the foundations of empathy and compassion, without which the communities within which the feeling self is embedded will develop an inward turn, driven by habituated tribal passions that are fuelled by a fear and hatred of those who are unlike ourselves. A lot of the violence we see in contemporary society is because of such passions.
- Meaning and Purpose: When the remembering self can only construct incomplete and fragmented stories, our life is unable to establish roots in meaning and purpose. The consequent incompleteness and sense of loss pushes us toward psychological problems such as apathy, attention-disorder, depression and mid-life crises: problems that are sadly becoming more and more evident these days.
Remember that studying for your first college degree is a formative period of early adulthood where it is essential that you achieve the integration of your four selves. And this integration is a responsibility you must take upon yourself as an individual. Do not depend on your college for it has a bias toward the thinking self. Do not depend on your community for it has a bias toward the feeling self.
Lay the foundations for the rest of your life by staying immersed in your complete self. Be free of habit and sustain the curiosity, alertness and discernment of your experiencing self. Be anchored in the emotional authenticity of your feeling self. Be excited by the challenges that your thinking self can uncover and explore. And seek integrity, meaning and purpose in the stories that your remembering self writes.
Let us now move on to the second question.
What is Architecture?
You may think you have joined an architecture college, and are entitled to assume that your teachers are experts on architecture who have figured out the answer to that question, and will therefore teach it to you. While I am sure you will have good teachers, I should warn you that even among talented and committed architects there is considerable difference of opinion on what constitutes the discipline of architecture.
Now this is not problematic in determining the quality of education you will receive: in fact, it may paradoxically be helpful. I once attended a workshop on architectural education where one of the participants came up with a wonderful definition of a good college of architecture as one where you have committed faculty who disagree on what is good architecture but agree on how to teach architecture. I wholeheartedly endorse this definition. Pedagogy – the ‘how to teach’ – will build unity in the college, while the energy of arguing over issues that you are passionate about will make the college an exciting and vibrant place to be in.
But you will still need to resolve for yourself the question of what architecture is as a discipline. It is not enough to say “the design of the built environment” for that describes an activity, not a discipline. A discipline has a core of knowledge that is leveraged by professional protocols and skills. If you ask a physicist what his/her discipline is, you will get a clear answer. That answer is easier in physics because as a discipline it is fairly detached from daily life: most of us can lead a rich and rewarding life without needing to know much physics.
But architecture is so implicated and intertwined with daily life that the question becomes more complex. Some will say that architecture is about aesthetics and the production of beauty, and will locate the discipline within art. Some will say that architecture is about construction, and will locate the discipline within engineering. Some will say that architecture is about culture, and will locate the discipline within social anthropology. Some will say that architecture is about issues wider than itself, and will locate the discipline within philosophy. And some will take an “all the above” approach, casting the architect as an integrator, a jack of all trades but master of none.
But there is one thing that an architect does that nobody else does: the structuring and ordering of space. What does this mean? In an essay written over seven decades ago titled “The Sensation of Space”, Erno Goldfinger (a British architect of Hungarian origin) proposed three categories of space. The first is pictorial space, which is two-dimensional, best viewed from a perpendicular angle, and seen from the outside. The second is plastic space: the three-dimensional space of sculpture. This can be seen from a variety of angles, but is also viewed from the outside. And the third is architectural space. Like plastic space this is three-dimensional and can be viewed from multiple angles, but a crucial difference that sets it apart from the other two categories of space is that architectural space is largely viewed from the inside: the experiencer is within the space.
The key implication of being inside is that you cannot see the entire space. If I am in this room facing in one direction, I cannot see what is behind me. The room must have certain qualities and geometry of enclosure that allow me to construct within my mind its totality and where I am within it. Architectural space is not just perceived: to be fully understood and appreciated it must also be conceived.
There can be good enclosure which supports this conception, and there can be bad enclosure that makes this conception difficult. Acquiring the sensitivity to learn what is good enclosure will be a key part of your personal development as an architect. And there are two aspects of this that are crucial.
Firstly, since architectural space must be conceived by the human body, relating to the scale of the body is crucial. This is an art that has been substantively lost in the conventions of modern architecture, and I suspect that the nostalgia that many people feel for historical architecture is because the older buildings did it more successfully. They never did what is often done today: a single material, such as glass or concrete, stretched seamlessly across multiple floors of an entire façade. The older buildings scaled their façades so that you could look at the smallest of its elements and relate it to your body by judging that it was about one person high and four persons wide.
The second aspect I wish to highlight about conceiving architectural space is that enclosure is not singular, it is layered and full of rich possibilities. Take the example you can see in many places on this campus: being inside a room that looks on to a veranda, and beyond that to a garden. What is the limit of your enclosure? Is it the boundary of the room, the edge of the veranda, a point in the garden, or the far perimeter of the garden? The answer is it can be anything you want. It can respond to your mood. If I am in an introverted or focused mood, I can confine my enclosure to the boundary of the room. Or if I am in an expansive mood, I can stretch my enclosure to the far perimeter of the garden.
Or let’s go back to the example of a façade that I cited earlier. The layering can respond to my distance from the façade. When I am at a reasonably close distance, I may relate to the scale of a single body that is my own body. If I step back to increase the distance, there is a larger scale I can relate to which is that of multiple bodies. And if I step closer to reduce the distance, I find scales that relate to a part of my body: the reach of a hand, the touch of my palm, or perhaps even the intimate width of a fingertip. If the transition from one scale to another, from one layer to another, is not too abrupt, then I feel comfortable as my body moves through the spaces, and invigorated as I discover rich existential possibilities in the layering of spaces and scale.
As you learn how to structure and order architectural space, you will wonder to what purpose you direct those efforts. And this brings me to the third question.
Why is Architecture Meaningful?
In his book Genius Loci (and I hope this book is there in your college library), the architectural theorist Christian Noberg-Schulz describes a specific Japanese tea-house. In Japan, the ceremony of drinking tea is much more than the consumption of a beverage. It is a deep ritual, refined over centuries of tradition, that seeks a contemplative spiritual dimension. The tea-house that Noberg-Schulz writes about is located on a cliff with a spectacular view of the ocean, and the path that approaches the building skirts the edge of this cliff. But a wall is built preventing you from seeing the ocean as you walk along this path. You can hear the sea, even smell it, but you cannot see it. Just before you enter the tea-house, there is a spot where you must pause to wash your hands and face: a ritual that precedes the tea ritual. The basin is designed such that you must bend down to it, and just as you gather water in your hands to splash on your face, your head is brought to a level that directs your gaze to a small opening in the wall framing a view of the ocean. This is deliberately done to evoke the humility necessary for the tea ceremony by making you compare the meagre quantum of water you can cup in your hands with the vastness of the ocean.
This is a dramatic example, but it serves to highlight an important purpose of architecture: to offer a framework and context through which people can comprehend their position within this world, appreciate their relationship with nature, and take root in the universe. This is a transcendental dimension found in great architecture, and I urge you to pursue that bond between architecture, light and landscape that facilitates this dimension.
But architecture offers more than this existential foundation: it also serves the remembering self. The architectural historian Frances Yates, in a book titled The Art of Memory writes on a technique used by the orators of ancient Rome. They had to deliver long complex speeches; but paper on which to write notes, a memory tool that we take for granted today, was not available to them for paper was a rare and precious commodity reserved only for very important manuscripts, far removed from everyday use. These orators resolved this problem by using the architecture of the place where they would deliver the speech as a memory device. They would go there in advance, construct their speech, and associate architectonic elements of the room with points of their speech. They might say that the entrance door stands for the opening argument, the column next to it for the next point, and the adjacent niche for the point that follows, and so on. It is rumoured that the more skilled of them could go through a logical argument backwards by just reversing the sequence with which their eye traversed the room. Yates’ example suggests that we do not just receive meaning from architecture: the Roman orators showed that it is also possible to actively write meaning into it.
The Italian writer Primo Levi, in an essay on his own home, also recalls this same skill of the ancient orators, but goes on to remark that this technique would never work for him in his own house for every corner would already be occupied by authentic memories that would interfere with the fictitious ones this technique demands. Levi’s remarks show that the inhabitation of architecture breeds memories, and architecture becomes a repository of those memories. Many of us have intuitively discovered this in the memories embedded within a home where we have lived happily for years. Once you start thinking this way, you find you design differently. Now when I design a house, I think more about verandas, bookshelves, niches, bay windows, steps and other architectonic elements that memories tend to stick to.
All this goes to show that meaning in architecture is not solely a product of your creativity as an architect. Do not make the mistake of falling into that egotistic trap that many architects fall into: the hope that you will be this artistic genius the world will fawn over, and it is only your creative intentions that are important. True meaning in architecture is something that starts after the architect has completed and constructed his/her creation, stepped away from it and disappeared from the scene to allow it to be appropriated by others: an inhabitation that gradually breathes significance into the architecture. Your success as an architect is linked to the degree to which you facilitate this appropriation by others after you have disappeared beyond the horizon.
Yoga talks about the concept of prana: the energy of breath that flows through the body, and if this flow stops, the body deteriorates into a lifeless and decomposing shell. Inhabitation is to architecture what prana is to the body.
This brings me to the final question.
Why Am I Here?
You may look at your classmates, and feel that you have all come to the same college, you have all gone through the same selection process to get here, you will all share the same curriculum and have the same teachers, and therefore, each one of you is here for the same purpose. All of this is true, but the conclusion that you are all here for the same purpose is radically incomplete. There is a great deal of overlap in your purpose, but there is also substantial divergence, and you make a great error if you only consider the overlap. It is necessary that you focus on the overlap and divergence separately but simultaneously.
To explain this, I ask you to imagine the very feasible scenario of you and a bunch of your classmates watching a movie together. Let us also imagine it is a comedy that is very well done, so it is genuinely funny. At one point in the movie, where something extremely funny happens, all of you laugh together. Now imagine what is spontaneously and naturally happening. The same thing is making each one of you laugh. But the laugh of every person has a different sound: it would be weirdly robotic if every one of you had an identically sounding laugh. In fact, each person’s laugh makes up an inseparable individualising facet of their personality.
What is universally funny finds a unique and distinctive expression in each one of you. And each one of you is totally unique. Think of it: a person exactly like you has never existed before in all of history, and never will in the future. That is a pretty mind boggling fact. But while we are totally unique, there is also a shared transcendental weave that runs through each of us.
In citing the example of a funny movie, I use a very prosaic, and perhaps not so significant, instance of the intersection of the universal and unique; but I offer it as an easy access into the appreciation that this connection between the universal and unique is very significant. The philosopher Charles Taylor argues in his book The Ethics of Authenticity that authenticity is like language: the capacity for it is inherent and inborn within each one of us. But till we converse we will never know it. It is the resonances that we find when we engage with other people and the world around us that offer us access to the dimensions of authenticity that make our lives worthwhile: whether it is in the glow of affection in moments with a loved one, the grandeur of a monument, the gut-shaking humour in a good joke, the beauty of a sunrise, or the poignancy of a well-told story.
When we are immersed in authenticity we lose sense of time, place and self. Then these moments fade away into memory, we slide back into the prosaic, and we wonder what to do next. We can feel disappointed that the prosaic has hidden the significant, and it would be unfortunate if we are overwhelmed by that loss such that we cannot overcome it. What we should do is hold on to the memories of those glorious moments, using them as a fuel that launches us on a quest to seek such moments again.
It may seem like an unnecessary effort that we must launch this quest every day, but that is not the case for it is the perpetuity of the quest that keeps life going. If authenticity could easily be grasped, pinned down and held perpetually next to you, it would rapidly grow stale; for who does not tire of seeing the same thing day-after-day, however wonderful it may be. We are energised when authenticity is reborn every day. And when you are the conduit of that rebirth, when it flows through you, that is when you feel truly alive.
You are not here because there is this great thing called architecture which pre-exists you, and you will get to find and understand it, and then apply it in practice. You are here because you will become a part of that sacred chain of being through which architecture is reborn every day. For architecture is nothing more than a potential spirit: one that can tangibly live only when it find its voice in people like you. And your voice is unique, so there will be a kind of architecture that can only exist because of you. And when your unique voice also expresses something that is transcendental, you, in your own humble way, will play a role in the rebirth of the universal, demonstrating through your person that architecture can stay alive for all eternity.
By agreeing to study architecture, you are committing to being a part of that sacred chain of being that will keep architecture alive. It is a great and serious responsibility you have taken on, but a truly joyous one when you fulfil it. The dancer Martha Graham captured the spirit of this creative energy when she said,
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And, if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it……….It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open…….No artist is pleased… there is no satisfaction at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction: a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
So, I wish you all the best in your course of study, and pray that you flourish in your journey that is beginning just now. May you effortlessly and always hold your complete self together, in all its dimensions. May you find the joy that springs from the divine potential within the spatial richness of architecture. May you use the wisdom you gain to use architecture to enrich the lives of others. And may you always revel in that blessed unrest that keeps you most alive.