Most of us are raised by an educational system and our society’s values, which say that before you take any action you must think through whatever it is that you are doing and its consequences. In our classrooms, it is always the theory which precedes its practical application. Mind, which thinks has a primacy over the body which acts. But in our daily life that is not what we always do. Very young children, for example, are known to learn their way around the world by doing just the opposite.

In most schools of architecture around the world, there is a method of teaching the students the fine nuances of designing buildings. We call it “learning by doing”. It is based on the proposition that you cannot learn to swim without jumping in the water. Simply put, it means that the students are asked to design buildings of various complexities and in the process of designing, are exposed to a number of situations and issues, which they have to come to terms with, internalize and derive lessons for future use. In other words, the conventional wisdom of “Thinking” before “Doing” is turned on its head. One does not prepare a plan of action before an action takes place; what may be an appropriate action in any situation, is arrived at through the medium of action itself.

Many years ago, and in a place very far from here, in a well known university, a professor, himself a world renowned architect, asked his students to design “A Place of Well-being”. I was one the students there and needless to say we were all baffled by the vagueness of the brief. Had it been a house, a school, a monastery or a hospital, everyone knew what to do. We knew, or could find out, all the components that went in that building and their sizes etc. and the rest was easy. But that was the very point. You see, the professor did not want his students to rely on any information or ideas they already had. The assignment turned out to be an intense exercise in doing something first and then asking oneself if this qualifies as a place of well-being and if so why. Reject it if it does not and start all over again. Until you come across that elusive, unmeasurable and indescribable quality which, when confronted with, you realise you knew all the time but had taken it for granted. It is that something, which exists in all great buildings and ideally, should exist in all the buildings we live in. It has nothing to do with the efficient functioning of that building; be it a house, a school, a monastery or a hospital though you will not find it if the building does not work well. And no matter how well a building works, you will not feel well if it is devoid of that extra dimension.

It may be in the right dimensions of the rooms you live in or in the quality of light, or the air that penetrates those rooms. Or it may be the way you enter a building that makes you feel welcome and dignified. And then again, it may not even need any walls or a roof. How many times have we felt “at home” at a location and said “this is where I want to build my house”? It exists even before any building is built. This is the beginning of architecture. A confluence of human program on one hand and the natural character of a site on the other. This is a far more sophisticated situation than one generated by the precise, logical process of putting things together, the way an object is put together. A car or an airplane hardly makes a place; and a natural site, however impressive and capturing it may be, becomes a place only where man’s presence is felt. It is often said that architecture began when man erected four posts to build a roof over his head, when he carved out and claimed for himself a place from nature. The duality of Nature and Culture is said to have been concretised then. But this does not tell the whole story. I would go a step further and say that architecture began when man chose the location to erect the four posts to build a roof. Both Nature and Culture would then be intertwined and interdependent on each other like a yin-yang.

“Full of merit, yet poetically, man Dwells on this earth”

These are two lines from a poem by the German poet Holderlin. I came across this in a small book “Poetry, Language, Thought” by Martin Heidegger. Heidegger of course, goes on to write a whole chapter analysing the poem and it is wonderful to read. But let me summarise.

The ancient Greeks knew about it and our own forefathers in India have left us numerous examples of this, as have all the ancient civilisations. The shade and quietness of a porch in a Mexican farm house or the contained courtyard in a Jaisalmer Haveli, or an “otla” in a Gujarati pol house is a successful architecture in far greater measure than a technically well built or aesthetically up-to-date solution, since for the former, the commitment from the beginning was to make a place of well being. Each one testified to a particular human condition and a characteristic aspiration of that culture: celebration, intimacy, play, religion, etc. The buildings they produced gave an immediate understanding of the task assigned to those buildings.

The last century was remarkable for its achievements in science and technology. But it was also marked by the incredible loss of this quality of man’s habitation. And I think it is precisely because of the primacy modern man has assigned to thinking over doing, to concept over experience and reflection. For thought has its limits: we can only think and conceptualise that which can be logically reduced and measured. In the process all those things which, cannot be justified logically but had unquestionable cultural validity were relegated to the dustbin. It produced “efficient” buildings but the spirit was left high and dry.

Often we hear people complain that modern architects produce only unimaginative boxes. Though not entirely justifiable, they do have a point. But if the ‘boxes’ do not make us feel at home, the answer is not in rejecting all contemporary practices nor it is in indiscriminate and eclectic borrowings from the past. An ornate Jharukha here, a Pediment there, a Mogul arch in one place and a Corinthian capitol at another may have a value as novelties but, like all novelties, they wear out pretty soon because they are equally distant from the life we live as are the boxes.

I intend to explore in more detail many of these issues and others as we go along. I want to end this by stating what I firmly believe in. And that is:

  • Architecture is initiated by a people’s need for shelter, is sustained by the logic of construction and is made meaningful by being rooted in the time and place of its making. And,
  • Nature, in the forms of landscape, climate and her laws of materials and construction, is an important partner in the making of architecture.