I must confess that what I am going to generalize about - so heterogeneous a mix of individuals as architects - is not the result of any scientific sturdy. On the contrary, it is the sporadic observation over the past few years of socially concerned young students of architecture and recent graduates with whom I have had the opportunity to associate during my job as teacher architect. In order to gain some insight about young architects today, their aspirations and dissatisfaction with the way things are, it is necessary to review the contemporary position of the profession, even though cursorily.
In India, historically, the architect has been used as an anonymous means to an end. In the past, the end was generally the glorification of the State for religion through the creation of plastic forms and visual drama. Today, though not so anonymous, architects are ready accomplices to the property speculators, who either want to make money or glorify themselves. In other words, things have changed but little. As in the past, architects are asked to build buildings whose social nature has already been decided upon. Common decency would prohibit questions like what is the purpose of the building. Whom is it going to serve? Such questions are to be decided by the powerful.
This view of the profession, exaggerated at times and naive at its face value, is what many young architects find suffocating. Instead of crafty artisans, they want to assume new roles corresponding to contemporary socio-economic demands. They feel the choice is between being content with today's subservient role or struggling for establishing a rational base for the profession. This struggle is, naturally, not directed against any real or imaginary enemy but concerns expanding their vision as architects so as to be more effective in decision-making. It is a search for social relevance by the architectural profession which is now at the point of stagnation.
Obviously, this search for new roles cannot be the search for a ‘particular’ role; that would be self-defeating. It must be as multidirectional and multifaceted as contemporary society is. The complexities of the profession, and the various other disciplines which are involved or which could be involved, make it impossible to oversimplify the role of an architect. There is scope for him to adopt various unconventional, and unorthodox, alternatives to the traditional norms.
Professionally speaking, an architect is a building specialist and, therefore, architects may also feel reassured that need for their profession has been established and that they can go on enjoying a high status so long as they keep mystifying the objects of architecture and promote easy design solutions to complex problems. But, the ultimate yardstick for measuring its relevance or importance will remain the same as for any other profession - its contribution towards evolving a better social and physical environment.
An architect would only be contributing towards society if he were able to generate ideas for building processes which satisfy the demands of the society and which take into account major economic, social and cultural parameters.
The search for a rational base, thus, would invariably leads us to analyse the needs of the society in terms of buildings or in its enlarged vision - the physical environment. If architecture can provide for these needs, there will emerge automatically a legitimate picture of an architect and architecture will become a relevant force in society. To achieve this, architects must be prepared to do whatever is required to do whatever is required architecturally or otherwise.
It does not take much to realize that the staggering housing shortage both in urban as well as rural areas, poses the greatest challenge to everybody concerned with the building industry. Even if we forget about the quality, the sheer quantitative aspect of it is overwhelming. Next only to food and clothing, this social necessity is still neglected by all professionals. So much so that it has acquired a reputation of being a problem which is better talked about than solved. This is not without its accompanying reasons. Housing is a very complex problem, and it cannot be solved by demonstrating architectural dexterity on a particular site.
The roots of the housing problem are socio-economic and lie buried in processes like the mass migration of the rural populations, shortages of traditional construction materials and urban land. Apart from this, the housing problem is closely linked with the problems of the infrastructure of services like water and electricity supply, mass transportation systems, etc. Housing has also to be seen against the infrastructure of social amenities like shopping, hospitals, schools, etc. They are all inter-related and one would collapse without the other.
This complex problem is generally attempted to be solved in isolation by the formulation of certain timid policies at political level and their follow-up at lower governmental echelons, of putting up a couple of hundred or thousand dwelling units here and there in big cities. What this problem demands is the creation of new cities, new urban centres, and attracting the migrating population to these cities and centres by providing them with housing and the rest, with simultaneous attempts at preventing the migration of the rural population by developing smaller towns near villages or the villages themselves. Along with this, there have to be attempts at the increased production of traditional construction materials or the invention of new materials from industrial waste as substitutes.
It is apparent from the above that in the chain of decisions so far, the role of an architect as we traditionally understand it to be is limited. It is only when it comes down to giving forms to housing policies, the social nature of which has already been decided, that an architect is called in to build at a particular site, for a particular person or a set of persons; that architect can then reflect his understanding of socio-economic parameters, the psychological make-up and the technological standards of society. Architects for the most part have to reserve their acrimony and polemic for the specific and isolated character of what they are charged to build with.
Today’s younger set of professionals would like greater participation even if they had to act extra-architecturally for it.
Apart from housing, another sphere where architects could contribute is urban environment in our urban centres. Concern for the fast deterioration urban environment is primary in the minds of people. If the environment which surrounds us and its way of life is taken as a measuring rod for determining the progress that man has made over the years, one wonders if one could claim to have progressed at all. Our way of life, our desires, our concerns, our everyday pleasures and pain are all reflected in the environment that surrounds us in our cities, where indifference and expedience rules, where the human bang is looked upon as a commodity and where people are condemned to live, generation after generation, in the squalor of slums.
While an architect is quick to discern the problem and while perhaps there are situations where architects can contribute, they find themselves helpless spectators of the whole tragic drama. Thesis simply because the sequence of actions or decisions which lead to this hopeless situation are quite outside the field of action of an architect.
The above is a description of the social needs of the utmost importance from the point of view of the architectural profession where, if architects contributed substantially, they could establish a rational base for the profession. Housing and the urban environment, though more extensively and intensively the primary areas of socially concerned young architects, do not rule out other forms of building which are important to society and where architectural expertise is needed. These can be institutional buildings, hospitals, industrial buildings, commercial complexes and so on and so forth and it is gaped that in these cases architects would certainly establish their legitimacy by doing an efficient job of it. However, the field of their primary concerns, i.e. to be able to help the poor of India provide shelter for themselves and live in a more livable environment find no outlet through their medium of design.
The search for a rational base, thus, brings us face to face with a very frustrating reality, where one realizes that unless the interests of those who are politically powerful are identical with those poor, there are no possibilities of bold decisions being taken in consultation with architects. Under such circumstances, some may feel that socio-political changes are called for. For the betterment of those who are socially and economically handicapped. Now the question that arises is whether these social changes can be brought about through architecture?
Architecture as we conventionally know it is not a political force. That is to say, it is a ‘neutral’ mass of bricks and mortar and holds no intrinsic political meaning. It can be part of or supportive of a particular socio-economic or political set-up but it cannot be instrumental in it.
Among architects particularly, the attitude that architectural change can be the harbinger of social change, runs very deep at a subconscious level. The conviction seems to spring from a rather bizarre reading of history. While it is quite proper to draw conclusions about a given society on the basis of its architecture - like Greece was orderly and sublime and Rome grand - reversing the logic is absurd. Here, there is obvious confusion of cause and effect. No doubt architecture is paradigmatic of social relationships, but it does not mean that by physically reorganizing the elements within architecture we can change the society by the reverse logic. Architecture cannot be the harbinger of social change.
Having recognized these limitations, those socially concerned architects whose primary aim is not to find a niche in the architectural establishment but who are looking for a stance that would satisfactorily combine their social concerns with professional commitment to designing are left with few alternatives. These alternatives are available in a number of shades ranging from the thoroughly radical stand of rejecting the profession and participating in politics, to the milder ones in which one tends to work within the system and make the best of it.
Fundamentally, a radical architect is faced with only two choices: to practice architecture or not to? It is relevant to point out here that there is a perfectly valid case for renouncing the practice altogether. As already pointed out, the social, political and economic circumstances within the parameters in which architects operate are quit outside the effectiveness of architects’ actions. The macropolitics of our society, which decide what should be built and for whom, is outside the jurisdiction of architects. Generally, the jobs which filter down to architects through decision making mechanics have mixed up priorities - political interest riding them all.
Glaring examples of such insanity are the beautification programmers which include putting up sculptures on all roundabouts and decorating government buildings with the murals of famous artists, instead of improving the infrastructure of basic services, the inadequacies of which cause unbearable suffering to society in general. Traditionally, architects have been content simply to give expressive plastic forms to the buildings whose social nature was already decided upon by others. A thoroughly radical position would take issue not with the form of the building, at with the processes that generate such decisions. Therefore, if an architect finds the tasks offered by society objectionable, he must operate architecturally, i.e. politically to change them.
A milder version of the radical stance would be in the form of ‘advocacy architecture’. This is an alternative in which the socially concerned architect allies himself with the underprivileged section of the society, and works within the system by gathering political pressures. The idea being this form of practice stems from the realization that the suppressed section of the society is not articulate enough to be able to express what is good for it and does not know how to go about achieving it. Under such circumstances, socially concerned architects with experience and a hard-hitting realism, could work out proposals resolving conflicting interests and use the people as a political force to get their ideas across. This king of practice is almost non-existent in this country and if any remains it is at the level of intellectualization in clubs for lack of organized and concerted efforts.
The only example anywhere close to it may be seen in the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority’s efforts at slum development schemes in Calcutta. In this case, a number of sociologists and architects and engineers cooperated to work out a plan for the development of bustees. Work involved first talking to bustee dwellers and selling them the idea that development was necessary and feasible if they all cooperated. It involved lots of hard bargaining, because people were afraid of changes in the existing patterns, howsoever bad. However, these schemes are a major political force today in the life of West Bengal. This is because of the qualitative aspects of the scheme which improve the bustees without uprooting the people from there - a fine example of working under the social and economic parameters.
Although advocacy in one form or another represents the main possibility for the socially concerned architects, this is not to say that there are no conventional ways left for them of working within the system. There are those who are likely to find a place in the establishment while also doing justice to their professional commitment. Many young Indian architects have opted for the technologically-oriented modern movement, whose forerunners claim that depending upon the degree of optimism, we can design ourselves to ‘survival’ or happiness. They believe that design action can substitute political action.
This attitude has filtered down to us through Le Corbusier, and those who follow him have been proclaiming systems thinking, the mass fabrication of houses, etc. The reigning guru of this detached and scientific approach to social problems is Buckminster Fuller, who is doing airports for us in India. He proposes that people set abut producing so much that everybody has enough and that, indirectly, would cure all social problems. That there is enough affinity between this kind of thinking and that of those in power is apparent from various prefabrication factories, etc. which have been put up in this country. This approach in the Indian context has problems. Firstly, its economic feasibility is doubtful and, secondly, experience has taught us that organization for mass production is a social problem related to such other problems.
Nevertheless, I guess there are possibilities of solving the quantitative aspects of construction problems by suitably adapting the systems approach to Indian conditions. Hardly any serious thought has been given to this in India. There is certainly scope for socially concerned young architects to create opera systems where one could retain many options and where one could get manufacturers or government bodies like the Delhi Development Authority who are interested in doing housing on a mass scale. There also is plenty of scope for research in any number of subsystems, say, structure, external skin internal finishes, etc.
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Apart from technology-oriented architects, there are others who believe that basic urban problems stem from a lack of proper land use plans. They perceive the problem in the framework of a much larger context, often the regional or national scale. It is their contention that proper plans should be prepared on a regional level, in which every little town and village is assigned a proper role, so that there is no unwanted and unnecessary movement into cities, and the whole region acts as a unified whole.
One of the foremost architects of India, Charles Correa, believes that problems of housing within cities is a problem of land use and is not necessarily to be solved by megastructrues. He is of the view that low, preferably single storey, high density developments made out of conventional materials and methods on the principle of self-help is the answer to housing problems rather than the huge, prefabricated multi-storey apartment blocks. This is, of course, only possible if proper land use plans are drawn up, in view of the magnitude of the problem this is the only possibility, economically and socially. He claims that this would be the cheapest way of building - as in the villages. ‘Our villages never throw people destitute, it is only our cities.’
Conforming to this view, again, architects have the opportunity to project growth patterns for a city or town, taking into account the totality of services and public transport, etc. while achieving the required density in low rise construction. The above is a description of various alternatives or directions which are open to socially concerned architects. This list is by no means exhaustive. As a matter of fact, we are at such a critical stage of development in the profession, that each one of us has to research for some such alternative which will have relevance to the socio-economic conditions of our country. These alternatives may or may not be in architecture in the traditional sense that we understand it. But then, that is not of great importance. What is important is the search for a rational base for the profession, and the assuming of responsibility for creating a new, more beautiful environment to live in, in harmony with the socio-economic parameters of our country.
Are our schools of architecture geared to producing architects who are capable of affecting such a change? Are our schools making our students realize that the problems of the physical world are primary in the minds of people, and it is their responsibility to do something about it? Are our schools equipping them with enough skills to make this physical environment a better place, a more beautiful place to live in?
The answer is ‘no’.
Unfortunately, our schools, which are run on the same pattern as 20 years ago, leave much to be desired. Instead of being places for fomenting new ideas and values, and imparting skills to students to become efficient architects, they have ended up by becoming a degree manufacturing factory, places for producing architect-slaves. Not only is there a lack of professional and task oriented goals, but complete absence of student-oriented goals as well. There may not necessarily be a contradiction in the two, but they are not identical either. Students must be able to recognize different frames of reference, see things in more than one way, and develop the ability to share information, ideas and images. Architectural programming should be integrated into the stream of general study. They should be aware of national development plans and other national programmes so that we can expect them to assume their role satisfactorily in diverse architectural practices.
Professionals, students, educators are part to the same profession. It is about time they all came together and became mutually complementary. In extreme moments of social concern or frustration, students or even professionals may proclaim that architecture is unnecessary so long as social inequities exist or that all we need is social change. There might be others who say that systems thinking are the only architecture, or that ecology is the only thing, that architecture is nothing else but mathematics, etc. There is some element of truth in each one of these statements which draws thinking people towards it and yet the incompleteness of each one of these statements makes it impossible to cling to it for too long. The important thing however, is that in all these there is honesty of intention, and it is the special responsibility of educators to encourage this honesty of intention. They must work in close collaboration with those practicing these ideas, if they expect them to produce graduates whose special attribute is social concern.