That there is a widespread frustration among architects in India is evident from the fact that thousands are leaving the country every year for better opportunities abroad. The frustration is on many deferent levels. Many young architects are frustrated because they are exploited and underpaid. As employees in private offices, they see fat fees coming in for jobs which they have handled at a ridiculously low hourly rate. Salaries are unrelated to profits, individual output and ability, in a system which tends to be grossly unjust. Low salaries are related to the type of work that is expected of young architects. Their architectural education trains them to be designers yet on entering offices they find that youngsters are given only the mechanical tasks of drafting and presenting others’ creations. Furthermore, there is often a conflict between the values inherent in their bosses’ designs and their own design values fall far below expectations tempts to express themselves meet with a discouraging response and the frustration grows. In other offices where maybe they are allowed to design, the frustration is of a different nature. They find that the commercial pressures of cut-throat competition and under-cutting tactics, produce a ‘building-a-day’ attitude. Quality is sacrificed for quantity and they are forced to churn out stereotyped, second rate designs, without being given enough time to think about problems in depth and arrive at appropriate solutions.
The outlets for these frustrations are few. Some architects offices or agencies, where at least the salary, the allowances, the regular increments and, finally the pension make for some degree of economic security.
For others with design aspirations and/or the hope of big money, private practice is the dream. But, in an atmosphere of stiff competition, under-cutting and corrupt practices, of black money and difficulties of obtaining payment, few survive. Some struggle waiting for the big break which day never comes, while others give up and it is bitterly frustrating.
Many sensitive architects also react against what they see as the unreal and irrelevant preoccupations of the profession. They react against the obsession for forms and sculptural expression and see the need for buildings that really work; for buildings that recognize and reflect the many complex problems of today. They also see the fundamental, basic problems that demand urgent solutions are being ignored. They are frustrated by a lack of opportunity to do anything which is really meaningful and worthwhile.
Is it any wonder, then, that there is a mass exodus of architects from the country?
The drain on our resources is enormous. We invest large sums of money every year on the education of architects, but get little in return. On the one hand, many talented youngsters leave the country for fulfilment abroad and, of the other hand, those who do remain are neither usefully employed, nor employed in situations which best utilize their education and mental capacity.
What has gone wrong? The problem is primarily one of attitudes, deeply-rooted attitudes which are ingrained in the profession and manifested in the educational system, the structure of offices, the building designs and in the architect’s perception of the nature and scope of his work; attitudes that mulct change before architects can play a more relevant role in socio-economic development. Let us take a look at some of these attitudes.
In the educational system, many of the outmoded attitudes continue to prevail. Firstly, there is the accent, subconscious perhaps, on plastic expression and visual impact in the final design. An accent of being different and spectacular. Secondly, and related to the above, is the accent on individual creativity rather than coordinated teamwork.
It must be recognized that a valid methodology of architectural problem solving is a thorough analysis of all the problem constraints (planning, sociological, economic, structural, constructional, technological and environmental), and balanced solutions which reflect those constraints are more important than personal responses to the less tangible aspects of form, space and aesthetics. An awareness of the intangibles in design can and should be inculcated, at the emphasis should be on the process of design and a synthesis of the total problem. We cannot expect a student to achieve a maturity of expression in five years, but we should at least ensure that the starting point of his development is a rational theoretical base.
The emphasis on individuality in architectural education is also outmoded in the present context. For, with the ever increasing scope of human knowledge; with the increasing complexity of servicing systems and constructional techniques; with the availability of new materials and new design tools; with an increasingly complex social and economic framework and with the growth of overlapping but distinct sub-specializations, it is becoming more and more difficult for the architect to comprehend and coordinate the total design problem. There is a real need for the setting up of broad-based design teams to study and find solutions the complex problems of today. A limited architectural vision is not good enough.
We must recognize this situation and train students for it by encouraging teamwork and by taking the accent away from individual design. Team situations can be created in which architectural students work with each other and also with students from other fields such as planning, economics, sociology, art and engineering, to tackle broad problems. And the ability of a student to work in and contribute to such team situations, should also form a part of his overall assessment.
We must see the architect not in isolation, but as one of a number of specialists who can worst together to solve the problems of building in their widest sense. Architectural institutions in the country seem to pay lip-service to this concept in the widening of their curricula to cover a smattering of other subjects. But, in the final analysis, the emphasis on imagery and individuality remains and the actual experience of team situations is absent. This emphasis can change only if the isolation so faculties are broken down and inter-disciplinary studies, in a broad sense, are implemented.
It is futile, however, to talk about changing the content and bias of architectural education, unless the attitudes and deep-rooted beliefs of the profession undergo a radical change first. For it is the leading practitioners and educationists among the profession who are directly responsible for the educational policies of today. And, unless there is a genuine awareness among them of the above problems and a conscious reappraisal of their own out-molded attitudes, no change is possible. In drawing rooms and on public platforms, many architects profess to be aware, but the acid test of their sincerity is in their work and in the structure and organization of their private kingdoms, their offices. It is there that we see them in their true colours. If any changes are to come about in the educational system, they must be begun at ‘home’, that is, in the architect’s office.
To begin with, architects could recognize the fact that the youngsters who join their offices have been trained as designers and should be employed as such. Through the setting up of design teams within the office structure, young architects could be given an opportunity to participate in the design process. Each design team could handle a few prefects at a time and be given complete responsibility for the design and implementation of their projects. The traditional hierarchy of the ‘prima-donna’ architect and his many assistants, would be replaced by a structure of design teams. As conscious policy, any rigid hierarchy within the teams should be discouraged, as this could again lead to master assistant relationships. A natural hierarchy and division of responsibility may develop, as a result of the personality interaction involved, but this would be a fluid hierarchy rather than an imposed, rigid one.
The composition of teams could be balanced on the basis of the nature of its prefects and the ability, experience, interests and specializations of its members, so as to create conditions where each member can make a positive contribution to the group effort. In such a structure, young architects would have a part to play in the decision-making process and, thus, a much greater sense of participation, involvement and fulfilment. The design load would be shared, manpower resources would be better utilized, projects would be more efficiently run and, perhaps, better buildings would be designed. As a corollary, more efficiency and a better utilization of resources would result in higher productivity, more profit and therefore, higher salaries. The consequences of such a change would, therefore, remove many of the present causes of frustration among young architects and would make for a better professional service.
Together with this change in attitude towards decision-making in the design process, must come the realization that the present obsessive need for personal expression in sculptural gymnastics, must be replaced by a more rational, balanced approach to design; an awareness of the complexity of present day architectural problems and their solutions, and a willingness to accept and cooperate with specialists from various fields, which encompass all the forces in society that influence and shape buildings.
This involves allowing a more active participation in the design process of the various engineers who already form a part of the building design team but who, by and large, perform a negative, remedial friction, working within irrational limitations imposed by the architect. This further involved an expansion of the traditional design team to include policy makers, planners, economists, sociologists and other relevant specialists.
If such teams were to be formed and could work in the right spirit of cooperation and ‘give and take’, buildings would be a much more relevant response to social, economic and technological needs. The buildings we see today are either embodiments of the private fantasies and inflated egos of their architects, or unashamed, insensitive responses to commercial pressures. Inherent in both, these are a blatant disregard for ethics and the real needs of today.
A few days spent in walking around any Indian city will highlight the striking contrast between the monumental, indulgent, expensive and fanciful public and private buildings and the grim, stark, indescribable squalor of the urban slums; slums where people live in makeshift shelters or under no roof of all, where there is no water-supply or drainage, and electricity is unimaginable; where there are no places to defecate in privacy, where education and training facilities, medical and community services are not available; where disease is rampant and the mortality rate high; and where there is not even a silver lining to the dark clouds of the future. This is the grim reality of the urban slums, where millions of Indians eke out a day to day existence with apathy, resignation and an animal instinct for survival.
And urban slums are but one tiny part of the massive problems today. There is an urgent need for cheap houses, schools, dispensaries, hospitals, community centres and infrastructure services, on a scale that is almost inconceivable. And how the available resources of manpower, materials, technology and money can best be mobilized to meet these needs is one of the fundamental problems of the hour. This is what we should be concentrating our energies on.
Yet, one has only to visit a handful of architects’ offices, both public and private, to realize that the vast architectural resources of the country are largely being wasted on pandering to the comfort and whims of the elite, and the self-glorification of the architects. Who then is going to tackle the problems of the slum-dweller and the villager? Will the architect of tomorrow get to grips with the screaming reality, or will he, as he is doing and has been doing, turn a blind eye to it, happy and content in his dream world?
The future of the profession depends on the path it chooses. The choice is between remaining largely irrelevant to the mainstream of future development. Many young architects today are aware of this and want to do something meaningful in terms of the basic problems, but find that there are few ways open to them. The system does not respond.
Consider the need for ‘low-cost’ housing. Government responses to this need are largely insensitive, crude and unrealistic. Their low-cost houses are not nearly low-cost enough and do not even begin to cater to the people who need them most. Where houses costing Rs 1000 or less are necessary and feasible, they build houses that cost Rs 6000 each; where a sensitive understanding of lifestyles is needed, they build inhuman blocks. The reality is ignored and the officials hide behind Master Plans, Building Bye-Laws, scarce resources and the promise that some day, some where, they will build houses for these millions. But the houses need to be built now. And it has been convincingly demonstrated that houses can be built that are acceptable yet cheap enough, and that large subsidies need not be involved.
The problem is not one of the scarce resources, but of how available resources can be intelligently used. The problem of low-cost housing can be solved if one’s conception of it changes; if one accepts a moral responsibility to tackle and solve it; if Bye-Laws and Master Plans, instead of catering to elite, minority interests recognize and reflect majority needs; if instead of making hypocritical promises, the authorities combine in a concerted effort to find solutions.
To those who argue that the problems to slums, etc. are out side the realm of architecture, one can only say that their conception of architecture must then change, for these are the pressing problems of today. It is true that given the traditional bias of architecture, such problems are outside its scope, for they are social and economic problems too. But then, the traditional bias of architecture, as argued in this article must change; architects’ attitudes must change, and it is only by adopting a truly multi-disciplinary approach, can the profession transcend its narrow limitations and play a relevant role in solving the complex human problems of today.