The root of formal architecture lies in written history. Since the books of history deal with the privileged and the powerful, their exploits and symbols of their authority, the source of inspiration for both public and architects has been historical monuments – temples, churches and palaces – artifacts built by master builders for their deeds and perpetuate their memory. This history, as told by religious and political leaders and historians for generations through legends, scriptures, folklore and books, has conditioned the sociocultural thinking and has established the architectural frame within which the architects view their role and the public forms its sense of appreciation.

This historical bias has produced a value system which encourages monumental architecture and has determined to a large extent the architects' preoccupation with image making and visually dramatic forms. With the passage of time and changes in the socio-economic pattern, building techniques and materials, changes occurred in architecture also. At the turn of the present century with the industrial revolution trading place in Europe and newly invented machines producing products and performing functions which were new to society, architectural thinkers in Europe saw visions of revolutionary changes in architecture.

Hinging the art of architecture on the new-found technology and materials like concrete, glass, steel and devices like lifts and electric bulbs; architects designed buildings with large spaces, wide openings, straight lines and clean surface devoid of ornamentation and applications. The spaces and forms thus generated had an aesthetics which came to be known as machine aesthetics and the buildings following this style came to belong to the modern movement of architecture. The theoretical underpinnings of the modern movement were supposed to be functionalism and rationality, and it was published and sold as such to the general public, but whether the conceptual framework of this new style was different from the styles of past periods is debatable.

Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona pavilion, acclaimed as one of the masterpieces of the modern movement in Europe, was 'so purely symbolic in intention that the concept of functionalism would need to be stretched to the point of unrecognisability before it could be made to fit'.1 His later buildings in Chicago and New York follow the same pattern and their pristine quality can well be compared with that of the Parthenon. Corbusier’s Capitol Complex at Chandigarh is in the same strain as Lutyen's New Delhi. Awesome and grand, symbolic of power and authority over the common man. Conceptually, the two are the same although the styles differ.

Architects alone are not to blame. The public - particularly the cultural and financial elite who in almost all cases are the clients and critics of architects - suffer from a similar edifice complex and it appears to be universal, cutting across geographical and ideological barriers. The Kremlin and the Capitol Hill appear to be the same and the Space City outside Moscow can be mistaken for one near Houston. Large corporations all over the would, whether private or public, vie with each other to show their commercial dominance through visual symbols in the form of buildings, taller and grander than others.

Architects are thus caught between the professional pressures to emulate the examples of giants like Mies and Corbusier, and the pressure of client taste to have buildings which are ‘unique’ indulge in design exercises which vary from pure plagiarism to feeble attempts at ‘originality’ - in most cases arrived at by clever manipulation of forms and other design elements. The pre-occupation remains with the end product and what is visible.

The more substantive questions of cultural and socioeconomic relationships with the built environment are lost sight of, if not totally ignored. Even in cases where individual architects try to cope with the larger socio-economic questions, the interpretation of the problem remains highly personalised and more often than not the solutions turn out to satisfy only those who share the author’s view of the life style.

To fulfil the role determined by historical tradition and client's taste, architect designed and sustained over the years an educational system which puts heavy emphasis on aesthetics. From Vitruvius to Beaux Art to Bauhaus, the stress has been on design elements like proportions, composition and form and on their interplay to create artifacts of visual impact. These academic ideas were derived from the Arts and Crafts Movement, painting and sculpture provided the inspiration. Indeed, their study has formed an important part of architectural education. Even in the Bauhaus which was concerned with the implication of the new-found technology for architectural design, the source of ideas remained the painting and sculpture of that period. Science and technical subjects like physical laws and mechanics did not form any significant part of architectural study. In recent years subjects relating to economics and sociology have been introduced but what impact they will have in changing the direction of architectural thinking is a matter for speculation.

Similarly, the client-architect relationship, professional ethics and the building industry and trade have been organise over the years to provide to the upper strata of society an architectural service which is highly personalised and which is designed to meet the particular wants and tastes of individuals of this elite group.

Architectural literature also emphasizes heavily the visual aspects of design. Books are full of photographs and little is said of either the causes or the effects of what is designed. The same goes for the architectural periodicals which can well be compared to fashion magazines. Debates and seminars are conducted in a language which at times is difficult to comprehend by an average architect, leave alone the general public. Thus, a vital means of communication with the public to convey, exchange and discuss ideas on the substantive issue of environmental planning concerning society are made ineffective.

The problem today is not of the few and the privileged, but of the masses and near destitute who are forced to leave their impoverished villages to come to the cities in the hope of keeping flesh and bone together. Arriving in the cities, they live on pavements, in drainpipes or under culverts. They join dogs to scrounge for food in dustbins near large eating houses and posh hotels or beg or simply prostitute to feed themselves and their dependents.

Those who are fortunate enough to get some work join millions already living in vast sprawls of hutments built of tin cans, burlap and bamboo sticks with little or none of the basic facilities—water, sanitation and light. Some find their way into overcrowded chawls in dilapidated buildings, many of which crumble with the first monsoon downpour, taking with them some of their inhabitants.

This pattern is repeated year after year exerting unbearable pressure on the already limited infrastructural resources of the cities, creating inhuman living conditions and acute social tensions. Today, the magnitude of this problem has become such that over three-fourths of the total population of our large cities lives in conditions of deprivation and despair. It is commonly agreed that providing shelter to these millions of homeless and basic environmental facilities in large urban centres in the most urgent task facing architects and planners.

The problem is unprecedented. Never before in history have such problems of environmental planning been faced. Therefore there are no set theories or tested solutions which can be readily applied. Moreover, a very large part of the problem area falls below what may be called 'conventional design threshold', so conventional architectural methods are largely inoperative. In situations like those of pavement dwelling and squatter settlements, due to lack of resources, it is not possible to provide puce houses in well laid out patterns with the necessary environmental facilities. Of necessity, solutions must be found in terms of self-aided houses made of inexpensive and discarded materials which can be added to and improved upon over a period of time, to suit the requirements and resources of individual households.

In situations like these, architects using the conventional design approach of conceiving buildings in terms of form and space, employing sophisticated building techniques, using materials like concrete, brick and glass; and operating within the existing organizational framework of inviting tenders, awarding contracts and providing the clients a finished product, cannot make any meaningful contribution.

Even in areas like those of low-cost housing, which could be considered design threshold and where architects can make significant contribution in alleviating the problem. The record to date has been dismal. Lack of knowledge regarding low-cost building materials and architects own inadequate understanding of local climate and social conditions has prevented the from evolving designs and standards suited to the Indian pattern of living.

Moreover, most architects in India have been preoccupied with prestigious projects which are more remunerative in terms of money and professional prestige. In the absence of social responsibility. This has left them with little time and will to concentrate of environmental problems concerning the poorer sections of society.

Also, the prestigious projects like those of multistoried administrative and commercial buildings, luxury hotels and cultural centres lend themselves to the conventional design approach with which most architects feel more at home. Consequently, much-needed talent and material has been diverted into prefects feel more at home. Consequently, much-needed talent and material has been diverted into projects benefiting few at the cost of basic facilities for the masses. No doubt, sophisticated structures and multi-storied buildings are necessary in certain instances to house facilities vital to the economy of the society, but such projects must be seen in a larger perspective. Professional and material investment in these should be commensurate with their use value in the national framework of socioeconomic needs. Such buildings must reflect not only what the individual or corporate clients can afford but, also, what the society on the whole can sustain.

In the prevailing social conditions of massive population increase, widespread poverty and rising expectations and where the need for basic shelter has not been met for three quarters of the population, the problem cannot be answered through the conventional orchestral approach and within the confines of the existing organizational framework. The profession must undergo fundamental changes in its structure and more importantly, in its perception of its role in society. Changes are needed in the architectural education patterns to acquire proper under standing of problems and new ways of solving them.

The existing organizational setup including architect-client and architect-contractor relationships needs modifying so that professional services can be made available to the masses in the larger interest of society. Professional ethics must also change to favor social needs rather than individual interests. The need is for architects to lower their sights to reach the humble, at times sacrificing quality for quantity and making marginal improvements for the benefit of many in preference to total accomplishments for the use of the few.

In a society where the majority lives under subsistence levels and where, due to scarce resources, it is not possible to provide 'desirable' standards to most in the foreseeable future, the cumulative effect of small improvements to our environment can create a revolution. Architects must divert their attention to innovations and design standards which will have wide applications and which can be adopted to advantage be builders, artisans and homeowners.

The emphasis must shift from the end-product to the process which creates built-environment and in which factors other than architectural, and people other than architects, participate. In the process, the architects must be prepared to lose some of the control which they like to enjoy over the product.

The realization must come that buildings and towns are not the exclusive preserve of architects or products of their efforts alone, nor do they have any exceptional insights into these problems. In fact, in the past, most of what has been built (much good with some bad has been built) is the outcome of the continuing activity of a whole community using shared experiences. Architects must become part of this common enterprise using their specialized knowledge to stimulate and help development in the desired direction providing missing links where necessary. The approach must be to support and encourage community initiative and effort and not to provide a substitute for it.

There is much that architects can learn from the villages and small towns of our country. From nondescript dwellings in old parts of our cities built over a period of time by their owner occupiers with the help of artisans and mistries; from the bungalows built all over India by English engineers and administrators who certainly had a better understanding of our climatic conditions. Much can be learnt from a typical Bengal village built around a pond creating an almost perfect ecological system; from Poles of an old city, grouping dwellings around a common space, forming a cohesive social group; from town dwellings of Rajasthan making extensive use of courtyards and traces; and from the innovative genius of the people of Hyderabad-Sindh who created techniques to provide ventilation in their homes. Much can be learnt even from the 'busties' of Calcutta and Bombay. No doubt, much is wrong with them and much can be improved there, but it can be hardly denied that they are the only examples of mass housing in India which the people living in the can afford.

There are innumerable such examples of built environment created by anonymous builders, which are frictional - and some even aesthetically satisfying. These examples are closer to the problems with which we are faced today and more relevant to understanding the process of development than temples and places of the past from which architects have derived their knowledge and inspiration, so a beginning must be made by rewriting history; a history which will emphasize the efforts and aspiration of the common man through the ages, his accomplishments and his artifacts; history which will remove the distortions in our perception and change our value system, for without it the relevance of architects in solving the problems staring us in the face will always be questionable.

  • 1. Rayner Banhan, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, the architectural Press, London, p.321