The Architect as a Sacred Self

Photo by Billy Pasco on Unsplash

On 30th March 2022, I was invited to deliver the convocation address at the first convocation of KS School of Architecture, a recently established architecture school in Bengaluru. This is the text of my address.

I would like to speak to you today about something not usually mentioned within the mainstream of formal, modern, professional education in architecture. Perhaps it receives passing mention in classes on the history of architecture, but is rarely assigned any fundamental role within design studio or any of the core of modern architectural education.

I would like to talk about the sacred, particularly the architect as a sacred self.

Don’t worry, I am not going to speak about religion, which I accept should be kept out of education. The reasons demanding this separation are far too complex to go into today, but I assure you my speaking of the sacred does not involve preaching any form of religious belief. What we conventionally understand as religion and the sacred are not the same. 

I refer to the sacred as a transcendental realm that is far greater than you while echoing your innermost being, thereby offering you anchors of purpose. It imparts meaning to your life, is the emotive and experiential force of great architecture, and does not require any surrender to blind faith for it can be known directly by you as tangible reality.

If we do not understand the difference between the public face of organised religion and the sacred, to keep religion out of education we wind up sanitising the sacred out of education, and consequently out of our lives. And this is a tremendous, tremendous loss, because the sacred is not some abstract entity out there, it is a core part of your very being. For you, each one of you, is inherently sacred. Let me explain what I mean by that, borrowing the words of four wise men.

Since we are all architects here, the wise man I will start with is the great architect, Louis Kahn, who said, “A great building must begin with the immeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be unmeasured.” How can one design an architecture of this kind? It seems to require conquering a paradoxical riddle: learning to know, perhaps even measure, the immeasurable. The resolution of this paradox comes from acknowledging that the immeasurable may not be something that can be delineated intellectually, but it can be discovered and known experientially.

I am sure each one of you has encountered what I have: moments of being silenced into humility and wonder by experiencing great architecture. It may have come from historical architecture such as Padmanabhapuram Palace, the Alhambra, Fatehpur Sikri or Hagia Sophia. It may have come from more modern acts of design such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Geoffrey Bawa’s Lunuganga, Charles Correa’s Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya or Carlo Scarpa’s Querini Stampalia Foundation. In each of these places, the architecture emanates an aura, a term the dictionary defines as “the distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing, or place.” You would be hard pressed to understand this aura intellectually or define it in words, yet it is a tangible presence whose tangibility is demonstrated by the fact that companions who share this experience with you are similarly possessed and moved by it.

One finds the same mode governing the primordial facets that make life worthwhile: love, joy, beauty, wonder, to name but a few. You feel constrained in intellectually understanding or describing them, yet when you personally experience them, you know them as unquestionable manifest reality. There is an inner wisdom within you, far removed from the abstractions of intellectualism, embedded into you by the very fact of your birth, that intuitively recognises and knows these transcendental realms. They are immeasurable; they offer you meaning and purpose and the mystical union you strike with them reveals that both they and your inner wisdom are inherently sacred.

The second wise man I wish to cite is not an artist or architect, not a theologian, not a philosopher, but a hard-core scientist, the physicist and mathematician Brian Greene, who said in an interview:

“……… view from the perspective of what we are as physical beings is, we are nothing but collections of particles that are fully governed by the laws of physics. Colloquially, we are bags of particles that have a particular organization that allows for certain biological functions to take place, and that’s all that we are. Now, some would say……, ‘Well, if that’s your view of who we are, then you’ve already eliminated any possibility for meaning or value and purpose. You’ve denigrated the very nature of what it means to be human.’

And my view is exactly the opposite. My view is, the very fact that collections of particles can do the kinds of things that we can do, the fact that you and I can have this conversation, the fact that an Einstein can work out the laws of general relativity, the fact that a Shakespeare can write King Lear, the fact that a Beethoven can compose the ‘Ode to Joy’ finale to the Ninth Symphony, the fact that particles governed by physical law can do all that — that, to me, is the wonder of it all. That, to me, is where it’s thrilling.

The concept of purpose doesn’t come from the universe; it comes from us human beings. The concept of value — it’s invented by us human beings. And so the fact that we’re bags of particles only accentuates how spectacular it is that we can have even this conversation about value and meaning, and it focuses our attention, in my view, in the right direction, which is inward as opposed to outward.”

What Greene points out to us is quite mind boggling. We are just a bundle of physical elements governed by physical law, yet somehow this physical collective mysteriously coheres into a consciousness that can dream, ideate, love, create, wonder, and so much more. We cannot understand how this happens; science, for all its accomplishments, has made little progress in offering an explanation. All we can do is gratefully acknowledge this gift and revel in its grace.

The third wise man I cite today is the late Irish philosopher, poet, and one-time priest, John O’Donohue. In a delightful collection titled “Walking on the Pastures of Wonder”, he points out that the creative consciousness we have been blessed with need not be thought of primarily in terms of great accomplishments of the likes of Beethoven, Einstein or Picasso. It is something each and every one of us personifies in ordinary and everyday acts of creative artistry that are so routine we cease to notice the power they represent, even though they embody a creative force that brings forth new forms of life. 

O’Donohue invokes the act of speaking whose miracle is revealed in how we coax sound and meaning out of silence. I reflected on this observation by O’Donohue, and so many other examples of everyday creative genius came spontaneously to my mind:

  • I walk, and out of stillness I coax purpose
  • I focus my gaze, and out of the blur of background I coax significance
  • I laugh, and out of the mundane I coax joy
  • I love, and out of solitude I coax community and conviviality
  • I dance, and out of indifference I coax rapture
  • I sing, and out of sound I coax melody
  • I think, and out of chaos I coax order

Each of these everyday acts births new life into being, opening new realms of possibility. And the fact that they are everyday acts shows that this sacred and creative energy is inherent to every one of us, allowing us to find resonances with each other and the world we inhabit to jointly weave wider nets of sacred significance that we can joyfully and imaginatively share. This innate creative capacity we hold within us is so powerful and the terrain of potential it opens is so vast that most of us get overwhelmed by its power, turning away from it to grasp on to external anchors of certainty that we stumble across. O’Donohue remarks, “One of the sad things today is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them.”

The fourth wise man I turn to is Soetsu Yanagi, the scholar of Japanese craft. He said there are two ways of making your place in the world. The first is ‘The Way of Self Power’, where you aim for self-reliance through your internal capacities. Yanagi says this is, by far, the harder of the two ways. It is the way most of us are conventionally schooled in, asked to treat the world as a frontier we must conquer by developing our own capacities, and while it is possible to do that, it is an option available only to a privileged few who have been blessed at birth with genius or the necessary character traits.

But hope is not lost to the masses not born with such privilege, for there is another, and easier, way: ‘The Way of Other Power’, in which one relies on an external power or grace. Yanagi says ‘The Way of Self Power’ is like climbing a mountain, where you have to work hard to develop the muscles of your body and acquire the skills of mountaineering. Whereas ‘The Way of Other Power’ is like a sailboat that uses the grace of the wind to fill its sails to glide forward with comparatively little effort.

Modern art and design is taught by asking students to deploy ‘The Way of Self Power.’ Whereas traditional craft operates by ‘The Way of Other Power’, and is able to achieve an average level of artistic quality that modern art or design has never equalled. The sacred core within you offers you ‘The Way of Other Power’, becoming the wind that will fill your sails and propel you through this world.

Sadly, the modern system of education is designed to make you look away from your sacred core and rely on ‘self-power’. It privileges intellectualism above other modes of learning, drives students toward validation through external references, and demands their acceptance of assessment of their competence through judgments made by others using measures uniformly applicable to all. The way the system works to suppress our inner creativity can be discerned if you look back to your childhood and how your mode of learning has changed over the years.

If you really want to see the innate capacity to learn in its true sense, go for a walk with a  pre-school child. It may be a route often traversed, yet every object, every sight, along it will be a source of wonder, a provocation to embodied exploration by touching, commenting, and incessantly asking “Why?” and “What?” Every child is born with a visible and energetic capacity to wonder. Why do we lose it later in life?

In the early years of primary education, where the pressures of standardised testing are not so prevalent, this wonder is encouraged. Modes of learning tap it through storytelling, drawing, making, and other forms of embodied exploration. The teacher is a facilitator whose task is to constructively steer this innate energy of the curious and wonder-filled child.

But by middle school, under the guise of there being a world, a reality, that one must deal with, the focus shifts from internal wonder to external reference. Art and storytelling, as modes of discovery, fall by the wayside. Focus shifts outward to a predefined syllabus, a word that acquires a weight as though it is worthy of a reverence that must never be questioned. Measures and assessment become uniform for all, the externalisation of reference toward a syllabus renders the students as passive recipients of instruction, and the teacher becomes the centre of power in the classroom. This process reaches its zenith in high school with the suffocating demands of board examinations, and, by this time, most of us succumb to a conditioning that teaches us to fear the wonder of our own presence.

There is some respite on entering architecture school, where the centrality of design studio is meant to give you space for your own creativity, offering some relief from external demands. But even well-meaning architecture schools wind up being constrained by centralised regulations that come from the same logic as the systemic deterioration I described in the middle and high school system. And it is rare that architecture school teaches you that the source of your creativity is the sacred core within you. Creativity winds up becoming an unanchored and unmapped terrain of subjectivity susceptible to easy seduction by the dominating fashions or ideologies of the time. Suffocation by external references returns, even if it was not imposed at the outset.

My appeal to you today, as you leave college to explore a wider and more complex world, is to recognise your sacred core and live a life that revels in its wonder and grace. Build on how it allows you to know the immeasurable as reality and subsequently channel it into your work. Salute how it magically empowers you to navigate a world beyond physical law. Celebrate how it reveals itself in ordinary everyday acts. Allow it to be the wind that fills your sails.

I must warn you that this is not easy, there is a great deal of hard work to be done. The modus operandi of this effort is not intellectualism, it comes from a wisdom that gradually emerges from embodied practice. Indian tradition refers to this form of practice as ‘sadhana’, and it has three components:

  1. Recognise that the search for the sacred starts within you.
  2. Grant yourself substantive and daily doses of quiet contemplative time so that you may hear your subtle inner voice without it being drowned by the cacophony of external distraction and temptation.  While you are doing this, remember this voice is sacred and you must therefore allow it to speak free from the exhortations or seductions of your ego.
  3. Be rigorous, yet patient, in your practice, allowing it space and time to slowly build and expand your sacred presence.

As your sadhana increases your sensitivity to the sacred, you will start to notice things you did not see before because you were either not looking for them or did not have the training to see them. You will find that other people, even if they do not realise it, inherently embody the same sacred spirit as you. You will discern the sacred in nature. You will become cognizant of its qualities within materials such as wood and stone. And you can then seek to bring all these qualities into the architecture you create so that it offers new configurations, new possibilities, of the sacred.

Your empathy with the sacred spirit of those who will inhabit your architecture will compel you to offer spatial manifestations of that spirit. Your empathy with the sacred in nature and materials will compel you toward respect for and harmony with the physical and ecological world. And when this happens, you will realise that great architecture does not become great by first conceiving an idea and then communicating that idea through its spatial form. Architecture becomes great by conceiving a configuration that unleashes the spiritual potential of material reality, offering a communion with a sacred universe. There may have been a history or philosophy that affected the creation of the architecture, but that ceases to be of relevance for communion transcends communication and is beyond history, words or concepts.

You may argue that this is an idealistic and unrealistic dream for the world is captured by selfishness, ego, politics, and material greed, and therefore unreceptive to this sacred realm I speak of. To this concern, I offer four observations.

  1. Your sacred core is accessible only to you. Nobody else, whatever their power may be, can touch it. If you give yourself the time and effort, nobody can interfere with how you nurture this core.
  2. It is a patient process rather than a radical transformation, dependent on a continuing conversation between your inner wisdom and the outer world, where each critiques and validates the other. Just keep the conversation going.
  3. Your goal is not to change the world. Stay within your circle of influence, rather than getting preoccupied with your wider circle of concern. Let your aim in each project be modest, seeking to carve out a small and quiet space for the sacred that grants it refuge to endure amidst the chaos, cacophony and crassness of the world. And persist in this quest, so that gradually others may get infected by the sacred and feel driven to do what you do.
  4. Remember that you are a unique being; a person exactly like you has never existed before in history and never will. Your voice is unique, and an architecture you design will be different from what anyone else designs. Yet, your sacred core reflects a universal spirit, so when you channel your sacred spirit into your architecture you are facilitating the rebirth of the universal in a fresh form. This continued rebirth of the universal in the form of unique expressions is what life is all about, and you are a link in a sacred chain of being: a responsibility that you must come to terms with.

Moving toward a conclusion, let me place before you the famous poem titled “Fear” by Kahlil Gibran.

It is said that before entering the sea
a river trembles with fear.

She looks back at the path she has travelled,
from the peaks of the mountains,
the long winding road crossing forests and villages.

And in front of her,
she sees an ocean so vast,
that to enter
there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.

But there is no other way.
The river cannot go back.

Nobody can go back.
To go back is impossible in existence.

The river needs to take the risk
of entering the ocean
because only then will fear disappear,
because that’s where the river will know
it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,
but of becoming the ocean.

This poem’s metaphors define you as the river and the ocean as the sacred. I would take Gibran’s proposition a step further by saying that if the river is in touch with her authentic self she will know right from her source that she is the ocean, will hear the call of the ocean to unify with him, and her life must be a quest to heed this call, a quest from which she can never turn back. 

That is why a profession is often referred to as a calling, and if architecture is to be your calling, you must make the effort to know and hear the authentic voice that calls you. That voice will not reveal everything immediately, but your continued response to its call will eventually unveil the magic within and around you.

To persist in heeding this call, when all is not immediately apparent, requires faith. Remember Rabindranath Tagore’s definition of faith as “the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.” The voice of your inner sacred core is the light that you can feel. This light will energise you in a way no other force can. And if you listen carefully, you will come to know that your inner light comes from a source that powers the universe, a sun that is not visible at the moment for it has not risen as yet. Because inner light and universal source are the same, you can be that bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark, for you know within you that the dawn will definitely come, bringing forth a unique rebirth of the universal.

I wish you well in your sacred journey. May you always feel your inner light and be energised by it. May you always hear your inner voice. May you always revel in the wonder of your own presence.

And may you always spontaneously and joyously sing in the dark because your inner light grants you the illumination to know the dawn will certainly come, not just once, but every day of your life.

Thank you

Notes on the Ethics of Studying Vernacular Architecture

Courtyard in Bendegombali, Karnataka, India. Photo courtesy Navnath Kanade

This paper was presented at the 5th International Seminar on Vernacular Settlements, University of Moratuwa, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 30-31 July 2010, and was published in the conference proceedings

The study of vernacular architecture is a discipline with a relatively short history, beginning in the second half of the twentieth century with seminal milestones such as the exhibition “Architecture without Architects” put on at the Museum of Modern Art in New York by Bernard Rudofsky in 1964; and the publication of “Shelter and Society” (Oliver, 1969), and “House, Form and Culture” (Rapoport, 1969).

In its initial phase, study of vernacular architecture tended to focus on societies anchored within a relatively stable tradition; largely looking at rural peasant societies: a predisposition reflected in the seminal reference work “Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World” (Oliver, 1997).  But the challenge has begun to shift in the last few years.  We are now at a moment in history where an insidious form of globalisation, which can coordinate distant locations in real time, is severely challenging the sense of the local that sustains the very core of the vernacular.  The discipline seems to be responding to this new circumstance, looking more at urban areas and seeking to study the forces and changes that vernacular design is facing.  The theme of this ISVS conference, as well as the proceedings of the preceding one, seems to be recognising this new direction.  At the last ISVS conference, close to half of the total number of papers presented focused on the (largely urban) developmental mutations that vernacular communities are undergoing; whereas a lesser number of papers were aimed at the traditional area of interest in holistic slow-change rural cultures.  Given the relatively short history of the discipline, and the momentous scale of the contemporary challenge, it is appropriate at this moment in time to critically introspect on the study of vernacular architecture.  

To do this we must be clear on what we mean when we say “vernacular architecture”.  Work being produced in this discipline of study echoes the definition articulated by Oliver (1997) as architecture that is owner built or community built; where even if specialised skills are utilised, these skills are locally based; and where the architecture has a fairly direct correspondence with the immediate local contexts of cultural and social tradition, climate, and material resources.   This stands in contrast to an architecture produced by formally trained architects in a society occupationally differentiated to a level where the design process is abstracted and distanced from the routines and experiences of everyday life, often relying on a philosophy that is more conceptual and abstract than experiential.  

Learning from Orientalism
If we are to critically introspect on our discipline, we must look at the field in its entirety: recognising that a discipline is constituted both by the scholarship as well as its scholars.  In this respect, there are striking lessons to be learned from the critique, albeit in a different field, articulated by Edward Said (2001) on Orientalism.  It could be argued that for a long time the Orient was largely ignored by western scholars; and the fact that in the 19th century the Orient began attracting a significant level of scholarly attention could be taken as an ethical acknowledgment of the Oriental subjects place in the work, thereby reversing earlier imperialist arrogance.  However, Said argues that imperialist attitudes continued, because a careful reading of the texts shows the Orient to be characterised as an exotic other, to be read in contrast to a rational and progressive Occident.  While the subject of scholarship was Oriental, the scholars were Occidental (along with a few eastern elites conditioned by western education and attitudes).  The scholar may be acting with the best of intentions, and the exoticism of the Orient was often a subject of both admiration and desire.  But by failing to acknowledge the comparative reading of east and west, the scholar (perhaps unwittingly) displays a patronising attitude, casting the Oriental subject as a primitive being who is not capable of speaking on his/her own condition.  This denial occurs because the prerequisite of the discourse is that the way of knowing should be in rational intellectual terms.  Any other way of knowing is set aside as myth and folklore, which do not qualify as the basis for any discourse.  Thereby the Occidental scholar is required to speak on behalf of the Oriental subject: an attitude that formed the epistemological foundation of European colonialism. 

There have been many critiques of Said’s argument, and it is not necessary to go into them here as what is at stake is not the defensibility or correctness of his conclusions.  What is of greater relevance to the study of vernacular architecture is Said’s method where he recognises the discipline as one where both scholars and the subject of scholarship involve the lives of humans; the two inhabit worlds with strikingly different epistemologies; and the failure to acknowledge this difference has profound ethical implications.  In this respect the study of vernacular architecture is similar.  Its subject matter is characterised as vernacular, but the scholars are far from vernacular, and would typically be characterised as “modern”: a term often placed in opposition to “traditional”.

Defining Modernity
The word “modern” means something that is pertaining to present or recent times and is not ancient or remote.  But it is also a word that has a historical meaning, implying that humans have not always been modern and became modern only from a certain point in time.  Some would date the beginning of this era to the Renaissance, but if one looks at it more specifically from the viewpoint of current attitudes its origins could be traced to that era in European history known as the Enlightenment, beginning (depending on which text you place as its origin) around the mid-seventeenth to early eighteenth century.  This was not an era with a uniform philosophy and covered a range of (often contradictory) thoughts.   But a common thread was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs and morals, replacing them with rational thought as the primary foundation for deriving the legitimacy of authority and judgment. This was a line of thought with profound moral consequences.  If reason is the foundation, then it is one that is integrated with the inalienable and individual condition of birth (each one of us is born with the capacity to think) and cannot be rooted in traditional custom.   This has in turn led to the birth of concepts we now consider as basic: human rights and democracy.  Our notions of justice have been radically transformed.  In earlier traditional societies there was little formalised legislation, and whatever mechanisms of justice existed were aimed more at the restitution of tradition rather than egalitarian ideals.  If pre-modern tradition placed a priority on the preservation of tradition and custom, modern ethics in contrast places faith in the ability of individual reason and thus prioritises the autonomy and consequent freedom of individual will.

This is not to argue that there is a clean split and that we have left the traditional era completely behind and are now in the modern; or that we either live traditional lives or modern lives.  Many of us go through a modernist education and choose careers based on modernist aspirations, but remain embedded in families with traditional customs and ideals, and often find ourselves in a delicate act trying to balance conflicting pressures.  But this remains a private battle.  When it comes to the public realm we have largely converted to modernists.  The institutional structures we create for governance, the delivery of justice and education, and settlement planning are founded on the ethical and epistemological premises of modernism.  

Ethical Problems in Juxtaposing Vernacular Subjects and Modern Scholars
As scholars of vernacular architecture, we are all modernists.  A glance at any reputed publication or conference on vernacular architecture shows that all the contributors are highly educated, with advanced professional degrees received from a modernist educational system.  Papers are peer reviewed and accepted on the quality of their intellectual rigour:  a process premised on a standard of reasoned discourse in which the vernacular subject would find it close to impossible to participate.  And most of us are following career paths that we believe should be determined largely by our individual interests and will, rather than being determined by an imperative to sustain communitarian structures.  When we and the subjects we research belong to two different worlds, and we do not make concerted attempts to reconcile them into an integrated framework, several ethical problems arise.

The first is that we may be guilty of the same sin that the Orientalists are guilty of, as per Edward Said’s critique.  We speak about people through a discourse in which the people we speak of cannot participate.  And when we study the vernacular world without a simultaneous critical and comparative examination of the modern world, are we tacitly constructing the vernacular subject as that exotic other, interesting but primitive, standing in contrast to our erudite sophistication and therefore in need of our expert guidance to construct a future?

Then we have to examine why we choose to set up a discourse on the vernacular subject in which he/she cannot participate.  Are we seeking to speak on behalf of the vernacular subject?  If so, on what authority can we claim the right to speak on his/her behalf?  Does the vernacular subject even desire someone to speak on his/her behalf?  

Perhaps we could lay claim to the defence that we are not seeking to represent the vernacular subject, and only seek to acknowledge his/her (hitherto ignored) presence, architecture and value.  But if we leave modernity out of the discussion, what are we tacitly postulating as the relationship that the vernacular subject has with modernity?

Let us first examine the vernacular rooted in long standing traditions.  If we value such architecture, are we imposing any obligation on the vernacular subject to preserve such architecture?  To do so would be tantamount to denying to him/her the modernist aspirations that all of us routinely claim: a denial that would be ethically indefensible.   But if we say that we are granting full freedom to the vernacular subject to construct any aspiration he/she chooses, then we must confront the ethical implications of a set of competing forces in which we are (perhaps unwittingly) complicit.    In the form of globalisation that we find ourselves in now, the modernist way of life is becoming increasingly intrusive to the kind of community-based tradition that has sustained the vernacular; and it is becoming increasingly difficult to exercise a choice of isolating oneself within a long-standing tradition.  As modernist actors, we tacitly endorse the modernist ethics and way of life that is intruding on the vernacular, even though we work in a discipline that seeks to value the vernacular.  Are we destroying with one hand what we seek to preserve with the other?  And given the isolation of our discourse from the vernacular world, are we taking on any responsibility of empowering any voice to the vernacular subject on this clash of conflicting forces?

We must also ask what this reveals about our ethical stand on the notion of built heritage.  Clearly, as scholars of vernacular architecture, we seek to go beyond the limited notion of heritage as the preservation of ancient monuments, and our scholarship seeks to frame a living sense of heritage.  This involves the connection between individual acts, community-based acts, and a culture that is able to connect across more than one generation.  Oliver (2006) has argued that a primary value in studying vernacular is the learning of how community values can be embodied in architecture.  However, our scholarship of the vernacular can only record culture as it has already happened.  We find it impossible to speak of a culture as it is happening in the real experiential sense of this very moment, or of one that we expect or wish to happen.  And by participating in a modernist culture that values individual creativity over community creativity, and by failing to implicate that fact in our analysis of vernacular tradition, we wind up with our main conceptualisation of culture as one with our heads turned backwards in time.  We lack the clues on how to adequately integrate our own current experiences into a sense of culture, or on how the notion of heritage can sustain any sense of continuity within the context of modern life.  Heritage thus winds up being the product of a way of life and culture that cannot be located within modern life, which reduces any modern notion of built heritage to the superficiality of a pleasing visual setting.

The study of vernacular architecture appears to be ethically problematic if modernity is not successfully integrated into the analysis.  But what kind of integration should we aim for?  Coming to the emerging urban vernacular, mere recognition of modernity is insufficient – for that is what has been done within recent trends in the discipline.  The work of Tajudeen (2008), Shah (2008), Tarjoko (2008), Bose (2008) and many others at the 4th ISVS acknowledge, often with a strong sense of concern, the displacements forced on to vernacular architecture by urban modernity. But the intellectual analysis remains ambivalent regarding any idealistic aspiration that would guide a resolution of the emerging conflict.  Even though it has been recognised that a dominant share of building stock in the world is produced by vernacular methods (Oliver, 2006), current scholarly analysis largely fails to pinpoint the conflict in the Cartesian attitudes of the modern settlement planner with the nuanced approach to space found in the vernacular: and given that our public realm is institutionalized in terms of modernist epistemology, this is a hierarchy of power weighted strongly in favour of the Cartesian planner.

In these absences, a narrow set of choices appear to remain, each deeply problematic: (a) a lament on the malaise of modernity that condemns us to an inevitable decline in culture, morals and art; (b) an anachronistic, often fundamentalist, impulse to cling to an established culture;   (c) endorsement of a culture of anarchic hedonism within an individualistic society that seeks no higher ideals; or (d) accept a hierarchy of power that by definition pushes the vernacular to the margins (even though the vernacular constitute a majority of the world’s population).  

Redefining Modernity
Ultimately, if our discipline puts vernacular architecture under a lens, we must insert into the frame a mirror that directs the gaze back at us.  For it is only by constructing a higher ethical ideal, which can guide both modernity and the vernacular, that we can ethically validate the study of vernacular architecture.   To explicitly articulate such an ideal is beyond the scope of this paper, but some broad direction will be spelt out.

We cannot go back to an earlier ideal of deriving legitimacy and authority from wisdom received through established tradition.  The belief in individual rights and freedom is too deeply established as an ethical tenet to permit this.  But the early modernist hope of displacing tradition with reason has also reached a dead end; for it has been adequately argued over the last five decades that the philosopher’s worldview of an abstract totalising knowledge is not possible – and where attempted has been deeply problematic.  There are some, like Habermas (1984), who have argued that modernity is an unfinished project.  Accepting the postmodern critique that there is no ultimate location of foundational meaning, and building on a direction first identified by Wittgenstein, he considers the site of rationality to be interpersonal linguistic communication rather than a conceptualised structure of the world.  Building on a structure of everyday discourse and pragmatics, he argues that a rational public sphere will emerge as only those interests that are generalisable will survive rational argumentation.  Habermas has been critiqued for: (a) his assumption that a coherent public sphere will emerge, thereby not giving due recognition to pluralism and multi-culturalism; and (b) his optimistic assumption that every speech act has an ultimate goal of mutual understanding, thereby not giving due recognition to the play of power.  However, the idea of founding modernity in everyday acts is an intriguing direction to explore, given our interest in the vernacular which is so integrated with everyday life.

Taylor (2003) extends this line of thought, but is not as ambitious as Habermas and does not seek a goal of defining a public sphere, focusing his interest on the more immediate question of personal identity and responsibility.  He contextualises this question within the wider quest for authenticity.    Like Habermas, Taylor locates the basis of reasoning in everyday speech acts, pointing out that authenticity can only be derived through dialogue.  Just like language, the impulse to achieve it may be innate to the human condition, but it can only be realised by engagement with other human beings.  But authenticity also has a moral dimension, rising above personal freedom and desire to define a higher beacon – that Taylor terms as a “horizon of significance” – of what we ought to desire.  For example, if men and women are to be considered equal it is neither because of their visibly common attributes nor their differences, but because overriding these commonalities or differences are higher properties of value that define them both, such as the productive capacity for love, memory or recognition.  Without a horizon of significance every choice becomes equal, whether it is one that is petty and self-gratifying or one that seeks a moral idealistic ground.

There was a time when this quest for authenticity was handed down through received traditional wisdom.  Now that that has eroded, one can no longer achieve it through convention and one has to dig deeper into a greater awareness of the present.  Taylor analyses the implication of this on art, noting that in an earlier era creativity in art followed a principle of mimesis of reality using established languages, safely assuming in society the presence of widely held pre-existent beliefs.  Now the work of art has to create its own world of references and make them believable.  But this is not solely a degeneration into individualised idiosyncrasy.  The work of art suggests a wider predicament in which all of us are embedded, and is emblematic of horizons of significance.  Just because there is a subjectivity of manner does not mean there is a subjectivity of matter. 

Connecting the Sacred and the Secular
Taylor’s definition of horizons of significance lays the ground for a framework that unites the sacred and the secular.  Smith (1992) raises the question of whether in a world of religious pluralism we can rise to the challenge of identifying a primordial tradition that underlies all religious traditions.  Smith identifies three components of this tradition: 

  1. a recognition that reality is not at a single level but is at multiple levels, with the four commonly found levels being: (i) the terrestrial level of every day life; (ii) the intermediate level of dreams, emotions, ideas and archetypes; (iii) the celestial level where the divine is perceived but with (often human) form; and (iv) the infinite where the divine is recognised beyond form or attributes.
  2. These different levels are not separate but are really different dimensions of the same universe.
  3. These levels are not abstract constructs, and each level is experientially knowable. 

One need not agree with Smith’s categorisation of levels, or even profess to a belief in God.  In recognising reality as being multi-leveled, we can connect with the notion of authenticity that Taylor has defined for us by which we find meaning in our life.  But we can also recognise that in comparison to a lower level a higher level can impart an aura of sublime reverence, thereby admitting the sacred into our life without a compulsion to feel any contradiction with secular ideals. 

Creating Spaces of Engagement
When we locate the foundation of modernity in dialogue rather than reason, we are admitting that culture is not an a priori phenomenon.  It is an emergent phenomenon, deriving from everyday actions, where deliberated actions seek a wider horizon of significance.  

In living emergent systems, pre-established overarching descriptions of the whole system can actually be an obstruction rather than of assistance.  Johnson (2002), in his analysis of emergence, points out that the human brain is an emergent system that would cease to function if each neuron seeks to be individually sentient.  Johnson argues that emergence is predicated on a rapid series of direct experiential engagement with the immediate context, along with an ability to recognise larger patterns in these sets of engagements.  The recognition of larger patterns is then reified in material behaviour and construction: in the case of humans this reification would occur in art and artifacts (including architecture).

This grounding in direct experience rather than intellectual abstraction is a facet of life that modernity has lost sight of.  A unique capability of human beings is the capacity for reflexivity: we can think about ourselves, and in that act of thinking we wind up changing ourselves.  Reflexivity is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand the capacity to think beyond oneself creates the capacity to recognise and be moved by the transcendent (to construct horizons of significance).  But on the other hand the same capacity allows us to disconnect our thinking from our experience and be trapped by abstraction.  Without a grounding in unselfconscious tacit experience, we can be diverted by a false and abstract sense of authenticity in our lives, cut off from the emotional connections that are essential for any sense of culture to emerge.

In this reframed sketch of modernity we find a fair amount of common ground with the vernacular, without any need to sacrifice modernity’s ideal of the freedom and autonomy of the individual will.  We locate the basis of life in everyday experiential dialogic acts that seek wider horizons of significance.  We would also seek an architecture that is sympathetic to everyday experience while making connections with higher, wider and sacred realms.  And this model would be predicated on a sense of culture that is always alive, rather than the coherent abstractions that much of contemporary scholarship directs our attention toward.

A significant implication that this ideal would demand is a shift of starting point, away from intellectual abstractions of life toward a conscious and critical construction of the spaces of engagement that would be conducive to the dialogue and quest for authenticity that we must strive for.  And the two kinds of spaces immediately relevant to our discipline are the spaces of design practice and academia.  If the dialogue is to be rooted in grounded experience, and not be diverted by abstraction, we must start from the bottom up with the dialogue of our own local spaces, and work our way upwards to wider hierarchies of space.   This ethic demands that each one of us critically examine the spaces of design practice and/or academia that we are personally involved in.  We must ask what responsibility we have taken to promote a dialogic quest for significance within these spaces.  Who are the stakeholders in this space who must be admitted into the dialogue?  What are the propositional connections between this dialogue and the architecture we endorse?  How do we seek to reify this quest?  Only when we can all honestly say that we operate in such spaces of engagement can we say that we aspire to a modernity that does not contradict the vernacular.

To complete the circle, it is helpful to step away from modern philosophy for a moment, and examine a source of traditional wisdom: the Katha Upanishad.   This Upanishad tells the story of Nachiketa, a boy whose father piously seeks religious merit by sacrificing some possessions to the temple priest.  Noting that the sacrifice includes a few old and feeble cows, Nachiketa wonders what the point is in sacrificing what is useless to start with, and challenges his father by asking “To whom will you give me?”  Consumed by a flash of anger at this impertinence, the father impetuously retorts “I give thee to death!”  Nachiketa, as a disciplined mind, accepts the consequences of his action whatever they may be and sets off for the abode of Yama, the God of Death.  But when he arrives at his destination, he finds that Yama is not there.  He patiently waits there for three days and nights.  When Yama returns he is struck by the disciplined manner in which Nachiketa has waited in a place from which most people would fearfully flee.  As a reward, he not only reprieves him from death, but also grants him three wishes.  As his first wish, Nachiketa asks that his father’s anger be appeased: and as his second wish asks to be instructed in the proper way to carry out the ritual of the fire sacrifice that will grant passage to heaven.  Yama gladly and immediately fulfils these two wishes.  But as his third wish, Nachiketa notes that when a man dies there is doubt as to whether he still exists or does not exist, and asks to be taught the truth that will dispel this doubt.  Yama, realising he is being asked to reveal the secret of death, tries to divert Nachiketa from this wish, offering him all sorts of riches instead.  Nachiketa steadfastly refuses all these temptations, on which Yama realises he is worthy of this question and decides to grant the wish.   Yama uses the metaphor of a chariot, identifying the atman (a term translatable as both “self” and “soul”) as the chariot’s passenger, the physical body as the chariot itself, consciousness as the driver, the mind as the reins, the five senses as the horses pulling the chariot, and the objects perceived by the senses as the chariot’s path.  If one merely seeks earthly fulfillment, allowing a free rein to the senses and the mind, then the chariot runs a haphazard and unproductive path, rendering the atman and consciousness irrelevant.  The Katha Upanishad introduces the term yoga: a discipline by which consciousness is trained to still the senses and mind, allowing the atman to become aware of itself and exercise its intention and potential.  In this awareness, the unity of the atman with the Brahman – the creative life force of the universe that is beyond time and form – is realised: an awareness that reduces death to an insignificant moment within a larger cosmic context.

The Katha Upanishad, like the other Upanishads, reveals a message that rather than treating the world as a question to be examined or answered, it is more productive to turn a critical and rigorous gaze on the awareness of the observer.  This message bears a striking resonance with the notion of a dialogic modernity that is premised on an ethical and critical awareness of one’s own spaces of engagement.   This self-awareness should make us realise that, if we wish to ethically validate our study of the vernacular, we have to reexamine our relationship with the world.  It is insufficient to merely be in this world and to revel in its pleasures.  It is also insufficient to limit our aspirations to the level of studying, analysing and intellectually comprehending the world.  It is necessary to examine our own lives and the spaces of engagement we construct, thereby recognising and accepting the ethical responsibility to uphold the world.

Works Cited:

  1. Bose, K., 2008. Something Old, Something New: Amalgamations of the New Vernacular in the Contemporary – A Historical Perspective in the case of Mansions in North Calcutta, 4th International Conference on Vernacular Settlements, Ahmedabad, 14-17 March, CEPT University: Ahmedabad.
  2. Habermas, J., 1984. McCarthy, T. (trans.), The Theory of Communicative Action, Boston: Beacon Press.
  3. Harjoko, T.Y., 2008. Hyper Versus Involuted Tradition – Urbanism in Indonesia, 4th International Conference on Vernacular Settlements, Ahmedabad, 14-17 March, CEPT University: Ahmedabad.
  4. Johnson, S., 2002. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, 3rd ed., London: Penguin Books.
  5. Oliver, P. (ed.), 1969. Shelter and Society, London: Barrie & Rockliff, The Cresset Press.
  6. Oliver, P. (ed.), 1997. Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Oliver, P., 2006. Built to Meet Needs: Cultural Issues in Vernacular Architecture, Amsterdam: Elsevier / Architectural Press.
  8. Rapoport, A., 1969. House, Form and Culture. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
  9. Rudofsky, B., 1964. Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, London: Academy Editions.
  10. Said, E.W., 2001. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, 5th ed., New Delhi: Penguin Books India.
  11. Shah, B., 2008. Continuity and Change in Dwelling Spaces – Turkish Cypriot Homes in Cyprus and the UK, 4th International Conference on Vernacular Settlements, Ahmedabad, 14-17 March, CEPT University: Ahmedabad.
  12. Smith, H., 1992. Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions, New York: Harper Collins.
  13. Tajudeen, I., 2008. Adaptation And Acentuation – Type Transformation in Vernacular Nusantarian Mosque Design and their Contemporary Signification In Melaka, Minangkabau and Singapore, 4th International Conference on Vernacular Settlements, Ahmedabad, 14-17 March, CEPT University: Ahmedabad.
  14. Taylor, C., 2003. The Ethics of Authenticity, 11th ed., Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

A Manifesto on Architectural Criticism

CnT Architects: Tata Dhan Academy, Madurai, India

Recently, the entire staff at CnT Architects, the firm in which I am a partner, gathered for a collective brainstorming on the criteria on which we should found our critique of architecture. This text emerges from that discussion. As it lays out what we will do in our practice, it is positioned as a manifesto rather than an academic treatise.

A resolution of this question is important to us given we seek to define CnT as a practice that is passionate about design but is not personality centric. The profession has conventionally defined its cutting edge in terms of the names of creative personalities. While many of these personalities have created wonderful architecture, this model of practice has not served the profession adequately as it breeds a culture of heroes and followers rather than a deep and widespread culture of critical creativity. It also breeds a self-referential culture where the laudatory celebration of star architects within the profession and architectural press does not find an echo in public appreciation.

The reason for an eschewing of personality as the core of practice is simple. Imagine two demographically similar groups. In the first group, every person has a conscience, has strong internal ethical anchors that derive from this conscience, and the culture of the group is a weave of the ethical discernment of the individuals who constitute it; a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the second group, only the leader has a conscience, and the rest of the group follows the ethics prescribed by the leader. It is evident the first group lives at an existential level that is richer, more resilient, and with a higher capacity for empathy.

This demands the entire practice, as a culture, must hold the capacity to rigorously critique architecture in a mode that transcends the preferences of any individual. This culture must contain clarity on the standards of critique by which one can look beyond the work’s appearance to assess its quality and underlying values, choose between design alternatives, make commitments to designs as deserving of further detailing, and appraise the worthiness of the work before release into the public domain. 

The reason for the discussion we held, and its ensuing manifesto, is to make this critique explicit and broad-based within the practice.

Our manifesto on architectural criticism posits four frames for critiquing architecture, and all four must be deployed.


As a basic threshold, architecture must establish its own integrity as a discipline. A failure to do so has led to a reliance on defining itself through other disciplines: art, engineering, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, and so on. The core of our discipline is the ordering of space and material for inhabitation: it is only the spatial design disciplines that accept this challenge as their calling. This leads to four dimensions of integrity:

Spatial Integrity:
Louis Kahn referred to architecture as “The society of rooms…..the place where it is good to learn, good to live, good to work.” The elements of a design should belong to a harmonious society, each supporting and respondying to the other, each in balance to the other without claiming undue attention to itself. No element should be out of place or disproportionate to the other, and the spatial order suggested by any one element should find its echo in others.

The organisation of the entire ensemble of spaces should reflect an exactitude that easily evokes its own image within the inhabitant’s mind and body, offering a feeling of belonging to the design and a sense of orientation to one’s place within the universe. 

Hierarchies of Inside:
Architecture should not be slotted into a binary of inside/outside. As Juhani Pallasmaa has pointed out, architecture has privileged the visual at the cost of the other senses, that too, a particular kind of vision: central, focused vision. This gaze creates a distance, a separation between spectator and object. In contrast, it is peripheral vision that immerses us within space.

A consequence of this bias is that architects tend to privilege the precise delineations of forms that focused vision picks up over the subtle gradations of scale, texture, colour, and shadow that underpin peripheral vision. This creates a bias toward a heroic formalism that stands apart from its context, conceived for a compelling perception from a neutral position of ‘outside’. 

This assumption of a neutral ‘outside’ has done great damage to urbanism and ecology, instilling a lack of concern for anything beyond the boundaries of a project. Architecture should realise that whatever it touches is implicated in what surrounds it by the mere fact of it being on earth. 

Architecture has no outside; there are only hierarchies of inside. A failure to recognise this destroys the integrity of what architecture is meant to be.

Tectonic Integrity:
Every material has an inherent nature. For example, each species of wood has inherent structural properties, behaves differently when cut along the grain versus against the grain, and has its unique aura. This is the same with all materials, whether metal, stone, concrete, glass, or plastic. Architecture must respect the integrity of its tectonic components, with a full appreciation of their inherent behaviour, constructional logic, and aura. 

Ecological Integrity:
Architecture is always located within an ecosystem, even in the most urban contexts. It should respect the integrity of the ecosystems it enters, rather than violating them through disregard. Architecture should draw its aura from the consciousness of the sun, wind, rain, earth, vegetation.

Frame 2: EMPATHY

While architecture must protect its autonomy as a discipline, this should not lead to an inward-looking self-referential culture. Architecture is an inherently public art in the way it forces itself into people’s everyday lives. This places ethical constraints that limit the didactic freedoms afforded to other arts that have the luxury of being more private. An architect is ethically bound to demonstrate empathy to the inhabitants who enter the constructed work, and the work must be substantively shaped by this empathy. This implicates the following dimensions:

Empathy to the Human Body
The first measure of architecture is taken by the inhabiting human body, and architecture should respect this measure. Firstly, it should offer an exactitude through which the body can orient itself within the world. Secondly, the measures of its composition should respect the scale of the body. This was done as a matter of course in most older traditions of architecture: the smallest element in a façade could always be linked to the scale of the body, and the jump from this scale to the next higher scale was never too large. It is only in architecture of the last century that we find a single material being stretched unbroken across multiple floors, or a wide prevalence of imposing forms whose scale intimidates the experiencing body. 

A deep respect for the experiencing body should form the foundation of architectural composition.

The Inevitable Silence of the Architect:
Architects tend to believe that it is primarily their creative intentions and abilities that inject meaning into the work. This springs from the way we are trained. In architecture schools we are always standing next to our work and talking about it: explaining it to a teacher in a studio crit, defending it to an end-of-semester jury. 

In contrast, in actual practice, once the construction of an architect’s design is completed and handed over for inhabitation, that architect is forever silent. From that moment on, the work must speak for itself in the absence of the architect. Unlike performing arts like music or dance, that are most alive in the presence of the artist, architecture is an art that must be alive in the absence of the artist.

No architect should begin a practice without first acquiring the humility to come to terms with this inevitable moment of silence. 

Inhabitation and the Aesthetics of Absorption:
Citing Adolf Loos, David Heymann points out that architects usually design as if their work must be interpreted before it is experienced. This not only leads to a tendency to desecrate landscape, but it also divorces architecture from the importance of inhabitation in producing architectural meaning.

Acts of inhabitation produce their memories that become associated with the spaces that shape them. With the passage of time, a space becomes inextricably woven with memories of experiences it has catalysed, and these memories become as much a constituent of the space’s aura as the organisation of its physical materials and proportions. Architecture must design to catalyse memory, and this goal changes one’s design approach: for example, in designing a house with an eye toward catalysing memory, attention becomes attracted toward the presence of, and relationship between, verandas, steps, bookshelves, niches, bay windows and other tectonic elements that are innately sticky to memory.

This is an aesthetic that accrues over time, an aesthetic of absorption, that stands in sharp contrast to the aesthetic of expression that most architects pursue. If meaning in architecture was primarily dependent on the ideas of the architect, how would the power of a communicated idea survive the boredom of repetitive daily inhabitation that most architecture is subjected to? The aesthetic of expression is biased toward the consideration of first impressions, a bias that works only within the formats of publications and lectures, leading to a self-referential culture where architects are primarily designing for other architects, and the constituencies they are ethically obliged to serve receive insufficient recognition.

Architecture must recognise how it is energised by human inhabitation. The test of good architecture rests less on the power of first impression than in the deep affection induced and accrued by many years of the quality of inhabitation it has enabled.


Habit tends to be an anaesthetic. When we repeat a habit unthinkingly, such as driving on the familiar route between home and work, we tend to do it on autopilot with our mind elsewhere and can complete the task with no memory of the process of undertaking it. We may have missed a beautiful and unexpected experience or sight because of our preoccupation. 

Architecture must never become habitual, with design merely reproducing the familiar. Architecture must transcend the status quo to be an emancipatory art. The architect must cultivate a faculty of critical discernment so that creative design transcends mere novelty to offer to the inhabitant a foothold for enriching life.

The Knight’s Move:
Close to a century ago, the Russian literary critic, Viktor Shklovsky, remarked that all art is like the knight’s move in chess: it is always one straight move plus one crooked move. The straight move offers empathy so that art is recognisable, but the crooked move ‘makes strange’, so that it displaces habit to makes one see the world with fresh eyes.

The straight move of architecture offers an exactitude that constructs the inhabitant’s sense of belonging to a place, to the world. The crooked move is one that enriches that belonging by provoking new prospects for existence. All architecture must make both moves.

Ambiguity and Hierarchies of Scale:
Architecture must offer an ambiguous hierarchy of scales that enable multiple perceptions that respond to the inhabitant’s varied quests and desires in being on this earth. ‘Ambiguity’ is not to be confused with ‘vagueness’; vagueness means that no precise perception or reading is possible, whereas ambiguity offers multiple readings, each one of them precise, overlaid in a kind of palimpsest.  As Robert Venturi has argued, architecture must avoid the simplistic binary of ‘either/or’ and embrace the richness of ‘both/and’. 

The spatial integrity that architecture offers, the exactitude of spatial articulation by which inhabitants orient themselves on earth, should never be singular; it should be layered so that there are multiple possibilities at any one point in space and time. A person may be in an introverted mood and architecture offers a spatial articulation that allows that mood to be associated with the intimacy of a single room. The mood shifts to be more expansive, and without moving one’s body, it should be possible to now relate to a wider set of spaces. Then the orientation could change further, one that could even include the landscape that surrounds architecture.

The spatial articulation of architecture – in plan, section, and elevation – must always offer a layered hierarchy of scales that enable a rich multitude of possibilities for inhabitation.

Possibilities of Being:
Architecture must always offer new ways of coming together as humans, new modes of collaboration and conviviality, new ways of relating built and natural space, and much more. It should avoid the tired repetition of the habitual and the familiar, realising that it is a fundamental human impulse to reach for the stars and aspire for a better life. Each act of architecture must be a quest for new possibilities of being.


The philosopher of religion, Huston Smith, in a quest to identify the primordial tradition that underpins all religions, identifies three dimensions of such a tradition:

  1. Reality is not at a single level and is multi-layered. Smith identifies four levels found in major faith traditions: (i) the terrestrial level of physical reality; (ii) the subliminal level of ideals, dreams, emotions, archetypes; (iii) the celestial level, that knows the sacred through form and attribute; and (iv) the infinite level, where awareness of the sacred is beyond form or attribute. 
  2. These levels are not separate entities, they are different dimensions of a greater unity.
  3. These levels are not abstract constructs, there is anecdotal evidence of people experiencing all four levels.

It is not necessary that we subscribe faithfully to Smith’s analysis, but his argument brings focus to bear on the fact that it is inherently human to be moved by a reality that is greater than the mundane or individual, that we are drawn toward greater realities like a moth to a flame.

Architecture must honour this inherent human impulse by always offering the experience of transcendence, whatever building type it seeks to construct.

The Joy of Existential Anchors:
The first level of transcendence is the fact that we inhabit a cosmos whose reality is greater than that of our individual lives, and this must be reflected in our architecture. The dance of light, the movement of the sun, the feel of breeze on one’s skin, the variegated and seasonal rhythms of landscape, the fall of rain, the flow of water, the sound of birdsong, and so many other features of the world we inhabit serve to contextualise our lives, making our existence meaningful by anchoring it within a wider web of life.

The writer on nature, Michael McCarthy, argues that ecological understanding is usually promoted through a scientific discourse, weighed down by the immobilising language of statistics. We will become ecological only when we find joy in nature. Joy is different from happiness, fun or delight, which can be self-absorbed in their orientation, whereas joy always looks outward to something greater than the observer. It paradoxically weaves joyfulness with a seriousness that underpins our sense of being with moral weight.

Architecture must absorb all this within its aura so that it can offer us the joy of existential anchors. 

Recasting the Boundaries of the Project:
Given that every architectural project has its spatial boundary, for a connection with infinity, that boundary must by constituted by markers of infinity such as: spatial interlock with a context to acknowledge a reality greater than the project; the presence of light; the presence of nature; a vista to the horizon or a landscape of distance; a rescaling of depth to emphasise awareness of the sky.

The Presence of Stillness:
Transcendence is subtle, and its recognition demands a stillness of mind. Architecture must express self-similarity across a hierarchy of scales. The aura of details, the aura of subsets of the project, the aura of the whole project, must all resonate with each other such that stillness is evoked because the same aura is seen irrespective of how a body, or its gaze, moves across the project.

The Quest for Beauty:
Displacing an earlier tradition of the master-builder, architecture, as a specialised design profession separated from the act of construction, emerged in the early 15th century during the Italian Renaissance. So, it has a history of about six centuries. In close to five out of these six centuries, a quest for beauty was central to architecture. The birth of modern architecture displaced this quest in the early 20th century, rebelling against the then conventions of defining beauty in terms of divine will, seeking a creativity unfettered by tradition so that it could leverage the latest offerings of technology and innovation and liberate architecture into being an agent of history who would play a crucial role in ushering in social progress.

This messianic zeal of early 20th century modernism has since fallen out of favour, but the discipline has never sought to replace this loss by recovering the quest for beauty, and currently lacks a philosophical core of idealism that stabilises its sense of purpose.

Beauty need not be defined either by the strictures of religion or the codifications of secular philosophy. It can be envisaged in experiential terms where inhabitation of the earth is imbued with the joy of being embedded into wider existential anchors.

One of the best definitions of beauty is by the German philosopher Gernot Bohme, who said“Beauty is that which mediates to us the joy of being here.”  The architect bears a responsibility to cultivate a personal mastery of crafting space whose central quest is to offer us such a ‘here’.

The National Museum, National Archives, and the Fate of Our Heritage

The National Museum, New Delhi. Photo credit: Miya.m, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Under the master plan for the Central Vista Redevelopment, the National Museum at Delhi is scheduled to be demolished, with its site taken over by new governmental office buildings that constitute a Common Central Secretariat.  The statutory ratification of this proposal has already begun in a plan submitted by the government for environmental approval.

The redevelopment removes public institutions that sustain culture and heritage from Central Vista, replacing them with government offices and facilities. In the land use changes ratified to implement the project, over eighty acres of land devoted to the land-use “Public/Semi-Public” have been changed to a land-use of “Government Office.” Many citizens have expressed anguish over how the spatial heart of our democracy is being transformed from a public landscape energised by cultural institutions to become a space dominated by the visual spectacle of governmental bureaucracy.

The government has sought to counter this criticism by asserting that public space is actually being enhanced in the redevelopment. The architect of the project has made presentations, and the Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs has made statements, claiming:

  • North and South Blocks will be converted into the new National Museum.
  • A 50-acre Arboretum/Biodiversity Park is being carved out of the President’s Estate on its western boundary.
  • The original ‘ridge-to-river’ intent of the Lutyens/Baker plan for Central Vista is being implemented by extending the axis till the west bank of the Yamuna where a new 20-acre park is being planned. 

The proposals for the parks on the riverbank and in the President’s Estate do not change the character of the main vista, as they are in spaces that do not form part of the same experience.

The riverbank is over three kilometres away and spatial continuity of the axis of Central Vista is disrupted by the presence of Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, so it will not form a part of the Central Vista experience (and we will leave aside, for another day, the discussion on locating a park, of the kind currently proposed, on the flood plain of a river) . And the park within the President’s Estate will be entered from Mother Teresa Avenue to the west of Rashtrapati Bhavan, whereas the spatial experience of Central Vista is designed to terminate on its western end at the east facade of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Among the new proposals of the redevelopment project, any claim to enhance the public character of Central Vista rests on the conversion of North and South Block into the National Museum. And there are causes for concern here:

  • In the land-use changes ratified to implement this project, the land-use of the parcels containing North and South Block has not been changed. They still show in the official record as “Government Use”.  No proposal to change this land-use to “Public/Semi-Public”, the expected land use for a museum, has surfaced till date.  Incidentally, the park to be carved out of the President’s Estate is also absent from the current land-use record.
  • Both North and South Block are listed Grade-I heritage structures. Any change to their usage, as well as any modifications to their interior layouts, has to go through prior approval by the Heritage Conservation Committee of Delhi. No such proposal has surfaced till date.
  • A feasibility study is needed to analyse whether North and South Blocks are workable sites for a national museum. Such a study would have to examine whether total area available is adequate, the suitability of the current architectural arrangement to convert office spaces into galleries (major structural changes to a Grade-I heritage structure are prohibited), and the availability of necessary support spaces such as parking, storage, and the kind of air-conditioning plant needed for a museum. No such study, or the intent to conduct such a study, has surfaced till date.
  • These structures will be in close proximity to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Prime Minister’s Office and Residence, as well as the Vice-President’s Residence. This demands a security audit/analysis to examine the feasibility, in such a location, of a facility that attracts substantive public crowds. No such study, or the intent to conduct such a study, has surfaced till date. 

This gives cause to fear that the announcement to convert North and South Blocks into the National Museum is not a genuine intention and is only a temporary measure designed to counter current public criticism on the loss of public space. Once the fervour of this critique becomes muted by the passage of time, and construction on the rest of the project has reached a stage that makes it a fait accompli, new information on feasibility and security concerns may emerge, forcing a ‘reluctant’ admission that this proposed relocation of the museum is no longer possible, and the museum must be shifted out of the Central Vista precinct. 

This fear is given further credence by a recent announcement that the government intends to set up several new museums in the National Capital Region. The announcement states that one of these museums, which is on Gautama Buddha, will be “seen through the masterpieces in the National Museum collection,” which opens up the possibility of dispersing this collection to locations outside Central Vista. More ominous is the usage of phrases such as “telling unheard stories” and “forging a new outlook” to describe the intent of these new museums, raising concerns of an intent to revise our heritage record in order to conform to a predetermined ideological slant.

The track record of the Union Ministry of Culture in shifting or renovating museums is not great. A report from the Comptroller and Auditor General, tabled in Parliament in September 2020, contains severe criticism of the renovation of Indian Museum Kolkata, defining serious and fundamental lacunae such as damaging priceless artefacts during modernisation work, lacking any proper conservation plan, not following conservation processes, assigning work to an agency with no expertise in conservation, and completely ignoring storage and upkeep of reserved artefacts even though they constitute over 90% of the collection and are susceptible to heat and humidity. 

One shudders to think of what may happen if such a cavalier approach is taken in the National Museum which hosts a priceless collection of cultural artefacts, unparalleled in their value to the nation’s heritage. No disclosure has been made on how the conservation of artefacts will be done during this shift, nor do we know the level of expertise that has been called on to steer this process. We also do not know whether there will be a large gap in time during this project when the collection will not be available to scholars and the public during the shift. Given the cultural importance of this collection, this time should ideally be held to the absolute minimum.

Similar concerns apply to the National Archives Buildings designed by Edwin Lutyens, the only one of the four buildings of the cultural hub meant for the middle of Central Vista which was built as a part of the colonial project. The first plan for the redevelopment, on the basis of which the architect was selected, called for the demolition of this building. Consequently, when a furore started about demolishing a Grade-I listed heritage structure, the plan was modified to preserve the Lutyens building, but demolish the annexe building, which also houses valuable archives, and construct a new annexe to the north of the Lutyens block, stating that the National Archives will remain on this site. The reason for needing to demolish this annexe is not clear, and the only visible reason appears to be to make room for a set of identical office buildings that form the Common Central Secretariat, and surely, we should expect a greater design ingenuity in this precious site than one that cannot see beyond a bureaucratic repetition of office blocks. We have no information on the plan to manage the risk to the archives, both in the annexe, which is to be demolished, as well as the original building which will now be in the heart of a construction site. We do not know how long the archives will be inaccessible to scholars. And there is contradiction here too on the land-use, which has been changed from “Public/Semi-Public” to “Government Office”: a change that does not make sense if the intention is to preserve the National Archives on this site. 

We desperately need an open and frank disclosure on all that is happening on the National Museum and the National Archives. This should not, and cannot, remain in the status quo of partial information, contradictory assertions, and lack of reassurance on the care being taken over the precious collections they hold. Cultural heritage is not a matter of official narratives, it is one that, at its core, is a matter of public memory, and this demands that all significant decisions affecting heritage aspire to the highest degree of public transparency, disclosure, and consultation.

The Induced Fall of Public Architecture in India

HCP – Master Plan of Central Vista.  Image Credit:

On Friday 18 June 2021, I took part in a panel discussion on how the Indian state commissions public architecture and its impact on the quality of public design.  The event was organised by Zion Exhibitions. This essay is derived from what I said at the discussion.

When I was a student of architecture in the 1970’s, there was a great deal of buzz on public architecture commissioned by the Indian state, and many of the designs that resulted were considered to be pathbreaking milestones. The initial post-independence rush of importing international talent, as in Chandigarh and Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, was over and had given way to a flowering of homegrown talent. Pragati Maidan, with epochal architecture such as the Hall of Nations and Nehru Pavilion within it, had just come into being. There was also a spate of other building types including housing, commercial complexes, public institutions and hotels, a great deal of which was commissioned through open public competitions. 

Sadly, this is no longer the case, and the state as a patron of architecture is largely perceived as a source of mediocrity rather than inspirational talent. This fall is self-induced and is tied to the changing mores in how the state commissions architects. I seek to define here some dimensions of this fall. Given that it is unquestionably the most significant public project of recent times, I will make my points using the Central Vista Redevelopment as a case study. Many of the concerns articulated here also apply to projects commissioned by State governments.

I focus here on six dimensions of the problem.

Before a project is launched and the services of architects are sought, the project proponent must articulate an aspirational vision for the project. If an educational campus is being built, it should be based on a vision of what education should be. If a museum is being built, it should be based on a vision of what public culture should be and the role a museum plays in defining it.

During the early days of my career in India, where I had the opportunity to work on public projects, I often came across bureaucrats and politicians who embodied a vision to which they would make a public commitment. Unfortunately, such persons are comparatively very rare to find these days. 

The initiation of a redevelopment of the Central Vista precinct should have recognised that the spatial epicentre of our democracy requires a vision on what democracy is, and how the relationship between people and the government serves that vision.  No such vision was articulated, and it was left to the architects to define and project their vision. Democracy is too important a subject to be left to the thinking of an individual architectural firm. This has resulted in all public architectural space being displaced from the core of the precinct, the main vista between Vijay Chowk and the India Gate hexagon, to be replaced almost entirely by the spectacle of government offices and facilities. When the dominating visual spectacle of government takes precedence over vibrant public space, this speaks poorly of our vision of democracy.

When vision is not central to a project in its conceptualisation, projects tend to be transactional rather than visionary in orientation. When that takes root in public architecture, the quality of public space, and consequently public discourse, in the nation suffers.

An example is the huge sums of money being expended across the nation in schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana or Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. On the face of it, goals such as housing for all and improved public sanitation are laudable, and the government’s spending and commitment to these schemes looks good. But there is no vision on how these design interventions can help breed community, vibrancy, or resilience.  No vision on how sanitation ties into ecology, how housing ties into economy and society. There is no qualitative feedback loop on how executed construction is performing. There has been no attempt whatsoever to draw cutting edge design talent into the execution of these schemes. We only get quantitative data on aggregate numbers achieved, as though numbers in themselves are great achievements and we need look no further for qualitative or aspirational measures.

Throughout history, we have seen that all vibrant and great cultures produce masterful design. Government, as the major patron of architecture, sets the tone, so it is essential that design be a dominant priority in the commissioning of public architecture.

Sadly, this is not the case. In the absence of any vision, decision making gravitates toward the lowest common denominator of what will carry the least risk of provoking an audit, and a great deal of public architecture gets commissioned purely on financial criteria, such as who bids the lowest fees to execute the work. This breeds corruption in the long run, as it encourages architects to start undercutting each other, incentivising quoting fees that are otherwise unsustainable, but quoted purely to grab the project. The successful architect then searches for other under-the-table ways to earn money besides the receipted fees paid for design services.

In some major public projects, design is made a criterion for selection of the architect. There are two primary ways this can be done: open architectural competitions and the other is a procedure defined in the Union Finance Ministry’s manual “General Financial Rules” as Quality & Cost Based Selection (QCBS).

In an open architectural competition, design is the sole criterion for selection, and any qualified architect can submit an entry. Designs are typically assessed by a panel of assessors under conditions of blind review; that is a code number is assigned to each entry, and the architect’s name cannot be displayed on any part of the design submission. This is to ensure the design is judged purely on its own merit, and no bias creeps in from knowing the name of the architect. In very important public projects, an open competition is the best mode of selection as it serves the significance of the project by casting a wider net for design ideas than is possible through any other selection method. Competitions also breed a dynamic design culture by bringing new ideas into the fold through younger firms; many of the reputed practices of today got their breaks through open competitions for public work during their younger days. Increasing the mix of younger architects also enhances the general level of innovation. A design ecosystem monopolised by large firms tends to be less creative as such firms have habits inculcated over the years and are usually more conservative given the large overheads they are committed to sustaining.

An argument often put forward against open competitions is that a young firm winning the competition may not have the technical skills and experience to execute large scale projects. There is ample precedent on how this obstacle is overcome: a condition of the competition is that if the winning firm does not have the proven capability for executing large projects, then a prerequisite for being awarded the contract to execute the design is that the young firm must collaborate with a larger firm who brings the requisite capabilities to the table.

The incidence of open competitions has declined and most large public projects, including Central Vista, select architects by the QCBS method. A QCBS method is a tender rather than a design competition, seeking to blend qualitative and financial issues by assigning a weightage to each. Firms are first asked to submit Expressions of Interest (EOI) and, based on proving their abilities above a certain threshold, are shortlisted to submit entries to a limited design competition. This inherently biases the shortlisting toward larger firms. 

Shortlisted firms submit their bids in two separate sealed packages. The technical bid contains the design submission plus any other technical information requested. The financial bid contains the fee quotation. Initially, only the technical bid is opened and assessed. Typically, architects are asked to make personal presentations on the design competition, so it is difficult to eliminate bias from knowing the name of the architect. Only those bidders whose technical bids score over a certain threshold have their financial bids opened to enter the final selection stage.

At this stage, a predefined weightage is assigned to both technical and financial scores to determine the end result. Weightage assigned to financial bids is usually restricted to about 20% to 30%; in the case of Central Vista it was 20%. However, in the balance 80%, only half was allocated to the quality of the design submission.  The remaining 40% was given to quantitative scoring on issues such as the financials of the firm, size of projects executed, and staff strength and qualifications. Quality of design was thus relegated to a minority status, affecting only 40% of the overall assessment.

This is not always the method followed: there are precedents in the QCBS method being deployed to select architects for public works where all shortlisted architects are considered technically capable of executing the project, and therefore on an equal footing, and the entire technical score is given to the quality of the design submission. 

The method followed in Central Vista has two major shortcomings:

  1. Design is reduced to a minority status in the selection process. There is no minimum threshold, and this could set a trend where the next project could reduce its stake to 30% or 20%, and design could eventually get reduced to a token measure that has little bearing on the end result. Design gets side-lined, and design professionals get selected on criteria other than design. The precedent set by Central Vista could set off a further decline in the significance granted to design in public architecture.
  2. When a major part of the technical scoring is devoted to quantitative measures such as financials, project size, and staff strength, it not only reduces the weight of qualitative factors, but also makes it possible to deliberately tailor the scoring system in advance to suit the profile of a desired firm. While there is no evidence proving this happened in the case of Central Vista, a public procurement process should eliminate even the possibility of it happening.

The eligibility criteria for the QCBS system at Central Vista kept the net for design ideas as narrow as possible, allowing only the largest of large firms to be eligible to bid for the project. The final selection had to be made from a small handful of six firms. In contrast, the selection process for an earlier project in Central Vista, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, was through an open international competition that attracted 194 entries from 37 countries.

A creative activity requires sufficient time to produce a quality result and is likely to get compromised if it is unduly hurried. In Central Vista, the Notice Inviting Tender (NIT) from architects was advertised on 7 September 2019. The letter awarding the work to the successful bidder (HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt. Ltd.) was issued on 18 October 2019. In a space of less than six weeks architects prepared and submitted EOI’s, these EOI’s were evaluated, architects were shortlisted for participation in the bids, shortlisted architects prepared designs, those designs were evaluated, and the project awarded.

The NIT states that initial eligibility bids would be opened only on 23 September 2019. This means that within the short space of about three and a half weeks the shortlisted architects prepared designs, and these designs were evaluated to make the final selection.

Such time frames are unrealistically short, and imposing such a rushed schedule is likely to lead to facile solutions oriented toward superficial visual impact instead of deep design thinking and creativity for the long-term enrichment of public space. One is forced to speculate on whether it was this insanely collapsed time frame that induced the winning design into reducing the main vista to a unitary land use of governmental offices produced by a cookie-cutter repetition of identical nondescript office blocks.

One would have expected that a project of this significance and scale would demand being done slowly and carefully to ensure the best possible result. No justification for this tearing hurry has been offered. 

For a quality result, and to ensure proper assessment of submissions, it is necessary to clearly identify the scope of the design. The Central Vista tender called for urban design scope and architectural design scope to be undertaken simultaneously. Assessing issues at an urban scale while simultaneously evaluating designs at the scale of an individual building is not the best way to go. Ideally, urban scale master plan issues are of broader scope and should be examined first for an effective evaluation. 

In the Pre-Bid meeting of architects who planned to submit EOI’s, a couple of firms suggested that a project of this significance, scope and scale warrants being broken into two stages. The first stage should be an urban design competition that would define a master plan vision that also established design guidelines for the individual parcels within this master plan. The second stage would an architectural competition to design the individual parcels within the urban design plan, with the unity of the complex being set up by the urban design guidelines produced in the first stage. This second stage need not even be a single competition; it could be a series of competitions, and architects taking part in one of them need not be the same as those taking part in another. This would increase the depth of talent being brought to bear on the project. This suggestion was rejected without assigning any reason.

When the shortage of time is combined with a lack of clarity on scope of design, the odds of facile solutions and arbitrary selections increases.

To attract the best possible talent to participate in the competition for public architecture, it is necessary to establish public faith that the evaluation of designs submitted is done at the highest standard possible. This is typically done by (a) having a majority of the assessing panel as architects, so competitors are assured that designs will be understood and assessment will not be distorted by visual gimmickry that might fool a person who is not an experienced and highly qualified design professional, and (b) those architects on the panel should embody professional eminence and ethics that establishes them among their peers as creative leaders who represent the cutting edge of talent in the field, usually measured by design awards won, publication of work in reputed professional journals, competitions won, and invitations to lecture or teach at reputed institutions. To attract the best talent, this list of eminent assessors should be publicly declared at the time of announcing the competition or tender.

It is extremely rare to see this followed in the processes of commissioning public architecture in India. The panel of assessors is almost never declared in advance. Often a majority in the panel is made up of senior officials in the organising institution rather than eminent professionals, and it is exceedingly rare to find thought leaders included in the assessment panel.

In the case of Central Vista, the design submission was reviewed by a panel of seven assessors composed mainly of architects and planners. None of these names were revealed in advance, so it would be impossible for an architectural firm bidding for the project to know, in advance, the quality of review that its design would be subjected to. Not one of the members of this panel is a recognised leader in the field, as measured by the criteria noted above.  Their selection seems to have been driven by their seniority and years of service in government rather than any milestones of peer-reviewed excellence. It is safe to say that the thinking and creativity found at the cutting edge of architecture in India is far removed from the kind of review that happened in assessing the designs submitted for Central Vista. 

Moreover, it is customary to lay down an ethical standard that pre-empts any conflict of interest in the assessment process. One commonly established standard is that any employee of the entity organising the competition/tender, and any immediate family member of such employee, is prohibited from either seeking the project or assessing the submissions. The Central Vista project is being executed by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD). Two out of the seven-member panel of assessors were senior officials in CPWD.

It would be excellent if a professional body in India, such as the Council of Architecture, constituted a panel of potential assessors in architectural competitions, made up solely of peer-recognised leaders in the field, and made this list available to all governmental entities as one that could be drawn on for assessing architectural competitions. Recognising that this would serve the cause of public design in the country, each architect who agrees to be included in this panel could be asked to commit to serve as an assessor for at least one architectural competition per year.

As the late Justice Brandeis of the US Supreme Court remarked, in matters of public interest, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and it is necessary that public processes and products operate under the highest standards of transparency. This is rarely followed, and the selection process in public projects is often highly opaque. On this count, Central Vista has set records on secrecy and opacity, extending this secrecy to not only the selection process, but also its final product.

To make the QCBS process unimpeachable, before opening financial bids, the technical score allocated to each bidder should be revealed to all bidders. This prevents a consequent manipulation of technical marks, after financial bids are known, to skew the selection toward a favour bidder. This procedure of publicly declaring technical scores before opening financial bids is not always done. As little has been revealed, it is not known whether it was followed in Central Vista.

Secrecy in Central Vista has gone to the extent of keeping the cost of the project a secret. It is a recommended procedure in the CPWD Manual, that an estimate of the project cost should be made before launching the project, and this estimated cost publicly declared in the NIT. This was not followed. When questioned on this in court, CPWD stated that the cost could not be known in advance as it would be a function of the master plan prepared by the selected architect. Firstly, this is one more reason why the project should have been split into two competitions: an urban design competition followed by an architecture competition (or set of competitions). More significantly, the absence of an accurate cost estimate renders the process of comparing financial bids under QCBS as untenable. This requires getting into some technicalities, so please bear with me for a minute.

Under the QCBS system, financial bids are compared by giving full marks for this category to the lowest bidder, and then allocating marks to the other bidders on the basis of how much higher they quoted than the original bidder. For example, a bidder who quotes 10% higher than the lowest bidder would have marks for this category reduced by 10%, one who quotes 15% higher would have a 15% reduction, and so on. The architects were asked to quote fees on a percentage of project cost basis.  They were asked to quote in three slabs: X% for the first ₹2500 crores of project cost, Y% for the next ₹2500 crores, and Z% for project cost above ₹5000 crores. The NIT stated that the assumption would be made that the 25% of the project cost would come under the X% category, 25% under Y%, and 50% under Z%. This yields a hypothetical project cost of ₹10,000 crores, but the NIT is specific that this formula is solely for the purpose of comparing financial bids, and the actual estimated cost is not known. 

Table 1: Two Cost Scenarios and Comparison of Two Hypothetical Fee Bids

Table 1 shows two hypothetical bidders and what the total fee works out under two cost scenarios: the hypothetical cost of ₹10,000 crores and the cost widely reported in the media of ₹20,000 crores. As can be seen, Bidder 1 is the lowest bidder in the first scenario, whereas Bidder 2 is the lowest bidder in the second scenario. Without a realistic estimated cost, there is no way the financial bids can be compared under QCBS, which renders the whole comparison of bids as arbitrary. Costs are still being kept a secret as long as possible, but as pieces of the project are put forward for statutory approval, costs have to be mandatorily revealed in these submissions, and cost data is being revealed bit by bit. This total revealed to date has already crossed well over ₹10,000 crores, with more costs yet to be revealed, so we know the hypothetical formula stated in the NIT for comparing bids is decidedly hypothetical rather than realistic.

This issue was raised in one of the petitions against the project submitted to the Supreme Court, but the Court took a narrow technical view and said only an aggrieved unsuccessful bidder had locus standi to challenge the evaluation process. Sadly, the Court did not take the wider view of considering the degree of arbitrariness this precedent of an inherently faulty QCBS evaluation could introduce in public projects in the future.

There has also been overwhelming opacity on the rationale for the project as well as the product of the design process. A new Parliament is justified by saying increased seating capacities are needed, but no data is put forward on how the calculation of increased seats is made (probably because this is a political hot potato). The project has several Grade 1 listed heritage buildings, and the entire Central Vista precinct is also declared as Grade 1. A best practice in heritage projects it to precede the project with a detailed heritage study that documents both tangible and intangible heritage. No such study has been tabled in the public domain. CPWD stated in one of their affidavits to the Supreme Court that a detailed study has been conducted on the existing Parliament building, but no such study has either been submitted to the Court or made publicly available. Although this is a project in which the entire Indian public has a political and cultural interest, no designs or costs on the final design have been placed in the public domain for scrutiny by the citizenry, and there have been no public hearings or consultations on the new design. Major segments of the project have already begun construction or are in the statutory approval process, so if any data is released now it will be a fait accompli devoid of any thoughtful consideration to public interest and opinion.

Secrecy, once established as a precedent in public projects, allows other agendas to take root, some of them not necessarily in the public interest or conducive to good design.

The situation in India for achieving high quality public architecture is already well below the bar of acceptability, and if we look at Central Vista as a precedent, we are going further in the wrong direction toward:

  • Public projects becoming transactional rather than visionary
  • Quality of design being reduced to minority status in selecting architects
  • The net cast for good design growing smaller, allowing a condition to get entrenched where a small handful of larger firms can monopolise public architecture
  • Unrealistic time frames set by political, or other, compulsions with no consideration given to adequate time being allowed for good design, thereby encouraging quick formulaic design with superficial visual imagery rather than deep creativity
  • Reduced clarity on scope of design, thereby muddying the waters to obstruct a clear vision on what design should seek to do
  • Cutting-edge abilities and discernment within the design profession being completely side-lined in assessing competitions for public work
  • Secrecy getting established as a precedent in public projects, rendering the ground fertile for arbitrary procedures of selection and alternative agendas to take root.

If architects do not want to be side-lined any further in public architecture, the profession needs to urgently mobilise on the issue. And it is not just architects who will be affected; a further decline will lead to increasing erosion in the quality of the public realm in Indian settlements.

Does the Central Vista Redevelopment Project Set Undesirable Precedents for the Future?

Construction Barriers at Central Vista. Photo credit: The Economic Times

This op-ed was originally published in The Economic Times on 4 June 2021

In justifying the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, the Government of India has asserted: (1) it enhances India’s democracy, (2) heritage conservation has been incorporated, (3) annual savings in rent of ₹1,000 crore will be realised, (4) the project promotes gainful employment, and (5) all relevant laws have been scrupulously followed. Let’s unpack these claims.

Enhancing democracy: As the spatial epicentre of India’s democracy, the project should embody the highest ideals of democracy and transparency, rather than scraping through by minimum standards. Yet, it is shrouded in secrecy, without public consultation or public disclosure and debate on needs, designs and costs. It appears that enough progress on approvals and construction is being sought in secrecy so that plans, when eventually disclosed, will be a fait accompli.

This project has not been debated in Parliament, and the precedent of parliamentary oversight over such projects goes ignored. Moreover, the land use alterations to the main vista between Vijay Chowk and the India Gate hexagon, which earlier included public institutional space socially and culturally alive at all times, now displaces vibrant public space with a complete encircling of government offices.

Heritage conservation: Redeveloping the Central Vista precinct, officially listed as a Grade-1 heritage space, should follow established best practice of being preceded by a comprehensive heritage audit, documenting tangible and intangible heritage. This has been ignored. No consideration has been given to a legal stipulation that preserving a Grade-1 listed building requires consideration applied to its surroundings, so that its eminence in the urban fabric is undisturbed. Heritage is a matter of public memory that demands public debate, while a veil of secrecy surrounds the project.

Savings in rent: Most governmental facilities in Delhi are owned by the Land and Development Office, where rent is paid by one arm of government to another. What one arm gains, the other arm loses. Annual saving of ₹1,000 crore is a notional saving on paper, and when compared against cost of capital for new construction, will result in a substantive negative balance.

Moreover, this figure of ₹1,000 crore does not match with a public assertion by the project’s architect that the redevelopment allows 10,000 government servants from 29 ministries, currently working from locations outside Central Vista, to move into the precinct to spatially consolidate all ministries. An annual spend of ₹1,000 crore for 10,000 persons would constitute a rental rate higher than that of New Delhi’s most premium real estate.

Gainful employment: It is not enough to merely state it generates employment. Any large project will do that. It is necessary to demonstrate, when compared to other possible employment generators, that this is the most efficient expenditure for generating per rupee the largest quantum of employment.

Abiding by relevant laws: Once again, a project of this significance must offer a role model for the highest possible ideal, not sink to the lowest common denominator. Sadly, this is not the yardstick the majority judgment of the Supreme Court applied in evaluating this case.

Some key concerns:

  • Taking refuge under an old legislation of 1899, Central Public Works Department (CPWD) is acting as both project proponent and local body sanctioning the project, a clear conflict of interest. Two statutory bodies, Delhi Urban Art Commission and Heritage Conservation Committee Delhi, are required by the Acts that constitute them to accept submissions only from three recognised local bodies — CPWD is not in the list. Yet, they have accorded approval to the new Parliament building.
  • For environmental approval, to bypass a stringent process that applies to projects above 1,50,000 square metres in-built area, the Parliament building has been submitted as a stand-alone project. Justification given is that it has no functional linkage with other spaces, even though CPWD has admitted elsewhere that Parliament will depend on surrounding areas for car parking.
  • In his dissenting Supreme Court judgment, Justice Sanjiv Khanna observed that the Notice Inviting Tender from architects calls for ‘a visionary master plan to be drawn up for the entire Central Vista area’, and the consequent changes are significant. In this light, he averred the processes followed for master plan amendment and heritage conservation fall short of the law, specifically with reference to public disclosure, consideration granted to public objections, and prior approvals for heritage conservation.

There is sufficient cause for concern that the Central Vista Redevelopment Project undermines public interest and sets undesirable precedents for the future.

A Second Open Letter to Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

Dormitories, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, © Anant Raje Foundation (via Architexturez South Asia)

On 26 December 2020, I wrote an open letter to Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) sharing concerns regarding the plan to demolish most of the dormitories designed by Louis Kahn. To my pleasant surprise, the same day, I received an immediate, detailed and courteous reply from the Director of IIMA. However, the positivity of tone did not dispel concerns on substance, and therefore my reply constitutes a second open letter. I share below the reply received from IIMA and my response.

Dear Dr. D’Souza,

Thank you so much for your prompt, detailed and courteous response that shows you have carefully read my letter. I truly appreciate this, particularly the speed of the response during the Christmas weekend.

It is heartening to see from your response that we are on the same page in acknowledging that what Louis Kahn built is a legacy for all of humankind, that IIMA bears the mantle of being the custodian of a significant component of this legacy, and recognition of this should be in the foreground of any evaluation of the future of IIMA’s built environment. To this, I would add that the obligation to a global legacy of this significance demands not only deep consideration and care, but also commitment to the highest standards of public transparency in any decision on the future of the legacy. My remarks below are shaped by this recognition, constituting a second open letter to you.

After reading your reply, I must confess that the thrust of the concerns articulated in my earlier letter still remain. I note:

  • There is still insufficient clarity on the extent to which Somaya & Kalappa (SNK) were involved in this decision on the future of the dormitory blocks. They have been rigorously engaged for the last six years on the conservation of the Kahn buildings, have won international recognition in these efforts, and will know the challenges and possibilities of restoration in far greater depth than anyone else. It would be axiomatic that any call on the future of the dormitory blocks involves them as a key player in the decision. If they have not been able to effectively participate in this decision, this is far too serious a matter to be dismissed as a “communication glitch” and is an absence that demands public explanation; else it is likely to be interpreted as a deliberate exclusion intended to free the final decision from the weight of heritage concerns. I suggest that before taking a final decision, IIMA is duty bound to publicly reveal SNK’s role in this decision to demolish fourteen dormitory blocks and what their specific recommendations are on all of the dormitory blocks. Given the seminal role SNK has played in the conservation effort till date, I would go so far as to say that a decision by IIMA on the demolition of 14 Kahn dormitories, if taken without the agreement of SNK, is an indefensible decision that must be rescinded.
  • I draw your attention to Brinda Somaya’s lecture of 28 November 2020 (referred to in my earlier letter) where she does not raise any irresolvable problems in preserving all the dormitory blocks, mentions that Dorm 15 (along with Dorms 1 and 2) was one of the blocks in worst condition, and Dorm 15 was chosen as a first prototype since a successful restoration here would define the path for restoration of all the other dormitory blocks. I must also point out that the successful restoration of Dorm 15 is acknowledged on the IIMA website. All this adds further weight to the need for full disclosure on SNK’s role in the decision making and the specifics of their recommendations.
  • In the same spirit of full disclosure, it will carry a great deal of weight if you openly reveal which structural engineer’s advice has prevailed in deciding the fate of these fourteen dorm blocks, and also place on the table for public review Dr. Arun Menon’s specific recommendations on the dormitory blocks, given he has been a contributor to the IIMA restoration project with a stature and expertise that would be hard to equal.
  • You correctly observe that “the problems mentioned for the dorm is not one that the expert points out for the Library”. This is not the relevant comparison to be made. IIMA has publicly committed to the preservation and restoration of Dorms 15, 16, 17 and 18, implicitly confirming by this declaration that restoration is feasible in dormitory structures in order to make them safe and usable. The Kahn dormitories 1 to 14 substantively follow the same repetitive design found in Dorm 15 and use the same materials. If Dorms 1 to 14 are claimed to be inherently unsafe and unusable, why did this not apply to Dorm 15?  If seismic and other concerns in Dorm 15 (one of the dorms that was in the worst condition) can be addressed to make the structure safe and usable, why can’t this be done for Dorms 1 to 14? In the interests of transparency demanded by the imperatives of public cultural heritage, these questions must be specifically and openly addressed.
  • I am afraid I must vehemently disagree with your assertion, “I would hesitate to call a set of buildings that are just about half a century old heritage.”  Earlier in your reply, you have agreed with my positing that heritage centres on looking at the past and carefully choosing what is worth remembering as that memory will serve the future as well. The significance of that remembering, with the memory it produces, should be the determining factors, whether what we examine springs from centuries ago or a few years ago. There are precedents on the recognition of recent artistic production as heritage. I draw your attention to the declaration in the late 1970’s, by the Department of Culture, Government of India, that the work of nine artists (Rabindranath Tagore, Amrita Sher-Gil, Abanindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Raja Ravi Varma, Gaganendranath Tagore, Sailoz Mookherjea and Nicholas Roerich) as “not being antiquities, to be art treasures, having regard to their artistic and aesthetic value.” It is forbidden to destroy any of their work or export work that is within the country. Eight, out of these nine, produced all or a substantive portion of their work within the 20th century, and this Government of India declaration was made when over two decades of the 20th century were still to come. I must also point out the Japanese practice of declaring “Living National Treasures”, identifying, during their lifetime, artists who are “Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties,” thereby explicitly recognising their work as possessing cultural value worth conserving. We cannot reduce heritage to a number expressed in years. If we followed such a claim to its logical conclusion, we would be demeaning both culture and heritage as it would lead to the indefensible conclusion that what future generations could call heritage would be restricted to what escaped demolition before reaching a qualifying age.
  • You mention that you are not seeking to assign a lesser value to what lies behind a public façade. But this is not reflected in your letter to alumni where you claim something is achieved by preserving Dorms 16 to 18 because these are the first dorms seen on entering the campus, along with the main buildings around Louis Kahn Plaza, and this would somehow serve to preserve some aspect of Kahn’s legacy. I repeat my words from my earlier letter, “Kahn’s design is more than a façade to be seen, it is embodied in a spatial order to be experienced, where the union of the academic block, library and dormitories create an intimate network of courtyards that, along with the buildings, capture the spirit of a monastic community of learners where knowledge is collectively held as sacred. The cohesiveness of this spatial core forms the entirety of the restoration project launched by IIMA in 2014 and is something that must be preserved. To modify it substantively is to devalue the integrity of Kahn’s legacy.”  This is not a matter that is only perceived by architects.  An IIMA alumnus saw my open letter to you and posted a comment. An excerpt from this comment is extremely revealing, “Some of my best years in IIMA have been spent in the dorms. They were not just entities that housed us but spaces that provided a sense of comfort, balance and community without in any way encroaching on our private spaces. The equilibrium of light and shade and openness is hard to find anywhere let alone a campus.” It is significant that a management student is able to so intuitively, spontaneously and perceptively connect with Kahn’s vision, and demonstrates that the seeds of Kahn’s legacy have borne fruit that far transcend the individual. This “equilibrium of light and shade and openness” that encapsulates a community of learners is sustained by the entire network of built and open spaces that constitute the dormitory complex. This network of dormitory courtyards forms a continuum with the main buildings around Louis Kahn Plaza in the way the diagonal views across dorm courtyards entice the eye and body toward the main buildings, and the way this is echoed in the diagonal walls along the edge of the dorm stairs and the diagonal of the main entrance stairs of the academic complex. The integrity of this continuum would be shattered if the Kahn dormitory complex is reduced to four peripheral blocks.
Site Plan, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad: White, Projects by Louis Kahn, Shaded, Projects by Anant Raje and others. © Anant Raje Foundation (via Architexturez South Asia)
  • I had stated in my letter that demonstration of a commitment to make all possible attempts to preserve the Kahn dorms would entail publicly tabling a cost assessment of restoring the entire dormitory complex, and if further funds were needed, IIMA should reveal the attempts made or intended to raise such funds leveraging the institution’s standing, its long list of illustrious alumni, and the global regard granted to Kahn’s work. This is not addressed in your response.
  • I had stated in my letter that demonstration of a commitment to make all possible attempts to preserve the Kahn dorms would entail benchmarking IIMA’s choices against many publicly known global best practices where universities with a long history have been able to balance changing needs with heritage conservation, and where the commitment to conservation has enhanced brand and culture. I had added that following this approach would entail a campus-wide master plan for IIMA by a reputed professional, identifying the best locations for physical change to meet new needs while holding heritage conservation as a core value, and openly disclosing this plan as the framework for addressing conservation of the Kahn legacy. This is not addressed in your response.
  • I am heartened to read your affirmation that IIMA believes physical meeting places are significant and “we do believe in serendipitous interaction and we would very much like such spaces to exist on our campus.” But this does not gel with your assertion in your letter to alumni, where you speak of facing the “difficult questions” around meeting being the core of Kahn’s designs, whereas students today have “gravitated toward virtual modes of interaction.” If you intend to encourage and facilitate physical serendipitous meeting, why is this a “difficult question”? The spaces of the dormitory complex are far more than an abstract geometry that contain meetings to come; they are also a fabric soaked with memories of meetings past. When alumni visit, these spaces are the spark that makes those memories come to life once more. These stories get ingrained in an architecture that transforms over time into a mnemonic aid for retelling stories of even those who are absent. The weaving of stories past and present is how a culture takes root, and the preservation of architectural spaces that significantly facilitate this weave becomes crucial.
Model, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, Academic Complex, Dormitories, with Student’s Dining Hall and Kitchen at bottom left, © Anand Raje Foundation (via Architexturez South Asia)
  • You have so rightly pointed out that there have been problematic selections of materials and construction techniques in the original construction, and the institution has not established maintenance protocols in its early days. To reject entire structures on this count would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Surely, the whole point of the restoration effort launched in 2014, and awarded to SNK to implement, is to offer corrective measures for problematic decisions of the past and lay out maintenance protocols for years to come.

Shortly after I wrote my earlier letter, a letter addressed to you, dated 22 December 2020, signed by Sue Anne Kahn, Alexandra Tyng and Nathaniel Kahn (the children of Louis Kahn), has come to my attention. The letter conveys their consternation on hearing of the plan to demolish the Kahn dormitories. It refers to the time they met you when you visited the University of Pennsylvania in the summer of 2018 and toured the Richards Building so that you could “see firsthand how a great Kahn building could be reimagined to suit changing needs.” The letter goes on to state that during that visit you “indicated that you were committed to preserving, at the very least, the area designated by the conservation plan, which included the 18 dormitories.” At the time of your visit in 2018, the conservation effort at IIMA was four years old, the restoration of Vikram Sarabhai Library was close to completion, and most significantly, the successful restoration of Dorm 15 had been completed a year earlier in August 2017, so any challenges in dormitory restoration would have already come to light. It is not clear what has caused the abandonment of the commitment expressed to the Kahn family in 2018.

I urge IIMA to immediately place this project on hold. In the light of all that is stated above, there is much more disclosure and debate needed on the subject before a credible public perception can confidently place IIM Ahmedabad on the right side of history in granting due respect to the significance of built heritage that constitutes the Kahn legacy at IIMA.

Yours sincerely,

Prem Chandavarkar

An Open Letter to Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

Photo by Abhishek Donda on Unsplash

This is the text of an open letter to the Director of Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, with copies to the Governing Council, written on hearing that the institution plans to demolish fourteen out of eighteen dormitories designed by Louis Kahn. If you wish to use this as the template for your own letter, a Word file of the text, along with all the relevant email addresses, can be downloaded here. A copy of the letter written by the Director to all alumni, referenced here, is also available at the same link.

Dr. Errol D’Souza
Director, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

Dear Dr. D’Souza,

I am writing this open letter to articulate the deep concern felt by many architects and non-architects, from India and elsewhere in the world, on hearing that Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) plans to demolish most of the dormitory blocks designed by Louis Kahn that form a key part of the historic core of IIMA, and has invited bids from architects to redesign these dormitories, albeit in an architectural language sympathetic to the Kahn idiom.

An article in The Indian Express of 25 December 2020 raises some of these concerns and cites you as stating that you have written a letter on 23 December 2020 to all IIMA alumni, and all queries are answered in the letter. I have been through this letter and feel compelled to state that many concerns still remain.  

At the famous house ‘Fallingwater’ in Pennsylvania, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, there is a plaque that marks the moment that Edgar Kaufmann Jr. surrendered his ownership to donate the house to a trust that would preserve it as a milestone of architectural heritage accessible to the public.  The plaque cites Kaufmann’s justification of this donation, saying that there are some houses built by one man for another man whereas this is a house built by one man for all of humankind.  The work of Louis Kahn should be seen in the same spirit. Kahn was a seminal figure of 20th century architecture who occupies a unique place in history in the way his built work and writings display mastery of an architecture that is simultaneously modern and timeless. He has left a heritage that carries value to all of humankind, and IIMA has been privileged to act as a custodian of a valuable piece of this heritage.  This is a mantle that must be granted its due and not worn lightly, a fact that is already acknowledged by IIMA in naming the main plaza of the campus after Louis Kahn and acknowledging on the institution’s website that Kahn’s designs at IIMA “instil in the viewer a sense of awe and wonder”. This spirit is infectious and involves more than Kahn: it affected many who collaborated with him on the IIMA project. More significantly, it has had an impact on generations who have inhabited the spaces of IIMA, demonstrated by the fact that there are very few institutions who acknowledge the architect who designed them with the reverence that IIMA shows to Kahn on their website. It is more than the matter of a specific individual; we hold in these buildings a wider legacy the reflects primordial human spirit, and this spirit should provide the light under which the challenge of restoring the dormitories must be evaluated.

You have said in your letter to alumni, “We have grappled with questions as to why we should presume that the past is not changeable and why we should assume that future generations will value things in exactly the same way that past generations have. We wondered if it is appropriate for us to colonise future perceptions of living spaces.”  Can awe and wonder colonise the future? Are they not timeless values that sustain the core of the human soul? I urge IIMA to not look at this as a conflict between past, present and future. Heritage is not solely about the preservation of the past.  In its essence, heritage is a contemporary moment of critical discernment where we look at the past and carefully choose what is worth remembering because that memory will serve the future well.  Surely, Kahn’s legacy is a past that does not degrade, and its continued physical presence, in all its authenticity, will serve the future well through the eternal values of awe and wonder that it evokes.

You have stated that Dormitories 16,17,18, along with the restored Dormitory 15, will be retained as “they constitute the periphery of the built campus and are the first buildings that persons who enter the campus see and understand along with the LKP and associated buildings as the grandeur associated with the work of Kahn.”  This reasoning is troubling, as it implies a devaluation of heritage to place more emphasis on a public façade, assigning lesser value to what lies behind the façade. Kahn’s design is more than a façade to be seen, it is embodied in a spatial order to be experienced, where the union of the academic block, library and dormitories create an intimate network of courtyards that, along with the buildings, capture the spirit of a monastic community of learners where knowledge is collectively held as sacred. The cohesiveness of this spatial core forms the entirety of the restoration project launched by IIMA in 2014 and is something that must be preserved. To modify it substantively is to devalue the integrity of Kahn’s legacy.

It is striking that your letter does not cite a specific recommendation from Somaya & Kalappa (SNK), the firm appointed by IIMA in 2014 to steer restoration work of the Kahn designs. The quality of their effort is reflected in their restoration of the Vikram Sarabhai Library at IIMA winning an Award of Distinction in the 2019 UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards. As recently as 28 November 2020, Ms. Brinda Somaya, Principal Architect of SNK, delivered an online lecture to CEPT University on the IIMA restoration project. In that lecture, she did not mention a need to abandon any of the Kahn dormitories. She mentioned that Dormitory 15 was selected as a prototype project for restoration as it was one of the dormitories in the worst condition, and if this could be restored, the others would be easier to tackle. In her lecture, she presented the successful restoration of Dormitory 15, a fact that is also affirmed on the IIMA website. In the Indian Express article cited earlier, the reporter mentions contacting Ms. Somaya who responded that she has not been informed about this new bid for architectural services to replace 14 out of 18 Kahn dormitories. It is troubling if this is true and the decision to demolish the Kahn dormitories and invite bids to replace them with new structures was taken without consulting the experts appointed to guide the restoration of the Kahn buildings.

In Ms. Somaya’s lecture she speaks about the seismic vulnerability of the dormitory blocks. She mentioned that while they had a structural consultant to work with them on the project, they realised deeper expertise was needed, and they consulted Dr. Arun Menon of Indian Institute of Technology Madras. Dr. Menon is an internationally recognised expert on seismic design, is one of the primary authors of India’s building codes on seismic design, and one of his specific research interests cited on his CV is “Seismic Response, Assessment and Retrofit of Masonry Structures.” Ms. Somaya spoke on how Dr. Menon’s analysis showed that most of the seismic concerns in the dormitories spring from the height of the masonry drum that encloses the staircase as it rises above terrace level. In the restoration of Dormitory 15, this has been addressed by marginally reducing the height of the drum and adding masonry buttresses that are lower than the parapet height and therefore not visible from outside. It is striking that your letter does not cite any specific recommendation from Dr. Menon, despite the stature of his expertise and his involvement with the restoration project.

Your letter mentions many technical problems that have influenced IIMA’s decision to demolish close to 80% of the Kahn dormitories: seismic risk, poor quality of brickwork, cracking of masonry caused by corrosion of reinforcement rods, a pointing technique used in masonry joints that encourages water seepage, etc.  You state that these make the buildings both impractical and unsafe, and your letter implies they are determining factors. All of these problems are present in the buildings being restored: the Vikram Sarabhai Library, the Classroom Block, the Faculty Block, as well as the four dormitory blocks being restored. Clearly, IIMA would not put people in unsafe and unusable buildings, so the plan to restore these buildings shows these problems have solutions, and Ms. Somaya’s lecture presents many of these solutions.  Clearly, the technical dimensions of these problems cannot be the determining factor.

You state that three imperatives guided IIMA’s decision: (1) functional needs, (2) cultural heritage, and (3) available resources. But your letter throws no light on how you weighted these imperatives in your analysis, especially given the challenge of cultural heritage being the only one of the three whose value is almost wholly intangible. If it is primarily a matter of available resources, a value assigned to heritage would, at the very least, demand tabling an assessment of the resources needed for a complete restoration. And if there is a gap between needed and available resources, the question rises on whether IIMA made an effort to leverage its standing with government, its international reputation, its long list of illustrious alumni, and the global respect and affection granted to Louis Kahn and his designs for IIMA in order to raise the required resources. Your letter is silent on these aspects.

I can appreciate that functional needs have changed, enrolment has grown, and buildings designed close to five decades ago will not accommodate current demands. This challenge is not new; it has been successfully faced by many universities across the world, often with a history going back centuries (far longer than that of IIMA). There are multiple case studies available of how these universities have successfully preserved their built heritage yet been able to adjust to changing times, and their built heritage is a key component of the identity, brand and culture of these universities. Has IIMA surveyed these best practices across the world and benchmarked its evaluation against them? Has there been a campus-wide assessment of how to adjust to new needs, looking beyond the historic core of Kahn’s architecture? Just because the Kahn buildings are the oldest, should they be the only ones considered for demolition, especially given their heritage value? A campus-wide master plan to assess and design for long-term needs, that holds heritage conservation as a core value, should be conducted by a reputed and qualified architect, and this plan should be openly tabled and reviewed as the frame that guides the final decisions. This too finds no mention in your letter.

Your letter states, There were even difficult questions around the central theme of Kahn’s work at the campus which was that everything was planned around the idea of meeting. In today’s world our experience is that students hardly use these shared spaces as they have gravitated to virtual modes of interacting.”  It is true that cyberspace is far more significant to the current generation of students than to earlier generations. But this recognition should not be given undue weightage. First, it is not correct to assume that physical meeting spaces are no longer significant as they have been completely appropriated by cyberspace; students still value physical meeting, and a visit to any reasonably priced coffee house or pub is sufficient to demonstrate this.  Second, as the work of scholars such as Tristan HarrisHossein Derakshan, and Zeynep Tufekci shows, there is a growing body of literature that shows virtual fora to be tempting but damaging, for they decrease capacity for concentrated attention and analysis, encourage addictive behaviour, induce psychological alienation, and reduce ability to cope with diversity due to social fragmentation into filter bubbles of like-minded people. Third, there is significant management literature to demonstrate the value of physical and serendipitous interaction; to name a few sources touching on this aspect that come readily to mind, Ettiene Wenger’s work on communities of practice, Nonaka and Takeuchi’s study on how Japanese corporations leverage tacit knowledge, and Peter Senge’s articulations on personal mastery. It would be a shame if a premier institution like IIMA surrenders so readily to the temptations of the virtual, especially given the power of face-to-face interaction is so intrinsically baked into the bricks and mortar of the campus core. While the pandemic may have temporarily put the brakes on physical meetings, they are not lost to us forever. The power of serendipitous physical meetings can easily be revived and leveraged if this is adopted by the institution as an explicit pedagogical goal.

I beseech you to place this issue once more before the Governing Council to be evaluated afresh given the concerns articulated here. I urge the Governing Council to look at the Kahn dormitories heeding the words of the famous economist Kenneth E. Boulding in his classic paper “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth”, where he says, “….the welfare of the individual depends on the extent to which he can identify himself with others, and that the most satisfactory individual identity is that which identifies not only with a community in space but also with a community extending over time from the past into the future. If this kind of identity is recognized as desirable, then posterity has a voice, even if it does not have a vote; and in a sense, if its voice can influence votes, it has votes too. This whole problem is linked up with the much larger one of the determinants of the morale, legitimacy, and nerve of a society, and there is a great deal of historical evidence to suggest that a society which loses its identity with posterity and which loses its positive image of the future loses also its capacity to deal with present problems, and soon falls apart.”

Yours sincerely,

The Architecture of Democracy: Central Vista and a Tale of Three Axes

By Namchop – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https-//

I analyse the proposed Central Vista Redevelopment in New Delhi, which proposes to transform the spatial heart of India’s democracy. The analysis looks at the historical origin of the grand urban axis, a spatial type in urban design that Central Vista represents, examining how architecture and urban design can represent political ideals, and how the proposed redevelopment fits into this history.

This essay was published in The India Forum. For the full essay, as well as a podcast interview, see here.

An Urbanism of Finitude

Photograph by Samiran Chakraborty on Unsplash

In his classic text Being and Time, the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, offers a secular definition of a philosophy established in spiritual traditions of the East for centuries: we are victims of our inability to come to terms with our own finitude.  Unwilling to confront our mortality, we assume our death lies at a point in the future far enough to offer sufficient space between now and then to fulfil our intentions.  We therefore repeatedly defer resolution of conflicting demands, never reaching the point of knowing our authenticity so that we may live it.

What would our urbanism be if we imagined our cities from the viewpoint of their imminent finitude?  This might have been hard to imagine earlier but is a much more tangible proposition in the midst of a pandemic that has caused the death of urban life as we knew it.  We may believe we shall soon have a vaccine and can put the pandemic behind us, but must then consider the imbalances between nature and human life caused by the era of the Anthropocene, which means an increased likelihood of zoonotic viruses with another pandemic following on the heels of Covid-19.  We must also contemplate the spectre of climate change with its increasing frequency of extreme weather events looming before us.  Havoc launched in the city will spread to the countryside, disrupting food and transportation chains, threatening all life.  The potential finitude of urbanism is becoming an unavoidable topic

Cities are complex entities filled with unresolved contradictions we hope to resolve.  We see slums and hope to implement a policy that will solve the housing problem.  We see water shortages, traffic jams, air pollution, power outages, crime, and for each assume that the managerial and technological fixes we are pursuing will one day overcome these problems.  Assuming that a solution to the problem lies in the future, we remain within the world of intentions, failing to adequately recognise the structural barriers that obstruct change.

The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, introduced us to the term heterotopia or ‘other place.’  Our cities contain spaces whose institutional and discursive practices are somehow ‘other’, disturbing, and incompatible when viewed from the reference point of the space we have chosen as our own.  To the urban elite, the slum, brothel, prison, and a host of other spaces, are all heterotopias, even though they may be acknowledged as a part of the city.  We do not live in either an ideal unified world of utopia or a disintegrated and fallen world of dystopia, we live in a complex of heterotopias, each following its own logic.

The elite maintain spatial coherence in this complexity through what the Belgian theorist, Lieven De Cauter, calls capsularisation.  I may have a nice home and a nice workplace, each falling under the same spatial logic, and I maintain coherence because each is an introverted capsule and I am able to move between them in a car, another form of capsule that follows the same interiorised spatial logic.

Phenomena such as pandemics and extreme weather events disregard the structure of heterotopian urbanism.  Slums, because of high-density living conditions with poor access to sanitation and public health, are vulnerable to infection, and from this point viruses do not respect boundaries of class or caste and spread through the city. Fractures in spatial continuity are not conducive to efficiency of urban services such as storm water drainage, and these limitations induce lower tipping points that exacerbate systemic collapse during extreme weather events.  Urban services we depend on disintegrate because those who keep them functional are suddenly unavailable, and a class of people hitherto rendered invisible to us by capsularisation suddenly become visible through their absence.  When we increase the capsularisation of inequity in our cities, as we have been doing at a rising rate in recent years, we marginalise heterotopias to such an extent that their inhabitants are driven to feel that violence is the only means of asserting the significance of their presence, and we are seeing this increasingly occurring at a scale that provokes widespread disruption of urban life.

If we seriously contemplate the finitude of our cities, the urgency of building resilience and spatial justice will take on a new hue.  There is an ancient proverb in Bhutan that states it is impossible to be truly happy without contemplating one’s death at least five times a day.  This is a logic that initially appears paradoxical but is actually sensible and should be transferred to our imagination of urbanism.  We can restore vibrancy to our cities only by giving serious consideration to their death.