Emerging Methodologies in Architectural Practice

Pavilions – Caves Boundaries and the In-Between – Installation by Architecture Brio

This is the text of a talk I gave at the closing seminar of the exhibition “When Is Space?”, curated by Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty. The exhibition was commissioned and located at the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, and the closing event took place there on 21stApril 2018.

When Rupali invited me to be a part of this event, she described it as a conversation about the future of architecture and space.  Then I saw a poster that had been prepared to announce this seminar, and in the programme this title “Emerging Methodologies in Architectural Practice” had been put against my name.  I do not know how this happened, and it threw me off balance when I found out about it.  For this title implies a speaker who has completed empirical research on the subject at a level where overarching trends can be delineated.  And that is not me.

But, at a general philosophical level, I have been thinking about the issues of “practice” and “method” for some time, so will speak about how this has reflected in my practice.  To be accurate, perhaps my talk should be titled “Emerging Methodologies in Architectural Practice at CnT Architects”.  I will try and generalise the question at the level of overarching principles, so I do not speak only about a subjective and unique case.

To approach the subject, I must first place before you some specific challenges I felt we had to confront.  Dealing with these challenges was far more difficult than I anticipated, for they had never been a part of my training.  In fact, my training seemed to push me in the opposite direction, and I discovered how difficult it is, even when nobody is actively obstructing you, to break through prior conditioning that has been ingrained into you.  Let me describe nine challenges (there is a lot of baggage to jettison) and five responses to those challenges.

Challenge One: There Is No Clarity on What the Term ‘Practice’ Means
Although practice is the primary means by which architecture happens, it has not received much philosophical attention, and there is no prevalent clarity on what it implicates.  There are two anecdotal paradigms that dominate our perceptions.  The first paradigm is the creative personality, and this is perceived as the cutting edge of the profession.  When you talk about what is truly creative in architecture, you tend to name specific individuals.  Architecture’s biggest global award, the Pritzker Prize, has always been awarded to individuals.  And the second paradigm is that of the business organisation.  Many of the protocols of how architectural projects are run in a professional studio, have been reified with clarity within this paradigm.

Neither paradigm serves the profession adequately.  The business organisation can talk with clarity about business method more than it can about architecture.  And while there is no doubt that the paradigm of the creative personality has produced some truly wonderful works of architecture, the dissemination and reproducibility of what is happening at the cutting edge of the profession becomes problematic because it is predicated on the subjectivities of personality.   Therefore, rather than a widespread critical and creative culture, we tend toward one of heroes and imitators.

Challenge Two: Architecture’s Self-Referential Culture
As architects, the bottom line of our work is not tangible and quantitative, it is intangible and qualitative.  Unlike the CEO of a business corporation, an architect will not look at indicators like balance sheets, profit and loss statements, or market share to assess success.  She/he will think back on buildings designed and reflect on whether they are good or bad.

When you have this constraint and wish to validate your work beyond your own intuitive satisfaction, you have to turn to social means of validation.  So, architects ask themselves questions like:

  • Does the work win design awards?
  • Does it get published in reputed journals?
  • Does it win competitions?
  • Does it lead to invitations on the lecture circuit?
  • Is it discussed with respect in schools of architecture?

All these are valid goals: the problem occurs in the situation we find today where it has become the dominant mode of validation, for all of them depend on the judgment of peers.  This breeds a self-referential culture where architects are designing for other architects, and the inhabitants of their work receive insufficient attention.  More significantly, the profession loses the ability to talk about the value of architecture with people who are not architects.

Challenge Three: The Divorce of Theory and Practice
The relationship between theory and practice has always been poorly understood.  There is an unspoken assumption that one first constructs a philosophy or theory of what one should do, and then applies it in practice; which reduces practice to an application of theory.  

Even this has become problematic.  I studied architecture in the early 1970’s during the days when international modernism held sway.  While many of the premises of this time have been rightly challenged, the social idealism that underpinned it meant that the kind of language one used when talking theory could be applied with very little change in the conversations of practice.  With the jettisoning of this social idealism, theory, and its language, has become so esoteric that if I sought to apply it in practice, my client’s eyes would probably glaze over and be overcome by a fear that some weirdo has been hired as the architect for the project.

Challenge Four: The Inevitable Silence of The Architect
Our training conditions each of us to believe it is my voice that makes the work meaningful.  Perhaps, this springs from the time of our education where we are always next to our work speaking about it: we explain it to a teacher, we defend it to a jury in the end-semester review.   Later, after graduating, the dialogues of peer review keep the architect’s voice alive – either directly or reconstructed through critique.

We fail to recognise that in practice, when we complete a work and hand it over for inhabitation, we step away, our personal voice as forever silenced, and the work must speak for itself.  Very few architects come to terms with this moment of silence.  Unlike the performing arts which are most alive in the presence of the artists, architecture and the visual arts must be able to come alive in the absence of the artist.

Challenge Five: The Sense of a Discipline
Because architecture is a field so intertwined with life, we tend to borrow premises from other fields: sociology, philosophy, art, engineering, linguistics, and so on.  Architecture has an internal crisis in defining itself as a discipline.

This disciplinary autonomy needs to be constructed from the recognition that the one thing we do which is unique to us is that we craft space. We need to develop a set of concepts, terminologies and protocols that are predicated on this autonomy.  But a quest for autonomy implicates other questions. Will pushing autonomy exacerbate the self-referential culture we have?  How does the autonomy of our discipline connect with life itself?

Challenge Six: Understanding Modernity
We have come to define modernity as a visual language.  The publication “The International Style” that resulted from the exhibition in 1932 curated by Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, may have been a major cause.  This publication had a seminal influence on the perception of modern architecture, and by labelling it as a ‘style’, it foregrounded the visual spectacle of modernity.  Architecture lost sight of modernity’s founding premise of an ethical imperative to liberate the potential and freedom of the individual will, and the implications this premise has for us.

Challenge Seven: The Crisis of Meaning
How do we come to terms with Victor Hugo’s critique in The Hunchback of Notre Dame that architecture has fallen from its status as the mother of the arts?  At one time, it served as the best means for a generation to immortalise its ideas, and that is why the buildings of yesteryear were literally narratives in stone. But with the advent of printing, an idea could be duplicated a thousand times, and scattered in all directions, and architecture cannot compete with this ubiquity.  The printed word replaced architecture as the primary register of human thought, and architecture was reduced to its geometric qualities.  Where should architecture turn to recover its meaning?

Challenge Eight: The Changing Nature of Radicalism
Here, I depend on the analysis of Cristina Diaz Moreno and Efren Garcia Grinda. There was a time when if one wanted to be radical one constructed a radical philosophy.  Day-to-day protocols and practices were seen to be subjective and private and were hidden from view. But post-modern doubt has thrown philosophy into disrepute where it often hides from the view of the general public.  And digital production has lent a seductive imagery to day-to-day practice that allows it to be foregrounded.

A reversal has occurred in what we understand today as radicalism.  This has led to a culture where judgment on significant issues is predicated more and more on the seductiveness of visual imagery.  Judgment now tends to be quick, visual and impulsive, rather than slow, reasoned and thoughtful.

Challenge Nine: The Death of the Avant Garde in the Attention Economy
There was a time when the critical idealism of the cutting edge of architecture was driven by an avant garde.  But today we are in an attention-deficit world, for we are in the age of information, and information consumes attention.  The scarcity of attention is a major factor in driving how our economy and culture work.

There are two major ways capitalism has of capturing attention: scale and novelty.  We see scale in the increasing prevalence of mergers and acquisitions, and the increasing scale of projects.  For novelty, the avant garde architects are seen as a resource from which novelty can be mined.  Their work is taken, detached from its critical foundations, and exploited as a means for offering visual novelty.  So, you get architects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, where, if you see what they said early in their careers, they clearly saw themselves as iconoclastic rebels; but they were quickly co-opted as vehicles of mainstream branding.  And the work, in its thematic visual direction, has to get more and more extreme if it needs to keep capturing attention.

Now I come to the responses

Response One: An Aesthetics of Absorption
We are trained to follow an aesthetic of expression, and we must switch to an aesthetic of absorption.  Inhabitation of our work is a process that breeds memory, and as memory gets embedded into architectural space, it breeds meaning and significance. This is an aesthetic that that is absorbed by the work, which develops slowly over time after we have stepped away from the project.  The test of a good building is not whether someone sees it and says “Wow!”, it lies in whether someone can inhabit the building for years and look back at those years with affection.  As Juhani Pallasmaa points out, when we inhabit architecture we lend our perceptions to it, and architecture offers back its aura in a way that entices and emancipates us.

This dialogue between inhabitant and aura is what is meaningful.  The aura speaks for itself, our individual voices should not be necessary.  The aura is what our craftsmanship of space should liberate, and our work should dedicate itself to empowering this aura in offering an emancipatory experience for the inhabitant.

Response Two: An Architecture of the Background
Here, I am indebted to the fact that I am in a legacy practice, and this is a value inherited from previous generations of the practice. This was discovered when investigating why the work of the practice produced in the 1950s to the 70s stayed free of the Chandigarh-influenced Corbusian idiom that dominated modern architecture in India at the time.  I discovered that the goal of the practice is not as heroic as it is often made out to be; it is far more modest.  The primary purpose was not to construct public symbols of what architecture should be. It was to use architecture as a means by which one earned the respect of the community within which one practiced. This keeps us, and our discipline, grounded; and views modernity as an ethical and contextual practice rather than a visual spectacle.

Response Three: Proposition and Diagram
This response is driven by the need to create a project methodology that is rooted in our values.  Every project depends on seeking to connect what we call ‘proposition’ and ‘diagram’: and we define these terms in a way that is specific to us.  The ‘proposition’ is not about architecture, it is about life: more specifically an aspirational ideal of life that is relevant to the specific project being undertaken.  The ‘diagram’ is a spatial order that must be constructed for this project: it maintains the disciplinary autonomy of architecture.  The challenge is to construct a diagram that contains the proposition in a manner that is intelligible to the inhabitant.

Response Four: Authenticity From Dialogue
Here, one is indebted to Charles Taylor’s propositionthat authenticity is like language: the capacity for it is innate within us, but will lie unrealised and unknown if we do not participate in conversation.  We discover and sustain our authenticity through an ongoing dialogue predicated on recognition: how we recognise others and building one’s sense of self on how one is recognised by others.  Authenticity springs from the back-and-forth of dialogue, and not from intellectual uncovering of linear links between cause and effect.  This dialogue should not be solely internal to the practice and must involve clients and other stakeholders.

Dialogue is also what unites theory and practice.  Neither is foundational to the other, and they work best when they contradict each other, where theory critiques practice, practice critiques theory, and balance is maintained by the continuity of this critical dialogue.   For this, dialogue must be sincere and diverse; which means that practice must be non-hierarchical and must refrain from being overly personality-centric.  We are fortunate in being large enough to sustain this diversity internally.  But smaller firms will need to build networks to 

Response Five: The Practice as a Place
The primary purpose of practice should not be to offer a vehicle for the expression of individual genius.  It should seek to offer a sheltered space that nurtures a reflective dialogue on the authenticity and potential of architecture.  The structure of the dialogue should include propositional quests within projects, critique, theoretical reflection, practice-driven research, forums for interaction, and the articulation of beacon values.  Setting this up requires conscious attention: one must design one’s practice in order to effectively design architecture.

The way I like to express this is to say that we have been preoccupied too long with the practice of architecture, and we must now turn attention to the architecture of practice.


Architectural Education in India: A Roadmap to Reform

This is an updated edition of an essay initially published in Indian Architect & Builder, Vol. 26(12), August 2013, as a part of a series on architectural education in India.  It was recently republished on Matter

Preamble: Understanding the Challenge

There are 464 colleges in India that are accredited to offer professional degrees in architecture (Source: Council of Architecture website as on 22 February 2018). Out of these, two have either had their recognition withdrawn or have their recognition currently in dispute, which leads to a definitive current number of 462 accredited colleges. A handbook of professional documents published by the Council of Architecture in 2005 shows that at that time the total number of colleges in India was 117. This is a growth of 295 per cent in a period of thirteen years: an explosive growth rate by any standards.

The case could be made that this growth rate is justified.  India currently faces a huge shortage in housing stock, both in urban and rural areas.  To complicate matters, the rural-urban mix in the country is poised to go through a sea change.  We are currently just over 30% urban, and historical data from other parts of the world shows that when a region reaches the 30% urban threshold the rate of urbanization begins to rise sharply.  Several estimates by both public and private organizations predict that we will be a 50% urban society shortly after the middle of the 21stcentury, which means that over the next thirty-five to forty years, India will have about 400 million new urban citizens.  This growth will be driven by a combination of internal growth within cities, rural-urban migration, intra-urban migration, and the transformation of areas currently classified as rural into urban settlements.

India already has a low ratio of architects to the general population; unlike Europe or the United States one rarely encounters an unemployed architect in India. Architectural practice tends to be largely an urban-based activity, and the rural areas have been managing to build without the services of professionally trained architects, so it is apparent that the full utilization of the current stock of professionally trained architects is being absorbed within the urban areas alone.  And if the urban areas are to grow as projected, then there is a large need for an additional number of architects in the country; and this is without even addressing the need (which must also be addressed) to bring professional building design inputs into the rural areas.

We must recognise that this challenge has a quantitative as well as a qualitative dimension, and if we seem to be achieving impressive numbers on the quantitative front it is necessary to also evaluate what we are accomplishing in qualitative terms.  The speed with which growth will occur in our cities means that the processes of urbanization that took place over 150 years in Europe and the United States will have to be compressed into a time scale that is over three times as fast.  This is a tremendous challenge in an era of global warming where we also have to be intensely aware of the environmental impacts of whatever we do. Clearly we cannot develop our cities using the tried and tested methods of the past, for they not only implicate demands on the environment that are no longer sustainable, but will also not happen with the speed we need.  We will have to learn to live by Albert Einstein’s dictum that “we cannot solve today’s problems using the mindset that created them”.  This poses a formidable demand on the educational system that will produce professionally trained architects, urban designers and urban planners. We need a breed of graduates who will not depend on the formulaic precedents of the past, who can think critically and innovate radically, while sensitively responding to local, global and environmental challenges.  This essay will focus solely on architectural education, and only mention that the same discussion needs to take place within education in urban planning and urban design.

There has been no comprehensive and intellectually rigorous study that audits the performance of architectural education as a whole to evaluate whether the system is meeting the qualitative demands that it needs to fulfill.  So one only has anecdotal evidence to go by, and unfortunately the anecdotal evidence is cause for serious alarm:

* Most practitioners one encounters routinely complain that the average quality of the young graduates they employ falls far short of what is needed.
* Students often complain that the level of thinking and discussion within their college does not touch on the fundamental issues of architecture, and practitioners who sometimes step into colleges to lecture or to participate in design juries often echo this complaint.
* The organiser of a major annual architectural conference (that draws internationally reputed speakers and attracts both students and professional participants from all over the country) observes that the kind of questions that students pose to the speakers reflect levels of fundamental doubt on basic issues that should be resolvable in college.
* In most parts of the world, the professional work output of faculty is usually representative of the cutting edge of the profession; largely in theoretical or research work, but also in design practice. This is not the case in India, and it is rare to find the output of an Indian teacher in peer-reviewed publications that are considered by international standards to be intellectually rigorous.
* If one looks at the list of winners of design awards as an indicator of the cutting edge in design, it is rare to find people who have a substantive or regular involvement with teaching.

This is not to claim that there is no excellence whatsoever to be found in Indian colleges of architecture. There are some colleges that are doing a creditable job, and even within some of the colleges that are below par there are a few teachers who are doing well.  But the test of the overall quality of a system is not to be judged by its best performers, and should really be judged by what the average achieves. And if the anecdotal evidence is to be believed, the average is below par, and we have the possibility of widespread systemic failure.  While the challenges we face in the immediate future of Indian urban environment require action on a series of fronts covering broader policy as well as other professions, it is important that we also produce good quality graduates in architecture who are capable of meeting the challenge.  A systemic failure in doing this could lead to a level of deterioration in the quality of urban environment that could have huge social, cultural and economic costs that we cannot afford.

One strategy would be to identify centres of excellence where best practices do occur, perhaps supplement this with the actions of key practitioners to introduce further best practices, and then work to disseminate these best practices across the system in order to reform it.  While this strategy must definitely be followed, its impact will be slow and across the long term.  Given the urgency of the situation we face, it is also necessary to have policy level changes so that the way in which architectural education is managed and regulated is reformed in order to catalyze a systemic shift toward excellence that is widespread across architecture colleges in the country.

Dimensions of Excellence in Architectural Education:

Before we embark on any policy level change, we must be clear about our objective, and establish tangible goals that the policy must achieve.  This essay seeks to take a first step in that direction by proposing a set of parameters that can shape the quest for excellence in a system for regulating architectural education:

A. Professional Education Versus Vocational Training
When practicing architects complain about the quality of graduates who emerge from the educational system, a knee jerk response to this criticism is often to examine how to change education in order to make graduates more employable in practice.  This shifts education towards vocational training, and creates a focus on developing skills in specific areas of technical performance.

While skills are important, they are also what logicians call “a necessary but not sufficient condition”.  It is necessary to go beyond skills, because skills truly acquire depth and resonance when they serve deeper value-based propositions on life. It is necessary to train our students to be able to think critically and rigorously about such propositions on life, to a level where they are not bound solely by the paradigms of the past, and can innovate in order to constructively respond to the new challenges and contexts that life keeps throwing at them.

The claim to serve the profession through a vocational approach does not really carry weight.  It is relatively easy for a design practice to cover some gaps in technical skills, for a young graduate is never given sole responsibility but is apprenticed with a senior colleague or employer, and through that exposure gains a sufficient amount of technical knowledge within a few months.  In contrast, it is very difficult for a design practice to cover gaps in critical or propositional thinking, for training to cover those gaps cannot be easily fitted into the day-to-day workings of practice.

A practice that survives by absorbing graduates who may have skills but lack the ability to think critically and innovatively is one that only repeats conventions of the past, or one that does not go beyond surface imagery.  Soon such a practice resembles other such practices more and more, and once that happens the only way the practice can win commissions is to differentiate itself in price.  The resultant culture of undercutting on fees is well established in India, and is a product of the profession failing in its ability to develop, articulate and communicate propositional value.  The claim to serve the profession by making education vocational and skill based will actually undermine the profession in the long term.  The profession is served only when it builds the capability where each practice can construct its own niche of innovation, and this will happen only when the education system moves beyond threshold levels of skill to truly strive for a level of academic excellence that is represented by critical and artistic rigour.

B. Provoking Excellence Versus Enforcing Minimum Standards
The Architects Act of 1972 set up the Council of Architecture as the single statutory authority for regulating both architectural practice and architectural education.  This varies from the practice in many other parts of the world where the authority that regulates architectural education is different from that which regulates architectural practice.  This separation is important because the required orientation in regulating education is fundamentally different from that required in regulating practice.

The need to regulate practice in a profession arises when the profession provides a fundamental public service, and it is therefore necessary in the public interest to ensure that incompetent and unqualified practitioners are not allowed to impose themselves on an unsuspecting public.  Such regulation occurs in professions such as medicine, law and architecture; and is achieved by creating a system of licensing where only those individuals whose names are entered in a register maintained by the regulator are authorised to practice the profession.  There is a process that ensures that only those with the proper professional qualifications are entitled to have their names entered in the official register of professionals.  Typically three qualifications are required: (a) a professional degree earned from an accredited institution, (b) a minimum duration of practical experience (typically three years); and (c) passing of a professional licensing examination that tests the professional in aspects of professional practice (such as conforming to building codes, and understanding of construction technique and professional ethics) to ensure a basic threshold of understanding of important professional issues.  In India we only insist on the first qualification for the profession of architecture, namely the earning of a professional degree.  This is a shortcoming that is also in need of reform, but is beyond the scope of this article where the focus is on education.

From the viewpoint of education, it is necessary to realise that the regulation of practice is about ensuring a minimum threshold of competence, and when the same regulator takes on both practice and education there will be a tendency to take this ‘minimum standards’ approach to education as well.  In fact the regulatory reference document on education put out by the Council of Architecture is titled “Minimum Standards of Architectural Education”.  A minimum standards approach will encourage the system to settle at the lowest common denominator, which will contradict the central purpose of regulation in education, which is to provoke excellence.

For this reason it is necessary to create a separation of the regulation of education from the regulation of practice.  Dividing the two processes into separate organizations would require an amendment of the Architects Act of 1972.  While this act is in dire need of amendment, it would involve a long process as it would require building consensus on a range of issues beyond education and would then have to go through the required processes of drafting and approval in Parliament.  But in the short run, there is nothing that prevents the Council of Architecture from structuring itself to have two arms, one responsible for practice and the other for education, and each one autonomous from the other so that the appropriate focus is maintained.

We currently have a good system of assembling a panel of peers to conduct the accreditation review of colleges.  This is what is done in most parts of the world, and should be continued.  However, in the current system when reviewers realise that a college is at best mediocre, there is little that they can do for their enforcement power only lies in enforcing the minimum standards.  It is necessary to see how we regulate education in order to encourage the system as a whole to strive towards excellence.

A best practice to achieve this is found in regulatory systems elsewhere in the world, where the regulatory process begins well in advance of the reviewers’ visit to the institution: often a full year in advance. The institution is required to send in documentation that not only demonstrates their passing certain minimum threshold standards, but to also define how it will transcend these minimum standards to aim for academic excellence.  The documentation requires that the college define its goals of excellence, its methodology for moving toward the goals, as well as measurable indicators that can demonstrate performance against goals.  This documentation has to be approved in advance of the final review visit.  At that visit the accreditation of the college is granted only when the review visit shows that the college has performed on two counts: (a) it has provided what is required in minimum standards, and (b) it has made substantive progress towards the goals of excellence it has defined for itself. The minimum standards check focuses primarily on two criteria: (a) the adequacy of the physical facilities, and (b) a review of the work of graduating students (or the senior most batch in the case of newly formed colleges) to see that the work represents what is worthy of the profession.  If these criteria are met, the college is given a great deal of freedom in defining curriculum, in order to truly empower it in its quest for excellence.

C. The Role Of Faculty
One mistake that India made just after independence was a failure to emphasise the importance of research in universities. In the pure and applied sciences for example, the primary site of research was established in centres such as CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), which remained relatively independent of universities.  Apart from a few islands of excellence, many universities have sprung up where the faculty is not associated with the cutting edge of research and knowledge production.   What is observed in the sciences is the case in other disciplines as well.  With a few rare exceptions the average university in India has acquired a vocational orientation where it is seen purely as a place for transferring knowledge and it is rarely thought of as also being a place for making knowledge.

The shortcoming in such a situation is that the delivery of instruction is equated with learning, and it is assumed that learning is an automatic by-product of instruction.  But learning is much more than a sum of instruction modules.  It requires the ability to internally integrate instruction modules, to explore the spaces between modules, and eventually construct new spaces of knowledge and understanding.  Learning is an action that has to be internally motivated within the student, and is therefore an activity that cannot be easily taught, and has to be demonstrated through role models.  Our teachers have to be role models, and to achieve this we need to get beyond the fallacy that Indian colleges often get trapped in: a perception that the only people who come to college to learn are students.  Our first goal should be to construct the college as a space where the faculty comes to learn, and this demonstrated passion for the subject should subsequently drive student learning.

In colleges of architecture in many parts of the world the knowledge on how to conduct an instructional module within an architecture curriculum is not sufficient to qualify as a teacher of architecture.  It is a requirement that the teacher is active beyond the classroom to do cutting edge work in the profession.  If the work is in theoretical or historical research, then the work should warrant selection in published books, periodicals or conferences where selection is predicated on challenging and rigorous peer review.  If the work is in design practice than it should win competitions or design awards, or warrant publication in professional journals that are known for an editorial standard of only publishing design excellence.  It is therefore necessary for every teacher to publicly demonstrate that he/she is still a learner.

This is not the case in India.  Faculty selection is predicated on degrees earned, and advancement is also primarily predicated on the years of service put in or the acquisition of additional qualifications.  There is little rigorous requirement spelt out on what the faculty should do beyond teaching.  And where such requirement is spelt out it is ineffective because it depends on systems that are beyond the control of the regulatory system for architectural education. To cite an example, a few years ago this author was a member of a review panel appointed by Council of Architecture to assess the continued accreditation of a college of architecture. During the review, a senior faculty member at the level of professor was asked what she had produced by way of publication or conference papers in the recent past.  She answered that she had presented a paper at a conference.  When she was asked for the subject of the paper she answered that it was on “Environment”.  When the review panel responded that this was a very general description, she elaborated that it was on “Environment and Architecture”.  When pressed for further details on the count that this was still too general a description she confessed that this conference had occurred eight months ago, she had forgotten the contents of the paper, and she would find a copy of it and give it to the panel.  This incident demonstrates that the system has reached a scale where it can build its own self-perpetuating self-certifying systems of mediocrity, where conferences can be organised where nobody is interested in what is being said, whatever is said is soon forgotten, and everyone is satisfied because the “official” requirement of demonstrating that a paper was presented at a conference is met.

We need to establish an academic culture of high standards beyond the regular routines of education: one that could manage publications, periodicals and conferences whose filtering mechanisms of peer review would permit only the best levels in artistic and/or intellectual production. We are far from achieving this in India. There is no architectural press that consistently produces a large volume of deep reflective publication; theoretical writing is difficult to come by; the editorial standards of journals are not strong enough to ensure that the quality of published design work remains consistently high; there is no proper culture of architectural criticism given that most journals rely largely on text and visuals provided by the architect being published; and intellectually rigorous conferences are few and far between.  To fix this is a long and arduous haul, will take decades and is time we cannot afford to take.  We need a shorter-term strategy that will start moving us towards this goal where faculty are pressured toward high quality achievement beyond the classroom, where they can be visibly perceived as learners and knowledge innovators, and thereby act as effective role models for the students.  In the short-term this can only be achieved through demands of transparency.

D. Transparency
We have a situation where a minimum standards approach coupled with low intellectual demands on faculty allows a culture of mediocrity to emerge.  And low levels of transparency shield this culture from critical gaze, so there is little pressure on this culture to reform and it is allowed to take root. Improving transparency will need to supplement efforts to provoke excellence, and we must live by the statement made by Louis Brandeis, former justice of the United States Supreme Court, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

The Internet era is a great enabler of transparency. The regulatory framework should make it mandatory for every college of architecture to publish the following information on its website:

(i) List of all faculty members, both full time and visiting, with the last five years of their work output (beyond teaching).This should include research work, papers presented, books published, and designed projects.  If the work has been published elsewhere and is covered by copyright that does not permit disclosure on the website, then the appropriate publication reference should be disclosed.   This will reveal whether the faculty members are also learners.

(ii) A representative sample of ten thesis projects produced by students for each of the last five years.This will be a public indicator of the quality of student output, and especially of the graduates.

(iii) A disclosure of the last two accreditation reviews containing the following information:

* The statement by the college on how it meets the minimum standards requirement.
* The statement by the college on how it transcends minimum standards to strive towards goals of academic excellence.
* The comments of the accreditation review panel (with the names of the reviewers also disclosed) on both the minimum standards as well as the goals of excellence, together with any recommendations for changes.
* The response of the college to the accreditation review, and how it intends to accommodate the comments of the review panel.

This will reveal how the college is faring in its peer review in the accreditation process.

The exposure of this information to the public gaze will allow several evaluations of the college to take place.  Journals and other publications could use this information to conduct surveys among the architecture community on how these colleges could be ranked.  Practitioners could use this information to target certain colleges for their recruitment efforts.  Students who wish to study architecture could ask friends or relatives who are architects to review the colleges they are considering for an opinion on their quality. Once word of these evaluations begins to spread, colleges will have to consider the level of reform they should undertake in order to manage the public perception of the college that is taking root.

In order to complete the cycle of transparency, the regulator should publish on its website the list of people they draw from to constitute accreditation review panels, and just as faculty of colleges are required to publish work output, the output of the reviewers should be published on the website of the regulator.  This will establish the credibility of the review process.

E. Redefining Curriculum
The word “curriculum” is often associated with syllabus or content, and there is a tendency to believe that if the content of a course is defined, the entire course of study is defined.  In its academic stipulations, the current Council of Architecture document on “Minimum Standards of Architectural Education” only lists requirements on content. However content is just one of the pillars of curriculum, and it should be realised that a comprehensive treatment of a course of study would consist of three major components – values, pedagogy and content (or syllabus):

* Values relate to how the college views the goals and ethics of architecture and education; its philosophy on what architecture should set out to achieve; its ethics of how a community of learners is constituted.
* Pedagogy relates to the methods by which the college produces learning; how it sets up the environment conducive to learning; how it assesses learning.A committed pedagogy seeks to shift the paradigm of education away from delivering instruction towards producing learning (and learners).
* Content relates to that core body of knowledge and skills through which the discipline of architecture can be practiced.

It should be recognised that instruction does not automatically result in learning, so the curriculum should also seek to define learning outcomes.  These outcomes should be defined at the level of individual courses, for a semester, and for the course as a whole.  The definition of these outcomes can be used to analyze the effectiveness of courses, which can be judged by whether these outcomes are reflected in the students’ work.

The regulatory framework should demand that every college define and articulate this holistic definition of curriculum.  It should also recognise that if the college is to be empowered to pursue excellence, it should be given great freedom on curriculum.

F. The Question Of Autonomy
As only universities are empowered to grant degrees in India, any new college of architecture is required to affiliate with a university.  And often such affiliation results in surrender to centralised bureaucratic control at the university level on three key fronts: curriculum, assessment and admissions. If a college is to be empowered to pursue excellence, it is absolutely necessary for it to have autonomy on these three fronts.  This is specifically the case in India where university administrations tend to be highly politicised and bureaucratised.

To examine the various fronts on which the argument for centralised control is often made:

(i) Quality of Standards:
It is argued that colleges are likely to misuse any position of authority granted to them, and only through centralised control can one maintain a certain quality of standards.  This is a highly fallacious argument.  Firstly, it assumes that the very people on whom one depends on to deliver excellence in the classroom are the ones who cannot be trusted.  A system that starts with this level of “guilty until proven innocent” level of mistrust is doomed to failure, for it will create obstacles in any incentive towards excellence and push the system toward mediocrity.  It should also be realised that the greater the level of centralization, the greater the likelihood that the system will settle at the lowest common denominator.

(ii) Consistency of Standards:
It is also argued that without centralization each college will start developing its own standards, and as a result evaluation will become very difficult for prospective employers and administrators of higher degree programmes.  This argument is also fallacious as colleges do not operate in a vacuum, and have to deal with the question of how their graduates win acceptance outside the walls of the college.  This will force them to converge on commonly held standards of excellence.  The historical evidence anywhere in the world where colleges are granted curricular autonomy shows that colleges tend to largely converge and overlap on commonly held standards, and do not diverge into separate curricular standards which have little overlap.  This is especially the case in a field like architecture where the portfolio of work tends to play a large role, often dominant over any curricular transcripts, in any evaluations after graduation.  Granting colleges autonomy and forcing them to earn comparative acceptance in wider professional and academic circles is the best means to achieve both quality and consistency of standards.

(iii) Convenience of Students:
This argument is made in reference to the admissions process, and is a valid argument when the system forces students to run across several locations to seek admission, and creates obstacles to allowing the student to make a proper choice.  Firstly, it is not clear whether a centralised process removes all of these obstacles.  And it should also be realised that if a college is to be provoked to pursue excellence, it should be given the maximum possible freedom to choose students who are aligned with the college’s specific pursuit of excellence.

The best option is to maximise the level of choice in the hands of both college and students.  Choice is placed in the hand of the college by granting them full control over the admissions process (subject, of course, to the limits placed by legislation designed to prevent the continuation of historical social injustices).  Choice can be placed in the hand of the student by enforcing the following measures:

Colleges should be prohibited from making mandatory visits to the college for interviews a part of the admission process. Admission should be granted only on the following criteria:

Academic transcripts at the school level
A centralised and standardised aptitude test.  This already exists in India in the form of the National Aptitude Test in Architecture (NATA), which is administered by the academic arm of the Council of Architecture (National Institute for Advanced Studies in Architecture).  If criticisms are made of NATA, the action to be taken should be to improve NATA rather than eliminate or substitute it.
A statement of purpose on why the student wishes to study architecture.  This could be submitted in the form of either text or drawings or a combination of both.
A minimum of three letters of reference from school teachers, or any person who knows the student and possesses the necessary professional or academic qualifications to comment on the students aptitude and commitment to study architecture.As is the practice in many academic institutions worldwide, these could be submitted online directly by the referrer, or in a sealed envelope so that the reference is not disclosed to the student.

The college could be given the freedom to assign its own weightage to each of the criteria named above.

There should be a mandatory common date on which all colleges are required to publish on their website their first list of admissions. Similarly there should be a mandatory common deadline on which the students are required to confirm their acceptance to a specific college.

On the question of freedom on curriculum and assessment, it should be recognised that architecture colleges are already granted a fair degree of autonomy on the design studio course that forms the core of the curriculum. While there may be some guidelines on the kind of problems that are to be set, each college is given freedom on the specific problem that is set each semester, and also chooses its own panel of internal and external assessors.  This is done as it is widely recognised that design is a subject that is ill-suited to assessment through centralised examinations.  If this autonomy is granted to the core course of design and not to the other subjects, it creates an obstacle to integration of learning in theory and design, and also impedes innovations in teaching theory subjects.  The regulator of architectural education should impress on university regulators that architecture is the kind of subject where the autonomy that is necessary for design studio is necessary for the whole curriculum, and stipulate a removal of this fracture.

We should also recognise that architecture is not a quantitative tangible discipline, and has to cope with a significant intangible dimension.  Therefore it is not advisable for assessment to be in percentage marks, and should be as per letter grades.  It should be mandatory for the college to disclose guidelines on the criteria on which letter grades are awarded.

G. Student Motivation
In many parts of the world only a percentage of high school graduates enter college.  This is because college education tends to be expensive, there are many opportunities besides college that offer vocational training, and it is possible to earn a living wage without a college education.  As a result, among the profile of students who enter undergraduate education in architecture, a high percentage of students are making a great deal of effort to study in college and are therefore highly motivated to pursue the subject.  This is not necessarily the case in India where in a highly stratified society all high school graduates, with a middle class level of affluence or above, will go on to college as a matter of routine.  As a result committed teachers of architecture often complain that with all their best efforts a large percentage of students refuse to engage with much energy in the classroom or studio as they are not truly committed to or passionate about architecture.  An additional complication is that many students are not poised to make a total commitment to a profession at the age at which they graduate from high school, find out too late that this course is not meant for them, and because the Indian educational system offers very low levels of flexibility they go through the motions to coast through up to graduation.

One way to get out of this situation would be to follow a course of action that has been tried and tested elsewhere, where the course is split into two stages, with an exit option at the end of the first stage. After three years the student could graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in architecture.  This could be allowed as an undergraduate degree, but not as a first professional degree that will enable the student to practice architecture. We can then allow for a master’s level degree that is the first professional degree, and this degree is granted after completing the second stage of a further two years.  Admission into the second stage is not an automatic result of completing the first stage, and the student has to maintain a minimum average grade level in order to receive admission into the second stage where he/she is awarded a first professional degree.

Such a system would ensure that only motivated students survive to take on professional training in architecture.  It would also introduce flexibility for the student, and a student who finds they are not interested in professional practice of architecture is granted an exit option early enough to either pursue a different field of study, or to pursue careers in related fields that do not require a professional degree such as architectural journalism or architectural history.

H. Composition Of Accreditation Panels
Quality in a professional field is best achieved by peer review, for it is peers who are best poised to appreciate the challenges and intricacies of the profession.  Therefore the current practice of having the accreditation review panels made up of peers is a good one and should be continued, while making sure that there is a proper mix of practitioners and academics.  However it should be also recognised that architectural peers are not necessarily qualified to review all aspects of the college, and review on administrative matters, financial matters and technical equipment may require reviewers with specific expertise in these matters.  In which case, the peer review could focus on the core issues of professional education, and there could be a separate review process that involves other areas of expertise.

I. Ease Of Entry
Forcing colleges to compete in the marketplace for ideas is the only effective long-term strategy to achieve quality in education.  Regulation by itself cannot drive quality, for that has to come from the energy within each college.  Regulation should only steer the process by giving colleges maximum curricular freedom, by enforcing minimum standards, by insisting that colleges demonstrate how they will pursue excellence, through mandatory requirements on transparency, and through empowering student choice.  And it is also necessary to enable the easy entry of new colleges, for stiff barriers to entry will not allow a true marketplace for ideas to take root.

One such barrier, stipulated by the University Grants Commission (UGC), is that any new college in a metropolitan city should own two acres of land, and those outside metropolitan cities should own five acres of land.  Wherever excellence in architectural education is found, one comes across two possible models for a college.   One retains a more academic orientation, where its faculty members are scholarly researchers in theory and history, and therefore the college works well in relatively isolated locations such as multi-disciplinary university towns.  A more prevalent model is one where the college has academic foundations and thrives on mixing this with a close relationship with architectural practice.  This practice-linked model requires an intense exposure of students to practice, and often achieves this by having a large number of visiting faculty members drawn from practitioners in the city who are widely recognised as the innovative and creative cutting edge of the profession.  The intense relationship between theory and practice drives learning in this model.

It will be difficult in the Indian context to use the academic model as a dominant mode to develop architectural education, for the tradition of scholarly research in architecture is neither deep nor widespread. Until we can build up such a tradition, we will have to primarily depend on the practice-linked model.  This model works best when it is located within the heart of a city.  Given the cost of land in India, the requirement to own large parcels of it in the heart of the city creates a huge financial barrier to the entry of new colleges.

While it will be necessary to have enforceable minimum standards on facilities, the requirement to own land is not one of them.  Perhaps the UGC requirement is designed for other colleges who intend to run multiple sets of courses, and is not a necessary requirement for a college that wishes to teach only within a single discipline. Also, other disciplines do not depend on close relationships with the city in the way that architecture does. Just as an exemption from university conventions has been won on assessment in design studio, the regulator on architectural education should impress on the UGC that architecture is a special case that should not be subjected to this requirement on land. To bolster the case, there are sufficient precedents of architecture colleges that work within the limitations imposed by being within the city, start with minimal rented facilities, and grow over time by assembling additional parcels within the neighbourhood of either rented or owned facilities, and through all this win international recognition as centres of excellence in architectural education: the Architectural Association in London, Cooper Union in New York, and Sci-Arc in Los Angeles, to name just a few examples.

The Road Map

Eventually, for reform to happen, action will have to be taken by the official regulator on architectural education.  There is the need for broader reform on a host of fronts, which will require amendment of the Architects Act 1972.  But we cannot wait for this long-term agenda to be realised, and a first level of reform needs to be undertaken that is within the boundaries of the 1972 Act, and it is this first level that is the focus of this article.  While dialogue on this front with the regulator can begin immediately, history has shown that effective reform takes place only when it is also supplemented and critiqued by popular opinion.  For this it is urgently necessary to draw opinion from and build consensus among a wide spectrum of professionals, academics and students.  The aim of this exercise should be to arrive at a conclusion on what the parameters of reform should be.  The parameters that have been outlined in this essay seek to be as comprehensive as possible within the confines of a single essay; but they represent the judgment of a single person, and reform must be based on a wider dialogue.

So we could define the following stages on the road map to reform:

Elicit opinion and build consensus on the parameters of reform, drawing from as wide a constituency as possible of practitioners, academics and students. This phase could seek to represent public rather than official opinion and therefore is best led by a journal, and given that Indian Architecture and Builder has taken the initiative to begin the debate with this monthly column on education, it would be extremely helpful if the magazine could steer the debate further to this conclusion.
Constitute a panel of experts who will build on this popular will to draft out the new standards for regulating architectural education. This phase should be steered by the Council of Architecture, and the President of the Council can chair the panel.  However its constitution should not be confined to the Council, and it should have majority representation from a panel of eminent practitioners and teachers of architecture who will be widely recognised as being representative of the profession’s quest for excellence.  The constitution as well as the deliberations of this panel should be published on the website of the Council and should not be finalised until it has been subjected to public critique, and the attempt made to accommodate substantive points in the critique received to the utmost extent that is feasible.
Finally the Council of Architecture should steer the process of drafting the detailed processes by which the new regulations will be implemented. This will involve defining the panel of reviewers who will conduct accreditation reviews, detailed guideline documents for the review, as well as stipulating the time frame within which colleges will be asked to conform to the new regulations.

Even if we push this process on an aggressive fast-track basis, each of these stages will take a minimum of one year, and it will be difficult to complete the entire road map in less than five years.  Given the degree of change we have to cope with in the next fifty years, one’s first reaction would tend to be an impatience that questions why we have to wait five years for reform.  This only serves to underline the scale and urgency of the challenge we must face.  As the popular saying states, the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago and the second best time is right now.

To Design So As To Sustain

On 16 February 2018, I was invited to deliver the opening note for the conference track “Design and Sustain” at the 361 Degrees Conference in Mumbai on “Resilient City: Design, Build, Sustain”.  This is what I said.

We have gathered for this conference track to reflect on how to design and sustain.  I will start by repeating a quotation that I have used to begin almost every talk I have given on sustainable design over the last few years, for it has remained a favourite.  It is from William McDonnough who said, “It is not enough to be sustainable.  If you were to ask someone about how their relationship with their spouse was, and they answered ‘sustainable’, it is not very hopeful.”  This has coloured my approach to the subject.  To explain this approach, I will not show a PowerPoint presentation, which is a deliberate choice.  Rather than placing before you an idea represented by an image on a digital screen, I felt that the case I wish to argue is better served by taking on the challenge of trying to turn on the projector that lives inside each one of you.  For my goal is to touch hearts rather than explain an idea, because I would like to introduce this track by arguing that sustainability is first a state of being before it can be viewed as a system or structure of knowledge.

This is not how we have tended to approach the challenge.  As architects, we have conventionally approached the challenge of sustainability as a knowledge problem.  We argue that the profession is badly trained, and unaware of the ecological impact of the mode of design that constitutes the mainstream of architectural production.  To fix this problem, we feel it necessary to proselytise about sustainable design.  So, we seek to build awareness on issues such as climate-responsive and low-energy design, recycling systems and technologies, materials and products that promote sustainability, renewable energy, ecology, the water cycle, etc.  We propagate rating systems on sustainable design such as Griha, LEED, and Bream.  And we attend conferences such as this where we can hear enlightened speakers who are at the cutting edge of design and research on sustainability, expecting their work will offer us precepts that will light the path to be followed.

Now, I cannot make any claim whatsoever that this is wrong.  It is necessary, but as the logicians say “necessary but insufficient”.  It will take us only along the first few steps of our journey, and the major part of the journey requires attitude rather than knowledge, a personal relationship with the natural environment rather than knowledge about it.  The reason why a knowledge-based path is insufficient is that sustainability involves natural systems, and natural systems are inherently non-linear rather than linear.  To make a simplistic differentiation between these two kinds of systems: a linear system is one where the output of the system is directly proportionate to the input, whereas in a non-linear system the output is not proportionate to the input.  In a linear system, a huge input has a huge impact and a small input has a small impact.  But in a non-linear system a small input can have a huge impact and a huge input can have a small impact.

A knowledge based system is inherently linear, for knowledge is rational, and rationality rests on the linear links between cause and effect.   The knowledge-oriented education we all receive schools us into believing we inhabit a linear world, where if we know something, and act based on that knowledge, we will produce a certain result, and that is the motive for choosing what we know and how we act.  We think of the result we want – a sustainable world – and believe we may move toward that if we learn about sustainability, and implement that knowledge in our design process.  Action rests upon conceptual models of cause and effect, built through scientific research and rational analysis, subsequently applied in practice, and modified gradually through the feedback loop of practical experience.

But what happens when we inhabit non-linear systems where the relationship between cause and effect becomes fundamentally elusive to the point that it becomes difficult to construct reliable foundations of conceptual models?   A classic example of a non-linear system is the weather, which is why meteorologists have such a difficult time in being accurate in their forecasts beyond the extremely short term.  It is also why on an issue like climate change, despite getting warnings from most of the scientific community, it is still so difficult to get people to change their behaviour.  Because of the complex non-linearity of climate, one cannot draw logical connections between input and output – one can at best draw statistical correlations.  This not only gives sceptics a space to operate, it also becomes difficult to incentivise changes in behaviour.  Even a scientific expert who has ascertained that climate change is happening, cannot give you any concrete assurance that a specific change in your behaviour today will produce a definable result tomorrow. So how can you convince a person to radically change their lifestyle without any assurance that this great effort will produce a tangible and worthwhile result that can be visualised today?

Implementing a system that is dominantly linear usually involves what is termed the “last mile problem”.  Taking an electricity distribution system as an example, one can easily implement the backbone of the system, but the myriad number of final connections are the most difficult to implement.  In contrast, the stumbling block in implementing non-linear systems is a “first mile problem”: how do you get people to take the first fundamental steps when there is no clear conceptual model that facilitates giving any rational assurance on where those steps will lead them.  One can create some change through new knowledge and legislation, but if we rely only on this, change will be slower than what we need.  More significantly, our knowledge base may remain out of sync with the world to which it is to be applied.  We need to get people to fully appreciate what it means to inhabit a non-linear system, and how to seek harmony with it; to transcend our dominant reliance on linear logic, and supplement it with network logic.  What does this entail?

The first inherent property we must recognise in non-linear systems is that they exhibit the capacity for emergence.  An emergent system is a system characterised by fundamental properties that did not exist at all in an earlier state of the system.  One of the most cited examples of an emergent system is a termite’s nest.  To plot its equivalent on a human scale – a medium-sized termite’s nest can be equivalent to a human mega-structure that is two kilometres wide and three to four kilometres high.  Within this is incredible order and sustainability: there is functional zoning, traffic hierarchy, climate control, recycling, efficient waste disposal, graveyards, and so on.  For a long time, biologists wondered how this order was created, thinking there must be a special class of termites: leaders who directed how this order is to be created.  But experiments and observation failed to yield any such class of master-planning termite.  Then it was discovered it was a system that evolved without leadership or top-level control.  Every termite, as it moves, exudes a trail of a chemical classed as a pheromone – and there are different kinds of pheromones that result from different kinds of behaviour or intent.  When a termite moves, from the pheromone trail it can discern the pattern of termites that have moved before it.  Termites are genetically programmed with a set of simple rules that say things like “if you smell a pheromone trail like this, then place a piece of mud like that”.  And that is how the wonderful order of the termites’ nest emerges.  From this we can see the conditions for emergence:

  • High-synchrony and frequent moment-to-moment interaction
  • All actions leave a trace of themselves.
  • All traces are in the public domain and visible to all parts of the system.
  • There is an inherent tendency toward pattern recognition in the traces, usually involving specific responses to specific patterns
  • Most significantly, there is low preoccupation with grand design, and the focus is on immediate experience. Steven Johnson, whose book on emergence is a wonderful introduction to the subject, points out that the human brain is an emergent system that would cease to function if each neurone sought to be individually sentient with its own grand vision.  It works because each neurone just focuses on making connections with others, and patterns emerge from the connections made.
  • An emergent system develops from the bottom up toward higher states through iterative evolutionary spirals.

If we feel that emergence is a mode of functioning that is distant from us, that conclusion would a product of our education’s bias toward linear logic.  If we reflect on how we intuitively live, we find that we are, by nature, beings who live spontaneously by the principles of emergence.  Take the example of friendship.  We know that if we set out to find friends primarily through a knowledge or philosophy of friendship we would never have friends.  We have friends because when we meet for the first time them we focus on the immediate engagement, what we say to them, what we hear them say, the way their eyes light up, and not on an eventual goal or system of knowledge.  Then we recognise traces (memories of our engagement) and patterns in those traces (the empathy of shared likes, dislikes, and points of view).  Gradually the core of our friendship emerges, a property that was not present when we first met.

We have lost an emergent relationship with the natural environment.  This is because our knowledge bias has schooled us to view nature as a scientific fact, and this socialises a perception that creates a distance between nature and ourselves at several levels.  And I talk here largely of people whose profile dominates those present in this auditorium – people who are born, brought up, and currently living in urban environments.  The scientific perspective encourages us to delegate an understanding of nature to specialists such as scientists, and this distancing reduces nature to an aesthetic spectacle.  William Cronon writes on this in “Uncommon Ground”, the title essay in the collection edited by him, pointing out that we tend to recognise nature only when the visual spectacle is at a scale powerful enough to evoke wonder in us.  This happens in wilderness when we are moved by the majesty of a mountain, ocean, or forest; awed by being within a presence far greater than us.  When it is closer to home, we need the vantage of water or hills, or the presence of a strikingly colourful sunset to feel wonder.  Come down to the routine and mundane scales that most of us inhabit, and we think we are in an ordinary and fallen place distanced from nature.  Wonder hardly stirs within us when we look at the natural everyday: the shrubs in our backyard, the weeds in an empty lot, the call of urban birds like the crow or pigeon, the routine movement of sunlight, or the presence of rain and how the water flows away.

With this distancing, we lose the ability to read the signs of nature from which we may recognise the patterns to build an emergence in which we can participate.  Consequently, and perhaps biased by the origin of cities as ringed by fortified defences, we build an imagination of the city as a bounded entity, where the boundary designates a separation of the city within from nature without.  The only nature recognised within is that which contributes to the aesthetic spectacle of the city, recognised through a predictability enforced by straightjacketing it into recognisable geometry, or disciplining it with the mower or pruning shears.  We should, as John Thackara suggests, reimagine the city as a sponge; for the sponge has a defined shape as well as a porosity that allows flows through it.  Similarly, there are always natural flows moving through a city, and we need to be able to recognise and read their signs: a continuous daily reading that is necessary to develop the resilient adaptability of emergence that thrives on local richness without seeking to force it into conformance with predefined silos of ego and expertise.

This is something that must be learnt experientially: it cannot be constructed from knowledge.  Knowledge crowds our perceptions, so we become obsessed with the abstract reflective turn that will win us fame or fortune as creative innovators, and we lose sight of the experiential turn to careful listening to our environment with non-judgmental alertness of eyes, ears, nostrils and fingertips.  Knowledge leans toward an abstraction that shifts us toward a disembodied existence in the world: a disembodiment that has become enhanced in recent years where our existence is increasingly mediated by digital screens.  Knowledge preconditions the patterns we recognise, and this recognition blinds us to the potential that lies in the emergent patterns we may glean through our experiences in an environment to which we humbly offer a sensitive and perspicacious awareness.

We need to remember that we are more than intelligent beings, we are also conscious beings.  And our relationship with the environment is one that exists most vividly at the full range of our consciousness, transcending intelligent understanding to also cover one’s entire sense of being, as a living breathing organism inhabiting a world that is also alive.  For this reason, Anil Seth, Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, argues, in a TED talk, that while we may aim at an artificial intelligence we will never achieve an artificial consciousness.  Seth, through his rigorous experimental research, convincingly demonstrates that the reality we perceive is not a direct product of our perceptions and intelligence: it is a set of rational hallucinations produced by our brain through a process that is shaped by our experiences of consciousness.  And these experiences also embrace what flies below the radar of intelligent recognition, including the sensations of one’s own body: the sound of breath, the rhythm of heartbeat, the energy and freedom of muscles.  This is a cohesiveness of existence that can only be felt by a living being.

If we feel this as living beings, we must discern and appreciate that the natural environment we inhabit is also alive.  Maybe, not reflectively sentient in the way we are, but alive nonetheless.  When the richness of our own living consciousness expands to connect with this wider consciousness around us, we construct what the philosopher Morris Berman calls “a participating consciousness”: one that participates in the wider consciousness around to seek harmony with it, a far cry from the personalised consciousness that we currently worship and pursue.  A participating consciousness recognises that the signs of nature are subtle, and rigorous practice is required to recognise them.  We must become like the woodsman, who even when deep within an unfamiliar forest, is never lost and knows how to navigate his way out because he has the experience to recognise and read the angle of the sun, the position of the stars, the feel of the wind on his skin, the direction and range of noise, or the smells of the forest.  With this kind of experience, conversations of friendship emerge.  Our everyday world, apparent to our perceptions, picks up two conversations.  One delves inward into the self, into the inner aspirations of our souls.  And the other turns outward to the primordial rhythms of the natural world.  Two friendships develop, and the epiphany of sustainability occurs when it dawns on us that all conversations are with the same friend, for the conversations have led to an inextricable intertwining of the memory of the people and the memory of the land.

Our ancestors held such a participating consciousness, and many traditional communities in India today still do: that is the natural order of things, and it is only the recent abstractions of modernity that has displaced it from our lives, distancing nature from our perceptions to the point that sustainability has become a serious and urgent challenge.  This is not to romanticise ancient or traditional life as perfect, for it is deprived of a lot of things that are of paramount and indisputable value.  But today, modern urbanism has deprived us of this type of consciousness that is fundamental to the processes of life.  Without a participating consciousness, all the new knowledge and techniques that we pick up will have limited reach in serving the cause of sustainability.  Sustainability will happen only when the authenticity of one’s own inner being wholeheartedly feels it is an inseparable component of the web of life within which it is embedded.

I began with a quotation, so let me move into my conclusion with one.  This one is from the Celtic philosopher, poet, and one-time priest, John O’Donohue “I think that one of the things that humans have done, and especially Western consciousness, is that we have hijacked all the primary mystical qualities for the human mind; and we have made this claim that only the human self has soul, and everything else is de-souled or un-souled as a result of that.  And I think that is an awful travesty of presence, because I think that landscape has a soul, has a presence.  And I think that landscape, living in the mode of silence, is always wrapped in seamless prayer.”

So, in listening to the speakers today, be aware that you see only the tip of the iceberg, and do not think that the primary purpose for being here is to pick up the direct lessons they offer so that all you need do is go back home and apply them.  Use the lessons they offer wisely, but remember those lessons need to rest on a bigger foundation: one that responds to the call of a non-linear world.  We will attain a sustainable world only when each one of us transcends the linear world of knowledge to commit every day to a rigorous contemplative and emergent practice that jettisons filters of judgment to pay homage to the soul of the universe.

Some Advice When Applying for Internship in an Architectural Firm in India

Internship under a licensed architect is a mandatory requirement for receiving a professional degree in architecture from a university in India.  Consequently, like many other firms, CnT Architects, the practice that I head, is flooded with applications for internship positions.  The vast majority of them are very badly framed and worded.  Clearly the colleges in which these students are studying are not offering them proper guidance.

So, in an effort to heal this vacuum, I would like to put in my two bits worth and offer some advice to aspiring students.  If you are reading this post, and feel that some students you know would benefit from this advice, I request you to share this as widely as possible.

Finally, while this is written for internship applications, many of the points also apply to the first job application you will submit after graduation.

So here is the advice I have to offer:

  1. Apply well in time:

We get many applications for an internship that needs to start in a couple of weeks.  Firstly, positions tend to get filled well in advance.  Secondly, even if there is a vacancy, we would treat an application that arrives so late in the process as one that is submitted casually, and may not give it much weight.

I would suggest that you send out your applications about six months before your internship needs to start.  This means that your research on whom to apply to, and preparation of the portfolio that will accompany your application, are processes that need to begin about one year before your internship.

  1. Send customised applications:

Do not send an application to somebody you know very little about.  We often receive applications where the same email is sent to close to 500 people.  I do not know how students get hold of these email addresses, for in these mass emails many are sent to organisations that are not architectural firms: a fact that testifies to sloppy efforts.  Students often do not even have the sensitivity to hide the fact that these are mass emails sent to large numbers of people.

Clearly we will treat such applications as formulaic and uncommitted, and will not give them much consideration.  In addition, the more the addresses that a single email is sent to, the greater the likelihood that your application will never be seen by human eyes and will be despatched into oblivion by an automated spam filter.

If you want your application to be reviewed seriously, you should ensure that (a) this is clearly a single application focused on one specific firm; (b) you show prior knowledge about the firm you are applying to, and your application gives specific reasons why you are applying there; and (c) your application is phrased in your own wording – often, students from the same college send in applications with identical wording, which gives the impression that the student only knows how to parrot a predefined formula.

  1. Do prior research on whom you are applying to:

If you are going to send customised applications, an obvious prerequisite is that you research whom you will apply to.  Ask for advice on worthwhile firms to apply to.  Your teachers, and any practicing architects you may know, would be one set of sources for this information.

But an even better source would be seniors and other friends who have already completed internships.  Ask them for not only their own experiences, but also the stories they have heard from other interns.  Remember, that an intern is not going to be asked to design, and most interns tend to be assigned low-level tasks.  What you should be looking for are whether the interns had a true and deep learning experience.  This would come less from the tasks assigned, and more from the inside view of design and project process you get by being in the firm, the willingness of seniors in the firms to share what they know, and the exposure to a certain rigour of exploration and discussion on architecture.

Once you have got this preliminary shortlist, look up the websites of the firms you may apply to.  Try to avoid firms that produce formulaic work, and check the firm’s projects to see whether they reflect thoughtfulness, curiosity and passion on what architecture can be.

When you look up the firm’s website, take care to check whether they have specified a procedure or format for applications, and an email address to which applications should be sent.  Make sure you conform to such requests.  If you do not apply in the right format your application may not receive the consideration you need.  And make the effort to avoid causing irritation by cluttering up a senior architect’s inbox when the firm has taken the trouble to specify that applications should be directed elsewhere.

  1. Attach a thoughtful portfolio

Remember that firms receive multiple applications and have little time to review them.  Given that an experienced architect has trained and discerning visual judgment, the quickest form of review is to cast a quick glance at the portfolio.

So, first, never send in an application that does not contain a portfolio: we often receive applications that only attach a CV, and such applications are often not taken up for evaluation.  And second, and most importantly, always keep in mind that the sorting of applications into two piles, where only one pile is worthy of further consideration, will probably happen with a glance at the portfolio that is less than 60 seconds long.  A second longer appraisal will be granted only to those applications that qualify for the pile worthy of detailed consideration.

Therefore, it is essential that your portfolio has a unique visual identity.  Look at your portfolio, and if it looks visually similar to those your friends are preparing, then you need to work further on it.  Make sure that your portfolio is not visually cluttered – it is better to have more pages that are sparingly and thoughtfully composed for clarity than few pages crammed edge to edge with excessive information.  Focus on visual communication, nobody is going to read long passages of text: remember you are applying to people who will judge the quality of your work from visuals rather than text.

And one practical point: try and limit the size of the email attachment that contains your portfolio.  Many mail servers will filter out emails with attachments that are larger than 10 MB.  Remember, your application will only be viewed on a digital screen; nobody is going to print it out, so you do not need high-resolution images.

  1. Define yourself

Finally, your portfolio should reflect you as a unique person.  Do not look at some predetermined standard of sophisticated design.  A committed architect will prefer an energetic and open-minded learner to someone who may be a sophisticated designer but has a closed mind.  It is acceptable to show your mistakes as long as you demonstrate what you have learned from them.  Every person is unique, at a different point in their journey, and you should not try and hide this fact in your portfolio.  Rather than attempting conformance to some predefined standard, your portfolio should reflect the stage of your journey and your commitment to always continue and extend it.

Changing Demographics of the Architectural Profession in India

The architectural profession in India is represented by two organisations: The Indian Institute of Architects (IIA) and The Council of Architecture (CoA).  Each has a different role, and therefore a different constituency to which it must focus.

IIA is the forum where members of the profession can gather and exchange ideas and represent the profession to the public.  Therefore, the organisation exists to promote the profession of architecture, and the constituency it focuses toward is the fraternity of architects.  IIA is the older of the two organisations, and celebrated its centenary last year.

CoA, on the other hand, is a statutory regulator.  It is the more recent organisation, brought into being by The Architects Act of 1972.  It defines and protects the qualifying standard by which one is legally entitled to call oneself an architect, so that the public knows what is claimed by those who represent themselves as holders of this professional qualification.  It also regulates architectural education as the primary pathway that leads to the professional qualification of being an architect.  Regulatory standards are established to serve the public, and therefore, CoA’s constituency is the public rather than the fraternity of architects.

The purpose of this analysis is to look at some changes in the demographics of the architectural profession, and the impact it would have upon both these organisations.  I focus here on two demographic factors that are changing the composition of how the profession is constituted in India: age and gender.


At the time when the Architects Act 1972 came into being, there were less than 20 colleges of architecture across the country.  Most of the architects who registered were those who had already received their qualification in the profession, and many had been practicing for several years.  Therefore, the age demographic of that time constituted the profession as one made up of mature adults rather than young adults.

This is changing very rapidly.  The total number of registered architects is believed to be in the region of between 70,000 to 80,000 (this is from anecdotal evidence from those who are likely to know; CoA does not display current totals on its website, but we could use this as a working assumption).  There are currently 462 recognised colleges of architecture in India, as per the CoA website.  Colleges typically start with a sanctioned input admission of 30-40 students per year, but many go on to receive approval for higher figures, with some receiving sanction for up to 120 students per year.  If one assumes that on average there are 35-40 students graduating from each college, that means that about 16,000 to 18,000 young architects are entering the workforce every year.  Even if many of those do not continue to practice architecture, the age demographic will rapidly transform the profession into one dominated by young architects.

Some of this has already happened.  The CoA website does give some statistics on age-wise breakup.  These statistics are older (last updated in October 2015), for they list the total number of registered architects as 56,013, whereas the current total is higher.  But even at this lower total, 82.1% of the registered architects are below the age of 45.  This percentage is poised to rise rapidly in the years to come.

The major impact of this change will be felt by IIA.  IIA membership is voluntary, and currently constitutes roughly one-third of the total number of registered architects – so it is already in a minority where its claim of representing the profession could be challenged.  Further, peruse the attendees at any IIA event restricted to IIA members, and you would be hard pressed to find architects below the age of 45.  When I have asked younger architects why they do not join IIA, they respond that they do not see any benefit from doing so.  They perceive IIA as an old boys’ club that has little relevance to their concerns.  At one time IIA could afford to function as an old boy’s club, as that was the demographic of the profession.  But as demographics of age rapidly and inevitably change, unless it reforms to attract young members, IIA’s minority status will take on alarming proportions.

To win younger members, IIA must first earn their trust.  To do this, it must undertake radical measures such as transforming into a dynamic learning organisation looking to the future, rather than one that preserves the status quo; creating a library of quality learning resources, including publications; providing an opportunity, particularly on social media, where young (and old) architects can express their concerns and interact with each other; and creating a website with contemporary design, with a structure that will provide an online location for the forums and exchanges that will energise the profession.

If IIA moves further into minority status, this could have an impact on CoA as well.  Currently, as stipulated by the Architects Act 1972, the constitution of the Council incorporates representation from the profession by admitting “Five architects possessing recognized qualifications elected by the Indian Institute of Architects from among its members”.  This legal framing made sense in 1972, as at that time it was inconceivable that there could be any other professional forum for architects other than IIA.  However, there is no legal foundation that allows IIA to claim monopoly status as the only forum that can represent the profession.  All it needs is a few energetic leaders from the young to create a new forum that appeals to young architects, and the membership of the new forum can overnight exceed IIA membership by two to three times or more.  The new forum could then legally challenge this language from the Architects Act cited above, and through court orders force a reconstitution of how CoA draws representation from the profession.


CoA displays on its website a breakup by gender of registered architects.  Here too, the statistics are old: although they claim to be updated on the same date as the statistics on age-wise breakup (October 2015), the total of registered architects is different, indicating a number of 64,642, whereas the age-wise analysis yields a total of 56,013.  Leaving this discrepancy aside, the statistics show that in 2015 about 55% were male and 45% female.  While this still shows a male domination, it is likely that if this was measured in 1972, it would have shown a close to 80% male domination.  Representation of women in the profession is clearly on the rise.  This is likely to rise further, for most colleges report a majority female enrolment, with women constituting about 55% to 60% of total enrolment.  Many of these women do not continue to practice architecture, so there is likely to be a mismatch between the percentage of women architects graduating from college versus those in practice five to ten years after graduation.  While a female-dominated demographic is still some time away, it can no longer be dismissed as an unlikely prospect.  The fact is that the changing demographic is going to pose a challenge to the status quo where the profession is viewed only from a male perspective.

This is part of the challenge IIA faces in claiming continued relevance: it must not only represent the concerns of young architects; it should respond to those of young female architects.  This means taking on a set of difficult challenges such as the glass ceiling that prevents women rising to senior positions in architectural firms; social biases where clients do not place female partners in architectural firms at the same level as their male counterparts; support networks that help women achieve work-life balance, recognising that the challenges women face are far more imposing than those that men face; outreach programmes that educate the public on the need to place women professionals at the same level as their male counterparts; and gender biases in design, where urban design and architecture propose typologies with an ingrained male bias.

The gender issue also has legal implications, and CoA as the statutory regulator must take these implications into mind.  A primary issue is that of sexual harassment, an issue that the profession has been silent on, and silence from senior members of the profession makes them complicit in the problem.  Here there is established law that must be followed: The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal Act) 2013.  This act does not just stipulate measures that redress problems of sexual harassment: it also stipulates proactive measures that firms must take to create a conducive climate that facilitate recognition and redressal of problems of sexual harassment.  This includes setting up of an Internal Complaints Committee that will sensitively tackle these problems, sensitisation of partners and employees on the issue, and legal demands of conformance the firm must enforce with clients and all other persons and entities the firm deals with.  To conform to this act, it is not sufficient that the partners of architectural firms refrain from sexual harassment: the failure to implement these proactive measures is also a crime.

CoA, as a statutory regulator determining who is entitled to call themselves an architect, is entitled to enforce a code of ethics.  Gross violation of this code constitutes grounds for disbarment.  This code requires reform so that it specifically addresses gender issues: recognition of the law on sexual harassment, as well as prohibition of discrimination based on gender.

In conclusion, the demographics of the architectural profession in India is exhibiting structural changes that will demand jettisoning the habitual lenses with which we have viewed the situation thus far.  Both IIA and CoA will fail in their mandate if they do not urgently and seriously take these changes into account.

Architecture, Worship, Ritual and Time

Some years ago, I needed to spend three whole days in the Kukke Subrahmanya temple in southwest India.  Faith here takes the form of idol-worshipping rituals that have sustained over centuries, supervised and conducted by Brahmin priests.  I have never been an adherent of such orthodoxy, being personally drawn more to the nirgun (beyond form or attribute) tradition in Hinduism.  And while the temple is considered religiously significant, when compared to many others in the region its architecture is not ranked very high.  So I went in wondering how to sustain the tolerance to last through three days.

Toward the end of the first day my perception began to radically change.  Spending many hours there led to a slowly inculcated awareness of a cadence of bodies, sounds, scents and light that moved to a different rate of time when compared to the world outside the temple.  Outside, time made you aware of its assertive pace, persistently shoving its face in front of yours with a degree of unsettling unpredictability that forced continual adjustment to its demands.  Inside was so different: time moved so much slower.  Your immersion in a rhythm that had sustained over centuries, one that showed no signs of rapid change, meant you were now in a time whose cycle was in tune with the wind and the stars: a slow tempo tuned to an eternal energy whose scale was far beyond that of paltry individual lives.  Each person in the temple seemed alone amid a teeming crowd; but not lonely, for they were firstly secure in the internalized and intensely personal companionship of this primordial rhythm, and secondly the resonance of others in the crowd heightened their own intimate vibrations.

My earlier visits to temples had always been short and specific, to participate in a puja (ritual of worship) that lasted maybe an hour or two, and that short duration did not provoke me to think beyond the scale of the ritual.  This led me to believe that people went to a temple because the liturgical practices within it provided access to the divine, and the architecture of spaces of worship was subservient to liturgy, acting primarily as its container.  This, I sense, is the prevalent perception among contemporary architects.  Earlier, and even today, liturgy is perceived as springing from established spiritual tradition, and therefore design often follows traditional idiom.  But now there is a greater openness, and while liturgy has not changed radically, architecture uses the freedom of modernity to explore new possibilities.  But the earlier subservience to liturgy remains, and the impulse is to explore how space, light and material can heighten the experience of liturgy.

Looking back at my experience at Kukke Subrahmanya, and the investment of time I put into being there, I wonder if we are looking at it correctly.  Architecture is not subservient to liturgy.  Both seek to serve the same purpose: to shift the speed of time, reducing it from the pace of everyday life down to a slow and transcendental pulse.


This short essay was originally published in the 50th anniversary issue of Faith & Form, No. 3, 2017

Architectural Education and Regulating Architecture in India

In India, we have a single organisation that is the sole regulator of all aspects of the profession: the Council of Architecture (CoA) which was brought into being, and given legal standing, by the Architects Act 1972. This means that CoA regulates both the licensing of practicing professionals and regulates architectural education. To practice as an architect, one must have one’s name formally recorded in the register of architects maintained by CoA, without which one is not legally entitled to call oneself an architect. And similarly, to run an institution that awards degrees in architecture, it is necessary that the institution is entered in the register of accredited colleges, for which it must pass inspections that are conducted by CoA. Having a single organisation carrying out both these functions is not a universal practice in all parts of the world. In fact, it is the opposite: many countries deliberately keep them segregated. And there is a reason for this.

Licensing of professionals is meant to protect the public interest by establishing a threshold of competence that must be crossed to claim the title of ‘architect’. This means that the architect should know how to integrate the process of design with basic safety and performance criteria such as the ability to design in conformance with prevailing building codes, efficiently amalgamate the demands of structure, material, and building services, and work as per foundational professional and ethical norms of architectural practice. The intangible and qualitative aspects of design are not part of the regulatory process, and are left to market and cultural processes to resolve. Being based on a qualifying threshold means that licensing of professionals is oriented toward setting minimum standards.

Regulating education, in contrast, is about provoking excellence: the opposite of setting minimum standards. This is done by avoiding a checklist of curriculum that all colleges must conform to. Colleges are granted complete autonomy on curriculum, admissions and assessment so that they have a free reign to pursue excellence. They are then asked to define goals that will define the pursuit of excellence that differentiates them from others, and the parameters that they will use to measure their performance in this pursuit. The primary purpose of the regulator’s inspection is to pose the challenge of a rigorous peer review that critiques how well the college is performing against goals of excellence it has set for itself. To ensure that there is a cross-check of a basic threshold to ensure the process does not go awry, the work of the graduating batch is examined to ensure that it will serve the profession well. Since regulation is primarily aimed at stimulating differentiation rather than enforcing conformance, it avoids a minimum standards approach.

India’s decision to have a single regulator for both licensing and education has meant that education has followed licensing into a ‘minimum standards’ approach. In fact, the reference document that CoA has laid down for evaluating colleges is titled “Minimum Standards of Architectural Education”, which directs the regulatory process towards enforcing conformance with a checklist laid down by the document. It is essential that we segregate the two functions of licensing professionals and regulating education so that their methodologies do not contaminate each other. To segregate them into two legally distinct entities would require modification of the Architects Act: a legislative procedure that will require parliamentary sanction, and will be a long and cumbersome process. For the immediate future, CoA should create two autonomous wings within itself that are kept at arm’s length from each other so that each aligns with the core imperatives they must carry out: licensing must enforce minimum standards and regulation of education must provoke excellence.

On the Value of Vastu

In India, we encounter a demand to conform to the prescriptions that go under the name of “Vastu”: ancient spiritual rules that guide how you must plan and design any building.  The Vastu Shastra (which is the Indian equivalent of the Chinese tradition of Feng Shui) has gained an increasing following over the years from believers who claim conformance to the rules leads to good fortune, and violation to bad fortune.  Real estate developers say that today it is far more difficult to sell apartments if they are not Vastu-compliant.  Many architects, who have undergone a modern and rational training, complain that they are forced into an unnecessary constraint on their design creativity, and share frustrations with peers about this client idiosyncrasy they must put up with.

The proponents of Vastu say it is scientific and it works.  The detractors say that it is unscientific and irrational superstition.  Let us start with the argument of architects who are detractors.  While one may feel intuitive sympathy with them, one is forced to be sceptical about their argument, for the same people would defend their sense of aesthetic judgement as something that springs from a higher realm that cannot be subjected exclusively to reason. If one defends one important aspect in design as being beyond reason, one cannot dismiss another just because it falls short of the conventions of scientific rationality.

Perhaps the proponents of Vastu are also wrong in seeking to justify it as “a set of scientific rules”.   As a sceptic, one may react negatively to the question “Is Vastu true?”  But is this the correct question?  If we revert to the wisdom of another of our great sacred texts – the Bhagavad Gita – a spiritual quest requires that we detach ourselves from the fruits of our actions.  If we follow sacred prescriptions on how to build, we should not assume that the act and consequences of building are tied in a direct cause-effect relationship, and that the impulse to adhere to such prescriptions is justified by imminent material and other benefits.  Rather, our quest for the sacred should be driven by an internalised drive to unite with a higher level of divine reality – an impulse that is recognised by many religions besides Hinduism.  If one pursues Vastu only for material success in this world, this becomes a quest to go straight to Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth) and bypass her consort Vishnu (the Preserver of Spiritual Balance).  That is not how it is meant to work!

A lady I met some years ago challenged me on my opinions regarding Vastu.  When I admitted my scepticism, she asked, “Doesn’t every site have its aura that must be respected?” Suddenly it became a different question, which was much more reasonable.  Every site does have its own character and aura.  Perhaps, at one time Vastu provided a set of guidelines that helped connect with this aura, and it was this union that was the goal, not a self-centred desire for benefits.  But a set of explicit rules that might have been valid at one time will not always hold good in perpetuity.  Contexts change, usually quite drastically, and the continued applicability of a static set of external rules becomes more and more problematic over time.  If one should be sensitive enough to perceive the aura of a site, the subtlety that such perception demands must spring from an ongoing capacity for internalised recognition rather than an external aid like a rule-book.  As architects, can we develop such a sensitivity?

There is a story of a prince who was sent to a mystic for training on how to be fit to rule as a king.  The mystic lived on the edge of the forest, and instructed the prince to go and live in the depths of the forest for three months, return and report on what he had heard.  After the first three months, the prince came back and reported, “I heard a tiger killing a deer.  I heard a thunderstorm.  I heard an elephant crashing through the undergrowth.”  The mystic admonished him, “You have not listened properly.  Go back to the forest for three more months, listen more carefully, and come back again to tell me what you heard.”  This time, the prince returned to describe sounds that were far subtler than the dramatic events perceived in his first stint in the forest.  He spoke of the gurgle of tiny brooks, the rustle of a faint breeze, and the movement of insects.  Again, he was told he had not listened properly, and was directed to go back for three more months to repeat the exercise.  He did not last three months, and after a month came running back, bursting with excitement, crying, “I heard it!  I heard it!”  When asked, he ecstatically exclaimed, “I heard a flower blooming.  I heard dew forming on the grass.  I heard sunlight hitting the ground.”  The mystic then told the young prince, “You may go back to your kingdom.  You are now fit to be a king.”

Our classical traditions, with the rigour of the guru-shishya parampara, fostered such a sensitivity.  As a student of music, if you sang the same raag often enough, with the help of the guru’s guidance you eventually heard things you had never perceived before.  That ability to hear it was always there within you, the guru just helped to bring it out.  Such inspiration lies in the sites we work with.  We don’t often listen to it – but it is there.  And acquiring this sensitivity demands a commitment to sadhana: a rigorous, repetitive and ego-transcending practice.  It is only through years of sadhana that we can find this level of discerning wisdom and action: following a rule book is not a workable short-cut.

There is a gesture often used in Indian classical dance, when before the performance the dancer touches the stage and then touches her eyes.  This is a gesture of humility, recognising the sanctity of all space including the stage, seeking divine forgiveness for having to stamp on it with her feet, even though she is doing so to praise the divine.  After this gesture of humility, the dance begins, and the mastery and wisdom the dancer has discovered through her sadhana begins to reveal itself.

We should imbibe the lesson to be learnt from the classical dancer.   As architects, we indulge in such greater violence to the ground we step on.  If our first step onto the site embodied her level of humility and reverence, the spiritual would cover the same ground as the ecological.  And like the dancer, we should think long and hard about what our second step should be.  We should refrain from taking that second step until we know that our sadhana has empowered us to act in consonance with the consciousness and beauty that imbues the world.

Our ancient tradition taught us that the spiritual, the ethical and the natural are intertwined.  But we seem to be trying our best to forget this. We treat the world as a passive receptacle to be exploited for personal gain, and grab on to short-cuts that we think will make it easier to do so.  Even if we are architects who eschew Vastu, if we practice our discipline primarily to earn fame and fortune, we succumb to the same ego-driven desire as those who blindly follow Vastu as a short-cut to good fortune.

We will connect the act of architecture with a sacred realm only if we begin with a patient, non-verbal, non-judgmental, reverential attitude of absolute humility, and persistently carry that attitude into a sadhana that we hope will make us worthy of being in the world.  If we do not do this, we shall fall short of the wisdom of our spiritual tradition.  We may adhere to sacred texts like the Vastu Shastra, believing that we are anchored in divine tradition merely because those texts are ancient.  But we shall remain disconnected from their true intent, and be doing a disservice to that tradition.

If we wish to be architects in the true sense of the word, our first task is to commit to the sadhana of architecture.


This is a modified version of an essay originally published in “Indian Architect & Builder”, Vol. 15(02), October/November 2001, p.30

A Change to this Blog

I often introduce myself as an architect who is easily distracted by other subjects.  And as a result, I have been writing on a diverse range of issues other than architecture.

However, I realise that not everyone has the same range of interests as I do.  Therefore, for simplicity, I am splitting my writings across two locations.  And the purpose of this post is to get the message across to that small band of followers who have subscribed here (thank you so much for being there).

My writings on architecture and urbanism will remain here at WordPress.  So if that is what you are interested in following, then you need do nothing.

But my other writings, on fields such as politics, culture and education, will now move to Medium.  So if you are interested in staying in touch with those writings, you will need to find me and follow me there.

Are Architectural Internships Necessary?

Originally published on ArchitectureLive

An undergraduate degree in architecture can be of two types: professional or non-professional.  The professional degree is a sufficient academic qualification for obtaining a legal license to practice architecture.  With the non-professional degree, a further graduate degree is needed to qualify for a professional license, but the degree can be applied to non-practicing work allied with architecture, such as journalism, history, academia, or work in a practice at a level below that of partnership.

Practically all architectural undergraduate programmes in India are professional degrees, and ten semesters (five years) in length.  Therefore, this analysis will confine itself to Indian professional degree programmes, of which all demand that internship in a design practice constitute a part of the programme.  There are two models that are followed.  The first, which had been the dominant model till quite recently, calls for an internship of one semester duration, usually in the seventh or eighth semester.  The second, a more recent introduction, doubles the internship duration to two semesters at the end of the course: that is the ninth and tenth semesters.  Both models treat the necessity of internship as axiomatic, and it is this axiom I seek to deconstruct here.

The axiom rests on four underlying assumptions:

  1. The purpose of the college is to make graduates employable in practice.
  2. Ten semesters are more than the necessary time a student needs to spend within college, and one or two semesters can be easily spared out of this to prioritise the internship.
  3. Exposure to design practice is a prerequisite to acquiring a license to practice.
  4. The practical exposure gained in an office is a necessary part of the training necessary to qualify an architect as the holder of a professional degree.

I examine these assumptions one by one.

The College Should Make Graduates Employable in Practice
This is a commonly heard refrain: one that is deeply troubling.  A practice is easily positioned to cover gaps in technical exposure in young graduates.  All one need do is apprentice the young architect with a senior professional who mentors her/him, and if the youngster is a committed learner, within a few months she/he has reached the ability to work independently.  However, the practice is not equipped to cover gaps in the ability to think creatively, rigorously, and independently.  The kind of mentoring needed here is difficult to absorb within the inherent routines of practice, and only colleges can lay the foundations for this ability.

What happens when practices are only able to find graduates whose abilities are technical rather than creative and critical.  The practice finds it difficult to differentiate itself, and it becomes just like any other practice.  An undifferentiated practice becomes what economists define as a commodity: a good or service that cannot be effectively differentiated by qualitative measures, and is primarily differentiated quantitatively, with the dominant measure being price.  This breeds the situation we find today in India: a small handful of self-motivated creative practices, and a majority that is driven to undercut each other in the fees they quote.  Education’s desire to serve practice, if made a dominant goal, will only undermine it in the long run.  Colleges must realise that their primary obligation is toward the discipline of architecture, and not toward the practice of architecture.

One or Two Semesters Can Easily Be Spared for Internship
There has been a historical reason why professional degree programmes are of five-year duration.  Learning design is primarily learning by doing rather than learning by understanding, and therefore, the core of architectural education has always been the design studio where one learns design by personally doing design.  Learning by doing is a process that cannot be easily compressed in time.  Going by international standards for professional degrees, the year-by-year stages through which this process evolves, that necessitate five years, are:

  • Year 1: Supplement verbal and linear logic with visual and associative logic. Understand design process through basic design exercises.  Learn basics of theory and history of design.  Develop confidence for creative exploration, rather than be preoccupied with being correct. Develop spontaneity of thinking with one’s hand, and not just with one’s brain.
  • Year 2: Learn to carry out simple architectural design projects, gradually moving to how design can enrich life in the way it captures propositional value.
  • Year 3: Extend architectural design abilities by learning to design complex projects with an impactful context.
  • Year 4: Extend design abilities to be able to handle complexity, context and scale, learning how to organise multiple buildings on a site, and the links between large sites, their ecology, and how design can respect the site.
  • Year 5: Prior to graduation, use the thesis project to develop one’s identity as an architect, taking a specific position on the contribution one aspires to make to the discipline.

Each of these steps is challenging, complex, and difficult to handle in less than two semesters.  Moreover, they need focus within a freedom that is possible only in college, distanced from the commercial and political exigencies of practice, so all of this time of ten semesters must be within the college.  We should take heed of the rest of the world where any academic programme that is less than ten semesters within college is not considered a professional degree.

Exposure to Design Practice is a Prerequisite to Acquiring a License to Practice
This is unquestionable, as one should not acquire a license to practice architecture without practical experience within a practice.  But it does not necessarily follow that this experience must come while still in college, or that one or two semesters is a sufficient duration.  Here too, there is valuable precedent in many parts of the world where, unlike the situation in India, the degree is not a sufficient qualification for acquiring a license to practice.  After obtaining a degree, it is necessary to work in a firm for two to three years, and only after acquiring the necessary experience one qualifies to sit for a licensing examination.  This examination is unconnected to the degree, and is typically administered by a body that is not connected with regulating education.  The examination does not seek to check the creative or philosophical abilities of candidates, with focus being more on assessing the ability to design as per building codes, and understanding of construction, structure, building utilities, and standards of professional practice.  One must pass this examination to acquire a license to practice architecture, ensuring that all licensed architects start with a minimum of two to three years of work experience.  In India, the need to include internship as a part of the undergraduate degree programme arises more from the shortcomings of the professional licensing system than from the intrinsic requirements of education.

Office Exposure is a Necessary Part of Undergraduate Education
This rests on the assumption that exposure to the practical dimension of design is necessary for completing the set of abilities of a graduating architect.  This assumption is unquestionable, but its corollary that this exposure can only be found in an office is erroneous.  The theoretical and practical dimensions are not to be studied in isolation: the key is how one integrates them in the design process.  Architecture students need to learn that design does not spring solely from their creative and intellectual abilities, and that the inherent tectonic logic of structure, material, construction sequence, and utilities also play a role in shaping the design.  The quality of a design springs from the elegance with which this integration is achieved.  Practices are not an environment that can provide this mentoring: it can only be taught through the continuous guidance possible in an academic design studio.

If the intern comes without having learnt this integration, her/his utility in an office is very low.  The intern is thus assigned the lowest level of technical tasks, with little guidance on how their task connects to wider issues.  Effective training in integrating the practical dimension into the design process remains elusive to the student of architecture.

While still in college, a student may voluntarily intern in an office during vacations, and this should be allowed and encouraged.  But making internship a mandatory segment of a professional degree programme only serves to undermine the quality of education provided: consequently, both student and discipline suffer.  Mandatory internship should be made a part of the licensing procedure rather than the degree programme.  Colleges should realise they must teach the student how to integrate the practical, creative, and theoretical dimensions.  Mandatory internships deprive them of the time required to do this, and allow them to abdicate a crucial part of their responsibility to practices.