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

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

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

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

An Urbanism of Finitude

Photograph by Samiran Chakraborty on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regulating Architectural Practice: Thoughts on a Recent Judgment from the Supreme Court of India

Photo Credit: Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

On 17 March 2020, a bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi in the Supreme Court of India passed a milestone judgment affecting how architectural practice will be regulated in India.  The Court noted that the Architects Act 1972 created the Council of Architecture (CoA) as the statutory regulator on architecture in India, and only a person registered with CoA is entitled to be called an architect.  In the case before it, the Court passed a judgment focussed on two questions:

  1. Can a person who is not registered with CoA be allowed to practice architecture?
  2. Can a public body, or any legal entity, appoint a person who is not registered with CoA to a post whose prior designation includes the word ‘architect’?

In making this judgment, the Court (as it is constrained to do) noted its role is to uphold the law and not to enforce what is desirable, for to do the latter is to intrude into matters of policy which are the sole prerogative of the legislature and therefore outside the Court’s purview.  Consequently, its judgment must restrict itself to a plain reading of the law, going beyond this only if a plain reading leads to a logically or legally untenable conclusion.  The prevailing clause in this case is Section 37 of the Architects Act 1972 which states, “no person other than a registered architect, or a firm of architects, shall use the title and style of architect.”   The Court remarked that a plain reading of this clause is sufficient as it does not lead to any untenable conclusion, and on the basis of this reading it is very clear that the legal constraint is only to using the title and style of architect and no constraint is imposed on the practice of architecture.  Therefore, on the first question the judgment was that the practice of architecture is not restricted to those persons who are registered with CoA.  Any other person or legal entity can practice architecture as long as they do not claim the title of ‘architect’.  The judgment noted that comparable legislations in the legal and medical professions, which precede the Architects Act 1972, are quite specific in constraining who can practice the profession.  The fact that such constraint was not adopted in the Architects Act suggested to the Court that Parliament in its wisdom believed such a constraint is not applicable to architecture.  On the second question, the Court ruled that since the designation of the post includes the word ‘architect’, such posts are available only to persons who are authorised to use the title of ‘architect’, namely persons registered with CoA.

The judgment has provoked great alarm and consternation among the architectural fraternity in India, the general reaction being concern that opening up architectural practice in this unrestricted manner will undeniably cause a deplorable deterioration in the quality of architecture we can expect in the future, for the production of architecture will now be opened up to people who are not trained for that purpose.  The call is being made by many architects that the profession should unite to demand that the Architects Act 1972 be amended to remove this poorly chosen wording in the original act, replacing it with language that explicitly restricts the practice of architecture to those who are registered with CoA.  However, for clarity in this matter, it is important to recognise that the welfare of architects should not be considered synonymous with the welfare of architecture.  There is no doubt that this judgment is detrimental to the welfare of architects.  The question I wish to examine here is whether it is detrimental to the welfare of architecture.

To appreciate this important difference, we must begin by acknowledging that the purpose of a regulator is to serve the public interest, and not the interests of the profession.  The two cannot be equated for professionals can be captivated by self-interest.  Their interests are the province of professional forums such as the Indian Institute of Architects, and even professional interests are served by forums staying distinctly separate from regulators.  Serving the public interest is about setting up minimum thresholds of safety and accountability.  Whereas serving the profession should be about provoking and promoting excellence.  If the two are not separated, we will get a minimum standards approach contaminating forums where the intent should be excellence.  This has already happened in India with the Architects Act 1972 placing the licensing of architects and the regulation of architectural education under the same regulator, namely CoA.  This has led to a minimum standards approach being adopted in education, and has led to a deterioration in the average quality of architectural education.  In fact, the reference document produced by CoA that lays out the regulatory system for architectural education is titled “Minimum Standards of Architectural Education.”  There has been critique that the Indian Institute of Architects, with exception of a few regional chapters, has been largely coasting on a minimum standards approach as well.  But that is a discussion for another day, and I will confine myself here to the regulatory system for licensing architects.

The core concern expressed by architects is that once open season has been declared on architectural practice, then unqualified persons who cannot appreciate the technicalities of construction will be allowed to practice architecture.  If a person without the appropriate education practices architecture, then the public is subjected to hazard as such persons do not know the basics of construction and safety, and are not in a position to understand statutory building codes stipulated to protect public welfare.  The Supreme Court acknowledged this problem, but observed that its resolution did not lie within its province.  Statutory approvals for buildings are granted by municipalities or other such jurisdictionally defined entities.  The Court noted that it must be assumed that such entities will apply the appropriate wisdom to stipulate that only people with the necessary technical knowledge be granted the right to sign as the designer of a building on drawings and technical documents that constitute a legal application seeking permission to build.  For the purpose of discussion here, let us assume that these municipalities and other such entities will exercise this appropriate wisdom, and that architectural practice is restricted to architects and civil/structural engineers.  So if an engineer designs a building, we come to an important question that must guide our assessment: How is the building designed by an engineer different from one designed by a professionally trained architect?

In his book An Outline of European Architectureoriginally published in 1943, Nicholas Pevsner made the statement that is probably his most cited quotation, “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture. Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.”  If we apply this definition to the question we have defined, it will lead us to conclude that engineers will tend to design buildings, whereas architecture can only be produced by architects.  There is  truth in Pevsner’s declaration that all buildings are not architecture, although I would contest his locating that difference in aesthetic appeal, for that would reduce architecture to a spectacle to be viewed rather than a space to be inhabited and experienced.  The quality of how architecture is differentiated from building is better captured by Juhani Pallasmaa in his seminal classic The Eyes of the Skinwhere he says, “In the experience of art, a peculiar exchange takes place; I lend my emotions and associations to the space and the space lends me its aura, which entices and emancipates my perceptions and thoughts.”   If buildings are the technical means to offer shelter, architecture transcends this mere technicality when it is able to offer an aura that the inhabitant can engage with such that this aura ‘entices and emancipates’ her/him.  Let us use the term ‘aura of architecture’ to describe such an aura.  This brings us to a different form of our original question: Does a professional training in architecture guarantee that qualified architects can always imbue their work with the aura of architecture?

One would have to admit that it does not, and to assume that it does is to confuse cause and effect, where the cause is a professional training in architecture and the effect is the aura of architecture.  The demand that architectural practice must be legally restricted to those who receive a degree in architecture is predicated on the assumption that this cause and effect are inextricably linked such that one will inevitably produce the other.  This assumption is erroneous, and consequently dangerous, on multiple counts:

  • The cause does not necessarily produce the effect: Walk around any modern city and observe the buildings designed by professionally trained architects.  Across the world, one tends to come across the same mix of quality: a dominant majority of banal and ordinary buildings, a few that are downright ugly, some that are admired by architects which their inhabitants either dislike or are indifferent to, and a very small minority imbued with the aura of architecture.  The banal majority remain within Pevsner’s definition of buildings that do not qualify as architecture.  There are many factors that can link the cause and desired effect, foremost among them being the quality of training on offer and the calibre of individuals undergoing the training.  The protocols that aim to ensure that cause and effect be linked lie outside the province of legal regulation.  Therefore, legal regulation cannot make the assumption that the two are linked.  Legal regulation can only focus on basic technical standards of safety; the aura of architecture cannot be produced through law.
  • The effect can be produced without the cause: If we stipulate that you cannot produce the aura of architecture without a degree in architecture, we would have to discard as worthless the contributions of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Eileen Gray, Buckminster Fuller, Luis Barragan, Carlo Scarpa, Tadao Ando, Peter Zumthor, and Didi Contractor.  You may not value the work of all these designers, and some could be critiqued as lacking the aura of architecture.  But the inescapable fact is that all of them produced works of architecture that are highly admired without acquiring a degree in architecture.
  • A precondition of the cause can suppress genuine creativity: This is particularly applicable to a country like India where we have a great deal of valuable built heritage produced by an indigenous wisdom that does not rely on formal professional qualifications.  While we may not have the kind of society today that could produce entire cities like Jaiselmer and Jodhpur, a great deal of this creativity is still alive in a rich and varied network of craft traditions across the country.  A system that is predicated on legal codes and protocols that protect formal professional qualifications pushes the creativity of these indigenous traditions to the margins where it struggles to survive and continues to decline in economic viability.
  • A precondition of the cause can marginalise the poor and vulnerable: In John Turner’s classic essay Housing as a Verbhe argues that we tend to define housing as a noun, thus perceiving it in terms of standardised products produced by professionals.  However, it should be seen as a verb, an ongoing process by which people improve and enrich their lives.  By defining product based standards, we construct thresholds of affordability and marginalise those whose economic circumstances push them below that threshold.  Moreover, product based systems enforce lock-ins to specific lifestyles that are not necessarily appropriate to need.  Consider a migrant who moves from village to city to improve his lot in life.  His first step as a migrant is not necessarily as a nuclear family.  Initially, he may come alone, leaving his wife and children in the village.  As the next step, he facilitates the migration of a brother/male cousins rather than wife and children, because the males together can more effectively build strong economic networks in the city.  Finally, he calls his wife and children.  This entire process can take years, and even after it is achieved, the family moves back and forth between city and village, often going back to the village for extended stays during harvest and festivals.  How can a product-based housing system cater to such a need?  Going through Turner’s data and analysis, we see that for poorer segments of society self-help incremental and flexible housing strategies, receiving state support for land tenure and other infrastructure, are more effective than professionally delivered products.  In fact, when professionals intervene they tend to become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
  • The cause can promote destructive tribal fetishes: The challenge in a creative discipline like architecture is that success is hard to quantify or pin down.  Ask an architect who is passionate about design whether the last few years have been successful, it is unlikely that the answer will be sought in quantitative indicators such as a balance sheet, profit and loss statement, or stock price.  It would more likely be sought in a review of work done in that period and assessment on the quality of that work.  Since this quality is intangible, it is natural to turn to social means of validation.  Architects often assess the success of their practice through social validations such as design awards won, publication in respected professional journals and books, invitations the work provokes to be on the lecture circuit, respect with which the work is discussed in architecture schools, or design competitions won.  All these are the product of judgment by one’s professional peers, usually predicated on quick visual impressions rather than extended periods of sensory inhabitation.  While being a perfectly acceptable goal to pursue, once peer review becomes the dominant mode of social validation it breeds a self-absorbed culture where architects are designing for other architects, and the inhabitants of their designs receive inadequate attention.  This is the culture that currently dominates the cutting edge of the profession, producing a personality-centric ecosystem of star architects whose work wins professional acclaim that is often far removed from what its inhabitants feel.   Architecture’s links with the constituencies it is meant to serve remain fragile.

Beyond all these problems listed above, the assumption of an inextricable link between cause and effect produces a culture of mediocrity.  If my position as an architect is legally protected by my formal qualifications, I am offered a degree of security by a system that does not challenge my ability to create the aura of architecture. Consequently, the system does not inherently compel me to pursue what architecture is really meant to be.  If the ultimate effect being sought is the aura of architecture, that alone should be the proof of the pudding.  Architects who have invested effort into the ability to achieve this tend to have little concern regarding legalisms meant to protect them, for the raison d’être and security of their practice lies in the spontaneous recognition of value that inhabitants see in the aura of architecture that their work exudes.  

I must therefore declare myself as a member of that small minority of architects in India who chooses not to resist this recent judgment of the Supreme Court, believing that an amendment of the Architects Act 1972 along the lines currently being articulated would cause more damage than harm.  I wish to escape the minimum standards trap in order to pursue excellence, and desire that the profession as a whole adopt this approach.  Consequently, I would rather devote my attention to expanding the boundaries of my quest to connect with the aura of architecture.

A Pedagogy-Centred Curriculum

Originally published in New Design Ideas, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2019): 124-129

Disconnect between education and practice
In June 2019, students from several architecture schools in Britain published an open letter to the architecture community pleading an urgent case for radical reform of curriculum in architectural education, arguing that the current system is ethically, socially and ecologically dysfunctional (Architecture Education Declares, 2019). The letter has since attracted over 2,100 signatures from students of several countries. Given this is a call for curriculum reform, one must not only look at architecture (the subject being taught) but also education (the means by which it is taught). Professional expertise is a necessary but insufficient condition, and education is a specialised subject in its own right. Therefore, this essay will examine the matter largely from the perspective of education.

Reading the letter, I am reminded of an incident that occurred over 20 years ago when I attended an informal lecture at the home of an architect friend in Bangalore. He had a house guest who was giving the lecture, a former college classmate who was teaching at a reputed architecture school in the US. This gentleman also did wonderful watercolour renderings, which were in great demand, given this was an era when photorealistic computer rendering was far from commonplace.

His talk consisted of two independent sections. In the first part, he showed work done by students in a recent design studio he had taught. In the second, he showed his renderings commissioned by commercial practices in the region. The difference in the quality of architecture on display in each part was striking. The student work was full of critical energy (leaving aside for the moment the question of whether that energy was correctly directed). The renderings, on the other hand, were wonderful as representative of an artistic craft, but the architecture they depicted was banal, making little effort to go beyond a robotic reproduction of the familiar. I questioned him on this difference, particularly noting that those local practices for which he did the renderings must be inhabited, to a significant extent, by graduates of the university where he was teaching. The fact that the renderings showed a loss of critical energy seemed to indicate that the education system has an inherent and collective capacity for amnesia. 

He did not have a ready answer to my question. Ever since then, I have been thinking about this, and consequent observations in travels across the world have led me to the following conclusion: the quality of architectural education in a region has little to do with the quality of architecture in the same region. Some countries have a reputation for a rigorous high-quality education system. Others do not. Irrespective, in all regions, walk in any city and look at the work done by professionally trained architects and you see the same mix: a dominant majority of banal work, a few examples that are downright ugly, and a small minority of good work.

I believe this is because the education system schools students to think in terms that are external to the self: abstract philosophies, personality cults, established styles, fashions and trends, and appeal of visual form rather than personal empathy to imperatives of inhabitation. Once you are dependent on externalities, you can sustain them only when the context is similarly aligned. Graduate from school, move to a different context like commercial practice, and you have no means to resist being a chameleon, changing colours to suit the environment.

Mindless Conformity and the Failure of Empathy
I had an experience about four years ago that verified this fact. I was visiting an internationally reputed architecture school in the United States of America, and being taken for a tour of the school building which had many double-height spaces and bridges traversing them, so you could stand on a bridge and observe more than one studio. I stood on one such bridge with two different studios to either side, each one taught by a famous star architect. Reviews were in progress, so work was pinned up on the walls. I was struck by the fact that even though there were many students in each studio, each student inherently a unique individual, all the designs within a studio fell into a uniformity that echoed the style and philosophy of the star architect who was the teacher.

Our modern education system holds at its core a systematised suppression of the independent learning self. As Ivan Illich states in his book Deschooling Society, the education system is designed “to confuse process with substance…..the pupil is thereby schooled to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new” (Illich, 1971). This deprives education of what should be its most powerful resource: the sense of wonder with which all children are naturally endowed. Instead of guiding students in constructively channeling this inner energy, we suppress it by intimidating them into feeling worthless if they cannot display a ‘sophistication’ that wraps their heads round externally defined standards of competence and knowledge. 

The products of such a system who go on to become teachers breed a self-perpetuating cycle where teachers can exert their power in the studio or classroom only by suppressing the individuality of their students. This is not to say that every student and every teacher is like this. There are some students who are lucky to be born with an irrepressible inner energy, and such students flourish irrespective of the education they receive. And there are some teachers who are genuinely invested in the inner creativity and well-being of every student. But we must not judge an education system by what the best students and teachers do; we must measure it by the degree to which it empowers the average student and the contribution of the average teacher to this empowerment. 

A self whose consciousness and sense of wonder has been suppressed is a self who has been stripped of the capacity for empathy. Given the consequent ‘empathy vacuum’ in the system, it is not surprising that the open letter from the architecture students is pervaded with dismay over major ethical failures prevalent in the current system. The empathy deficit has another significant consequence: a self-absorbed inward focus within the profession. This begins in architecture school where pedagogic convention always places the student designer next to his/her work while speaking about it; explaining it to a teacher during a studio critique or defending it to a jury in an end-semester review. 

A culture takes root that privileges the designer’s voice and intentions, believing they are the primary source of meaning in the design. Scant recognition is granted to meaning generated by acts and memories of inhabitation or ecological flows: processes of life that silence the architect’s voice because they come into play after the architect has completed the work and stepped away from it. This culture in the profession takes on another accent after graduation and entry into the world of professional design practice. The intangible and unquantifiable dimensions of quality in architecture create a demand for social validation beyond the designer’s own intuitive satisfaction. The validation of academic assessment in college is replaced in professional practice by the validation of peer review, which continues to foreground the architect’s voice and intentions, either directly or reconstructed through critique. 

Practicing architects seek validation of their work through a series of questions focused on their peers. Does the work win design awards? Does it get published in reputed journals? Does it win competitions? Is it discussed with respect by peers and by teachers and students of architecture? Does it lead to invitations on the lecture circuit? These are all valid questions, but when they become the dominant mode of validation they breed a self-referential culture where architects design to satisfy other architects instead of the constituencies and ecologies their designs are meant to serve. Even worse, architects lose the ability to speak to non-architects on the value architecture can offer, becoming prisoners of a self-referential jargon. The sole exception is the need to convince a fee-paying client that the design meets their needs: a benchmark that is not conducive to recognition of wider societal or ecological benefits.

Why We Need to Reform Architectural Pedagogy
In the appeal from architecture students, the call is for reform of curriculum. Curriculum has three components: values, content, and pedagogy. The students’ appeal and the responses so far have focused on the first two. The failure in values where curriculum makes scarce attempt to deal with current and overwhelming crises such as climate change, growing economic inequality and precariousness; where the intentions and desires of the architect are overriding. And the failure of content in the focus on a personality-centric, form-obsessed, jargon-driven architecture resting on first impressions rather than an architecture that adds value over time to life and dwelling. Scarce attention has been granted to pedagogy, the third component of curriculum. This is a significant gap as pedagogy is the core that holds the education system together.

The famous Brazilian educationist, Paolo Freire, argues that mainstream education is designed to make the classroom an unexciting place to be in because the motives for being there lie outside the classroom: the certified competence you can demonstrate at the end of the course, the grades you will receive, the job you can get, etc. In this system, the classroom is a place for transferring knowledge, the student is rendered passive, and the teacher privileged with an expertise the bestows dominant power in the room. Freire argues for an inversion of this system (Freire, 1972). The classroom must be transformed into a place for making knowledge by the teacher relinquishing power through admitting his/her humility before the subject being taught, and deploying a pedagogy that places the subject between student and teacher so that both may explore it within the classroom. The excitement of discovery within the classroom becomes the primary motive for being there. The resultant buzz makes pedagogy the most visible component of curriculum, which is why it must form the core.

In the system that Freire proposes, teaching and learning happen through a pedagogic connection within the classroom where the teacher infects the students with his/her passion for the subject, leading to an excitement where students even infect each other with passion, and learning happens through firing these inner sparks of passion. But passion alone can be aggressive and dominating. For the pedagogic connection that lights the inner spark within others, passion must always be accompanied by her twin sister, compassion. The infection of passion and the empathy of compassion form the pedagogic core of education. Since empathy and humility lie at the core of this pedagogy, consciousness is directed outward to the world rather than inward to the self. This breeds what the philosopher Morris Berman calls participating consciousness, a far cry from the isolating ego-based consciousness that lies at the core of the current system.

Hope and Vision for the Future
Such an empathetic pedagogy would aim to construct the kind of professional defined in Donald Schön’s seminal book The Reflective Practitioner (Schön, 1984). Schön delineates how professional education and practice tend to operate under a false model he terms ‘The Model of Technical Rationality’, where one first acquires a base of knowledge and skills and then applies them in practice. Practice is reduced to applied theory, and the only feedback loop for improvement is tangible experience. But the average professional practice challenge is far too unique, complex and indeterminate to be reducible to applied theory. Schön’s study reveals how effective professionals develop a value system driving how they deploy their professional abilities to contribute to the world, and use each practice task as an opportunity to challenge, critique and expand this value system. In such a mode, practice critiques theory and theory critiques practice. The ‘model of technical rationality’ assumes an operating mode of ‘reflection-and-action’, whereas effective professionals develop a capacity for ‘reflection-in-action’.

A pedagogy-centred curriculum does not rest on standards of content and values; its quest for reflective practice aims to inculcate students with the capacity to seek personal mastery, where content and values are embodied within a learning self who is on a continued quest for expanding excellence. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge defines personal mastery as a creative tension held between a current personal reality and a hope and vision for the future (Senge, 2006). Effective learners hold this tension at the right level for it to be creative; knowing that stretching it too tight leads to alienation and burnout, whereas allowing it to become too slack leads to a capture by the familiar or habitual. Senge elaborates on the concept of personal mastery:

People with a high level of personal mastery share several basic characteristics. They have a special sense of purpose that lies behind their visions and goals. For such a person, a vision is a calling rather than simply a good idea. They see current reality as an ally, not an enemy. They have learned how to perceive and work with forces of change rather than resist those forces. They are deeply inquisitive, committed to continually seeing reality more and more accurately. They feel connected to others and to life itself. Yet they sacrifice none of their uniqueness. They feel as if they are part of a larger creative process, which they can influence but cannot unilaterally control.

People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never “arrive”. Sometimes, language, such as the term “personal mastery”, creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see that “the journey is the reward”.

Practical Points for a New Curriculum
Such a curriculum has deep implications for student, teacher, and institution:

  • Implications for the student: The student must learn to trust herself, that her body, the sense of wonder it inherently holds, are sufficient to constitute the foundations of her learning. She leverages the challenges the institution throws at her to expand her personal mastery. She reaches out to the consciousness of other beings, nature, and materials in order to creatively empower her own consciousness to constructively participate in the world. She does not place faith in pure abstractions, but grounds herself in rigorous ego-transcending protocols of practice through which she embodies her own personal mastery.
  • Implications for the teacher: The teacher is humble before the subject she teaches so that she may infect students with her passion for it. She steadfastly deploys her compassion so that she may nurture the inner voice of every student. She herself pursues personal mastery and openly places her mastery on the table so that it can be critiqued and dissected to offer the students a light at the end of the tunnel. Her teaching centres on openly offering tools, concepts and protocols that empower students to independently pursue personal mastery.
  • Implications for the institution: In The Learning Paradigm College, John Tagg poses a fundamental question: Is the college primarily a place for producing learning, or is it primarily a place for delivering instruction? (Tagg, 2003). When this question is posed to college administrators, they tend to answer ‘producing learning’ without hesitation; but when pressed further on how the college is organised, it emerges that everything centres around instruction modules. What goes unaddressed is the fact that significant learning happens in the gaps between instruction modules, in the spaces outside modules, in practices of integration that do not form a part of any module. This gap leaves the system with a tacit assumption that learning is the mere sum of instructional modules.

Strangely, a tool that is being touted as the foundation for a learning paradigm college has been found in design education for eons, but lying largely unused: the portfolio. A portfolio assembles work from multiple modules to constitute an integrated statement of learning and ability. Yet the portfolio is not part of the curriculum, and students are left to their own devices to construct portfolios after they graduate, when they need to seek a job or further education. The portfolio should be a mentored process mainstreamed into the core of curriculum. For this to work, the institution should cast itself as a caring place, emotionally committed to the entire community of learners who constitute it — students, faculty and staff.

A pedagogy-centred curriculum sets out to produce students who are consistently creative selves, lifetime learners with an independent critical and artistic agency rooted in the essence of what it is to be human, whose consciousness participates constructively in the world, whose agency and commitment remain unaffected by superficial changes of context. The challenge is captured in a statement by Richard Shaull (which draws from the philosophy of Paolo Freire): “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” (Freire, 2019). 

Architecture Education Declares (2019). Open Letter to the Architectural Community: A Call for Curriculum Change, 5 June 2019.
Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK.
Freire, P. (2019). Wikipedia entry
Illich, I. (1971, 2000). Deschooling Society. Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, London, UK. 
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Tagg, J. (2003). The Learning Paradigm College. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, California.

Discovering Your City

On 24th November 2019, in my home city of Bengaluru (also known as ‘Bangalore’), I was asked to speak at the launch of a book on the city: “Discovering Bengaluru – History, Neighbourhoods, Walks”.  The book is lovingly written largely by Meera Iyer, and she has also edited it to draw in contributions from Krupa Rajangam, Hita Unnikrishnan, B Manjunath, Harini Nagendra, and S Karthikeyan.  The book is rich and rewarding, rigorously researched and elegantly presented, part history and part walking-guide, delineating a physical, cultural and ecological heritage that is still present in Bengaluru.  This is what I said:

In a collection of essays, the British writer Jeanette Winterson remarked, “The question ‘What is your book about?’ has always puzzled me.  It is about itself and if I could condense it into other words, I should not have taken such care to choose the words I did.”  Taking this remark to heart, I will not speak about this book directly, wonderful as it may be, for, as Winterson has observed, to speak directly of it is to be constrained within a form of paraphrase that is distant from authenticity.  And to speak of the author is to be a voyeur of quotation.  The best perspective lies in a focus on the reader, particularly the intimacy of the relationship between reader and book.

Reading is an act of renewal through a form of travel that does not demand physical movement.  When you read you step out of your own skin into another place: the space of the book or the skin of the author.  After reading, when you return to your own skin, you return refreshed.  To read is to rethink oneself.  A reader is like a detective, looking for clues in the book, but returning to interpret those clues to solve one of the greatest mysteries of life: the question “Who am I?”  This book asks you to do more.  It leads you by the hand through the city of Bengaluru, unravelling its history, and asks you what is involved in this journey?

Some clues lie in the French word flâneur, that means “stroller” or “saunterer”.  The word was first popularised by Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, essayist and translator, and was used to describe an idle man of leisure, who can stroll around the city, choosing where to go on the spur of the moment, just watching the city.  The German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, picked up the word and unpacked it in far greater focus and detail.  He argued that the association of the flâneur with idleness must not be misinterpreted to mean laziness or indolence.  It means a freedom from purpose, especially the preoccupation with purpose.  Typically, our movement across the city is subsumed under this preoccupation with purpose.  We scurry across the city thinking thoughts like, “I must get to work by 9:30”, “I must reach home in time for dinner”, “I must reach the multiplex before the movie begins”, or “I promised to meet my friend at 6 o’clock.”  Possessed by these preoccupations, we inhabit the city without really looking at it.  The flâneur, in contrast, being free of purpose, can look at the city with a focused gaze, seeing it on its own terms.  The flâneur, whose idleness is very productive, is like a detective who uncovers what the city is, what it truly means.

The flâneur possesses a second freedom, one identified by another German thinker, Georg Simmel (although he did not specifically focus on the word).  This is a freedom, not just from purpose, but also from tradition.  In the village we are always under the gaze of tradition, and this constrains our behaviour.  The cosmopolitan complexity of the city offers a refuge from this constricting gaze through an anonymity that is liberating.  Simmel identified a kind of person who could be viewed as an urban monk, whose anonymity permits an inward withdrawal into the self in order to think with an unfettered creativity.

The flâneur is not an esoteric European concept we must import into our thinking in India.  We have an indigenous history of the concept, found in the Kannada name given to a spatial typology found in both village and city: the somberikatte, a low sitting-height stone platform, typically around a tree.  “Somberi” means an idle person, “katte” means platform, so the name literally translates as “a platform for idle people.”  One sees the same connotation of idleness here; and I should point out that there are several mentions of the kattes of Bengaluru in Meera Iyer’s book.  The somberikatte sees virtue in a form of idleness, one that pauses in the middle of the city to sit on the katte to focus on a direct engagement that could be with the city itself, a fellow citizen, or even God (for many kattes are also shrines).  In the somberi we see, as in the flâneur, the freedom from a preoccupation with purpose.  What remains unresolved is the second freedom that Simmel spoke of: freedom from tradition. 

This becomes challenging in a book that talks about heritage.  It is a challenge with a pronounced acuity in Bengaluru where one so often hears it categorised under tags such as “the technology capital of India” or “the Silicon Valley of India”; tags which speak as though the city need only be concerned with its future and not its past. To preserve the freedom of the flâneur, which is the freedom of modernity, one has to resolve the question of how to value heritage without invoking the strictures of tradition.  This is the challenge posed to the reader by a book like this, and I would suggest three propositions to navigate this challenge.

First, heritage is not an authenticity handed to us from the past.  It is a contemporary moment, where we look back in time to recognise value, and through that recognition choose what is worth remembering.  Those choices will define who we are today.  This book renders tangible many of the choices that are before us in Bengaluru, so that we, who live in the city, can define ourselves.

Second, there is an immense value in having the tangible presence of memory in our city.  The places described in this book are sites of memory, and memory significantly alters how we inhabit our city.  There is a delightful exposition in Milan Kundera’s novel “Slowness” on the links between memory and speed.  Kundera asks us to imagine the everyday situation of a man walking down a street.  He seeks to remember something of which the memory escapes him, and his walk automatically slows down.  Conversely, he remembers something unpleasant that he would rather forget, and his walk automatically speeds up.  Kundera proposes the laws of existential mathematics: the degree of slowness is proportional to the degree of remembering, and the degree of speed is proportional to the degree of forgetting.  Later in the novel, he returns to these laws and inverts them to argue that in contemporary times we have become addicted to speed to avoid confronting the fact that we no longer know how to remember.  To have memory made visible to us, in the way this book does, is to slow down the city to a speed that brings the timeless within reach.

Third, heritage, inherently, tells us stories.  In an interview, the author William Golding remarked that he likes the fact that some people have labelled his work as “mythical”.  Golding says we often believe a myth is something that is not true, reasoning that its foundations lie in faith and superstition rather than in demonstrable evidence; but this is false reasoning for a myth is a kind of truth that can only be told in a story.  To make sense of your life as something that plays out over time, you have to place it into a story.  Myths are a key form of shared stories, and it is the sharing of stories that creates culture.  Benedict Anderson argued that the nation is an imagined community.  It is too complex an entity for any a priori unity, and it is the imagination of its citizens that constructs the sense of unity as a nation.  I would argue that a city is the same.  To imagine itself as a community, the city’s residents have to share stories.  The places described in this book lay out a key set of stories that we can uncover and share.

The book is titled “Discovering Bengaluru”.  I do not read that title as representing a tourist guide for those who are unfamiliar with the city.  It is a book for people who live in Bengaluru, who can use it to step into a far greater degree of intimacy with their city, along with all the fulfilment and joy that intimacy beings.  To have this book placed in front of you is the urban equivalent of being in a family gathering in your home and suddenly your mother pulls out an old album of family photos that none of you had seen before.  Imagine how, in that situation, the family gathers around the album with unbridled excitement, rekindling their heritage, discovering new dimensions of a history they thought they already knew thoroughly.  If this is how you use this book, you will rediscover Bengaluru in the spirit of those immortal lines of T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The State of a Nation Seen Through an Urban Design Competition

Image from


The Government of India recently conducted an urban design competition to redevelop the Central Vista in New Delhi: one of the grand urban axes of the world, compared often with spaces such as The Mall in Washington DC or the Champs-Élysées in Paris.  It was created as a British colonial project, marking the centre of a key outpost of the British Empire, with the Viceroy’s Palace at one end and at the other end a triumphal arch called ‘The All India War Memorial’ dedicated to the memory of soldiers of the British Indian Army who died in the First World War.  After India’s independence from colonial rule, the vista was appropriated and repurposed by India’s government.  The Viceroy’s Palace became the residence of the President of India, renamed as Rashtrapati Bhavan.  The triumphal arch eventually became India Gate, an Indian war memorial that currently houses the Amar Jawan Jyoti (The Flame of the Immortal Soldier).  The Parliament House, that was designed for the sessions of the Imperial Legislative Council, is now Sansad Bhavan: the seat of India’s parliament.  While some other buildings, such as the National Archives, date back to the original colonial project, many others were added soon after independence to house offices of various ministries.

All the buildings are quite old, needs and demands have changed, and one cannot deny that redevelopment is necessary.  Any redevelopment must be predicated on the fact that Central Vista is the spatial epicentre of India’s government, making it an important emblem to the nation as a whole, one that signifies the status and values of its political ideals.  The way its development is visualised, the manner in which the competition is framed and conducted, directly reflect on how the nation is imagined as a community.  The role of the Central Vista must be more than a space that houses public institutions: it must be a metaphor for the country’s aspirations as a democratic constitutional republic.  It is this aspect of the design competition I focus on here, rather than seeking to comment on the entries that were submitted, or the merits of the prize-winning entry.  To live up to what the Central Vista is meant to be, the design competition should reflect the highest possible standards for (a) Democracy as Space; (b) Democracy as Shared History; and (c) Democracy as a Process.

Source: Dossier – Imperial Capital Cities of New Delhi; Photo Credit to Sondeep Shankar

Democracy as Space

If it seeks to express democracy in an urban space, the Central Vista has to overcome its own history as an imperial axis.  The idea of an axis establishing an imposing line of sight focusing on buildings and symbols of government as majestic monuments is based on a very different conception of polity,  casting government as a benevolent senior figure with capacities far greater than ordinary mortals, who must be revered from a distance, respected and obeyed, and in reciprocation to this obedience measures for citizen welfare may be sprinkled upon the masses. In contrast to this is the philosophical ideal of the city as polis (an ideal first articulated in Ancient Greece): an inclusive, public, democratic space where individuals as equals, guided by the pursuit of collective ideals, come together to distinguish themselves in service to the community, where government is servant to the public rather than ruler.

It is the polis that democracy must seek to emulate, recognising the public realm of the city as one that transcends public space to be civic space.  A perspective limited to the criteria of public access allows the assumption of a politically passive citizen, content with visual spectacle, functional efficiency, consumption opportunity, and recreational relief.  For the urban public realm to be civic means that public access is only the starting point: the primary purpose is to promote engagement between politically active citizens whose vitality, across a wide variety of scales, constitutes the open deliberations and debates that shape a democracy.  The post-independence appropriation of the Central Vista reflected the beginnings of a move from imperialism to polis, with the Boat Club Lawns becoming a popular site for public protests.  The lawns around India Gate became a popular park with a children’s playground and street vendors selling ice-cream and balloons; and this energy could have been tapped into for a communal culture of street theatre and public art.  One would have hoped that redevelopment would encourage a cross-weave of civic action that would underplay the grandeur of an axis that places government on a pedestal (strangely, all the submissions to the competition seemed to desire a heightening of the axis).  In recent years, there have been greater restrictions on allowing protests on the Boat Club Lawns, and a greater policing of the street vendors around India Gate.  In fact, one of the major urban challenges of the day is how to balance the quest for vibrant civic space with the imperatives of security (often justified by raising the spectre of terrorism).  Where is the public discourse that analyses and debates this balance?  How do we see the future of India’s democracy, and how will the Central Vista, as a national emblem of that democracy, reflect that future?  This should be a key imperative in any redevelopment planned for it.

This is far too important a question to be resolved solely within the confines of a design competition.  In fact, it is far too important to leave its resolution to the deliberations of a small set of individuals, far too important to be tackled within narrow sectors of expertise.  This is a question for the nation as a community.  The government bears a moral responsibility for steering a widespread discourse on the vision for our democracy, and how it should be reflected in the physical space containing the institutions that bear key responsibility for sustaining that vision.  The articulation of such a vision, as the output of a public and participatory process, should have been a key element of the design brief for the urban design competition.

Unfortunately, what transpired is far from this.  There was no public debate on the vision for our democracy.  The competition brief does not seek to put forward any vision of democracy, leaving it to the competing architects to articulate such a vision as a part of their proposals.  Democracy is not a matter to be left to the imagination of architects.  In fact, democracy cannot be left to the expertise of any discipline.  The core issues of democracy can only be tackled by the debates of democracy.  And if democracy is meant to be “government by the people, of the people, for the people,” that requires that those debates be firmly rooted in the public realm. 

Democracy as Shared History

In feudal times that preceded the birth of democracy, history was a product of historians appointed by the king.  History was purely ideological, a tool of propaganda meant to prop the regimes of power, and any other possible histories were ruthlessly suppressed.  Your heritage had to be what the king or queen said it was, and to claim otherwise was to put yourself at risk.

But a democracy implies that history is a public matter.  The past is a complex terrain, filled with contradictory impulses, conflicting accounts, containing people who are good as well as bad (plus the many shades in-between).   Any move to disregard this complexity and reduce history to a singular narrative is driven by an ideology of power rather than a democratic ethic.  To a democracy, the cultural heritage we derive from history is not some moment of claimed authenticity pulled out from the past, on which we can rest our foundations today.  History is a contemporary moment where we look at the past, in all its complexity, and critically choose what is worth remembering.  The openness, depth, and inclusiveness of the process by which these choices are made are hugely important if we are to call ourselves a democracy at all.

There is no doubt that Central Vista is a place deeply imbued with history.  One would have expected that a rigorous heritage audit be conducted to assess the impact of any development, analysing the entire precinct, defining what is of value to be preserved, and what should be changed.  One would have expected that the result of such an audit would be placed in the public domain, widely debated, comments evaluated, and the competition based on a final audit that had passed through democratic scrutiny.

None of this happened.  The competition document mentions that the guidelines in the Delhi Master Plan, which defines this as a heritage precinct, must be followed.  But those guidelines did not take into account the massive scale of redevelopment envisaged in this competition: a scale that should have provoked a rigorous and public heritage impact assessment.  The competition makes no reference to the bid submitted by the Government of India in 2013 to UNESCO to declare this section of New Delhi as a World Heritage City.  This bid is still in the Tentative List under consideration by UNESCO.  The current government’s position on this bid has not been declared, and how this bid relates to the current competition is not clear.

The competition asks the competing architects to interpret the heritage of this precinct in their designs.  It is often said the history is too important a subject to be left to historians.  To leave it to architects is a step further down the ladder.

Democracy as Process

In a prescient statement made over a hundred years ago, former US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis said, “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.”  Brandeis argues that a democracy cannot depend on the wisdom of politicians and bureaucrats and can sustain its moral compass only by bringing key issues into participatory debates that take place under the public eye.  One would have expected that a design competition of this stature would abide by this standard to the highest level possible.

I have spoken earlier on how debate on visions for democracy and heritage did not enter the public realm as a prerequisite for the competition.  But there are other aspects where this standard fell short:

  • Typically, a competition of such public significance would declare in advance the names of jury members who would judge the competition, demonstrating that the jury was composed of persons whose professional and ethical judgment is at the cutting edge and unimpeachable. It is still not clear who the jury was who judged this competition, and whether it contained sufficient weight of professionals and people with enlightened civic imagination in a position to understand urban design implications in a project of this significance.
  • In keeping with democratic ideals, a project of this significance would seek to cast as wide a net as possible for possible solutions. Many international competitions of equivalent stature have been a two-stage process. The first stage is thrown open to all architects, young and old. Entries are judged in a blind review system, where each architect is assigned a code number that is kept secret from the jury by the competition administrator. The designs visible to the jury are identified only by this code number, so each design is judged purely by its own merits without any bias from knowing the name or experience of the designer. A few, say half a dozen, schemes are shortlisted at the end of the first stage, and those architects are asked to develop their design in further detail, taking into account the comments made by the jury in the first stage. If it is found that an architect shortlisted for the second stage does not have the requisite experience to execute a project of this scale and complexity, for the second stage of the competition that architect is required to associate with a large firm with the necessary experience and infrastructure, so that technical execution ability is covered. In contrast, this competition was conducted as a single-stage affair, where the defined eligibility criteria ensured that participation would be restricted to a tiny handful of the largest firms in the country. The questions of how urban design and architecture of Central Vista could reflect the nation’s dreams of democracy and heritage was left to the small number of five firms who qualified for the competition.
  • One would expect that the time frame allocated to the competition would be dictated by the requirements of democratic transparency and participation that this significant site would demand. But the project is being pushed through in great haste. The bid conditions state that, counting from the date of appointment, the competition winner must submit a draft master plan within three weeks, a final master plan for the first phase of construction within five weeks, detailed drawings to start the first phase of construction within twenty-six weeks, and the complete master plan for all phases within fifty-four weeks. Regarding construction deadlines, the upgrade of Central Vista to become a world class tourist destination must be achieved by November 2020 (leaving aside for now the question of why the goal must be to make it a “world class tourist destination” rather than a democratic home for the nation’s citizens). The new Parliament Building must be complete by July 2022, and the new Common Central Secretariat (a huge office structure housing offices of all ministries) should be ready by March 2024. This pushes the project at an unrealistically fast pace for one of this scale and significance, and it appears that the deciding imperative is the tenure of this government before the next round of elections, rather than any desire for a high standard of democratic process for developing the spatial order and symbolic significance of the centre of India’s governance. As Gautam Bhatia asked in an essay in India Today, “Should a government with a limited tenure decide the future legacy of a culture?”
  • It has been reported in the media that the government has stated their commitment to hold public consultations on the project. No date for these consultations has been announced so far. The basis for assessment of the schemes (as per the conditions laid out in the bid documents) has not been publicly disclosed till the date of this writing.

Given the lack of publicly available information on it, one wonders if the haste with which the project is being conducted would result in it reaching a degree of finalisation that, when the consultations do finally occur, the public will wind up being presented with a fait accompli.

Conclusion: Democracy in India’s Urban Century

The twenty-first century is unique to India: by mid-century it is projected that for the first time in the history of the region the urban population will be larger than the rural population.  This happens at a time when a public imagination of the city in the government’s minds is yet to be constructed.  We tend to locate the authenticity of our culture either in the village or in the past, and we visualise the contemporary city as a technical rather than cultural entity.  This is evident in the structure of building codes in all cities, where building form is shaped by a mathematical formula derived from plot size, road width and land use.  That sections of a city have a unique topography, neighbourhoods have a unique history, the metric should be quality of life, and the city must be a vibrant cultural space that is inclusive and democratic are all notions that find little traction in the way we plan and govern our cities.

Our lack of systemic and integrated thinking on cities has major day-to-day consequences.  We think nothing of pushing through huge infrastructure projects like elevated metros and flyovers with little thought of their impact on the cultural and ecological fabric of the city.  We act perturbed when our disregard for the natural flows of the land in our urban plans and management leads to cities flooding in any heavy rain; or our inability to integrate data and anticipate impacts leads to polluted environments that degrade rapidly.  We push through land use plans within inefficient, opaque and corrupt land markets that lead to an urban economy whose price thresholds determine that half (or more) of the city’s population cannot afford officially recognised forms of tenure. The resulting degradation and fragmentation of space leads to huge inefficiencies in urban systems such as traffic, water supply, sewerage and electric power.  The consequent psychological alienation, contestation over land, will only increase, becoming more and more violent, and we are already seeing the initial signs of this increasing violence.  

What will happen to this situation as we rapidly urbanise further.  The numbers are mind-numbingly large: over the next three or four decades we will add four hundred million new urban citizens to our polity.  We must radically transform our capacity to imagine the Indian city as a cultural, democratic and inclusive space.  The extent to which we affect this transformation will determine whether we sink or swim as a nation.

In this context, the redevelopment of Central Vista is a huge opportunity.  As a symbol of India’s democracy, it offers the chance to propose a new vision of the Indian city.  Should we allow its redevelopment, as proposed by this competition, to proceed unchecked?  Or should ‘we the people’ rise up and demand that the clock be rewound and reset on how this area is to be imagined.  There is far more at stake than the redevelopment of a central precinct in New Delhi.

A Sense of Home

Photo: Sayan Nath on Unsplash

Recently, in Bangalore, I attended a discussion on architecture with an unusual format.  Twenty architects were each invited to submit an example of a private home designed by their practice.  The designs formed an exhibition just outside the auditorium where the event was held.  Each architect drew the name of another architect and was asked to examine the design of this other architect, using the project to formulate a question on the architecture of homes.  The discussion started with the first architect asking a question of the second architect.  The second architect would respond to the question (with a time limit of five minutes) and then pose her/his question to the third architect.  In this way it went around in a circle, ending with the twentieth architect posing a question to the first architect.

While there was a house designed by our firm in the fray, a colleague represented us in the discussion.  In lieu of my participation in the discussion, I was asked to make some concluding remarks that summarised the discussion (also remaining within the five-minute limit).  I began by saying I would make no attempt at summary, as the discussion stood as a thing by itself and was in no need of summary.  Instead, I shared some questions provoked by the exhibition and its subsequent discussion.  I framed these questions in terms of six issues.  The text below attempts to capture the gist of what I said.

  • Memory:  Going beyond the need for shelter, is the primary purpose of a home to express an idea or an identity?  Or is it a repository for memory?  Don’t we all have stories attached to the spaces and elements of our homes?  Don’t we find ourselves saying things like, “Do you remember when we travelled to Delhi, went to that crazy crowded bazaar and found this?”, or, “Do you remember when we were all sitting here one Saturday evening, and everyone began to sing?”  Isn’t the recall of one’s own history best achieved by looking at a home where we have lived for a period of time?  Our memories consolidate over a period of time, and each has its own character making it impossible to unite them under a consistent or uniform pattern.  Once they are absorbed into our homes, these memories come together in the form of a collage rather than a unified aesthetic, with their energy coming more from collision than collusion. As architects, do we violate the spirit of a home when we seek to unify living under a consistent architectural idiom? How differently would we design if we gave attention to the significance of the home as a repository for memory?
  • The House as a Friend: Soon after graduating from architecture school, I happened to see a book in which I saw the work of Richard Meier for the first time.  The first project was a house, and I remember two spontaneous thoughts entered my head, each held with strong conviction, yet contradicting the other.  On the one hand, I found it one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I had ever seen.  At the same time, I knew for certain that I could never live in that house.  The house had such a strong character that, if I were to live there, it would leave no room for my personality to breathe.  A house has to be like a friend where my friend and I have our own distinct personalities where one seeks to make the other flourish without overpowering it.   I remember a house Robert Venturi designed many years ago, where he published the house along with a letter received from his client specifying a design brief.  In the letter, the client noted that this should be the kind of house where a pink Victorian cherub could sit next to an original Rembrandt, not because they belonged aesthetically together but because he had equal affection for them both.  Do we design houses that way?  How certain are we that we are designing the house to be our own friend rather than that of the client?  And if it is more a friend of the architect, is the relationship based on how the spectacle of the house contributes to the architect’s reputation, rather than being based on the joy of inhabitation necessary to be a friend of the client?
  • Domesticity: A home is so much more than shelter, and in this extended sense is like Janus, the God of Beginnings and Transitions in Ancient Rome, having two faces that allowed him to look in two directions at the same time.  If Janus could look simultaneously at past and future, the home looks both inwards and outwards: inwards to the anchor of one’s being and outward to the expression of one’s identity, inward into intimacy and solitude and outward into convivial gathering.  It is like our body, which to be alive must breathe in as well as breathe out.  Do we design homes to express something, focusing primarily on the outward breath, with insufficient understanding of the inward breath?
  • Aura:  In professional circles, we tend to examine architecture primarily in the light of the voice of the architect.  In discussions like this, or on the lecture circuit, we listen directly to the voice of the architect.  In college, we are always next to our own work and talking about it, either explaining it to a teacher or defending it to a jury.  In professional writing on architecture, the voice of the architect, if not directly present, is reconstructed through critique.  This leads us to believe that meaning in architecture is primarily a direct product of the architect’s intentions.   But in practice, something different happens.  Once a work is constructed and handed over for inhabitation, the architect disappears from the scene and is forever silent.   The building speaks for itself, and a dialogue between the inhabitant and the building becomes the foundation from which meaning accrues over time.  In the architect’s absence, the aura of the building has to speak for itself.  Aura cannot spring directly from the architect’s voice.  As Rudolf Steiner argued, the artist does not take an idea and convert it into a sensory phenomenon.  Rather, the artist raises the sensory phenomenon to the level of an idea by releasing the spiritual content within material reality.  This requires a subtle and nuanced discernment that recognises the life inherent in material, light and space, through which the aura of architecture can be released.   Do we design with such a sensitivity?
  • Ordinariness:  Do we believe the architecture we create must display an ongoing innovative energy that marks the work as special?  Why can’t the work be ordinary?  T.S. Eliot, in his poem ‘Little Gidding’ from ‘Four Quartets’ remarked, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Can we design homes that allow us to discern the subtle pre-existent potential of life in the way Eliot hints at?  Nicholas Pevsner remarked, “A bicycle shed is a building, Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.”  This distinction seems to set aside architecture as something aesthetically special.   Instead of following Pevsner in differentiating building and architecture, would it be more productive to work with Martin Heidegger’s differentiation between building and dwelling?  Dwelling stands apart from building in its capacity for gathering the fourfold of earth, sky, mortals and divinities.  Gathering can happen through subtlety and nuance, can be comfortable with ordinariness, and does not demand the innovations in form that we architects revel in.  Think of people who live within rowhouses of traditional cities: many of them regard their homes with great affection, recognising a powerful beauty within them, even though the forms of the building are quite ‘ordinary’.  Does the ordinary contain a power far greater than the architectural forms we believe to be special?
  • Oeuvre:  I looked at the work of our firm in the exhibition, and realised that we have designed many other houses that are radically different from the one on display today.  Each project is different and marks a specific point in the journey of the practice.  Do we wind up examining each project in isolation without sufficient attention to the entire oeuvre of one’s practice?  If we looked at the oeuvre, would we uncover a story within it. Thinking of William Golding’s observation that a myth is a kind of truth that can only be told in a story, what could be gleaned from the story of our practice?   Have we truly connected with the truth of our practice?

Returning home, I reflected on this event, and recalled another discussion that took place over twenty-five years ago when a group of architects in Bangalore gathered to discuss the design of homes in contemporary society.  I realised that the concluding statement of that earlier discussion still resonates today, “We build a house, whereas a home becomes!”

The Human Within the Architect

Photo Credit: Makenna Entrikin at Unsplash

On 16 August 2019, I delivered the opening note of  Frame Conclave 2019 on the theme of “Modern Heritage”.  This is what I said:

Being Human 

I speak today more about the quality of being human than architecture, taking this approach because disciplinary specialisation has its pitfalls.  When we, as architects, contemplate complex issues such as ‘modernity’ or ‘heritage’, we tend to look primarily through the lens of our discipline.  We often forget that before we are architects we are human beings, and what is understood at this level could radically alter the juncture where we shift from our humanness into our professional avatars, consequently reshaping the discipline’s terrain.

The erasure of humanness in our professional deliberations impacts our ability to assess significant issues such as the theme of this conference: ‘Modern Heritage’. In fact, it is an oxymoron to us. The notion of modernity we hold rests on a primacy given to freedom and autonomy of individual will, won and sustained by rebellion against the constraints placed by traditional authority. Now that modern architecture has been around long enough to be considered heritage, we lack a critical framework for dealing with the question we must confront: How can we value heritage without invoking the strictures of tradition?

As an entry into the condition of humanness, I will use a wonderful statement by the philosopher Hannah Arendt from her book The Origins of Totalitarianism.  Arendt observed that though the trauma of two world wars provoked the formation of the United Nations, and subsequently the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, rights may be recognised as universal but remain abstract and far removed from life without active recognition within a constitutional nation state.  Consequently, beyond an appeal to compassion, the world has no ethically grounded consensus on how to deal with refugees, persons who have been deprived of a state, left with nothing more than the quality of being human.  Arendt noted, “The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”

My exposition on this statement makes no claim to be an incisive interpretation of Arendt’s philosophy, and may not even remain true to it.  I use this statement as a thing in itself, because it offers a wonderful beginning to think about being human.  Firstly, it refers to the ‘nakedness of being human’, which is the best beginning, given all of us begin life as naked human beings.  I will dwell on the implications of this, go on to what is sacred in that nakedness and then speak on what is abstract about it.  After brief reflection on a key implication springing from the analysis, I will attempt to outline the impact on the discipline of architecture.

The Nakedness of Being Human

In those first days of life, the nakedness of our birth determines before we have understanding, identity, relationship, language, or any of the other foundations for relating to the world, the only thing we have is sensory awareness.  We can see an environment around us, taste sustenance, know the reassuring touch and smell of a parent, or be soothed by a lullaby. In fact, sensory awareness even precedes an awareness of the body doing the sensing, and the senses become a way of recognising that body.  Jean Piaget, in his seminal book The Child’s Conception of Space, points out that the reason why a baby puts everything in his/her mouth is to understand the limits of the body, realising that pulling the foot to put a toe in the mouth, or sucking on a finger, produces a different correspondence of sensations when compared to putting a toy in the mouth, thereby getting to know what is the body and what is not.  The baby’s compulsion to curl fingers around an adult finger placed in the palm produces a grip that explores the body’s relationship to other beings.

Modernity’s quest for Cartesian abstract truth has schooled us to forget it is through sensory awareness that we know we are alive, located within a world.  When we privilege knowledge that distances itself from embodied sensation, we deaden ourselves to the consciousness of being alive. 

We lose our anchors of sanity, as Doris Lessing so powerfully explains in The Golden Notebook when she remarks, “All sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel the roughness of a carpet under smooth soles, a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing that the bones are moving easily under the flesh. If this goes, then the conviction of life goes too.”

We disconnect our ideals from our emotions.  In his classic essay of 1884 What is an Emotion?, William James demonstrates that all emotions are inextricably embodied, suppressed when disconnected from the sensory body.  James asks us:

“Can one fancy the state of rage and picture no ebullition of it in the chest, no flushing of the face, no dilatation of the nostrils, no clenching of the teeth, no impulse to vigorous action, but in their stead limp muscles, calm breathing, and a placid face?………. In like manner of grief: what would it be without its tears, its sobs, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breast-bone? A feelingless cognition that certain circumstances are deplorable, and nothing more. Every passion in turn tells the same story. A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity.”

Embodied sensation forms the core of knowing one is alive, sane and capable of emotion, but I would not argue that this should be the primary epistemological foundation.  That would run the danger of capture by short-sighted narcissism.  We must critique and contextualise our sensations through our thoughts and ideals. It is the all too frequent failure of the reverse I draw your attention to: the fact that we do not validate our thoughts and ideals with our sensory consciousness, placing faith in alienating abstractions distanced from emotion, personal engagement, fulfilment and the energy of being alive.  

This brings us to the question of what is sacred in the nakedness of being human.

The Sacred Nakedness of Being Human

Our bodies contain inherent artistic talent, creating new beauty on such an everyday basis we fail to grant that creativity its due significance.  As John O’Donohue remarks in Walking on the Pastures of Wonder, even the act of speaking is an artistic act: out of the silence within, we coax sound and meaning.   Realising this, you can see so many other ways this creativity manifests itself every day.   We walk and coax purpose out of stillness, we focus our gaze and coax significance out of the inconsequential, we laugh and coax joy out of indifference, we love and coax community and conviviality out of solitude, we dance and coax exhilaration out of detachment.

This sacred creativity is so powerful we must learn to come to terms with it, and many of us fail in that quest. O’Donohue observes, “One of the sad things is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, an image or a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled for them.”  The reason for this fear is that while modernity privileged our autonomy and freedom to liberate us from capricious dominations of power, the individualisation of that freedom offered little guidance on how to root it within larger horizons of purpose or community.  Our current form of modernity has at its core an existential angst of loneliness, our fear of which induces us to cling to the predetermined to convince ourselves we are not alone.

As Rebecca Solnit tells us in A Field Guide to Getting Lostwe must learn how to navigate the unknown, to wander, get lost, yet be secure we can return.  We must be like the experienced woodsman who can wander deep into an unknown forest but knows how to come back because he has learnt how to read the signs: the sun, the stars, the slope of the land, the soils, smells, wind and sounds of the forest.

The answer is in front of our eyes.  We fail to see it because the models of knowledge we are schooled in are so far removed from how we intuitively live.  Take the example of friendship.  You do not find friends by first defining the truth or philosophy of friendship.  If you tried that, you probably would not have friends.  You find friends by opening your heart to strangers, spending time with them, listening to them, and when you find that the same things offer you laughter, fun, sorrow, or boredom in those resonances you discover what is larger than either you or your friend, you validate your own creativity, recognise the same creativity in your friend, and you find authenticity in that uncovered common ground. In friendship, we read the signs and know where to drop anchor.

The authenticity that awaits our discovery is not restricted to engagement with people: it is woven into the nature of the world, in art, in music, in nature.  The musician Pushkar Lele speaks of beginning training in music since a young age, but after fifteen years had reached a plateau he could not transcend.  To break free of this constraint he sought change through a new guru, and began tutelage under Pandit Vijay Sardeshmukh.  Lele expected his new guru to reveal the key to the higher realm he sought, but was pushed back to basics with a directive that for the next six months, for eight hours a day, he should sing only a single note: Sa, the first note of the octave.  Lele found this a pedantic thing to do, but since tradition demands obedience to the guru, he did what he was told.  One day, he sang the Sa his guru wished to hear, Sardeshmukh smiled, and Lele realised till that moment he had never hit the exact centre of a note before. If you trace the lineage of this epiphany, Sardeshmukh’s guru was Kumar Gandharva, and one of Gandharva’s gurus in his early years was (unusually for that time) a woman, Anjanibai Malpekar. Kumar Gandharva, in an interview, speaks of a lesson learnt from Anjanibai Malpekar: you start with a single note and then rigorous training gradually reveals to you an entire octave within that note.

There is magic in these subtle differences.  Imagine two professionally trained musicians, one who is good, and the other who is truly great.  The good musician cannot be faulted on any lack of tunefulness or errors in rendering a composition.  It is in subtle differences of microtone and timing that the great musician breaks away into a higher sacred realm.  This magic cannot be logically understood, for it depends on an embodied tacit knowledge that is beyond our capacity to speak about.  It can only be uncovered through demanding experiential practice.  Indian tradition has a name for this form of practice – sadhana– a rigorous, repetitive, ego-transcending practice of surrender with focused attention.  Sadhana breeds viveka (discernment) that awakens awareness of the subtle beauty of the world.  

This beauty cannot be possessed, for it inhabits a realm that is not solely human.  When you listen to a masterful musician, you lose yourself in another world defined by the fact that both you and the musician are captivated by the larger voice of music.  We can only be captivated by such larger voices, even the greatest mastery has not the least dominance over them.  This captivation happens in many art forms; it can even happen in your consciousness of nature.  To reveal it in an art form requires a personal mastery achieved through great sadhana, but once it is revealed it is instantly recognisable even to the relatively uninitiated, as long as they are willing to suspend judgment and surrender their bodies to the experience.  

To know such a world is to know the world as an enchanted place, full of spirit and magic. Our ancestors saw the world this way. Then modernity located freedom within human agency, giving a primacy to this agency that led to an objectifying disenchantment of the world: the reason why ecological disharmony is the dominant crisis of our times.  

An enchanted world is a deep well of meaning that never runs dry.  To live in such a world is to live in wonder, an act of joyful surrender.  In The Theopoetics Podcast, Rev. José Francisco Morales Torres explains to us, “We have no control of wonder.  We can’t say, ‘I’m going to wonder now’, and have that experience of awe.  Wonder is completely out of our hands.  One who is experiencing wonder is the object of wonder, the recipient of wonder……it is not only something that we cannot fabricate or control, it acts on us.  Even though it is coming from without, it is experienced within.  It’s in that in-between place that wonder happens.”

There is no rule book for this: the most one can do is to train oneself to be receptive to wonder so that we may know the bliss of being alive within a union of an enchanted world and our innermost being. To be bewitched by wonder is to know the greatest joy, the greatest freedom, that is possible.  It occurs naturally in young children, and every day we observe in them this sacred nakedness of being human.  Yet, it seems to somehow escape our notice that we are schooling our children out of this natural, delightful, sublime state through modernity’s greatest error that equates freedom with an atomised personal wilfulness.

This brings me to what is abstract in the nakedness of being human.

The Abstract Nakedness of Being Human

I use the word ‘abstract’ in the dictionary sense: something that is general, that cannot be particularised to a specific instance.  When applied to the nakedness of being human, it becomes a paradox.  There is a line popularly attributed to Margaret Mead (although no primary source can be found), “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”  Whatever its source, there is truth to this line.  Look at any individual anywhere in the world, and you will observe that a person exactly like him/her has never existed in history before, and never will. What is abstract about us is a mind-boggling degree of uniqueness, and this has implications that are hugely significant.  

It means that each one of us speaks with a completely unique voice, yet the common ground we find when we interact, when we recognise an enchanted world, reveals that this unique voice can speak of the sacred and universal.  This is what the famous dancer Martha Graham meant in a letter to her dear friend Agnes de Mille when she wrote, “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And, if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.”   

When the universal speaks through your unique freshness, it resists a weakness we are all vulnerable to: the anaesthesia of habit.  Try and recollect the very first time you drove a car.  The nervousness of the first-time experience made you hyper-alert, taking note of everything on and along the road.  Now shift to being an experienced driver on a route to which you are habituated.  You can drive on auto-pilot, preoccupied with other thoughts, arriving at your destination with little memory of the journey.   Habit is an anaesthetic that blinds us to what is in front of our eyes.  Even the most sacred realm, once it becomes habitual, becomes something we will fail to see.  

The mere presence of a unique voice is not sufficient: that voice must break free from cliché, using its creativity to speak with a poetic exactitude that awakens resistance to the entropy of life.  When this happens, the universal is reborn every day in the unique, and this is the heart of what it is to be truly alive.  To be creative is to take on the sacred responsibility of sustaining this great chain of being.

But there is another crucial dimension: the unique voice does not speak only once, it lives for a length of time and speaks repeatedly.  How these repetitions are woven together is crucial.  In a TED talk, Daniel Kahneman, a behavioural economist and Nobel laureate, narrates a story about a man who was listening to a recording of a symphony, and the sound of it was sublime.  But towards the end, in the last couple of minutes, there was a distortion that produced a horrible screeching sound.  The man, quite upset, complained that it had ruined the whole thing.  But it had not ruined the experience of listening, for a majority of the moments spent listening were genuinely enjoyable.  It had ruined the memory of listening.  Kahneman posits that we have two selves: an experiencing self that lives in the present, and a remembering self, a story teller who weaves experiences together into a narrative.  While both are crucial, the kind of happiness the two selves feel is very different.  The happiness of the experiencing self depends on the quality of the experienced moment; and if I connect this to what I have spoken earlier, it is tied to the degree of wonder in the experienced moment.  The happiness of the remembering self depends on the structure of the story it writes, and a lot depends on how the story ends.  If the narrative contains an experience of unavoidable pain close to the end, the story is read as unhappy.  Another narrative may contain a greater quantum of pain, but if that pain lies in the first half and the story ends without pain, then it is more likely to be read as happy.

How experiences are shaped by the story written by the remembering self is crucial.  Does experience become devalued by straightjacketing into an inflexible and predetermined story?   Or can a story be written that increases the space within experience for wonder?  More importantly, how does the story that my remembering self writes come together with the story written by others?  Clearly, it is important to understand how we come together collectively around stories. For this, we must turn to the major story type we have used for this purpose across cultures and through the course of history: namely, myth.

What I say here on myth is substantively shaped by Jean-François Lyotard’s analysis in The Postmodern Condition, where he dissects structures of narrative knowledge in traditional oral cultures.  This is an epistemology radically different from that of modernity. Today, with our faith in individual human agency, our knowledge structures revolve around the notion of expertise, where the story of the expert is granted greater significance than the stories of non-experts.  But in structures of knowledge driven by myth, there is a cyclical reclamation of knowledge and expertise.

When I listen to my grandmother narrate a myth to me, I know that she gained the authority to tell the myth because she listened to it earlier.  In my listening now, I am receiving the authority to tell at a later time.  The story of the myth contains questions related to ethics, divinity, nature, and culture that encompass both teller and listener.  There is no privileged position of expertise or authority, for knowledge is recycled in a manner that allows everyone to occupy all the three possible positions of teller, listener and story.  The cyclical nature of the system privileges the eternal rhythm of retelling as much as the accent of a specific time-bound telling.

This mythic rhythm is the heart of culture and democracy, and we must resist the politics of power that seeks to disrupt and erase the act of retelling by claiming an ancient authenticity that will freeze the myth forever.  In a mythic rhythm, whether any predefined source of authenticity exists or not is irrelevant; the crux of the issue lies in the extent to which one is personally transformed by each act of retelling.  This is why all the great myths push us into the unknown, placing a challenge early in the story that forces the main protagonist to abandon the familiar and comfortable, spend the greater part of the narrative in unknown perilous territory, face danger by calling upon all magic available, be transformed by successful passage through the abyss, and confront, on return, the question of how to apply the gift of this transformation to the place where one belongs.   Put this together with the fact that we are embodied beings imbued with the sensory acuity of being alive, containing a powerful and sacred creativity, driven by a tacit awareness of an enchanted world that is beyond our capacity to capture in words, and we realise that the truth of our existence can only be known by the stories we choose to inhabit.  Permeate these stories with wonder, retell them in a rhythm that keeps infecting us with wonder, and they will determine who we become.

Just because we are sometimes children who listen to stories with a wonder that drops our jaws and opens our eyes wide does not ensure that we will effectively internalise that wonder.  For wonder to continue, the mythic rhythm must continue after we listen to another tell the story.  Retelling must sustain even when we are alone.  An inner voice within us is a crucial narrator who must also speak if we are to live the truth of our great stories.

The Inner Voice

At this point, I return to Hannah Arendt, for she emphasised the need to have an inner voice, asking what the basis of recognition is when you acknowledge the rights of another.  She did not believe this could be achieved through pity or charity, for that would not challenge the underlying asymmetry of power that was the heart of the problem. Even empathy could fall short on this count.  For a full recognition of the other, it is necessary to extricate from within yourself a framework that is equally applicable to yourself and the other.   This is possible only when you have an inner voice that can divide and critique yourself, and that voice should be able to cast the same comparative gaze at both yourself and the other.  Without this voice, you have no framework for a moral ground that covers both of you. You lose the ability to recognise the sacred nakedness of being human, both within yourself and the other.  Your moral code starts depending on clichéd defences rather than ethical awareness, and you become capable of doing evil without thinking of yourself as an evil person.  This led to Arendt’s famous characterisation, the “banality of evil”, in her report as an observer at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who was one of the major organisers of the Holocaust.  She noted Eichmann’s ordinariness, his apparent sanity (plus the unanimous clinical diagnosis of sanity by six psychiatrists), and the way he carried out the most horrific acts without ever thinking of himself as evil, believing he was merely faithful to orders that contained a moral purpose. All of us may never reach the level of evil that Eichmann personified, but when our inner voice does not speak with sufficient clarity, there is cause to question whether we are living to the ethical standard demanded by the sacred and abstract nakedness of being human.

I will rest my case for the importance of this inner voice by citing three other people who believed it to be of crucial significance: people with whom all here today are probably more familiar with than Hannah Arendt.  The first you will know because he is one of India’s most famous citizens, significant to the point that we bestow him with titles like “Father of the Nation” or “Mahatma”: Mohandas K. Gandhi.  And you will know the other two because they laid the pioneering ground for what we so easily term today as ‘modern architecture’: Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.

On Gandhi, I am indebted for what I say to Tridip Suhrud, who in his wonderful introduction to the recent critical edition of Gandhi’s autobiography, noted Gandhi’s key recognition of an inner voice that he called the ‘antaryami’, which led to “his conviction that the story of the strivings of his soul was being written at the urging of the ‘antaryami’, the ‘dweller within’ or the ‘spirit’.  It was not given to Gandhi to modify what came to him from the antaryami… the final instance, Gandhi’s notion of in-dwelling is the antaryami who spoke to him in a ‘small still voice’ and whose exhortations Gandhi submitted to. It is in this that Gandhi’s conviction that he was writing an ‘atmakatha’ inheres.  The atmakatha is not only the story of the soul in search of Truth; it is a story that is shaped by the antaryami.”

Gandhi was very clear that his life must be represented by an ‘atmakatha’ or story of a soul, far distanced from the dominant tradition of autobiography where an entire life is captured in a singular narrative.  In an atmakatha, the periodicity of dialogue with the antaryami is central.  So the story was broken into independent weekly episodes published in his journal Navjivan, written in Gujarati because that was the language his antaryami spoke.  They later appeared in English translation in his other journal Young India. What is most interesting is that when factual errors in some episodes were pointed out to Gandhi, he acknowledged them but did not offer any corrective clarifications in subsequent episodes.  Truth to him was rooted in inner quest, not external fact.  Consistency across episodes was not a priority; he probably would have been suspicious of too high a degree of consistency for that would indicate that his antaryamiwas not a truly critical voice.  In Gandhi, this ongoing dialogue with his antaryami epitomised an internal mythic rhythm, where the cadence of retelling stories of significance was woven with the spiritual transformations wrought by specific retellings shaped by the antaryami. We do a disservice to Gandhi by iconising him as a perfect saint, failing to recognise in him what we all must be: a human, faulty, often torn by self-doubt, at times overly obsessive, but anchored by an unwavering sacred commitment to the guiding wisdom of the antaryami.

Coming to what Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright had to say about an inner voice, their statements are self-explanatory, so I will cite them without commentary, other than to observe that these quotations come, in both cases, from texts written toward the end of life; texts aiming to look back at a life’s work and extract key learnings of significance to be offered to the future.

In an essay titled ‘Nothing is Transmissible but Thought’ published in the collection Mise Au PointCorbusier said, “In the final account, the dialogue is reduced to a man alone, face to face with himself, the struggle of Jacob with the angel, within man himself!  There is only one judge.  Your conscience, – in other words, yourself.  Thus: very small or very large, but able to ascend from the disgusting to the sublime, it depends on each individual from the very beginning.”

Frank Lloyd Wright, in a long text titled ‘A Testament’, said, Constantly I have referred to a more ‘humane’ architecture, so I will try to explain what humane means to me, an architect.  Like organic architecture, the quality of humanity is interior to man.  As the solar system is reckoned in terms of light-years, so may the inner light be what we are calling humanity.  This element, Man as light, is beyond all reckoning……….Mankind has various names for this interior light, “the soul” for instance…..And so when Jesus said “the kingdom of God is within you,” I believe this is what he meant. But his disciples betrayed his meaning when they removed the Father, supreme light, from within the human heart to inhabit a realm of his own, because it was too difficult for human beings to find faith in man.  So Christianity, itself misled, put out the interior light in order to organize worship of life as exterior light.  Man is now too subject to his intellect instead of true to his own spirit. Whenever this inner light of man is submerged in the darkness of discord and failure, he has invented “Satan” to explain the shadow.  Insofar as light becomes thus inorganic, humanity will never discover the unity of mankind.  Only by interior light is this possible.”

The statements of these two great architects offer an appropriate frame for me to make a concluding shift of emphasis from humanness to architecture.

The Terrain of Architecture as a Discipline

I will briefly outline seven key vectors along which our discipline could reshape itself based on a full recognition of being human:

1.      Recognition of the Sensory Inhabiting Subject:

We locate meaning in our work in the intentions of the architect: how it reflects the architect’s creativity and vision for society. Without discounting this unduly, we need a reversal of emphasis where the inhabiting subject becomes the dominant source of meaning, lending his/her consciousness to a dialogue with architecture’s aura.  The memories that accrue from this dialogue become embedded into the work, an aesthetic that develops over time.  This is an aesthetic of absorption, that stands in contrast to the aesthetic of expression we have foregrounded so far.  Design must orient toward how it emancipates and empowers this dialogue.

2.      Heritage as a Contemporary Moment:

We must stop seeing heritage as an authenticity handed to us from the past, but as a contemporary moment where we choose what is worth remembering.  To continually and critically examine heritage is to construct society’s mythic rhythm, where the pulse of our remembering goes with the accent of specific choices of memory, and we weave all this into a multitude of shared stories that shape who we are.

3.      Criticism as Inner Voice:

For empathy with the inhabiting subject and the discernment to know heritage, we need an inner voice of criticism.  This has to happen within each of us, but we also need a wider culture of criticism, and this is something we sorely lack in India. We must take heed of Alan Colquhoun’s qualification that criticism is not about judgment, about declaring a work to be good or bad; its purpose is to get behind the appearance of the work that strikes us and uncover its ideology.

4.      Re-Imagining the Civic Realm:

Civic space and public space are not synonymous.  We must transcend our current notion of a public realm in our cities dedicated solely to passive citizens consuming movement, consumption, recreation and leisure; citizens who can be lonely in the middle of a crowd.  To be civic is to foreground engagement with others, and we must rethink the shared realm of our cities to envision how we empower the discovery of resonances with each other and the world.  We must create the institutions that will inclusively achieve this, and will need to collaborate with philosophers, sociologists, politicians, and others, offering for this purpose our unique expertise in structuring space.  

5.      Education and the Pedagogic Core:

Educating architects is not only about transmitting knowledge or building thresholds of competence.  It is primarily about inducing students into pursuing personal mastery through sadhana, awakening the inner sacred creativity that leads to a lifetime dedicated to being a learner steeped in wonder.  For this, the pedagogic connection that infects the student with the teacher’s passion is central.  The teacher must also embody passion’s twin sister ‘compassion’ to ensure that the spark of passion fires what it must.  Pedagogy cannot be reduced to an instrumental means for teaching: it must form the core.

6.      The Practice as a Place:

Although practice is the primary means by which architecture happens, it is a poorly researched or understood notion.  We rely mainly on two anecdotal models: the business organisation and the creative personality.  Neither are adequate.  The business organisation is designed to think more about business than architecture. And while there is no doubt the creative personality model has created masterful architecture, it has served the profession poorly, propagating a culture of heroes and followers rather than a widespread reflective culture that taps everyone’s sacred creativity.  We must recast practice as a place that shelters reflective recognition of the core of what it is to be human within space.  We tend to think largely about the practice of architecture.  We must turn more attention to the architecture of practice.

7.      An Architecture of the Background:

We must rethink what we want our architecture to achieve. Our practice must neither prioritise commercial success nor be consumed by how it can be a vehicle for earning wide acclaim of personal genius.  The goal must be more rooted, contextualised and modest; dedicated to an architecture that earns respect, affection and honour in the communities within which we practice.

A Concluding Note

We would do well to reflect on a line from the old comic strip Pogo that states “We have met the enemy and he is us”, stop circling the wagons around the autonomy of our discipline, and refrain from placing all blame for our woes on some insensitive other.  We must look deep within ourselves to touch the essential core of our humanness and know its resonance with the humanness of the constituencies we must serve.  As a profession, we must learn to recognise what is sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.

Light as a Material

Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp: Photo by Adrien Olichon at

Resurrecting here a short essay I wrote for The Times of India some years ago, but which I still hold to as significant to me

When one is choosing materials for an architectural project, one tends to think only of entities that physically exist, that we can touch and grasp with our fingers.  But if one thinks carefully about how one experiences a space, it is evident that the aura of the space depends on much more than its physical qualities: it is also impacted by the sun, wind, temperature and other aspects that cannot so easily be felt with our hands.   

The natural light of the sun allows us to see the spaces we inhabit.  But it is more than just a tool that enables sight: the sun permeates every aspect of the space, and is a crucial actor in determining the character of the space. To illustrate this point, let us look at the fundamental question of identity.  Students often ask me: how one can design an architecture that is modern yet also expresses an Indian identity?  My response is that the sun is one of our greatest allies in answering this question. We are influenced by western magazines that cover projects in locations such as Europe, the United States or Japan. But these are all locations far north of us; latitudes where the angle of the sun is relatively closer to the horizontal.  Therefore the shadow that is cast by vertical planes takes precedence in the architectural aesthetic.  In comparison, in Indian locations the angle of the sun is much closer to the vertical. Therefore the shadow cast by horizontal planes takes precedence in our aesthetic.  And the temperate climate allows us to create spaces with far greater transparency allowing the line of sight to extend beyond an enclosed space and see an open space beyond.  So a fundamental aspect of the Indian architectural aesthetic is to be able to see the variation in light across the ground plane; alternating between shadow, light and shadow.  Or one can see horizontal cornices and ornamental projections scaling the vertical plane with shadow.  If one can connect with such principles within a modernist architecture, it will retain an Indian character for it comes to life only under Indian sunlight.

Light defines the identity of the architecture we create. It allows us to highlight the points in space that we wish to emphasise.  It infuses warmth, both physical and emotional, into space.  And it introduces a dynamic into space that prevents it from becoming fixed and boring.  Given its importance, it is essential that we treat light as a material: and just like other materials we have to give it a great deal of care, thought and craftsmanship.

In Hindu tradition the concept of sandhyavandanam is considered important in the effectiveness of prayer.  Sandhya means “union” or “juncture”, and vandanam means “worship”.   Mantras are most effectively recited at key junctures: dawn and dusk (the juncture between day and night) and noon (the moment when the sun shifts from ascent to descent).  In this tradition, spiritual awareness is tied to an alertness to the condition of light.  It is such an alertness that we must bring to bear on architectural design if we wish to create an architecture that transcends materiality and function to be poetic.

The Death of Architecture?

Photo Credit:Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

When we were in our late 20s, my wife and I were backpacking across Europe.  On one of our train journeys, we struck up a conversation with a middle-aged Austrian gentleman who was curious to know the places we had chosen to touch on our journey.  When we revealed that we had devoted considerable time to Paris, his eyes lit up, enthusiastically professing that Paris is a city that holds a special place in the hearts of all Europeans (this was eight years before the European Union came into being).  This sentiment is not confined to Europe.  For centuries, artists from all over the world were attracted to Paris (until neoliberal economics outpriced them by the late 20thcentury), seeing its culture and galleries as fertile ground conducive to honing their art. Paris has been a cultural capital to the world.

If Paris holds this special status, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris, a globally significant monument of Gothic architecture, lies at the geographical and emotional centre of this imagination.  The cathedral and its surroundings were inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1991, listed as “Paris, Banks of the Seine”; and this listing was a mere formality, affirming what was already in the hearts of people from Paris, Europe and the world.  When news spread about the recent fire that devastated the cathedral, I was struck by comments made on internet groups and social media: it was not just Parisians, people from all over the world were so affected by this tragic event that the emotion that spontaneously spilled out bore at its heart a trauma of personal bereavement.  It was as though a part of the soul of architecture had died.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame was involved in another death of architecture, proclaimed close to two hundred years earlier by Victor Hugo in his classic novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.   The scene introducing this death has the archdeacon of the cathedral, Don Claude Frollo, sitting in his room which commands a view of the cathedral, in conversation with two others.  At one point in the conversation the archdeacon points first to a book lying open on his desk and then at the cathedral and says, “Alas! The one will kill the other…..the book will kill the building.”  Hugo goes on to spend an entire chapter talking about architecture, expounding on this enigmatic remark.  He argues that every civilisation has its own philosophies, and every generation seeks to immortalise the ideas that it stands for. To do this, it seeks the most endurable form of expression for those ideas, which for many centuries was architecture.  The spatial arrangement, narratives of ornament, symbolism of proportion, rituals consecrated within buildings, all these served to make architecture a living register of humanity’s dreams, ideals and myths.  But all this changed in the fifteenth century with the invention of printing, and the printed word offered a means of expression that was not only more durable, but also far easier to mobilise.  Thousands of copies of an idea could be made and scattered all over the world.  Architecture could not compete with this ubiquity, and the printed book replaced it as the register of human thought.  Deprived of its historical role, architecture lost its status as mother of the arts and was reduced to a primarily utilitarian role, provoking Hugo to remark, “the architectural form of the edifice becomes less and less apparent, the geometric form growing more and more prominent, like the skeleton of an emaciated invalid.  The beautiful lines of art give way to the cold and inexorable lines of geometry.  A building ceases to be a building; it is a polyhedron.”

What can we learn by juxtaposing these two deaths of architecture epitomised by the Cathedral of Notre-Dame?  Do we share Hugo’s lament that the glorious days of architecture are lost to us forever? Do we grieve the ravage fire wrought on the cathedral because it diminishes the historical record of those glorious days?  I sense this is not the primary case, that the acuity of personal loss expressed by so many reveals something far more significant and totally contemporary.  In the Cathedral of Notre-Dame we recognise something that resonates with the core of our soul, we yearn for it, we sense that we can still have it today, but humanity has forgotten how to have it with the consistency that could be had in days past.   And when we lose a monument from those days, we sense that the chance of recovering what we yearn for recedes further.  Consequently, a bit of us burns with the cathedral, we mourn that too, and the global outpouring of personal sentiment after the fire reflects this.

Our limitation is that we are continuing the same error that Victor Hugo made, believing that the primary purpose of architecture is to be didactic, to communicate to us so that we may be enlightened by significant ideas and ideals that history wishes to hand to us.  Hugo feared that the loss of a didactic role to printing has led to the death of architecture, but the assignment of a primarily didactic role to architecture is a larger error.  The problem in this error is twofold.  Firstly, the inhabitant of architecture has his/her autonomy and agency derecognised and is rendered passive: a mere recipient of ideals concretised by somebody else in the edifice’s physical form, with an arrogant expectation that the inhabitant seeks nothing more than gratitude and fulfilment in the receipt of this ‘gift’.  And secondly, even if we accept that architecture is a form of language that communicates something valuable to us, how does this value survive the repetitive daily routine that characterises the inhabitation of most architecture?   If someone were to repeat the same phrase to us every day, we would stop listening to them; and similarly, any didactic value offered by the symbolism of architecture will dissolve over time into the anaesthesia of habit.  The power of communicated value depends on a freshness of the image, which can survive in architecture only within tourism or the ersatz world of media.  Neither of these is fundamental to the inhabitation of architecture, yet a persistent belief in the primacy of didacticism grants to both an influence that is far beyond their importance.

Clearly something else is at stake in the purpose of architecture, and a direction is suggested by Juhani Pallasmaa in his classic book The Eyes of the Skin, where he says, “In the experience of art, a peculiar exchange takes place; I lend my emotions and associations to the space and the space lends me its aura, which entices and emancipates my perceptions and thoughts.  An architectural work is not experienced as a series of isolated retinal pictures, but in its fully integrated material, embodied and spiritual essence.  It offers pleasurable shapes and surfaces moulded for the touch of the eye and the other senses, but it also incorporates and integrates physical and mental structures, giving our existential experience a strengthened coherence and significance.”   

In the schema that Pallasmaa identifies, the inhabitant is far from passive, and actively participates in a dialogue with the aura of architecture that strengthens his/her sense of existential coherence and significance.  It is significant to note that the architect is not a participant in this dialogue.  The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘aura’ as “The distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing, or place.”  The aura of the architect and the aura of architecture are two distinct things, and when the construction of a building is completed and handed over for inhabitation, the architect’s aura departs from the scene, and all that is left to speak is the aura of the building.  This is a moment from which the architect, as a person, is forever silent, and there are very few architects who have come to terms with the implications of this enforced silence.

The key to the architect’s success is the mastery with which he/she releases the kind of aura in architecture that offers an emancipatory experience to the inhabitant.  When that happens, the strength of the dialogue between inhabitant and aura increases over time.  Firstly, each encounter produces memories that feed into subsequent encounters, thereby enhancing them.  And secondly, once the aura offers emancipatory experience, repetition of that experience serves to augment the existential and spiritual development of the inhabitant.

The work gradually absorbs meaning through experiences and memories of inhabitation.  This aesthetic, that evolves over time, is an aesthetic of absorption:  a far cry from the aesthetic of expression that Hugo speaks of, which forms an axiomatic foundation of much of contemporary architectural education and practice.  I would not argue that we should completely eliminate an aesthetic of expression from architecture, for to do so would be to deny an inherent and significant aspect of the architect’s creativity.  I only suggest that the aesthetic of expression should be freely allowed, but on the condition that it humbly serves the aesthetic of absorption, offering itself to a sacred purpose of life that is greater than any one person, even the creator of architecture.  This humble yet sacred purpose is what the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris embodies in its aura, so let us explore how the aura of Gothic cathedrals came to be.

In a brilliant analysis in his book Meaning in Western Architecture, Christian Norberg-Schulz traces the development of the architectural form of the church in Europe.  Christianity had been an underground religion for the first three centuries of its existence; the central message of those early times could not offer salvation on earth, resting on a promise of salvation in heaven after one has lived life on earth.  When it became a recognised religion with the freedom to build its own edifices, this message was embodied in the first churches it built, which turned their back to the surrounding town focusing inwards on a dark linear plan, with an entrance at one end and the altar at the other, symbolising the path to salvation. As the church became more established in Europe during the Romanesque era, this interiorised otherworldliness that symbolised the passage to heaven began to adjust to worldly contexts.  The plaza in front of the church became a site of sanctuary, bell-towers rose in height making the church more visible from a distance, and articulation of the façade along with larger windows began to construct a relationship between the church and its context.  The large separation between heaven and earth that characterised the Early Christian church began to reduce, and heaven and earth began to form a continuum.  As a result, the distance of the altar from the entrance could be reduced; the altar moved away from the furthest end, and the church form acquired another layer of symbolism by developing a cruciform plan. 

By the time of the Gothic era, developments in building techniques allowed the evolution of church form to reach new levels.  The development of rib vaulting and flying buttresses not only permitted an increase in building height, but also allowed a greater transparency of the façade.  Increased skill of craftsmanship in stained glass lent both narrative and mysticism to this transparency.  If earlier churches could only offer hope that an earthly life could reach heaven at its end, the soaring height and mystical light of the Gothic church concretised heaven right here on earth.  Norberg-Schulz concludes his chapter on Gothic architecture saying, “Because of its visual logic the cathedral was an image of the cosmic order…….From the cathedral the existential meanings of Christianity were transmitted to the human environment as a whole, and the town became the place where the medieval cosmos was presented as a living reality.”  The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, and other Gothic cathedrals, did far more than communicate the ideals of the time: they offered an experience that evoked heaven and the presence of God on earth, an aura that transcended worldly concerns.  This ability to craft buildings that balanced heaven and earth reached its apogee in Western civilisation during the Gothic era. Since then, while the pendulum has swung back and forth at times, as a whole the trajectory has moved in a different direction, favouring the worldly over the sacred.

The political power of the church increased even further after the Gothic era, and this was reflected in changes in its architectural form.  The expression of linearity as the path to salvation became overshadowed by circular plans with large domes, serving to emphasise the church as a place on earth.  Moreover, the church began to misuse the political power it had acquired, provoking rebellion in the form of the Protestant Reformation.  Competing factions of churches led to an emphasis of the didactic function of architecture in the Baroque and Rococo periods, using exaggerations of perspective and dramatic and flowery form for rhetorical impact: impressing people on earth began to compete with worshipping God.  Scepticism of traditional institutional authority became ingrained after the Reformation, and this (along with other factors) created an increasing awareness of inequality and the lack of freedom that affected large sections of the population. We have eventually come to our modern era of democracy, where one of the fallouts of scepticism of religious authority ingrained by the Reformation has led to the adoption of secularism as an axiomatic principle: a separation of church and state, believing that the sacred belongs only to the private realm, and must be confined within it.

This must be read alongside another significant characteristic of the Gothic era: it is the last era in Western civilisation where architectural creativity flourished in a tradition of anonymity.  We do not know who designed Notre-Dame, we do not even know who its master-builder was (and given it was built over centuries, there must have been more than one generation of master-builders).  The printed book came into being toward the latter part of the Gothic era, and it had a decisive impact that was quite different from the one that Victor Hugo perceived: it created a tradition of personal authorship that displaced an earlier era of anonymous collaboration.  The Renaissance, as the period immediately following the Gothic, was when the profession of architecture, as a specialised discipline segregated from the craft of building, was born.  From the Renaissance onwards, for the first time in history one always spoke of architecture in the light of individualised creators such as Brunelleschi, Alberti, da Sangallo, Bramante, Michelangelo, and others.  This personality-centric orientation has dominated architecture ever since.

This has created an existential angst over how architecture can serve humankind’s sense of purpose.  Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor from World War II, observes that in response to the horrific circumstances faced in the camps, some people just buckled under and succumbed rapidly, whereas others could summon the grit to resist and some of them were able to survive till the camps were liberated. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, observing that on the surface these two groups come from very similar backgrounds, he sets out to uncover the underlying cause that explains the difference between them.  He finds that those who survive are anchored in a horizon of purpose and meaning that is larger than themselves as individuals.  It may be religious faith, an intellectual idea, a a social goal, or an art practice; a resonance between inner aspiration and wider reality empowers people with the fortitude to survive great misfortune.

Modernity has enhanced our capability as individuals to find this larger purpose but has reduced our ability to collectively do so as a society.  Our governance focuses on the profane, and architectural practice (and society at large) thrives on a cult of individualism.  We do not know how to physically articulate a social sense of greater purpose and meaning in our cities, and the public realm has been reduced to the comparatively mundane functions of movement, leisure, entertainment and consumption.  We still find examples of transcendent architecture, but when we do so we can only ascribe its origins to the creativity of individuals, producing a superficial culture of heroes and imitators rather than one founded on widespread existential anchors.  Our political economy claims validity only through a statistical aggregation of atomised individuals, and when communities seek shared meaning, they tend to do so through the tribal factionalism that characterises the politics of today.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris represents the crest of a period in Western civilisation that sought to balance the profane and the sacred within an anonymous tradition. After that we have consistently moved toward an ethos where we privilege individuals and prioritise the profane in our public life.  The anonymity that created Notre-Dame reveals a humble dedication to a transcendent cause that is recognised as so great that individuals are immaterial before it.  We feel helpless for we yearn for this as a public existential anchor, but precedents like Notre-Dame are too far removed from us in time to be easily applicable.  The fire that burnt the cathedral deepens this angst, sharpens the pain we feel, and is a factor in the outpouring of emotion over its occurrence. 

There is widespread and spontaneous agreement that we must rebuild the cathedral, in the hope that if we do so the pain we currently feel can be lessened.  Healing of this pain will not come from restoring lost monuments, established precedent, or inherited tradition.  We head in the wrong direction if we depend on external symbols or formulae: we need a process that transcends this, where we each reach within, connect with the sacred wonder that we inherently are, and humbly offer that wonder to our fellow beings and to the universe we inhabit, so that the wonder within us resonates with the wonder of the universe.  We need to acquire what the philosopher Morris Berman calls a ‘participating consciousness’, as opposed to the self-absorbed ego-based consciousness we pursue today.  The Cathedral of Notre-Dame represents such a participating consciousness: an anonymous collective recognition of the sacred realm, not as an abstract or heavenly ideal but a reality right here on earth, recognising it to a degree that it can be concretised in architecture.  The politics of that time fall far short of the ethical standards we demand today, and our challenge today is to merge this participating consciousness with democratic ideals.

Public support for rebuilding has come from all quarters, from billionaires to ordinary individuals.  But there are differing opinions on how to go about it.  Some say we must faithfully restore it as it was.  Some say that a faithful restoration is impossible and we should keep its memory as a ruin, citing the ancient metaphysical dilemma of the Ship of Theseus, where Theseus had a ship that in the course of its maintenance had parts replaced, and if over time all the parts are replaced, the question arises on whether it is still the Ship of Theseus.  And some say that that we should not attempt a blindly faithful restoration and should add value from our time to leave a mark of our care for the cathedral.  All these proposals make the same error, assuming that every era has its own authentic spirit that characterises it.  

History contains a heterogenous multiplicity of events that can never be reduced to a single perception of authenticity.  Our heritage does not come from the authenticity of the past: it lies in a contemporary moment characterised by the care we take in choosing what is worth remembering from the past. We must not see Notre-Dame merely as a physical form (however beautiful it may be) or a moment in history (however significant it may be).  We must go beyond its surface form, recognise the sacred quest that it stands for, and recover that quest within us.  That is the prerequisite for the empathetic care that is needed to rebuild the cathedral, only that care can impart sanctity to the rebuilding, and it is the recovery and preservation of that sanctity that is the issue, not the precise form of the rebuilding. We can effectively rebuild the cathedral only if we simultaneously work very hard at rebuilding our collective soul.

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