Nine Lessons for a Young Architect

Acharya Convocation.jpg

On 30th May 2017, I was invited to deliver a convocation address at Acharya’s NRV College of Architecture in Bangalore.  This is what I said:

I am honoured to be here.  But before I begin, I must address the question of why someone like me is here speaking to you.  The answer to that is simple: it is because you are young and I am old (as you can see, whatever hair I have left is grey).  It is not fair to ask the young to start from scratch, and it is a duty for us, the old, to offer to the young the lessons we have learnt.  I deliberately use the word “offer” because these lessons are not meant to be forced upon you as edicts that must be followed.  They are offered with faith in your wisdom, placed in front of you as a potential resource that you can use or reject as you see fit.  In making this offering, my generation must transcend the tired rhetoric of preaching and prescription and take on the challenge of offering you lessons that are worthy of your consideration.  So, I will attempt that challenge, and place before you nine lessons that I have found to be illuminating.

Lesson No. 1: A graduation ceremony is much more than either a formality or a celebration

You may see this as a ritualised and formal ceremony, and I am sure all of you have plans to party tonight.  But graduation is more than either of these things: it is a rite of passage.  It ranks alongside other significant rites of passage like birth, marriage and death: moments in your life when the form you take before the moment and after the moment are radically different.  At such moments, you enter a new realm of possibility, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.

Your graduation marks the day as a moment when you change from learning to be an architect to being an architect.  Crossing this milestone immediately forces upon you the question “What kind of architect?”.  You must ask whether you will be content with being an insignificant cog in the machine, a mere replication of the millions of convention-bound architects who have preceded you, an unquestioning existence rigidly bound by habit.  Or you must ask whether there is meaning and purpose in your life, and you embody a special creative energy that will add unique value to the world.  And if you choose the latter, that implies that you cannot remain noncommittal to architecture.  You must take a critical position on the kind of architecture you will produce, the specific value it will have because it is produced by you.

When I say this to youngsters of your age I often get a pushback that says, “I will take a position on architecture one day, but I am not ready yet to do so.  There is still so much more to learn, and one day, when I know enough, I will take that position”.  In response, I ask you to think back to the day when you were a young teenager, say fourteen years old.  I am yet to meet an educated modern 14-year old who did not have an argument with his/her parent(s) saying something like, “Don’t tell me what to do.  I am old enough to decide for myself”.  When you said this as that 14-year old, you were spontaneously taking a position on very complex subjects like personal identity, family sociology, the ideals of independence and freedom, the ethics of maturity.  There are accomplished scholars who spend years researching subjects like this, and barely scratch the surface.  Yet you, that 14-year old, unhesitatingly took a committed position.  When you look back, you realise that it was not a matter of knowing enough.  It was a matter of stretching what you had at that moment in order to learn.  From today’s perspective, you may find the pronouncements of the 14-year-old you as naïve, almost foolish.  But you learnt from them, and that was the process by which you matured.

You should never be noncommittal, for that way you will never learn.  Take a position, and do not fear: it is okay to be wrong if you are willing to learn.  If you are wrong and rigid about it, people will resent you or think less of you.  But if they realise that you are always seeking to learn, they will respect you even if you are wrong.  Because if they recognise your unquenchable thirst to rigorously learn, they will see a demanding standard you have imposed upon yourself that is far greater than what they could ask of you; and they will respect you for that.

And I assure you that a committed learner is right far more often than wrong.

Lesson No. 2: Architecture is a discipline

What do you say when asked to define architecture as a discipline?   To just say it is “the design of the built environment” is not enough, as that describes an activity and not a discipline.  A discipline has a core body of knowledge accessed through a set of skills that must be mastered.  If you ask physicists to define their discipline, you will probably get clear and consistent answers.  In contrast, architecture is difficult to define as a discipline for it has intangible qualities that are intertwined with everyday life in ways that are multiple and complex.  As a result, in defining itself it tends to borrow from other disciplines that intertwine with life: art, engineering, project management, psychology, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, logistics, and so on.  It is amazing how many architects lose sight of the core of the discipline.  Ask ten architects to define architecture as a discipline, and you may find close to ten definitions.

But one thing the architect does that nobody else does is the ordering of space.  And space has order, enclosure, presence, character and aura.  To learn the discipline of architecture is to understand space at a level that allows you to pursue mastery of how to offer meaningful spaces for living.

Lesson No. 3: Architectural design is much more than a problem-solving exercise

There is a tendency to see design as a task of resolving functional and aesthetic challenges: problems to be solved.  But you must remember that the spaces we occupy have an impact on how we live.  Architecture is a discipline that offers propositions on how we can live.  And we do not do this just by repeating the past: great architecture offers new possibilities about how to live.  Its exactitude and richness of experience gives a sense of who we are, where we are, what we could do, and our place within this universe.  We may learn skills on how to order space, on how to solve problems.  But those skills acquire deep meaning only when they serve propositional values on life.  Our goal, as professionals, is to enrich life through architecture

Lesson No. 4: It is the work that speaks, not the architect

In college, we are trained in a way where our voice is always present next to our designs: we explain our design to our teachers, we defend it to a jury.  We come to believe that that voice is important, and it is our intentions that make the work meaningful.  After we graduate we validate our work through means such as whether it wins awards and competitions, does it get published in reputed journals, is it discussed with respect in schools of architecture.  These are all mechanisms of peer review, which is a good thing, but when it becomes a dominant frame of reference two major problems occur:  First, it breeds a self-referential culture where our capability to talk about the value of architecture exists only with other architects.  Architects design for other architects, and lose connection with the public that inhabits their buildings.  And second, in peer forums the voice of the architect is always alive: either explicitly or reconstructed through critical analysis.  We continue the bias we have acquired in college, where the voice of the designer always co-exists with the work, and is seen as the force that imbues the work with meaning.

But in actual practice, when you complete the construction of your project and hand it over for inhabitation, all your words and intentions get left behind.  The work must speak for itself.  Good work has an aura, an intangible quality and character that seems to emanate from its physical being.  It is the dialogue between this aura and the experiences of the inhabitant that gradually builds memory and meaning in the work: the test of good architecture is how its aura encourages and empowers this dialogue.  Very few architects come to terms with the silence that characterises the moment when they step away from the completed work and surrender it for inhabitation and appropriation by others.

Lesson No. 5: Theory and practice work best when they contradict each other

We often mistakenly believe that we first construct a philosophy of architecture, and we then apply that philosophy in practice.  Practice then becomes nothing more than applied theory.  Consequently, we tend to segregate them into different worlds that have little interaction: the world of academia for theory and the world of professional firms for practice.  But that is not the way it works.  Theory and practice cover the same territory, but move in different directions.

Practice moves from the general to the specific.  I start with something general such as a design and my general knowledge of architecture.  I then define a set of conceptual possibilities.  I commit myself to one of those possibilities, work it out in more detail, moving from its general character to its materials and constructability.  In this process, I am always seeking more and more detail, and if I do nothing but practice, this trajectory shifts my centre of gravity as a person toward the level of detail.  Slowly I become a “nuts and bolts” architect, who cannot see the forest for the trees.

Theory, in contrast, moves from the specific to the general.  I start with a specific observation, and I try to uncover its meaning, seeking to extricate principles that can be generalised far beyond the initial observation.  I am always seeking further levels of generalisation, and if I do nothing but theory this trajectory moves my centre of gravity toward greater degrees of abstraction.  Slowly I become the stereotypical “ivory tower” academic, unable to relate to the richness of every day experience and consciousness.

Theory and practice work best when they contradict each other: theory is a way of critiquing practice and practice is a way of critiquing theory.  That is the only way you can be a complete and evolving self.  Never think that your graduation means you have left theory behind and you now move on to practice.  Always continue to do both all through your life

Lesson No. 6: You are unique

The anthropologist Margaret Mead is quoted as saying, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique.  Just like everyone else.”  Think of it: each one of you, a person exactly like that has never existed before in history, and never will in the future.  That is a pretty mind-boggling fact.  So don’t lose that by constraining your life to conform to the expectations of others because you are told that is how it should be, or that it is your duty.

But that does not mean that we become self-indulgent.  In our relationships we find that we each also echo universal and primordial qualities: the same things make us laugh, the same things make us cry.  The scholar of myth, Joseph Campbell, said that we do not seek meaning in our life, we seek the experience of being alive.  And when that experience resonates with both the inner core of our being and the essence of the universe, we feel the rapture of being alive.  If the universal was nothing but eternal truth, it would soon become stale formula.  But when it is reborn in every moment, that is the rapture of being alive.

So remember to always celebrate your uniqueness by continually reaching for the stars

Lesson No. 7: Drawing by hand is important

I see many of your generation who believe everything can be done on the computer.  But it is very important to keep drawing by hand, and let me explain why I feel so:

First, our memory does not just reside in out brain, it also resides in our muscles.  Remember learning how to ride a bicycle.  The first time you were very wobbly, the second time less so, and eventually you could balance well.  That is because each time your muscles held the memory of the previous time.  Drawing is the same: each time you draw your muscles hold the memory of the previous time, and just as on a bicycle each time you could balance better, as time goes by every drawing moves to a different level.  But the short repetitive movements involved in using a computer are of not much use in developing muscle memory.   You have to sweep your hand across the page: it is a form of dance.   And because only your muscles hold that memory, the line you draw is different from the line anyone else draws; unlike the computer which reduces everyone’s line to the same.  Drawing becomes a means of finding your unique voice.

Second, drawing allows a degree of ambiguity and approximation when you need it most in the early stages of the design process.   If I am sketching an idea for a plan at 1:100, and I draw two lines, I know they are approximately (say) five metres apart.  The computer tends to make me wonder whether it is 4.9 or 5.1 metres: a demand for precision that is paralysing at that stage of the project process.

And third and most important, when I sketch on paper the space of that paper is fixed.  Unlike a computer where I am forever zooming in and out.  Having that fixed frame of reference is important in imbibing a sense of scale.  And because that reference frame of the paper is one you physically touch, in this process you learn to imbibe human scale.

So please never stop drawing, and if you have not been drawing so far, start immediately

Lesson No. 8: We learn by doing more than we learn by knowing

This is again a common failure of conventional education: the inculcation of the bias that it is the sophistication, depth and width of our knowledge that is the foundation of our success.  But there is a dimension that cannot be known through knowledge, and can only be learned through doing, through practice.

The musician and Hindustani classical vocalist, Pushkar Lele talks in an interview about a stage in his life where he had been learning for fifteen years, but was stuck at a plateau that he could not transcend.  He sought to break free of this constraint by changing the guru from whom he would learn, and began training under Vijay Sardeshmukh.  Lele initially thought that the new guru would provide him with the key to this higher realm that he sought.  But Sardeshmukh pushed him back to the very basics, demanding that for the next few months Lele only sing the single note ‘sa’.  Lele found this rather pedantic, but since one must obey the guru he did what was asked of him.  Then one day he sang the ‘sa’ his guru was asking for, the guru smiled, and Lele discovered at that moment that till then he had never hit the exact centre of a note before.

Sardeshmukh’s guru Kumar Gandharva speaks about something that his guru, Anjani Bai Malpekar said, that your practice gradually reveals greater and greater subtleties in the note, and ultimately within what you thought was a single note you discover an entire octave.  These highly subtle differences, which can only be grasped through rigorous and continuous practice, are where the greatest emotion lies: it is these subtle shifts of microtone and timing that separate a truly great musician from one who is merely good.

The dancer Martha Graham expressed it powerfully when she said, “I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing, or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated, precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which come shape of achievement, the sense of one’s being, the satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God…..Practice means to perform over and over again, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”

Indian tradition offers us the same through the notion of sadhana: a rigorous, immersive, repetitive and ego-transcending practice that leads you to realisation of the divine.  Every day of your life should be a day of sadhana.

Lesson No. 9: Architecture is greater than the architect

There is a wonderful story told about Louis Kahn who began a lecture with the words “Architecture is”, and then paused.  His students initially thought that he had paused to search for the words that would complete the sentence, but shortly realised that to Kahn this was a complete sentence.  He went on to clarify that the spirit of architecture is eternal and transcendental, and each individual work is an offering to that spirit.

The Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada, had two kilns.  One was small, and the other was so large that he could not fill it with his own work, so an efficient firing of the kiln required a collaboration with other potters.  When asked why he had this larger kiln, Hamada explained that if he only had a small kiln he would begin to believe that pottery was his possession.  The large kiln served as a reminder that pottery was something greater than he was, and he survived by the grace of this larger realm.

So never attempt to treat architecture as your possession.  Treat every act of design as something sacred: an offering to the eternal spirit of architecture.

With these nine offerings, I have now said enough.  In the light of the last lesson, let me conclude with a prayer for your future.

May the grace in that eternal spirit of architecture always have its hand upon you

2 thoughts on “Nine Lessons for a Young Architect

  1. Truely said all 9 lessons,Sir.
    For me on compleltion of my graduatiin nothing could be better than reading your message that contains lessons for us young architects.


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