I often introduce myself as an architect who is easily distracted by other subjects. And as a result, I have been writing on a diverse range of issues other than architecture.
However, I realise that not everyone has the same range of interests as I do. Therefore, for simplicity, I am splitting my writings across two locations. And the purpose of this post is to get the message across to that small band of followers who have subscribed here (thank you so much for being there).
My writings on architecture and urbanism will remain here at WordPress. So if that is what you are interested in following, then you need do nothing.
But my other writings, on fields such as politics, culture and education, will now move to Medium. So if you are interested in staying in touch with those writings, you will need to find me and follow me there.
Preamble An undergraduate degree in architecture can be of two types: professional or non-professional. The professional degree is a sufficient academic qualification for obtaining a legal license to practice architecture. With the non-professional degree, a further graduate degree is needed to qualify for a professional license, but the degree can be applied to non-practicing work allied with architecture, such as journalism, history, academia, or work in a practice at a level below that of partnership.
Practically all architectural undergraduate programmes in India are professional degrees, and ten semesters (five years) in length. Therefore, this analysis will confine itself to Indian professional degree programmes, of which all demand that internship in a design practice constitute a part of the programme. There are two models that are followed. The first, which had been the dominant model till quite recently, calls for an internship of one semester duration, usually in the seventh or eighth semester. The second, a more recent introduction, doubles the internship duration to two semesters at the end of the course: that is the ninth and tenth semesters. Both models treat the necessity of internship as axiomatic, and it is this axiom I seek to deconstruct here.
The axiom rests on four underlying assumptions:
The purpose of the college is to make graduates employable in practice.
Ten semesters are more than the necessary time a student needs to spend within college, and one or two semesters can be easily spared out of this to prioritise the internship.
Exposure to design practice is a prerequisite to acquiring a license to practice.
The practical exposure gained in an office is a necessary part of the training necessary to qualify an architect as the holder of a professional degree.
I examine these assumptions one by one.
The College Should Make Graduates Employable in Practice This is a commonly heard refrain: one that is deeply troubling. A practice is easily positioned to cover gaps in technical exposure in young graduates. All one need do is apprentice the young architect with a senior professional who mentors her/him, and if the youngster is a committed learner, within a few months she/he has reached the ability to work independently. However, the practice is not equipped to cover gaps in the ability to think creatively, rigorously, and independently. The kind of mentoring needed here is difficult to absorb within the inherent routines of practice, and only colleges can lay the foundations for this ability.
What happens when practices are only able to find graduates whose abilities are technical rather than creative and critical. The practice finds it difficult to differentiate itself, and it becomes just like any other practice. An undifferentiated practice becomes what economists define as a commodity: a good or service that cannot be effectively differentiated by qualitative measures, and is primarily differentiated quantitatively, with the dominant measure being price. This breeds the situation we find today in India: a small handful of self-motivated creative practices, and a majority that is driven to undercut each other in the fees they quote. Education’s desire to serve practice, if made a dominant goal, will only undermine it in the long run. Colleges must realise that their primary obligation is toward the discipline of architecture, and not toward the practice of architecture.
One or Two Semesters Can Easily Be Spared for Internship There has been a historical reason why professional degree programmes are of five-year duration. Learning design is primarily learning by doing rather than learning by understanding, and therefore, the core of architectural education has always been the design studio where one learns design by personally doing design. Learning by doing is a process that cannot be easily compressed in time. Going by international standards for professional degrees, the year-by-year stages through which this process evolves, that necessitate five years, are:
Year 1: Supplement verbal and linear logic with visual and associative logic. Understand design process through basic design exercises. Learn basics of theory and history of design. Develop confidence for creative exploration, rather than be preoccupied with being correct. Develop spontaneity of thinking with one’s hand, and not just with one’s brain.
Year 2: Learn to carry out simple architectural design projects, gradually moving to how design can enrich life in the way it captures propositional value.
Year 3: Extend architectural design abilities by learning to design complex projects with an impactful context.
Year 4: Extend design abilities to be able to handle complexity, context and scale, learning how to organise multiple buildings on a site, and the links between large sites, their ecology, and how design can respect the site.
Year 5: Prior to graduation, use the thesis project to develop one’s identity as an architect, taking a specific position on the contribution one aspires to make to the discipline.
Each of these steps is challenging, complex, and difficult to handle in less than two semesters. Moreover, they need focus within a freedom that is possible only in college, distanced from the commercial and political exigencies of practice, so all of this time of ten semesters must be within the college. We should take heed of the rest of the world where any academic programme that is less than ten semesters within college is not considered a professional degree.
Exposure to Design Practice is a Prerequisite to Acquiring a License to Practice This is unquestionable, as one should not acquire a license to practice architecture without practical experience within a practice. But it does not necessarily follow that this experience must come while still in college, or that one or two semesters is a sufficient duration. Here too, there is valuable precedent in many parts of the world where, unlike the situation in India, the degree is not a sufficient qualification for acquiring a license to practice. After obtaining a degree, it is necessary to work in a firm for two to three years, and only after acquiring the necessary experience one qualifies to sit for a licensing examination. This examination is unconnected to the degree, and is typically administered by a body that is not connected with regulating education. The examination does not seek to check the creative or philosophical abilities of candidates, with focus being more on assessing the ability to design as per building codes, and understanding of construction, structure, building utilities, and standards of professional practice. One must pass this examination to acquire a license to practice architecture, ensuring that all licensed architects start with a minimum of two to three years of work experience. In India, the need to include internship as a part of the undergraduate degree programme arises more from the shortcomings of the professional licensing system than from the intrinsic requirements of education.
Office Exposure is a Necessary Part of Undergraduate Education This rests on the assumption that exposure to the practical dimension of design is necessary for completing the set of abilities of a graduating architect. This assumption is unquestionable, but its corollary that this exposure can only be found in an office is erroneous. The theoretical and practical dimensions are not to be studied in isolation: the key is how one integrates them in the design process. Architecture students need to learn that design does not spring solely from their creative and intellectual abilities, and that the inherent tectonic logic of structure, material, construction sequence, and utilities also play a role in shaping the design. The quality of a design springs from the elegance with which this integration is achieved. Practices are not an environment that can provide this mentoring: it can only be taught through the continuous guidance possible in an academic design studio.
If the intern comes without having learnt this integration, her/his utility in an office is very low. The intern is thus assigned the lowest level of technical tasks, with little guidance on how their task connects to wider issues. Effective training in integrating the practical dimension into the design process remains elusive to the student of architecture.
Conclusion While still in college, a student may voluntarily intern in an office during vacations, and this should be allowed and encouraged. But making internship a mandatory segment of a professional degree programme only serves to undermine the quality of education provided: consequently, both student and discipline suffer. Mandatory internship should be made a part of the licensing procedure rather than the degree programme. Colleges should realise they must teach the student how to integrate the practical, creative, and theoretical dimensions. Mandatory internships deprive them of the time required to do this, and allow them to abdicate a crucial part of their responsibility to practices.
Preamble It is an honour to be here today, for a talk that (while open to the whole school) is aimed at the entering batch. Welcome to the discipline of architecture.
This is a significant moment in your life, for the move from high school to college is more than just a progression in your education. It is a move that happens as you have just reached, or are about to reach, the age of eighteen: that threshold in time when society formally acknowledges you as an adult. This recognition carries with it legal privileges such as the right to vote, to drive a motorised vehicle, to marry, or to join the army. Among all the rights of adulthood that you have been granted, I urge you to focus on the right to vote. It indicates that you have not just moved on to adulthood, you have also moved on to citizenship: a change that asks you think not just about yourself, but also about how you embody obligations to the socio-cultural, economic and natural environment that envelops you. The education you receive in college cannot be treated as solely for your personal benefit, it is also granted to you so that you may learn how to meaningfully contribute to your context. You may think you are just one insignificant individual, and what you do does make such a difference. But remember that our nation is nothing more than the space where all individual acts intersect, however small each one of them may be.
My talk centres on four questions that follow from this fact: four questions that I feel you should be continuously asking yourself when you are in your course. The questions I focus on are:
How should I approach studying for a college degree?
What is architecture?
Why is architecture meaningful?
Why am I here?
These may sound like heavy philosophical questions, but let me assure you this is not the case, for they are rooted in your intuitive spontaneity. In fact, I would argue that you should never treat any question as a purely philosophical question, especially in college, for a common failure of higher education is its tendency to intellectualise every question. You should resist this tendency.
This brings me to the first question:
How should I approach studying for a college degree? When we think of the “I” in the question “How should I approach studying for a college degree?”, we tend to envision that “I” as a single unitary entity. But that is not the case: that “I” is made up of multiple selves. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on decision theory, speaks in a TED Talk of two kinds of selves. To explain his idea, he narrates an incident that somebody told him during the question-and-answer session after one of his lectures,
“He said he’d been listening to a symphony, and it was absolutely glorious music and at the very end of the recording, there was a dreadful screeching sound. And then he added, really quite emotionally, it ruined the whole experience. But it hadn’t. What it had ruined were the memories of the experience. He had had the experience. He had had 20 minutes of glorious music. They counted for nothing because he was left with a memory; the memory was ruined, and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep.”
Kahneman suggests two selves: an experiencing self and a remembering self. The experiencing self lives in the present, can remember the past, but basically it only has the present. To the experiencing self, every moment is relatively equal. The remembering self is a story-teller, constructing stories made of memories. And often, more recent memories will override those that have faded with time, and will colour the story differently.
I would extend Kahneman’s model by adding two more selves, and suggest that each of us is made up of four selves:
The Experiencing Self: This forms the foundation, for the life we live can only be accessed through the experiences we have. This self defines the experiences we perceive and the key question is what the other selves do with these experiences.
The Feeling Self: This self offers authenticity to our life, for it is the self through which we come to know love, joy, friendship, family and emotion.
The Thinking Self: This self enables us to step outside our skin, to look at the world from different angles, to understand what we have not encountered so far, and to acquire new knowledge, abilities and skills.
The Remembering Self: As Kahneman observed, this self is the story-teller, and these stories are necessary for unifying our other selves. The stories we construct about ourselves determine where we will go in life. Experiences fade into memory, and we need the remembering self to connect past present and future to find meaning in our life.
Now college is very good at dealing with the thinking self, but is weak in its ability to deal with the feeling self. This is inherent to its nature, for the operations of academia centre on discussion and reading, and it is the thinking self that translates easiest into language. The feeling self is not taken seriously in academia, for it does not readily convert into words or concepts, is inherently resistant to intellectual critique, and is therefore believed to be idiosyncratic, subjective and non-rational: all qualities that academia seeks to resist.
A fragmentation of the self subsequently occurs because there is an implicit bias that results in an unspoken instruction delivered by colleges, “When you enter college, please bring only your thinking self inside, and leave your feeling self at the door”. So, when your remembering self seeks to make sense of your experience in college, it can only construct a partial story.
And if when leaving college, you leave your thinking self behind in college (perhaps recovering it only when working on your assignments) then your remembering self constructs another partial story of your personal life, able to look only at your feeling self, unable to effectively connect these two incomplete stories of your academic and personal lives.
This fragmentation of the self is problematic in many ways, and I will name four dangers here:
Abstraction: When the thinking self is isolated from the feeling self, the communities within which it lives turn inward and away from the world, constructing abstractions that rest solely on academic and professional jargon, disconnected from the authenticity, emotion and meaning that anchor the human condition. Eventually, the very purpose for which the thinking self exists can be thwarted because of this fragmentation.
Habit: When the feeling self is isolated from the thinking self, it can no longer critique itself and often degenerates into habit. And habit is like an anaesthetic. Imagine yourself walking in an unfamiliar city, faced with the challenge of navigating from one place to another. You continuously look at your map, then keep referring to your surroundings, needing to check whether what you read in the map corresponds with what you see around you. You are keenly observant toward your surroundings and where you are. Imagine, in contrast, a walk in a neighbourhood you have lived in for most of your life, walking a route you have walked so many times before that you have lost count – such as walking from your home to the home of a close friend in the neighbourhood. Because everything you see is something you have seen many times before, you tend to travel on an autopilot of habit, thinking of other things, often arriving at your destination with no conscious memory of the journey. Perhaps a beautiful flower that lay along your path had bloomed that day, but you did not see it because you were moving habitually. Habit blinds us to what is in front of our eyes, and deprives our life of substantive richness. But habit can also be comforting, we need a certain amount of it to manage the stresses we are subjected to, so we all have an inbuilt tendency toward habit. When we become dependent on the comforts of habit, we find it difficult to accept that the world is not limited to the blinkered gaze of our habits. Inevitably, something we had been blinded to interrupts our comfort zone, and we are shaken such that our instinctive reaction is one of tribulation and fear. If we want to avoid being excessively bound by the chains of habit, we can only maintain the balance we so badly need through a thinking self that continuously challenges and critiques our feeling self.
Compassion: When the feeling self is isolated from the thinking self, it undermines itself. For only the thinking self can ask the “what if” questions like, “What if I were somebody else?” This question forms the foundations of empathy and compassion, without which the communities within which the feeling self is embedded will develop an inward turn, driven by habituated tribal passions that are fuelled by a fear and hatred of those who are unlike ourselves. A lot of the violence we see in contemporary society is because of such passions.
Meaning and Purpose: When the remembering self can only construct incomplete and fragmented stories, our life is unable to establish roots in meaning and purpose. The consequent incompleteness and sense of loss pushes us toward psychological problems such as apathy, attention-disorder, depression and mid-life crises: problems that are sadly becoming more and more evident these days.
Remember that studying for your first college degree is a formative period of early adulthood where it is essential that you achieve the integration of your four selves. And this integration is a responsibility you must take upon yourself as an individual. Do not depend on your college for it has a bias toward the thinking self. Do not depend on your community for it has a bias toward the feeling self.
Lay the foundations for the rest of your life by staying immersed in your complete self. Be free of habit and sustain the curiosity, alertness and discernment of your experiencing self. Be anchored in the emotional authenticity of your feeling self. Be excited by the challenges that your thinking self can uncover and explore. And seek integrity, meaning and purpose in the stories that your remembering self writes.
Let us now move on to the second question.
What is Architecture? You may think you have joined an architecture college, and are entitled to assume that your teachers are experts on architecture who have figured out the answer to that question, and will therefore teach it to you. While I am sure you will have good teachers, I should warn you that even among talented and committed architects there is considerable difference of opinion on what constitutes the discipline of architecture.
Now this is not problematic in determining the quality of education you will receive: in fact, it may paradoxically be helpful. I once attended a workshop on architectural education where one of the participants came up with a wonderful definition of a good college of architecture as one where you have committed faculty who disagree on what is good architecture but agree on how to teach architecture. I wholeheartedly endorse this definition. Pedagogy – the ‘how to teach’ – will build unity in the college, while the energy of arguing over issues that you are passionate about will make the college an exciting and vibrant place to be in.
But you will still need to resolve for yourself the question of what architecture is as a discipline. It is not enough to say “the design of the built environment” for that describes an activity, not a discipline. A discipline has a core of knowledge that is leveraged by professional protocols and skills. If you ask a physicist what his/her discipline is, you will get a clear answer. That answer is easier in physics because as a discipline it is fairly detached from daily life: most of us can lead a rich and rewarding life without needing to know much physics.
But architecture is so implicated and intertwined with daily life that the question becomes more complex. Some will say that architecture is about aesthetics and the production of beauty, and will locate the discipline within art. Some will say that architecture is about construction, and will locate the discipline within engineering. Some will say that architecture is about culture, and will locate the discipline within social anthropology. Some will say that architecture is about issues wider than itself, and will locate the discipline within philosophy. And some will take an “all the above” approach, casting the architect as an integrator, a jack of all trades but master of none.
But there is one thing that an architect does that nobody else does: the structuring and ordering of space. What does this mean? In an essay written over seven decades ago titled “The Sensation of Space”, Erno Goldfinger (a British architect of Hungarian origin) proposed three categories of space. The first is pictorial space, which is two-dimensional, best viewed from a perpendicular angle, and seen from the outside. The second is plastic space: the three-dimensional space of sculpture. This can be seen from a variety of angles, but is also viewed from the outside. And the third is architectural space. Like plastic space this is three-dimensional and can be viewed from multiple angles, but a crucial difference that sets it apart from the other two categories of space is that architectural space is largely viewed from the inside: the experiencer is within the space.
The key implication of being inside is that you cannot see the entire space. If I am in this room facing in one direction, I cannot see what is behind me. The room must have certain qualities and geometry of enclosure that allow me to construct within my mind its totality and where I am within it. Architectural space is not just perceived: to be fully understood and appreciated it must also be conceived.
There can be good enclosure which supports this conception, and there can be bad enclosure that makes this conception difficult. Acquiring the sensitivity to learn what is good enclosure will be a key part of your personal development as an architect. And there are two aspects of this that are crucial.
Firstly, since architectural space must be conceived by the human body, relating to the scale of the body is crucial. This is an art that has been substantively lost in the conventions of modern architecture, and I suspect that the nostalgia that many people feel for historical architecture is because the older buildings did it more successfully. They never did what is often done today: a single material, such as glass or concrete, stretched seamlessly across multiple floors of an entire façade. The older buildings scaled their façades so that you could look at the smallest of its elements and relate it to your body by judging that it was about one person high and four persons wide.
The second aspect I wish to highlight about conceiving architectural space is that enclosure is not singular, it is layered and full of rich possibilities. Take the example you can see in many places on this campus: being inside a room that looks on to a veranda, and beyond that to a garden. What is the limit of your enclosure? Is it the boundary of the room, the edge of the veranda, a point in the garden, or the far perimeter of the garden? The answer is it can be anything you want. It can respond to your mood. If I am in an introverted or focused mood, I can confine my enclosure to the boundary of the room. Or if I am in an expansive mood, I can stretch my enclosure to the far perimeter of the garden.
Or let’s go back to the example of a façade that I cited earlier. The layering can respond to my distance from the façade. When I am at a reasonably close distance, I may relate to the scale of a single body that is my own body. If I step back to increase the distance, there is a larger scale I can relate to which is that of multiple bodies. And if I step closer to reduce the distance, I find scales that relate to a part of my body: the reach of a hand, the touch of my palm, or perhaps even the intimate width of a fingertip. If the transition from one scale to another, from one layer to another, is not too abrupt, then I feel comfortable as my body moves through the spaces, and invigorated as I discover rich existential possibilities in the layering of spaces and scale.
As you learn how to structure and order architectural space, you will wonder to what purpose you direct those efforts. And this brings me to the third question.
Why is Architecture Meaningful? In his book Genius Loci (and I hope this book is there in your college library), the architectural theorist Christian Noberg-Schulz describes a specific Japanese tea-house. In Japan, the ceremony of drinking tea is much more than the consumption of a beverage. It is a deep ritual, refined over centuries of tradition, that seeks a contemplative spiritual dimension. The tea-house that Noberg-Schulz writes about is located on a cliff with a spectacular view of the ocean, and the path that approaches the building skirts the edge of this cliff. But a wall is built preventing you from seeing the ocean as you walk along this path. You can hear the sea, even smell it, but you cannot see it. Just before you enter the tea-house, there is a spot where you must pause to wash your hands and face: a ritual that precedes the tea ritual. The basin is designed such that you must bend down to it, and just as you gather water in your hands to splash on your face, your head is brought to a level that directs your gaze to a small opening in the wall framing a view of the ocean. This is deliberately done to evoke the humility necessary for the tea ceremony by making you compare the meagre quantum of water you can cup in your hands with the vastness of the ocean.
This is a dramatic example, but it serves to highlight an important purpose of architecture: to offer a framework and context through which people can comprehend their position within this world, appreciate their relationship with nature, and take root in the universe. This is a transcendental dimension found in great architecture, and I urge you to pursue that bond between architecture, light and landscape that facilitates this dimension.
But architecture offers more than this existential foundation: it also serves the remembering self. The architectural historian Frances Yates, in a book titled The Art of Memorywrites on a technique used by the orators of ancient Rome. They had to deliver long complex speeches; but paper on which to write notes, a memory tool that we take for granted today, was not available to them for paper was a rare and precious commodity reserved only for very important manuscripts, far removed from everyday use. These orators resolved this problem by using the architecture of the place where they would deliver the speech as a memory device. They would go there in advance, construct their speech, and associate architectonic elements of the room with points of their speech. They might say that the entrance door stands for the opening argument, the column next to it for the next point, and the adjacent niche for the point that follows, and so on. It is rumoured that the more skilled of them could go through a logical argument backwards by just reversing the sequence with which their eye traversed the room. Yates’ example suggests that we do not just receive meaning from architecture: the Roman orators showed that it is also possible to actively write meaning into it.
The Italian writer Primo Levi, in an essay on his own home, also recalls this same skill of the ancient orators, but goes on to remark that this technique would never work for him in his own house for every corner would already be occupied by authentic memories that would interfere with the fictitious ones this technique demands. Levi’s remarks show that the inhabitation of architecture breeds memories, and architecture becomes a repository of those memories. Many of us have intuitively discovered this in the memories embedded within a home where we have lived happily for years. Once you start thinking this way, you find you design differently. Now when I design a house, I think more about verandas, bookshelves, niches, bay windows, steps and other architectonic elements that memories tend to stick to.
All this goes to show that meaning in architecture is not solely a product of your creativity as an architect. Do not make the mistake of falling into that egotistic trap that many architects fall into: the hope that you will be this artistic genius the world will fawn over, and it is only your creative intentions that are important. True meaning in architecture is something that starts after the architect has completed and constructed his/her creation, stepped away from it and disappeared from the scene to allow it to be appropriated by others: an inhabitation that gradually breathes significance into the architecture. Your success as an architect is linked to the degree to which you facilitate this appropriation by others after you have disappeared beyond the horizon.
Yoga talks about the concept of prana: the energy of breath that flows through the body, and if this flow stops, the body deteriorates into a lifeless and decomposing shell. Inhabitation is to architecture what prana is to the body.
This brings me to the final question.
Why Am I Here? You may look at your classmates, and feel that you have all come to the same college, you have all gone through the same selection process to get here, you will all share the same curriculum and have the same teachers, and therefore, each one of you is here for the same purpose. All of this is true, but the conclusion that you are all here for the same purpose is radically incomplete. There is a great deal of overlap in your purpose, but there is also substantial divergence, and you make a great error if you only consider the overlap. It is necessary that you focus on the overlap and divergence separately but simultaneously.
To explain this, I ask you to imagine the very feasible scenario of you and a bunch of your classmates watching a movie together. Let us also imagine it is a comedy that is very well done, so it is genuinely funny. At one point in the movie, where something extremely funny happens, all of you laugh together. Now imagine what is spontaneously and naturally happening. The same thing is making each one of you laugh. But the laugh of every person has a different sound: it would be weirdly robotic if every one of you had an identically sounding laugh. In fact, each person’s laugh makes up an inseparable individualising facet of their personality.
What is universally funny finds a unique and distinctive expression in each one of you. And each one of you is totally unique. Think of it: a person exactly like you has never existed before in all of history, and never will in the future. That is a pretty mind boggling fact. But while we are totally unique, there is also a shared transcendental weave that runs through each of us.
In citing the example of a funny movie, I use a very prosaic, and perhaps not so significant, instance of the intersection of the universal and unique; but I offer it as an easy access into the appreciation that this connection between the universal and unique is very significant. The philosopher Charles Taylor argues in his book The Ethics of Authenticity that authenticity is like language: the capacity for it is inherent and inborn within each one of us. But till we converse we will never know it. It is the resonances that we find when we engage with other people and the world around us that offer us access to the dimensions of authenticity that make our lives worthwhile: whether it is in the glow of affection in moments with a loved one, the grandeur of a monument, the gut-shaking humour in a good joke, the beauty of a sunrise, or the poignancy of a well-told story.
When we are immersed in authenticity we lose sense of time, place and self. Then these moments fade away into memory, we slide back into the prosaic, and we wonder what to do next. We can feel disappointed that the prosaic has hidden the significant, and it would be unfortunate if we are overwhelmed by that loss such that we cannot overcome it. What we should do is hold on to the memories of those glorious moments, using them as a fuel that launches us on a quest to seek such moments again.
It may seem like an unnecessary effort that we must launch this quest every day, but that is not the case for it is the perpetuity of the quest that keeps life going. If authenticity could easily be grasped, pinned down and held perpetually next to you, it would rapidly grow stale; for who does not tire of seeing the same thing day-after-day, however wonderful it may be. We are energised when authenticity is reborn every day. And when you are the conduit of that rebirth, when it flows through you, that is when you feel truly alive.
You are not here because there is this great thing called architecture which pre-exists you, and you will get to find and understand it, and then apply it in practice. You are here because you will become a part of that sacred chain of being through which architecture is reborn every day. For architecture is nothing more than a potential spirit: one that can tangibly live only when it find its voice in people like you. And your voice is unique, so there will be a kind of architecture that can only exist because of you. And when your unique voice also expresses something that is transcendental, you, in your own humble way, will play a role in the rebirth of the universal, demonstrating through your person that architecture can stay alive for all eternity.
“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……….It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open…….No artist is pleased… there is no satisfaction at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction: a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
Conclusion So, I wish you all the best in your course of study, and pray that you flourish in your journey that is beginning just now.May you effortlessly and always hold your complete self together, in all its dimensions.May you find the joy that springs from the divine potential within the spatial richness of architecture.May you use the wisdom you gain to use architecture to enrich the lives of others.And may you always revel in that blessed unrest that keeps you most alive.
When I was a student in school and college during the 1960’s and early 1970’s, it was a standard practice for cinema halls in India to play the national anthem, sometimes before the start of the film, but usually at the end of the film. Listening to my country’s anthem has always been an emotional moment for me: till today my wife and I turn on the television every year to watch the beginning of the Republic Day Parade, solely to listen to how the ceremoniousness of the occasion imparts an added glory to the anthem; and the times we heard it in cinema halls in our youth probably played a role in ingraining this attachment within us. In those early days, I remember standing in the theatre for the anthem with respect and pride, filled with a warm glow, and most others also did so. Unfortunately, such sentiment was not unanimous to audiences of the time. When the anthem was being played after the film, many ignored it and started exiting the theatre. When it was played before the film, some kept moving to their seats, or continued to sit or converse. Eventually, in the mid-70’s, it was decided that the national anthem should not be subjected to such disrespect and this practice of playing it in cinema halls came to an end, even though a few theatres voluntarily continued to do so. The memory from those times that strikes me now is the behaviour of those who chose to offer respect to the anthem: they stood with pride, but remained immersed in their own allegiance, seemingly unconcerned with measuring what anyone else was doing, unaffected by the fact that many around them offered little or no respect.
Coming to recent times, towards the end of 2016 the Supreme Court, driven by a desire to promote pride in the nation, passed an order reinstating the mandate of playing the national anthem in cinema halls. There has been some controversy over whether it is appropriate that judges poke their nose into such issues, but that is another discussion that I will not get into here. The court order stipulated that the anthem be played before the screening of the film, made it mandatory for all in the hall to stand and show respect to it, and prescribed that the doors of the theatre be shut while it is played so that no disturbance or disrespect is allowed. This time a radically different element had entered the public mood: an assertive nationalism seemed to have taken root. People did not remain contained within their personal allegiance. Many cast a hawk-eyed gaze on other cinema-watchers to judgmentally measure how they met the required standard of devotion to the nation, and reports began to circulate of spontaneous verbal, sometimes physical, attacks being unleashed on those who did not stand for the anthem.
What has changed since the audiences of four to five decades ago? Why did patriots remain silent back then, and in contrast why do so many today monitor their fellow citizens like watch dogs? The earlier silence does not speak of a lesser patriotism. Rather, the two eras reflect a radical difference in the way we place the anthem in relationship to ourselves. In the earlier era, the relationship was direct and personal, so secure in its internal emotional bond that the discordant actions of others around appeared irrelevant. The presence of that bond seemed sufficient to construct one’s imagination of the nation. But today the anthem represents a nation placed as a god on a pedestal, the bond is no longer personal but dependent on the status of that pedestal to the point that an overwhelming agitation often results if the exaltation of that status is not consistent or comprehensive. It is not that the old attitude is no longer present: it is just that we often fail to see it for the new attitude attracts our attention by being far noisier. I had two recent experiences with the national anthem that delineated the difference between these two attitudes. The first was in a cinema theatre, and left me quite disturbed; and the second was in a club, and moved me to the point of inducing a lump in my throat.
In the cinema theatre experience, it was not the playing of the anthem that was disturbing. Far from it: while all stood respectfully, the anthem worked its usual magic on me with the same glow unfailingly warming my heart. It was what followed the anthem that was disturbing. Just as the last strains died down, a woman in the hall loudly shouted “Bharat Mata ki……” (To Mother India……), to which many in the audience dutifully echoed “Jai!” (Victory!). This sloganeering is new; it was never heard during my childhood experiences at the movies. The slogan received a chilling echo in the theme of the film we watched that night: the Sridevi starrer Mom. The film narrates how its protagonist deals with the rape of her step-daughter and the subsequent failure of the judicial system to punish the culprits. She characterises her situation as one where the choice is no longer between right and wrong for it is reduced to choosing only between wrong and greater wrong. This launches her on a path to wreak violent vengeance one-by-one upon the perpetrators of the rape. The audience watching the film, as well as reviewers of the movie, seemed untroubled by its unquestioning promotion of a vigilante justice that makes scant attempt to seek an ethical compass that could guide us toward what is right. Sridevi’s role is a metaphor for the Bharat Mata the woman in the movie hall shouted out to: a loving, yet powerful, mother whose love is so perfect and divine that those dissonant with it are rightful targets of her wrath.
Now for the second experience, which happened when a group of my friends from high school met for a Sunday reunion lunch at a club in central Bangalore in honour of the visit of a classmate from overseas. A temporary shelter had been set up that day on the main lawn of the club, and there was quite a crowd as it was also the day a significant cricket match (India versus Pakistan in the final of the ICC Champions Trophy being played in England) was being telecast live on a large screen. By the time the telecast of the pre-match ceremonies started at 2 pm, all of us in our group were full of beer and biryani, in a jovial mood echoed by the crowd surrounding us, and a loud and fun-filled buzz of conversation saturated the ambience. Then the national anthems of the two teams were played, starting with India. The sound of the anthem, as it began to play, was underscored by a radical transformation of the space we were in. It was as if a powerful divine force swept through, momentarily carrying the sound of everyone rising to their feet, but primarily sucking all conversation out of the place. The crowd went through a metamorphosis, the convivial roar of conversation abruptly vanished, and although a few people sang the anthem, it was primarily a silence that suddenly embraced us. The multitude from which this silence emanated gave it tangible weight and intoxicating presence, imbued with stillness reverence and pride that spoke louder than any words could. The evocative power of the moment brought goose bumps to my skin and it will remain forever etched in my memory.
This haunting silence had a paradoxical quality that drew my attention to the fact that it is not a literal and pervasive silence that is of significance, but one woven into the equation we strike with the fellow beings who surround us in such moments. We are silent with them: we do not attempt to speak to them, and we do not actively listen to hear them. Yet, the multitude of their silent presence, when directed to the same purpose that has consumed us, imparts a resonant significance to the aura of that purpose. It is the same phenomenon that resounds within the faithful in a crowded Indian temple. Every worshipper’s relationship with God is personal and intimate: they pray as though they are the only person in the temple. Yet somehow, the multitude of worshippers, who do not engage with each other but are praying just like each other, reverberantly underscores to every solitary worshipper the compelling presence of God.
This paradoxical silent engagement characterised the allegiance to the anthem demonstrated in the cinema theatres of old. But today, it is absent in those who launch attacks on any shortcoming of respect for the anthem or in that sloganeering woman I encountered. To the contrary, while directing one ear to the anthem they keep their other ear actively and anxiously directed to listening to those around them, with their anxiety rapidly escalating if they fail to hear an adequate echo of themselves. They seem unable to survive without that echo, and if it is absent they desperately act to create its presence, either by enforcing it through intimidation or by provoking it through slogans. Their anger is what immediately strikes us, but there is an underlying anxiety and fear that is palpable. To them, the angst of modern uncertainty is relieved by positing the nation as something glorious and pre-existent. The imagery of a divine mother is powerful and appropriate to this quest: a goddess who has created us and nurtures life within us through her selfless and perfect love. But her pre-existence is fragile for, however glorious it may be, its perfection is threatened by any attempt to bring her into coexistence in the present moment with us, messy and flawed beings. She can only be there through an affirmation of her perfection constructed by an unquestioning and dutiful reflection of that wonderful love back toward her. If we fail to produce that reflection, fail to produce the echo, we blasphemously undermine her very presence: an intolerable existential transgression that compels her faithful believers to enforce or provoke the echo by by recasting themselves as proxies for the mother’s wrath.
These are two radically different ways of placing our anthem. One lifts the anthem on to a public pedestal above us, casting it as an emblem of the nation as pre-existent divine mother. And the other seems to offer no public definition of the nation, content within personal engagement, but seeming to draw solace and public affirmation from the silent resonance of those around.
The true difference in these worldviews can be best appreciated by allegorically comparing the cinema halls of yesteryear and today: specifically, the moving image of the flag projected on the screen as the anthem is played. In the 60’s and 70’s, we saw a film of an actual flag fluttering in the wind. The colours may have been clumsily touched up, and the breeze may have been produced by a fan lying outside the camera’s cone of vision, but there was no doubt that the image we watched was that of a real flag. In contrast, today we watch a flag that has been digitally constructed and animated, moving in the breeze in a gently swaying wave whose evenness is so perfect that the artificiality of the image is pronounced. The myth of a pre-existent glorious nation cannot exist in a messy and complex world: it must be a constructed image, and the illusion of its reality continually propped up by a devotional chant that can neither cease nor be tainted by non-conformance. Whereas a real flag fluttering in the wind has a living force within it, for the presence of the wind, even if simulated by a fan, embodies a physical energy.
I see the latter as an emblem representing that we the people are the energy, the wind, that keeps the flag flying. The nation does not pre-exist us: it is continually constructed in the way we pour our ideals, visions, thoughts, dreams, art, dance, culture, community and kinship into her public realm; and this outpouring is the wind that energises the flag so that it does not hang limp but flies gloriously. We must remember that the freedom of our country was not won by a nationalist call to restore a divine mother to her pedestal, but by an insistence on the inalienability of swaraj (self-rule). And if it all begins with the freedom, autonomy and potential of swaraj, then we must not seek to control what our neighbour’s voice speaks. Our silence with our fellow citizens is our pledge to support the authenticity of their voice. We will all be free beings who speak with different voices, and the core challenge of nation building will be to construct and sustain a public realm such that these diverse voices do not descend into anarchy or narcissism, but silently align to keep the flag flying. The uneven flutter of the flag in the wind will be representative of this inherent diversity. That will be good, rich and resilient; for that is the way that real flags fly.