Architecture, Worship, Ritual and Time

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

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

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

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

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

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Architectural Education and Regulating Architecture in India

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

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

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

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