Emerging Methodologies in Architectural Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I come to the responses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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