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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Bengaluru’s Elevated Corridors: A Case Study in Urban Governance

Map of Elevated Corridor Project, from Detailed Feasibility Report prepared by AECOM Asia Co. Ltd., Deloitte Touché Tohmatsu India LLP, & Infra Support Engineering Consultants Pvt. Ltd.  Report commissioned by Karnataka Road Development Corporation Limited.

The Government of Karnataka proposes a long network of elevated traffic corridors, totalling close to 90 kilometres in length, to alleviate congestion in Bengaluru, and recently floated a tender for the first phase of the project.  This tender, and subsequent ones to follow, are on the basis of a detailed feasibility report commissioned by Karnataka Road Development Corporation and prepared by a trio of private consultants engaged for the purpose.

The report only mentions the construction cost of the project, which is over Rs. 19,000 crores. There have been press reports that claim once land acquisition and other costs are factored in, the total project cost could be close to Rs. 30,000 crores or more.  This is an enormous sum of money, and one would assume that whoever proposes spending such a huge sum would exercise due diligence and enormous care to ensure that all aspects that warrant inclusion in the evaluation have been carefully considered.  There is legitimate cause for concern when such proposals overlook many basic fundamental aspects.  

The focus here is not to comment so much on the proposal for the elevated corridor project, but to reflect on the quality of urban governance and planning if a proposal to spend thousands of crores can be put forward without detailed evaluation of issues such as those listed below.

Vision for the City
Cities cannot be reduced to quantitative or technical problems to be solved.  They are sites of creativity that form the cutting edge of an economy: even though less than 35% of India’s population is urban, over 60% of her GDP comes from urban areas.  Cities are dynamic cultural entities where the way people come together affects the vibrancy of the culture, economy and politics that take shape within the city.  

Jane Jacobs, the eminent thinker on cities, had proposed that cities are truly vibrant when they have a buzz of pedestrians moving about at all times.  Such cities are also far safer due to more ‘eyes on the street’.  This will not happen by accident: it first requires a vision on the quality of life we want for the city, and then an urban design and planning strategy that works out the spatial form that will catalyse this quality of life.  Clearly, a large network of megastructures of elevated corridors, casting huge shadows and spewing noise and pollution which will drive away certain land-uses, is not conducive to a vibrant pedestrian life.  While some elevated transit structures may be unavoidable, they must always be evaluated and shaped by an overall urban vision. This proposal makes no such attempt.

The Institutional Framework for Urban Planning
The 74thAmendment to the Constitution of India came into effect in 1992 with the aim of granting recognition and autonomy to urban governance so that each municipality can function as a “vibrant democratic unit of self-government.”  It stipulates that planning for a city the size of Bengaluru be undertaken only by a Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC), which should draw at least two-thirds of its strength from elected members of the municipality – a provision that aims to subject urban planning to democratic oversight within the municipality.

Bengaluru has been poor in conforming to this constitutional requirement.  It constituted the MPC over twenty years after the amendment was enacted and bypassed the ‘self-government’ intent by granting chairmanship of the MPC to the Chief Minister of the state.  The amendment is silent on how the MPC should develop the institutional capacity to perform urban planning, but it could be assumed that this capacity will be developed through building a qualified secretariat and an empanelled set of professional consultants.  Bengaluru has not pushed the MPC in this direction, choosing to delegate all planning to the parastatal organisation that has conducted it so far: the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA).  Delegation to a parastatal is another diversion from the intent of empowering municipal self-government that the spirit of the 74thAmendment calls for (and it is significant to note that the project report for the elevated corridor project has been commissioned by another parastatal, and not by the BDA).

There is currently a public interest litigation being heard in the Karnataka High Court challenging this failure in conformance to the Constitution.  In the course of this hearing, the court observed that the elevated corridor project has not been undertaken within the legally mandated institutional framework for urban planning and directed the government to cancel the tender floated for the first phase of construction of the project.

The project has also not followed the mandated procedure for public consultations on major development projects stipulated in the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act.

The Typology of Road Networks
Road networks cannot be evaluated solely with linear logic.  Roads belong to a category of what philosophers have called ‘polycentric problems’, which means that any problem cannot be isolated to one spot in the network.  The metaphor that best explains this is the spider’s web: one may tweak the tension in one single strand of the web, but this action and its results cannot be confined to the point of intervention.  A change in tension in any single strand results in a redistribution of tension in the entire web.

In India, we have tended to view interventions in road networks as ‘monocentric’ problems, where we can isolate the problem and its solution to a single spot. For example, we observe congestion at a specific road junction and come up with the knee-jerk solution of a flyover at that junction to resolve congestion.  We may find that after constructing that flyover we no longer see congestion at that junction and therefore believe our intervention to be successful.  However, there may be another junction a few kilometres downstream of the traffic flow which, before the flyover was constructed, received a volume of ‘x’vehicles per minute and was able to handle this volume successfully.  Once the upstream congestion is resolved, this junction now receives ‘3x’vehicles per minute, and it becomes congested.  The flyover did not eliminate congestion: it merely redistributed it.

The elevated corridor cannot be seen as an isolated project and must be viewed in terms of the overall architecture of the road network.  The corridors have a series of entry and exit ramps, and the impact these ramps have on the underlying road structure is insufficiently evaluated.  Ashish Verma, Associate Professor of Transportation Systems Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, predicts that these interfaces will cause fifty-three new spots of congestion in the city.

One has to look at the network as a whole, and particularly its typology and how one may alter it.  Bengaluru has an overly radial pattern of roads, which overloads the city centre and causes a level of congestion that spreads outwards, with spill over impacts in peripheral areas.  The strategy should be to relieve traffic flows from the restrictions of this radial emphasis through new concentric connections.  This can be achieved through a mix of new roads (such as the proposed peripheral ring road) and modification and reclassification of existing roads.  A case study that achieved this is Washington DC which in the late 1960s constructed a circumferential highway called the Capital Beltway.  This was supplemented with area development plans that coordinated land-uses and secondary roads along this highway, resulting in a shift of commuting patterns so that the number of commuters moving concentrically far outnumbered those moving radially.

The elevated corridor project makes insufficient attempt to tackle the overall typology of Bengaluru’s road network, and to view it as a polycentric challenge.

It is falsely assumed that the only cause of traffic congestion is because of an overload of volume.  This is not true in India, where a substantial degree of congestion results from turbulence in traffic flows caused by uneven road design standards.  Imagine a water pipe whose width changed every few feet.  Clearly water would not flow efficiently in such a pipe, and if one found a trickle upon opening the tap at the other end, this would be a result of turbulence in the system and may not be due to the average pipe diameter being too small for the desired flow rate.

We do not have consistent widths or standardised turn curvatures in the roads of Bengaluru (and most Indian cities), and the consequent turbulence is a significant cause of congestion.  The relative role that turbulence and volume play in causing congestion is inadequately studied, but it should be noted that the project report justifies the proposal on elevated corridors by looking at congestion solely from the perspective of traffic volumes, making no attempt to comprehend the impact of turbulence in the system. Strategies to resolve turbulence require reclassification and modification of existing roads rather than adding new roads, and if turbulence is effectively dealt with, then the quantum of demand for new road space would come down drastically.

The fact that a reduction in turbulence can have an impact is proven by the TenderSure project implemented in the centre of Bengaluru.  When the project was first proposed, doomsayers predicted that it would completely clog the city core, for traffic volumes were high and the proposal called for a reduction of traffic corridor widths in order to grant more space to pedestrians.  But this never happened: despite reduced widths traffic continued to flow, for the project reduced turbulence through implementing systematic road standards.

Mixed-Mode Transport Strategies
The Government of India has developed a National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) that is published on the website of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. This document is offered as a baseline policy standard that can guide the development of transport strategies in every city.  The document is acknowledged as a resource on the website of the Directorate of Urban Land Transport, Urban Development Department, Government of Karnataka.

One of the key objectives of the NUTP is to ensure that transport plans seek to serve the entire population and are not disproportionately oriented toward elite constituencies.  A prime means of doing this is to aim at an allocation of road space on the basis of people rather than vehicles.  This is not the current situation where buses carry far more daily passenger trips than private motorised vehicles, yet private vehicles occupy over 80% of the road space whereas buses occupy less than 5% (with this proportion falling further during peak hour traffic).  Clearly a resolution of the transport problem can only be solved by a shift of prevailing modes from private to public transport.  As the old adage goes, “A developed country is not one where everyone owns a car, but one where even the well-to-do use public transport.”

A strategy that seeks to primarily serve private vehicles is an elitist strategy as it serves only the upper economic segments of the population.  The project report on elevated corridors continues this elitism by making all assessments of traffic volume using the measure of Passenger Car Units (PCU).  All vehicles types are converted into PCU equivalents, and the comparative effectiveness of different transport modes is lost in the analysis.

If the goal of the NUTP of allocating road space on the basis of people rather than vehicles is to be achieved, then all transport proposals should occur within the context of a comprehensive strategy that examines all modes of transport, with an emphasis on public transit.  The project report acknowledges that all modes of transport should be coordinated with the elevated corridors, but only recognises this at a general level and goes into the detailed calculations and designs for the elevated corridors without similarly detailed assessment on other modes and the relative weights to be assigned to each mode of transport.  If a comprehensive policy analysis of all modes of transport were done in advance, the entire proposal for the elevated corridors would probably need substantial modification.

Given that the detailed designs on elevated corridors were rushed into the  tendering stage, it appears that by the time any comprehensive multi-mode policy was evolved, the construction of these elevated corridors would be locked into place as a fait accompli, along with the concomitant distortions in the relative weightage of public versus private transport modes.

Land-Use and Transit
Urban transport cannot be looked at in isolation for it bears a strong connection with land-use.   For example, a single-use zoning policy where every parcel of land can only be used for a single designated purpose (whether residential or commercial) will entail greater average distances between work and home when compared to a mixed-use zoning policy where a neighbourhood contains a judicious mix of residential and commercial uses.  This is not to recommend that we only follow a mixed-use policy, but to make the point that the land-use strategy adopted can have a significant impact on loads on the transit system.

This is why transport design should always form a part of comprehensive master planning. The current proposal on elevated corridors has been done as a separate exercise disconnected from the preparation of the comprehensive development plan.  The government did announce that the proposal will be incorporated into the new master plan for Bengaluru, but this will wind up as mere juxtaposition of the two: a superficial attempt at post-facto validation, which is a very different scenario from designing the proposal in simultaneous consonance with the master plan.  The ‘rubber stamp’ intention is reflected in the decision to launch tenders for the first phase while the new master plan is yet to be finalised and released in the public domain.

Capacity Limits
Clearly, a strategy of responding to traffic congestion by increasing road space is bound to hit a point of diminishing returns.  Traffic volumes will only increase, and the rate of yearly increase has gone up sharply in recent years.  If we add road space for use of private vehicles, we incentivise the use of these vehicles and increase the rate at which traffic load is piled onto the road network.  If our only strategic choice is to periodically increase road widths, we will either wind up with a city where roads take up so much space that building is no longer feasible or a dystopia where we are all condemned to live under the bleak shadow of elevated roads.

We have to move to a strategy that attempts a radical shift in the mix of modes of transport to avoid hitting these capacity limits.  The elevated corridor project reflects a continuation of the old strategy of only increasing road space and makes no attempt to define where the point of diminishing returns may lie.  In the 1960’s the German mathematician Dietrich Braess postulated in a theorem, subsequently named the Braess Paradox, that road systems can behave in funny ways. We tend to assume that increasing road space will lead to improved traffic flow, but it may paradoxically lead to an increase in average journey time.  The project report does not name the Braess Paradox, but obliquely recognises it by acknowledging that the elevated corridors may incentivise road usage. While it asserts that many parts of the proposed system will serve traffic volumes beyond 2037, it surprisingly acknowledges that certain segments of the system will touch peak capacity by the base year of 2023.  What happens after that, and the impact on the rest of the system, does not receive much attention.

Environment Impact and Approvals
The proposal will have a substantive environmental impact.  It will not only change the look and feel of a major portion of the city but could have other significant impacts given that over 3700 trees need to be cut or transplanted, and some segments of the elevated corridors intervene into the area of existing lakes and heritage structures.  The project report recognises that given the corridors are structures and not just roads they do have to undergo a stipulated process of statutory environmental approvals.  The State Environment Impact Assessment Authority has very recently granted approval to the terms of reference of the project: the first stage in the environmental approval process.  The details of how environmental impact is measured and mitigated is not publicly known as yet.

Tolls and Financial Viability
The financial viability of the project rests on collecting tolls for usage of the elevated corridors.  But implementing this is not easy.  The standard design solution for doing this is to construct toll plazas at the entrance into the toll corridor: in this case at the base of the entry and exit ramps to the elevated corridors.  But in this project these highways are being inserted into densely built metropolitan areas, space is not available for toll plazas, and the report acknowledges that constructing toll plazas is not an available option.  The alternative strategy is glossed over in a single line that states “toll collection by ERP is recommended.”  This strategy is not explained, and its feasibility is not examined in the report.  If an unorthodox strategy that avoids toll plazas turns out to be difficult to implement, tolls cannot be collected, and the entire financial viability of the project is thrown into question.  There have been some statements made by the government that tolls will not be charged, but this is not yet confirmed, and if true the ultimate financial cost and how it will be managed is yet to be publicly disclosed.

Highway Shoulders and Resilience in Traffic Flow
The design of highways in India follows guidelines established by the Indian Roads Congress (IRC).  These standards call for every highway to have a shoulder: a buffer space between the outer edge of the outer traffic lane and the boundary of the highway.  Shoulders are not used on a routine basis.  They provide the space for vehicles that need to pull over in case they are disabled or are involved in a fender-bender accident and need to stop to sort things out.  Once this buffer space is available, such vehicles can stop without significantly affecting smooth traffic flow.  Shoulders are also meant to provide a space where emergency vehicles (tow trucks, ambulances, fire tenders) can move to reach where needed.  Shoulders build resilience into the continuity of traffic flow.

The project report on elevated corridors seeks to follow IRC standards, but notes one significant exception:  due to the constraints on space within a metropolitan area, shoulders have been largely omitted.  The impact of this decision on the resilience of the system is not studied.

The points noted above have come from a quick review of the elevated corridor proposal.  A detailed study by people with greater expertise in the subject may yield even more.  The point to be noted is that substantive lacunae can be observed even in a quick reading, and this is possible for a project that seeks to spend thousands of crores, which will have a substantive impact on the look and feel of the city, where it was sought to release tenders for the first phase in a tremendous hurry.

This is a symbol of the poor institutional capacity we have built in India for urban planning and governance.  This is even more important at this point in history, for we are in India’s urban century where for the first time in history we will have a majority urban population (projected to happen around the middle of this century).  The future of the country depends on the depth and creativity with which we imagine the Indian city, and Bengaluru’s elevated corridor project is not an encouraging sign.

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.

Architectural Education in India: A Roadmap to Reform

This is an updated edition of an essay initially published in Indian Architect & Builder, Vol. 26(12), August 2013, as a part of a series on architectural education in India.  It was recently republished on Matter

Preamble: Understanding the Challenge

There are 464 colleges in India that are accredited to offer professional degrees in architecture (Source: Council of Architecture website as on 22 February 2018). Out of these, two have either had their recognition withdrawn or have their recognition currently in dispute, which leads to a definitive current number of 462 accredited colleges. A handbook of professional documents published by the Council of Architecture in 2005 shows that at that time the total number of colleges in India was 117. This is a growth of 295 per cent in a period of thirteen years: an explosive growth rate by any standards.

The case could be made that this growth rate is justified.  India currently faces a huge shortage in housing stock, both in urban and rural areas.  To complicate matters, the rural-urban mix in the country is poised to go through a sea change.  We are currently just over 30% urban, and historical data from other parts of the world shows that when a region reaches the 30% urban threshold the rate of urbanization begins to rise sharply.  Several estimates by both public and private organizations predict that we will be a 50% urban society shortly after the middle of the 21stcentury, which means that over the next thirty-five to forty years, India will have about 400 million new urban citizens.  This growth will be driven by a combination of internal growth within cities, rural-urban migration, intra-urban migration, and the transformation of areas currently classified as rural into urban settlements.

India already has a low ratio of architects to the general population; unlike Europe or the United States one rarely encounters an unemployed architect in India. Architectural practice tends to be largely an urban-based activity, and the rural areas have been managing to build without the services of professionally trained architects, so it is apparent that the full utilization of the current stock of professionally trained architects is being absorbed within the urban areas alone.  And if the urban areas are to grow as projected, then there is a large need for an additional number of architects in the country; and this is without even addressing the need (which must also be addressed) to bring professional building design inputs into the rural areas.

We must recognise that this challenge has a quantitative as well as a qualitative dimension, and if we seem to be achieving impressive numbers on the quantitative front it is necessary to also evaluate what we are accomplishing in qualitative terms.  The speed with which growth will occur in our cities means that the processes of urbanization that took place over 150 years in Europe and the United States will have to be compressed into a time scale that is over three times as fast.  This is a tremendous challenge in an era of global warming where we also have to be intensely aware of the environmental impacts of whatever we do. Clearly we cannot develop our cities using the tried and tested methods of the past, for they not only implicate demands on the environment that are no longer sustainable, but will also not happen with the speed we need.  We will have to learn to live by Albert Einstein’s dictum that “we cannot solve today’s problems using the mindset that created them”.  This poses a formidable demand on the educational system that will produce professionally trained architects, urban designers and urban planners. We need a breed of graduates who will not depend on the formulaic precedents of the past, who can think critically and innovate radically, while sensitively responding to local, global and environmental challenges.  This essay will focus solely on architectural education, and only mention that the same discussion needs to take place within education in urban planning and urban design.

There has been no comprehensive and intellectually rigorous study that audits the performance of architectural education as a whole to evaluate whether the system is meeting the qualitative demands that it needs to fulfill.  So one only has anecdotal evidence to go by, and unfortunately the anecdotal evidence is cause for serious alarm:

* Most practitioners one encounters routinely complain that the average quality of the young graduates they employ falls far short of what is needed.
* Students often complain that the level of thinking and discussion within their college does not touch on the fundamental issues of architecture, and practitioners who sometimes step into colleges to lecture or to participate in design juries often echo this complaint.
* The organiser of a major annual architectural conference (that draws internationally reputed speakers and attracts both students and professional participants from all over the country) observes that the kind of questions that students pose to the speakers reflect levels of fundamental doubt on basic issues that should be resolvable in college.
* In most parts of the world, the professional work output of faculty is usually representative of the cutting edge of the profession; largely in theoretical or research work, but also in design practice. This is not the case in India, and it is rare to find the output of an Indian teacher in peer-reviewed publications that are considered by international standards to be intellectually rigorous.
* If one looks at the list of winners of design awards as an indicator of the cutting edge in design, it is rare to find people who have a substantive or regular involvement with teaching.

This is not to claim that there is no excellence whatsoever to be found in Indian colleges of architecture. There are some colleges that are doing a creditable job, and even within some of the colleges that are below par there are a few teachers who are doing well.  But the test of the overall quality of a system is not to be judged by its best performers, and should really be judged by what the average achieves. And if the anecdotal evidence is to be believed, the average is below par, and we have the possibility of widespread systemic failure.  While the challenges we face in the immediate future of Indian urban environment require action on a series of fronts covering broader policy as well as other professions, it is important that we also produce good quality graduates in architecture who are capable of meeting the challenge.  A systemic failure in doing this could lead to a level of deterioration in the quality of urban environment that could have huge social, cultural and economic costs that we cannot afford.

One strategy would be to identify centres of excellence where best practices do occur, perhaps supplement this with the actions of key practitioners to introduce further best practices, and then work to disseminate these best practices across the system in order to reform it.  While this strategy must definitely be followed, its impact will be slow and across the long term.  Given the urgency of the situation we face, it is also necessary to have policy level changes so that the way in which architectural education is managed and regulated is reformed in order to catalyze a systemic shift toward excellence that is widespread across architecture colleges in the country.

Dimensions of Excellence in Architectural Education:

Before we embark on any policy level change, we must be clear about our objective, and establish tangible goals that the policy must achieve.  This essay seeks to take a first step in that direction by proposing a set of parameters that can shape the quest for excellence in a system for regulating architectural education:

A. Professional Education Versus Vocational Training
When practicing architects complain about the quality of graduates who emerge from the educational system, a knee jerk response to this criticism is often to examine how to change education in order to make graduates more employable in practice.  This shifts education towards vocational training, and creates a focus on developing skills in specific areas of technical performance.

While skills are important, they are also what logicians call “a necessary but not sufficient condition”.  It is necessary to go beyond skills, because skills truly acquire depth and resonance when they serve deeper value-based propositions on life. It is necessary to train our students to be able to think critically and rigorously about such propositions on life, to a level where they are not bound solely by the paradigms of the past, and can innovate in order to constructively respond to the new challenges and contexts that life keeps throwing at them.

The claim to serve the profession through a vocational approach does not really carry weight.  It is relatively easy for a design practice to cover some gaps in technical skills, for a young graduate is never given sole responsibility but is apprenticed with a senior colleague or employer, and through that exposure gains a sufficient amount of technical knowledge within a few months.  In contrast, it is very difficult for a design practice to cover gaps in critical or propositional thinking, for training to cover those gaps cannot be easily fitted into the day-to-day workings of practice.

A practice that survives by absorbing graduates who may have skills but lack the ability to think critically and innovatively is one that only repeats conventions of the past, or one that does not go beyond surface imagery.  Soon such a practice resembles other such practices more and more, and once that happens the only way the practice can win commissions is to differentiate itself in price.  The resultant culture of undercutting on fees is well established in India, and is a product of the profession failing in its ability to develop, articulate and communicate propositional value.  The claim to serve the profession by making education vocational and skill based will actually undermine the profession in the long term.  The profession is served only when it builds the capability where each practice can construct its own niche of innovation, and this will happen only when the education system moves beyond threshold levels of skill to truly strive for a level of academic excellence that is represented by critical and artistic rigour.

B. Provoking Excellence Versus Enforcing Minimum Standards
The Architects Act of 1972 set up the Council of Architecture as the single statutory authority for regulating both architectural practice and architectural education.  This varies from the practice in many other parts of the world where the authority that regulates architectural education is different from that which regulates architectural practice.  This separation is important because the required orientation in regulating education is fundamentally different from that required in regulating practice.

The need to regulate practice in a profession arises when the profession provides a fundamental public service, and it is therefore necessary in the public interest to ensure that incompetent and unqualified practitioners are not allowed to impose themselves on an unsuspecting public.  Such regulation occurs in professions such as medicine, law and architecture; and is achieved by creating a system of licensing where only those individuals whose names are entered in a register maintained by the regulator are authorised to practice the profession.  There is a process that ensures that only those with the proper professional qualifications are entitled to have their names entered in the official register of professionals.  Typically three qualifications are required: (a) a professional degree earned from an accredited institution, (b) a minimum duration of practical experience (typically three years); and (c) passing of a professional licensing examination that tests the professional in aspects of professional practice (such as conforming to building codes, and understanding of construction technique and professional ethics) to ensure a basic threshold of understanding of important professional issues.  In India we only insist on the first qualification for the profession of architecture, namely the earning of a professional degree.  This is a shortcoming that is also in need of reform, but is beyond the scope of this article where the focus is on education.

From the viewpoint of education, it is necessary to realise that the regulation of practice is about ensuring a minimum threshold of competence, and when the same regulator takes on both practice and education there will be a tendency to take this ‘minimum standards’ approach to education as well.  In fact the regulatory reference document on education put out by the Council of Architecture is titled “Minimum Standards of Architectural Education”.  A minimum standards approach will encourage the system to settle at the lowest common denominator, which will contradict the central purpose of regulation in education, which is to provoke excellence.

For this reason it is necessary to create a separation of the regulation of education from the regulation of practice.  Dividing the two processes into separate organizations would require an amendment of the Architects Act of 1972.  While this act is in dire need of amendment, it would involve a long process as it would require building consensus on a range of issues beyond education and would then have to go through the required processes of drafting and approval in Parliament.  But in the short run, there is nothing that prevents the Council of Architecture from structuring itself to have two arms, one responsible for practice and the other for education, and each one autonomous from the other so that the appropriate focus is maintained.

We currently have a good system of assembling a panel of peers to conduct the accreditation review of colleges.  This is what is done in most parts of the world, and should be continued.  However, in the current system when reviewers realise that a college is at best mediocre, there is little that they can do for their enforcement power only lies in enforcing the minimum standards.  It is necessary to see how we regulate education in order to encourage the system as a whole to strive towards excellence.

A best practice to achieve this is found in regulatory systems elsewhere in the world, where the regulatory process begins well in advance of the reviewers’ visit to the institution: often a full year in advance. The institution is required to send in documentation that not only demonstrates their passing certain minimum threshold standards, but to also define how it will transcend these minimum standards to aim for academic excellence.  The documentation requires that the college define its goals of excellence, its methodology for moving toward the goals, as well as measurable indicators that can demonstrate performance against goals.  This documentation has to be approved in advance of the final review visit.  At that visit the accreditation of the college is granted only when the review visit shows that the college has performed on two counts: (a) it has provided what is required in minimum standards, and (b) it has made substantive progress towards the goals of excellence it has defined for itself. The minimum standards check focuses primarily on two criteria: (a) the adequacy of the physical facilities, and (b) a review of the work of graduating students (or the senior most batch in the case of newly formed colleges) to see that the work represents what is worthy of the profession.  If these criteria are met, the college is given a great deal of freedom in defining curriculum, in order to truly empower it in its quest for excellence.

C. The Role Of Faculty
One mistake that India made just after independence was a failure to emphasise the importance of research in universities. In the pure and applied sciences for example, the primary site of research was established in centres such as CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), which remained relatively independent of universities.  Apart from a few islands of excellence, many universities have sprung up where the faculty is not associated with the cutting edge of research and knowledge production.   What is observed in the sciences is the case in other disciplines as well.  With a few rare exceptions the average university in India has acquired a vocational orientation where it is seen purely as a place for transferring knowledge and it is rarely thought of as also being a place for making knowledge.

The shortcoming in such a situation is that the delivery of instruction is equated with learning, and it is assumed that learning is an automatic by-product of instruction.  But learning is much more than a sum of instruction modules.  It requires the ability to internally integrate instruction modules, to explore the spaces between modules, and eventually construct new spaces of knowledge and understanding.  Learning is an action that has to be internally motivated within the student, and is therefore an activity that cannot be easily taught, and has to be demonstrated through role models.  Our teachers have to be role models, and to achieve this we need to get beyond the fallacy that Indian colleges often get trapped in: a perception that the only people who come to college to learn are students.  Our first goal should be to construct the college as a space where the faculty comes to learn, and this demonstrated passion for the subject should subsequently drive student learning.

In colleges of architecture in many parts of the world the knowledge on how to conduct an instructional module within an architecture curriculum is not sufficient to qualify as a teacher of architecture.  It is a requirement that the teacher is active beyond the classroom to do cutting edge work in the profession.  If the work is in theoretical or historical research, then the work should warrant selection in published books, periodicals or conferences where selection is predicated on challenging and rigorous peer review.  If the work is in design practice than it should win competitions or design awards, or warrant publication in professional journals that are known for an editorial standard of only publishing design excellence.  It is therefore necessary for every teacher to publicly demonstrate that he/she is still a learner.

This is not the case in India.  Faculty selection is predicated on degrees earned, and advancement is also primarily predicated on the years of service put in or the acquisition of additional qualifications.  There is little rigorous requirement spelt out on what the faculty should do beyond teaching.  And where such requirement is spelt out it is ineffective because it depends on systems that are beyond the control of the regulatory system for architectural education. To cite an example, a few years ago this author was a member of a review panel appointed by Council of Architecture to assess the continued accreditation of a college of architecture. During the review, a senior faculty member at the level of professor was asked what she had produced by way of publication or conference papers in the recent past.  She answered that she had presented a paper at a conference.  When she was asked for the subject of the paper she answered that it was on “Environment”.  When the review panel responded that this was a very general description, she elaborated that it was on “Environment and Architecture”.  When pressed for further details on the count that this was still too general a description she confessed that this conference had occurred eight months ago, she had forgotten the contents of the paper, and she would find a copy of it and give it to the panel.  This incident demonstrates that the system has reached a scale where it can build its own self-perpetuating self-certifying systems of mediocrity, where conferences can be organised where nobody is interested in what is being said, whatever is said is soon forgotten, and everyone is satisfied because the “official” requirement of demonstrating that a paper was presented at a conference is met.

We need to establish an academic culture of high standards beyond the regular routines of education: one that could manage publications, periodicals and conferences whose filtering mechanisms of peer review would permit only the best levels in artistic and/or intellectual production. We are far from achieving this in India. There is no architectural press that consistently produces a large volume of deep reflective publication; theoretical writing is difficult to come by; the editorial standards of journals are not strong enough to ensure that the quality of published design work remains consistently high; there is no proper culture of architectural criticism given that most journals rely largely on text and visuals provided by the architect being published; and intellectually rigorous conferences are few and far between.  To fix this is a long and arduous haul, will take decades and is time we cannot afford to take.  We need a shorter-term strategy that will start moving us towards this goal where faculty are pressured toward high quality achievement beyond the classroom, where they can be visibly perceived as learners and knowledge innovators, and thereby act as effective role models for the students.  In the short-term this can only be achieved through demands of transparency.

D. Transparency
We have a situation where a minimum standards approach coupled with low intellectual demands on faculty allows a culture of mediocrity to emerge.  And low levels of transparency shield this culture from critical gaze, so there is little pressure on this culture to reform and it is allowed to take root. Improving transparency will need to supplement efforts to provoke excellence, and we must live by the statement made by Louis Brandeis, former justice of the United States Supreme Court, “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.”

The Internet era is a great enabler of transparency. The regulatory framework should make it mandatory for every college of architecture to publish the following information on its website:

(i) List of all faculty members, both full time and visiting, with the last five years of their work output (beyond teaching).This should include research work, papers presented, books published, and designed projects.  If the work has been published elsewhere and is covered by copyright that does not permit disclosure on the website, then the appropriate publication reference should be disclosed.   This will reveal whether the faculty members are also learners.

(ii) A representative sample of ten thesis projects produced by students for each of the last five years.This will be a public indicator of the quality of student output, and especially of the graduates.

(iii) A disclosure of the last two accreditation reviews containing the following information:

* The statement by the college on how it meets the minimum standards requirement.
* The statement by the college on how it transcends minimum standards to strive towards goals of academic excellence.
* The comments of the accreditation review panel (with the names of the reviewers also disclosed) on both the minimum standards as well as the goals of excellence, together with any recommendations for changes.
* The response of the college to the accreditation review, and how it intends to accommodate the comments of the review panel.

This will reveal how the college is faring in its peer review in the accreditation process.

The exposure of this information to the public gaze will allow several evaluations of the college to take place.  Journals and other publications could use this information to conduct surveys among the architecture community on how these colleges could be ranked.  Practitioners could use this information to target certain colleges for their recruitment efforts.  Students who wish to study architecture could ask friends or relatives who are architects to review the colleges they are considering for an opinion on their quality. Once word of these evaluations begins to spread, colleges will have to consider the level of reform they should undertake in order to manage the public perception of the college that is taking root.

In order to complete the cycle of transparency, the regulator should publish on its website the list of people they draw from to constitute accreditation review panels, and just as faculty of colleges are required to publish work output, the output of the reviewers should be published on the website of the regulator.  This will establish the credibility of the review process.

E. Redefining Curriculum
The word “curriculum” is often associated with syllabus or content, and there is a tendency to believe that if the content of a course is defined, the entire course of study is defined.  In its academic stipulations, the current Council of Architecture document on “Minimum Standards of Architectural Education” only lists requirements on content. However content is just one of the pillars of curriculum, and it should be realised that a comprehensive treatment of a course of study would consist of three major components – values, pedagogy and content (or syllabus):

* Values relate to how the college views the goals and ethics of architecture and education; its philosophy on what architecture should set out to achieve; its ethics of how a community of learners is constituted.
* Pedagogy relates to the methods by which the college produces learning; how it sets up the environment conducive to learning; how it assesses learning.A committed pedagogy seeks to shift the paradigm of education away from delivering instruction towards producing learning (and learners).
* Content relates to that core body of knowledge and skills through which the discipline of architecture can be practiced.

It should be recognised that instruction does not automatically result in learning, so the curriculum should also seek to define learning outcomes.  These outcomes should be defined at the level of individual courses, for a semester, and for the course as a whole.  The definition of these outcomes can be used to analyze the effectiveness of courses, which can be judged by whether these outcomes are reflected in the students’ work.

The regulatory framework should demand that every college define and articulate this holistic definition of curriculum.  It should also recognise that if the college is to be empowered to pursue excellence, it should be given great freedom on curriculum.

F. The Question Of Autonomy
As only universities are empowered to grant degrees in India, any new college of architecture is required to affiliate with a university.  And often such affiliation results in surrender to centralised bureaucratic control at the university level on three key fronts: curriculum, assessment and admissions. If a college is to be empowered to pursue excellence, it is absolutely necessary for it to have autonomy on these three fronts.  This is specifically the case in India where university administrations tend to be highly politicised and bureaucratised.

To examine the various fronts on which the argument for centralised control is often made:

(i) Quality of Standards:
It is argued that colleges are likely to misuse any position of authority granted to them, and only through centralised control can one maintain a certain quality of standards.  This is a highly fallacious argument.  Firstly, it assumes that the very people on whom one depends on to deliver excellence in the classroom are the ones who cannot be trusted.  A system that starts with this level of “guilty until proven innocent” level of mistrust is doomed to failure, for it will create obstacles in any incentive towards excellence and push the system toward mediocrity.  It should also be realised that the greater the level of centralization, the greater the likelihood that the system will settle at the lowest common denominator.

(ii) Consistency of Standards:
It is also argued that without centralization each college will start developing its own standards, and as a result evaluation will become very difficult for prospective employers and administrators of higher degree programmes.  This argument is also fallacious as colleges do not operate in a vacuum, and have to deal with the question of how their graduates win acceptance outside the walls of the college.  This will force them to converge on commonly held standards of excellence.  The historical evidence anywhere in the world where colleges are granted curricular autonomy shows that colleges tend to largely converge and overlap on commonly held standards, and do not diverge into separate curricular standards which have little overlap.  This is especially the case in a field like architecture where the portfolio of work tends to play a large role, often dominant over any curricular transcripts, in any evaluations after graduation.  Granting colleges autonomy and forcing them to earn comparative acceptance in wider professional and academic circles is the best means to achieve both quality and consistency of standards.

(iii) Convenience of Students:
This argument is made in reference to the admissions process, and is a valid argument when the system forces students to run across several locations to seek admission, and creates obstacles to allowing the student to make a proper choice.  Firstly, it is not clear whether a centralised process removes all of these obstacles.  And it should also be realised that if a college is to be provoked to pursue excellence, it should be given the maximum possible freedom to choose students who are aligned with the college’s specific pursuit of excellence.

The best option is to maximise the level of choice in the hands of both college and students.  Choice is placed in the hand of the college by granting them full control over the admissions process (subject, of course, to the limits placed by legislation designed to prevent the continuation of historical social injustices).  Choice can be placed in the hand of the student by enforcing the following measures:

Colleges should be prohibited from making mandatory visits to the college for interviews a part of the admission process. Admission should be granted only on the following criteria:

Academic transcripts at the school level
A centralised and standardised aptitude test.  This already exists in India in the form of the National Aptitude Test in Architecture (NATA), which is administered by the academic arm of the Council of Architecture (National Institute for Advanced Studies in Architecture).  If criticisms are made of NATA, the action to be taken should be to improve NATA rather than eliminate or substitute it.
A statement of purpose on why the student wishes to study architecture.  This could be submitted in the form of either text or drawings or a combination of both.
A minimum of three letters of reference from school teachers, or any person who knows the student and possesses the necessary professional or academic qualifications to comment on the students aptitude and commitment to study architecture.As is the practice in many academic institutions worldwide, these could be submitted online directly by the referrer, or in a sealed envelope so that the reference is not disclosed to the student.

The college could be given the freedom to assign its own weightage to each of the criteria named above.

There should be a mandatory common date on which all colleges are required to publish on their website their first list of admissions. Similarly there should be a mandatory common deadline on which the students are required to confirm their acceptance to a specific college.

On the question of freedom on curriculum and assessment, it should be recognised that architecture colleges are already granted a fair degree of autonomy on the design studio course that forms the core of the curriculum. While there may be some guidelines on the kind of problems that are to be set, each college is given freedom on the specific problem that is set each semester, and also chooses its own panel of internal and external assessors.  This is done as it is widely recognised that design is a subject that is ill-suited to assessment through centralised examinations.  If this autonomy is granted to the core course of design and not to the other subjects, it creates an obstacle to integration of learning in theory and design, and also impedes innovations in teaching theory subjects.  The regulator of architectural education should impress on university regulators that architecture is the kind of subject where the autonomy that is necessary for design studio is necessary for the whole curriculum, and stipulate a removal of this fracture.

We should also recognise that architecture is not a quantitative tangible discipline, and has to cope with a significant intangible dimension.  Therefore it is not advisable for assessment to be in percentage marks, and should be as per letter grades.  It should be mandatory for the college to disclose guidelines on the criteria on which letter grades are awarded.

G. Student Motivation
In many parts of the world only a percentage of high school graduates enter college.  This is because college education tends to be expensive, there are many opportunities besides college that offer vocational training, and it is possible to earn a living wage without a college education.  As a result, among the profile of students who enter undergraduate education in architecture, a high percentage of students are making a great deal of effort to study in college and are therefore highly motivated to pursue the subject.  This is not necessarily the case in India where in a highly stratified society all high school graduates, with a middle class level of affluence or above, will go on to college as a matter of routine.  As a result committed teachers of architecture often complain that with all their best efforts a large percentage of students refuse to engage with much energy in the classroom or studio as they are not truly committed to or passionate about architecture.  An additional complication is that many students are not poised to make a total commitment to a profession at the age at which they graduate from high school, find out too late that this course is not meant for them, and because the Indian educational system offers very low levels of flexibility they go through the motions to coast through up to graduation.

One way to get out of this situation would be to follow a course of action that has been tried and tested elsewhere, where the course is split into two stages, with an exit option at the end of the first stage. After three years the student could graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in architecture.  This could be allowed as an undergraduate degree, but not as a first professional degree that will enable the student to practice architecture. We can then allow for a master’s level degree that is the first professional degree, and this degree is granted after completing the second stage of a further two years.  Admission into the second stage is not an automatic result of completing the first stage, and the student has to maintain a minimum average grade level in order to receive admission into the second stage where he/she is awarded a first professional degree.

Such a system would ensure that only motivated students survive to take on professional training in architecture.  It would also introduce flexibility for the student, and a student who finds they are not interested in professional practice of architecture is granted an exit option early enough to either pursue a different field of study, or to pursue careers in related fields that do not require a professional degree such as architectural journalism or architectural history.

H. Composition Of Accreditation Panels
Quality in a professional field is best achieved by peer review, for it is peers who are best poised to appreciate the challenges and intricacies of the profession.  Therefore the current practice of having the accreditation review panels made up of peers is a good one and should be continued, while making sure that there is a proper mix of practitioners and academics.  However it should be also recognised that architectural peers are not necessarily qualified to review all aspects of the college, and review on administrative matters, financial matters and technical equipment may require reviewers with specific expertise in these matters.  In which case, the peer review could focus on the core issues of professional education, and there could be a separate review process that involves other areas of expertise.

I. Ease Of Entry
Forcing colleges to compete in the marketplace for ideas is the only effective long-term strategy to achieve quality in education.  Regulation by itself cannot drive quality, for that has to come from the energy within each college.  Regulation should only steer the process by giving colleges maximum curricular freedom, by enforcing minimum standards, by insisting that colleges demonstrate how they will pursue excellence, through mandatory requirements on transparency, and through empowering student choice.  And it is also necessary to enable the easy entry of new colleges, for stiff barriers to entry will not allow a true marketplace for ideas to take root.

One such barrier, stipulated by the University Grants Commission (UGC), is that any new college in a metropolitan city should own two acres of land, and those outside metropolitan cities should own five acres of land.  Wherever excellence in architectural education is found, one comes across two possible models for a college.   One retains a more academic orientation, where its faculty members are scholarly researchers in theory and history, and therefore the college works well in relatively isolated locations such as multi-disciplinary university towns.  A more prevalent model is one where the college has academic foundations and thrives on mixing this with a close relationship with architectural practice.  This practice-linked model requires an intense exposure of students to practice, and often achieves this by having a large number of visiting faculty members drawn from practitioners in the city who are widely recognised as the innovative and creative cutting edge of the profession.  The intense relationship between theory and practice drives learning in this model.

It will be difficult in the Indian context to use the academic model as a dominant mode to develop architectural education, for the tradition of scholarly research in architecture is neither deep nor widespread. Until we can build up such a tradition, we will have to primarily depend on the practice-linked model.  This model works best when it is located within the heart of a city.  Given the cost of land in India, the requirement to own large parcels of it in the heart of the city creates a huge financial barrier to the entry of new colleges.

While it will be necessary to have enforceable minimum standards on facilities, the requirement to own land is not one of them.  Perhaps the UGC requirement is designed for other colleges who intend to run multiple sets of courses, and is not a necessary requirement for a college that wishes to teach only within a single discipline. Also, other disciplines do not depend on close relationships with the city in the way that architecture does. Just as an exemption from university conventions has been won on assessment in design studio, the regulator on architectural education should impress on the UGC that architecture is a special case that should not be subjected to this requirement on land. To bolster the case, there are sufficient precedents of architecture colleges that work within the limitations imposed by being within the city, start with minimal rented facilities, and grow over time by assembling additional parcels within the neighbourhood of either rented or owned facilities, and through all this win international recognition as centres of excellence in architectural education: the Architectural Association in London, Cooper Union in New York, and Sci-Arc in Los Angeles, to name just a few examples.

The Road Map

Eventually, for reform to happen, action will have to be taken by the official regulator on architectural education.  There is the need for broader reform on a host of fronts, which will require amendment of the Architects Act 1972.  But we cannot wait for this long-term agenda to be realised, and a first level of reform needs to be undertaken that is within the boundaries of the 1972 Act, and it is this first level that is the focus of this article.  While dialogue on this front with the regulator can begin immediately, history has shown that effective reform takes place only when it is also supplemented and critiqued by popular opinion.  For this it is urgently necessary to draw opinion from and build consensus among a wide spectrum of professionals, academics and students.  The aim of this exercise should be to arrive at a conclusion on what the parameters of reform should be.  The parameters that have been outlined in this essay seek to be as comprehensive as possible within the confines of a single essay; but they represent the judgment of a single person, and reform must be based on a wider dialogue.

So we could define the following stages on the road map to reform:

Elicit opinion and build consensus on the parameters of reform, drawing from as wide a constituency as possible of practitioners, academics and students. This phase could seek to represent public rather than official opinion and therefore is best led by a journal, and given that Indian Architecture and Builder has taken the initiative to begin the debate with this monthly column on education, it would be extremely helpful if the magazine could steer the debate further to this conclusion.
Constitute a panel of experts who will build on this popular will to draft out the new standards for regulating architectural education. This phase should be steered by the Council of Architecture, and the President of the Council can chair the panel.  However its constitution should not be confined to the Council, and it should have majority representation from a panel of eminent practitioners and teachers of architecture who will be widely recognised as being representative of the profession’s quest for excellence.  The constitution as well as the deliberations of this panel should be published on the website of the Council and should not be finalised until it has been subjected to public critique, and the attempt made to accommodate substantive points in the critique received to the utmost extent that is feasible.
Finally the Council of Architecture should steer the process of drafting the detailed processes by which the new regulations will be implemented. This will involve defining the panel of reviewers who will conduct accreditation reviews, detailed guideline documents for the review, as well as stipulating the time frame within which colleges will be asked to conform to the new regulations.

Even if we push this process on an aggressive fast-track basis, each of these stages will take a minimum of one year, and it will be difficult to complete the entire road map in less than five years.  Given the degree of change we have to cope with in the next fifty years, one’s first reaction would tend to be an impatience that questions why we have to wait five years for reform.  This only serves to underline the scale and urgency of the challenge we must face.  As the popular saying states, the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago and the second best time is right now.

To Design So As To Sustain

On 16 February 2018, I was invited to deliver the opening note for the conference track “Design and Sustain” at the 361 Degrees Conference in Mumbai on “Resilient City: Design, Build, Sustain”.  This is what I said.

We have gathered for this conference track to reflect on how to design and sustain.  I will start by repeating a quotation that I have used to begin almost every talk I have given on sustainable design over the last few years, for it has remained a favourite.  It is from William McDonnough who said, “It is not enough to be sustainable.  If you were to ask someone about how their relationship with their spouse was, and they answered ‘sustainable’, it is not very hopeful.”  This has coloured my approach to the subject.  To explain this approach, I will not show a PowerPoint presentation, which is a deliberate choice.  Rather than placing before you an idea represented by an image on a digital screen, I felt that the case I wish to argue is better served by taking on the challenge of trying to turn on the projector that lives inside each one of you.  For my goal is to touch hearts rather than explain an idea, because I would like to introduce this track by arguing that sustainability is first a state of being before it can be viewed as a system or structure of knowledge.

This is not how we have tended to approach the challenge.  As architects, we have conventionally approached the challenge of sustainability as a knowledge problem.  We argue that the profession is badly trained, and unaware of the ecological impact of the mode of design that constitutes the mainstream of architectural production.  To fix this problem, we feel it necessary to proselytise about sustainable design.  So, we seek to build awareness on issues such as climate-responsive and low-energy design, recycling systems and technologies, materials and products that promote sustainability, renewable energy, ecology, the water cycle, etc.  We propagate rating systems on sustainable design such as Griha, LEED, and Bream.  And we attend conferences such as this where we can hear enlightened speakers who are at the cutting edge of design and research on sustainability, expecting their work will offer us precepts that will light the path to be followed.

Now, I cannot make any claim whatsoever that this is wrong.  It is necessary, but as the logicians say “necessary but insufficient”.  It will take us only along the first few steps of our journey, and the major part of the journey requires attitude rather than knowledge, a personal relationship with the natural environment rather than knowledge about it.  The reason why a knowledge-based path is insufficient is that sustainability involves natural systems, and natural systems are inherently non-linear rather than linear.  To make a simplistic differentiation between these two kinds of systems: a linear system is one where the output of the system is directly proportionate to the input, whereas in a non-linear system the output is not proportionate to the input.  In a linear system, a huge input has a huge impact and a small input has a small impact.  But in a non-linear system a small input can have a huge impact and a huge input can have a small impact.

A knowledge based system is inherently linear, for knowledge is rational, and rationality rests on the linear links between cause and effect.   The knowledge-oriented education we all receive schools us into believing we inhabit a linear world, where if we know something, and act based on that knowledge, we will produce a certain result, and that is the motive for choosing what we know and how we act.  We think of the result we want – a sustainable world – and believe we may move toward that if we learn about sustainability, and implement that knowledge in our design process.  Action rests upon conceptual models of cause and effect, built through scientific research and rational analysis, subsequently applied in practice, and modified gradually through the feedback loop of practical experience.

But what happens when we inhabit non-linear systems where the relationship between cause and effect becomes fundamentally elusive to the point that it becomes difficult to construct reliable foundations of conceptual models?   A classic example of a non-linear system is the weather, which is why meteorologists have such a difficult time in being accurate in their forecasts beyond the extremely short term.  It is also why on an issue like climate change, despite getting warnings from most of the scientific community, it is still so difficult to get people to change their behaviour.  Because of the complex non-linearity of climate, one cannot draw logical connections between input and output – one can at best draw statistical correlations.  This not only gives sceptics a space to operate, it also becomes difficult to incentivise changes in behaviour.  Even a scientific expert who has ascertained that climate change is happening, cannot give you any concrete assurance that a specific change in your behaviour today will produce a definable result tomorrow. So how can you convince a person to radically change their lifestyle without any assurance that this great effort will produce a tangible and worthwhile result that can be visualised today?

Implementing a system that is dominantly linear usually involves what is termed the “last mile problem”.  Taking an electricity distribution system as an example, one can easily implement the backbone of the system, but the myriad number of final connections are the most difficult to implement.  In contrast, the stumbling block in implementing non-linear systems is a “first mile problem”: how do you get people to take the first fundamental steps when there is no clear conceptual model that facilitates giving any rational assurance on where those steps will lead them.  One can create some change through new knowledge and legislation, but if we rely only on this, change will be slower than what we need.  More significantly, our knowledge base may remain out of sync with the world to which it is to be applied.  We need to get people to fully appreciate what it means to inhabit a non-linear system, and how to seek harmony with it; to transcend our dominant reliance on linear logic, and supplement it with network logic.  What does this entail?

The first inherent property we must recognise in non-linear systems is that they exhibit the capacity for emergence.  An emergent system is a system characterised by fundamental properties that did not exist at all in an earlier state of the system.  One of the most cited examples of an emergent system is a termite’s nest.  To plot its equivalent on a human scale – a medium-sized termite’s nest can be equivalent to a human mega-structure that is two kilometres wide and three to four kilometres high.  Within this is incredible order and sustainability: there is functional zoning, traffic hierarchy, climate control, recycling, efficient waste disposal, graveyards, and so on.  For a long time, biologists wondered how this order was created, thinking there must be a special class of termites: leaders who directed how this order is to be created.  But experiments and observation failed to yield any such class of master-planning termite.  Then it was discovered it was a system that evolved without leadership or top-level control.  Every termite, as it moves, exudes a trail of a chemical classed as a pheromone – and there are different kinds of pheromones that result from different kinds of behaviour or intent.  When a termite moves, from the pheromone trail it can discern the pattern of termites that have moved before it.  Termites are genetically programmed with a set of simple rules that say things like “if you smell a pheromone trail like this, then place a piece of mud like that”.  And that is how the wonderful order of the termites’ nest emerges.  From this we can see the conditions for emergence:

  • High-synchrony and frequent moment-to-moment interaction
  • All actions leave a trace of themselves.
  • All traces are in the public domain and visible to all parts of the system.
  • There is an inherent tendency toward pattern recognition in the traces, usually involving specific responses to specific patterns
  • Most significantly, there is low preoccupation with grand design, and the focus is on immediate experience. Steven Johnson, whose book on emergence is a wonderful introduction to the subject, points out that the human brain is an emergent system that would cease to function if each neurone sought to be individually sentient with its own grand vision.  It works because each neurone just focuses on making connections with others, and patterns emerge from the connections made.
  • An emergent system develops from the bottom up toward higher states through iterative evolutionary spirals.

If we feel that emergence is a mode of functioning that is distant from us, that conclusion would a product of our education’s bias toward linear logic.  If we reflect on how we intuitively live, we find that we are, by nature, beings who live spontaneously by the principles of emergence.  Take the example of friendship.  We know that if we set out to find friends primarily through a knowledge or philosophy of friendship we would never have friends.  We have friends because when we meet for the first time them we focus on the immediate engagement, what we say to them, what we hear them say, the way their eyes light up, and not on an eventual goal or system of knowledge.  Then we recognise traces (memories of our engagement) and patterns in those traces (the empathy of shared likes, dislikes, and points of view).  Gradually the core of our friendship emerges, a property that was not present when we first met.

We have lost an emergent relationship with the natural environment.  This is because our knowledge bias has schooled us to view nature as a scientific fact, and this socialises a perception that creates a distance between nature and ourselves at several levels.  And I talk here largely of people whose profile dominates those present in this auditorium – people who are born, brought up, and currently living in urban environments.  The scientific perspective encourages us to delegate an understanding of nature to specialists such as scientists, and this distancing reduces nature to an aesthetic spectacle.  William Cronon writes on this in “Uncommon Ground”, the title essay in the collection edited by him, pointing out that we tend to recognise nature only when the visual spectacle is at a scale powerful enough to evoke wonder in us.  This happens in wilderness when we are moved by the majesty of a mountain, ocean, or forest; awed by being within a presence far greater than us.  When it is closer to home, we need the vantage of water or hills, or the presence of a strikingly colourful sunset to feel wonder.  Come down to the routine and mundane scales that most of us inhabit, and we think we are in an ordinary and fallen place distanced from nature.  Wonder hardly stirs within us when we look at the natural everyday: the shrubs in our backyard, the weeds in an empty lot, the call of urban birds like the crow or pigeon, the routine movement of sunlight, or the presence of rain and how the water flows away.

With this distancing, we lose the ability to read the signs of nature from which we may recognise the patterns to build an emergence in which we can participate.  Consequently, and perhaps biased by the origin of cities as ringed by fortified defences, we build an imagination of the city as a bounded entity, where the boundary designates a separation of the city within from nature without.  The only nature recognised within is that which contributes to the aesthetic spectacle of the city, recognised through a predictability enforced by straightjacketing it into recognisable geometry, or disciplining it with the mower or pruning shears.  We should, as John Thackara suggests, reimagine the city as a sponge; for the sponge has a defined shape as well as a porosity that allows flows through it.  Similarly, there are always natural flows moving through a city, and we need to be able to recognise and read their signs: a continuous daily reading that is necessary to develop the resilient adaptability of emergence that thrives on local richness without seeking to force it into conformance with predefined silos of ego and expertise.

This is something that must be learnt experientially: it cannot be constructed from knowledge.  Knowledge crowds our perceptions, so we become obsessed with the abstract reflective turn that will win us fame or fortune as creative innovators, and we lose sight of the experiential turn to careful listening to our environment with non-judgmental alertness of eyes, ears, nostrils and fingertips.  Knowledge leans toward an abstraction that shifts us toward a disembodied existence in the world: a disembodiment that has become enhanced in recent years where our existence is increasingly mediated by digital screens.  Knowledge preconditions the patterns we recognise, and this recognition blinds us to the potential that lies in the emergent patterns we may glean through our experiences in an environment to which we humbly offer a sensitive and perspicacious awareness.

We need to remember that we are more than intelligent beings, we are also conscious beings.  And our relationship with the environment is one that exists most vividly at the full range of our consciousness, transcending intelligent understanding to also cover one’s entire sense of being, as a living breathing organism inhabiting a world that is also alive.  For this reason, Anil Seth, Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, argues, in a TED talk, that while we may aim at an artificial intelligence we will never achieve an artificial consciousness.  Seth, through his rigorous experimental research, convincingly demonstrates that the reality we perceive is not a direct product of our perceptions and intelligence: it is a set of rational hallucinations produced by our brain through a process that is shaped by our experiences of consciousness.  And these experiences also embrace what flies below the radar of intelligent recognition, including the sensations of one’s own body: the sound of breath, the rhythm of heartbeat, the energy and freedom of muscles.  This is a cohesiveness of existence that can only be felt by a living being.

If we feel this as living beings, we must discern and appreciate that the natural environment we inhabit is also alive.  Maybe, not reflectively sentient in the way we are, but alive nonetheless.  When the richness of our own living consciousness expands to connect with this wider consciousness around us, we construct what the philosopher Morris Berman calls “a participating consciousness”: one that participates in the wider consciousness around to seek harmony with it, a far cry from the personalised consciousness that we currently worship and pursue.  A participating consciousness recognises that the signs of nature are subtle, and rigorous practice is required to recognise them.  We must become like the woodsman, who even when deep within an unfamiliar forest, is never lost and knows how to navigate his way out because he has the experience to recognise and read the angle of the sun, the position of the stars, the feel of the wind on his skin, the direction and range of noise, or the smells of the forest.  With this kind of experience, conversations of friendship emerge.  Our everyday world, apparent to our perceptions, picks up two conversations.  One delves inward into the self, into the inner aspirations of our souls.  And the other turns outward to the primordial rhythms of the natural world.  Two friendships develop, and the epiphany of sustainability occurs when it dawns on us that all conversations are with the same friend, for the conversations have led to an inextricable intertwining of the memory of the people and the memory of the land.

Our ancestors held such a participating consciousness, and many traditional communities in India today still do: that is the natural order of things, and it is only the recent abstractions of modernity that has displaced it from our lives, distancing nature from our perceptions to the point that sustainability has become a serious and urgent challenge.  This is not to romanticise ancient or traditional life as perfect, for it is deprived of a lot of things that are of paramount and indisputable value.  But today, modern urbanism has deprived us of this type of consciousness that is fundamental to the processes of life.  Without a participating consciousness, all the new knowledge and techniques that we pick up will have limited reach in serving the cause of sustainability.  Sustainability will happen only when the authenticity of one’s own inner being wholeheartedly feels it is an inseparable component of the web of life within which it is embedded.

I began with a quotation, so let me move into my conclusion with one.  This one is from the Celtic philosopher, poet, and one-time priest, John O’Donohue “I think that one of the things that humans have done, and especially Western consciousness, is that we have hijacked all the primary mystical qualities for the human mind; and we have made this claim that only the human self has soul, and everything else is de-souled or un-souled as a result of that.  And I think that is an awful travesty of presence, because I think that landscape has a soul, has a presence.  And I think that landscape, living in the mode of silence, is always wrapped in seamless prayer.”

So, in listening to the speakers today, be aware that you see only the tip of the iceberg, and do not think that the primary purpose for being here is to pick up the direct lessons they offer so that all you need do is go back home and apply them.  Use the lessons they offer wisely, but remember those lessons need to rest on a bigger foundation: one that responds to the call of a non-linear world.  We will attain a sustainable world only when each one of us transcends the linear world of knowledge to commit every day to a rigorous contemplative and emergent practice that jettisons filters of judgment to pay homage to the soul of the universe.

Some Advice When Applying for Internship in an Architectural Firm in India

Internship under a licensed architect is a mandatory requirement for receiving a professional degree in architecture from a university in India.  Consequently, like many other firms, CnT Architects, the practice that I head, is flooded with applications for internship positions.  The vast majority of them are very badly framed and worded.  Clearly the colleges in which these students are studying are not offering them proper guidance.

So, in an effort to heal this vacuum, I would like to put in my two bits worth and offer some advice to aspiring students.  If you are reading this post, and feel that some students you know would benefit from this advice, I request you to share this as widely as possible.

Finally, while this is written for internship applications, many of the points also apply to the first job application you will submit after graduation.

So here is the advice I have to offer:

  1. Apply well in time:

We get many applications for an internship that needs to start in a couple of weeks.  Firstly, positions tend to get filled well in advance.  Secondly, even if there is a vacancy, we would treat an application that arrives so late in the process as one that is submitted casually, and may not give it much weight.

I would suggest that you send out your applications about six months before your internship needs to start.  This means that your research on whom to apply to, and preparation of the portfolio that will accompany your application, are processes that need to begin about one year before your internship.

  1. Send customised applications:

Do not send an application to somebody you know very little about.  We often receive applications where the same email is sent to close to 500 people.  I do not know how students get hold of these email addresses, for in these mass emails many are sent to organisations that are not architectural firms: a fact that testifies to sloppy efforts.  Students often do not even have the sensitivity to hide the fact that these are mass emails sent to large numbers of people.

Clearly we will treat such applications as formulaic and uncommitted, and will not give them much consideration.  In addition, the more the addresses that a single email is sent to, the greater the likelihood that your application will never be seen by human eyes and will be despatched into oblivion by an automated spam filter.

If you want your application to be reviewed seriously, you should ensure that (a) this is clearly a single application focused on one specific firm; (b) you show prior knowledge about the firm you are applying to, and your application gives specific reasons why you are applying there; and (c) your application is phrased in your own wording – often, students from the same college send in applications with identical wording, which gives the impression that the student only knows how to parrot a predefined formula.

  1. Do prior research on whom you are applying to:

If you are going to send customised applications, an obvious prerequisite is that you research whom you will apply to.  Ask for advice on worthwhile firms to apply to.  Your teachers, and any practicing architects you may know, would be one set of sources for this information.

But an even better source would be seniors and other friends who have already completed internships.  Ask them for not only their own experiences, but also the stories they have heard from other interns.  Remember, that an intern is not going to be asked to design, and most interns tend to be assigned low-level tasks.  What you should be looking for are whether the interns had a true and deep learning experience.  This would come less from the tasks assigned, and more from the inside view of design and project process you get by being in the firm, the willingness of seniors in the firms to share what they know, and the exposure to a certain rigour of exploration and discussion on architecture.

Once you have got this preliminary shortlist, look up the websites of the firms you may apply to.  Try to avoid firms that produce formulaic work, and check the firm’s projects to see whether they reflect thoughtfulness, curiosity and passion on what architecture can be.

When you look up the firm’s website, take care to check whether they have specified a procedure or format for applications, and an email address to which applications should be sent.  Make sure you conform to such requests.  If you do not apply in the right format your application may not receive the consideration you need.  And make the effort to avoid causing irritation by cluttering up a senior architect’s inbox when the firm has taken the trouble to specify that applications should be directed elsewhere.

  1. Attach a thoughtful portfolio

Remember that firms receive multiple applications and have little time to review them.  Given that an experienced architect has trained and discerning visual judgment, the quickest form of review is to cast a quick glance at the portfolio.

So, first, never send in an application that does not contain a portfolio: we often receive applications that only attach a CV, and such applications are often not taken up for evaluation.  And second, and most importantly, always keep in mind that the sorting of applications into two piles, where only one pile is worthy of further consideration, will probably happen with a glance at the portfolio that is less than 60 seconds long.  A second longer appraisal will be granted only to those applications that qualify for the pile worthy of detailed consideration.

Therefore, it is essential that your portfolio has a unique visual identity.  Look at your portfolio, and if it looks visually similar to those your friends are preparing, then you need to work further on it.  Make sure that your portfolio is not visually cluttered – it is better to have more pages that are sparingly and thoughtfully composed for clarity than few pages crammed edge to edge with excessive information.  Focus on visual communication, nobody is going to read long passages of text: remember you are applying to people who will judge the quality of your work from visuals rather than text.

And one practical point: try and limit the size of the email attachment that contains your portfolio.  Many mail servers will filter out emails with attachments that are larger than 10 MB.  Remember, your application will only be viewed on a digital screen; nobody is going to print it out, so you do not need high-resolution images.

  1. Define yourself

Finally, your portfolio should reflect you as a unique person.  Do not look at some predetermined standard of sophisticated design.  A committed architect will prefer an energetic and open-minded learner to someone who may be a sophisticated designer but has a closed mind.  It is acceptable to show your mistakes as long as you demonstrate what you have learned from them.  Every person is unique, at a different point in their journey, and you should not try and hide this fact in your portfolio.  Rather than attempting conformance to some predefined standard, your portfolio should reflect the stage of your journey and your commitment to always continue and extend it.

Changing Demographics of the Architectural Profession in India

The architectural profession in India is represented by two organisations: The Indian Institute of Architects (IIA) and The Council of Architecture (CoA).  Each has a different role, and therefore a different constituency to which it must focus.

IIA is the forum where members of the profession can gather and exchange ideas and represent the profession to the public.  Therefore, the organisation exists to promote the profession of architecture, and the constituency it focuses toward is the fraternity of architects.  IIA is the older of the two organisations, and celebrated its centenary last year.

CoA, on the other hand, is a statutory regulator.  It is the more recent organisation, brought into being by The Architects Act of 1972.  It defines and protects the qualifying standard by which one is legally entitled to call oneself an architect, so that the public knows what is claimed by those who represent themselves as holders of this professional qualification.  It also regulates architectural education as the primary pathway that leads to the professional qualification of being an architect.  Regulatory standards are established to serve the public, and therefore, CoA’s constituency is the public rather than the fraternity of architects.

The purpose of this analysis is to look at some changes in the demographics of the architectural profession, and the impact it would have upon both these organisations.  I focus here on two demographic factors that are changing the composition of how the profession is constituted in India: age and gender.


At the time when the Architects Act 1972 came into being, there were less than 20 colleges of architecture across the country.  Most of the architects who registered were those who had already received their qualification in the profession, and many had been practicing for several years.  Therefore, the age demographic of that time constituted the profession as one made up of mature adults rather than young adults.

This is changing very rapidly.  The total number of registered architects is believed to be in the region of between 70,000 to 80,000 (this is from anecdotal evidence from those who are likely to know; CoA does not display current totals on its website, but we could use this as a working assumption).  There are currently 462 recognised colleges of architecture in India, as per the CoA website.  Colleges typically start with a sanctioned input admission of 30-40 students per year, but many go on to receive approval for higher figures, with some receiving sanction for up to 120 students per year.  If one assumes that on average there are 35-40 students graduating from each college, that means that about 16,000 to 18,000 young architects are entering the workforce every year.  Even if many of those do not continue to practice architecture, the age demographic will rapidly transform the profession into one dominated by young architects.

Some of this has already happened.  The CoA website does give some statistics on age-wise breakup.  These statistics are older (last updated in October 2015), for they list the total number of registered architects as 56,013, whereas the current total is higher.  But even at this lower total, 82.1% of the registered architects are below the age of 45.  This percentage is poised to rise rapidly in the years to come.

The major impact of this change will be felt by IIA.  IIA membership is voluntary, and currently constitutes roughly one-third of the total number of registered architects – so it is already in a minority where its claim of representing the profession could be challenged.  Further, peruse the attendees at any IIA event restricted to IIA members, and you would be hard pressed to find architects below the age of 45.  When I have asked younger architects why they do not join IIA, they respond that they do not see any benefit from doing so.  They perceive IIA as an old boys’ club that has little relevance to their concerns.  At one time IIA could afford to function as an old boy’s club, as that was the demographic of the profession.  But as demographics of age rapidly and inevitably change, unless it reforms to attract young members, IIA’s minority status will take on alarming proportions.

To win younger members, IIA must first earn their trust.  To do this, it must undertake radical measures such as transforming into a dynamic learning organisation looking to the future, rather than one that preserves the status quo; creating a library of quality learning resources, including publications; providing an opportunity, particularly on social media, where young (and old) architects can express their concerns and interact with each other; and creating a website with contemporary design, with a structure that will provide an online location for the forums and exchanges that will energise the profession.

If IIA moves further into minority status, this could have an impact on CoA as well.  Currently, as stipulated by the Architects Act 1972, the constitution of the Council incorporates representation from the profession by admitting “Five architects possessing recognized qualifications elected by the Indian Institute of Architects from among its members”.  This legal framing made sense in 1972, as at that time it was inconceivable that there could be any other professional forum for architects other than IIA.  However, there is no legal foundation that allows IIA to claim monopoly status as the only forum that can represent the profession.  All it needs is a few energetic leaders from the young to create a new forum that appeals to young architects, and the membership of the new forum can overnight exceed IIA membership by two to three times or more.  The new forum could then legally challenge this language from the Architects Act cited above, and through court orders force a reconstitution of how CoA draws representation from the profession.


CoA displays on its website a breakup by gender of registered architects.  Here too, the statistics are old: although they claim to be updated on the same date as the statistics on age-wise breakup (October 2015), the total of registered architects is different, indicating a number of 64,642, whereas the age-wise analysis yields a total of 56,013.  Leaving this discrepancy aside, the statistics show that in 2015 about 55% were male and 45% female.  While this still shows a male domination, it is likely that if this was measured in 1972, it would have shown a close to 80% male domination.  Representation of women in the profession is clearly on the rise.  This is likely to rise further, for most colleges report a majority female enrolment, with women constituting about 55% to 60% of total enrolment.  Many of these women do not continue to practice architecture, so there is likely to be a mismatch between the percentage of women architects graduating from college versus those in practice five to ten years after graduation.  While a female-dominated demographic is still some time away, it can no longer be dismissed as an unlikely prospect.  The fact is that the changing demographic is going to pose a challenge to the status quo where the profession is viewed only from a male perspective.

This is part of the challenge IIA faces in claiming continued relevance: it must not only represent the concerns of young architects; it should respond to those of young female architects.  This means taking on a set of difficult challenges such as the glass ceiling that prevents women rising to senior positions in architectural firms; social biases where clients do not place female partners in architectural firms at the same level as their male counterparts; support networks that help women achieve work-life balance, recognising that the challenges women face are far more imposing than those that men face; outreach programmes that educate the public on the need to place women professionals at the same level as their male counterparts; and gender biases in design, where urban design and architecture propose typologies with an ingrained male bias.

The gender issue also has legal implications, and CoA as the statutory regulator must take these implications into mind.  A primary issue is that of sexual harassment, an issue that the profession has been silent on, and silence from senior members of the profession makes them complicit in the problem.  Here there is established law that must be followed: The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal Act) 2013.  This act does not just stipulate measures that redress problems of sexual harassment: it also stipulates proactive measures that firms must take to create a conducive climate that facilitate recognition and redressal of problems of sexual harassment.  This includes setting up of an Internal Complaints Committee that will sensitively tackle these problems, sensitisation of partners and employees on the issue, and legal demands of conformance the firm must enforce with clients and all other persons and entities the firm deals with.  To conform to this act, it is not sufficient that the partners of architectural firms refrain from sexual harassment: the failure to implement these proactive measures is also a crime.

CoA, as a statutory regulator determining who is entitled to call themselves an architect, is entitled to enforce a code of ethics.  Gross violation of this code constitutes grounds for disbarment.  This code requires reform so that it specifically addresses gender issues: recognition of the law on sexual harassment, as well as prohibition of discrimination based on gender.

In conclusion, the demographics of the architectural profession in India is exhibiting structural changes that will demand jettisoning the habitual lenses with which we have viewed the situation thus far.  Both IIA and CoA will fail in their mandate if they do not urgently and seriously take these changes into account.

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