by Meghna MehtaDec 19, 2019
While the views expressed in this article are those of a professional architect who has practiced across decades, has been a vital part of architectural education in contemporary India and has participated in international initiatives in design; STIR encourages critical feedback to this letter and welcomes responses from students, professionals and academicians alike.
- - -
My dear students and faculty,
I write this special letter to you all … out of my inner conscientious compulsion.
It comes forth out of the restlessness that arises in me from my genuine concern for the present state of our architectural education, profession as well as that of our society. I also write it because I still consider myself to be a student, though I entered the portals of CEPT (Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology), Ahmedabad, as a student of architecture 52 years ago.
Unfortunately, the values and priorities of our society have changed so much in these recent decades; we seem to be living in a “society that is suffering from the fatty degeneration of its conscience, where our single minded pursuit of money is impoverishing our mind, shrivelling our imagination and desiccating our heart” - (Nani Palakhiwala).
Today, in all fields including architecture and architectural education too, so many relevant area specific contexts and genuine human values tend to get lost and usurped in the one powerful universal context of commercial returns.
Thus, don’t you think that we need an architecture of goodness for a better life in a better society? What can constitute this value based architecture of goodness? Can our architecture be an agent of social change to bring about some goodness in this scenario? Can some goodness be brought about, if our architecture helps us to reconnect with nature, with our fellow human beings, with our own selves and thereby with this underlying goodness of life?
Can this architecture of goodness be taught?
In this scenario, shall we all pause to examine the following questions with the utmost sincerity and urgency. These questions are not really about the small details of the syllabus subjects being taught today, but about the overall form and Nature of our architectural education ….
… How can today’s architecture colleges light up that inner flame in the students which will encourage each student to ask questions and passionately address their genuine life concerns through their designs? As Corbusier said, “Life is right, and the architect is wrong.”
… Could we realise that our main design concept which shapes our design, needs to arise spontaneously from our understandings, values and attitudes in life? As part of the architectural curriculum, the students need to be made aware of the multiple ways in which their designs connect to the multiple parameters of life.
… Can our architectural education help us in realising the importance of these immeasurable and intangible attitudes in our work? Though our plans and sections are physical measurables, many a times, they also touch the heart, rekindle memories and travel the wonderful landscapes of dreams.
…Thus, can we shift our emphasis from today’s measurable saleability to that immeasurable sanctity? Only then, will we know that the true measure of development of a city is not the height of its skyscrapers but the width of its pedestrian ways.
… Can introspection be encouraged by creating certain pauses and silence in the overall curriculum? The eminent Indian classical vocalist Kishori Amonkar had lost her voice for ten long years during her career. Even then, she says that the internal music, antarnaad, continued and she learnt a lot from that during this difficult phase in her life. Critical thinking and critical introspection needs to be encouraged in our education and profession.
… As we all know how difficult it is to teach architecture, can an institute create an atmosphere that encourages creative unlearning and relearning in architecture to happen? Informal procedures, settings outside the typical classrooms and flexible 24/7 college timings could help.
Explorations through making of many 3D physical models, sketching, travelling and writing need to become the mandatory sanskaras (tradition) in architectural learning. A learning methodology instigating the students and faculty to question the prevailing norms, trends and fashions needs to be introduced.
How can the teachers and students develop that long lost respect for each other?
… For this to happen, don’t you think that a major shift is necessary in our attitude towards life? … from the present anthropocentric approach to life , where everything is supposed to be for the consumption of man (for me and mine) to a more integral, universe centric approach. The introduction of Humanities’ subjects (like sociology, psychology, anthropology) along with deep ecology (urban ecology, energy flows etc) as a subjects may help the students in grasping the true interdependent and interconnected nature of our world.
… Don’t you think that this understanding of being an integral part of this wonderful web of life is also the pre requisite for any true sustainable action to happen? Only then can we design from this empathy and real caring concern for all. Such an approach will naturally create designs that are truly eco-friendly, simple and sustainable.
Maybe, our future architects even transcend this sustainable architecture and create ‘productive sustainable architecture’ – an architecture that produces water, energy, food and air.
… Knowledge of new materials, technologies should find their place in the archaic syllabus of building materials. But at the same time, can our students realise that the modern materials, amenities, devices and gadgets cannot replace real peace and happiness, just as a child's toys cannot be substitutes for human affection? This greed for the fast buck tends to churn out repetitive, mediocre, manipulative, monotonous, design solutions, which tend to devalue our profession in the society.
It is important not to confuse a good life with the number of goods they possess. As Da Vinci put it “ simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
… How can we all appreciate that rather than creating iconic, futuristic, exhibitionist, sculptural forms that attract the eye, it is more important to create more humane, socially relevant, natural and sustainable spaces that nurture the human spirit? While designing for the future, should we not look for perennial human values as our form generators, rather than getting caught up in transient, flashy, fickle fashion statements?
… With the increased intake of students, can you examine whether the necessary personal rapport between teachers and students is getting diluted? And with the increasing number of architecture colleges mushrooming up, would we have adequate, dedicated and inspiring faculty for all these students?
Hasn’t the quality of our architectural education deteriorated? Many of the institutes do not even have the basic working infrastructure necessary for an architecture college.
… Can the students correlate their learnings in the college with the actual professional processes and vice versa in a better way than it is being done today? Could more site visits and a better internship proposal be introduced in the curriculum?
We are also in the midst of revolutionary advancements in the fields of Artificial intelligence and Biotechnology, that have already started questioning the relevance of our education and profession, as it is practiced today.
… Don’t you think that the age old knowledge based learning methodologies need to change drastically very soon, as our machines are becoming better at it? We need to teach something unique (that which is wisdom and value based) which the machines can’t catch up with. Even Yuval Harari says, “If you wish to teach something very, very practical for the 21st century, philosophy is a good bet”.
… How can we get the students to deal with this paradox on how to become modern and return to the sources at the same time?
… Can an architectural design embody a similar content as that of a poem, music, painting, sculpture, dance or drama? Can our students be able to appreciate all these arts as a part of their curriculum and then integrate their essence in their designs?
Can our architecture colleges strike a creative, interactive rapport with the others institutes of arts, design, dance, drama, music and film?
… Actually, wouldn’t it be great if some information about architecture and the spatial realm is introduced at the high school level itself? Can our modern digital networking be used to sensitise the people at large to this world of architecture?
... Now, with so many issues that need to be addressed, are we ready to completely overhaul our architectural education system in order to create better architects and better human beings for a better environment in a better society?
I sincerely hope we can do that, if not at the entire national level but at least initially in some institutions of architectural learning, to help create sensitive and humane architects with the capacity, integrity and zeal to create that architecture of goodness.
These are just a few issues that came to my mind. I am sure you can add on some more as you are directly a part of this architectural education scene. I shall be glad to get your response as to how you feel about the above issues and how you could include some of them in your daily architectural education.
Best wishes from your fellow traveler on this journey in life and architecture,
Ar. Shirish Beri