Architects without architecture: What's in a qualification after all?

Award-winning architect Gautam Bhatia draws an amusing analogy to highlight hiccups with the Supreme Court ruling that allows unregistered practice of architecture in India.

by Gautam Bhatia Published on : Apr 08, 2020

In Ranikhet, a small hill-town in Uttarakhand in the Himalayas, on the fringes of the bazaar are lines of hawkers who sell a service, not a product. Among them sits a toothless man with different sets of pliers and lotions, set on a dirty cloth on the road itself. A self-made cardboard sign announces him as Amarpal Joshi, Dentist. His specialisation is extractions. For the many who cannot afford the services of a registered dentist in the bazaar, Dr. Joshi performs the valuable task without professional implements, but with a street-savvy skill acquired over 30 years of roadside experience and over 5000 satisfied patients–many of whom have been heard screaming in pain–as far as the State Bus Stand a little distance away. As blood spurts from the sudden and violent procedure, the doctor is seen applying some coloured lotion to the troubled spot. And the patients keep coming. In many such open bazaars all over small-town India, similar services are offered by barbers, root doctors, skin specialists, dentists, even surgeons.

Uttarakhand, India | Indian street bazaar | Supreme Court ruling on Architects Act | STIRworld
Uttarakhand, India (*Image for representation only) Image Credit: Shashank Hudkar, Courtesy of Unsplash.com

If an architect were to set up shop alongside Dr. Joshi and place some paper, a pencil and a T-square on a roadside cloth, it would not be so unusual. By its very nature architecture is a profession that encourages public participation. Buildings are created by opinion–not skill–and everybody has an opinion. From a three-year old child who draws a perfect house, to Norman Foster who builds the same house in reflective glass. That is where the difference lies: people who patiently listen to a surgeon about the need to operate on their gall bladder lesion, will shamelessly interrupt their architect about the design of a façade, even if not their own. Everyone cannot be a doctor, but when a whole profession is formed out of mere visible learning, everyone is an architect. Because of this curious anomaly, more people are well, and more buildings are sick.

The Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe) in London designed by Norman Foster | Supreme Court ruling on Architects Act | STIRworld
The Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe) in London designed by Norman Foster Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

The recent Supreme Court ruling on Section 37 of the Architects Act makes only a cursory distinction between those architects who are allowed to build, and those who may call themselves architects. Anyone, even if not registered under the Architects Act can practice architecture, as long as they don’t confer the status of ‘architect’ on themselves. Doubtless the reverse should also be true: after doing a building, many architects should be denied the status. Is this a constructive and positive approach to the practice itself?

The ruling is far from adequate, and is ruled wholly by legal semantics. Its primary motivation makes no valid distinction between the value of a building’s architecture over its engineering. In fact, its supposition merely implies that the architect’s responsibility ends with ensuring the proper engineering of structures. Other ideas of planning, layout, design, material and craftsmanship don’t matter. What has always made architecture a profession lesser than accounting, law or medicine, is precisely this erroneous assumption - that architecture’s prime concern is to make buildings that don’t collapse.

An architectural sketch by Gautam Bhatia | Supreme Court ruling on Architects Act | STIRworld
An architectural sketch by Gautam Bhatia Image Credit: Courtesy of Gautam Bhatia

Given the conditions and current quality of building design in our cities, prohibitionary codes of practice must be enforced in the profession. The legal definition of an architect is far less important than the making of architecture as a valuable addition to a city; it is the judiciary’s unfortunate failure to comprehend the difference that has led the debate into semantic redundancy. The legitimacy of professional practice has no bearing on the quality of architecture. Artist MF Husain designed a house in Delhi; artist Satish Gujral did several important works in India and abroad. To be able to build, and build effectively was always more crucial than the label of ‘architect’.

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About Author

Gautam Bhatia

Gautam Bhatia

Bhatia graduated in Fine Arts and got a Masters degree in Architecture. A Delhi-based architect, he has received several awards for his drawings and buildings and has written extensively on architecture. He has authored a biography on Laurie Baker; Punjabi Baroque, Silent Spaces, Malaria Dreams (a trilogy that focuses on the cultural and social aspects of buildings); Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India among many others.

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