Can architecture education train young minds to help vulnerable communities?

Architecture education needs to expand beyond the issues of design and aesthetics by enabling students to question and confront the issues of access.

by Bhawna JaiminiPublished on : Jun 16, 2022

"We can make our own houses. We want the city to give us land." Jasuben, a woman in her fifties, told me in a fiery yet measured tone. It was only my second day at work in Hunnarshala Foundation, a Bhuj-based non-profit organisation that works on an equitable and sustainable approach to development, which I joined 10 days after graduating with a bachelor's degree in architecture. The organisation had just begun a slum redevelopment program under Rajiv Awas Yojana - urban housing program which was later scrapped by the current government in the favour of Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana - and I was asked to spend time with the communities who were soon going to rebuild their homes and get land tenements under the scheme.

I was asked to visit the communities with a clean slate - devoid of preconceived notions of how I can help them but by the virtue of my training in architecture, I was already thinking about what kind of design or technical knowledge I would share with people I will meet or how I will make beautifully rendered plans of their new houses. After all, conceptualising, drawing and implementing built spaces was all I taught in excruciating detail. However, Jasuben, with her one statement nullified all those sleepless nights spent hunched over drawing boards trying to produce detailed plans and elevations of imaginary buildings I was supposed to make happen in my future as an architect. When Jasuben said that she is perfectly capable of building her own home, she wasn’t mocking an architect’s skill but only introducing the struggle of the urban poor in securing housing rights in our urban areas where architecture and design are least of their worries.

Soweto Township in South Africa | Can architecture education train young professionals to work with vulnerable communities? | STIRworld
Soweto Township in South Africa Image: Wikimedia Commons

This is not to say that good design and architecture are not needed when working with vulnerable and marginalised communities, but they form only part of the entire process, which entails engaging with the policy framework and the bureaucracy, collaborating with multiple stakeholders for decision making, and often working alongside social partners to secure funding to build. Most architecture schools teach students to take this process for granted and look at their work as something that begins once all resources required have been secured by their client or patron.

The approach inculcates a myopic understanding of architecture which does not originate in a vacuum. It is constantly getting informed and informing the context it exists in. When education fails to equip students with tools to engage with the context, it ends up creating professionals who can only serve the privileged section of our society. To elucidate this further, let us look into how housing is taught in architecture schools. It is not an unknown fact that the housing crisis is a result of a combination of factors that includes inequitable land distribution, rural distress that causes migration and climate related disasters which have increased in the last decade. Without delving into these, housing studios are merely a luxury apartment/condo designing exercise.

If only a neatly designed building could solve the housing problem, Moshe Safdie - the Israeli born Canadian architect - who championed 'for everyone a garden' through his iconic Habitat 67, a public housing project in Montreal, Canada - would have solved long ago. Safdie designed Habitat 67 in response to the stacked-up apartments or traditional row houses that he saw all over North America. Safdie wanted to create something unique for the urban dwellers irrespective of which class they came from and thus came Habitat 67 into being. However, just saying 'for everyone a garden' doesn’t bring a garden to everyone and at the end it all comes down to who has access to that garden Safdie was talking about.

Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie | Can architecture education train young professionals to work with vulnerable communities? | STIRworld
Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie Image: Wikimedia Commons

Habitat 67 turned into a luxury apartment complex from initial being conceived as a public housing project meant for the working class. Habitat 67 is a popular case study which is used while teaching housing to students of architecture. It is a benchmark that students are told to follow without questioning or critically evaluating anything more than its floor plans. So, students belabour long hours into arriving at the perfect layouts, sections and elevations with the conviction that the only thing that is preventing India from solving the housing crisis is 'good' design and architecture.

This propagates an archaic understanding of architecture, which like art, was the prerogative of the wealthy and the elites of the society. Almost all the architectural marvels from the Taj Mahal to the Eiffel Tower - as accepted by the majority - were commissioned either by kings or aristocrats in the past. Even today, it is the rich, wealthy and the politically powerful people who control what gets built and our education system is deeply embedded in that system. To put it crudely, architectural education today is a relic and a remnant of an undemocratic and aristocratic past.

Even though the state of education looks bleak and uncertain, there are many practitioners and educators from across the world who are challenging established methods and old tropes by bringing fresh perspectives into architectural education and their subsequent practice. Rupali Gupte, urbanist and professor at School of Environment and Architecture (SEA) in Mumbai, sheds light on how they are experimenting with new pedagogical approaches left largely untouched in curriculums. “Currently, the conventional mainstream design processes are linear and framed within a techno-legal framework. The process of client > brief > concept > design > working drawings > tender documents > contracting > building > handover usually form the assembly line of formal design practices. This forms the bulk of publications on housing and work undertaken by design practices in private studios, however, a large part of the population does not work through this process. Repair and retrofitting are integral parts of housing but hardly a part of study curriculum anywhere. At SEA we are trying to see how repair and retrofitting can become an important part of pedagogic processes and how it can influence policy and practice.”

Unequal scenes in Brazil: The 'most unequal' photo as described by the photographer Johnny Miller | Can architecture education train young professionals to work with vulnerable communities? | STIRworld
Unequal scenes in Brazil: The 'most unequal' photo as described by the photographer Johnny Miller Image: Johnny Miller

Another inspiring example of educators questioning the status quo can be found in Who Builds Your Architecture? (WBYA?), a coalition of architects, activists, scholars, and educators that seeks to examine the links between labour, architecture and the global networks that form around building buildings. Mabel O Wilson, an associate professor at Columbia University, GSAPP and one of WBYA?'s founders talked about the inspiration behind WBYA? in an interview to Architect Magazine. “A lot of designers I talk to, say, 'I don’t know what I can do' 'This is so immense. I am just trying to manage my practice, pay my employees, and keep good work in the office.' While the sense of helplessness is understandable, WBYA? argues that architects have more leverage than they realise to influence the construction process.”

Mabel Wilson at a ‘Who Builds Your Architecture?’ seminar | Can architecture education train young professionals to work with vulnerable communities? | STIRworld
Mabel Wilson at a ‘Who Builds Your Architecture?’ seminar Image: Wikimedia Commons

These examples are small but powerful examples of how architectural education is getting a new lease of life. They effectively demonstrate how in a world that is increasingly marred by inequities and inequalities, it is imperative that the hegemony of the rich and the powerful over architectural education - and subsequently the field - is challenged and broken. The recent pandemic, worsening climate crisis and looming threats to democratic institutions across the world have brought in a paradigm shift towards architecture. More and more people are questioning the status quo that maintains the grip of the wealthy over the fate of our built environment which continues to marginalise the vulnerable. In this current scenario, architectural education can no longer afford to produce foot soldiers of the rich - architectural versions of haute couture designers. There are way too many of them. The world right now needs not architects who understand and respond to the inequities and inequalities of the world. We need architects who can collaborate with Jasuben and countless citizens like her in their struggle to find themselves in the built geographies of our cities, towns and villages.

To sum up:

  • Architecture education needs to expand its purview beyond the issues of design and aesthetics by equipping students with tools that make them question and confront the issues of access to the very things they are learning to create.
  • It is important to teach architecture as an extension of the society, by virtue of which is constantly being shaped and informed by the social, economic, cultural and political reality of its times. It becomes imperative to engage with the context on a deeper level if architecture is understood to be egalitarian and universal rather than a commodity for the rich.
  • Individuals, institutions and organisations around the world are trying to change the mainstream understanding and workings of architecture by examining and practising it in the present times against the backdrop of crumbling democratic values and a worsening climate crisis. These voices need to be amplified and adapted if we dream of even a slightly more equal and equitable world.
A Rohingya girl walking in a refugee colony in Bangladesh. Refugee colonies are one of the most neglected neighbourhoods anywhere in the world. Access to well designed and equipped spaces can greatly benefit the lives of the people living in these areas | Can architecture education train young professionals to work with vulnerable communities? | STIRworld
A Rohingya girl walking in a refugee colony in Bangladesh. Refugee colonies are one of the most neglected neighbourhoods anywhere in the world. Access to well designed and equipped spaces can greatly benefit the lives of the people living in these areas Image: Courtesy of UN Women Gallery

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