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The Human within the Architect (3/3)

Presented at the Frame Conclave 2019, Prem Chandavarkar addresses the ‘inner voice’ that has been personified by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.

by Prem ChandavarkarPublished on : Aug 30, 2019

The Inner Voice

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 architects are probably more familiar with than Hannah Arendt. The first is internationally known because he is one of India’s most famous citizens, significant to the point that he has been bestowed with titles like 'Father of the Nation' or 'Mahatma’ - Mohandas K. Gandhi. And the other two are famous because they laid the pioneering ground for what we so easily term today as ‘modern architecture’ - Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Mahatma Gandhi | Human within the Architect | Prem Chandavarkar | STIR
Mahatma Gandhi Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

On Gandhi, I am indebted 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 … in 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 atam katha’ inheres. The atam katha 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 atam katha 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 atam katha, 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 antaryami was 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.

The Fallingwater house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright | Human within the Architect | Prem Chandavarkar | STIR
The Fallingwater house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

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 Point, Corbusier 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, Manas 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 organise 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.”

Le Corbusier overlooking the site of the La Tourette | Human within the Architect | Prem Chandavarkar | STIR
Le Corbusier overlooking the site of the La Tourette Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Continued from:

The Human within the Architect (1/3)

The Human within the Architect (2/3))

(This article has been extracted from Prem Chandavarkar’s blog Musings on Architecture and Urbanism), presented at the Frame Conclave 2019)

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