by Meghna MehtaOct 09, 2020
This conversation explores the beautiful contradiction in architecture and art. While Swapan Seth, who understands art and the artist’s role, poses questions on behalf of ‘man’ and the society, Akshat Bhatt of Architecture Discipline is the architect who attempts to respond on behalf of the discipline. This dialogue is curated by Tanya Khanna, Founder of Epistle, as a part of its #TalkingArchitecture initiative, which is aimed at bridging the gap between architecture and society — making architecture more accessible, and the conversation around it, more approachable.
Swapan Seth (SS): I think I have a fair idea about art, aesthetics, and design. And I pretty much know whether a building looks good or not. But I do not understand architecture. Why is architecture seen to be an obtuse, complex subject stewed in its own juices? It is like peeing in a pair of black pants. Only you can see what is happening.
Akshat Bhatt (AB): Architecture is not obtuse. But I think we make it so because it is convenient for the architect to make it obtuse. I think it is a defence mechanism to pretend to add value in front of a know-it-all client. Architecture is not about making pretty buildings. It is in a small part, a response to the current milieu, but to a far greater extent, projecting the way a built environment will evolve over the coming decades. I think we get lost in the traditional dialogue and trending conversations around architecture - and we sometimes lose the plot.
I can’t say much about the peeing in one’s pants analogy, but we architects have surely done something wrong if our cities look and feel like they do today. One can appreciate prose, but that does not mean one writes in it. Architecture must show the world as changeable and help to change it. It needs to adapt itself to the needs of society and what the human experience necessitates.
SS: So why the defence mechanism? That sounds like insecurity while architects exhale complete confidence.
AB: I think because there was a time when architects were technocrats. They determined the way cities and buildings would be formed. Most architects are now relegated to making houses for the rich, only because we have reconciled ourselves to the fact that the majority does not use our services and cannot afford to engage with us. The business of architecture and the practice itself doesn’t always allow for good architecture.
SS: I imagine many clients also have no idea about architecture. So you seduce them with stuff that they are ignorant of. Do you think the more ignorant they are, the more likely they are to hire a fancy architectural firm? It’s like the architect is the new Birkin.
AB: If you want pretence, it may as well be at the highest level. The truth is architects have always been patronised by the çultured-wealthy-elite. But in the past, they were hired for public commissions which would address a much wider spectrum of society. Now, most of us are content building miniature palaces for people who are spoilt for choice and so every architect has to play their role of the seductress.
SS: That is precisely my axe to grind with architects. Why must they only be for the wealthy elite? Medicine is not for the wealthy elite. Nor is banking. Why can’t architecture be more democratic and the prerogative of the many and not just a few?
AB: Celebrated or celebrity architects work with the wealthy. They are the ones who get published in journals and websites. There are many architects who work with the government, the defence, non-government organisations, in small towns and villages that you wouldn’t hear about. Those people are celebrated, but they are engaged in creating a habitat for the common man and strategic solutions for our nation. They may not always be at the cutting edge of expression or engineering but that doesn’t make them irrelevant.
SS: Most architects talk about sustainability. What does it even mean? Has any architect really lost sleep over sustainability?
AB: Sustainability or sustainable development means serving your needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The funny thing is: you have to keep making new buildings and new cities to prove it. I can show you how to live sustainably, I just need another building to prove it. The last twenty-five years of development have been dictated by economic criteria, and not by pragmatic requirements to help the human condition. We believe that functionality and conservation of energy are the foundation of design. That is sustainability.
SS: You still have not answered my question!
AB: While some of us work very hard on sustainability, nobody loses sleep over it.
SS: What will post-pandemic architecture be all about? Every surface that you touch is under surveillance. How will architecture respond to the suspicions?
AB: There will be some changes in how we use space, what materials we use etc, but I think the economics of creating space and leasing space will change. That in itself will seed innovation. The lockdowns have accelerated a lot of things that would have happened over the next few decades. The home isn’t a bastion of solitude anymore and the physical workspace isn’t seen as a necessity. Modern buildings are like evolutionary environments; work, leisure, and domestic activities are becoming interchangeable, leading to the creation of open-ended, flexible spaces. There has been an impact on public transport and even private transport which will accelerate the development of autonomous vehicles, and of course the city centre will be planned differently in the coming years.
SS: You say, “the economics of creating space and leasing space will change”. How?
AB: Home has become the office, and that is acceptable. Workspaces cannot be packed as densely as they were in the past, so it will be difficult to sell or lease commercial space. As a result, the configuration and rental value of all commercial space will be recalibrated.
SS: What innovation will come to life? In which spheres? What will be the impact of six feet of distancing? Which surfaces will find favour?
AB: We will engage / should engage with adaptive reuse projects before we start fresh builds. If this is the way we continue to build, we will have to rethink cities, city centres, transport, and travel.