Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Where is the lotus in the marshes?

When I left IIT; I remember rationalizing that either fame or fortune (or both) awaits us IITians! Oh; the naivety of adolescence and the male hormones! Combined with the smugness of architects from IIT. I remember a particular conversation I had with my fellow batch-mate Pratap Singh Khanwilkar on how one could go on with our lives from thereon. He went on to invent a unique left-ventricular assist device and achieved both fame and fortune. I've achieved neither. Indeed I may only be remembered for some immodest noises and some questions I've asked here and there on architectural representation theory. And the answers to those questions will take a long time; surely.

The route Pratap chose was first go abroad to seek his objective. That is a well traveled route. His life story is very interesting and worth told (will do that sometime) But what about those who walk on the road not often trodden? So the question for today's blog entry is where is the real challenge in architecture in India? Indeed where can we get fame and fortune in our field? ("At least fame please!" I can see the plead in some of my students' eyes) ?

I've seen an almost uniformly standard response to this question from many of my students and quite a lot of architects I know. And I am not very happy with it. Good architecture means doing projects that are conceptually well thought of, well designed, well-built and they must look good ... especially when there are nobody in those 'in' projects. What is wrong with that? Nothing (other than the last bit about people) The 'wrong' is not directly in this stance. But it is in the context where such stance is played out. I'll explain what this means shortly.

I've seen this approach in seminar after seminar; slide-show after slide-show. In my youth I have often cockily mocked at this stance. Much to the amusement of my audience: They were giggling in the background ... not because I was making a point but because I never had a great piece of work to boast about and many of them had actually taken the trouble to see my works. I realized this later: An architect from the south who had heard about me was sadly and deeply disappointed by my works when he actually saw my portfolio. He thought I was making great architecture and my portfolio was a damp squib. According to him what I said and what I did were two different things.

The truth is: I've been an honest architect and that honesty to me; includes being honest to the extent of not manipulating the contexts my projects are placed in. (What is this I am talking about? Just a bit more patience as I grapple with my words; please.) I have always put out my efforts at the maximum capacity that I (rather; my office) had at any point in time. It was due to a promise that I had made to myself when I left IIT: I will not refuse a job just because it is too low-down or by some scoundrel with absolutely no taste for architecture.

Now for two digressions that can unravel my mysterious explanation on the issue of the real challenges in architecture in India today :

One concerns a famous violinist who was deliberately misplaced. The other one is about a book I read recently: "The Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell.

Washington Post conducted a now famous experiment : They requested Joshua Bell; a very accomplished violinist, to perform some complicated classical music in the subway -- that too using a Stradivarius violin. The results: Practically nobody even noticed the music; let alone Joshua or his even more famous Strad.

So: The context can often make a huge difference in appreciating or even "tagging" something as being good.

Malcolm Gladwell goes on to prove in his book that it is not just the context that contributes to the success and recognition of a person; but also the right timing and back breaking-work. Talent comes in last and even if one has it; just a bit of it will do. Sometimes even a minor age-difference can be crucial in certain fields ( like sports). Though I largely agree with the book; the point were made rather simplistically; I must add... some of the points were simplified to the extent of making them trivial. For e.g. His points regarding correlating rice-cultivation with success in mathematics were not fully convincing.

When I mulled over both the Joshua episode and Gladwell's book; I thought of a scene from some TV show: A group of reluctant army recruits were lined up for a mission. One person had to volunteer. But nobody wanted to go. Unfortunately; one was a bit dumb and before he could realize what was going on, the rest of the recruits spontaneously took a neat step backwards. The dumb fellow therefore became the automatic choice. The lesson here is very simple: When you change the context; you can easily make something stand out from a group.

Which is what architects and students want to do quite often in India. They would rather hand-pick the context of the projects by simply standing back from works that may not offer them the right exposure. That is the silent aspect of a project that many will not even talk about. That is the part which I find socially irresponsiblle. When such architects display their crisp slides; I would really like to know how many projects were thrust upon them by people who forced them to do stuff they did not want to do. I have not met any one who has convinced me that they did have a wholesome set of projects. The award winning types will always take a step back from those that are destined to go into obscurity. They don't want dirt in their portfolio. That is why we see very few low or middle-income housing among the awards. The clients for such projects are the uncouth and unloving who will insist that the architect must perform at the subway with a hat out.

The "business" of the practice of architecture unfortunately has a very anti-social side to it: Those who can afford architecture don't really need architects and those who desperately require the design knowledge that architects have, those unfortunates cannot afford architects. (The rich can always order workers around and by trial and error get their own architecture exactly the way they want). So that paradox compounds the problem. We architects have not done enough soul searching among ourselves on where our real challenges are.

Now don't misread me: I am not claiming that I am a Joshua Bell. (Whether I am or not will be proved by time. Ahem. It is anyway irrelevant for this article) What I am claiming is that the award winning type of architects who have crisp slides and who have stood out by carefully weeding out projects ... well they may very well be the Joshua Bells of our field. And if they are the Joshua Bells; they surely have never played at the subway. They have always ensured that they will play at the top opera halls. I met one of them claiming: "Oh; we've decided to be boutique designers. We are not for all. We are expensive. For quality you need to be that"

Other Joshuas will have their own explanations. Now I am being generous here: Many of them are only fake Joshuas. Most have used Malcolm Gladwell's methods of getting to the top: Not really much by way of talent or knowledge. Mostly, other circumstantial issues placed them and their works in the limelight. I am simply not impressed and neither are the actual users out there who have to actually live and use their idiotic masterpieces.

If we look at really good architecture in the West; you will find that they are couched in the midst of works for the common people which were of reasonable quality. Those projects were not middling. The rich nations have more checks and balances in place I guess. (There are other reasons too such as the homogeneity of the society, higher standards of living, etc) If we really have to produce real masters here, we need to uplift architecture not just in those cute bungalows seen lifelessly in coffee-table top magazines but also public architecture of the lower and middle classes; even in the 2nd and third tier cities, smaller towns and villages. All nations will have their masterpieces. And such masterpieces have to painfully shoulder their way out of the quality of the rest of the ordinary architecture. Therefore, if the ordinary architecture itself was of good quality then that nation would surely have masterpieces which will be acknowledged the world over and stand the test of time. Today; India is hardly known for any masterpieces. Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier's works do not count. They were in a by-gone era and were couched in an international context. I really cannot see anything worthwhile produced in India in the last sixty years.

I have done a lot of bad architecture in my time. My office never intended it that way. I am not ashamed about them either because I know for a fact that others in the same context would have done far worse. Today; my practice of architecture has turned around a corner. I do not do conventional architecture. Almost nothing. Is this a contradiction? No. The context changed and I am in a new context and I accept that change in typical Buddhist humility focused on each flowing instance of time.

So what do I recommend we do in India or any developing country?

If you are truly honest; don't try to manipulate the context of your projects or even yourself. Take everything and be good at everything. Peer recognition is good but don't get into that self-congratulatory back-slapping mode for our "awards" in order to choose the Joshuas among us. Go to the junta and ask them. How many awards really and truly take in the feedback of the actual users? (One beautiful book called "Personal Space" by Roger Summers elaborates on this) When our office finished the office interior for Konkan Railway Corporation; we got an unsolicited letter from their chief engineer where he acknowledged that our design was the context for everyone at Konkan Railway when they were working on their magnificient project. That recognition is much better than the awards that we give each other.

In a developing country; we have to work in the marshes. That is where the "ping" of the developing comes from. When you are in the marshes you have to wade in it. And if possible you have to make a lotus bloom there. And lo-behlod; a lotus can be seen only in the stinkiest of marshes. That can take time. A lotus also takes time to bloom. Be honest at every instance when doing all of that. If you know what to do at each pure instance; you can be a Buddha. Legend has it that wherever the Buddha walks; there will be a lotus.


Ugich Konitari said...

".....In a developing country; we have to work in the marshes......"

I am not in architecture, but the above statement holds regardless of what you do. Particularly in the education of children. Today's fashion is to work to make smart children smarter, and get a virtual pat. The real effort has to be in wading into the marshes, and guiding an entangled lotus leaf, to come up to the surface and support a flower.

This doesnt get you on the "merit list". So its rarely done.

( I dont even want to think of what they do to the marshes to reclaim land and build)

Unknown said...

Yes, this issue is there in all fields especially in developing countries. Being a teacher myself, I have seen students asking the context to be changed. I have even seen parents trying to manipulate the context of their children so that they come out on top artificially.