Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Rabble rousers

There are two types of people in this world; those who say that there are two types of people and those who do not. In a similar vein, there are two kinds of people who talk about design in India: Those who talk about design and those who think that they can talk about design.

Many say: "Architecture has not grown up in India". Of course it hasn't." There is not much original design knowledge around." Of course there isn't. "If only we could start afresh thinking about architecture." Oh yes, I've heard that before: If only we could...whatever. And so it goes.

I used to work at Hafeez Contractor, a very long time back. He is one architect everyone loves to hate and nobody knows where to slot him. I've seen many strawman arguments about him, and some even more subtly veiled arguments where they snicker about his work in darkened auditoriums showing slick power-point presentations on really good architecture (which ironically often means works from outside our country espousing vague untested philosophies or sometimes are commissioned works for the rich like farm-houses, etc.)

Before I give the impression that I am trying to defend the architecture of Hafeez, let me make this clear: I am not defending his works. I think they are mostly terrible and for very valid reasons which can be clearly and objectively explained but I am not going to enumerate those here. I am merely defending his place in our country. He is out there making some impact and that cannot be merely wished away. Many want to brush him off but the bloke is back like a thorn in the side that refuses to dislodge.

But before that, let me share some of my experiences I had when working with him. When I was there, his office had just eight people. I was fresh out of IIT and there were some intelligent and hard-working blokes there. We used to work like dogs, pigs, work-horses...whatever you want to label us. I have never remotely seen any other office putting that kind of energy behind their works. It's almost 20 years since I left him and I still have to see such an office.

Hafeez had a fantastic work culture. He would lead from the front. He did not expect us to come early for work if he himself could not come earlier. He worked quite transparently: Mostly sitting alongside his staff. He still does that. He did not have a cabin. Still does not. If he shouted at someone, everyone knew about it. He was not afraid of his mistakes. He was not in awe of his own capabilities.

One day, he called me to his desk and showed me some of his works he had done when he was a student at Academy of Architecture: He used to put up enough sheets for one design submission to cover all the four walls of an entire classroom. He completed his post-graduation in the US in half the time. (One year instead of the usual two)

He knew the minutest of details of 'boring' mundane stuff such as the nahani trap connection to the outside drain pipe. I have seen him come to construction sites and sketch out solutions to seemingly insolvable problems that stumped consultants. And for those areas where he was not clear about the structure, etc. he had enough people to advise him. (Though lately some of those consultants are probably exploiting him... at least that is the impression I am getting from outside)

I do grant that in all the hurry a lot of mistakes were committed... which was part of the reason I left the office, but one simply cannot deny the knowledge the chap had. Which is much more than what I can say about the nay-sayers who only pretend they can understand Derrida and Zaha Hadid and some obtuse schizophrenic French philosophers.

As explained earlier, I do agree that much of Hafeez's work is crap. I left his office (amicably one may say. We are good friends) when I realized that it was a conscious decision of his, NOT to really use his knowledge but go with the tide. Such a sad waste of energy and knowledge.

I fully agree to the sad state of architecture in India. Many of these so called "knowledgeable critics" do not realize that they are one prime reason why mediocrity exists in India. Let me explain why I state this and this is not the first time I have tried telling this: I have said this before also, and I shall say this again. And I'll indulge in this rhetoric till the point gets driven home.

Excellent path breaking architecture can only emerge from a context of ordinary architecture which is reasonably good. Excellence in any area can only emerge out if it is challenged and chased by other works which are almost as good. The competition to do something good can really make some of the participants in the race rise up to the challenge.

In architecture, the context in a country such as India would be housing for the masses. But which fresh architect would want to do oh these works for the masses? The reason being such works mostly are funded by builders. Oh, which self-respecting fresh graduate would want to work for builders ("Aren't they scoundrels?" is the veiled thought) And why do they get such warped opinions? Because when they were in college as students they were exposed to pseudo-intellectuals who warn them about "bad" architecture and hint that self-respecting architects should stay away from them. They show those slick crisply made power-point presentations where; l0-behold, examples from outside our context are shown and stuff like deconstruction, etc. are discussed and the students rarely catch on that all the intellectual show during the presentation is merely that of an "emperor wearing his new clothes".

The saddest situation is when these chaps talk about cute little farmhouses, row-houses, bungalows and interiors seen in coffee table magazines and proclaim some deep design thoughts. I have always maintained that it would be ridiculous for anyone with some modicum of design knowledge to do injustice to such works. It would be a crying shame if one cannot design a good row-house, bungalow ... anything where the design context is known. (i.e. wherever the end user can be identified) I have always told my students that they should sob into their pillow if they cannot do a good job in those areas. So I don't particularly care to attend seminars/lectures/slide-shows where they talk about such works. Nothing really new to learn there.

But try to take up the challenge of design for anonymous users, where the design is used all 24 hours. Housing for the masses being the best example in this category. Now, do a good job or at least a tolerable one in that category and you may have a point about your design capability.

If only I could drive out these rabble-rousers and tell them to go and take up the challenge, if not themselves, at least they should have the grace to tell the audience to do so. But then they are busy drumming up immature biases in fresh minds.

I know a simple, yet talented architect who was almost crying because a promising student who had initially agreed to join him refused to do so, because he wanted to do cute row-houses and my friend was someone who simply did whatever that was thrown at him.

The pseudo-intellectuals remind me of a joke. They are like those army recruits who collectively take a step back, letting a dumb fellow to come out in front when asked to volunteer for a mission critical job. No wonder the mission of achieving excellence in architecture in India is dead even before it has started.