Monday, September 23, 2013

The Rot in the Column

This was originally written in a discussion group here:!topic/cbsarch/GzNxTwjYJ-k

When we sift the debris from any building collapse, there is one body that is never recovered: She is our muse. Her name is architecture. It is our collective shame that we have never been able to peel the layers of rot in the column of systems that go towards holding up architecture in India. I'll make a small attempt here. I hope this is not regarded as finger pointing or even sanctimony. Even if I may come close. Usually, I do not indulge in generalizations and reifications. However there are some topics that can be discussed in a general manner, and I believe this to be one.

We all see architecture as it exists out there in the real world. Architecture is experience. Many of us think that is all there is to the subject. Even architects. But architecture happening in the real world should ideally be an outcome of careful thought processes, much of which are never discussed or systematized by architects and other consultants. Like an iceberg that will show only a small percentage of its volume above the sea, there is quite a lot which is hidden. I've always maintained that the product of architecture comes out of the processes of design. The product is what we see out there...but the processes are sadly hidden; locked inside architects offices. Unfortunately, amnesia sets in when processes are allowed to be hidden, and quite often architects simply forgets to carry out the required processes. How many of us really carry out a climatology analysis or site analysis or user-behaviour study for a project before working out its design? In fact, how many of us leave our project design in any analysable form for future introspection when things start collapsing?
In fact, many architects don't even recognize that there are processes that needs to be systematized. They just take out their sketch books and furiously draw out the final forms that the iceberg need to take shape. They are so eager to get the project into the real world; that the careful checking of what ought to pop-up above the ground is never done.

At one conference, a famous architect was proudly claiming that he got his pear shaped design for a project when doodling on a pad during a flight. Flight of imagination? It was so romantic! I remember all the 2000 students attending the conference giving a thunderous applause on hearing that architect's passionate explanation. Today, that project is out there in the tropics called India. And people working inside that building are huddled at  computer monitors within umbrellas. Umbrellas? Why? Because the pear shaped building has so much glass, that the glare from outside prevents normal viewing of a computer monitor!

With this kind of trend-setters that exists in our field, it has become very easy for non-architects to come into the profession and get into some nooks and crannies of architectural practice. Many architects often don't take up such projects or are ousted out by the unscrupulous. So we have a huge set of "interior decorators" and "interior designers" who are not trained in understanding the processes behind the product called architecture. And as architects; we have never been able to get such untrained quacks in line because many of our own learned and recognized peers do the same thing.  These quacks happily play around with the internal columns of buildings thinking that it is quite similar to making quick sketches on a flight. With disastrous consequences.

Why is it that architects abhor the processes of design?  For understanding that, we need to look into architectural education. That layer of the column has quite some rot. There is a rot in  both teaching and learning.

It actually does not start at the level of the architecture college, but just before it. There is this absurd career oriented demands; that our society place on our kids. Anxious parents and their kids crowd in front of mark lists anxiously looking at how they "performed". As if there was a circus over there. The result is that budding architects are so marks-oriented that they forget that marks are only a bye product of their knowledge. Instead, marks become an end product by itself. Later on in their career, the same architects substitute "money" for "marks".

If only they had clarified the concepts, then these kids would have been able to look deeper into the water later on in their lives. In the pecking order of our society, the profession of architecture does not score high. Everyone knows the kind of dirty people who are involved in it, and overprotective parents would not want to place their dear children in such company. There are other reasons too: The salary earned by fresh graduates is very low, etc. So everyone is clamouring to become an engineer or a doctor. Nowadays "management" (whatever that means) is also a good career option. But not architecture. Even if the child can grow up to an important architect, she has no choice: She is made to believe that architecture as a subject is not a profession "comparable" to that of engineering or medicine.

As a teacher, I have had first hand experience  interacting with kids who came into architecture simply because they did not get engineering or medicine. They just do not have a love for it. So what do they do? Some actually develop the love as they grow out of their adolescence; only to be thwarted and insulted by bad teachers and even worse, they are pulled down by really bad management who is out there only to fleece and play politics.

But some students go onto develop, what is colloquially known as, a "crush" for architecture. There is no maturity in that love. Many students are affected by deep sense of inadequacy. They dress up their liking for architecture with a veneer of false bravado. They sprinkle their talk with arbitrary definitions. They huddle amongst their own peers and their intellectual capability sink to the lowest level within their peer group; usually the most vociferous. Some speak in soft cultivated "cultured" tones, as if just sounding knowledgeable is all that is needed. Some even quote from books without understanding that much of those books themselves ought to be hurled through the fire of critical thought. I find that much of architecture students either aimless or aping. As nature abhors vacuum, the intellectual space of many students is invaded by false intellects who do verbal antics ... and  students often lap them up.

Much of the antics are done by badly trained teachers. They don't do any reading of their own, and even if they do; they have allowed the faculty of critical thought to rust. They come to colleges for varied reasons... for most, it is a stop-gap arrangement. I have found very few professors who are genuinely love teaching. And the reason is simple: I believe one can only be in love with teaching only when one is in love with learning. Only then can one empathize with the state of the students. Let me not make the mistake of indulging in bad thinking here: Of course I cannot generalize. Of course, there are genuine teachers, and genuine students too. But the odds due to the rot in the system are so badly stacked against them; that they are very few and far in between.

I have encountered some surprising examples of bad teaching. I was taken aback by teachers who had no clue how the sun moved across the sky dome ... their knowledge of climate was so appalling. I used to snicker at teachers who could not formulate the right logic to explain the processes of architecture. I was dumbfounded at the kind of bombastic statements made by teachers who dramatically explained architecture as if it is something that can evolve out of poorly defined philosophies. Leaving things half-explained, in a mystical manner, was actually considered "hep". I used to think that students would object but when I turned back to look at the class, I was stunned. They were very impressed with such talk of these emperors' new clothes. My points were difficult to grasp and I left many students confused. I sadly realized that personalities ruled education. The depth of character or knowledge do not mean much to a hormonally influenced adolescent.

A knowledgeable surgeon, Dr. Nobhojit Roy, spoke at a congregation of architects and students, and he had a surgically incisive point to make: "When we open up a patient for surgery, we often have an insurmountable task: After all, we don't have an endless supply of raw-material. In fact, we don't have any raw material! Whatever nature has given that is there inside that body... and some of that now gone bad and needs repair. So what do we do? We wrack our brain, and do our best. Fortunately, our best is sufficient and more often than not we get the job right. That happens because we are damn meticulous in whatever little we can control. We don't let it go out of hand. We are rigorous and thorough. Now look at your own field: Architecture. You can start with your imagination. Nobody can stop that. You can pick out and invent and use any raw material. But then what do you end up do? Ape everyone else or the foreigners! And then do a bad job of it. It is a shame that you can't even be original. That is possibly because you are not rigorous enough"

When he was saying that, I was looking at the faces of architects and students. I am sure some of them genuinely thought that they were doing original stuff. But this was like a sock on their jaw. Originality in architecture does not mean pretending to be original... If you need originality, you need rigour.  You can't get the former without the latter.

The rot in education goes even higher up, into how education of architecture is monitored and licensed: There is this preponderance towards separate "colleges" of architecture. These are colleges are like hermaphrodites on separate islands of knowledge; insulated from others, mating with itself and producing mutant unworkable knowledge. And that sense of false bravado that I spoke about keeps the spirit and joviality alive in these colleges. It is important for such students to proclaim that they simply hate mathematics and science. Some of them go on to dictate hard working structural engineers and end up making impractical structures. Some of those structures eventually collapse.

I have interacted with students on Orkut and other Internet forums, and I find that there is this special identity that they achieve when they proclaim their artistic side of their life. But I have often implored why should the artistic side of a person be at the loss of clear reason? Einstein was a reasonably good violinist. Albrecht Durer was a mathematician by training. Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize physicist, was very good at sketching and playing the bongos. The list is quite endless, actually. But such arguments often fall on deaf ears.

Many students don't even rise up to the occasion when doing their thesis. I get endless requests on the net from students asking for "ideas" for their thesis. Even a cursory peep into a dictionary would indicate that a thesis needs to be original. It is that last chance for students to do a thorough and rigorous interpretation of architecture. No wonder, in India, we don't have much original contribution to the body of theoretical knowledge in architecture. And many students consciously decide to miss it, because they are caught up in producing work which they think will please the jury! These students, who by now ought to have been adults, are behaving like school kids wanting their teachers to hold them by their little finger to take them to the loo.

The students cannot be blamed entirely. In many colleges, there are strict rules regarding the kind of thesis that a student can do. They are not encouraged to talk about processes. "Where is the design? Where is the design?" is the constant refrain from professors. Thesis MUST end in a design, they have been forced to believe. So students take a simple detour: They think first about the design and invent all kind of hogwash to write in their report which substitutes the processes of a design.

Moving to the next layer of rot: practice of architecture. Students who are ill trained, who never really liked the subject for all its complexity, who grew up from adolescence into adulthood and learnt some bits and pieces of truths along with an enormous amount of misunderstandings... students who were forced to think about the product instead of the processes of architecture ... all such students land up on the door of architects who themselves were all of that once upon a time. I have always made a distinction between one who has a formal education and a learned person. Those who are only formally educated often don't grow up holistically. Our marks-driven syllabi often get a student to get formal education, but all the other qualities that uplifts the character of person to become a "learned one" are often missing. For e.g., many fresh graduates are not good thinkers or good listeners. Quite a few of them end up as sycophants, as they were so used to saying "yes sir" to diplomatically solve problems with their teachers.

Another speaker (from the US) who had come to talk to practising architects on business mathematics and profitability was amazed at the muddled thinking among practising architects. He attributed it to one simple reason: "In India, we have always believed that people should be gainfully employed as soon as possible. Whereas the emphasis in many other countries is first on getting the student's thinking correct. Money will come as a bye-product of that thinking but sadly nobody recognizes that to be true here" Once again, a product v/s process confusion. Fresh graduates yearn so much for money and recognition that they don't realize that they are falling prey to the darker side of their character (like petty jealousies and unfair comparisons) when they rebel against their employers to start their own practices. Thus, India is full of half-baked practices. Most of them with one (or a small group) of personalities at the top of a pyramid. I can count the number of non-personality driven architectural practices in India on the fingers of my left hand.

And what about the rot in a well settled practice? I feel we don't emphasize the word "practice" sufficiently enough. It means something that ought to be repeated. And with every repetition, one needs to remove something that was bad and introduce something which is better. That can only happen if we get the theories that go into the workings right. But those theories must be constantly rectified and enhanced as new knowledge come into our lives. After all, architecture happens at the meeting point of multiple streams of knowledge. Research; unfortunately, is regarded as a big unnecessary bore. After all, architects in India gets this license to practice for life. So what is the point of it anyway? With the result, architects get their "researched" information about building materials, climate, etc. from unscrupulous building material manufacturer's representatives who come into offices with "knowledge" packaged into slick brochures.

And the very few architects who do want to contribute to theories in architecture are often seen indulging in their own petty jealousies in conferences, workshops and competitions. In fact, as researchers in architecture in India are quite a rarity, those who are here in India often attempt the corner the field to themselves. The people available for proper peer-reviewing are spread very thinly across the country. When a paper is sent for a blind review, it is very easy for a reviewer to do be swayed by his/her personal opinion of the person rather than the contents that was sent for review. There is not a single peer reviewed journal of architecture in India, to the best of my knowledge.
I believe that doing proper research in India, is really tough. Especially in the context of a practice. In my practice; it has been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to explain to my stand to my staff. My surprised employees who would look at me strangely when I claim that yes it makes a lot of sense for an architect to understand computing ... Because in these complicated times we need to parametrize many things and do a lot of computing. Those can no longer be done manually. So most of these employees either leave on their own or are retrenched. And sadly, my office can't afford to employ any more of such architects. Because neither do these architects have the kind of skills my office needs nor do they have the correct attitude towards learning.
I have not spoken about the rot that affects our muse from the world outside us: The bad, untrained contractors who don't know the difference from a column and a beam. The building authorities who are clueless about the information they should ask from architects -- they ask only for the bare minimum information which satisfies their current requirements. It is dreadful to think of the kind of information that would be made available by these authorities, say, in case of some large disaster like an earthquake or a massive fire or an epidemic. Then there are the untrained builders who can't neither understand economics nor construction ... the list is quite large.
Sadly, I still believe that we architects play a major part in influencing the members of that list: If we were to show to the world outside that we are worthy of respect and that we have substantial knowledge that can be profitable to them, then maybe they will take us into confidence when formulating their own strategies. I am yet to see one workshop or conference, where builders, contractors, architects, building material manufacturers, economists, building authorities sitting together to discuss what is meant by "profits" in our industry.

I must admit that I was part of all this rot at sometime in my career, in some form or the other. Mostly, as one who was affected by it. Yet when I look back I was still contributing to it because I was finding reasons not to tackle the rot. Fortunately, at a personal level, I was able to extricate myself to some extent . Hopefully I have grown wise to admit my mistakes. What I ended up doing (or was forced to do so... take your pick) is to walk out of confrontations and situations. But I think that is not a complete solution... so I cannot be placed above blame either. Part of the challenge is to be right there in the stinking marshes of bad architectural practice and attempt to do something good. Trying to pre-determine the kind of practice one ought to do is actually quite selfish. If one is a professional, one needs to be professional in all contexts: a professional needs to do his/her work facing it all.

I don't think anyone can be placed above blame. We all need to do some deep introspection and work out some cooperative systems to keep the rot at bay or at least keep it to a minimum. We need to do that all levels of the "column" that supports architecture in India. In education. In practice. In research. In monitoring and licensing. In approvals of buildings. In construction. In building economics. In fighting quackery. Architecture is collapsing in India all around us. Mainly due to shame