Monday, March 2, 2009

Wanted – New Architects; New Architecture

Change, progress, forward movement comes only with self-reflection – by oneself and/or as a community. What kinds of psychological spaces, formal and informal, exist for the architects community, to reflect upon itself? Christopher Alexander,, has said it succinctly - “…The reasons behind the increasing irrelevance of architects are complex. There are many issues facing us, but one of the more simple ones is that we do not have, as a professional community, adequate platforms, forums, or vocabulary for debating our differences and exchanging information.”

Architects seem rather lonely. Especially to me, with a NGO background where every little thing gets discussed to death, not having adequate fora to discuss one’s relevance and place in society seems as though something important is missing. Architects seem trapped in their ivory towers, thinking they hold the answers to all problems. In fact, it might just be probably true. They do have solutions – to micro as well as the macro; to the social, political as well as technical. If only they could come out of their very own version of Stockholm Syndrome (The Conflict Inside; Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava; Indian Architect & Builder, january 2009) where they are in love their client and their dictates. Ranjit Hoskote’s sketch of the aspiring architect quite hit the nail on the head: “Many young people go to architecture school with a self-image of the architect drawn from the deplorable writings of Ayn Rand. In this version, the architect is seen as Epic Hero, a Romantic genius, a lonely Howard Roarkian challenger of history who is equally indifferent to the needs of others and to the currents of the time ”.

Is this what has happened? That the architectural education institutions have churned out symbolic, technical responses and clones of a historic and past glory rather than a thinking, reflecting community which can construct new societal responses? A tired, blasé, frustrated, incestuous community that satisfies itself with glories bygone? If we take off our eyes off the Parthenons and Pantheons, we might just be able to see the modern-day colossal mistakes, that neither integrate into the backgrounds nor reflect the common man’s lifestyles and needs. Is it easier to keep our eyes and attention and debates and discourses on the technical, design details than current and future socio-political realities, especially as it is impossible to really design in isolation and be removed from these realities? Does this kind of myopia imply a deep insecurity, a well understood inadequacy to respond as a community to socio-political trends? To innovate and bring fresh thinking not only in “structures” but also social structures? The problem is that even in technical responses, the innovations seem so few and far between.

What the architecture community (and also many other sectors) needs is to learn from the IT (information technology) community. It requires a movement within, a deep down explosion that can set off an internal revolution, that can set in motion processes that will result in spawning ideas and interventions that can become workable, can reach millions (and thus make millions too), and become user-friendly. Remember the computers of the 1980s? The cost, size and difficulties in using them? In just two decades, there has been a revolution and today we see gadgets that can fit into a palm of every Tom, Dick and Harry … including the local grocer and the business tycoons – and each fitting the socio-economic profile of the user. What was the magic formula that made it happen? The IT community is as exclusive and impenetrable as the architect community. So how did this professional sector re-invent itself and made itself an indispensable product in so short a time?

Agreed that architecture is art – but the difference is that the output of this art form is not ensconced in hallowed halls of the super-buyers or museums, but directly interacts with the rest of the society in everyday terms, even if it is built for only one client. The outputs of this art form bring about large scale change in the environment, influences social psychology, can engender long term communal responses while influencing the aesthetics and management of small and large scale spaces. Thus, it not only owes the rest of humankind, but more importantly, owes itself a relook at its role in the making of the world in the coming century, even if it is only as citizens of this world.

What this community requires is to relook at itself within the present context, check out its relevance, identify the gaps, enlarge its response canvas and create a way forward that will be responsive to next century. No one else can do it for them. Neither the client, nor the politico-legal paraphernalia that underlie the industry, nor the ‘aam janata’. It has to come from within. A dynamic re-defined, a language modernized, a system revitalized, a response ‘real’-ised by the thinkers of the industry.

It needs a Vox Populi of its own, that can bring to focus its own understandings, perceptions, and perspectives and propose solutions on current realities. A means that will break the self-imposed isolation and help it to mingle, co-operate and collaborate with the rest; that will not only bring much-needed, fresh solutions but also will help it to gain from the mutual support. It can choose to become a force that can influence change, dialogue as a sector with the powers-that-be, and bring forth its own vision of society rather than leave it to mundane and petty bureaucrats and contractors.

It might be difficult to make the old horses drink. However, it might be useful to introduce an ongoing self-reflection process which allows the more adventurous, the more curious and the more reflective to have an opportunity to do so. A self-reflection process that frequently evaluates itself in the context of micro to macro, allowing for re-positioning and an automatic rearrangement to the relevance required. A process that will enable this community to be where it ought to be, where it has been in the past – at the helm of making of new societies, envisioning and designing new landscapes, and being true Architects.

It is not as if alternative practice models have not emerged. Sure, there have many successful attempts by brilliant pathbreakers who have relocated themselves within the broader social processes of change, have put themselves directly in touch with not only the sites and their histories but also with the users and the workforce. They have made for themselves indispensable niches of being participants in the cultural processes of their times and have become agents of social, political and economic change. However, these have remained more as personal crusades, fulfilling personal destinies. Young professionals do look upto them and model themselves upon them. But what is more urgently required is to create avenues for changes in process designs which will help the future generations to examine and realign themselves to changing times and become change agents in their own right.

I am driven to write this, because in the last few years, I have interacted with some very interesting people - architects. I have heard them speak from their hearts, share their agonies, listened to their dreams; I have read what they have been in the past, and their slow but sure degeneration over the last few centuries. It pains to see a people who are meant to be protagonists in the drama of designing and generating societies, slowly sideline themselves to mere technicians, project managers, and sometimes contractors.