Where is the Architect ??

This quote really irked me. Read on to know why.

“The profession of architecture with its cultural, artistic, aesthetical and urban dimensions belongs to the framework of Ministry of Culture and Tourism. However as far as we know the Ministry is not concerned with architects other than those who work in the restoration of the historical buildings” the article read.

Architecture, the world over is one of the oldest professions. Not necessarily the way we know and conceive it today, though. In ancient civilizations like Indus Valley and Egypt, the master-builder played the role of architect. All through the Renaissance and later, architects were self-taught individuals who learned the whole gambit of conceptualizing, designing and construction.

India has a very strong tradition of the craftsman as architect. Even today a majority of built work in India is done by skilled craftsmen, be they carpenters, masons, or many a times, a multi-skilled handyman.

It does not help that Indian architecture, especially the one in urban areas is of really poor quality. Some cities do it better than others. Bombay sadly is really bad at it. It is not that we architects are not talented enough. The whole process is a bit skewed. Zoning laws and development rights are totally out of whack. FSI is the rule of the game, and maximizing profits the underlying principal on which builders and developers work. To top it off, the quality of construction techniques, materials and craftsmanship are nothing to write home about.

The citizen awareness about art and architecture in India is nearly non-existent. I don’t blame people. There are more pressing issues in India that bog people down. But as times change and the residents of these cities become more affluent, the anomalies become even more glaring.

We buy homes for lakhs and crores of rupees, but still enter our buildings walking under stilted parking. We spend more lakhs in decorating our apartments, but still throw our garbage out of the window into the compound below.

Our houses are spick and span but the corridor leading from the apartment to the elevator is dark dingy and stinking. The living room gets a fresh coat of paint every two years, but the exterior of the same building last saw paint when Indira Gandhi was the PM.

To me this is a moral issue. As Indians we have a very strong differentiation of private and public space in all realms of life. What is private we guard with vigour. What is public we trash with the same zeal.

Thus between the scheming developers, conniving politicians, sell-out architects, and an indifferent citizenry, all we are left with is ugly buildings. It does not help architects that they out-compete each other for jobs and do them for next to nothing. In this scenario, the quality of the product does suffer. As a professor of mine once said “If a Hafeez Contractor building comes up in your neighborhood, buy a flat there and move in, so at least u don’t have to look at ugly architecture outside your window everyday”. That to me sums up the whole issue. Hence, if you are living in one of these buildings, you are a little better off than the ones who don’t.

For a very long time, architecture as a profession was self-taught. There was no formal training till about mid-way in the 19th century. Engineers on the other hand, organized themselves much better and formalized their profession in all aspects, from education to professional accreditations. The first engineering colleges started in the late 17th century. Thus even today, the engineer in India overrules the architect.

The Public Works Department overlooks all government building activities be it roads, railway stations, or government offices. The PWD is headed by an engineer. Need I say more.

It also does not help that we architects are elitist in our attitude. That, many a times leads to alienation among clients and other consultants. We talk about space and form. A client wants to know square foot and cost. An engineer wonders how big a beam is needed to span this “space” we talk about.

And to top it off, we are now losing our very identity. Do a search for architect on any job search engine. All you get is Java Architect, IT Architect, Server Architect. I can speak from personal experience. A friend introduced me to a fellow Indian and IT professional here in New York. When told that I was an architect, the first question he asked me was “which platform”. It took a lot of self-control to not say something I would regret. On similar lines are celebrities and the like who label themselves as interior designers, pushing fashion and fads as trends in design and architecture.

All this leads to a very difficult situation for architects in India and arguably the world over. Situations are not so different the world over. What differs vastly is the public perception of architecture in their lives. Cities and towns in Europe are much more aware in the choices they make in how they look. There is a vigorous public dialogue about what happens in the public domain in these cities.

The US lacks the same awareness found in Europe, but even here every big public project or development has to pass through a very strong media and public scrutiny. It does not always happen the way the public wants it, but at least there is debate and discussion.

Architecture is defined (arguably) as “The Art and Science of the Built-Environment”. It is also spoken of as the mother of all arts.

Today it is getting diluted by other influences. The quote earlier in the article is just an example of how it is happening. If we as architects don’t define our roles in society and in the environment, it wont be long before we get trampled over by everybody who can.

The world today is headed towards an energy crisis. A lot of it has to do with our lifestyles. The way we live and where we live is responsible for the crisis. Architects have to don the role of environmental evangelists to educate the masses.

The way we design buildings and cities and their consumption of energy has to be thought of. Urban sprawl in the US (basically the whole of US) creates a society dependant on cars and hence on gas. Architects have to rethink the whole process and one by one convert the clients and the users into a better way of life.

A wonderful example of how a 2 million sq.ft building in the heart of Manhattan is doing its small bit in saving energy can be seen here.

We need to fight back. The time is now.

For the record I am a practising architect and urban designer, having graduated from Rizvi College of Architecture, Bombay India with a B.Arch and from Pratt Institute with a Masters in Urban Design. Professional experience includes stints in Austria and currently in New York City. I remain deeply rooted and in touch with the architecture practise and movement in India.

6 Comments

  1. Patrix August 5, 2005

    Nice post, Arzan. I can almost sense your frustration 🙂 I went through a similar phase as I transitioned out of architecture (partly) but you are right when you observe that people tend to consider themselves ‘architects’ when they have an ongoing building project in their backyard. At least the doctors can scold their patients by saying, if you don’t listen to me, you will die. We have no such luxury and often aesthetics or in worst cases, function is sacrificed at the altar of subjective taste.

  2. arZan August 5, 2005

    Dilip

    Libeskind is one of my favorite architects. He is iconic in the true sense of the word. The Berlin museum is considered one of the most important projecst of the last decade, and in the top 100 of the century, according to me.

    His WTC project sadly has been embroiled in politics. Having worked on the WTC Urban Design Guidelines and Masterplan in 2002 at my previous employer, we had laid out a cohesive set of guidelines for the rebuilding process. Later the competition was held and 5 architects were invited and asked to come up with a design in 6 weeks.

    This was to coincide with the upcoming NY State elections. Pataki the incumbent NY governor, got a lot of press and credit for getting things done and then the process got lost in political tug of war. The site is leased to a developer and he wanted his own architect, David Childs of Skidmore Owings and Merrill.

    The new design that has been laid out and displayed to the pulic.

    A NYT critic called it

    “The new obelisk-shaped tower, which stands on an enormous 20-story concrete pedestal, evokes a gigantic glass paperweight with a toothpick stuck on top.”

    I blogged on it very briefly over here

    Politicians the world over are the same…SCUM !!!

  3. Dilip D'Souza August 5, 2005

    Thanks for pointing me here, Arzan. I sympathize. I like your characterization of the private/public distinction in India, and calling that a moral issue. It is.

    On a related note, what’s your opinion on Liebeskind? (Also, what’s happening with him and the WTC site?) I saw his Jewish Museum in Berlin a couple of years ago, and was blown away by it. Yet it’s not a beautiful building. Innovative, thought-provoking, yes.

  4. Saba December 16, 2006

    hi!!
    Really true.
    Your article speaks in depth about the phase through which our profession is going through. And hence i think at this point of time social literacy about the importance of architecture and architects is important.

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