Architecture education: what is wrong?

Preface: The following write up can be rejected at the very start as a ranting of an escapist nevertheless I would enjoy my right to write. To say that nothing is wrong is negligence at its peak. There is a great hue and cry over ever expanding gap between architectural practice and architectural education, the quality of architects being produced is being questioned too. As a student of architecture here are some of my observations.

पत्थर की दीवार और लकड़ी की चौखट थी ना जाने कहाँ से तस्वीर उभर आयी
पत्थर की दीवार और लकड़ी की चौखट थी ना जाने कहाँ से तस्वीर उभर आयी

1. Can design really be taught? A rather rhetorical answer is no, but the mere existence of countless institutions stands testimony to the fact that yes it can be taught.

2. Liberty is the guiding principle of design and it must be. But do institutions imparting design education follow that principle?

3. What do I mean when I say liberty? Liberty to choose; courses, projects and if possible people. Can’t I design my own course in a standardized framework? The reason why this is important is simple, at the end it is expected, if not self-consciously that the work you do should be an expression of individuality, so why not in education?

4. Architecture and design are very dynamic in nature, how can design education be stagnant? And we have the same courses, under the same syllabus for years together.

5. Innovation is the heart of architecture, where is the innovation in education? Though I like the sound of Introduction to the architecture or theory of design or building science, but I wouldn’t mind meaningful yet crazy things such as LEGO 101 or interlocking building blocks 201 or advanced study in energy efficiency.

6. Coming back to liberty, once we get into discussing the core courses of architecture, where is the liberty to design? After crossing the threshold of functionality, design is very much subjective. Educators need to understand this in theory and practice.

7. The growing gap between education and the profession is a matter of great concern. Though many educators are professionals themselves yet the gap only widens. I interned with 4 other people from different colleges in the same offices, within weeks all 5 came to the conclusion that “college mein kuch nahi sikhaya”. This clearly indicates that this isn’t the story of just one college or one student.

8. An immediate remedy, till the time more pondering is done, is to create a course on construction practice, which is just one day of site visit each week for the entire duration of 5 years. And it is very important that this course must not be linked to other courses. Yea, a seemingly logical step would be to learn about RCC slabs in the studio and then go see it on the site. This is another traditional approach which has not yielded the results. It would be better that you go and observe things at the site and wait for the studio in which the details would be taught. The element of curiosity is very important. There is no learning without curiosity.

9. As Charles Correa says, architecture is not created in a vacuum. Buildings are made of materials, understanding of materials is important. The theoretical construction material subject isn’t helping much. Understanding of material doesn’t come from the numbers that tell the strength, elasticity and other properties, it comes from understanding the creation of the material, the designing of materials. Education needs to cater to these two aspects of understanding building materials.

It is time that we shake the foundations of architectural education and bring the innovation back to education.

PS: I have not included the already expected answers to these questions such as giving more importance to internships, organizing more guest lectures by professionals and other things. I have tried to avoid talking about the teacher as an individual here, I can go on to lengths talking about it but, it is difficult to replace teachers in the system than changing the system.

The missed lesson

A missed lesson at school or college wouldn’t make much difference to your life. Rather more you miss, more you learn, because you get to see the world outside the classroom. The world is the true laboratory of learning, learning that comes from people, learning that comes from experiences. Remember the old man with a stick? He has got much more to teach you than those Ph.D professors. The old man is none other than your grandfather. I have been fortunate to learn enough from my father and I continue to learn from him, what I miss is the old man. We didn’t stay with our grandparents; the only glimpse of my grandfather was a few days in the summer holidays. Before I could get over the image of his as the head of the family, a person of authority and a person of discipline, he was no more. I never got to learn anything from him; I never got to hear his stories. My father was born in the sixties so the stories that he has got begin in the late 70s. I miss that bit of history of my family from the 30s-70s, the days of the British Raj, the struggle for Independence, the free India and more importantly the childhood of my father from the perspective that he himself isn’t aware of. Though I am very fortunate to be born with privileges that most people in the world do not get, but I am not lucky enough to know what a grandmother is, she passed away before I could see the light of the world. I don’t remember my time with my grandfather much, what I do remember are just a handful of things that he did. He used to eat his food in a fashion that was unique to him; his arm would be aligned to the surface of the table, with the elbow projecting out. In winters he would always have a vacuum flask with warm water, he would never drink normal water in the winter. In the not so old days earthen pots would quench the thirst, now those pots have almost been taken over by the PET bottles in the refrigerator. He would keep a small container of water with a small cup near the earthen vessel and everybody was supposed to wash their hands with that water before pouring out water from the pot. He would yell if somebody missed cleaning their hands. Organization and hygiene were his way of life. Papa often tells me about him, usually it’s about the modern/reformist of a person that he was. I spent my time playing with my cousins while he would be retiring in his room, at times I feel miserable to have missed his story, to have missed the lesson that he must have had for me. I wanted to know about politics, about social customs, religion, education and what not. He is not there, nor are the stories, what is there is a young man who has warm water in winters, a sub conscious memory that he has of his grandfather.

Many of you are fortunate to have grandparents alive and living with you, spend time with them, engage them into stories and experiences and engage into learning. They have what would take a lifetime for you to acquire. Don’t let them live a secluded life. And for me, I live on stories that I overhear from elderly people in the local trains.

Teacher-bashing

This afternoon I accidentally discovered a grammatical mistake committed by my middle school English teacher. I say accidentally because it had been lying there on a social networking site for almost a year now, and funnily I have graduated from school 4 years ago. The teacher in question was the disciplinarian of the school, what more could I want? The kid in me wanted to grab the opportunity of teacher-bashing instantaneously, but the ‘mature’ person in me was confused. Though I must have ignored 1000 such errors in the past, I may even continue to do so in the future, and it must have been a typo or reluctance on the end of the teacher, yet I could not ignore it. An insignificant error made way for an intellectual debate in my head. Why was it such a big deal to correct a teacher on a social media platform? Wouldn’t we look forward to such opportunities as kids? Weren’t we taught to stand by what is right?

A lame thing became a moral dilemma. I consulted two of my friends on this, a person whom I went to school with and another friend from outside the school. It would be disrespectful, humiliating, it would be rude, just let go, were the suggestions that I got. I am neither a “grammar nazi” nor the most righteous one. I have committed my share of sins too. Maybe I was raising rhetorical questions to cover up my innate desire of teacher bashing, may be…

The truth is, there is no truth. What the society tells you is the truth and then there is the absolute truth, the one which is unquestionable, the one which is not open to interpretation. Absolute truth is I have been and would continue to be a hater of the current education system.

Teaching and parenting are the two things that truly shape the world. I have great respect for parents and good teachers; the only thing that disturbs me is that these institutions have been watertight. Why can’t I challenge (I choose challenge over question) these? I may be wrong, and I would love to be wrong, but if I get a response I would learn a lot, and that would be the true learning, and that would make education meaningful.

One last question, isn’t a student who learnt his lesson well the best gift of a teacher?
I wrote this note as a mark of gratitude and a proof that I learnt my lesson well. I express a sincere apology for doing that.

Architects are sexy reloaded

Disclaimer:
Any resemblance to a person who has travelled on board the Indigo 6e217 on seat 27D on 10/04/14 is purely intentional.

On the evening of 10/04 I boarded the 6e218 to Jaipur seated at 27A, the flight and the flight crew are another story for some other day. Our hero for the day, let’s call him Mr X arrived and seated conveniently on 27D which is an aisle seat. At this time an uncle in late 40s came with her daughter to occupy the seats next to me, he gave me an interrogative look and decided that he should take the middle seat and let her daughter who clearly was my age, take the aisle seat. I understood the psyche and had a laugh. During the course of the flight we shared a few jokes and the uncle must have realised that I am not the bad guy after all. So here we are, 27 A to D occupied and the rest of the plane was almost full too. Getting back to Mr X, he was a man almost 25, fairly well built and just like any other man of that age, he must have been hoping for two young female passengers to be seated next to him since the other woman across the aisle (uncle’s daughter) was not so interesting. Mr X had two books and a couple of loose sheets in his hands. Pretending to be occupied, he was flipping through pages and referring to the loose sheets, jotting down something on them and scratching his head. The important thing to note was that he was using a pencil instead of a pen and the good thing about pencils is that they reveal identities. The sheet that he was referring to was an A3 with a couple folded A1s piled underneath. A1, A3, pencils give you a fair what the person is, yes, he was an architect. That’s how it was, an architect on 27D and an architecture student on 27A. And then there they were, the co-passengers of Ar. X, an elderly couple to occupy 27 E and 27 F, who dozed off before anybody could care. It must have been a major heart burn for X the architect. The books were basically furniture catalogues for office furniture; going by the fancy packaging of the books I can safely say that it was some good brand. So yes, it can be deduced that he was selecting furniture for various areas of an office project. All well and good, he managed to impress an onlooking student of architecture. As soon as the elderly people came over, he closed the book and began folding the drawing in disbelief and discontent, and he must have cursed whatever gods that may be, for he wasn’t the master of his fate. Nevertheless, he got up to reach a handbag that he had kept in the overhead storage and pulled out a set of fancy pencils, maybe they were supposed to bring good luck. Ar. X then jumped over to the 26th row, which was vacant till then (for some reasons the boarding and take off took 55 minutes that day). I failed to notice who his new co-passengers were but I managed to get a sneak pick of the A3, and shockingly it was an elevation of a small residence (G+1). I didn’t miss to notice the Autodesk educational stamp (unlicensed software) on the drawing. And there he was, a man who must have taken the article about architects being sexy, doing the rounds of social media, too seriously. I realized that one seat remains vacant and the other was occupied by another male passenger, so now he shifted his focus to the air hostesses, which was just another futile attempt. He came back to his original seat and was just waiting for the plane to land now. He kept the drawings in his bag (Oh btw Ar. X, the red trolley bag was an ugly piece of design in itself). Now, after the landing area. X gave wooing girls a last shot, he pulled out a small leather bag and kept the pencil set in the bag, the pretense was clear. What was wrong/ noticeable there? Well the bag was a Louis Vuitton (or a copy which was unlikely since his watch was a fine piece of jewelry). How did I find that the bag was an LV? Let’s say, I just did.
When hard luck strikes, it strikes hard, no girls to pull a conversation with in two different rows, unimpressed air hostesses and a crazy maniac who saw all this and brought it to the domain of social media.

End note:
Mr. X if you were indeed doing what I assume you were, on behalf of the entire fraternity (if not community) I take the immense pleasure to disown you. And in the very unlikely event of the reality being different, I would say 4th strike of hard luck.

PS: This article has been written on board Indigo 6e218 (my return flight) seated in a vacant row.

महफूज़

ज़िन्दगी के झमेलों में,
9 से 5 के खेलों में,
आवाज़ महफूज़ है ख़ामोशी में |
ख़ुशी जहाँ बंद है किश्तों में,
रोज़ बनते बिगड़ते रिश्तों में,
मोहब्बत महफूज़ है तन्हाई में |
करारे नोटों की चमक में,
बड़े नामों की दमक में,
ज़िन्दगी महफूज़ है अंधेरों में |

पुलकित

Open letter to Daniel Libeskind

Revered sir,

Some 3.5 years ago I chose to take up architecture as the course of my study if not a profession. I joined the school with enthusiasm and a unique fascination for the field, but with the passage of time the curiosity and excitement dwindled and started fading away. And to the best I have observed it is not the problem with architecture, but the state of architecture education here. I started questioning whether to continue or not, it was in those days of despair that a miracle happened. We had a rendezvous with the Jewish History Museum in Berlin as a part of the history of the architecture curriculum. Though physically the rendezvous was limited to a video lecture but in reality it went deep inside. That building is something that reinstates the lost faith. That building is something that brings pride to be associated with architecture. That building inspires awe. That building stirs the soul. That building gives meaning to architecture. I have read that Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, inspired generations of young minds to get trained as architects (though I haven’t read the book myself), then this museum in Berlin probably sustained generations of frustrated students of architecture.

We have been made to believe that architecture is about designing spaces keeping in mind the needs of the occupants/users. It may not be true or even logical but after coming across this masterpiece I sense that beyond ‘designing for the needs’ architecture is also about ‘designing the needs’. But once that realization happens, the mind doesn’t just stop there. I went through the video once again and saw the grand thing, that moment was the moment of zen, the building almost made the needs seem insignificant, needs are for lesser mortals. This building talks to the visitors on an entirely different plane and the grandness of this conversation is marvelous. The building is like the earth and the person like a dot on it. This exemplifies the scale that architecture could achieve in a socio-cultural and spiritual setup.

The building questions what architecture is and simultaneously answers what it needs to be. It underlines that stories are a finely woven fabric of the tangible and the intangible. And architecture needs to tell that story. Maybe nobody can ever feel what life of a Jew could be in the 20th century Germany, but this is the closest that one could ever get. The name may fade away with time, but the building would remain there, etched in the memories of the people who knowingly or unknowingly became a part of the story. Architecture teaches us to question, to question constantly, but this once as Pablo Neruda had said “For once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language”. Honestly, I haven’t studied any other work of yours, I didn’t even try and I don’t wish to do so in the near future either. The image of this building is so powerful and moving that I do not wish to raise any questions, I do not wish to know a Daniel Libeskind other than the one who designed just this building. Maybe I am a bad student of architecture, but that’s okay. The sheer thought of walking on steel skulls send a chill up the spine. I can ignore all the reality and stay in the space-time warp that this building has created.

The museum, for me stands at the end of the illuminated path of architecture. It is only this destination that gets me walking on the path.

Devotedly yours,
Pulkit