Architects based in India have not been able to respond effectively to recent events that have negatively impacted the public standing of the profession. This is reflected in two recent events that aroused considerable concern in the profession: the demolition of the Hall of Nations in New Delhi and the way the Government of Andhra Pradesh went about conducting an architectural design competition and subsequent commissioning of an architect for the Capital Complex of the new city of Amaravati. A major obstacle ineffective response is that institutional structures for expressing shared opinions are very weak, and individual voices are relatively powerless. Established institutions, such as Indian Institute of Architects and Council of Architecture, have not developed the internal capacities to offer an effective response. Individual voices or small groups make little difference for larger numbers are needed to muster the weight needed to achieve change.
However, larger numbers by themselves are not sufficient: it is also necessary to ensure that the quality of response is rigorous, critical and clear. This will be difficult to achieve immediately for a critical culture of architecture has not taken root within the profession in India. Whatever journalism exists is recent, the writing is descriptive rather than critical, and often sourced from the architect being covered. There is very little rigorous reflection/writing on history, theory or criticism of architecture. And the track record on conferences or publications predicated on the challenge from scholarly peer review is far from what is desired. Without critical foundations, any response to issues lacks substance and fails to rise above being a desperate plea from architects for an uncritical faith in their abilities.
What are the consequences? In this analysis, the definition of ‘criticism’ that would guide a critical culture of architecture is taken from this statement of Alan Colquhoun:
“Criticism occupies the no-man’s-land between enthusiasm and doubt, between poetic sympathy and analysis. Its purpose is not, except in rare cases, either to eulogise or condemn, and it can never grasp the essence of the work it discusses. It must try to get behind the work’s apparent originality and expose its ideological framework without turning it into a mere tautology.”1
This would imply the following:
- While the disciplinary autonomy of architecture must be acknowledged and allowed, one must realise that this autonomy does not operate in isolation for it is shaped by the ideological recognition granted by architecture to its context. The primary purpose of a critical culture is to continuously, rigorously and constructively critique this ideological recognition.
- The failure to achieve critical culture results in the profession taking on the following characteristics (as perceived by architects as well as the public):
- The cutting edge of innovation in the profession is assigned to a small personality cult of creative heroes who provoke superficial fashion-driven emulation by their followers.
- Judgment in architecture tends to be based on the appeal of visual spectacle, rather than how it enriches cultures of inhabitation.
- The bulk of architectural production is non-critical: a situation where architects are perceived as instrumental agents for the execution of projects, rather than as critical agents whose work is a crucial contribution to the spatial organization of society. This instrumental agency of the architect is evaluated in terms of the power it wields and is therefore often relegated to a status below that of regulators, financiers and project managers.
- The profession fails to recognise that a non-critical position of neutrality is not available: the quest for such a position is tantamount to a tacit endorsement of the status quo.
- The profession, as a whole, fails to offer society what it should offer.
Everything is not lost: there are many architects in the country who do possess a critical sensibility that finds its way into qualitatively high expression in practice or theoretical research. But they operate largely as individual voices who do not resonate with each other at a scale that can make a difference. The challenge of achieving that resonance is what this proposal is aimed at. The effort is unlikely to go far if it requires large investment in institution building. To be effective, it must adopt guerilla tactics, seed its way into existing institutional arrangements, and spread a critical culture through viral appeal. The proposal is listed below under the following headings: (a) Proposal; (b) Impact; (c) Financial Investment; and (d) Organisation
This proposal has the following components:
- Select 100 architects (an easily realizable number) in the country who are recognised for the critical and creative sensibilities that imbue their work. Each architect must be willing to make a pro-bono contribution of three days every alternate year to visit an architecture school (two days in the school, and one day allowed for travel).
- Select 25 colleges (also an easily realizable number) spread geographically across the country where the quality of teaching and discussion is above average. Each college must be willing to host one two-day event in a year. The constituency for whom the event is organized is the students, but will not be restricted to the students of the host college: each college must commit to involving at least six more colleges in the region.
- Two from the list of selected architects shall be the special guests for each event, and the event will consist of the following:
- Review of selected student work (each college shall run its own selection process).
- Lectures by the visiting architects to share their work, where each architect is required to act as a critical response to the work of the other architect.
- A panel discussion on an issue that is important to the development of the region where the event is hosted. This should be a public event that is not limited to the colleges involved.
- Control of the organization of the event should vest with the students of the host college. This effort will be supported by the curatorial advice of one of the visiting architects. There should also be logistical support from one (or more) faculty members of the host college.
- Every event must be documented by the organising committee of students. Documentation shall consist of:
- Images of student work
- Videos of lecture and panel discussion (a YouTube channel can be created for sharing this).
- A short commentary on the entire event (1000 words) from the organising committee of students.
- A short commentary on the entire event (1000words) from visiting architects.
- By circulating best practices on architectural thinking and production, and making such best practices accessible to student communities across the country, it is hoped that, as this set of events takes root over two to three years, the overall level of discussion and thinking on architecture will get raised. This should help seed a critical culture of architecture.
- As this takes root, the numbers of participating architects and colleges can be raised.
- The event can be also open to professionals in the region.
C. FINANCIAL INVESTMENT
- A nominal registration fee (Rs. 500?) should be charged for participating students and from participating professionals (Rs. 2000?). This should cover a part of the organisational costs of holding the event.
- Beyond what is raised from registration, for the purposes of discussion let us assume the additional cost for organising the event and the travel/stay of participating architects amounts to about Rs. 3 lakhs per event. This entails a budget of Rs. 75 lakhs per year (some more detailed analysis is needed to validate this calculation).
- Funding can be obtained from one or a combination of the following sources:
- Government support
- Charitable foundations
- Corporate sponsorship for events
- Contributions from participating institutions
- An organisation will be needed to run this initiative.
- The role of this organisation will be to:
- Select and obtain commitments from participating architects
- Select and obtain commitments for participating institutions
- Curatorial review of events
- Planning and logistics of dates of events and assignment of architects to events.
- This can initially be set up as a non-profit trust headed by some architects who are interested in supporting the effort.
- It is assumed that this will not entail any significant costs, participating architects will offer their own offices as resources to run the organisation for the first few years. The collaboration will be web-based.
- Over time, if this is very successful, funding for running a full-time secretariat must be raised.
Bangalore, 09 April 2018
- 1. Alan Colquhoun, Essays in Architectural Criticism: Modern Architecture and Historical Change (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981), p. 169.