Monday, March 03, 2014

Emerging Trends in Architecture

Recently, Sinhgad College of Architecture hosted a National Conference on ‘Emerging Trends in Architecture’. It was argued by many that this is a repetitive theme and a bit too general. Conferences need focus, the critics said, not a motley of all kinds of topics bundled together. To some extend this is true, as discussion on current trends happens  to be a perpetual theme at any given point of time. It is now 20 years since the BBC serial ‘Architecture at Crossroads’, but Architecture has always been at cross-roads since the Industrial Revolution, and even after 200 years of discussion on all the ‘isms’ and debates, we have not so far come out with a lasting definition or purpose of architecture which is universally acceptable.

Trends in architecture reflect the milieu of the society it caters to. In any field of human endeavor, creativity follows the innovations in all relevant fields to find solutions for the problems of the day. The Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton, Eiffel Tower by Gustav Eiffel and bridges by Robert Maillart epitomized the capability of concrete and steel for creative form, opening up the scope of architectural design beyond the classical revivalistic styles. In fact it was the creativity of these engineers which transpired some soul searching for the architectural fraternity, leading to the birth of modern architecture.

Today, we have witnessed all the phases of modern architecture, from the negation of ornament leading to the abstract, rectangular glass box architecture all over the world, to the conscious inclusion of icons and ornamentation to architecture in the name of contextualizing the form. But this contextualization of architecture by invoking the historical forms and ornaments had to come to an end when the supply of historical monuments gave out. De-constructivism was a reaction to all such attempts of historical revival, and it evolved a grammer of complex curvilinear and abstract forms, which have no connection with history, culture or for that matter anything that happened in the name of architecture for all these years.

Environmental issues were sidelined in the architectural design all through these modern movements, and though architects like F. L. Wright did evolve theories like organic architecture, environmental compatibility was never the priority of any of these ‘isms’. Major clientele of the Architecture had always been big business and the government, and that is how the humanistic agenda of the modern movement was hijacked to serve the monuments of 20th century like the World Trade Centre in New York and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

Most of these monuments have one thing in common. The blatant and mind-boggling consumption of energy, making you wonder how the human society survived all these 50,000 years of its existence without electricity. When Sears Tower in Chicago was built in the 70’s, it was the tallest building at the time, built in the form of nine square tubes, curtailed stagewise as it rose to its 110 floor height. It was proudly announced at the time to have had electrical wiring of about 80,000 km. long; enough to wrap around the earth twice.

All this extravagance has not gone unnoticed. Contemporary to the rise of de-constructivism, there is another global movement, which encompasses not only architecture but all the fields of human endeavor, and that is eco-sensitivity - the awareness that the human activities have made a mess with the natural resources for the last 250 years of industrial revolution and that unless we do something about it now, it will lead to the destruction of the eco-system and eventual destruction of all life on earth.

It is this realization that has guided a majority of green movements all over the world. Much before it became a movement in architecture, the green movement was a minority movement led by the environmentalists, and later by social activists. But it was only when the global warming became a reality and effects of pollution like the acid rain started literally hitting people on the head, that everybody took notice, including the politicians, and environment has now become a major political agenda all the world over.

The environmental priorities have surpassed all the other priorities of the world in 21st century. Al Gore talking about the environment may not be surprising, but the priority of the USA under Obama is also about energy independence by use of all non-conventional and renewable resources. California has already declared it would be a zero-carbon state by 2020, and by itself this is a major paradigm shift in one of the biggest consumerist economies of the world.

The UN Agenda for Sustainability, called Agenda 21 is now the agenda for the 21st century. It is not one more philosophy or ‘ism’ of architecture, it is an agenda for survival of the human race, and architecture has to follow suit if we consider ourselves as responsible professionals. LEED & GRIHA certification and compliance to ECBC is not an option now but a mandatory requirement – and it deals with not only the architectural design but includes all aspects of impact of the new development on the eco-system – starting from soil, water supply and drainage & solid waste disposal systems, recycling of water and so on.

Any manufactured product and the process of its manufacturing today needs to confirm to these requirements. As for energy consumption, use of coal and fossil fuel for generation of electricity has now come under scrutiny for its impact on ecology, and the search is on for renewable sources of energy on one hand, and reduction in the use of energy on the other hand.

The architectural fraternity needs to respond to this global aspiration by trying to find ways and means to reduce energy expenditure in buildings, both by using low-embodied energy building materials, and search for solar-passive architectural design solutions to use least energy for the building in use, while making it comfortable for the occupants.

Incidentally, Climate compatible buildings is not a new idea. Vernacular architecture all the world over has demonstrated that it is possible to make a comfortable shelter in any climate with the use of local materials and appropriate built-form. In fact majority of architects in the third world countries have taken cue from this, interpreting the tenets of the modern movement in their own context, making architecture that is compatible not only to their own climates, but also to their culture, lifestyle & resources. The works of stalwarts like Hassan Fathy, Geoffrey Bawa, Charles Correa, Laurie Baker et al, are a testimony to this fact.

The technological innovations in the building industry for the past decade or so, have therefore concentrated on these issues. We have now softwares (developed in the USA, of course!) which can calculate the heating/cooling load of the buildings on the basis of a BIM model and climate data, and suggest an appropriate climate responsive built form and materials. A whole new set of building materials for cladding to manage solar heat gain have evolved, right from specialized glass to ceramics to composites, and microprocessor based control of building facades to regulate the solar light & heat gain. Ken Yeang has demonstrated that vertical landscape not only makes the building climatically comfortable, but also makes it more humane in terms of the psychological impact of natural surroundings in an otherwise concrete jungle of our cities.

The search for architecture in harmony with the ecology is thus the emerging trend today. It was therefore no surprise that the majority of papers we received for the conference were dealing with sustainable approaches in the various aspects of building design and construction, not to mention climate-compatibility and ecological issues related to building services. Whether or not all this brain-storming leads to some changes in the architectural education remains to be seen.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Role of the Architect

One of the favourite myths sustained by the architectural profession is that the Architect is the leader of the team, and the decision-maker for all. This lofty status is based on the CIAM manifestos, and we teach this to all generations of students of architecture as some kind of eternal truth. It is only when a young architect armed with this knowledge starts his own practice, the process of de-learning begins with the shattering of this myth.

Still, an architect may be able to use some of his creativity and sensitivity in designing for an individual client, but when it comes to the urban landscape and the status of the cities we live in, the influence of architects is virtually nil. Indian cities are growing chaotically, almost on a free for all kind of basis, and even the historic cores of most of the cities, which once represented the architectural heritage and urban  character of the old towns, are getting destroyed and being replaced by a hotchpotch of styles without any regard to the context. There is very little that the architectural profession has been able to do about all this in the last sixty years of independence.

I once attended a Regional Convention of the Indian Institute of Architects at Nagpur, in which the theme was whether the Architect was the leader of the Team or just a co-ordinator of all the consultants involved in the execution of the project. The irony was that Mr. B. G. Shirke was the Key-Note-Speaker. Mr. Shrike is well known for his views on architects & architecture, and the least one can say about him is that he is a human being like the rest of us and may be forgiven for his aberrations.

It was easy to predict the outcome of the deliberations in this scenario, and my apprehensions were proved correct when a resolution was drafted to the effect that the Architect should see his role as a co-ordinator in the team of consultants instead of a leader. I was carried away, and talked aggressively against the resolution. Everybody was taken in by surprise by this move, and the resolution was amended.

Looking back, I now think I acted in haste. In the first place, it was a resolution drafted in a conference of architects, and stood very little chance of being implemented anywhere. We do not even remember what resolutions we passed at the last National Convention, leave alone the question of trying to implement any one of them. We have acquired the habit of talking all these problems at our conventions, casually, and forgetting them immediately afterwards. So why bother?

The question is not whether society takes us seriously, but whether we take our role seriously enough. When my old friend Ar. Dilip Sarda became the Chairman of Aurangabad Centre of the Indian Institute of Architects, we were all in great spirits and decided to host an international convention of architects at Aurangabad. As Aurangabad boasts of two World Heritage sites of Ajanta & Ellora, Heritage Conservation was obviously the main agenda of the convention. But the conservation scenario in those days (1996) did not involve any architects, nor was anybody aware of the architect’s role in conservation of heritage. So we put that up as one of the issues when we drafted the document for publication about the convention.

When we were discussing this, a local architect remarked that after having practised at Aurangabad for about 10 years, he had never thought of any contextual relevance in his work, nor has seen any other architect consciously referring to the local historical context in his work. When we are oblivious to so strong an influence of history, living day in and day out in a historic city, we may as well absolve all others who are indifferent to this background.

What I would like to relate here is my experience in the establishing the role of architect in conservation in Aurangabad. It is known (I have purposely not used the term well-known) that Aurangabad has a very old water supply pipeline developed by Malik Amber. The pipes are made out of burnt clay & the system worked on the principle of siphon. Called Nahre-Ambari, the system works well even today, i.e. after 300 years. It is now being exploited for agriculture, wherever it passes through a field, there is no caretaker. The INTACH Centre of Aurangabad had been after the authorities for quite some time to declare it as a national monument. As sensitive professionals we sided with INTACH and tried to make an issue about it. But when we discussed this problem with the authorities, they were surprised at our concern for this and could not understand where do we, the architects, come in.

This is not an isolated case. Aurangabad has many areas of historical significance, and the historical character of these areas is worth conserving. Once, after enough persuasion by INTACH, the IIA Aurangabad Centre decided that we should do something about the historical past of Aurangabad. We framed a proposal on the lines of the Heritage Precincts formed by Mumbai Municipal Corporation, and sought a meeting with AMC officials for implementation. In the meeting, it came out that everybody was concerned about history, but nobody wanted to add on to the existing bye-laws.

Moreover, the officials failed to understand why we were asking for more bye-laws, when the usual complaint of architects was against all the existing bye-laws. So we had to explain that as Architects, we too are concerned about the future of the City & preservation of its past. This was news to them.

Not that there are no other problems. The Municipal Corporation talks all the time about making the city beautiful without thinking of how this is going to be achieved. And for whom we are making it beautiful, anyway? If we are talking about the tourist, we should think of the obvious. The first things a tourist notices about a city are the status and quality of its roads & buildings (the streetscape), public spaces & conveniences, transportation and so on. The beautification of traffic islands is something the tourist may appreciate if it is really worth looking at, but it can never be on his main agenda.

The design of Roads at Aurangabad leaves a lot to be desired. There are no footpaths, no provision for the pedestrians at the traffic signals, which means everybody has to walk on the road. The roads are not fully developed, which creates bottlenecks all over the major roads, and instead of streamlining the traffic, the traffic signals act as traffic jams.

Then of course there are the traffic islands.

Once we (Architects Association of Aurangabad) were asked to design some of the traffic islands, but very few architects came forward to design them as the project cost was small and so the fees. Some of the designs that came up were rejected by the Corporation, and those that were accepted, were not paid for.

Then in a sudden inspiration, the Corporation decided to hand over the job in a turn-key fashion to all those who came forward, first with sponsorships and later at the cost the Corporation. We raised objections but unfortunately, we had no hold in the Corporation when to came to any decision making.

All this resulted in utter chaos. The traffic islands have now become eyesores in the city. Not only that, most are against the norms for traffic islands. This sad state of affairs is now sought be corrected by the Corporation, by breaking up the old construction, and renovating all at additional cost to the public. This is a public issue, one that we should be taking up, but the recognition of our role here will depend entirely on how much noise we can make.

There are many more issues about the city, its tourist potential and the contribution we can make as professionals. But unless we act as a pressure-group, and make our presence felt, we will be leading nowhere. The leadership of the movement and of the city is not gifted to any profession. We will have to work hard to get it. It is only thus we can establish our role as the lead professionals. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Italy Trip Part 2

What struck me as I moved the narrow streets of Florence & Pisa that the towns looked exactly the way they were built a few hundred years ago. I recollect the comment by P. G. Wodehouse describing 'Market Blandings', a fictional village. "Sometime in the early 16th century", Wodehouse writes, "the master mason took down his tools, and said to his mates-'this is Market Blandings', and no one has touched it since." I was wondering whether this was a true state of affairs anywhere, as I have never been to England, and know for a fact that this can not happen in India, but Pisa & Florence have lived up the comment literally.

What is most heartening is that the planners in Italy have not tried to remodel these places on the lines of some hypothetical development norms, the way we try to do in India. When I was a part of the Planning Committee at Aurangabad, the planners told me that the exercise would involve planning amenities for the old city too, based on the population, and also a traffic & transportation planning based on current requirements. The exercise therefore involved earmarking places for schools, hospitals & so on in the already crowded city, and widening of streets in the old city to allow more traffic. The resultant plan paved the way for destruction of the old city - both in form & spirit.

In contrast, the Italian historic cities have tried to accommodate the present day requirements without compromising on the historic character. The streets in Florence are not wide, hence they have devised a network of one-way streets, instead of widening the existing roads. The towns now attract a large amount of tourist traffic, and the earlier houses are converted into hotels. I actually lived in such re-modelled houses in both Pisa & Florence. The conversion was done tastefully, modern amenities like electrification & plumbing was added, all without disturbing the original fabric of the building. If ever there was a demonstration of how you treat your heritage buildings, this was it.

We keep on saying that India has the greatest living heritage, but in practice, hardly any of that sentiment is visible. We need to imbibe some of the spirit of the Italains to do justice to our own heritage at home.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Italy Trip

It was only when I stood in the Piazza of St. Peters that I was reminded of the fact that I was a third world architect, experiencing for the first time the huge scale of architecture of the western civilisation.

Indian architecture, in contrast, tries to bring down the scale, by subdividing the large spaces in small chunks, and detailing them on a still smaller scale. The huge forecourt of Tajmahal, just to quote an example, is sub-divided into four quarters, and then again with the small strip of water running through, with a hard edge and flower beds alonside, it brings down the space to a humane level. So the overall effect is a series of small spaces joined together in a large space, but the hugeness of the larger space is broken by multiple visual elements.

The detailing of the building follows the same pattern. The entire edifice is subdivided in multiple frames, and each frame is again divided by the intricate carved patterns.

In contrast, the scale of St. Peters is intimidating, and unbroken save the huge obelisk in the middle and the two fountains on the side, all of which does not break the space, but enhances the feeling of hugeness of the piazza.

In the structure too, the columns rise to a great height, without any treatment (not even the volutes) and enhance the feeling of hugeness. The decorative motifs are reserved for the base and the capital only, and here again, the base has only the plain mouldings, which is the only treatment at human level, while the capitals are treated with intricate carving, but they are far too distant from the eye level, and even if they reduce the impact of hugeness, and make the assembly seem lightweight, already the distance has its impact, enchancing the feeling of scale.

Standing in the forcourt of St. Peters, I could understand the impact it had on Le Corbusier, and its re-incarnation as the fourecourt of the Chandigad Capital Complex. No wonder then, that there have been umpteen attempts by the Indian architectural fraternity to give it a meaning by subdividing the scale of this court to bring it to a humane level, on the lines of indian monuments - while the monumental scale of such spaces has fascinated western architects and it re-surfaces in its various avtars - be it the Salk Institute or IIM Ahmedabad.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Teaching Design

When Ms. Rashmi Baluja, one of my students from MIT, Aurangabad, and now a design teacher, posted a topic on her facebook page titled "What is the importance of Design in Teaching architecture" I could not resist the urge to reply that Architectural education is all about design. I have very high regards for Rashmi - she was one of my brightest students once, and I could not understand why somebody like her in her right mind should put so obvious a question as a topic for discussion.

I then realised that what is obvious to me may not be so in other peoples' eyes. In fact I have not seen teachers in schools of architecture taking any great effort to relate their subjects to design in any way. So if Design is the core subject in architecture, it is probably only the people who made the syllabus (and, of course, the COA) who know this.

And then there are problem with the teaching of design itself. The problem is that we are trying to convert the process of design exclusively into some kind of craft - by taking up basic design, trying to analyse shapes & forms and so on. I have seen many good teachers engrossed in this, sincerely hoping that they are creating the proper foundation for architectural design. I have seen them later frustated by the fact that none of these exercises translate into architectual design in the third & fourth year.

Why should this happen? Is not architecture about for interesting forms & spaces? We all seem to presume that the students have an innate desire to create beautiful spaces, and our job is only to streamline that. But on an everyday basis, I have seen that the students seem to be totally confused as to what is expected of them in the design studio.

The issue is much deeper than the simplistic thinking done presently. Some of the visiting teachers come to the design studio with an idea that their job is only to comment on what is wrong in the design - as if that would somehow make the student better in design. There are others who discuss only the functional issues and building bye-laws and so on, so much so that in a design studio, all the design solutions eventually develop like variations of a singular theme. And then these same teachers complain that the students do not have any originality.

The third approach, giving space to students and relying on their initiative (an experiment I did in the first few years at MIT) has not worked for me, as most of the students (with many activities outside the college) just loiter around, doing nothing, and then try to finish the job hastily in the last few weeks of the term.

How does one go about solving this issue?

I think we can take a cue from other creative disciplines like art. In an art school, you have to teach the students how to hold a brush, the colour wheel and the history of art and so on - but when it comes to a fresh new subject for a painting, the student will respond by creating exactly what he understands about the world around him.

I was going through a lecture on TED by Thelma Golden, an african-american curator of a museum wherein she described how art expanded her vision of the world - in fact that is the ultimate purpose of art in my opinion.

A creative artist is not somebody who knows how to paint, but also what to paint and to do that he has to interpret the world - and create his version of the world as he understands it. He must know his context and must be able to analyse it and put forward his impressions. This can not happen if the artist lives by himself in a ghetto of his making.

This is exactly what is happening to the students of architecture today. Architectural education has become very costly, not everybody can afford it. Those who do, most probably were sepearted from their fellow beings at the stage of kindergarten, going through a very elite schooling till they came to architecture, and their worldview is limited to what can be seen on the TV & the internet.

I am not blaming anybody here, I am just stating a fact. What we need to do is to give exposure of the real world to all these students - India in fact is a great place when it comes to originality in design. But we need to understand our world and try to interpret it - that is how design originates.
So the stress in the design studio must be on the understanding of the issue by the students and his interpretation in text form - a medium we seem to have forgotten in architecture. But about this I think I should delve in in the next blog.