Ashish Ganju and A.G.K. Menon on the problem with the architecture profession

Ashish Ganju and A.G.K. Menon on the problem with the architecture profession

The architectural profession has approached a crossroads in its development in India, and the direction it now chooses will determine both its effectiveness in serving society and the validity of its future existence. In this respect, the profession must take the initiative in considering the relevant factors concerning its future options, rather than have them forced upon it through necessity or expediency. These factors have either been ignored or have only been considered in a haphazard and piecemeal manner for too long and, thus, they have had no perceptible impact on the profession to date. - Ashish Ganju, A.G.K. Menon
Ashish Ganju and A.G.K. Menon on the problem with the architecture profession

Ganju, M N Ashish and Menon, A G K. “The Problem” in The Architect in India: a Symposium on the New Disciplines of a Profession, Seminar (India) Magazine; vol 180. New Delhi, India: Seminar Publications, 1974. 

Ashish Ganju and A.G.K. Menon on the problem with the architecture profession

The problems of the profession can be considered under three broad, but overlapping categories. 

1) The problem of the architect’s self-perception and the definition of his role as a professional. 

2) The problems of developing a rational base for the profession (or the role of the profession in terms of overall social needs)

3) The problem of the level of technology to be aimed at to meet the needs of development. 

Any reform begins at home. In the case of the architect, we must begin by examining what he thinks of himself and how he relates to society before considering the efficacy of his work. 

There are two aspects to this issue. Firstly, in order to become aware of how the architects view themselves, it is necessary to identify the cultural and symbolic fixes which dominate their thinking. And, second, we must consider the concept of professionalism which, either through commission or omission, governs his activities. 

Any discussion on the cultural and symbolic fixes in the minds of the Indian architect would pivot around the building of Chandigarh in the 1950s. Architectural thinking before this time was dominated by ideas received second-hand from British administrators. We were very much out of touch with progressive thinking taking place in the rest of the world. The most significant architectural exercise in India during the first half of this century was the building of Imperial Delhi. And this exercise was an amazing anachronism for, while in Europe ideas on architecture and the plastic arts were undergoing a revolution, the design of New Delhi by Sir Edwin Lutyens was a masterpiece in 

High Renaissance architecture was the result of a way of thinking typical of the early nineteenth century in Europe. (This exercise in cultural chauvinism generated such reactionary ideals amongst the ‘brown Sahibs’ that they still yearn for ‘Indian’ or ‘Dravidian’ styles of contemporary architecture). Lutyens had by passed the cultural and technological changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the consequent changes in design thinking which led to the 1920s in Europe is called the ‘Heroic Period of Modern Architecture. 

These ideas of the Heroic Period were to come to India but not unit 1950 when Le Corbusier was commissioned to design the new capital city for the State of Punjab. Le Corbusier had been one of the leading figures in the architectural revolution in unable to utilize their talents to any significant extent, and the majority of the country’s population is excluded from contact with them. 

Ideally, a profession establishes a set of codes to regulate the conduct of its members in order to ensure a good standard of service. As already mentioned, the concept of professionalism prevalent today relates back to the values set down by the R.I.B.A. in Victorian England. This concept was based upon the implicit altruism of the architect in managing the interests of his clients and, today, this is still supposed to form the foundations of the architect/client relationship. 

The legitimacy of this concept has been rarely valid in India not only because of its lack of social validity but also because of the nature of the country’s economic under-development. Civil contractors, civil engineers, and sometimes even laymen perform the services of the architect, and anything extra that the architect can put into a project is considered non-commensurate with the fee he is expected to charge. With his very identity in question, the architect in India generally becomes an avaricious businessman, governed by the ethics and morals of a severely stringent and competitive marketplace. This again leads to a conflict with the National Process. 

While society at large is working towards socialistic goals the profession is rooted in commercial practices based on a distorted capitalistic system. It should be noted here that the country’s huge black money economy finds a substantial outlet in the building industry and the architect is, at best, an unwitting accomplice. 

Let us consider some of the external forces affecting the work of the architect. The most significant architectural resources are expended on a few prestigious projects, either private or governmental. The people who employ private architects are generally moneyed individuals, private corporations, or semi-government corporations who expect their buildings to be not just functional but also a conspicuous expression of their wealth or power. (In government projects, the values imputed are generally those of concerned ministers or senior officials who can be quite irrelevant in the architectural expression). 

The architects serving the majority needs are, perforce, the middle and lower-echelon government architects who have their own problems to cope with. They are hampered most often by two factors—most projects are run under the overall authority of engineers, (a peculiar distortion of architectural practice introduced during the British rule when there was a great shortage of architects, in the modern sense of the term) and the fact that promotion and, therefore, responsibility, is governed by the number of years of service; a condition which is bound to suppress initiative and talent. The majority of the population is thus excluded from real contact with the architects. 

And the majority of problems such as the problem of mass housing are really outside the grasp of the average architect. 

It is apparent that the profession is not really geared to even thinking about environmental problems of any magnitude and fundamental importance. What can be a relevant rational base for the architectural profession in India today? 

At present, we are ordering our priorities on a design method that emphasises architectural form and visual drama. Thus, while we have easily absorbed and emulated Le Corbusier’s lessons in the handling of architectural and urban space, we have failed to evaluate the impact of these ideas on our lifestyle and societal aspirations. 

This tangential development in the profession is rooted in our educational system where the gathering of data and the articulation of the problem (as opposed to the solution) find little mention in the curricula. No wonder, therefore, that economics, sociology, psychology and technology (except in the form of elementary structural mechanics) are seldom reflected in our architecture. The rapid increase in industrialization, the great expansion of urban centres, the green revolution in the countryside, and the accompanying environmental, social and political changes are situations which, we feel, the architectural community in the country has not equipped itself to face seriously. 

Who can inspire and re-orient the never increasing number of architects in the country? It has to be they themselves—by opening their minds afresh to their own immediate environment and seeking their design parameters in the cultural milieu of their own community. The schools have to rise out of their stagnation to become arenas for the exchange of relevant information and Europe in the 1920s and 30s, and the design of Chandigarh was his largest and most ambitious project. The impact of Corbusier, a giant among the architectural thinkers of Europe, was bound to be tremendous on the nascent architectural community in India. Chandigarh became the first major fix on the modern architectural scene here. At the same time, the tendency among the Indian intelligentsia to seek higher education and cultural inspiration from Europe and, later, the U.S.A. was becoming widespread. Thus a pattern was established. The Indian architectural community took its direct inspiration from ideas developed in the Western world.

During the 1960s, these Western-oriented architects attained commanding positions in the profession, both as teachers and as practitioners. They taught and practised what they had absorbed in the West ten or fifteen years previously, keeping up as best they could with subsequent developments in the countries that were their source of inspiration. It is important to note here that, while India in this period was undergoing tremendous social changes, these architects who now dominated the profession were out of touch with what was going on there. Their eyes and minds looked elsewhere; and, sadly, their ideas were also becoming obsolete by Western standards because they were outside the quickly evolving Western milieu. With these cultural and symbolic fixes of the Indian architect in mind, it is relevant to speculate why he, unlike say the Indian economist or the Indian lawyer, has not tried to come to terms with his country’s larger cultural and symbolic milestones. In another sense, of course, he has come to terms with them, for he rejects them, and here lies the source of the architectural community’s problems in society. As a consequence, both society and the profession suffer.

The second aspect of the problem of the architect’s self-perception is the concept of professionalism. Here, again, we have inherited a British legacy that originated amongst the values and mores of Victorian England when the Royal Institute of British Architects established a code of conduct to derive and maintain the legitimacy of the role of architects. In India, where clan and caste ties have always been predominant, sociologists point out that the very consciousness of professionalism has never taken root. 

Since this institution of architectural professionalism does not strike a responsive chord in our society, architects have been unable to form an effective pressure group that would enable them to create the controlled conditions necessary to perform their services in the manner envisaged by the concept of professionalism. Much of the frustration of individuals and collective groups of architects arises from the fact that they do not possess any power to express or implement their ideas. In any form of government, pressure groups articulate and effectuate the policy and, if the architects are unable to form an effective pressure group, they will continue to be misrepresented, underutilized, and generally castrated. 

This leads to a conflict with the National Process, for while the need for good architecture and architects is enormous, we are places for constructing models concerned with the life of the real people around them. This is not to say that we adopt a totally nationalistic stand, but a high priority should be given to legitimizing the image of the architect in the eyes of his immediate society. 

We have seen from the preceding analysis how the internal forces acting on the minds of architects have alienated them from the realities of the Indian scene, and how the external forces acting on the profession as a whole have reduced its legitimacy in the eyes of society. These two factors combine to generate a certain confusion in the language of architecture at the level of techniques that are available for solving specific problems. 

The lessons from the West have pointed towards the efficacy of increasing industrialism and the consequent sophistication of technology—greater mechanization, development and use of synthetic materials, and an accelerated program of building to generate economies of scale. There is a danger of this becoming yet another fix in the minds of Indian architects, who, while being unable to recreate the new technology here are, nevertheless, fascinated by the new imagery. The most obvious example of this tendency would be some of the major permanent structures built for the recent Trade Fair in New Delhi.

The issue is, should the profession seek technologically oriented solutions to the architectural problems of the environment or should it find a more manpower-intensive and indigenous level-of-technology approach? Is it possible that a number of the more difficult environmental problems may require solutions that are more social than technological? 

At a smaller scale of thinking, if we look in detail at what is happening in the building business, we see that there is a great deal of attention being given to the building envelope, while there is no corresponding attention being given to the servicing system required in buildings and on the building site. It is very difficult to find well-qualified and creatively inclined people to tackle the problems of mechanical servicing, public health and sanitary engineering, and quantity surveying. 

Surely, a fascination for plastic expression and visual appearance without being backed by efficient and maintainable servicing systems will not produce buildings that are pleasant to live in. This sort of thinking will only ensure that the building industry stays backwards and that the architects remain unable to provide a real direction and impetus to innovation. 

Another aspect of technology almost totally ignored by the architects is the subject of building materials. In India, today there are shortages of even traditional building materials like bricks, tiles and timber, besides the well-publicized, near scarcity of cement and steel. A great amount of research is being conducted to make available new and substitute materials by converting industrial and agricultural waste into useful building materials and to develop and propagate more economical building construction techniques. The architects and builders will need to change their conformist attitudes and the conventional building codes will need to be amended before the new technology can be harnessed for the welfare of society. Are the results of the researchers impractical or are the architects unmotivated to use them? Can the architect break this vicious circle by bringing these and the broader aspects of technology within the ambit of his concerns? 

These are only a few of the problems which need to be resolved in order that architects and the building industry can seriously take up the challenge of development. 

We have attempted to define some of the parameters governing the future development of the profession. It is apparent that while the need for shelter continues to increase, the architectural profession in its present state is unable to fulfil this need. We are beginning to realize that the traditional concerns of architects now need to be enlarged. It is necessary to work closely with a number of other disciplines so that our problems can be seen in a more realistic and open framework. 

We believe that it is only after setting up this dialogue, in which thinkers from the arts and social sciences, as well as those from the environmental sciences, can freely participate, a new method of structuring the architectural profession would emerge and architects could then hope to have a relevant role in society.

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