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Is Academic Potential A Practical Constraint? – Harshad Bhatia

The inquiry by Harshad Bhatia delves into the potential of academic projects being implemented in reality.
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In Mumbai, come last fortnight of April 2023 and the graduating student of Architecture presents an individual design project to a jury for assessment. This jury comprises of practicing and teaching professionals, with a reputed background into the criteria and evaluation of such project work. The student designs a project in an individual capacity, with an internally appointed, able guide from the teaching faculty. This is the subject of “Design Dissertation” which is pursued through the last 2 semesters in the fifth & final year for the B. Arch. Degree course.

A selected project is generally directed towards its relevance and design input in the context of time for each batch of students. It is not new to find that some students select a subject first and then arrive at the site location in an appropriate manner known as ‘site selection’. It is also possible that many students have specific redevelopment projects, which focus on an existing site like a Railway Station and its surroundings and deal with the situation of resolving conflicts in the urban environment.

The process of such an important subject stretching over a period of one year, includes an intense involvement in the project and is similar to a Thesis. The seriousness with which each student attempts his design is evident in the presentation before the jury. Every year, on the fateful day of decision by the jury, the work is laid out in the college building in its most public spaces like corridors strewn with models and studios being occupied with the drawing sheets. Though the viva voce is a closed door examination, this day of an “external jury”, as it is called, is a major internal event for the institution.

However, it is also a day when one can see the creative future potential in terms of design ability and expression. It is a moment of awe and envy for many when the work is displayed in the form of models of contemporary designs of buildings, landscapes, sites and details. From Airport terminals, cultural complexes, promotional centers, commercial node redevelopment, archaeological site protection and restoration schemes and so on to prisons, orphanages, homes for the aged and such projects, the gamut of a public project is visible in one glance.

A serious look at all the effort and work put in by these young, to-be architects, designers of the built environment, makes the contemporary urban scene outside the college campus feel abashed. For the creativity in these academic design dissertation projects becomes apparently visible. And reality of the urban environment outside seems to have lost that spark then.

For example, is a public building to speak its language of expression or just resemble another multi-story residential apartment in the far off suburb of Mumbai? Or vice versa? Why is it that the creativity unleashed by these young minds terminates after the graduation level?

It is time that the city’s urban environment was given another look. A sight at the creative potential in our young designers. The city of Mumbai for the moment needs that exposure to raise awareness of the possibilities of creative potential. It has to achieve a clarity and sense of purpose in its built expression of contemporary design.

As a matter of fact, none of the projects undergoing the rigorous jury are displayed for the public eye later. Rarely does a work get a mention in the popular press or other media, thereby shutting its future from the city’s sight. Do the people, the citizens’ even know what the possibilities of design in today’s environment are?

After the assessment, most of the models, drawing portfolios and reports are locked away into a storage area in the home of the student. The loft above a toilet in a modern apartment is large enough to accommodate the model for sure.

How frequently can it be retrieved for view if required when kept in such a location? A center for displaying and viewing such work has to be setup in the city. Is it asking for too much in metropolitan Mumbai, which has maximum colleges of architecture (for any city in India), to provide a place for contemporary creative design? Open for view to all.

If only the city-based projects are selected, the space required would be less. The MMRDA, MCGM, CIDCO and other such local bodies should provide such galleries within their large public buildings. In the context of the work, it should be seen, irrespective of the merits of assessment, in sheer quantum of the different types and complexity of projects in an urban milieu and their quality to better the environment. The need for such exposure of architectural design to the people is absolute. Walk in to an institution during the jury date and delight in a miniature settlement of sorts spreading out with architectural models in its corridors and verandahs.

Citing examples of student’s projects, if Andheri, Borivli and Kalyan Railway Stations have to be redeveloped, then the dissertation schemes can be relied upon to formulate the program of requirements and the design possibilities. Likewise, new schemes such as the Babasaheb Ambedkar memorial on the west coast, or a proposal to develop a toll plaza, an intermodal transport terminus are also types of dissertation projects that can benefit with global case studies and arriving at design options in the local context.

Another interesting aspect that these dissertation projects delve into is the urban realm. Students are not restrained to conventionally begin with tangible approaches. In the growing awareness of an architect’s role with social responsibility, there are projects which look at current affairs, climate change, new technology, waste management, conservation, community welfare and such traits in a primary sense. Awareness of these for public is vital if we are to set our priorities towards an inevitably sustainable and social development in times to come.

At the end of this argument it may just be written off by stating that student’s work is not practical as it ignores the aspect of economy. But if economy is the criteria then what is being designed for our public buildings is never appraised by the public on its cost and comparative appeal. One wonders about the state of contemporary architecture in a metropolis like Mumbai, and cries over the fate of the creativity of these designers in the same breath.

Lest we forget, those graduating in 2023 would have been born in the 21st century. They shall live most of it, more than the 20th century born citizens. In this era of rapid change and dependency on the new technology, with parametric design, BIM, augmented reality, 3D printing etc already influencing the construction industry, and AI making inroads, their time is come. This will be the first batch of 21st century born graduating as architects. It is astute for the local bodies to give space and showcase their academic potential. Else, the city of Mumbai, which has a Regulation to protect its past will forsake awareness of the present and therefore be lost of the today that Mumbai needs to express to the future generations.

7 Responses

  1. All this work stays within the walls of a college and a profession. I have been advocating to each college I go please adopt an area around you and work to connect listen and help in improving both the physical environment and the connect with what architects can do. But then we all are happy in our silos.

  2. College archives are a wonderful source of unbuilt projects. The new generation of students do such intensive research and the output can be seen in the quality and choice of their final year projects.
    At my institute in Pune, we have set up a space to permanently display such work. It shows the students that atleast as teachers we value and cherish their ideas and work.
    When such thoughts come from eminent architect and academic Harshad Bhatia sir, everyone will take cognisance of the same.
    I hope Sir that the city of Mumbai takes the initiative and include the thoughts of the generation of the future. A very timely and apt article Sir.

  3. So well said Harshad sir. Yes , if the projects are showcased, students too will be motivated to do more realistic projects, not that they don’t. But them knowing that there will be a public viewing and chance of the project/ideas getting shortlisted for some live projects, will bring lot of encouragement. And as rightly mentioned by you, there is immense potential in so many students graduating every year to help government in bringing new and futuristic ideas to the ever-growing needs of the city/villages.

  4. Extremely relevant and applicable. Truly it is our city that has lost out…the creative talent of the young needs to be unleashed. Congratulations Harshad for this amazing article.

  5. Harshad you have raised a few very important questions about achieving the students works. Most teaching institutions are pressed for funds(?) and space and the issue of systematic storing the works of students ,year after year is not the top priority of the overworked faculty,however as you have pointed out a lot of it is a rich resource of information and knowledge that must be preserved.
    Congratulations on writing a very on a relevant topic.

  6. Years ago, I had suggested all such final year projects should be available in an online centralised library, maybe handled by the Council of Architecture, or even the National Association of Schools of Architecture.

    Would enable the junior students references for their designs, and hopefully provide lesser chances of copying which maybe happening today.

    And as mentioned by Ar. Pramod above in his comments, these need to be available for viewing by those who want to.

    Plus some projects may even be good enough to be built.

    Maybe we can start at least now

  7. The article raises very important and pertinent issue. The creativity and spark seen in final year students work is hardly noticed in actual public realm in the city of Mumbai.
    If our architectural institutions and professionals can collaborate on say, housing and public projects that are handled in semester 7 and semester 9 and 10 respectively , it can be a mutually beneficial working system.

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