"Can our architectural language be such that it is easily understood by ordinary people?" (S J Narwekar Memorial Lecture, Ahmedabad)
The question is based on the assumption that, at present, this is not the case. The assumption is, of course, the expression of a personal belief, but I think one that is shared by a large number of people, including fellow architects. Modern architecture has become something of a curiosity for the common person, somewhat like 'modern art' - which is to be appreciated without deriving meaning from it.
It may be worthily to examine why and how this gap in understanding has appeared. Architectural language is primarily articulated through the process of construction. And during this century we have seen quite dramatic changes in construction technology. It is of course quite evident that technological changes have taken place initially in the western world – or the so-called industrially developed nations of Europe and North America, and more recently Japan. Our country, along with other industrially lesser developed nations forming the so-called third world, has been subjected to this process of technological change at second hand. Nevertheless, we have spared no efforts to catch up with the latest developments in technology, and today we can be rated at a reasonably high level of industrial and technological development.
It is my contention that it is precisely these dramatic, and sometimes rapid changes in technology and the resultant processes of production that have created the gap in understanding. Architecture is, after all, an exercise in abstraction, and unless this exercise is properly grounded in practical realities, the meaning and intention of an architectural decision can become completely obscured for the large majority of people. Thus the act of abstraction instead of distilling reality, can spread an overlay of confusion. In this way fantasy can even be disguised as myth.
If the relationship between design method and the construction process is framed with rigour and directness, the resultant architectural expression is bound to be comprehensible and enhance reality. Examples of such direct communication are abundant in situations where pre-industrial modes of production are employed. Such situations are still in evidence in India where handicraft goods can very often generate a most understandable aesthetic. However when we examine goods produced by industrial techniques find that the gap in comprehension widens and user satisfaction decreases.
This kind of problem was first noticed in the western world at the turn of this century, when industrial modes of production were becoming commonplace. The arts and crafts movement was generated in Europe as a direct consequence of this awareness. At that time it was felt that the new techniques promoted by industry were a great threat to the quality of goods being produced, hence a revival was attempted of methods inspired by craft production, like most revivalist schools this movement too was short-lived, although it was influential, furthermore, there was revolutionary social changes in Europe around this time as a result of the first world war. There was a great impetus in industrial production leading to a new set of inspirations. Architects and designers renewed their enthusiasm for industrial techniques which seemed to promise great new possibilities for a better life. Buildings were designed to demonstrate the power of engineering and machine technology. Architects foresaw a new impetus in urban development and generated new visions of cities more suited to an industrial future. There was such a pre-occupation with new technologies, the promise of a new mobility, and the ability of man to override nature, that historians called it the ‘heroic period of modern architecture’. Several new schools of thought in art and architecture emerged during this time. In architecture, the most powerful influence was exercised by the Bauhaus. Walter Gropius, who started the Bauhaus, had perceived the key to resolving the opposition between art and technology. He foresaw the global spread of industrial processes and realised that design needed to be informed by third force – that of the market. Once art and technology were subjected to the pressures of the market, a new set of guiding principles for design became evident. The accuracy of the vision generated at the Bauhaus was demonstrated by the extremely rapid spread of its design ideology world-wide. Similar types of buildings began to appear even in places which were geographically and culturally very distant from Western Europe. Undoubtedly the common factor in these diverse locations was the marketing of new engineering technology. The medium through which this was made possible was the enhanced mobility generated by new transportation systems, as well as the rise of new information technologies.
For a time this rapid spread of machine technology and the industrial processes generating it, was seen as the hallmark of progress and a great hope for the future of mankind. This point of view was even accepted in India and other industrially less-developed countries, which had not passed though the evolutionary phases of industrial development. Consequently, here we began to experience a serious rift between the social norms of an ancient society and the ethereal aspirations of an architecture based on modernistic ideals. While we struggled with this rift, in the western world there were also alarm bells being sounded, but for different reasons. The great industrial machine had started to produce too much. In order to generate larger and newer markets to absorb this production, a whole new industry was generated for advertising. The new information technologies became the medium for the spread of the advertising industry. The life-span of products and even buildings were carefully planned to be not too long. As the power and scope of advertising increased, there was a new relationship generated between design method and the processes of construction. This relationship relied no more on common sense principles of availability of indigenous materials, techniques, and traditions, but on the assessment or creation of market demands which could manipulate visible reality and address the fantastic in our imagination. However, along with the production of goods there was also the generation of waste. This waste become more and more difficult to manage and started to pollute the natural systems on which life on the planet was dependent. As a consequence of this a new awareness spread world-wide. The gigantism which marked the heroic period of modern architecture began to be questioned, and a new respect was developed for the eco-systems which sustain the natural balance and ensure survival of life on this planet. One of the ironic features of this new awareness was that even as its scope was truly global, its implications could perhaps be better understood by ancient societies whose world-view was founded on a primitive respect for nature. The dichotomy between a modern industrial order based on machine technology and traditional social system dependent on systems of community and co-operation, was no longer necessary. In fact it has become increasingly evident in the last few years that the future of human civilisation is very clearly linked with our ability to find a new balance between systems of production and the preservation of natural and social systems.
For architects this demands a fresh articulation of the relationship between design method and the construction process. No longer can the vision of the Bauhaus, which related art and technology through the forces of the market, be a guide for the design of an environment which will promote the good health and long life of social and natural systems. In fact, the great deal of damage that has been done to these systems in the last few decades also needs to be urgently repaired.
We started with a question which sought the link between architecture and ordinary people. I believe this link can best be found when the act of building is so organised that it releases the creative energies of all the participants in the exercise. As mentioned earlier, such situations do exist, especially in pre-industrial societies as are still found in parts of our country and I am sure in many other parts of the world. In our country, perhaps the best example I have seen of such an exercise is on the island of Car Nicobar. Here, even today, houses as well as institutional buildings like schoolhouses, are constructed with full community participation. In fact co-operative mechanisms govern all parts of the construction process – from preparation of the site, to procurement of materials, to physical erection of the structure. The design is generated from a standard set of patterns handed down over generations, with improvisations and modifications being made in an evolutionary manner to suit changing circumstances. The result is that the accumulated wisdom of generations is easily manifested in the construction process which does not disrupt the natural systems and the social order. This example is of course taken from a remote island, but it is not altogether a romantic illustration. We cannot forget that car Nicobar is connected by a weekly flight of Indian Airlines, as well as serviced by regular shipping routes, and is connected by radio, television, telephone and wireless links. With all this it has been possible for the tribals on this island to maintain a healthy relationship between technology and society. Perhaps the secret of this healthy relationship is in the great respect that these tribals have in the power of the natural elements and the humility and tolerance it generates in their dealings with each other.
If we examine the building process in an average urban situation today, we find it to be total contrast. The large team of people involved in the construction exercise will generally bear no inherent relationship with the users of the building. The builders are a separate team which is primarily organised around the principle of making a profit on investment. The building, which is the final product of this construction exercise, is seen as an object which will advertise the skills and capability of the architects and builders rather than enhance the life-potential of the users.
Such a situation is the logical outcome of the process of industrial development described earlier. Our cities no longer represent the high point of our culture and civilisation, even though all the instruments which promise a good life are to be found there. The spread of urban industrial culture extends more and more every day, enveloping rural settlements and transforming the countryside. Statisticians making global projections now tell us that by the end of the century, for the first time in the history of humankind, there will be more people living in cities than in rural settlements. This clearly marks a watershed in human history. At the same time we should recognise that this need not call for a nostalgic return to a state of innocence where the fruits of industrial development are rejected. Perhaps only some of the attitudes which fired this great engine of progress have to be questioned and re-prioritised. One such attitude, which generated the marvels of engineering in the latter part of this century, was that with sufficient application of technological might we could transform nature at will. I believe it is amply clear today that this kind of thinking breeds an extraordinary arrogance which leads to a distinct rise of violence within ourselves and in the world around us. Unless we are able to check this violence, the benefits of technological progress will be outstripped by the forces of destruction inherent to it.
The task of reducing violence can form the basis of our quest for a new relationship between design and construction. The example given earlier, of the tribal building practices on the island of Car Nicobar, may serve as a simple model to provide inspiration. In the average situation that we are all familiar with, the construction process involves a great variety of people – from the highly literate experts including architects, engineers, administrators and specialist consultants, to the trades people and miseries who are much less literate but perhaps better equipped to understand the vagaries of the market place and the work site, to the artisans and labour who are at best semi-literate but on whose skill and efforts the quality of the finished building relies so heavily. All of these are participants in an exercise that is programmed in the abstract by the expert designers, quite often far away from the proposed work site. It is also possible that these experts may not be completely familiar with the trades and crafts which would be called upon to realise their designs, except in general sort of way. Such a scenario is characterised by a fair amount of uncertainty all along the line yet most often the experts seem to fully determine their designs before the start of construction, thereby severely restricting the scope for the creative interaction with the other vital participant in the exercise. The need for early determination of designs is largely a function of ‘marketing’ the design, either to the potential users or the agency sponsoring the building project. Such marketing pressures, taken too seriously, can transform the design exercise from one which seeks to elicit co-operation and creative participation to one which merely seeks to eliminate competition. In this way the creative potential of the building process is reduced to a minimum, and the design loses its symbolic power which makes it communicable to ordinary people.
There has been much discussion in recent times about the symbolic aspects of architecture. A new school of thought which goes under the rubric of post-modernism is attempting to rediscover the symbolic power of architecture by making references in design to historical context. Some designers are also trying to generate a new architectural language through metaphysical representation inspired by ancient cosmological principles. Although most of these attempts are, at their best, based on a concern for human and social values as opposed to a technological determinism, they fall short of arriving at an architectural idiom which is convincing and appears to have enduring value. I believe this is because these attempt-ers have distanced themselves from the rigors of the construction process and therefore and up generating a kind of private language which can be understood only by a very select few.
The more deeply we examine human and social issues, in order to give them precedence over technological fixes, the more we realise that these are basic ethical problems which need to be resolved. One such problem referred to earlier is of reducing the level of violence in our lives. Another related problem is of reducing economic disparities which have become so glaring in our society today, and which are responsible for converting such large sections of our cities into slums. The despoliation of the natural environment as a result of unbalanced developmental priorities is, as mentioned earlier, another crucial concern which has important ethical dimensions affecting the formulation of an appropriate and comprehensible architectural language.
It may not be easy for practising architects to devote serious attention to these ethical dimensions even as they negotiate their share of daily problems. Yet we cannot allow ourselves to forget that we constitute a privileged set of members of the community of experts who hold a large share of responsibility for the state of the built environment. Perhaps it is through the medium of architectural education and training that we can best exercise our ethical concerns and contribute to the creation of a healthy environment.
This straining and education is not necessarily obtained in the classroom. In fact the majority of our architectural schools are also subject to the same pressures of disorientation that are affecting the profession as a whole. Most of the new schools, and even some of the older schools, find it extremely difficult to attract serious teachers, even as the numbers of student enrollment increase. Therefore it becomes all the more important for practising professionals to critically examine their design philosophy and the consequent constructional ethos they advocate, in order that training and education can become an integral part of their professional experience. In this way a process of learning from our immediate environment could be generated, and this would go a long way towards producing a more responsible and socially accountable architecture.
At this point I am reminded of a statement made by one my teachers at architecture school. He had just joined the school to start teaching after many years of professional practice and was asked to speak to the students to explain his point of view. His memorable statement went something like this – “for 5 years in school I worked very hard learning to become an architect, and ever since then I have been working equally hard learning to be a human being again”. This statement, I feel, brings into sharp focus the critical relationship between technical expertise and human values, if this relationship is properly framed, then I believe, our architectural language also has possibilities of being easily understood by ordinary people. How we do this, of course, still remains an open question. It can perhaps be best answered by each of us individually in the normal course of our professional work.