Dialogues@Mindspace: This post is the result of a discussion and debate held at the Mindspace Office Bengaluru to explore some questions about common assumptions and perceptions that architects have: Are architects the only ones who romanticise buildings and architecture? Why do we see ourselves as different from the ‘common man’ and stop appreciating the things we did before being ‘trained’ as an architect?
As an exercise which was a part of this discussion, one architect of our team went on an early Sunday morning to Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park, to ask morning walkers what their favourite building in the city is, to discuss architecture with non-architects. Most responses were predictable ones that many architects would tend to disagree- The Vidhana Soudha, UB City, IT parks. Some answers leaned towards heritage buildings, like the Bangalore High Court and the Sheshadri Memorial Library. When some were probed more about why they liked the building, often personal memories tumbled out, on reading books in the library in their childhood, on visiting a building with loved ones. Some ‘favourite buildings’ too were personal- an uncle’s house, or even their own house. This exercise was an indication for many of the themes that would come up in this discussion, on how people’s memories of childhood and family, on ideas of familiarity and scale, on a home-like feeling and a feeling of grandeur- all of which has an effect on their architectural and space preferences.
What are the different ways people relate to buildings, both architects and non-architects? Are architects the only ones who romanticise buildings? Does the process of formal architectural education make architects too judgemental about things that the ‘common man’ appreciates?
Romanticising something often comes with specialised education
Romanticising refers to the belief that something is better, more interesting and exciting than it actually is. It is common that architects, designers, artists, writers, and pretty much people in any specialised profession romanticise aspects of that profession. With their years of acquired knowledge, they see more poetry and beauty in things that people outside the profession don’t. This works in its own unique way in each specialisation. For example, for a doctor or a physiotherapist, each movement or function of the body that others take for granted is extremely special and magical. For a musician, a single creak of a chair could disturb the hours of practice it took them to get in the ‘zone’. These specialised ways of approaching their profession those outsiders may not be able to understand and access.
In professions like science, medicine or mechanics, it becomes possible to convey a creative and technical idea in a measurable, logical manner without any need to philosophise. If the end result does what it needs to do, then there is no need for abstract explanations. But for creative professions that lean towards the immeasurable, conveying an idea is not so straightforward. An architectural idea about the correct light, openness or proportion is subjective and not always measurable. It then becomes necessary to explain these elements to someone who cannot picture the effect of this architectural intervention, using design philosophies and abstract ideas.
In many ways, this process of romanticising aspects of a building- of the way sunlight falls on a wall, the play of light and shade, the way a material expresses itself- also helps in creating an involvement with the process of design, a way to keep the creative energy alive, and to put in your full efforts into the process without feeling the exhaustion. For a person creating any product- whether it is an architect designing a building, a tailor stitching a perfect dress, or a homemaker arranging things in his or her room, romanticising that process gives an added energy, passion and emotion, that makes the job less mundane and in that process adds more value, whether measurable or immeasurable, to the end product.
Nevertheless, the question still remains as to how the gap between architects and end-users could be bridged, where tastes are often contrasting. Clients, residents, builders may also romanticise buildings and have very specific preferences on how things need to be, which may be different from how an architect would perceive.
Architecture school and changing preferences
The process of architectural education often creates strong preconceived ideas where you are expected to like certain things. You are told Corbusier is great , and even if you don’t agree with it in your early years, by the end of your architecture school you are not supposed to like anyone else. A certain amount of ‘brainwashing’ comes in, to the extent that questioning something is not just to learn and critique, but becomes a way form very set ideas on aesthetics. For instance, you may have liked a purple wall in your house for all your life with no strong logic or reasoning behind it but just as an unexplained preference, but through the process of architecture school you question this preference repeatedly that your choice of colour would have unconsciously changed. Even when it comes to something small like paper files , you end up having very specific design and aesthetic preferences, like a grey coloured file over a file with a printed flower .
Does this cross the line from questioning to becoming judgemental and losing the innocence of just liking a certain colour without reason? Do we need a process of ‘unlearning’ to also accept that these preferences are not necessarily always ‘rules’ of aesthetics, and start accepting other points of view?
Architecture in the ‘background’
Another way of looking at the gap between architects and non-architects is to look at architecture as something that is for the end-user ‘in the background’, whereas for architects is always in the foreground. The play of light and shade in a temple, the colourful urbanism of a narrow street in a Rajasthani town, or the semi-public spaces in an informal settlement or street market, – these are things which could potentially be very exciting for architects but in the background for others. These same streets, before an architectural education, would have also appeared mundane and ordinary but suddenly appear full of architectural principles. For others, it could be a part of daily life, an atmosphere that is still used and enjoyed unconsciously, without the baggage of what makes it tick.
What is part of the ‘background’ for everyday life often comes into the foreground for architects. (Photo: Mindspace)
This could apply even for architect-designed buildings, like the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad designed by Charles Correa, or the buildings of Goeffery Bawa in Sri Lanka. For instance, a person visiting the Gandhi Ashram would want to understand the life of Gandhi, and the building would provide a perfect understated backdrop for this where architecture has completely receded into the background (although contributing subconsciously to the experience of the place). But when an architect visits this building, they come not so much to Gandhi but to see Charles Correa, and exploring the buildings is through lines, materials, spaces. Likewise, a hotel designed by Geoffery Bawa could be perfectly enjoyed by end-users without being conscious of the architecture at all.
This enjoyment of the space could be a result of familiarity and the scale of these buildings, that makes them unobtrusive but also comfortable, grounded to a scale that people are used to and reminding them perhaps of a childhood home. This could be what makes these buildings timeless.
One form of architecture that does not go in the background but is actively appreciated by both architects and non-architects is monumental architecture, where historic and sometimes contemporary monumental buildings all over the world are thronged by visitors and tourists. The sheer magnitude of scale and unfamiliarity make it striking to an average person, whether it is monuments with grandeur like the Taj Mahal or the Hagia Sofia, or more understated spaces like the Kailash Temple in Ellora or the sanctum of a Dravidian temple. These buildings are a repository of history and age, and the stories that they carry become an added reason to appreciate the buildings.
These historical places also reflect a time when materials and language of architecture was more or less homogenous within a region. While kings and rulers wished to make grand statements through palaces and temples, the language of a town in terms of its houses, streets and architectural styles would not be drastically different from each other. But through the years, there has been a transition into a more individualistic society, where people want their personal identity to stand out. For both architects and clients, the need for being distinctive is much stronger than it used to be. What does this mean for the future of architecture? Where are we going with this need to stand out? Would this heterogeneity become the language of the future?
In so called pursuit of aesthetic perfection, sometimes priorities change. For example, a groove meeting a soffit in a certain way becomes much more important to architects than a practical aspect of which height a switch should be at. The groove and soffit may barely be noticed by the end-user but the switch is important every day to the person who would live there. So some of the constraints and peer pressure we as architects apply on ourselves, on pleasing peers and getting published, could end up with lesser focus on making a space more liveable. This is sometimes the reason where buildings which make statements may not be as comfortable to live as beautiful as they would look in photographs.
The challenge lies in bridging the gap between architectural aesthetics, to create a space which has the right ambience which feels good, rather than a space that only looks good.
The idea of being appreciated at different levels again brings forward a comparison with music- when something is a great piece of music, it has to transcend all levels. Some people could appreciate it for the lyrics, some could like the general rhythm and feel. Some could go deeper into the nuances of the raga and the composition. You can stop at a basic level of analysis or go very deep, but when the composition is great it transcends all levels. Music is also one of the art forms that has come closest to being able to be measured by understanding the principles of compositions, notes and progressions, making it one of the most evolved forms of art.
In architecture, this question is much more subjective and open, and this discussion then brings out more questions than answers and solutions: Do we as architects need to broaden our perspectives to allow for different kinds of preferences and ideas? What are the things we need to ‘unlearn’, and how will this ‘unlearning’ help in a fresher understanding of architecture?