School Without Walls

In a curated series on archival texts, views, discussions and comments on the state of architecture and design education in India, Professor Chhaya critically questions the idea and role of an institution in an increasingly multidisciplinary design world, outlining his thoughts on a desired model for an architecture school and the values associated with the same. 

I propose to start by discussing the school itself, and only briefly touch on the larger issues at stake. Nothing of what I say is new, it has been done to a greater or lesser extent everywhere, but I feel it would still be useful to put these views down as reference for improving architectural education today.

Uncertainty and the Responsive Institution:

How do we build organisms that are constantly learning?

The one thing that is certain about the future is that everything is uncertain.

The physical environment, which has always been considered to be an unchanging backdrop of human activity, is itself likely to undergo major changes and upheavals with climate change looming on the horizon. Resources are certainly likely to be less easily available, while the demand for them increases.

Economies are volatile and rapidly changing. Political structures are stressed to the limit and new and unknown forms of organisation are very likely. Technology is changing and transforming our relations to the world at an ever-increasing pace. Social forms, customs and norms of behaviour are rapidly changing. Cultures are in a stage of reconfiguration with increased and instantaneous communications.

Less tangible, but of equal and perhaps even more importance, are the changes in the psychological and social environments of students and teachers.

There is a huge proliferation of information of all kinds, readily available at the click of a button. The media technologies have encouraged a much smaller attention span, with the attention flitting from byte to byte at great speed. In this environment, sustained slow thought and deep inquiry are difficult. All physical or geographical contexts are instantaneously interconnected. Consequently all cultural forms and peculiarities are flattened, and identities of individuals and groups homogenise and desperately harden in defence, constantly reforming.

In short, every aspect of life that we have considered stable and relatively fixed is no longer so.

Similarly, individuals, both students as well as teachers, being affected by the changing environment of education, are also different, and institutions, built out of human participation, need to take that into account. Institutions are built to suit particular conditions. Educational Institutions are no exception. In a period of flux, how do we build responsive, agile, flexible organisations which are capable of learning continuously, modifying their shape and their methods to suit ever-new challenges?

In the past, institutions were built to answer an unchanging and eternal order. They were meant to propagate a mode of living that the culture considered valid. Today, perhaps, we need to keep the objectives more open. As a consequence, perhaps the shape of our organisations will need to be more open-ended and fuzzy. The contents of curricula and the methods of study will have to be more tentative and open to development.

Moving Beyond the Industrial Model of Education:

Where does learning occur? Is school a place where we train young people to be efficient workers to feed the needs of the society? Is it a place where existing knowledge is transmitted to new entrants to the profession? Perhaps these are part of its objectives. If this set of objectives was sufficient, we could go on forever simply refining the content and methods, making sure that competent individuals came out of this systematic grounding within the sheltered walls of the institution. We would have to attend to the clarity and manageability of the system, sufficiency of financial, material and human resources, the availability of appropriate instructional material, and the development of technologies and methods for the efficient transmission of knowledge. We could treat it as an industry.

Industry needs a well-defined task, a clear picture of resources available – both material and human, infrastructure and tools. It is finite. We might think of it as an enclosed system, where the test is the difference in character between the raw materials that go in and the product that comes out. It is vital to make sure that the product fulfils the need. Prediction of what is needed is essential to the viability of this production. The more accurate the prediction, the better the fit and therefore, the more successful the industry.

Unfortunately (or fortunately!), it is not possible to have an exact idea of a society’s future development, except in broad statistical terms. This is especially true in our age of rapid, unprecedented and unpredictable change. Those professions that work with specific, concrete conditions, and respond appropriately – such as architecture – cannot define themselves narrowly. Sufficient flexibility and responsiveness, sufficient redundancy, has to be built into their outlook and methods. (Evolution is littered with the extinction of too-specific forms unable to respond to changing conditions.)

Even if we could have accurate forecasts of the future, and therefore, treat education as an industrial enterprise with a defined product range, the Indian situation would present nearly insurmountable obstacles to installing such a procedure. Huge deficits of finance, infrastructure (space and machinery), skilled manpower (teachers), along with poorly prepared raw material (incoming students) and a fickle market would give nightmares to the best entrepreneur or manager!

The Situation of Architectural Education in India Today:

The huge proliferation of schools of architecture in India in the recent past presents a worrying picture. There are not enough teachers, and equally there is no tradition of creating basic learning resources such as texts and documents. It is in this scenario that we have to think of finding ways to ensure that quality of learning is not compromised.

The biggest hurdles are twofold: the desperate shortage of teachers on one hand, and the ill-developed documentation of practice – whether grassroots practice or contemporary practice – which might form the study material for critical thinking.

Other constraints, such as infrastructure and finance, might be more amenable to sorting out, but the above-mentioned hurdles are not easy to solve fast.

This would mean that we have to reconsider the very structure of architectural education – its stages, its qualifications and its organisation. We need to envisage a different kind of Place of Learning entirely.

The School

Going Beyond the Walls:

What is the alternative? A School of Architecture can be thought of as a place where some kind of systematic introduction into the world at large, and the built environment in particular, is made possible. This is a process of enculturation, a steeping into the mores of the discipline of architecture. Yet can it also be a place where society is put under the lens, where alternative visions of what could be, are developed? Could it be also the place where the history of knowledge of the discipline and the profession are discussed?

For such a kind of model of education, we would have to rethink the closed educational environment, and connect it creatively to other societal formations. We would need to consider the whole of our social and cultural environment as the place of learning, and think of the ‘school’ as a more defined place of learning the ways of thinking, which too would be continuously evolving in encounter with ongoing events.

Such reflective thinking – where facts are gathered and organised in many different ways, critically scrutinised and imaginatively reconstructed – can occur only in small intense interactions between interested people.

1. School as Locus and Centre of Learning:

Each school should be composed of a small group of teachers, some with an academic and research bent of mind, and others doing practice as well as teaching. This tight-knit team should be alive to locally available expertise, and bring in, in a well- coordinated way, people from various areas of knowledge, and enter into a dialogue with them, making their knowledge more effective in the architectural curriculum.

2. Small Groups for Learning to Think, Large Groups for Transmitting Information and Existing Knowledge:

Instruction in well-established methods and information-based learning can effectively be taught to large groups of students. On the other hand, critical and creative thinking needs face-to-face or small-group interaction. So even if, for economic or other reasons, there is a need to have large intake of students, the design studios should be offered to limited group of students.

3. Communities of Learning: School Networked, Network of Schools:

Rather than a self-sufficient enclosed entity, it may be better to think of the school as a distributed and networked system, forming a strong and focal node of thought and knowledge. It would access all kinds of societal resources and channelise them to the task of learning-to-think.

Another way of saying this is to say that a school should be a community of learners, some more advanced and experienced, and others more naive and needing guidance, within a world of knowledge distributed within the profession, the tradition of building, the local knowledge in the artisanal system, research in the fields of ecology, landscape, biology, material sciences, various branches of engineering, the human sciences, planning, economics, management, etc. Such knowledge is also woven into literature, stories, myths, and forms of art. Every school is located within such a milieu.

Could we envisage this community as one which taps into all these forms of knowledge while carrying out the process of education? India is fortunate in having skilled and inspiring thinkers in all of these fields, and even in small towns many of these resources are available. Could such thinkers become our guests and co-thinkers, co-teachers, dare I say co-learners? Further, such schools would have to consider themselves as part of a larger group of schools sharing certain human and experiential resources. In short a community of schools. Each school should strive to build up a special area of interest and expertise, and thus, a diversity of approaches would become available. Perhaps the well established schools in an area should guide and mentor the new schools, and provide them support.

By collaborating and co-operating with other schools, a school might be able to synergise and enrich what it can individually offer. We have shown great alacrity in collaborating with schools from abroad, but we have not built links between schools in India itself. Doing this may help us fill the gaps and improve the educational content.

4. Tapping the Widest Range of Learning Resources and Experiences:

Instead of focusing only on what happens in the classroom, we need to start tapping every kind of learning resource and experience.

Building sites around the school are very good places to observe and learn by first-hand experience. Good practices can be understood, and bad ones can be an even better mode of learning!

Works of architecture in the vicinity, whether contemporary or historical, offer excellent materials for study, discussion, analysis and critical thinking. Schools should make more use of these opportunities.

Local artisans, technicians and craftspeople are a pool of knowledge of materials, tools and techniques, apart from having a very distinct mode of apprehending reality. If connected with the school, they could contribute very well to the learning process.

In a different way, engineers and scientists offer a greatly developed method and outlook, and definite clear-cut knowledge. They too should be involved in the students learning environment.

Finally, people from the arts, and experts in the social or human sciences do have a great contribution to make to the school.

None of these specialists or learning methods can work in an isolated subject- specific manner. Continuous dialogue with the architects in the faculty, even joint teaching, is needed for them to be able to recognise the needs of the young architecture student. Equally, they would challenge and engage the architecture faculty members to continuously clarify, articulate, reformulate and even question their own biases. This creative engagement would transform the learning environment.

5. Create New Learning Resources:

Schools should not only be places of transmitting knowledge, but should be also places where study and documentation leads to creation of new learning resources.

This can be as simple as climatic studies (even basic climatic analyses of every place in the region), detailed and systematic documentation of local constructional practices (many parts of India have distinct well-developed traditions), glossaries of regional language terms related to built environment and construction, measured drawings of vernacular buildings in the area, documentation of environmental responses in planning and design, customs and lifestyle peculiarities of the area, etc. Thus, the school would become an archive of much sought-after local knowledge.

Formats for the rigour and correctness of such documentation could be formulated, and a publishing programme initiated. Even if publication is not possible, at least each school should ensure preservation and cataloguing of such studies in their library for reference.

6. The Profession as a Source of Learning:

Simultaneously, can we look forward to the profession documenting its works and its methods more systematically, in the form of case studies, innovative design practices and working details, as well as notes and discussions on particular aspects of practice? This again could strengthen the richness of study materials and help in the rebuilding of a professional and educational tradition and ethos.

The Indian Institute of Architects and the Council of Architecture should continuously publish texts such as ‘Architects’ Working Details’ , ‘Practice Notes’, monographs documenting design processes and products of important contemporary works, perhaps award-winning designs, in an academically useful format. This needs to go beyond the image-rich coffee-table type publications. It need not have critical commentary, only detailed design information. This should be considered an urgent priority.

Lifelong Learning in the Profession:

For the professional, learning does not end in the school. This is particularly the case today, when new developments in technology, and rapidly changing nature of tasks accompanying societal change, constantly challenge the professional. Learning new methods, and keeping abreast of changing societal realities is a necessary ongoing process.

1. Need for a Professional Examination:

Thus, the profession must institute both the Registration Examination, which should take place after a period of gaining professional experience.

2. Periodic Revalidation of the Registration:

This should be supplemented by continuing educational programmes. Every professional should be required to renew and validate her/his status as a registered practitioner by attending education programmes and perhaps by passing examinations periodically.


While extending the learning process spatially and in terms of resources as well as temporally extending the learning process through the life of the practitioner would benefit the profession, the need to have thoughtful, creative and competent teachers in the schools is urgently required. This must become an ongoing continuous process. There are many steps that could be taken in this direction.

1. Workshops for Young Teachers:

At present National Institute of Advanced Studies in Architecture conducts very short subject-specific training programmes for teachers. There is a need for longer, intense and immersive workshops for teachers, of at least two weeks duration (preferably longer) conducted during vacation periods. Such workshops would emphasise teaching methods rather than subject content.

2. Networks of Teachers, Platforms for Sharing and Discussion:

Often teachers work in isolation, far away from opportunities for growth through discussion. There should be regular opportunities for meeting other teachers to share and discuss ideas and methods. This could be organised region-wise, or in terms of subject interest areas, or on other suitable lines. Biannual conferences/seminars should be held. The ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture) is a good model of such a forum.

Web-based forums can also be set up. These could be open for all teachers.

3. Recognition and Propagation of Good Teaching Practices :

Through publications and exhibitions good teaching practices should be widely disseminated.

4. Tenure Options :

It is often the case that those who opt to teach become disconnected from the currents of development in the profession. On the other hand, practitioners who teach often do not get deeply involved in the Teaching Community.

A variety of options for involvement should make it possible for the teacher to have substantial period of involvement in the profession every few years. Similarly practitioners should be able to devote themselves fully to teaching for a definite period, rather than be only visitors.

Other options of tenure types, which allow continuous engagement in the profession and vice-versa, should be instituted.

All the above need active engagement of all institutions connected to architectural education and the profession, i.e. the Council of Architecture, Indian Institute of Architects, Universities and Schools of Architecture, and of course the government, both at the national and state levels. Especially where funding is needed, a co-ordinated and concerted plan of action involving all of them is essential.

However, there is no need to wait for the total plan to emerge and be accepted. Action by teachers and schools should be possible and must proceed apace. ♦

– Neelkanth Chhaya 

About the Author

Professor Neelkanth Chhaya is an Architect, Academician, and Thinker. He has served as the Dean of the Department of Architecture at CEPT (Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology) in Ahmedabad. He has also researched and worked extensively in the domain of appropriate architecture for India, documenting places of historic significance, and authoring numerous critical papers on the same subject. The wholehearted investment he has made in teaching architecture, and his intense involvement with the school, is reflected in his practice.

‘On Education’ is a collection of thoughts on architecture and design pedagogy in India. If you wish to contribute to the discussion, please write to us on


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