LEARNING AND TEACHING ARCHITECTURE IN THE PRESENT SCENARIO

In a curated series on archival texts, views, discussions and comments on the state of architecture and design education in India, Shirish Beri provides observations, on the importance of a student-teacher relationship and challenges students to nurture their inquisitiveness which lies at the core of architectural education.


We all journey through life with our own understandings, values, priorities and concerns. I ask my students: Can our work, as architects, evolve out of these understandings and values to address our concerns in life?

It becomes necessary for an architecture student to comprehend the scenario of life in which he introduces his designs. As part of the architectural curriculum, the students need to be made aware of the multiple ways in which their designs connect to multiple parameters of life.

Our educational systems should, first of all, acquaint the students with these multiple measurable and immeasurable parameters that will influence their designs and later, equip them to respond appropriately to these parameters with a knowledgeable and suitable architectural vocabulary.

The School of Architecture in Ahmedabad, where I studied, never taught me to deal with architecture in isolation, but always as an integral, inseparable part of life. It tried to widen my vision of life by introducing the study of elective subjects like sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, archaeology, literature, dance, drama, painting, sculpture, pottery and computers. This helped in instilling a holistic approach to architecture, where our designs would touch lives at deeper levels rather than just to beautify buildings.

However, what is it that we see happening in architectural education today?

The overall emphasis of today’s society on quantity rather than on quality seems to have infected our architectural education. A numerically strong contingent of architectural professionals may be welcome, but we need to re-examine the basics by asking these questions:

  • With the addition of so many new colleges and with the doubling of the intake per year, are we improving the standard of our education?
  • Are our colleges able to impart the measurable and immeasurable values and attitudes that shape our lives and designs?
  • Will the present system be able to create an environment conducive to learning architecture, as we all know how difficult it is to teach architecture?
  • Do we have adequate, dedicated and inspiring faculty for all these students?
  • Would the necessary personal rapport between teachers and students get diluted?
  • Do all these colleges have sufficient and good quality infrastructure for these additional students?
  • Is there enough work for all the graduating architects? Even today, the number of applications to work as an architect in our office has increased considerably but there is no vacancy for them.

A good institute of architectural learning is like a field of fertile soil where the individual seeds of different potentials in the students get nourishment; and a good teacher is like a good gardener and facilitator who see to it that all his seeds (students) get the right manure, sunlight and water. Each student has a unique seed/potential like the different seeds in nature (mango, coconut, grass, lime, etc). Each student will grow differently having different fruits, leaves, forms, colours and tastes. In nature, each one is important. The teacher understands each student’s potential and helps them grow healthily to their best level of maturity and fruition.

To me, a teacher who takes on the role of a carpenter or a sculptor and would shape the blocks of wood (students) only in the way he wants them to be shaped, is not a good teacher. A good teacher is also a good co-learner. During the process, the student-teacher roles acquire different dimensions at different times.

During my student days, I had read somewhere, ‘One does not become an artist because one can, but because one must.’ I had written that sentence on my sketch pad by putting ‘architect’ in place of ‘artist.’ Some of my teachers’ at school and some international architects’ passionate discourses on architecture had aroused this passion in me too.

Similarly, I feel that the internet (though it can be more knowledge bestowing) cannot replace the warm, personal, one-to-one interaction of a student-teacher. The responses of a living teacher and facilitator are rooted in his real-life experiences, understandings and values. Responses to the same issues from different teachers and people would be different, as they would be based on their own understandings in life. There will be no fixed, calibrated response to all students as with the internet. These multiple live variations in interactions not only present a rich canvas before every student but also allocate space for him to form his opinions. Many a time, what is formulated in every student’s mind is the result of a complex mixture of others’ thoughts interacting with his own thinking; in this scenario, so many possibilities can arise.

Students also learn a lot by listening to their friends’ interactions with their teachers and with each other. Thus, even today, the ‘Guru-Shishya’ relationship is very much valid. In this vibrant, living relationship, the role of the two may be somewhat modified or may be reversed too. Good, living teachers can also consciously and unconsciously become role models and a source of inspiration for students. This helps the students to cope with academic and professional problems as well as with their problems in life.

I have personally benefited a lot from such cross-currents in thinking when I studied at CEPT. Learning, at the School of Architecture, was never confined to the classroom. Continuous, informal learning has been one of my school’s strengths. I still vividly remember sitting over a cup of coffee on the precast hollow concrete members at the canteen along with my friends, faculty and discussing subjects ranging from Parveen Babi to Louis Kahn and Jean Paul Sartre; from Kodar’s ‘pokoda’ to French cuisine; from Bhatiyar ‘Galli’ to Sydney Opera. What we all learnt here was really special, as it had the human, experiential quality to it. Even while doing our design projects, we would learn a lot from the site, from case studies, from discussions with concerned people and so on. As a result of this ‘questioning’ habit, the learning would continue at all times of the day in all kinds of places. Do this kind of interactions happen today with 80 to 120 students in a class?

I have noticed that of late, many students tend to get carried away by today’s social trend of making the fast buck – living in an expensive house or hotel, driving luxury cars, wearing costly designer clothes and sporting high-end mobiles, watches and cameras. This is considered to be the definition of success. I always try to convey to my students (sometimes, through my own example) that one can live a rich life without these riches and that they should not confuse a good life with the number of goods they possess. This greed for the fast buck tends to churn out repetitive, monotonous, routine design solutions. Students need to be very cautious as not to fall in this rut when they start practising.

I would suggest that a student (as well as everybody else) should be honest with his/her own self. What I mean by suggesting one must be honest is that one should work from one’s inner conviction, from one’s understandings, concerns and values. And be open too. Do not follow the typical routine. If you are asked to design a school in your studio, do not go to the library or the internet looking for ideas to be cut and pasted. Relate the design problem to life. Ask questions: What is it for? Learning. If so, what is learning? And then you will come up with several possible ways in which learning can take place.

Then ask yourself, can my work, can my design contribute to this learning process? Will my design help to impart knowledge and facilitate the exchange of knowledge between students and teachers? Has it helped improve the users’ quality of life? We will learn more this way.

Thus, during the intense three to four days of my design workshops, we try to explore and address the following questions and issues, in order to understand the holistic interrelatedness of architecture and life:

  • Is the basic design concept (the goal/objective of design related to life itself) not the most important and essential starting point in the design process?
  • Can a spatial design reflect the same content that a poem, music, painting, sculpture, dance or drama expresses? If architecture can be experienced as frozen music, can music be experienced as volatile architecture? Can the outer space create an impact on our inner psychological space? Are these expressions (of one’s inner understanding) not possible through any interchangeable medium? Do they not complement each other? Many times, I have asked my students to express their design concept in the form of a poem, music, painting or drama. They then picked up the salient issues therein and tried to express them through their architectural vocabulary.
  •  Let us not be afraid of trying out a new idea, a new design just because we have not seen anything similar before or just because the teacher or client may not like it. Ask them and ourselves when we experiment – why not?
  • Can we let go? Let go of the conditioned responses and look at everything afresh with a childlike curiosity, abandon and joy. For this, exercises to look at commonplace stuff and events in many different ways are conducted.
  • Can we transcend the various ‘isms’ in order to relate and respond more spontaneously and directly to the particular contexts of that project?
  • How can we create a design that can reinterpret its cultural, environmental and architectural vocabulary in a contemporary manner without breaking its continuity with the past? This was done by choosing a site with a cultural and historical context.
  • Can we translate a two-dimensional plan on the ground into a fascinating variety of three-dimensional architectural spaces to suit our design objectives? The interpretation of the same plan carried out differently in sections and elevations by different students creates a mind-boggling variety of building designs.
  • Can our designs evolve responsibly out of the context of site and climate? We tried to see how the site topography, views, sun, wind and rain directions, their intensity, type of soil, etc can influence the plans, sections and elevations of the building, by giving the same design brief to all students but the different site and climate contexts.
  • In today’s material world, can architecture become an expression of our human spirit, where the measurable and the immeasurable work together? Should our designs not be value-based to play their role as agents of social change?
  • Then, can our designs be inspired by life to create not only better physical environments but also to help in the making of better human beings?
  • Can our designs include the plurality and complexity of our daily lives and yet emerge as expressions of simplicity?

The computer with its graphic design software is an important and necessary drawing tool. I, too, use it extensively in our profession. However, when it comes to sketching, designing, I am most comfortable using my hand. To me, our hands are the natural extensions of our thought processes. They can spontaneously feel and manifest that, which is happening at the imaginative, cognitive level. I would encourage the students, to enjoy working with their hand. It is so much more direct, more involved and rewarding.

At the same time, I would like to advocate the inclusion of the following issues in the curriculum to improve the standard of our architectural education.

  • Have a greater emphasis on initial conceptual thinking, ideas and attitudes before the actual drawing process.
  • Introduction of ecology and human ecology as a subject. Create an understanding of the environment’s limits to growth (earth’s limited resources). Introduction of ideas regarding pollution control and recycling systems. Awareness towards the use of appropriate building materials that do not consume a lot of non-renewable resources.
  • Study of natural habitats, their place in the overall eco-system and in design ideas (biomimicry).
  • Introduction of design problems that would incorporate the passive and sustainable features of architecture.
  • Initiate design problems that deal with efficient reuse and recycling of the buildings. Present these proposals to relevant bodies and organisations.
  • Help students understand the tremendous complexity of urban planning by roping in interdisciplinary resource persons to teach and conduct joint workshops.
  • Engage students in actual work programmes in the slums, housing complexes and CBDs.
  • As the real source of any problem or solution is in the mind, it needs to be trained to question and take value-based decisions. Thus, it would be good to study different humanities’ subjects for value education in the architecture syllabus as well as at the primary, middle and secondary school levels.
  • Introduction of meditation and yoga for balance between the mind and the body from the school level.
  • Help create empathy between man and nature through travel, observation and role-playing.
  • Encourage students’ direct involvement in basic research, sketching, drawing and actual construction.
  • Introduce ‘basic design’ as a subject at the secondary high school level to instil awareness about design in the general public.
  • Bring about a greater understanding of space, its various qualities and its forms of articulation. Encourage seeing of architecture as a part of this total unity of life and then work to avoid fragmentation and schizoid implications on the environment.
  • Introduce POE (Post Occupancy Evaluation) as a subject to come to terms with reality in a better way.

Globalisation has facilitated interaction and exchange of ideas and knowledge at the global level. Can we make the most out of these opportunities? Can globalisation bring architects, students and faculties of different colleges from different countries together to churn out ideas that would help in the creation of new design paradigms?

For these new sustainable design paradigms to emerge, a complete overhaul of our present education system in this direction appears to be mandatory. Can this happen? ♦


About the Author

Shirish Beri graduated in architecture from CEPT University, Ahmedabad in the year 1974. Through an intuitive and sensitive design process, he has constantly worked towards understanding and exploring the relevance of the quality of space in terms of its cause and effect to the quality of life.  Besides winning a number of national and international awards, he is also the latest recipient of the coveted J.K. Great Master’s award and the A+D Cera “Hall of Fame” award. He has lectured and exhibited his work extensively at important forums in India and abroad. His book ‘Spaces Inspired by Nature’, explores the interwoven relationship between man and nature through the course of essays and his own projects. He currently lives and practices from Kolhapur and Andur.


‘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 think@matter.co.in. 


 

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