History: Narratives for Meaning and Operation

In a curated series on archival texts, views, discussions and comments on the state of architecture and design education in India, Kiran Kumar & Madhuri Rao review the significance of ‘History’ in architectural education and practice of contemporary architecture as a “…..tool to operate rather than a static and canonic body of knowledge.”

The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.

E.H. Carr, What is History?


It is necessary at crucial junctures such as our present, to come to terms with change and to re-direct and accommodate shifting practices. This will ensure that architecture and history will continue to be sponsored by and for the collective. The process of evolution of the past is an engaging construct to reflect on themes – generic and those that have been susceptible to modifications. The past can become relevant and meaningful only if it becomes an anchor to our conscience, diffusing into our politics, economics and our daily mundane, not as a characteristic or stylistic manifestation but as a reflection to what has always remained relevant.

History provides that relevance and an appropriate platform – as a tool rather than a sacrosanct canon, to speculate and interpret architecture under the lens of a venture – to connect contemporaries, anticipate anomalies, question the prevalent, and significantly as a link between stakeholders and collective priorities. A conscience to practice and manifest these values will bring us closer to becoming responsible consumers of history. This larger premise is addressed by the following questions pertinent to academia and practice.

Technology & Democratization : A new nexus in learning?

Today more than ever, there is a marked hostile relationship between producer and product. We find ourselves in a world, captivated and wholeheartedly encouraging organic, artisanal and bespoke concepts. It is necessary to interrogate if we are indulging in more romantic versions of the local, vernacular and values that have stood the test of time. Are we retracing to our resourceful past to forge into the future? In this regard, renewable energy, sustainable lifestyles, and skepticism of the future are going to become key references as to how we consume our past.

Inequity remains a concern amongst architecture of practice, architecture ideated and that published as world history. The causes are many – economics, market and cultural preferences – preferring aural or practical expressions and are against documentation by the written word. Nevertheless, certain societies, styles, cultures and issues remain under-represented, if not represented at all. This anomaly since the printed word came into existence and in this age of publishing, technology and social media has led to architecture becoming retinal and verbose rather than being a medium of inherent – experiential and existential focus.

Reverence for the retinal and the written word, over the inadequacy of physical experience and user engagement, over time has led to a crucial gap between traditions of the past and contemporary practice.

The characteristic examples and features create an identity, whereas ideas of impermanence, informal, timeless, non-imposing, mundane and anomalies are appropriated with the formal and archetype which represent the coherent, legitimate and consistent scheme of history. In time, the published wor(l)d has come to inadvertently represent and project itself as beacons of the future and hence, as credible sources and manifestations.

To establish an equity and depth in enquiry, narratives which represent our immediate context and concerns are crucial. This premise could be encouraged by increased absorption of under-published, local examples, which by their innate idea of familiarity – of culture, techniques and indigenous systems are always more nourishing to a design exploration. Local forces are easily accessible and internalized. By inhabiting conceptual thought and experience, these forces gain further ground and will be sensitively articulated.

Encouragingly, information technology, transport and communication have revolutionized the production and consumption of history and tend towards democratization. With this significant change, issues of equity, histories of parallel timelines and seemingly insignificant histories are being brought to the forefront and are being established as crucial interests to address. These unwritten, unpublished examples of history will become the conscience and face of the future, providing prolific substructure and substantially establishing new directions and theoretical positions for further enquiry.

Issue of Origins : Can we re-organize history?

Predominantly, history as we learn it is ascertained as a study of identity rather than a rendering of a consciousness. It can sometimes be overwhelming and compels a rereading and instigates concerns, as to what is original or rather what is closest to the original?

History under the lens of a theory that manifests variedly in shifting space-time scenarios, can relieve the pressure on issues of origin, by acknowledging that ideas are fluid and are always in a state of transformation.

The relationship between identity and consciousness is also constantly shifting, and the same idea could morph and manifest differently with a change in place and time. Theory as an apparatus can give structure and ease appropriation to these shifts in meaning so that they can be absorbed into contemporary theory and expression.

In this lens, history can be equated to a dictionary, where information is documented and ordered in chronology or to an adopted structure. However, the process of design informed by an appropriated theory, revises the inherent structure to produce a meaningful manifestation, just like the thesaurus – which is a beautiful form, as it organizes words in terms of its meanings – by natural order of the world as its organizing principle rather than the arbitrary order of the of the alphabet.(1)

Other than being marginalized, some histories are imbalanced – undocumented or non-linear and are represented by a defunct narrative which may have ceased to be of value – the extended challenge then becomes three-fold. Firstly, if the luxury of time-space can be afforded, the creation of a narrative of the present can re-orient and provide a basis for future developments. As in the case of India, we are in acute need of documentation of historical typology, construction techniques and contemporary practices and positions assumed for a new narrative to emerge.

Secondly, if an unfamiliar construct could be dexterously molded and approximated to local specifics, to ensure acceptance and add value to the indigenous. This format would allow for an experimental approach to explore history and could nullify the issues of origin concerning ideas and processes and dissolve the ominous east-west divide. Thirdly, identify the paradigm shift in meaning and hence manifestation from the original narrative to the local context. The loss in translation can be supplemented by fortifying local values.

End of the Formal : Meaning over classification?

Our classification of the world is the result of a desire to impose order. Classification remains a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is an enemy of imagination, suffocating our desire to wonder and discover new associations, as a limiting force in separating and connecting elements from their true state and as a reductive force in framing perception. The baggage of objectivity and rationale – in practice and academia, mostly silences the innate sensitivity and intuition. On the other hand, it also remains a useful tool to root ideas in time and space. A constant awareness to organize the imposed order of classification into a more creative order of meanings ensures a more fruitful and balanced exploration.

Even before formal learning, history has always been an integral part in the education of an architect. However, architecture which in the past was mostly a subset of history has today turned tables in our pedagogical pursuit. The prevalent has become the alternate; the source has become the substitute. Significantly, history of the future will be defined by the end of the formal – content, medium, representation and sources.

Today, the importance of ideas, processes, and information is relegated to its immediate use, the reversal of chronologies in social media and the inherent structure of the internet perpetrates that only the latest is relevant. As has been the case since the advent of social media, the nearer history is going to become very important to document, represent and connected back to the evolution of its founding ideas to make it relevant and wholesome for consumption.

The implications of this reversal emphasize on a new kind of source – the internet, which will become a surrogate – source, reference and platform to unify claims of issues of ownership and plagiarism. Most significantly, themes, structuring and constructs linking varied ideas and concepts will become more important than the autonomous idea itself.

Pure authorship may not remain significant, but ordering, prescribing, orchestrating, coordinating and organising information to become relevant and significant for absorption into the field will become the force that may also be effective in taming the influence of social media and the internet.


Borrowing a quote from the book ‘Atlas of Novel Tectonics’ –
“Borges suggests that the author recreates his own precursors, new architecture fundamentally reorganises the canon. Architecture makes a new history; history doesn’t make a new architecture”.

It is this notion that excites us, that history does not merely inform new architecture but design re-forms history. History can be looked at as a tool to “reorganise the canon” – through multiple lens. Each possibility can take its own methodological course. We believe and re-emphasise on the idea of history as a substratum to compose (theory) and decompose (criticism) ideas of architecture.(2) This essay has been an attempt to discuss a possibility of a larger framework for these explorations.

In a pro-capital-post-colonial-western-centric world, we are in desperate need of domestic narratives. Narratives are equipped to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of the immediate, and embrace the poetics and intelligence of the universal. The narratives act as sieves to the received information – as vehicles to transform universal into specific and vice versa.

History is a tool to disturb established meanings and congregate fragile ideas. History is both a point of entry and departure. It allows us to dwell between subjective and objective – point of view and field of view. History is a threshold to both anchor and release design strategies. “Ideas and theories”, Edward Said writes in his essay ‘Travelling Theory’, “Travel – from person to person, from situation to situation, from one period to another though the ‘circulation of ideas’ takes different forms, including ‘acknowledged or unconscious influence, creative borrowing, or wholesale appropriation’.”

History simultaneously traces, moulds, transforms and circulates these ideas. The attempt is to engage with history as a tool to operate rather than a static and canonic body of knowledge ♦

– Kiran Kumar & Madhuri Rao

This essay is an abridged version of ‘Understanding Intent and Meaning in History’ published in Learning Architecture (Ed. Kulbhushan Jain), in 2019 by AADI Centre.

(1) This notion of the ‘thesaurus’ is discussed by David Bellos in the essay ‘Understanding Dictionaries’ in the book ‘Is That Fish in Your Ear:The Amazing Adventure of Translation

(2) The phrases : theory(compose) and criticism(decompose) are referred from the research paper- ‘The Interrelation between Theory and Criticism’ by Raghad Mofeed Mohamed

About the Authors

S Madhuri Rao’s areas of interest include the evolution of ideas, movements and practices in the disciplines of architecture and design. Madhuri Rao is a graduate from BMS, Bangalore and post-graduate in Theory & Design from CEPT, Ahmedabad. She has taught post-graduate and undergraduate courses in History, Theory and Design at CEPT Ahmedabad, DSCA, BMSSA and RVCA, Bangalore. She is a practicing architect and a permanent faculty at RVCA, Bangalore.

R Kiran Kumar is an architect based in Mysore, currently teaching as Associate Professor at WCFA, Mysore. Kiran is a graduate from USD, Mysore and post-graduate in Theory and Design from CEPT, Ahmedabad. He is involved in teaching drawing, theory and design subjects. Inclined towards understanding architecture through creative drawing methods and architectural ideas, particularly which are heuristic in nature. He blogs at mofussilthoughts.wordpress.com.

S Madhuri Rao and R Kiran Kumar have co-authored, ‘Perspectives on Early Modernist Constructs in Architecture’, published by CEPT University Press, 2012

‘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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