Personal Traverses Through the Pedagogical Terrain
by Suprio Bhattacharjee
Architect, researcher and writer Suprio Bhattacharjee looks back at his own education and critically evaluates the paradoxes of the prevalent pedagogical systems in order to create a framework to analyse new, emergent and experimental models in the subsequent chapters of this series he is set to curate.
When I first began teaching in 2002, I was just a year out of the same architecture school – the hallowed Sir JJCollege of Architecture in Mumbai. It was a place that inspite of its terrible flaws and apparent parochial constitution, was able to leave me to my own devices – I dare say ‘aided and abetted’ by less-than-a-handful of teachers who dared to be off the mainstream. The school was surprisingly absorptive of ‘strangeness’ though, if one was strong-headed and persistent. Perhaps, the very ‘otherness’ of these ‘strange presences’ meant that most would not bother – thus as a student one was able to nurture one’s self if one wished to do so and was sufficiently self-driven or self-initiated. This also was the school at its weakest: that as an institution, it lacked a set of ‘values’ or ‘principles’ by which it defined itself and its coursework and output – other than the misplaced mundanity of the ‘practical’ (or whatever was implied by this). Although if one could prove that if one’s ‘strangeness’ would ‘fit in’, one could survive the gladiator bloodbath. Thus, one could sense a surprising paradox – the very systems that seemed to be restrictive and closed gave one enough freedom and space to be one’s own – just as those few teachers taught us to be – within a space of constant negotiation.
Read more: HINDSIGHT: Suprio Bhattacharjee
Were these loopholes in the system, or was the system robust enough that it did not mind the ‘intrusion’ of a few? One can only speculate. But what it did leave many of us with was the sense of being intrepid and exploratory – to prod along paths that were off the main course.
As a young teacher in the same institution, I was considered to operate out of the left field – and intriguingly, regardless of the nature of the institutions I have taught in ever since over the past decade and a half – I have always felt that – no matter how radical, progressive, inclusive or diverse an institution claimed to be, I was still considered to come off the ‘left-field’ in all of these institutions. The connotation would change, of course, as would the attitudes with which one began to perceive ‘the other.’ Recently, in an article in DOMUS India (DI 36 – January 2016) I mulled over what ‘new’ and ‘radical’ meant – and whether the casual nature with which we often use these terms as descriptors actually undermines those that can be deemed as really radical – that really effortlessly question the core of things – not as outcomes of a self-proclaimed actioner, but rather as resultants of almost unconscious agents of ‘what-really-needs-to-be-done-in-response-to-the-time-and-place.’ To give a glimpse of the argument I was making – the obsession with Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye or Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (stemming out of the mainstream Modernist discourse) that every student of architecture must have come across in school as a ‘radical’ example, and the widespread ignorance of Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea and say, Oscar Niemeyer’s Canoas House (Iwo masterpieces born out of what Colin St John Wilson termed as ‘The Other Tradition’ – sidelined and obscured by mainstream Modernist doctrine) – that contemporary historians today mark out as being truly ahead of their time. In 2005, I wrote an essay on design studio pedagogy (Architecture: Time, Space and People, December 2005) that documented the explorations I had engaged with as a young teacher along with a couple of inspirational colleagues. My tone there sounded urgent and perhaps agitated, and now, almost thirteen years later, while I can see a lot of hope in the fact that the landscape of architectural education is changing drastically, there is still the ardent need to enquire into the manner in which architects are being ‘prepared’ for their life outside of school, if I put it very broadly, as I would refrain from using ‘the profession’ here for now.
ACADEMICIAN OR PRACTITIONER? BINARIES OF CONVENIENCE
AND THE ARDENT NEED FOR THE GREYSCALE
In this respect, it seems serendipitous to join forces with this journal to embark upon an exploratory journey into schools of architecture that have been set up very recently – say in the 2010s – and to probe and make observations thereof, if not scrutinise, what stand these schools take or what their evolving stand is on a number of issues or concerns. Recently, discussions have cantered on towards whether we have too many schools of architecture – and whether the sudden bloat in the number of undergraduate architecture schools is actually detrimental to the quality of education within these schools. At the same time, a rush for doctorate degrees to satisfy Council of Architecture norms results in a lopsided view towards education that in many ways can be traced back to the nature of Western academia – where the Cartesian mind-body disconnect -or the domains of thought and action – are deemed to be independent of themselves. This is not helped by the fact that to fulfil the current Council norms, more prospective teachers than ever have Master’s degrees – many obtained from schools abroad – in deference to the previous situation where many schools were dominated by practitioners – as the Council norms then sought equivalence between education and years of practice. It would be interesting to see what balance these schools strike out in terms of the academia-practice balance within their teaching faculty, and whether these schools have space for the autodidactic -the self-learnt – or those that are not ‘ratified’ on paper – but are by practice and ‘doing’.
This leads one to the nature of the institution (in terms of their founding most importantly) – who are the individuals that have initiated these schools, what have been their impulses and what is the relationship they share with academia, with pedagogy, with practice and the pedagogy of practice, and with the profession? This is all the more essential if we are to evolve an architectural culture that is unique to our own – and not mere facsimiles of systems or methods that have been in operation elsewhere.
In a recent interview with Japanese architect Hitoshi Abe – who served as Chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA for almost a decade – he lamented how Japanese universities were going the way of their American counterparts — with a steady loss in openness and flexibility in terms of coursework and the manner in which the schools engaged with practice or the ‘space of doing’ – qualities that have been integral to Japan’s extraordinary architectural inventiveness over the past decades and the sheer prodigiousness as seen in the works of even younger architects – in their negotiation of the real. Is this staid formalization of pedagogy and stricture over accommodative and supple structure beginning to inform our new schools? Do these schools encourage practitioners to teach – and if that is the case, how does it affect the nature of the coursework and of their administration? Can we come close to the proximity between thought and action – or the mind and the body – in our pedagogic models so that the engagement with the real results in an architectural culture as vigorous, rooted, diverse and enriching as the one mentioned above? What are these pedagogic models – if they exist at all or are seen as evolving – and what have the subsequent successes and failures been? Often, the need for epistemic closure leads one to a culture of rampant confirmation bias – that is the bane of any educational system making an effort to be open and accepting of the ‘contradictions.’ It would be intriguing to see what these schools offer in terms of their epistemic and pedagogical models, and their view towards the ‘attainment’ (a contentious term in this context) or better still, ‘discovery’ of knowledge.
AN ENQUIRY TO DEVELOP A PARAMETRIC CLOUD OF FLUID CONCERNS IN GREYSCALE
Amongst the many aspects that will need investigation, is whether or how schools address the changing notions of practice today – both within the country and in anticipation of changes being absorbed from elsewhere. What do these schools identify as these drifts and currents, and how are students being equipped to handle the same? Practice today is no longer insular or domain-centric, and one needs to be able to contend with interdisciplinary diversity as well as multidisciplinary fluidity. Indian architecture schools have been remarkable exemplars of disciplinary silos, and our endeavour would also be to investigate whether or how these schools are able to successfully engage with the unmaking of this silo. Silos also lead to a lot of obsolescence, as ideas are enriched and engulfed by the reshaping of our realities and conscience in this post-global world – where notions of culture, authenticity, time-place specifics are constantly being challenged. How do these schools thus engage with the learnings from other disciplines (say the Humanities), and how do these schools illuminate their students on disciplinary histories – most importantly architectural history, and the contentious histories of the relationships architecture shares with landscape and engineering for example. It is often a common refrain that if Indian engineers were taught the Humanities, our reality will not be so despicable. Architects, having always been exposed to the Humanities as part of their coursework, are far more fortunate in that way – and we shall probe how this penetrates their coursework and the output of student works within the schools and whether the student work thus created is demonstrative of an increased understanding of the cultural and spatio-temporal complexities and realities of building in the present and the foreseeable future.
Speaking of which, we would be eager to understand how these schools address the challenges of the future such as climate change, cultural polarisation, economic disparities, the collapse of institutions and government administration, and the like. Do these affect the nature of the projects conducted within the studios and the discourse within these schools or are these still narrowly focused upon mere formal and normative questions? What is the influence of evolving disciplines within the discourse in these schools? How connected or removed are the assignments in these schools to issues of topical concern? And does this then engender a unique methodology of enquiry? In today’s hyper-connected reality, does the methodology of enquiry alter with the prevalence of digital tools? How is the nature of the studio, and thus the nature of enquiry and of project outcomes, transformed by this altered methodology, if at all?
Should we still see studios as static environments bound by the norms of the ‘classroom’ – or are they dynamic, shape-shifting settings for hyper-charged and aggressive, if necessarily, deep and mediated, spaces of probing and questioning?
And if they are, how does this affect the attitude towards research and self-exploration: the culture of reading, and most importantly, the culture of writing and drawing. In a recent article, Sam Jacob of the former practice of FAT, wrote on what he called the ‘post-digital drawing’ – and how the resurgence of the drawing in the face of the predominance of digital tools has meant the ontological questioning of the nature of the drawing itself and what it seeks to communicate in deference to the flashy photo-realistic render, although he does remark that over time, these ‘new’ drawings have begun to appear indistinct from one another – a new homogenisation in a sense – across culture and geography. This is problematic, and we will seek to observe whether these new schools have given an impetus to evolving forms of drawing unique to their own pedagogical methods, much like how the AA or Bartlett were known for their drawings in the later decades of the 20th century.
FORESIGHT AND FORETHOUGHT: WHAT WE HOPE TO LOOK FORWARD TO
While these questions here may only scratch the surface of the concerns that shall drive our subsequent enquiries, it sets the stage or a frame of reference in terms how we would wish to engage with those. The introduction here to this essay of questions – born out of personal experiences – is meant to offer a device of resonance for the many of us who have sought to engage with these questions – with lesser or greater success – rather than a diatribe. The intention of laying these out is also to build a position — a set of lenses —through which we shall address these aspects in the schools we shall cast our glance upon.
Over the next set of issues of this publication, we shall bring forth to these pages our first-hand accounts of these schools, ruminations by the individuals involved in their setting up and administration, and dialogues with the people who matter in these schools, along with our own set of observations gleaned from these engagements. This is the purpose of this series, and we hope that it will be able to offer us insight into these teething questions around architectural pedagogy, many of which were brought to light in essays by stalwarts in the ‘Campaign’ series published within the pages of the Indian Architect & Builder magazine a few years ago. We can see this as a second coming of this Campaign — but now, instead of hearing what the stalwarts have to say, our gaze turns away from individuals towards institutions and what these seemingly profess and stand for ■
SUPRIO BHATTACHARJEE is an architect now based out of Chennai, India. He has recently been appointed Studio Director of architectureRED (a Chennai-based practice known for their urban architecture), and is the Founder and Principal Architect of SI BAU / Suprio Bhattacharjee Architecture Unit. He has served as a faculty member in various schools in the city of Mumbai over the past sixteen years. Suprio’s architectural writings and critical texts have appeared in DOMUS India magazine, and his contributions have also been published in respected academic and professional journals such as TEKTON, Conditions Architecture & Urbanism, Oris, Innowin, architecturelive.in and Architecture: Time, Space & People. Suprio has contributed to professional conclaves and seminars on architecture, design and pedagogy as a presenter and a curator and has been a vocal critic of the status quo. He has been a recipient of critical acclaim for his architectural works and has been recognised as one of the emerging architects to look out for, by the iGEN2016 programme instituted by Architect & Interiors India.
This editorial was originally authored and published as part of a series of articles for the [IN]SIDE Journal.
PEDAGOGY is a curated series that investigates contemporary experiments and new thinking in design education.