Architecture in Interesting Times

  • August 21, 2017
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Architecture in Interesting Times
Nirma College of Architecture
Foundation Day Keynote Lecture
19th August 2017

Good Afternoon dear students and colleagues.

I am told some parents of those who are soon to be young architects or have their wards joining the course are also here.

Welcome to our world and greetings to you all too.

To the parents I have to say  that if they are worried about what their children will do after they graduate from here, they should not be- architecture and the world of design in general is a wonderful world , and every one touched by it has found a lightness in their steps and a meditative and satisfied smile on their face.

Having said this, I must qualify that while my talk may at some points sound like the rumble of dark clouds   gathering,  I assure you , its only the preamble for an inevitable and predicated dance of the many droplets that will salve and soothe a parched earth.

For, I have no doubt that more than politics, more than economics, and in some ways even more than technology, it’s the world of arts and design that will make our world richer and embedded with meanings and textures that will nourish societies. And all the young designers will be in the forefront of this transformation.
My title of the talk today refers to what is supposed to be one of three Chinese curses.

1. May you live in interesting times
2.May you be recognized by people in high place
3.May you get what you wished for.

The origin of these curses are unclear and many don’t even attribute it to any Chinese folklore , but their potency has caught popular  imagination and they keep getting recalled at relevant junctures of our lives.

The first , “ May you live in interesting times” refers to the desire that settled times, or uninteresting times, are those where life has an ordered pattern, that does not change much; its mostly anticipated and does not have surprises lurking around the corner, and every one behaves as per a grand agreed plan This kind of life  is much preferred by many who argue that an ordered life is a primary prescription for imagining a better life and hence a better future.

Its not entirely easy to argue against this notion.  We often say , “ being good is boring” or “ being moral is boring’ despite the fact that  these are virtues, we all hold dear to our selves.  And yet we say this;  So what does it mean?

It does mean that the thrill and adrenaline  of  life, that allows us to sense palpably our hearts racing, or be swept off our feet with unexpected surprise  or delight or fear is an emotion we guard ourselves from and don’t let affect us much; in the fear that it will derail us, distract us, and expend precious energy on wasteful adventures.

In general I would agree with this; but unsettled times have their virtues. Because often its through the churning of such times that  great new work or great ideas are  born. Sometimes, this churning is societal, and sometimes its a whirlpool in the  inner sanctum of our minds.

Its when new futures are dramatically imagined; a time when the human mind is sharply attuned to the world  in a rather heightened manner, and ticks away at all hours to imagine change, a difference, a new something.

I think we live in such times. We live in interesting times and that to me is very exciting.

But let me quickly explain why.

Post Independence , India  was in the mood to build a new nation. This formed broadly our national character then and in architecture it reflected in the making of many new institutions and ofcourse that  grand experiment in urbanity- Chandigadh. There was a sense of purpose in the air; a grand sense of collective direction.

Along with this , ofcourse for many decades, the country was concerned in a real sense to find solutions to house its millions and many architects tested theories of mass  and social housing .

We were clearly a socialist state , and the glue of working for this idea held the profession together and focused.

In the early 80s, the economy opened up, profit was not a dirty word, and along with the IT , the World Wide Web changed our world for ever. While one part of the profession, tried hard to want to belong to the world at large and wear a garb that would help them blend easily and this led to the many glass edifices we see dotting our cities, others strived to find their identity , and ideas of the vernacular, or even Indian identity were much discussed. A clear and stated set of contradictory positions , allowed ideas to clash and  some new work to emerge .

Today however  the discussion that occupies many minds is  about sustainability. The worry about our planet has made center stage the discussion about how much we should build and how. We are all in agreement of the inevitability of the exhaustion of the planets ability to provide succor indefinitely , and with  this agreement the profession chugs along.

While this of course is a good idea, what it has sadly done is that it has diverted at least from the main discussion, ideas that were always debated in architecture- of space; of light;  of human senses; of making the architecture that Palassama brilliantly  argues for ; one with encounters and confrontations that interact with memory.

I find that architecture discussed or conversed about such aspects today, holds little attention and we perennially seek a higher cause; of serving society; or dignifying the public; or saving the planet/country/city/town/ neighborhood – depending on ones appetite for scale

Slowly but surely we loose the very essence of the idea of architecture, and the almost primal joy in creating spaces that have a gamut of emotions, that touch us , is no more seen as a principal reason why we become architects.

And we loose our ability to imagine  such spaces and then loose our ability to create such spaces. Like ancient amphibious creatures that stayed all the time on land, we slowly loose our fins and gills; like birds who choose just to walk, we loose our wings.

These then are interesting times.

When from a mere 11 schools in the country, when I studied about 25 years back , we have now at last count well over  400 schools and growing; with thousands of students flocking eagerly to learn this wonderful world of architecture- and finding conversations about energy, urbanity, sustainability, society,  new building typologies; new softwares; but not about light,  not about shadows,  not about tallness and shortness, nor  about the sensuous power of space.

Interesting times indeed.

The other part of these interesting times are constructed by our ideas of God.

Any profession we will agree , needs heros; Gods that we can look up to , be inspired by. Look at the pantheon of architects in India. Doshi clearly acknowledges Corbusier as his teacher. KB Jain and  the late  Prof. Raje  acknowledged Louis Kahn, Achyut Kanvinde acknowledged  Walter Gropius. My father acknowledged the great Sorenson and Brian Hackett, and you can see in all their work an earnest desire to construct conversations with their teachers or idols.

In these times of scattered and facile conversations, rapidly flitting attention spans, where pictures and words, not the actual project , or  the experience of its users, are evidence of credibility   ,  who are present day heroes, the Gods ; and who made them so?

Nothing can be more interesting than to live in times with Gods  who have clay feet and  may totter any time.  Or even better, in times of self appointed Gods.

Great religions are formed in times like this. New ways of thinking that change the world. The arrogance  of a Roman Empire was needed to give Christianity the vigor to establish. In far flung places, away from the crowds, in small places, like minded people gathered and slowly formed and postulated a new religion.

When I travel across the country, and particularly to smaller towns I can sense this mood; of young students like you ,asking questions, thinking hard, imagining a world that is their own , and not one that is foisted upon them; and developing new ways to think and imagine.

I observe them carefully. They are asking questions. They are evaluating the projects beyond the words that surround them. They are watching carefully what is preached to them, and seeing  if the actions of the preacher are consistent.

They are going and studying places in their geography; old places, new places; studying and discussing.

They are not afraid to ask questions.
They are setting up small research projects for themselves.

And they are constantly discussing and assimilating the world around them, making meanings and also making judgments.

And the other thing that I see is that they are imagining the profession differently. Not everyone wants to engage with it the way its conventionally done. Slowly , new ways of working with clients, or communities are emerging. And I see many  young people who want to conduct research, or write,  or set up design projects in ways never imagined.

And perhaps the greatest joy is when in the mass of sameness, there are a few, finding the light and shadow in their work , in a design language they struggle with , because its new and has all the raw charm of one not assured or  self conscious.

These are interesting times and you are lucky to be part of them. It’s a whole new world for you to find, and define. To write a new script; because the old script perhaps has run its course, or is not relevant any more.

But there is caution to be sounded.

The thing about scripts is that it needs a language. And developing a language is a difficult and time consuming skill. And then keeping it alive even more so. The first languages  probably made their appearance over 10000 years back ; and yet we don’t know of many, since we don’t have written proof. And of 2700 languages and 7000 dialects in the world, every two weeks a language or a dialect dies.

Also , a language has to be slowly formed; words tested, meanings examined. A language with poor words cant really ever have great literature or poetry. A language that borrows words freely without really understanding their genesis, or appreciating their nuances will only construct facile sentences.  A language with which you cant talk to self or to others , is no language at all; but really strung gibberish.

A language that very few will understand and relate to, can only  have as its followers a very small number of people.

And so it is with architecture. And yet a language will have to be created. Its time to imagine this.

And in doing so , we may find some words in older architecture, some in newer buildings, some from spaces in other lands- but finally it will have to be one that becomes your own- that it belongs to you, and you belong to it.

And an architectural syntax with which we can write the plays and poetry for our lands, will slowly be formed.

At this point you may well be within your rights to ask if the words I use have substance to back them.

In our studio we follow a strange custom.

In a world where every one has a personalized e.mail, or a personal social page account, amongst 45 of us  in the studio,we have just one e.mail id.  I have a personal e.mail id ; but its mostly defunct. And all our mails come on this id. Be they be about,  the many projects we do, or about accounts, or about personal conversations with colleagues and friends, or even disagreement with people. The whole office has access to this mail id , and may have often asked me , if this is not peculiar. Is there , they ask, no need for privacy, or about keeping information in separate silos.

We have believed at all times, that lesser the gap there is between words and action, between the personal and work front, and lesser the privacy there is, the better and easier is life constructed. The single e.mail is only one manifestation of this.

We share work with the world freely; we share drawings and details; we share conversations about work ; and I suspect that all this comes from wanting to never put our selves in a place where we are  not open to be judged by any and all.

So only in that spirit, I will like to share some work with you.

I  recently was  called a few days back to speak at another public forum in town; and some of you may have come there- so in consideration of that fact , we have chosen to show  here work that was not shown there . But please also do see the work that we shared there,  which now is part of our office blog.

Kanjurmarg;  Mumbai; In which land was crafted on concrete in ways to hold people in the folds of earth.


Devi Art; In which we acknowledged but refused to talk to the world around us; and we started many a startling conversations within.

Khoni; In which we present the memory of loss.


NBS School; In which we work with children and make memories.


HWR; In which we work with memory fractals.


Chhatral; In which we settle water to make sculpture; and reimagine a space.


Dahej; In which we design spaces of dignity


Bridge House Baroda; In which a house was built to straddle a valley, and gaze at nature; where  it traversed many   ideas of tamed and wild, nature, and sometimes the edge between.


Drum House; Ahmedabad In which many personalities come together, to sit and converse.


Linear Park; In which we  try  and remind ; that which we do not see.


SVG; Bhiwandi. In which a derelict stone quarried land, was nourished back to life

Devi Ratna; In which we imagined what feudal architecture would mean today.

Rio Club; In which we have fun and remember.

Ark; In which we trapped emotions.

I would like to conclude.

First to the parents. For the next five years , you will be confounded with why your child cuts so much paper, or does not have a bath for days, or sleeps odd hours, or does not  sleep at all. Let them be, When it comes for them to travel let them go to places you have never heard of; let them work with people you have never heard of; just let them soak the world in as many ways as they can.  This is architects in the making and that is a special process, that only those who go through it understand . Do not worry .

For the young students  joining today. Welcome to a fantastic magical world of architecture. Spend the next years immersed in it and find love for it. Be passionate about space . Read as much as you can. Travel as much as you can. Listen to as many people as you can. These five years are important. Find for yourself the world of architecture and make it your own; like a second skin.

And for those who will soon graduate. Remember to tell your self the day you graduate , that you know nothing. That you have learnt nothing. All you have are some skills. To cut paper. To draw . To see. To listen. To see the world differently. And then spend the rest of your life telling your self that every day is a new day to learn. Every day is new day to imagine wonderful spaces.

And for my colleagues; for the teachers here ; do remember that while you will teach them many things, the one thing you must lead them to is to learn what love is for spaces; for architecture. Teach them to love. And that’s all they will ever need to learn.

Thank you.


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