Architects: Service Providers or Agents of Social Change?
Architects (alone) cannot save the world.
Architects cannot solve all of humanity’s problems.
So should architects be service providers to the few who can afford them, and should they do as told?
Upon visiting a few architectural practices in Ahmedabad, it became clear that nowadays, architects are often hired by private companies and individuals to design buildings that are tailored to their specific needs and preferences. This has led to a growing trend of architects working as ‘hired hands’ for private clients (and prioritizing the desires and preferences of their clients) rather than serving the public interest. For instance, a practice working for a developer would be more interested in designing a building that maximizes profit and meets the developer’s specific requirements rather than one that prioritizes the needs and preferences of the wider community.
This also brings concern to architectural elitism, reflecting a broader social inequality and exclusion trend. This trend is evident in the design and execution of buildings and urban spaces, which often prioritize the interests of the affluent and powerful rather than the needs and aspirations of the broader population. This elitism also manifests itself in the prevalence of ‘starchitects’ or the most sought-after architects or architectural practices who charge exorbitant fees and have a visually striking and signature style, and are hired by the ones who can afford them; their work is (often) disconnected from the needs of ordinary people and the realities of the built environment in the country. Elitism is also in the tendency to import Western design principles and building technologies, which may not be appropriate for the Indian context at all.
Out of the fifteen offices we visited in Ahmedabad, only three seemed to indulge in social projects (are designs focused on creating public spaces that encourage community engagement, promote social interaction, and prioritize the needs of the people who will use the space) out of choice. Only one practice didn’t feel the constraints of fees or extended project timelines were problematic. Meanwhile, the other two practices strongly expressed their concerns when it came to ‘public realm’ or ‘social’ projects and felt whoever wants to do such projects has to either take self-initiative or pitch the projects to the relevant authorities and deal with such authorities which is generally seen as a headache by architects.
One practice had a fascinating take on the idea of the ‘publicness’ of projects; they initially had started their journey with the sole intention of doing ‘public sector projects’ but eventually realized that they could bring ‘publicness’ to every project they do no matter the program, and then their concern narrowed down to ‘how people interact.’ Having built a few ‘public sector projects,’ they concluded that the authorities in power in India see the agency of architects as providers of comprehensive services, and architecture in India is very informal and immature as a field as of now which is a big obstacle for such projects of social (or public) nature.
Coming back to the practice, which didn’t feel the constraints posed by this reality of ‘social’ projects were a hindrance to the successful implementation of these projects; this practice is fairly young and always has had 2-3 people in total working on a project or two throughout the year (or years at times). They consciously have chosen to work on projects aiming to serve the 95% of the population, not the 5% who can afford an architect. With everyone involved in everything of the projects in hand, there has always been transparency in the way the practice operates. Due to a small number of projects in hand, that too projects in collaboration with NGOs or other such organizations, the practice had to cross-subsidize with other means of income (such as academics). This has been a visible trend in many small practices involved in such ‘social’ projects; they usually cross-subsidize with other types of projects or other means of income in order to sustain.
Apart from these practices, there are practices that seem to be combatting elitism in the architectural industry in other ways, for instance, designing only masonry structures which employ traditional masons and designing details that are easy to construct on-site. Or practices that indulge in participatory methods of designing; two firms (out of the 15) have been employing this method of designing and building at some level. It is also important to note that a practice that indulges in ‘social’ projects can also be elitist in the sense of inefficient use of resources (time); they might be extending one project for too long because they can afford to do so.
Overall, while the trend towards architects acting as hired hands is not necessarily negative in itself, it raises questions about architects’ role in society and their responsibility to serve the public interest. It also highlights the need for architects to consider the social and ethical implications of their work carefully and ensure that their designs prioritize the wider community’s needs rather than just the interests of their clients. However, there are various reasons why architects may choose not to engage in social projects explicitly, such as economic constraints, limited opportunities, lack of support, perception of architecture, and inadequate training and education.