• Ankita Dhal

Architecture Depends : Jeremy Till - #Conversations02

Excerpts from the Reading Room

Notes from Miro Board. Head over to the board for a detailed reading.

P: As architects we have a natural tendency to fight dependencies that architecture has. We tend to work in boundaries and not think of the outside, we relax with respect to the real world, that architects are self-obsessed and remain within the walls of their profession

What do you think about it?

S1: Some of my past experiences say that it does happen a lot. Like when clients ask a simple question, we answer in big ways that aren’t probably the accurate answer, we make it sound larger and use certain language to explain.

P: Another common anecdote is all your school friends, because of the way our education system is, we lose touch with them or when we gather we feel like the odd one out, because we find it difficult to talk beyond our profession while many others can. Like doctors also face this, some professions treat their jobs as just jobs, 9-5, so they can easily step out, of course that can happen in exceptions even in architects, but by and large. Hence I find it interesting that you gave example of clients and not family/friends

Even the way we behave and value things on trips v/s what they value and chase after, like how we take photos v/s how they would

Example of trips- wanting to see buildings with family/friends, but doctors or lawyers don’t ask to go see a hospital or a fellow prominent professional.

S6: Architects see buildings from lens of construction and never demolision.

P: yes how buildings are transient, they emerge from waste and become waste, so designs are just a phase In its life, but architects like to see their design as timeless and the building as static. Also not considering how time and user affect and change their buildings.

In current discourse, we used to see conservation solely related to a building but as more non-architects are entering heritage and conservation, they say we have to conserve a way of life. So take the example of Pragati Maidan, only architects were against the demolition.

S1: I don’t think everything can stay forever, for most people cannot see what architects see, so I think it was right.

P: So what according to you is the reason for that?

S2: Because the materials also don’t last forever, everything has a life and I suppose demolition would lead to building anew in more relevant modern way or improved

If we asked this question 20 years ago?

Then I wouldn’t agree as much because the building, would be of its time and new

S6: then we should demolish CEPT building, its old and because of buildings like that we build similar buildings again.

P: Then what do you think about Pragati Maidan?

S6: I don’t think so, it had more years in it, buildings are meant to last longer than that building did.

P: So is your argument purely constructional? That it has life left in it so we let it be ? like a housing building not being remade ?

S2: For houses I think that can be applied because it has embodied energy that would go to waste, but if it’s a public scale building, I think we need to debate and discuss more because it has different kind of values, my overall argument would always be don’t demolish it, there would definitely be some use to it, because today there is so much infrastructure

P: your argument is not the common one that was used by architects about its architectural value, about it being the first concrete building in its time or Raj Rewal or Mahendra Raj etc, you are saying its purely building and usablility related?

S2: Yes

S3: I think if its not relevant according to todays standards and services, todays requirements and comfort, then its okay to demolish because we cant live in that building anymore, maybe we can retain façade and change the interiors if we really want it, like that happens in Europe

P: yes in Europe, you mean adaptive reuse, but my question was about specific architecture, like the more recent ones IIM hostel building, its different from Pragati Maidan which is public whereas IIM which is institutional

S4: I don’t think it’s just about public infrastructure, like hall of nations had more to it, like it is more economical to build a new one than fix the existing, so I’m saying people will consider economic logic than to conserve

P: So are you saying it should be preserved only if it makes economic sense?

S4: in a non-architects point of view, yes

P: In your view?

S4: In my view, if its making economic sense then keep it

P: so by extension if it doesn’t then demolish it?

S4: For that there's more societal aspects

P: I am asking your point of view if its your decision and not the society’s?

S5: Then what would you say about Rajpat Redevelopment?

S4: That is very debatable

P: Okay so coming back to Hall of Nations, what is your opinion and why?

S4: keeping the building is first option, because it was a marvellous piece of architecture, I would prefer to save it

P: So your take is architectural value

S4: yes and if it doesn't meet its need, then we can go towards demolition

P: Then that is the argument that was given, it wasn’t meeting needs

S4: Yes, if that is the case then it might make sense

P: The you are saying its okay to demolish is, because its not being used as its original purpose which was an exhibition hall and has limited uses

S6: if we extend the debate to what will come after the demolition, the pros and cons, we need to debate beyond whether to demolish or not, what matters is what will replace it and how it compares to the value of what exists, architects get obsessed with conserving without the comparison and whys.

(T on chat: But the very premise of don't demolish and retrofit repair discourse is that its more economical and cheaper to edit an existing building and increase its life than build a new one which takes global resources, money, material and new embodied energies? )

P: yes, there's instant polarization, two halves emerge, one that keeps it one that demolishes, from there on each side gives endless reasons to justify, like the Rajpat , people who don’t agree are saying everything from construction to greenery to politics to resource etc., verses the other side hasn’t given any clear answer as to why they need it , but I feel people pick a side and then make flimsy points, some are quite random or absurd and that does a disservice to the issue at hand right?

But my insistence is that you should have opinions, you should be opinionated, and be able to say it in public and also argue it well enough with backed up well thought of points and also ask yourself where that opinion is coming from. Because that will shape your own ideology, otherwise you might just look to others ideologies and manifestos and add to it.

To me it doesn’t matter whether you agree with demolition or no, my job is to make sure you get questioned and challenged so you make your arguments sharper and richer.

P: the life of the land is longer than building, like phenomenological Heidegger speaks about location and place and experience, Jeremy is saying the land will have attachment even if the building is gone, neither is saying the physical artefact is not important, they are saying it’s part of it, not all of it.

I agree with T's point on the chat. There will come a point when its both ecologically and economically it will not make sense to preserve, there will be a tipping point, we have to be aware of the tipping point. That’s the main concern with reinforced concrete buildings, older buildings have pure materials like stones and wood which have a longer lifespan, like older bridges of wood their tipping point is much much longer, verses a RCC bridge. But I think the main point here is not the debate on heritage or conservation- the vexing question is – who decides? The citizens? Do experts decide? Does everyone? The government? How is the decision making process? That needs to be thought out

P: My concern is you are either not open about your opinions or are not sure what they are, both of which are problematic

Coming back to the book, how do you think the way you design will change because of the book?

S6: for both books, for me what's changed is the coauthors, how users need to be authors too, for example when Jeremy till talks about Vitruvian man, Corbusier's theories etc., how they become theories for architecture, but the users are hidden in these ideas, how they are not inclusive of the users, we need to consider that, like not say clients don’t know what they want, but we need to listen more, this extends to a project I was doing, a residence in Bangalore, the clients saw a similarity in the vaults I had proposed and the crematoriums nearby which he didn’t like (his uncle pointed it out), which he loved before this realization, and I argued that no, you will enjoy the space which was naïve because they have to live in that house and hear and notice that comparison forever, but I stuck to my opinion and eventually the client walked out of the project.

P: the client feels genuinely disturbed by the fact that their house resembles a crematorium (shamshan ghat), then yes its important to listen, but if its just a passing opinion someone suggested to him and in two days he'll forget, then that is what the architect has to gauge what to do and how to take a call, because the occurrence is totally random but to the client it is a genuine reason even if it was suggested by someone else.

It’s a tricky thing that happens in all architecture projects I think, they will easily chuck you out of the project, so its crucial to see how you will negotiate the situation, hence the role of a negotiator in the role of architecture is crucial.

S6: so is it okay to walk out of the project? Because I don’t know if its me, I walked out of 2 more like this, like for a project which was almost final but after demonetization the client thought it was more profitable to use the land to make a tower than a school which I didn’t agree with and walked out so I don't know to what extent was it negotiable

P: in this case you have to ask what does it mean to be unprofessional, someone would argue walking out of a project midway is unprofessional, but others may say making a building that will be inherently problematic no matter what the lens (social, political, use, context etc.) it would be unprofessional to go ahead and build and hence it is perfectly fine to walk out.

Like Zaha Hadid Architects, there were many unethical aspects in Dubai where bonder labour is an issue, but architects may say there’s no unethical aspect in the design of the building, this is a contracting issue, so it’s confusing about where the line is to be drawn

I know of one colleague , designs were done and plans were passed, the two basements were built and then GDCR changed, so if its passed its okay to be built, but the FSI changed and increased so the developer said we should build more, but the building is already founded, for them it’s okay, they can build a new volume and structure etc., but for the architect it’s a huge concern, so you have to decide whether you walk out or stay, irrespective of you, the building will be made, you will be replaced by another architect, only your name will not be there.

P: my question is if it will be built according to client anyway, what did the architect save by walking out? The society or your own reputation and name? What matters more?

S6: I’ve been struggling with this question, in such cases what do you do? Is the customer key? Because negotiations can continue if you stay too?

P: Extremes is that customer is key, like restaurants, if you ask for sauce or sambar with a dish, most restaurants will agree and give and maybe apply extra charge, but some restaurants the chef will come and say no we can’t do that because according to us it’s not a good combination, these will be considered snooty restaurants, so it comes down to what is professional?

Your job is to weigh all options and opinions and put forth a point, like if you go by land value and design you can argue against profitability. The first steps are to put yourself in their shoes and see why they are saying what they are saying and hope that they do the same. Its about communicating your rationale.

Unless you are able to communicate your rationale to a client/non architect in a language she understands they are not going to understand the architect.

So what happened with that project did it get built?

S6: yes, it was a school building we had finished everything, then it got sacked and years later there is a marriage hall there now, which was more profitable and quicker return

P: I think there is a whole group of clientele that only comes to an architect because they have a piece of land that they want good returns on, the issue is that they have pre-decided the programme based on their own market survey, like before demonetization it was as school, after demonetization, it became something else, but to you it’s a school and that’s why you were disheartened, if you knew as a designed what would bring more or double profits, then you would innovate that way, but because you didn’t you would resist because maybe you designed with certain concepts, like learning etc., so what was rationale for resisting?

S6: So we had decided to look at that, I did design multipurpose courtyards and groups that can serve as extra income, so long term school income and immediate income from community, but eventually he wanted two buildings on less than an acre, he even drew plans on excel and pushed me to give him exactly that, and after that the negotiation stopped because it felt impossible to change their mind

P: this is unusual where in the end the building is to be changed into a different building. More common Is the crematorium example with the house, because it does happen, but still architects don’t consider these dependencies and contingencies, basic negotiations on schematic plans are normalized and known dependencies, but Till talks of unknown dependencies, and that we want to always work in known ones, also the assumption that design will be ruined by the unknown variables, we have never been taught that it needs to be looked at as a negative thing.

Optimistic vs pessimistic modernity

About risks about forms, design etc., risk in practice, chances of failure is high? How do we measure failure?

S7: isn’t risk in both hand in hand, and isn’t failure intangible?

P: I wouldn’t say its intangible, because there is a measure and there is a presupposition that there is some measuring scale based on which a failure is being talked of. Most offices will never talk about the failures, maybe its because the others are fun, etc. I personally see risk in practice and design as distinctly different but related

Like risk may be financial, or hiring freelancers versus employees, or taking government projects or private, these are risks of practice, not design, of course it has repercussions.

S8: disintegrated design, not connecting to philosophy experience etc. verses a book or movie or comic - Rossi writes of it as the building has a life of its own on paper and drawing but different in reality

P: yes but books, comic, etc. are intentional activities. Versus buildings are not experienced that intentionally neither are people equipped with the knowledge to read them that way

The curation of the photograph, like Mies does with the scenery that in todays time would be photoshopped, or Corbusier curating a table , its two different buildings we try to portray, with Mies imagination, he's saying that the scenery doesn’t suit his building so just change it

S7: the purpose and intent if strong enough that users can feel it in the building like the books and movies. So even though its uncommon, it is possible in some buildings, like museums

P: Maybe that is why architects prefer to get projects like museums and art galleries etc., because an intent is strong, versus a hospital etc., a larger intent being communicated.

S7: a building type that is not everyday life for people, like books and movies show not everyday things which is why they come off strongly too

S9: The museum also, its understood by those that frequent it

P: yes the user are also curated intentionally beforehand

(S7 on Chat: A few books in continuation to Architecture depends : For space - Doreen Massey Space and Place : The Perspective of Experience - Yi-Fu Tuan The Eyes of the Skin Architecture and the Senses - Juhani Pallasmaa Designs for the Pluri-verse and the Making of Worlds - Arturo Escobar)

P: Going back, there are some books that you might read two chapters and realize that you didn’t register anything because you were thinking about something else. This happens with movies also, it requires a certain kind of attention, it requires intentionality, so is it that built space inherently falls into the background, does it lack intentionality by its very nature?

Take music, you can choose what you like and then you stick to it on Spotify etc., but you cannot do that with architecture, like if you like modernist architecture you will only go to a hospital that is modern, that intentionality only architects have and not non-architects, it can never be intentional and that poses a different kind of challenge. Just like music, you may like classical or rock, and people may have different tastes with respect to space, materials etc., but that doesn’t mean we design for someone’s taste, especially not for all tastes and end up making a hodge-podge, so then how will we ever get people to appreciate designed space?

S7: I think there is a forcefulness of critical thinking on non architects and I think that’s also to do with the current media landscape, even the office we are interviewing today, they started with this intention to make everyone aware, maybe that’s how curation begins

P: but even in appreciation there are different levels, like someone who critiques music, they need to know and talk about notes and keys and chords, while others just like to listen to a song, it makes them feel something and they have an emotional response of I like it or I feel good, even though they may be unaware of the technicalities. Hence one need not know the language and technicalities of the art form and still appreciate without explaining why.

That kind of appreciation I haven’t heard non-architects ever speak of, like saying hey I went to this building and really enjoyed it.

Robin… says- one of the issues is also not being able to carry the physical artefact with you, there's a limited relationships between designer- designed object and user is very different than other art forms, its fixed in time and space, its static

T: But people do share a common sense of what is appreciated as important or marvelous architecture, they do go and intentionally enjoy those works too, like a Taj Mahal, or a Gateway of India , but perhaps it has to do with how much cultural history and data has been accumulated about those older buildings. Verses for more contemporary or recent works which are all around us, people don't have that accumulated passed on knowledge to understand or appreciate it? Just thinking out loud, but yes I do think that's more about the monumentality that is conditioned.

P: how much of what we like about the more popular works and buildings comes from peer pressure? Would you ever say you don’t like Corbusier in public? Most commonly not, to avoid debates

Like saying you don’t like Bohemian Rhapsody because its conditioned that you should like it and its great

T: Yes and that affects all art forms to an extent


(utopias, language, utopia of spatial language,

Form based design, to propose buildings simply because those forms don’t exist. But it should be based on societal context and developed through that (acc to Till) )

P: so is your practice focusing on designing based on form exploration or a contextual engagement, he's clearly stating architecture isn’t about form making but social conditions

The second reading – is – is architecture the end or a means to the end? Are you designing just to make a space or a way to make some social change? For e.g. Frank Gehry is only looking at forms, that means I'm saying Bilbao and Disney are similar projects, that means they are form dominated, but what Disney center did to the city, v/s what Bilbao did, the impact on society is very different, then I should consider them different projects but most people consider them in the same family of projects due to the forms. But definitely if not form we are used to seeing through architectural language, so if Gehry and Frank Lloyd buildings look similar they are similar, but some people say the form is important but its still a means to an end, so the end is the impact on center, example of prescriptions and doctors.

For buildings though there is no way to measure or scale the impact of society. Till is predisposed to below that building is a means to an end i.e. a prescription, pay attention not on that but on the user.

But in the academic environment, apart from hypothesizing there is no means to talk about impact even if we say forms material etc. are not important and only impact is. Because we can never construct a building in academics

S9 : left brain v/s right brain, creativity v/s practical , architects privilege the left brain.

P: is the author saying you should be aware of both and what kind of person you are or is he saying its something that can't be changed

S9: and we should find more rationales and parameters

Teams of people that are likeminded versus work differently because everyone has a proportional division of left and right brain etc., this is a debate in sciences also, it would be fascinating to compare how a design emerges with two left brain people verses, a left and right brained team

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