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Ideological Positions in Architectural Practice #Analysis01

The studio explores the impact of practices’ ideology, vision and values on the act and practices of designing. Through this exploration we try to understand why architects hold certain beliefs and how these beliefs and ideals function in practice. In this blog post I will take you through the different kind of ideological positions architectural practices in India are taking and how that is affecting the architecture produced.

Throughout the course of this studio and its very formation lies the most common duality of all, ideology versus practice.

What architects belief in has been strongly affected by architectural pedagogy, the time in which the architects studied, the context of modernism and post modernism during that time, the positions and values passed down and propagated by each university and its faculty and the developing landscape of “masters” in the context of post-colonial India. All of this promotes and discourages certain cultural practices and ways of thinking. This encompasses the backdrop of ideology.

“Our work is spatially very modernist, but the world is post and beyond postmodern, so we try to be aware of that and address that, not all projects do it at the same level. “ – Interview #3

“What you are today has a lot to do with what you were. It has a lot to do with one’s background.” – Interview #06

However the current state of practice has existed in a flux of time and contingencies that the profession demands. The contingencies are seen as practical, financial and logistical forces that hinder the ideological positioning of architecture and its very soul. The creative soul of architecture which seeks identity stems from its educational leaning towards the fine arts model. This can further be elaborated by Dana Cuff’s – espoused theory and theory in practice. When architects explain and justify their actions, they are presenting what is called espoused theory. However they employ a “theory-in-use” to actually guide their actions. (Cuff, 1992).

As the interviews were conducted, we noticed a rising hesitance of declaring ideologies, especially in the form of manifestos.

“We find it limiting to be too clear about what we want to do or our ideas, we find that manifestos make it one idea or one person’s idea and don’t allow others to come in. Whereas a practice is not a person, its many things. - We do know what is or would be against our core values and then we go back to our values and re-assess. “- Interview #1

This was a common theme amongst many offices, the declaration or commitment to an ideology or a manifesto seemed too big and limiting. However it was manageable to go by the principle of subtraction and discover values that one certainly does not align with.

“It’s interesting but we never thought of them as ideologies. They are more sought of - as the value systems that we operate with” - Interview #6

“I am skeptical about a manifesto – I find it a problem that we have created as architects - these broad sweeping statements. I think a lot of the problems of the world are because of these ideologies, it’s a very white male notion. I think rather you use the practice to discover the “core values”. - I think it has to keep addressing the situation, an appropriate way of going about it as time and context changes, rather than stating an overarching statement which becomes the unshakable truth. Especially in India, where the diverse situations we are called upon to design and deal within call for such an approach.” – Interview #18

There was a comfort in approaching the subject through – “core values”. What was evident was architects related a manifesto as an outdated and limiting way of practicing design, whereas having a set of values allowed a softer and ambiguous space to work within. These values are usually related to architecture or seem to be what architects believe are issues related to architecture. For example:

“Space, light etc, and the socio-economic and physical context,” – Interview #3

“As social sustainability and environmental values in a very focused way and collaborate with others a lot to achieve the same” – Interview #12

“Material and Craft” - Interview #2

“Context as underlay, purpose not function…..frugality……“– Interview #1

“Timelessness” - Interview #6

“Robust” - Interview #3

“Fluidity” - Interview #7

“Social, climatic, environmental sustainability” – Interview #12

Many of these core values sat in between architectural quality and design attributes, often repeated in most offices’ bios. Offices often had a list of such core values showcased on websites. Such a vast array of core values attractively placed on websites is certainly less limiting for it leaves very little out and is almost all encompassing.

“I would also say that from an ideological standpoint, we are operating in a time where it is important to allow our ideologies to transform, where it cannot be crystal clearly defined, the boundaries of these should also be able to communicate, synthesize and absorb, some amount of transformation is required. “ - #Interview 2

Values are directly related to context and culture, especially in a country like India, where the idea of values are loaded with moral and political positions passed down through culture.

“Yesterday was yesterday and today is today, that is also how an office works. You might have to change course like a river. That’s good, if you have flexibility you last longer, because you shake a bit and are vulnerable. But that doesn’t mean you change completely, hence the core values help – we believe in “sanskaar”, a set of family values that shall always remain. “– Interview #8

Some practices were deeply rooted in their cultural context, the idea of sanskaar and family values as opposed to a spatial value speaks a lot about the daily practices and organization of people in the office. Work is seen as a duty, an output of a family’s day to day labor. Here the family is the team. This showed in their roles as principle architects, they believed each team member that joined was going to leave to start their own practice and there was no criticism of that phenomena. Instead the architects spoke of their own parental positions of subconsciously imbibing values and teaching the team mates in a filial fashion. Yet there was no attachment to the employee beyond the commitment of 2 years, a very 21st century detached parental outlook. This was interesting because here the ideology had little to do with architectural values or space and more to do with the relationship between people in the office.

“We are a PEOPLE BASED PRACTICE- People include your clients, vendors, stakeholders. Who contributes and who gets most from the process becomes important along with a set of values” – Interview #15

“Until 200* – we were seeking an answer to the question – “what is architecture?” Now that question is not first – it is – “what is practice?” through practice we discover what is architecture, the more primordial question is “who is my friend in my practice” – what is practice and then what is architecture, this is how we are trying to expand the model of collaborative practice as a friendship based practice. All that we value like love, wonder etc., are unmeasurable but it’s tangible when it’s in your body, like a betrayal of loved ones is felt in a physical way - like a huge stress on you. We have it, we must recognize it, cultivate it and share it – the unmeasurable quality of design. Once you reach close to the answer, you can reach a new model that is between business and design models, but breeding a new culture is like a garden, you can’t hurry it up “ – Interview #11

This practice was an older office that had gone through various transitions and changes in partners. Their tenure and experiments with ideology and the culture of practice showed in the questions they had arrived at. “Who is my friend in my practice?” - Here again, the office had steered away from architecture and spatial concerns. That was second nature to the act of design. For them their office was almost like a school, an institution for the sharing of knowledge. Clients and peers were seen as friends, this ecosystem of friends created the meaning of practice which further created meaning in architecture. They talked of a long, slow process of breeding a new culture amongst people, of values that prioritize a certain unmeasurable quality of design. Here we see a tending towards being a “reflective practitioner”.

There was another group of architects who prescribed to architecture values such as the ones mentioned above, however that was not the main focus of the practice. On a closer look at their interview one could find softer statements that seemed to be the main kick for the practice.

“We love the idea of discoveries, every project is an opportunity to discover and search for something” – Interview #18

“We try to do in depth engagement per project, there are multiple layers of thoughts, not one larger point or ideology, and it is project by project” – Interview #10

Both of these practices’ continue the “concept” approach taught in architectural education. Each design project must be centered on a larger idea, something hidden, to be discovered, to be de-layered until its completion.

While so far two categories of ideologies are prevalent – Spatial attributes driven where projects are the center of practice and, Relationship and people driven where a reflective practice is the center while projects are incidental.

There were other offices which were dealing with practice as cognitive or intangible processes around which people and projects were organized.

“Our distinct perspectives help structure projects very differently, from if we were running them individually. I also think the studio being structured informally, helps us play with projects, which is the one thing that ties up most of the work. The life of the studio is organized through its speed settings, assessing its manifestos and goals through Quickness and Slowness. Our goal was to arrive at a unified yet nuanced way of looking at Architectural inquiries and Interior design projects as variations of this same principle thought. “– Interview #09

Here the pace of a spatial project, the pace of the team and the pace of the individual along with the informal culture of the office has a life of its own. Unconventionality and critical thinking become key in the approach of a project and the approach of a client. Practice is looked at as a think tank and a laboratory for reflection and satire while design projects are a demonstration of the same.

“We try to find the Indian, because it's kind of nestled in its very basic understanding to becoming too much heritage or too much in the past. The question is how to make it contemporary, to speak to the relevance of today's times whether it's sustainability, whether it is economy, whether it's culturally how the world is and how India is evolving. To somehow do an inquiry towards Indian contemporary and I've been working on this problem for at least X years and probably delivered” – Interview #04

There was another wave of architectural offices that were established in the time of flux, where the idea of Indian contemporary architecture was either tied to heritage or critical regionalism or a co-opting of western modernist architecture in search for identity (post-independence). In the tenure of such offices, realizations were made that no one truly knew what Indian contemporary was and how to redefine it or search for it. Such offices approached the ideological position of their practice as a mission to seek this “Indianness” that had never been clearly discovered or propagated.

In all of this, only two offices spoke of the need to address developer driven architecture and reflected upon the role of architects in this capitalist and marketed idea of design. One office actively took a stand making it a mission to work with developers exhaustively and make space for good design in the system.

“The idea of adding value in every project through sensible design, how we measure value varies, - like for developers its financial value, we have a moral responsibility to do that for the client, but also value for the ones who buy, we have to rob from the developers and give back to the user like a robin hood, for example a balcony. That’s what we mean by value addition. “– Interview #13

This office takes on a moral responsibility while also trying to understand how to intervene in the power play and finance driven model of developers. They combine a concern for the quality of architecture produced with running an architectural practice like a business to exist in the same capitalist model – something that is otherwise frowned upon in the fraternity. Both the offices that spoke of this ideological positioning were young practices in terms of tenure.

To conclude, the following trends of ideological positioning were observed in the 18 Pan-India interviews:

1. Values as attributes of design (Spatial and Social) - projects are the center of practice.

2. Ecosystem of relationships between people (Reflecting on the culture of practice) - Practice is the center while projects are incidental.

3. Critical thinking (Process driven and cross disciplinary) – Projects are demonstrations of thought experiments.

4. Mission oriented (Moral or Identity concern) – Projects are a method of seeking/ proving.

Ideologies and values are not always straightforward and can be implicit. In such cases, how are shared to team mates?

"The people who join us get slowly into the system of the office, and the system is based on a set of values that we are particular about and don’t compromise on. It’s an intuitive type of agenda, not 10 listed pointers or anything. Eventually the team is able to tell us that this particular project doesn’t seem like us, so they understand. Its implicitly imbibed. " - Interview #01

In many cases the larger ideology is already established by the principle architect and others already subscribed to it.

"Yes but we always see larger ideology as a single persons- like a star architect, for some its true but its more than that, everyone has to understand and have some similar approaches but they each bring tremendous skills of their own. Yes some sense its driven by the trajectory set by the principle, unless it’s a practice that welcomes multiple viewpoints, it depends on how you as a graduate thinks of architecture. " - Interview #03

"Take Gehry or Chipperfield - they came up with a way, that everyone brings consistency through ideologies, values, etc., he said, you don’t train people, you just express your way of thinking in a way that you attract people who will naturally work that way and understand you, attract like minded clients too. Many interns have become senior architects, so its like a school, like CEPT, they have learnt like its in their blood now, but they have also affected the office and its ideology a lot over the years. But by and large, they have affinity to our work and thus they design a building which looks like our studio's architecture. I don’t oversee every last detail or control, I oversee it to only a certain extent, but because they prescribe to everything and not in a dictated way, especially the interns, if there is discomfort they leave. I hope your students see the value in this studio, because it is important to know your direction of design thinking. So if we are conceptually strong in what we want to delete a project and if somebody puts in his or her understanding of its manifestation, it does not take away from the idea generally. If there is an understanding of materials and technology, so the project doesn't look very awkward, right? There is no mandate that goes top bottom, it just happens" - Interview #04

"We have a specific interview exercise for hiring, if we see potential, but no work similar to what we need, we ask them to make a Behance board of what they like because we have to trust them as designers. We also believe in learning from interns, taking new directions, playing their strengths instead of making them prescribe and learn our methods. For us it is a jack of all trades master of none situation, making base and reputation, then doing all kinds of design work with everyone's leanings" - Interview #05

"Five appointed seniors and three of them have been working for us for almost now 15, 12 , 10 , 8 years respectively and they are now in the position to take a lead on the projects. It's almost like a shorthand that you say something that is easily understood and translated to them . They understand our ideology having worked for longer and we also understand their backgrounds. It's a continuous process but I would like to say that we've been fortunate to have a good team with us and at any point of time, there are some people who are young and some who have been around for longer and we try to balance out the dynamic. " - Interview #06

"We have 2 level entry points to join this office, to make sure you have the software skills. So the hiring process ensures that they are aligned to our thinking and design process beforehand." - Interview #07

"I'll speak for me, I run most of it, we take young people, 1st year grads, 1-2 years experience or freshers, test them with random questions, like what they feel about Muslims in India, who their favorite architect is, etc. to see their breakout points. That's how we see if they are a good fun fit for us. " - Interview #09

"It's about that relationship with the intern – doing the design together – teaching them, making them aware, instead of making them just do the drafting work, like in a studio give them the design task, if it aligns with the practice ideology and way of working, why not take it forward. Individual kills the project, forcing upon the idea, on architects that are equally experienced, versus each creative individual, including all their ideas, takes the project on another level. And overtime this close working relationship translates the ideologies and values to them." - Interview #10

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