• Ankita Dhal

Architecture: A Story of Practice by Dana Cuff #Conversations01

Excerpts from The Reading Room



(Conversations during the end of Chapter 1)


P: What do you think about the aspect - that architecture is imagined a pure result of the architects’ imagination produced on the drawing board in the late hours of midnight. And regulations and external factors are a compromise on this purity?


S1: It’s like a negotiation, like at a vegetable market, we quote higher, we maximize design, it gets negotiated to the final outcome.



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


P: Has anyone experienced the difference in espoused and theory in action? As in, how the project (architectural) happened was different but how it was explained in an academic environment was different?


S2: Yes, focus was always on the positive points when the architects presented it and not the way it actually went about when we were designing.


S1: The office I was interviewing, the head architect admitted that there’s a difference in the philosophy we own up to but the ones we practice, because they have to earn bread and butter, and some projects have to be taken for that purpose. (Triggers for thought -Compromise in choice of projects, ideologies are idealistic? Survival versus appearing idealistic to peers in the field? )


P: What do you feel about Pragmatic v/s Poetic ? When talking to junior architects and interns it is pragmatic, but while talking to everyone else it’s poetic (the project or design concepts/ decisions). This especially shows when students come back from internships, this experience is common to most, they would talk about how working at xyz office was thus different from their expectations.


S3: I worked on an artist residency project. We started with a model, the client was someone they knew. We had to be strict on the area since it always had to be presented to all stakeholders. But when the head architect explained it at SPA (School of Planning and Architecture), it became about how it connected to the larger landscape of Udaipur. This was totally different from how we had actually approached it.


P: She (Dana Cuff) says that, the reason architects behave the way they do is because of how the profession works, how it discourages certain aspects versus others, like the studio versus office model. Architects are usually aligning themselves to the fine art model of design. They would love to talk about how they got inspired by the site and how it was molded into a design which was difficult and rewarding after many iterations. The same project will be explained by the intern as modifications, pickups from other projects, material palettes etc. (we started by deciding to use wood/metal). But what the author is trying to say is that these other practices done during design never come into the discourse of practice itself.


No one says they started with a grid on a plan, or being calculative of building area / cost etc. Whatever fits in the mainstream of the fine art narrative i.e. inspiration, struggle, and vigorous iteration, is what is propagated.


In last year's studio, all architects gave a response to the question of espoused theory and theory in action. There were certain shared ethos among architects, which if not shared by some others would lead to their alienation from the larger community.

For example – cost, area, regulations are considered banal and demeaning to the “creative genius process”.


Or when in a lecture well known architects will call the situation of a client demanding low cost as a "challenge" taken up with gusto to make an “architecture of frugality” which means portraying that area and costs are inherently detrimental to design and thus difficult to realize.


S1: Do you think this comes from Architectural education? Like the schools we come from and what is popularly taught?


P: True to an extent, there are schools that are tending towards theory. But never the less, I feel when practitioners come to teach they wear a different hat, often saying they are doing a service, for betterment and repayment to society or a good break from practice. I’ve noticed this even at CEPT. Coming back to education is a reprieve to return from the tyranny of practice. I don’t mean to say this any derogatory manner, it’s just that the practice world is so different. Even the phone not ringing for 3 hours is seen as a reprieve. It goes back to the question - what is it that people do at the office? What do they practice?


Also the ones that end up being people who get projects but don’t get to design in the firm, which is strange because they are also trained to be architects. Some of you have experience in independent practice, you know how difficult networking and building a clientele is. It’s part of practice however. But what we never hear is how this affects the life of the architect.


The beliefs from which architects operate sometimes become obsolete but are rarely challenged. This is also a critique of having ideological beliefs in practice. Do you guys know of any architects whose beliefs or ideologies you think are obsolete?


(Silences)


P: What about this – How often should ideologies change? Should they be shaped according to the context? Take Phillip Johnson for example who shifted from modernism to post modernism?


S4: I think it depends on experiences and context. At the firm I worked at every year things the head architect was influenced by were different, hence their different interactions with their social friends circle of artists influenced their design choices across projects.


P: I understand what you are saying but my question is different, from outspoken modernist, someone like Phillip Johnson became a post-modernist. What are your views about that?


S5: It's natural for ideas to change with time.


S3: Going back to how a professional is someone who serves the society and not just the client, then ideologies should change because societies change.


S6: I think by the time he (Phillip) realized that architecture he's producing is modernist architecture he may have seen postmodernism as the next alternative, a better and relevant switch.


S1: I hadn’t imagined Johnson doing postmodern buildings, because my picture of him is modernist, I had to seek images to make this connection.

P: The bias in the ones saying that is also clear because most people describe Johnson through his modernism.


...


P: Profession is not a coherent entity yet it is maintained by all.



Some people argue it’s not fair to call some professions others not, whereas some say there’s a difference in the degree of professionalism.


Important: The government recognizing the profession, collective rules and ethic and create a law to validate who gets to practice as a professional. For example for Architecture it’s not government but COA.


A doctor or lawyer may argue the value of their professional expertise is a question of life death. How do you as an architect argue with a non-architects about what value you add?


S1: The idea of design is very intangible that way.


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P: Minimum wage? Business vs Office dilemma, low value for profit created minimum wage - If we learn by doing, why learn, why do a degree? Apprenticeship is still ongoing.


P: Architectural education also has flaws in terms of fees management. We study for 4-4.5 years but pay for 5. If that was not the case, the COA could always ask you for a 4 year degree + 1 year working certificate. But since that hasn’t happened, the education fraternity also takes advantage of this.


S1: So then what do we do about it?



S2: We have no choice


S1: We must make a new way so we have choices then


P: The problem is starting from all ends. Architects don’t know what they do professionally and so how do we concisely know how to shape the education? There needs to a radical step to change the curriculum or realize this flaw to work towards it.


S1: Our communities are so tight knit and exclusive (language, membership etc.)


P: Dana talks of this – there's more focus on what our community peers think of us rather than the clients as we see them being unaware of the value we bring and the process we go through. There is an inherent inequality because of knowledge - between the non-professional and the professional.

For example when the Hall of nations was being demolished, only architects protested, or Pragati Maidan, or even the Fisheries building shaped like a fish, people love that building, how do we deal with that as professionals? What position do we take?


S1: We live in a generation where people like absurd random things more.


S3: Some people appreciate the generic mountain river house drawings, whereas some like Picasso. Similarly in the buildings, maybe that fisheries building may have some nice things, maybe the way services are hidden and form takes charge, but that doesn’t mean that building is appropriate? Always about what is appropriate, but liking is subjective, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We cant force everyone to love Kahn and Corbusier.


P: Yes its subjective, but what about IIM v/s Fisheries, people loving fisheries more means its okay to demolish IIM, it also ties to the conservation about heritage then.


S4: You're taking about awareness, that we have to generate. We have to generate awareness about why that space is better.


S5: Is it about demolishing? What if fisheries was designed by Louis Kahn, what would we demolish?


S4: But what about usability and services?


S1: Then we can bring in Zaha Hadid, all her buildings are beautiful in forms but not all parts are usable.


P: In terms of services the fisheries building is better than the Secretariat. Of course the time frame when it's built matters. But still the usability is better.


S1: But still I think we need to have a commonality to compare, like if IIM was also fisheries there could be a comparison. Just because people like Taj Mahal more doesn’t mean we demolish all other buildings.

Example : Jal Bhavan – water droplet of 9 stories next to RBI headquarters by Sanjay Mohe, we were told that RBI is what we should do, and the water droplet what we shouldn’t. But that’s taught and that’s because the entire fraternity believes that. But non-professional doesn't think that way, them liking water droplet more may not be wrong.


P: Goes back to what Dana said, only the fraternity gets to evaluate what is good and bad. The first step is to figure out things within the fraternity and then second to do some kind of public outreach and awareness. Some people say it needs more representation in primary education. Because that part of education teaches how to live in society. The kind of things we learn right now in school doesn’t do that, hence it needs a full complete over haul. Should the architecture community force its aesthetic sensibility on everyone else? Is it the task of the professional to educate the society or cater to the space of society.



P: NASA, Reuben's award, are given to the most esoteric projects that will make less than 10% of the country’s architecture, and so when you go to practice you have to make an extension to a house. In school it’s about high moral grounds but in professional practice it’s a lot more pragmatic. This is difficult to adjust to as fresh graduates. I’m not saying such projects should not be taken up at all, I’m saying they can’t be the entire education, its about balancing and creating sanity between values, mysterious aspects, politics etc. but we have to do it in a context. Usually architects see two options, one give up all the values they had in education or hold on to them and not have enough projects or a full scale practice.


P: Many CEPT graduates don’t want to come back and give lectures here, because they aren’t practicing with the values CEPT imbibed and they feel embarrassed, this is common to all universities.


Its okay to have bread and butter projects but they always present an atypical project and not the bread and butter projects. All architects deal with this dilemma, of the value and ethos they hold on one side and the projects they do.

This is also the fault of architecture education, as we have a disjuncture from reality. At the same time we cannot completely pander to society. We also believe that teaching this way would create better cities and experiences.


But then again, when people vacation why do they steer towards European cities, irrespective of what type of architecture it has or its era, but why someone would pick Detroit or Michigan in USA, or in India they would prefer Jodhpur, Jaipur etc. That means there is an aesthetic quality that is read as good by all and read as joyful. No one says lets go to Nagpur right?


Dana also says, Schools highlight pure design, but professional practice says it’s never individual enterprise and the economic relations instead. Hence education is devoid of the key aspects of professional practice.


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P: Size of firms – interrelated to clients, bureaucracy, design quality


P: Large offices tend to be bureaucratic, although it’s not causality


S1: Mid sized offices might disappear but in the context the book is written in.


P: What concerns you when you think of architecture and hence about the final product, the building? Is stylistic component the thing, material, its contribution and so on.

Some practices are clear in their position about this. Like architects like Sanjay Puri whose building you can identify. For some its an environmental concern. Or Anand Sonecha, the social mission is predetermined and not the stylistic concern.

You might hear in our discussions that they made a conscious decision to stick to a size of an office/ whereas some will say the size doesn’t matter and they are okay continuing to grow.

Like in many offices there may be teams that organized based on availability or design stage specific, like concept team, design development and design execution team.

Architectural education doesn’t train us to work like that where we hand over the projects between stages. Nothing about design education teaches us to follow someone. The most common thing in practice, is that there is one lead designer, rest are de facto draftsperson, maybe they might give a sketch and ask you to take it forward, they might occasionally ask you to fill in the gaps and develop the sketch. Even so the control is with them, the intern or associate momentarily feels like they are in charge of design. But by and large the rest are glorified drafts people. You are given the bit of the design like a door or window that too based on a previous template in the office. Hence you don’t get to be happy that you are in charge of designing in your own way.

Have you guys had an experience when it was collaborative design?


S1: Jenga blocks example at green tree architects, which were modified together.

S6: four person team- large scale- systematic- people get options- everyone learns from each other-negotiations happen- ego happens- but that didn’t take over the design.

Even at an office- tiling design extravagant – client gave freedom- two people worked and asked the tiling contractors, etc, in the end out of two one got picked.


P: why did the head arch give it up?


S6: we were excited, we could flex our design muscles, and the head is busy with larger things


P: Usually interns get to do doors, windows, tiles etc. It shows what the principle architects believe qualifies as “architecture”? It is part of theory in use. No architect will admit that tiling doesn’t matter, they will say they are involved in the larger design and so smaller tasks are given to the young ones in the offices.

But coming back to this, what would you think of a collaborative design project?


S6: we made a master plan between 12 people last semester.


P: Was it a combination of 12 parts?


S1: Yes


P: No, how would you do a bungalow or something together? Not esoteric but straightforward.


S1 & S2: We did – two floors, one each for a 2 storey, was difficult, plus no physical meetings, over video calls.


S3: It would be more complex to do one plan


S2: in the end it’s the same


S1: you need common structure


S6: No, on base level is easier, it gets clashy with details


P: Can design have collective ownership?


S1: It can


S4: Can but it is difficult


S3: On my old project with a senior. The senior gave responsibility to me to make initial plans. Then after discussions it gets to a stage where we divide the work, we did it alternatively, at a time working on it, one brain at at time but tasks were alternatively done. That was a kind of collaboration, what is ownership in this? Because even the head architect will end up having a say. Now that I'm gone, the project has changed. It seems as if my ownership is gone, but it has some ownership of mine in it still.


P: Somewhere in offices we believe its not our design, it’s the offices design, of course there is attachment as well.


S1: I had a diff experience, I used to directly work with the head architect, we did many like that, but ego clashes and fights happened, yet overall the experience was positive


P: coming back to – How do we take full ownership of the design? Not saying that you don’t have any attachment, you will miss it when you see it on insta etc, but the question is, you still left the project, the project went on without you. But in academics if you walk out, the project doesn’t exist.


S3: I am still in touch with the project I left, I just don’t have say in it


P: imagine you work on a project and leave it, someone else takes but you get the marks. Would you be okay with it?


S3: leaving 2 months into the project, versus later in the end, there's a difference. I am still the 90% designer


P: But what if this situation is academic. You work on It for 5 weeks, you leave in the end of 5 weeks, you get marks, but the end moment work and jury is someone else's

S3: I wouldn’t prefer it. If I have put the effort


P: that’s the thing, this changes in an office. Only happens in education. The project can exist without you in an office, even if you were whole and soul, eventually the project belongs to the office.


In an office the design is an externality, it’s an inanimate object. In academics, you speak objectively – I did this and did that thus this, in an office you might agree to passively change something.


Just leaving this question: In an academic environment can you still do a project fully collaboratively?


In an office in the end the project belongs to all but actually to none, it belongs to an abstract notion of the office name.


Take Zaha Hadid Architects, they are functioning and earning but there's a crisis, because people still associated it to Zaha even if Patrick did all the work in recent years. Usually practices like these die out. Take Corbusier, Bawa, Kahn, when the proprietor dies, the firm has to shut down (SOM is faceless that way). Unless there are children who take over. The brand is bigger than the office.


How Zaha gives the presentation but the work is done by a lot of people. Vastu Shilp too, but the directors are slowly becoming the face of the firm.


In academics, the way you take criticism, versus how you deal with it as an owner of a firm are different.


P: In my experience, no one I have interacted says they are comfortable with the money, they are usually stating recession, or struggle, trouble making ends meet.

What about y'all? Do you know any that have comfortable profitability?

S1 & S3: Nope , or they don’t reveal


P: There's a difference between what they say and do, many have some have Audis and big houses which would mean they are well off.


S6: yes exactly


S2: If that’s the case, they will never disclose, their Audis are secrets between them and the accounts dept. Although we can tell.


S4: X has a big office, car, etc., people know he takes commissions from builders etc., we understand that too but its not explicit.


P: For them, they aren’t legally required to disclose either

But the question is about the business v/s profession

The notion that if you're a professional you shouldn’t be obscenely rich. There should be some humility etc.,


S1 & S6: is this a notion or an assumption?


P: For example what is indicative of having made it? A car, a bungalow? That differs from city to city, of course Mumbai it would be a house or bungalow, in Surat it’s not too big a deal, is it luxury brands etc., or foreign travel? Another problem we face, we don’t know what is the measure to judge what is rich or successful, especially in our field.


Coming back then how many architects will say they are doing monetarily well (the question is not about architecturally well). Last time’s standard with offices interviewed, most of the heads were driving luxury cars. In Indian context, that is rich.


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P: In a capitalistic economy, the head will look for the cheapest labor for the same quality of that job. By giving it to the more expensive one you are reducing profitability. Thus we are always trying to subdivide jobs and reduce overall costs. This means specializations lead to de-qualifications. General surgeon- super specialist order in a surgery, even though the specialist can also do it. This is where capitalism has failed to ask- where is the joy in work?


The most satisfying parts are higher up and low satisfying is lower in chain. We justify it as a right of passage, this is the order we have to follow. We are heading in to an era of super specialization from specialization. Which also leads to less time duration engagement.


P: When you start making specializations in a profession we inherently create hierarchies and inequality, this also creates and internal strife which hinders us from putting a united front to society at large. (Elaborating Cuff's point)

Most employees/professional want to be self employed, you don’t want to work for someone. Unless there's an opportunity of being a partner (Share in profits and not just salary)


You must have experienced this too – where some people in the office are more enthusiastic about design, whereas for some its just a job, doesn’t mean they aren’t doing well, they do the work well but it’s a job none the less.

Moonlighting – ethics- loops- disservice to profession but inevitable and also the fault of the offices. They also charge less because they are a moonlighter plus low experience.


In education we start from home to city scale, then thrown back to a toilet detail, sometimes just editing the previous interns works. From changing the world to switching that scale, is extremely disheartening. When a faculty allows someone to graduate, we guarantee you can make buildings. But the office will say you are not even qualified to go beyond toilets. This jump from educational practice is inherently disheartening process. Hence at the point moonlighting is enough to sustain, you will quit. That’s the usual order student—employment—own office. Even in India, that’s prevalent, to start your own office as soon as possible, because its more rewarding.


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S1: What is the inspiration to take up this field? And is the remuneration satisfactory?


P: so why did you guys join architecture?


S1: During my time, after 12th I didn’t know architecture existed, I found out from a friend about NATA, then my family saw an astrologer, it went well, then aptitude tests, then went for the NATA exam, then got a college near home and so I did it.


P: How many of you did it by fluke? Without planning?


(About 4-5 raise hands)


P: What about the ones who who didn’t end up in fluke?


S7: inspired form seniors drawing and studying hands on without books, plus inclined to arts.


S6: exposed through engineering drawing plus my father is an electrical consultant, I would sit with him and slowly developed interest and realized I'll be better of in architecture than engineering.


P: That’s also related to our primary education not training us to understand which type of learning will be good for us and our contribution.


That’s slowly changing and there's more awareness about the professions. It is still fairly random and standardized though.


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P: Hence I find the arch apprenticeship course very interesting because it's preparing them to be employees. It prepares them to not think but to follow orders and make drawings. Their licensing exam discussion- how 50% don’t become architects hence end up working for them. Plus moonlighting persists because of gap in educational system that guarantees it and what firms give you as your caliber of work (e.g. toilet)