Christopher Benninger, a celebrated architect and academcian from India, shares his views on the current state of architecture education in India and steps that must be taken to address its widening disconnect with the profession. below:
Honorable Minister, Honorable President of the Council of Architecture, Honorable President of the CEPT University, Thought Leaders in the field of Education, Ladies and Gentlemen.
A profession is distinguished by the quality of its practitioners. It is our record of contribution to society that makes our profession profoundly important.
As a centre of architectural education India is young. While one could define India as one of the oldest civilizations in the world; it is amongst the youngest societies on earth, in everyway one can imagine, including the age of its citizens!
Architectural education in India is one hundred years old. But the foundations for a new, relevant architecture of the new India were laid very recently with the foundation of CEPT as a school of architecture in 1962.
So I am tempted to look at the future of education, rather than its past. But I am tempted to place the mantle of the present crises I see, and the challenges this crisis offers, on the shoulders of our great profession and on Centres of Excellence, like CEPT University, that has invited me to this conclave.
What we are talking of is a question of the life or death for our profession.
If we sleep on this, within five years we sitting here will all belong to a small minority of architects in a sea of screaming and yelling, uneducated and illiterate, yet qualified architects. They will simply use their democratic majority to push all that we believe in aside! That is why I have come here to Ahmedbad.
At Independence there was only JJ, and a night school in Delhi; when I arrived in India two decades later in the 1960’s, as a Fulbright Fellow at CEPT, there were only nine schools of architecture; today there are more than three hundred and twenty-five schools and their number is growing! There is a true gharana of architecture in action here, like a nuclear ball of fire growing larger and larger, as it expands outwards, ever further.
We now have eighteen thousand members in our Indian Institute of Architects, but we had twenty-four thousand new students of architecture joining our fellowship over the past six months through the medium of these hundreds of new schools of architecture! This raises a question whether this explosive energy has not grown out of control? Can we manage and direct this energy toward mankind’s good?
Is the crisis so large that we need to invent a new definition of an architect? Where do we go from here? These are questions in the minds of all of you thought leaders sitting here today.
Ancient philosophers have said, “If you are depressed you are living in the past; if you are anxious, you are living in the future; and if you are peaceful, you are living in the present.” But I say we must learn from the past, to formulate actions in the present, changing the future. That is what architects are educated to do. That is what architects must do!
Architects are the thinker-doers thrust with reconfiguring the environments within which they live. Architects are called a profession, because in thinking and in doing they profess a system of values that motivate them to change the world.
No other profession is thrust with that mandate!
Let us also be clear, that we are “technologists!” What we do in our studios is laboratory work: analyzing rational functions and logical interconnections; studying measurable site and climatic conditions; stating problems clearly and making hypothesis of possible options to resolve those problems; defining performance criterion and evaluating which design option best provides the answers to questions posed by the client. We study engineered materials and structural systems that support and span a variety of spaces. We analyze enclosing envelopes, applying systems analysis, to select the “best fit” simulating hundreds of components, elements and parts!
Does our education prepare us for this kind of scientific analysis? Should we not be approaching design and fabrication like aeronautical engineers, and marine architects who create great air and sea ships? Can our teachers and our professors think like this, as simulation analysts, resolving complex puzzles? I fear not! This speaks of a crisis!
It is important that we critically analyze our past in order to chart an appropriate course of action for the future! Here Centres of Excellence, like CEPT, must take the lead!
So let us take a quick look at the past and some of the critical assumptions that we need to revisit. It is important that we understand those key areas of change in order to comprehend the challenges that face our profession and our role in society. Let me briefly expand on some areas where we, and other centres of excellence, can take the lead:
One: We must move from Artist to Technologist:
We have projected architecture as an artistic act of creation, rather than an act promoting the useful arts, through rational procedures and scientific methods.
We have seen “institution building” in terms of individuals and star performers, rather than as creating programs, procedures and systems. We have neglected the team nature of our empirical processes and the importance of managing them. Our failure in this area has opened the door to large contractors and project management consultants jumping into our professional job applying only cost cutting, schedule cutting and “pleasing the client” as their values! We must be leaders in making architecture a holistic, scientific profession;
Two: We must move from the Great Man Theory to Capable Professionals:
We projected the architect as a persona; a great man; a single individual who would become an immortal genius; we followed the western model of putting an individual in the centre of the universe instead of our own great tradition of gharanas. Rather than passing a body of knowledge down from guru to student; we thought each generation produces its unique, contemporary wisdom, embodied in a few select geniuses!
We thought that buildings must yell and scream like anal-retentive babies grabbing for attention and claiming to be new revelations!
In fact we are all just doing our jobs, and we try to do our jobs well! We can lead the way in bringing the image of “the architect” down to earth.
Three: We must move from Romanticism to Objective Reality:
We have neglected objective reality in favor of romanticism. We never saw the slums mushrooming up all around us, and we rarely saw the villages that are the very fabric of this nation. We imaged the architect sitting in a colorful air-conditioned studio, designing beach houses, mountain retreats, iconic museums and monuments, instead of analyzing society’s problems and solving them through relevant built fabric. We architects can design systems of access to shelter, site and services townships, and self-help housing cities.
Instead of Special Economic Zones [SEZs], where government acquires vast tracts of land for industry, we can invent Special Habitat Zones [SHZs], where government [who claimed there is no land for mass shelter schemes], can facilitate large, integrated housing, amenity and working places holistically.
We can take the lead here, using our present centres of excellence to analyze the possibilities.
Our thought leaders can buck the trend of making pretty little things and focus design on reclaiming our place in society.
Four: We must move from Fuzzy Logic to Systems Thinking:
We start off in first year teaching sketching and sculpture, and we never teach youngsters the “anatomy of a building.” We never put forth a consistent, holistic and systematic image of what a building is!
In medical studies, during the very first year, students devour Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body. If a beginning medical student doesn’t grasp this systematic view of the skeleton, the muscles, the nervous system, blood circulation and the organs, they can’t go on. They stay back; they are failed; and they must try once again!
In the same spirit, if you don’t know all of the basic systems of a building: structural, electrical, plumbing, and IT networking; air conditioning; kitchens and solid waste; fire escapes and fire fighting; basic concepts of sustainability; and building management systems, you should not be allowed go forward into your second year of studies!
I fear our colleges of architecture are too addicted to the fees their students pay; they fear to fail anyone, who is really a failure! We need the money, not the student. Let us turn that ugly paradigm upside-down!
Here is where CEPT can immediately lead the way:
I challenge you thought leaders here; give yourself one year to produce the Indian Anatomy of A Building!
Rope in your professors of technology and your design teachers to work vigorously toward this target. Get it out! Subsequent editions can improve the content and style! This should form the basis of a first year make-it-or-break-it course! After a year or so of testing it in classes, it can be revised, and then other schools must take it up! All first year students, in all schools, must pass this course! The test may even be conducted by the Council of Architecture to weed out mere “fee paying” students who will never be architects.
Five: We must move from random acts of Creativity to systematic innovative thinking:
We put in a huge effort in studios teaching what cannot be taught – – creativity – – totally neglecting what can be taught to everyone: technology. We cannot make a person creative; we can only recognize creative traits and encourage them. But we can teach building systems, building materials and building methods. I am yet to find a school that teaches students how to put a building together. I am yet to find a masters’ degree program that focuses on what we actually do in professional studios.
In our professional laboratories we manipulate technologies of construction materials and processes to solve architectural problems. It is the poetry with which we do this that makes architecture a great art.
I personally believe that most master’s degree programs are a huge step backwards in a youngster’s career. Postgraduates from abroad return crippled, loosing two critical years of real building construction experience, while becoming financially indebted. They have been diverted sideways into a no-man’s land of problems they can never solve. And, they expect to be paid higher salaries for their newfound confusion!
Friends, I challenge you!
Create a master’s degree programme around the creation of construction documents; around building technologies, around mechanical equipment systems; around construction details and their standardization; and, around construction management and making buildings.
In postgraduate learning laboratories students must integrate complex functional, contextual, structural, mechanical, and spatial systems that fulfill stated performance criterion. If any of you sitting here do this now, you will be the leader tomorrow!
Six: We must move from Text Messaging on Mobiles to Writing serious texts on Paper:
Our profession graduates as an illiterate lot of good talkers! Our graduates can’t write intelligent professional letters, minutes of meetings, site visit reports, contracts and project proposals.
Here I propose in the second year a Writing Laboratory two mornings a week of ninety minutes in length each session. The mentor assigns a general topic and the students sit in front of the mentor and write on that topic. Topics should be on architectural issues, theory, history, technology, design, etc. Students will hand write in a Class Writing Notebook. These are collected at the end of the Writing Lab and the mentor returns these at the beginning of the next class session with red marks around common errors of each particular student. In the second and subsequent sessions a new writing topic is assigned and while the students write, the Mentor calls them one by one and reviews their “regular errors” with them. This is an effective way to improve writing skills and the in class assignments should relate to topics in the history, social sciences and studio sessions. There should not be any homework.
In the second and last semester of this sequence, students must write papers on laptops. Here they will be taught the subtleties of MS Word, techniques of importing charts and images, and at the end of the term each student should write a short twenty page paper, with a Table of Contents, List of Illustrations, Glossary of Unusual/Colloquial Words, Index, References, proper paging and spell check. We need a literate profession!
Seven: We must move away from the Blind Leading the Blind:
We are inducting an army of very young, ill-equipped teachers. New teachers are barely out of college, with little knowledge of what “a practice” is, with no site experience, and no clue of the various contractual, technical, legal and ethical issues that professionals handle.
Would we have such people teach medicine, or trust them as our doctors? We seem to think that by requiring teachers to complete a PhD they will become knowledgeable, or wise intellectuals. We think that they can learn building systems by osmosis, while studying abstract theories in weak doctoral programs. With a few notable exceptions, PhD guides have never had an original idea or penned a useful teaching text! There are few great teachers of architecture who ever had PhDs and even fewer PhD guides who are respected in society as thought leaders. How many of sitting on this panel have a PhD? We are making a mockery out of the doctorate of philosophy, and idiots out of our teachers. It is painful for me to say this, but even more pitiful to watch this happen.
All architects must first work in a professional office for some years, know the practice of architecture, and then be in a position to share their knowledge as professionals through teaching.
Passing statutory professional exams, qualifying graduates to practice as architects, will certify their knowledge, and their right to be called an architect.
This must also be the first qualifying hurdle to become an Assistant Professor.
Eight: We must Rediscover our History:
In my discussions with students and recent graduates I find an amazing gap in their interest, knowledge and understanding of history. Architectural history must be embedded in the study of technology, its progress and the major innovations that tempered what we have built and what we will build. Students must know when geopolitical, economic and technological “turning points” took place, and how these led to almost inevitable innovations, parallel to scientific evolution and the global power matrix.
A student should know why there is nothing outstanding about a copy of the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas, while the original in Paris was iconic because of its exploitation of new understandings about steel and fabrication. They should know that new quantitative techniques allowed more reliable simulation of the forces flowing in structures than had previously existed.
Students should have a broad historical framework of the political and economic systems that generated building typologies, historical periods and related architectural and urban planning responses in India’s geo-climatic regions over time.
Nine: We must move from Sick Buildings to Healthy Buildings and Sustainable Cities:
The subject of sustainable cities and buildings cannot be over-emphasized. It needs to be integrated into our teaching of mechanical equipment and into the way we think about buildings; the way we select materials; and, how we see the “living building” operating, not just the still, static iconic sculpturesque object. Healthy buildings have fresh air; good sunlight; views to the outside of buildings; recycled water systems; energy saving mechanism; low carbon consumption; maximum natural lighting and ventilation; and minimal solid waste outlets. The TERI team and many Griha experts are working on this and we need to respond with a valid curriculum.
Ten: We must bring the Focus of Education Back to Practice:
We seem to have forgotten that architecture is a “practice.” Let me repeat, “Architecture is a practice.” It is not theory, it is not talking and it is not meetings! Managers constitute a kind of talking class, and we are a working-class! We need to teach people how to work; how to do a professional job; not how to be phantasmagorical creators, or famous pretentious little Michelangelos.
We need to teach materials, technologies and construction techniques; not just how to do Sketch Up renderings of up-side-down buildings.
In our practices we follow a clear process of work from a Client’s Brief; Contextual Analysis; an Inception Report; Concept and Final Schematic Designs; Design Basis Reports by all the technical team members; Statutory Clearances; Detailed Designs; Tender Documents; Construction Documents and Closing-Out Procedures. All of these phases and steps are based on contractual documents between the architect and his consultants and his clients; and the client and his contractor and vendors. It is important that we create new leaders in teaching “the business of architecture,” including accounting, legal liabilities, insurance, contracting, taxes, HR, and ethics.
All architects must work in the studio of a registered architect for a minimum of three years prior to participating in professional examinations! That goes for teachers too!
Teachers must pass the professional exams before getting a regular teaching appointment. I prefer this to the PhD option! The PhD should be reserved for exceptional intellectuals who have invented a new theory, explored a new building system, or created a new material; and who have something very original to say. At this point we need great textbooks and these could be the subjects of PhD thesis. But very few of our young teachers can write even a magazine article, much less an important thesis or text!
Centres of Excellence
India has at least fifteen centres of excellence in architectural education. Our centres of excellence can be laboratories for new ideas, putting them to practice, and models for a plethora of lesser-prepared colleges to follow.
I could foresee a system of Mentoring Schools of Architecture, each having about fifteen to twenty Protégé Schools whom they are guiding. These Mentors and Protégés will be Excellence Clusters.
An Excellence Cluster need not be a micro-region, but there should be a reasonable travel distance from the Protégés to the Mentor institution. Rather than regional clusters, they should be intellectual networks of committed teachers. Any new promoter that wants to start a new school of architecture must first find a willing Mentor institution. The Mentor Institution will request its Protégées to comment whether they would accept this new novice institution amongst their intellectual circle, as a participant in their Excellence Cluster. Then only the Mentor Institution will join the Promoter in applying jointly to the Council of Architecture for permission to begin a new school!
Now I would like to shift gears again to the present socio-economic scenario, and to the objective reality of the urban crisis in which we find ourselves. Our profession must operate in the real world of peoples’ problems, to have something important to contribute! Here we can engage our new army of young architects in useful work!
As “thought leaders” I am sure that all of you sitting here have at one time or another realized that architects design a good deal of what we see from roads, but very little of what is actually built and lived in by the vast majority of Indians!
We have written books about Colonial Bombay, British Madras and their interesting styles of buildings; but did we write books on all of the shelter types, neighborhood patterns; urban layers, within layers of where everyone else in India lives? How much analysis has been done of sub-divided old houses, chawls, slums, huts and urban villages?
Did we make the people of India the centre of our thoughts, our dreams, and our plans?
Now all of our cities are going through a process of profound transformation, change and disruption; it is not just that some of our metropolitan populations almost doubled over the past two decades; our country’s demography has radically changed also! About a quarter of our population subsists below the poverty line, and a third of the country’s poor households live in our cities. That means proportionately there is more abject poverty in cities than in rural areas! Cities have a greater ability to absorb different levels of human existence in “their economic food chains” than villages do. Desperation and the need to survive are sucking people into our cities, just as technology and media are pulling people in too.
As our youth, and our poor, are drawn into this great, churning dreamland of hopes, desires and aspirations, the reality is that about seventy-five percent of the population of our metropolitan urban regions cannot afford the equated monthly installments for any commercial housing scheme on the market. They will never become homeowners, stakeholders or true citizens!
Moreover, half of our people are less than twenty-five years of age! They are starry-eyed, ambitious and full of aspirations.
So our community of a lakh, or more, students of architecture, that will soon number twice those of us who are Registered with the Council of Architecture, are part of this Generation X who are media driven; who are attracted to cities; who are avid consumers; yet have very superficial and unrealistic visions of the world around them. Upon maturing they will not be able to afford the simplest of shelters!
It is not the size of the learning community that is threatening; it is my doubt that we can teach them to confront the new challenges that face them!
Eleven: We must move from Pretty Architecture to Serious Urbanism:
While we need to focus on construction technology, we also need to enhance our understanding of urban patterns and infrastructure networks. We need to weave the social sciences of urban demography, economics and social structure into our curriculum. A strong stream of courses on social change, technological innovation, and changes in modes of production are required. Graduates should have a basic idea of how geopolitics, nexus between vested interests and urbanization, including migration patterns and the economic structure of urban populations, mold what we design and build.
Herein lies my last hope for architectural education!
Let us break down the walls we have created between the teaching of architecture, urban planning and urban design. Cities are too important to be left in the hands of urban planners alone! Cities are the macro-structure and micro-fabric within which every building finds its appropriate place and its nature.
We must integrate an understanding of urban structure and patterns into our teaching of architecture: Students must know about urban infrastructure networks and land utilization patterns.
India has some of the world’s truly urban schools of architecture, and it must take the lead in inventing a truly urban architectural curriculum. Urbanism must be woven into the curriculum of architecture, and be made a thread in the studios, and subject matter in academic courses.
Great teachers inspire students to know themselves and to become themselves, growing into being that important self that every architect has to be.
Today we stand at a critical point in the evolution of architectural education in India. It is critical because a weak system of teaching is exploding into a gargantuan incompetent, commercial production system that will produce an army of unemployable misfits. Today is critical because the challenge of urbanization is the duty of our profession to resolve; yet beyond the reach of the skills, knowledge and sensitivities we teach!
The crossing paths of these two truths are a toxic mix that must be confronted.
For those educationalists that are wise, for schools of architecture that are well organized and directed, this is a golden moment to become a leader, a model and a centre of excellence.
For our CEPT University this is the crises and the challenge!
Professor Christopher Charles Benninger
As the son of an economics professor, Christopher Benninger spent his childhood in idyllic American university campuses. He studied urban planning at MIT, architecture at the University of Florida and at Harvard, where he later taught. He worked under the Spanish architect Jose Lluis Sert, and studied planning under Kevin Lynch and Constantinos Doxiadis. In 1971, at the age of 28 was invited by the Ahmedabad Education Society to found the School of Planning, at what is now the CEPT University. He is a Distinguished Professor at CEPT.
Professor Benninger has been a consultant to the Ford Foundation, the Planning Commission, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the UNCHS [Habitat] where he wrote the Theme Paper on education for the Seventh United Nations Commission Meeting on Human Settlements. His urban planning projects include the capital plan for Bhutan, master plans for six cities in Sri Lanka, and large scale planning assignments for urban development authorities across India.
He returned to his love for architecture at the age of fifty with the design of his own campus, CDSA, in Pune, followed by award winning projects such as the Mahindra United World College of India, the Samundra Institute of Maritime Studies, Suzlon One Earth and the YMCA International Camp Site. Some of his major commissions include the National Ceremonial Plaza at Bhutan; the Supreme Court of Bhutan; the Institute for Social Sciences at New Delhi; the Kirloskar Institute for Advanced Management Studies; the Bajaj Science Centre at Wardha; the new campus for the IIM, Calcutta; the IIT, Hyderabad; the Forbes Marshall Industrial Park at Chakan; the Buddhist enclave, Nagarlok, at Nagpur; and a large township in Pune for the Lodha Group. His current passion is the design for the Azim Premji University at Bangalore.
Professor Benninger is an avid writer, whose book Letters To A Young Architect was on the Top Ten Best Selling Non-fiction Books in India for many months and is now translated into Chinese and Gujarati. His articles frequently appear in the architectural press.
Professor Benninger is a Distinguished Professor at CEPT University; is the President of the CDSA Trust; Honorary Trustee of the Pune International Centre, and has served on the boards of the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi and the Fulbright Foundation.
He lives at INDIA HOUSE, with his partner Akkisetti Ramprasad, where there is an art gallery, his studios, public meeting and recreation space
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