Architects! How noble are we? – Sabu Francis

Architecture is the only subject where per-force, the architect has no choice but to invent. All inventions; by very definition, are fresh knowledge. Yet, there is no standardized method to keep this knowledge open. Instead, all architects work in their own silos.

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Sabu Francis -ArchitectureLive! Article

I read the recent article by Ar. Ranjit Sabikhi titled “The Council of Architecture Needs to Honour its Commitment to the Profession”… and came back a bit worried, confused and sad. For multiple reasons.

The point raised by Ar. Sabikhi is vexing: Why is it that when The Council of Architecture has prescribed the Conditions of Engagement and Scale of Charges under the Architects (Professional Conduct) Regulations, 1989; how come architects who blatantly disregard this clause are not hauled up by the COA?

Prior to that article; there was this controversy in several architects’ discourses and forums – that was on how a ruling by the courts now allows even non-architects to practise the work of architecture. Only the term “architect” can be safeguarded.

Which is like saying, that I will protect your name-plate but I will let anyone do the same thing do whatever you are doing. I believe that issue is also related to the points that are being raised in Ar Sabikhi’s article.

There were other points that Ar Sabikhi had touched upon, regarding rural development. I will not touch upon those, as he presented some useful practical suggestions there.

Let me unravel some more nuances in all these points in my article here.
Recently; I heard this heart-warming and sad story of Dr Ravindranath Tongaonkar who died of COVID19. Before that, a similar story from Telengana, of Dr KM Ismail Hussain — who also tragically died in this pandemic. Both were notable for their humanitarian interest and involvement with the society at large. Dr. Hussain was known as the “Two rupee doctor” because that is what he used to charge – for five decades!

If you look around; there are quite a lot of doctors who are pulling a lot of load trying to set our society on the right track. I know a few personally.

My office was often used by a few of these idealist doctors who used to troop in after my regular architectural practice was closed for the day — they wanted my computer resources, such as word processing and the printer, etc. I used to enjoy the company. We used to discuss quite deeply on where our country is going, and what we could do next.

I was quite awestruck by the determination of these professionals — it was quite so opposite of the stereotype we often hold about doctors. I then realized that my opinion is not something about being a doctor but more of a specific scientific rigour and attitude that we all need. There were non-doctors too: Ravi Kuchimanchi and his wife also used to come to my office, with some doctors who knew them. The movie “Swades” was based on that couple’s lives.

All those interactions were a rich source of material for me to ponder over. You may see a bias in this article which I will attribute to those interactions.

Maybe I have an availability bias here, but let me open my mind: I often wonder why there not enough stories about architects who would justly charge just Rs 2/- for a project?

Paradoxically, there are enough stories who do charge that; but usually for quite nefarious reasons. In my younger days; there was this euphemism “Half Fees” that used to bandied around in some private parties for a certain architect.

I was quite naive those days, and used to join in the refrain on why it is important to stick to our minimum fees. Till it struck me later that I need to peel the proverbial onion layers further; and refine my knowledge and understandings.

I have spoken about this issue before too, from another angle. The irony of a practising architect is that; those who really need the intelligence of a trained architect — they can often never afford to play part in the economic system of architecture. We, architects, cater to the paying class — who often coincide with those people who really do not need the intelligence of architects.
After all; the rich can get a design built, then break it down again … and keep iterating thru these seemingly Sisyphus cycles; till they are satisfied. It is the poor, the unprivileged and the marginalized who need the insights of a well-trained architect and get an efficient, cost-effective solution.

But this is the nature of the beast we architects are all riding, and we need to do our best there. I am sure all architects have met such clients – who often use the architect more as a party conversation piece rather than for the architect’s own intelligence and contributions.

Before I continue, let me caution you: Do I already sound paternalistic and boring? If so, pardon me. I can’t put this in any other way. I hope my effort to get into the details of this may serve its purpose. I also risk the ire of those who may think that I may be misquoting some extraneous topics to architecture — and frankly, they may be right. You need to put serious thought into this and weed out what is wrong here.

I am quite disturbed about whatever little that I have read on the approaches that need to be taken — because they contradict some of the opinions that architects often hold.

The truth; I suspect, is buried deep — and I worry that I may be selective in my reading and there may be more to all this. In short; I am happy if someone can peel off more layers of the onion, and then show me where I am wrong. I feel there are multiple factors here at work in the core issue on how architects practice and how we charge… and whether we should allow non-architects to do our work and so on.

Remember that the Act that got the Council of Architecture happened in 1972 due to the consistent and admirable efforts of stalwarts like Piloo Mody and others.

It was in 1970; just two years prior to that milestone in the architects’ scene in India, when the economist; George Akerlof’s seminal paper called “A market for lemons” was published. On the surface, nothing related to architecture or lemons for that matter. But the depths are surprising.

The term “lemons” was used as a term to describe defective used cars that gleam out there in the second-hand market. You then fall for the looks and buy such a car. Only to realize that by the time you drove it home, it was actually a lemon – which was the derogatory term used in the US when the used-car was not worth the money you had paid.

In short, you got rooked!

Akerlof studied the used-car market as an example for his theories; and hence the term “lemon” was used in his paper.

For those who did miss the metaphor; this is what Akerlof spoke in architects’ lingo:

Here comes a simple customer desirous of an architects service; and goes to the equivalent of the “used car market” in architecture.

What is that?

The “used car” market in our field are architects with old, frayed knowledge. They have not updated themselves, do not use critical thinking, will happily use standard off-the-shelf details, take insertable “Revit families” and “AutoCAD blocks” from obsequious representatives of the glass and other industries; instead of applying deep logic, concern and accurate knowledge.
This used car market for architects has not much to do with the age of the architect. Just the way there are pretty bad used cars which are just a few years old; there are young but bad “used cars” architects too.

There are many fresh architects who got trained by impressive, but immature and unread teachers, who taught such youngsters old, often useless or irrelevant knowledge — and these young fresh architects thought they were all offering something fresh and new. But no. They are also actually in the equivalent of the “used car” market.

There are some award-winning architects too in this lot — those who make all the right noises in the right places and sound demure and modest; as their projects scream unnecessarily for attention.

Let me continue: So, our simple customer goes to such an architect and hopes for the right advice. It is only later when the design is driven home; that this customer realized he got a lemon.

Now I can see some of you shrug their shoulder and say; “what can we do as a community. There will be such attitudes anyway. Such bad apples, lemons, etc would anyway exist. But I don’t do all this. That is how the way things work around here – and let us find ways to navigate around such situations.”

Not so fast. Let me finish explaining Akerlof’s insight.

He was talking of information asymmetry. In pure economic theory; there is an assumption that the buyer and seller (of products and services) are both basing their decisions on exactly the same information. Then the concept of “demand” and “supply” and then all other theories in economics will work out correctly.

But the pure economic theory does not work in the scruffy, real world. In the empirical world out there, often both parties (the supply side and the demand side) would NOT have the same information.

This is easily understood: The seller of a used car will NOT go around explaining to the customer that the real attributes of the used-car that is being hawked. Some information will be held close to the chest of the seller.
The architect who seem to speak gently and wisely and with conviction to his client … will not tell that the design work for that client will actually be handed over to the junior architect or intern working for that architect; five minutes after the client left the office.

Till here, I may sound like someone with an opinion. So what? It’s just this architects opinion vis-à-vis someone else’s. Who cares? Right? But here is the part that should be a wakeup call for all of us.

George Akerlof (and a couple of others) got the Nobel prize in economics for their work in this area.

They were able to prove that if this information asymmetry between the buyer of car (or architecture service) and the provider of the car or service – if that asymmetry continues; then the entire market would collapse – and what would remain behind are truly bad lemon architectural services –pardon my mixed metaphor.

Surprisingly, there is an elegant and quite simple maths that explains this phenomenon. You can look up that original paper, and the work in this area. It is quite understandable. There are even more simplified explanations. Here is one:

George Akerlof and others proved that over a few cycles of buying and selling, in the used-car market (which was just an example he studied), such an information asymmetry would invariably lead to good quality products/services vanishing from the market. The ones that would remain in society would literally be the output of the dregs and scoundrels of that market – with only terrible quality predominantly available for the customers.
In short; if we architects have to survive and produce meaningful work and get paid the right price for our services, we need to stoutly resist and prevent the need of some architects to retain information asymmetry. I am of the strong opinion; that is how we first start improving the situation.

This need to work with the correct knowledge, that is transparently conveyed to our clients must resonate deeply into each one of us.

To put in plain English; if we notice that some other architects are not really being transparent about their information and internal processes they use to their clients – someone should stand up and coax them to open up their knowledge to their clients.

 

It is not only for their own good. It is for our good too. It is a survival technique for all of us. It is important to keep our customers updated with the latest knowledge of the field.

I can understand the CoA for not incorporating Akerlof’s paper. It was not noticed then. There was no Internet or free information exchange in those days. Moreover, George et al got the Nobel prize (mainly for that 1970 paper) only in 2001 – that often happens in many Nobel prizes. The Nobel prize was awarded after it was obvious that the hypothesis that Akerlof spoke on, was seen in many different information asymmetry situations all over the world – not just in used car markets. It is definitely present in architectural services.
It’s ironical that George Akerlof was influenced by his experience in India when was here in 1968 and 1969. It helped him revise that seminal paper too. He also learnt some important lessons on wage theory in economics because of his observation on casteism in India. Let me not go there now. You can read all that in his autobiographical note here.

So coming back to the layers in the onion which I want to peel off:

What should come first? Mutual agreement of the fees that need to be charged, as given by COA in 1989? Or mutual transparency so that the systematic downfall of the entire market will not happen? 

Or why not go even deeper; and ask ourselves: How do we ensure that CoA and its tenets are not archaic?

There are obviously more insights that keep happening all over the world. If we have to have some self-respect as a professional body, there must be mechanisms in place to ensure that the policies set by the body itself are healthily debated and regularly updated.

In that regard, I agree with Ar. Sabikhi here: The CoA has missed its true objectives for sure.

Akerlof and his colleagues’ work are considered so important, that in some places they have implemented the “lemon law” — in those places, it is forbidden to make information asymmetric: The service or product provider must; by law, be fully transparent to the consumer. The supplier simply cannot hold any information that is unknown to the one demanding the product/service.

Now some may point out that Doctors do not like their patients to do a Google reading about their condition. Maybe that is true to some extent, but most good doctors do spend a good amount of time explaining details to the patient – just to gain trust.

The effect of not taking the insights from the subject of economics from 1970 into 1972, and later in 1989 is already around us. At the risk of proposing anecdotal stereotypes; we are all surrounded by lemons.

I am dismayed we do not speak about this and debate all this properly. Some of us do – but at parties after a few pegs with a lot of bravado statements; which has no theoretical and often logical reasoning either. We only reminisce fondly of the great architectural history in India but we don’t do anything for the current situation.

Some clever, unscrupulous ones know how to get away by charging just Re 1.00 and then know all the shenanigans to figure out how to still make money. Which is what Ar Sabikhi was alluding to in his article.

But I defer quite deeply one point: Because; in one way, I am also rooting for that socialist architect; who is really wanting to contribute where his/her intelligence is needed and there the fee reasonably could be just Re 1.00 or even lower.

Moreover, I know many architects who lobby for fixing the price as per COA – and put unsuspecting and well respected, well-liked architects to vouch for their case, out in the front.
These lobbyists, after convincing all their crony architect friends to fix the fee –which technically is an illegal activity called “Cartel formation” — they go back home and go back to the exploitation of the labour force and behave using 17th-century economic principles of feudalism and what not.

I know there are a lot of youngsters who are peeved at the way they get their salaries in architects offices. They may be getting angry that here I am even suggesting that architects can, in some situation, actually charge Re 1.00… They may feel let down by all my advice.

To that lot of youngsters, reading this; let me tell you an open secret: Many architects really do not know how economics works; or what could be the critical parts of economics that need to be really well understood as a community. So, do you really think they know how to fix salaries? Many live on home-cooked untested theories in economics.

Why just economics, I suspect many of us do not retain healthy scepticism in our own subject itself; and there are plenty of architects who go ahead with bravado talks, deference to some idiosyncratic experience or sometimes sheer black-magic and “intuition” which can’t stand the scrutiny of reason.
But in the job market too, there are many onion layers to peel off.

I had once interviewed a fresh architect graduate and offered him a starting salary of Rs 50,000/- and I told him that I don’t want to undervalue anyone. I then listed out what my performance expectations were. I run a different kind of office – not really doing conventional architecture and yet completely engrossed and contributory in the subject of architecture. So I can’t afford to take anyone who can be lax in their rigour. I had detailed out the way he could earn his money as a consequence of the adding true value.

He declined the job. This is just one such example. There are many reasons for this.

Let me not digress here on how youngsters coming fresh out of college should orient themselves, and also retain their self-esteem. In one sense, what they are saying is right: It is absurd to treat fresh architects as a representation of the expensive laptop given by their parents, which they carry to the interview – It is sometimes that laptop which the new employer is eyeing; for the Lumion renderings done in that office. But there are other reasons too; which I need to gently explain to these youngsters. As Cat Stevens harshly had stated “You are still young. It’s your fault” and there is a point which the youngsters need to examine without shame.

If you look closely, it is all to do with information asymmetry – the employers know some odd ways of dealing with their staff which they don’t tell their employees. There is a hornet’s nest of problems there, and many onion layers to be peeled. I should put forward my opinions on how youngsters are getting into the profession, in another article.

Wait.

The story of transparency of information in professional architectural practices is not over. I only spoke about information transparency between architects and their clients. There is also the need for information transparency of the process of architectural designing between architects. That transparency is also critical.

In fact the free exchange of knowledge being thwarted is a huge cause of concern. This point also needs to be considered when discussing fees of architects and their performance.

Currently, architects are actually at the fountainhead of knowledge (no pun here. No reference to Ayn Rand who; frankly, was quite a bad philosopher – but let me not digress)

Architecture is the only subject where per-force, the architect has no choice but to invent. All inventions; by very definition, are fresh knowledge. Yet, there is no standardized method to keep this knowledge open. Instead, all architects work in their own silos.

 

Why… even each project in the office becomes its own silo – with hardly any lessons that are transferred from one project to another. And I am not talking of taking door/window details from one project into another. Those are mere copy-paste. I am talking of deeper lessons in climate, energy, sustainability and so on.

Architects compete with each other – sometimes in formal competitions; often in informal ones – and yet do not understand the work done in that area, by another Nobel prize winner; John Nash (on whose life the movie “A Beautiful mind” was made)

Before John Nash, it was thought that only zero-sum games (such as football, chess, etc) can give a clear equilibrium. Either one side loses or both sides end in a draw. So if you give 0 to a no-result, 1 to win and -1 to a loss; the sum of the outcomes for both sides always ends up as a zero. Hence the term “zero-sum game”

Many people thought that zero-sum games could be a good approximation of the real world competition that exists in professional circles, such as between architects. But just as in Akerlof’s observation; the real world is a lot more scruffier and the real world competitiveness we all display can’t be neatly put into zero-sum games!

After all; in the real world, unlike in football or chess, there are no clear winners. Often even the victor has made some compromises and incurred some losses. In such areas, the sum does not add up to zero; as was the case in zero-sum games.

All architects play non-zero-sum games with other architects.
Theorists had thought that non-zero sum games are not tractable and the study of those was largely left alone. Till John Nash proved that in some cases; one can actually figure out how a non-zero-sum game can result in a stable equilibrium – and an outcome that is reasonable to all parties concerned.

Now to arrive at such an equilibrium in a non-zero-sum game; it is super critical that all the parties involved actually are transparent to each other!

This sounds so counter-intuitive. It is like saying that if I have to win in football or chess, I need to convince my opponent to reveal their strategies transparently to me. How realistic is that, one may ask.

But Nash proved that if one were to know the decision that oneself needs to take when participating in a non-zero-sum competition; it is critical to know the strategies of others in the same competition. Otherwise, we are maybe playing to a puzzle known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Look that up here.

Now I will not claim that I have understood the maths inside this Nobel prize-winning theory fully – I have only a conceptual understanding. A little bit deeper understanding of Nash’s work, which has more background material, is here:

One thing is sure; the old method of holding our “secrets” to our own chest will not do us; as a community of architects, any good. It can even move us towards older social manipulations that won’t do good for our society either.
In fact, this is already happening and in many cases, it is the norm: The builder becomes the feudal lord seen in India of the 19th century and he has his favourite architect at his mercy. Much like the story in the movie “Ankur” — architects become subservient to the feudal lords, and allow the lord to impregnate his faulty thoughts into our beloved designs.

In such a case, there is no real competition between architects. Many architects do silently accept this kind of bondage; without realizing that in the long run this arrangement is bringing in a lot of harm. The age of placing knowledge into silos should have gone by now. It already has in many other areas. In fact; in many countries, it is illegal to award certain projects directly by the builder to an architect (such as those that affect anonymous public use)
Instead, they are all published into a competition gazette – where any architect can participate. For years; I had been asking my colleagues to develop such a gazette, and let all work come thru such competitions. One could even recover nominal participation fees, and the builder need not be at a loss as he could be allowed to deduct the participation fees he had paid to unsuccessful architects from the fees of the main architect who got the project. This would retain healthy competition, and thwart the lemon effect.

Again, if we compare ourselves to doctors – most hospitals have internal procedures where a committee meets when a patient expires – and they dig quite deep and freely exchange knowledge between themselves. Do we architects sit together and critically discuss each other’s dead projects?

Take the open-source movement in the software industry; as an example. Prior to this movement, software companies too were like silos (some, like Apple, still are) and companies thought they can make their profits by holding trade secrets and patents and specialized unshared knowledge.

But the open-source movement has, in many cases, completely disrupted the market – and though there is software with all its workings revealed to one and all; the entities behind them are still making good money.

So we should not confuse open-ness of knowledge with lack of money-making opportunities. As an example; some may argue stating that large projects – such as projects awarded by the government – cannot be done in the open source model. I disagree. Even large projects can be done by open-sourcing components to a bunch of architects – provided there is a mechanism that is available for such a design process.

 

The software industry has systems such as Github and Gitlab which allows projects to be opened up in the open-source model – and there are indeed very large, intricate and complex software projects that are being designed using those systems – some of these projects literally have thousands of software designers participating in them. Architecture projects can surely also be done in a similar fashion.

Ar. Sabikhi points out to the use of AI in construction, and systemization of construction processes. I agree to that birds-eye point of view. At the same time; when the bird descends to the ground, it must see processes, legal sanction and backing by CoA and other organizations for adoption of these systems.

AI; centrally depends on systematic collection of a large amount of data. If the data itself remains in the silos of architects; how will all this modernization for the 21st century become effective?

At this point, let me open up the thorny subject of whether the practice of architecture should only be done by architects. One defence given by some architects who have been offended is that will the government allow non-doctors to perform the task of doctors?

Though often the profession of medical practice is thought to be analogous to architects practices; there is an important difference: Unlike medicine – which requires years of study of complex, specialized empirical knowledge – architecture is a topic that is accessible to everyone. There are many non-architects who also have made copious notes on the subject. In fact, there are master architects who have never been trained formally in the subject of architecture – I would even dare say that quite a big percentage of master architects that all of us revere were never trained in the subject.

Add to this, the need to make knowledge available transparently between architects is super important – which means that architects need to humbly look into the knowledge given by non-architects too. With all that background explanation, I think it is quite easy to now come to a more refined understanding of this controversy.

Many people do not want non-architects to practice – but I believe it should be reworded as: It is people who do not have the refined knowledge of architecture who should not be allowed to practice.

 

There are enough architects who would rather ride on the wave of some other people’s advocacy (I already alluded to how people may misquote Ar. Sabikhi for their selfish interests) and do not really promote knowledge transparency.
According to me, it is those lot who have got old, frayed knowledge and wrong knowledge who should not be allowed to practice.

Just because an architect got a title of “architect” through a license given by the CoA, it does not automatically assume the presence of refined knowledge of the subject in the person. In fact, our field desperately needs a continued education program – and our license must be tied to that. Unfortunately, CoA – possibly under the influence of vested interests – still allows “license for life” Once again, the doctors have proved to be better. They have a continued education program in place; which is tied directly to their license.

 

Of course, this does not mean that I agree that non-architects should be given a carte-blanche to practice architecture. There would be non-architects who are in the construction industry (even civil engineers who are close to our subject) who may not have a real understanding of architecture.

According to me, none of such people should be allowed to practice the designing of architecture.

But to blanketly state that people who never went for formal education in architecture should not be allowed to practice is too much of a sweeping conclusion. I suspect there are some who are objecting to the Government’s ruling only because they really want to protect their comfortable status-quo and fiefdom, and subservience to the builders they work for.

Some youngsters, who think they have gone thru a tough course also are objecting to this without getting into the nuances. It is sad, but I must tell them that it is India that we get a license to practice in 5 years only. There are many countries it requires far more rigour and time.

It will be another huge discussion on how to implement my suggestions: How do we know who has good knowledge and sift that from who does not have? Maybe I can express my thoughts later on the modalities on how to weed out the chaff from the wheat.

There are many points to be considered and we need many systemic recommendations. One clue is to see the systems that the open-source movement has implemented: There too, quacks are present who think they can do software design but actually are under their own self-deception. The open source movement has its own checks and balances to weed out such quackery.

I am requesting the reader to deeply introspect these points – try to look at this as the survival of the profession rather than I spewing out some moral high ground. It requires to put aside our innate need to rationalize our stances.
One of the doctors (among the lot who used my office) once narrated a parallel situation among doctors: He asked a group of doctors “How many of you take freebies from pharmaceutical companies, and recommend their medicines?” Nobody raised their hands.

So he then asked “How many of you know of some other doctor who does this?” Now a lot of hands got raised. Now this was a large meeting with many doctors. Evidently the doctors were not well trained in statistics and did not see the contradiction! On similar lines, I wonder if architects would fare anything better?

Returning back to the overall social responsibilities that architect need to undertake, here is a real life story: The drastic effect on the small island nation of Nauru where the intellectuals did not criticize each other and let selfish avarice take root. Just the way Akerlof had predicted, the entire economy of the country collapsed. It went from rags to riches (it was once considered to be the wealthiest in the entire world) back to rags. See what happened, summarized well in this Youtube video:

Let me stop here for now – as getting into the details on how such systems are to be put into place will make this article even longer.

Our profession is indeed a noble one, but are we noble enough and gracious enough to bring in fresh knowledge; especially from Nobel prize award winners’ works in other areas?

Summary:

I have approximately summarized two different Nobel prize winner’s work here for architects to consider and mull over; in order to consider the deepest questions that Ar. Sabikhi was asking: How do we really improve as a community? How are we making our money? How do we really make good, professional sense? Added to that, I have given some food for thought on how the practice of architecture should understand this controversy of non-architects wanting to practice architecture.

Though there is a large part that the CoA must do for sure – I fully agree with Ar. Sabikhi on that. It is in the details and edge conditions that we need to really fully debate, discuss and arrive at a cogent, nuanced understanding.
I am just attempting to correct some potential misuse of his thoughts and adding the missing nuances which I strongly feel also need to be put on the same table. We –both architects and the society at large — all of us need to get a holistic understanding of the sordid mess we architects in India are all in.

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