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Embracing Crisis in Architecture: Between Discipline, Profession, Academy, and Industry – Dr. Anuradha Chatterjee

Lightning Talk, "Beyond the Given" Conference (05-07 September, 2019), hosted by Avani Institute of Design as a part of a three day Collaborative Working Meeting between SEA Mumbai, CARE School of Architecture, and Wadiyar Centre for Architecture.

Following talk by  Dr. Anuradha Chatterjee  was prompted by her involvement as a speaker at the Kerala Architecture Festival, on a panel titled the Academic Crisis in Architecture. While the panel was focused on the crises internal to the academy, she was more interested in the wider positioning of this crisis through to the industry and society at large.


First of all, I see us as academic practitioners, who are part of an institutional and cultural milieu, and often working on projects centred upon the discipline of architecture, which is a public as well as collective discourse. What we call practice, I would like to re-badge that as industry practice. The reason I make this distinction is because the word practice is a very important word, and in fact very sacred. The many things constituting practice (in academia) is intellectual labour, production of knowledge, maintenance of networks of thoughts, and innovating methodologies of inquiry. It is important to keep in mind that it is not that one is a profession and the other is not. Academic practice and industry practice, as well as the practice of criticism is the profession of architecture, where we are not using the word profession in its legal statutory sense only.

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Having said that, the questions that we ask here within the academy would have greater influence if we were able to hear complementary questions from the industry, questions that would ask how the industry is contributing to the discourse, to learning, to pedagogy. At this point, I would make my position absolutely clear that the academy does not (and probably does not intend to) shape the graduate in the image of an industry practitioner. If anything, the academy should strengthen its role as the conscience, the soul, that which holds a mirror up to the face of industry practice, presenting at best a splintered reflection.

The idea of crisis is a historical one. Crisis, fracture, disjunction, incongruence is the outcome of cultural and political modernity. It is when we start to get traditional forms of knowledge, authority, and social and political structures being replaced by modern forms of thinking, divergent forms of thinking. In architecture in Europe at least, the crisis was brought about by Enlightenment that challenged the authority of the church and religion and consequently the canons in architecture. Canons based on ancient authority were replaced by rationalist ones. In India, this is marked by the long and slow trauma of colonialism, which led to the erosion of indigenous cultures of thinking, living, and making, and the introduction of the profession of architecture. It is fair to say then that the discipline of architecture in India has been self-consciously dealing with crisis since its inception.

Crisis takes on two forms – first is loss, grief, longing, and nostalgia; and second is conflict and contradiction. The kinds of crises that have surfaced include the loss of building traditions and loss of craft and indigenous technology. This has also included an uncritical uptake of technology for mass production; or pervasiveness of technology that society at large could neither afford nor understand how to use or maintain. Affordability of housing has one of the many challenges that architecture has had to deal with and is something that it continues to deal with. The other more contemporary form of crises that the profession is dealing with is migration and urbanization, urban health, and climate change and severe environmental impacts and disaster.

One of the major crises of architecture in India, which has persisted over a period of time, is that a huge part of the country’s building stock is not designed by architects. In this scenario, how can the profession have an impact if so much of the building is de-professionalized? It means then architects are not just designers, but also capacity builders in training the community to self-build.

A crisis that plagues industry practice even now is craft. We explored this in a panel discussion with Sameep Padora and Shimul Javeri Kadri in April 2019 in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Maharaj Shivaji Museum, where we argued that craft (in architecture) does not mean only hand made, and the hand does not always have to be hundred percent human. We should stop trying to polarize discussions of technology and craft, as they are getting increasingly entangled, and perhaps they have always been. Craft in contemporary architecture needs to be understood in relation to sourcing, making, finishing, manufacturing, and assembling. The (contemporary) architect is a craftsperson of a different sort where her/his role is that of curator of crafted elements; of assembling the machine made and the hand made; and of attending even to the machine made with care. The mark of the hand in this form of craft may not always be visual. It may be embedded in the ‘form’ a project takes in having negotiated physical, financial, legal contexts and constraints and opportunities. We should try to see if contemporary architectural practice could redefine craft and not just try to reiterate a historical definition. This also includes the persistent romanticization of the figure of the craftsperson.

The crisis in academia is informed by these, but academia has its own crises that are internal to it. These two sets are not interchangeable. In the academy, there are different cultural currents at play. My list is not exhaustive but there you go anyway. We have the inherited legacies from previous institutional cultures and institutional icons that inform what we teach and how we teach. It is now becoming increasingly clear that these structures limit educators from relating to students as enablers, and that they do not encourage students to craft their own creative and intellectual trajectory. And even while a number of schools like yours and ours are on a mission to reinvent, but a slow and sustained scholarship/critique and positioning in the history of architectural ideas is yet to emerge. We also inherit learning cultures from schools (primary and secondary education), which do not prepare students to become future learners – they create docile bodies. The point of education is not obedience but the ability to think not just critically but more importantly, independently. So, the academy must not just educate, but also teach students how to question education. Furthermore, there are intergenerational shifts, such as the emergence of the millennial learner and different ways of learning. These paradigms remain elusive to us, and most of it remains mythologized and inaccessible to critical analysis.

Anuradha Chatterjee - Architecture EducationReturning to my opening comment on the idea of the academy and industry constituting the profession, there are contentious demands on the academy of professional responsibility, especially when the idea of responsibility is framed very narrowly, as the competence of the graduate and responsibility to the profession and the client. This topic received comprehensive coverage in Patrik Schumacher’s published rant in Deezen on 09 July 2019. Some of the claims are as follows: “Too many teachers without professional work or experience use design studios in schools of architecture as vehicles for their own, largely isolated, pursuits.” “Architecture schools operate like art schools without any curriculum. Accordingly, architectural education is detached from the profession and from societal realities & needs as expressed in real (public or private) client briefs.” “The currently dominating model of pedagogy – the model of an unbounded diversity of experimentation – is an anachronistic hangover from the period after the crisis and end of modernism when the discipline had to brainstorm new ways forward.” His self-serving ways are never clearer than when he says, “The paradigm we are looking for is parametricism, the discipline’s answer to the societal challenges and technological opportunities.”

The glaring omission in this and other similar formulations is the profession’s ethical responsibility to society and environment. While there is no clear answer to this, Tom Spector’s Ethical Architect (2001) proposes the figure of the “uneasy professional” as one who is willing to “accept the divergence between professional and societal morality,” but also “feels compelled to reconcile societal values with his [sic] professional norms (Spector 2001, 8).” The idea of responsibility should be considered more broadly as responsibility to the future of the discipline (not just the profession) as well as to society at large and the community on the ground.

My core argument is that discourse cannot be driven by crisis, to the end crisis is seen as the prompt to react. It cannot be driven by the need to fix something. Instead, it should be driven by criticality. Criticality and critical thinking is now an overused word/phrase but lets try to see criticality as a position that is not reactive. It is considered and slow. It goes to the heart of the matter in examining the history, the politics, the ambit of the so-called problem, instead of rushing to stating the problem and solving it.

As academic and industry practitioners we actually need to be in a position to anticipate crisis, not just respond to it. Even then, crises should not and probably cannot be resolved. Crisis creates a creative friction between society and profession, and profession and academy. Being at odds indicates that the integrity of each is maintained. We should instead be thinking of collaborations that are able to negotiate competing aspirations. By collaborations, I mean a triangulated cooperation between the academy and the industry; the industry and society; and the academy and society. We must take collaboration seriously, as a transdisciplinary paradigm that shifts the dominance of expertise and compartmentalization of knowledge.

In any case, we can never reach a state of pure alignment of expectations. That would be death of the discourse! I find my views resonate those of Ivana Wingham who argues that crisis should be seen as a “moment for a new discursive formation,” and for establishing new limits for the field (2015, 5). Wingham adds that “locating crisis at the heart of architecture need not be seen as a negative act. More optimistically, a crisis can be seen as ultimately productive’; it forces and opens space for invention’ and new forms of production (3).’” Quoting eminent theorist and historian Mark Wigley, she argues: “architectural design is the child of crisis, but the field devotes itself to removing the sense of crisis (3).”

Imagining the future of the discipline, the profession, the industry, and academy has to happen hand in hand or perhaps the academy should take the lead in posing critiques. Even though, I argued earlier than the academy and industry form the profession, the truth is that the academy is neither inside the profession nor outside of it. It is from this liminal space that academic practitioners can start to ask difficult questions that no one else is going to ask. Therefore, some of the difficult questions for me that are worth asking from within the space of the academy are:

Are women and persons of non-binary gender ever going to have equal representations in academic and industry leadership? What will it take and how long will it take for us to shed the pedagogic inheritances that are problematic? How do we create opportunities for uptake of the critiques developed within the academy in secondary education in India? What are we even doing about it? Why do we not see that architects and academics responding to ‘issues,’ the urgent, the now, is opportunistic and short-lived lacking in continuity, whereas critical strategies in response to deeper and slower understanding of systemic injustices and sustained relationships with communities is more sustainable and authentic?

Why can we not we see that architects’ relevance is still not far reaching, as only a small percentage of the building stock in India is designed by architects? What are architects doing to assist through capacity building, especially in the context of the impact of climate change on fragile ecosystems? How interested are we really in developing long lasting relationships with communities we reach out to? What is our ethical responsibility to them? We need to be able to honestly ask and declare how does the profession / business stay viable in the long term, if we/ they are to really and continuously respond to crisis? Then, how can we build a culture of critical practice?

How ready are we really to question the given? Can a design assessment really lead to an accurate evaluation of learning, and can that learning be fully and instantly assessed? We call it measuring understanding, but these eventually inform performance. Where is the space for people to learn at their own pace, in line with their affinities? If the objective of one’s career as an architect is more than earning money, how are we supporting graduates? What in our pedagogic innovation in preparing students to take responsibility for their education, and their life? How are we educating them in more than architecture? How are we preparing students to determine their own self-determined trajectory through life?

Are we able to prepare our female students to stand up to familial pressures in absence of societal support of their work? Or will our cultural fate remain unaltered or just slightly altered? If we cannot question our cultural destiny, then how can we empower others? Are we able to prepare our male students to reject familial pressures of being the bread winner (cash cow) for their own family and extended family, get a green card, get permanent residency? If we do not prepare students to probe societal frameworks then what good is this discussion on pedagogy, and how sustainable and impactful will innovations in architectural education be? In closing, can we agree that architectural education has to be concerned with much more than architecture, or it cannot be truly transformative?

References
Ravenscroft, Tom. “Architecture education is in crisis and detached from the profession, says Schumacher.” Dezeen (9 July 2019). https://www.dezeen.com/2019/07/09/patrik-schumacher-crisis-architectural-education/
Spector, Tom. 2001. The Ethical Architect: The Dilemma of Contemporary Practice. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Wingham, Ivana. 2015. “Architecture and its Discontinuities: Crisis, Whose Crisis? In Radical Pedagogies, Architectural Education and the British Tradition, edited by D. Froud and H. Harriss. London: RIBA Publishing.

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