LAST CHANCE SALOON, Prof Manoj Mathur on Architecture Post Coronavirus Pandemic

Manoj Mathur

Manoj Mathur

Prof. Manoj Mathur Discusses what changes would the coronavirus pandemic bring for the architecture profession

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Nothing grabs people more than a ringside seat at a prize-fight. As the world Mexican-waves at this face-off with the dreadful Chinese virus, the prize will be the survival of the species, so says the blurb. We were never so “we” before. Chances are you have already shared on WhatsApp a soulful rendition of Imagine, John Lennon’s anthem of Utopia. We expect to wake up to a new world, a little less brave maybe, but more empathetic to nature. We will save our Planet Earth, the only home we have. Let’s do this, guys!

I doubt any of this is going to happen. I doubt wishful thinking will take us from pious posturing to action on the ground. I doubt if the puppeteers of this world will let go of our strings. But that’s another story.

Meanwhile, we, the architects have been handed an ultimatum. Rarely, if ever, have we recorded a disaster so big, straddling the globe, affecting so many people in so little time, leaving us, those of superior sentience and intelligence so utterly clueless, but in which there are zero elements of physical destruction. Nothing has been bombed, no buildings flattened, no cities flooded or forests burned. Those types have, to be honest, always helped the architects, much as we find ourselves culpable in creating the disastrous conditions in the first place. This time there will be no damage, nothing to re-build except tattered economies and tattered psyches. Where does that leave us? This is what I “Imagine”:

1. Today, the Architects’ stock-in-trade is the designs of NEW buildings. The pandemic shows us that we do not need more of them. We have enough useless or under-used ones already. The economic pandemic will mean that the big-spending will happen far away from vainglorious desires of clients to build on regardless, cutting down bespoke business drastically.

2. The public-funded business is already slipping out the Architects’ domain because we are simply not fast and nimble enough to calibrate our action as per the response required. We have stopped believing that people are central to our calling. The trending drone video of locked down Mumbai is so illustrative of that. In the opening captions itself, the idea of BEAUTY being proportionate to EMPTINESS and to the absence of PEOPLE clearly underlines how we are missing the wood for the trees.

3. Lockdown and Work-from-home will have a very deep impact in spite of the relatively short period for which people will endure it. IT has responded with turbo-alacrity to remove the last obstacle that till now big business has had to employees taking work home, i.e. data security. This is going to impact anything, any business or profession which has transited to ITES. As real estate accounts for a huge cost to businesses, sobering evaluations in the crucial reconstruction period will render much real estate surplus apart from postponing or cancelling future office projects.

4. It is being commonly observed, and before long some research will prove it, that productivity and efficiency have actually improved with work-from-home. This is bad news for control-freak bosses but they will be mobbed by improved employee morale and better health which will fetch a good press. That’s one big plus that boards will be looking for since profits will be remote anyway and making big profits in lean times will attract adverse attention.

5. Business travel will be hit. Not just daily commuting but also MICE gigs. So will bucket-list foreign holidays. The average middle-class desire for expenses-paid air travel and hotels will be suppressed for a long time, so viral is the scare. Banqueting and destination weddings will be much curtailed for the same reason.

6. While there will be a momentary rubber-band upsurge of pent-up demand in malls and restaurants, it will ebb away because costs will rise. Ordering-in and entertaining-in will gain ground. People will have had ample opportunity to make lifestyle adjustments to minimise unnecessary risks of going out of home when there is nothing really new happening out there. Besides, as is rumoured, the Chinese are buying up everything and there is only so much of Talumein that one can slurp.

7. Educational institutions were the first to work-from-home, even before the actual lockdown. They already had, and will now have even more, the greatest potential for transforming the interaction paradigm from physical to virtual. The government had been fence-sitting, with big incentives for open online pedagogy on the one hand and pressures of private moneybags who could at best offer impressive buildings to the education-hungry masses. I see a strong chance that the hammer-blow will come, decisively altering the infrastructural emphasis from square footage to bandwidth. With the concomitant reduction in faculty requirement, it will be a bonus.

8. China reportedly built a hospital (or three) in two weeks flat. That’s the responsiveness that public administration wants. But now that Wuhan is back to normal, what do you do with them? Stuff them with artificial patients? That has been the American model, built into an insurance-supported eco-system. As Americans will realise that they have been duped, as Dr. Fauci will be de-frocked sooner or later and as the world realises that the most vulnerable nation, India, has overcome the pandemic with minimal physical and personnel resources (that’s my prediction) thanks to decisive administrative action and community participation (that’s my wish), a new model of health care will evolve. Already, the hot new concept is minimal hospitalisation with more home treatment like it used to be. It’s just about two decades since we departed from that and it will be easier for us to return, with more insights and more bang for the buck than the humongous, energy-guzzling hospitals which have to set revenue targets for their doctors.

9. With the Supreme Court resorting to on-line hearings the last bastion would seem to have fallen.

10. All of the above gives no cause to cheer for architects who typically start with a “Site Plan”. Right now I’m reviewing students’ thesis projects on Zoom and all the time thinking how remote is the possibility of any such project being actually built anytime soon. And all this just because COVID-19 forced us to ask the question, “do we need to build this?”.

At the same time, the fact that my students are totally at home (pun intended) doing this crit session, one-to-one or as a group, predicts a practice model where these neophytes will collaborate seamlessly, across time-zones, overcoming all kinds of barriers to communication, creating new inter-disciplinary synergies. It’s already happening but probably the older generation is immersing deeply for the first time. Here again, I expect many legacy barriers to be broken, finally giving our profession the hall-ticket to the technology-driven high table of the world. Elsewhere, architects are rediscovering their sketching skills, hearing the birds chirping and seeing peacocks in their alleys!

11. We find ourselves in a conundrum. The pandemic would have forced us to learn new skills which should make our job easier and more definitive even as it has given us the pause to reconnect with our finer instincts, artistic and humanistic. So let’s say we are likely to come out of this as finer people and will do our job better than before. The best practices of Architecture will have got the much needed time and traction for a large swathe of the professional community to catch up and imbibe. At the same time, we face the stark reality that our business will contract. We will have less to do out of which to be profitable and support our workforce at all levels. It is a grim scenario. There is no easy way out.

Much as we have been hurting for nearly two decades now, this sudden predicament is quite extraordinary. We will need extraordinary measures to keep the profession relevant in the times to come. We need a very deep introspection to re-orient our professional ecosystem to what people really need and deliver it at the Amazon-Prime speeds that people have got accustomed to.

Firstly, we have to disabuse ourselves of the notions like “Architects create the cities”. We don’t. We merely design the buildings in them. We design them for our paymasters. Cities are created by the people, through the politicians whom they elect. And people don’t elect politicians because they deliver well-designed cities. People want well-operating or smarter cities. That half-finished agenda will return to the front-burner now. Architects clawed for and did get (just a little bit of) their skin in the game. But it has taken them quite a distance from designing new buildings into gritty and unglamourous domains diametrically opposite to Howard-Roarkian-idealism and egotism. This is the first UNLEARNING which is urgent. We have today a clear reading of our law and our title. We need to extend that to a better understanding of our work itself. A reassessment of our role in the habitat should show us how constrained and unadventurous we have been in choosing where we will apply our hard-learned creative skills.

Second, we must get out of the cities. Much had been made of the irreversible surge of rural-urban migration. A deferment or moratorium on that may be in the offing. I also see a chance of a dismantling of that policy mind block. If at all an alternative is brought to the table architects will have to be the right persons in the right place to take up the challenge. It will need re-skilling to conceptualise designs of systems rather than buildings. We are habituated to outsourcing these inputs, characteristically seen as non-creative! As has already happened in other disciplines will need to become solutions providers, rather than commodity suppliers.

Third, within the cities, the transmogrified work sphere will need to be adjusted quickly but gently into the available urban physicality. It will call for an extended phase of re-purposing, remediation and renovation of existing buildings. The current specialisation of Interior Design will likely become the mainstay of Architectural practice. It already has, arguably, but now will be the time to formalise it and set regulatory standards. Also, Architectural Conservation will have to shed is snobbery and come out on the streets for mundane tasks like extending the life of common buildings. This will need more curricular time and more hands-on-training for Architecture students.

All of this may be a tactical response to a situation as it has developed. But we will be back in the blockhole after a decade if we do not strategise now to create a credible value proposition for the people and, consequently, for their chosen politicians. At this time the world is watching its leaders of all hues, the statesmen, the doctors, the police, the statisticians, the engineers, the managers, the activists, the lawyers, the economists, the agriculturists, the industrialists, the businessmen, the philanthropists and even religious leaders. It is NOT looking at Architects. Ergo we are essentially non-essential. We need to become essential.

This is Last Chance Saloon.

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