Second Year Architectural Design 2017

Friday, October 20, 2017

I would begin to say that we culminated our Third Semester (2017) Architectural Design studio in quite a crescendo. All students had a reasonable amount of work in terms of drawings and models for fairly fleshed out schemes. Given that this was their first exercise in building-making, the final result was quite satisfying. The students seemed tired, but content - for they were able to see the promise in the work and realise their own potential. I have begun to believe that it is important for students to see well-finished final product - it note only gives them a sense of completion but also inspires them to evaluate themselves better, or even recalibrate their process strategies in subsequent projects.

If I was to however look at the studio from the pedagogic perspective (and not from the students' view), many other questions begin to emerge - a lot of which I keep aside which would otherwise interfere when conducting the studio. Recently, for example, Prasad asked the faculty at SEA to weigh the output of their modules against the objectives that were set for the individual studios. This question often gets (re)visited during the final reviews when you have to frame the module engagement to external jurors for a fair evaluation, or even reflect upon how successful the project was. Often, one realises that the objectives set for the studio did not really become the points of addressal for most design discussions with students. Rather, with varying intellectual and vocational potentials, the issues that we need to tackle for a given glass invariably have to be realigned.

With second year design modules at SEA, I have never felt a sense of meeting pedagogical expectations. The projects are often framed through objectives that are far too out of the reach of students to even engage at their level of understanding. In my opinion, they are forcefully placed in the realm of "city" and "institution". For example, our objective for the third semester Architectural Design is that to deal with the "type" and the "institution". To be sure, the concepts of "type" and "institution" can be intervened only once one has a clear understanding of what they mean, and how they operate. The idea of a "building type" or "diagram", we noted in our History/Theory module, can be approached in many ways - both formal and programmatic. Its explication can happen through multiple theoretical frames. In the third semester, just the second year of their architectural studies, students are still familiarising themselves to the variety of architectural examples across the world, studying how spaces have been folded in across history. They are also beginning to merely understand and attune themselves to theoretical frameworks through which one can approach the appreciation and designing of architectural forms. What should be the optimum expectation from a student of architecture during this stage?

In the present exercise, we realised that students were still working towards improving their skills of two and three dimensional representations. It is often argued that most architecture institutes lay overemphasis on skill, in the process of which they lose out on the exploratory inventiveness of students' own ways of seeing and thereby representing the world. this process, however, is fairly dialectical. I have to confess, that as architects teaching a design studio, the visual language we best understand is that of orthography - one which generates for us technical drawings of the visualisation of the building. When students don't fall in place with orthographic representations, a subversive aversion to discussion gets built up in the studio due to amplified miscommunications, and the focus shifts from teaching design to representation.

Most ideas about resolution, detail, articulation or structure actually belong to the realm of representation. Think about it - the obsession of alignments, following grids, maintaining order, or balancing rhythm all occur primarily in the visual space. In other words, much of these aspects that control the aesthetics of a building are the prime prerogative of the design studio. There is immense denial within architectural studio on the prerogative of aesthetics. When we are critiquing students on their work, we are often trying to bring their ideas into an aesthetic order. In the present studio, we hardly discussed with them the notion of type, or the institution. The discussion was always veered towards how the building could be composed, or ordered more correctly. Most of our design methods, thus, are processes to codify a certain aesthetic.

Often when teaching, you realise that the student is not even prepared to meet the first objective. So you beginning from the beginning. Further, teaching strategies change with every student depending upon the direction in which they need attention. In my observation, students arrive an the studio objective without necessarily engaging with the questions set out for them. They are not talking to the mentor on the terms of 'type' or 'institution', rather, often merely to be able to take the next step in their design process. Thus, students may only realise the objective when they are intellectually ready, and in their state of reflection. In the meanwhile, we simply follow the method of copying. This is a characteristic of "practice" - an apprenticeship model which isn't bad either. I true sense, Riyaz.

But then whom are these objectives really framed for? I think objectives are for teachers, not students. Prasad playfully poked to this response on our whatsapp conversation, "You mean that you will learn how to discern type?" In his rhetoric, one can reaffirm an age old observation: Teaching merely helps you clear your own notions about things. Objectives are framed so that we can test their validity and expound upon their potentials in experimenting ideas with the students. Further, objectives delineate the framework of one's feedback to students in the broader scheme of things. Once you find the student having understood the basics of a given process, you step up the difficulty level of your engagement, pushing them to think through their work in a differently plane of thought.

We had a great set of jurors for our final review: Sameep Padora, Quaid Doongerwala, Samira Rathod and Praveen Alva. I was accompanying the team of Quaid and Samira as they went along with the review, and we had some interesting pedagogic discussions over a few projects. Samira understands and values the architect's agency in crafting form, whereas Quaid was looking at the relevance of languages that different students dealt with in their design projects. One of the questions that we debated, for example was the invention versus discovery of form. I had to interrogate Samira's search for an unconventional form in projects that were conceived quite traditionally - those that focused on simple ordering and arrangement of space. I had to bring up the fact that often, there is a subversive denial of conventional form or structure in the validation of the "new". There's a strange affinity for currently for that which appears asymmetric and the absurd. In studying ancient buildings of architectural importance, or modern precedents, however, we are reminded about qualities of order and rhythm - moreso, their spatial invocations. These experiences are not free of their structural imbrications, and thus, are often employed through what we may now understand as "conventional". In our discussion, we clarified, that there is nothing wrong, thus, in bringing back the old - pejoratively understood as "copying". It is a matter of language, Quaid asserted - and how it can benefit the student's way of thinking through a building.

Our negative attitudes to evaluating processes as "copied" are a colonial legacy. It was the renaissance that emphasised upon the birth of the individual, to whom authorship was of utmost importance. The social and economic machinery of renaissance was centered acutely around the human - as an individual, which gradually led to the undervaluing of the guild. The introduction of the machine and assembly line completely destroyed any passage of knowledge through practice. In the eastern cultures though, copying has been the only way of learning. Take for example Chinese painting, which was only about repeating a process set by the master. The student iterates the painting as many times, over which, the subject under investigation itself undergoes transformation, resulting into a completely new masterpiece, a new original. In the same way, the knowledge of Indian Classical Music is passed on only in its rehearsal, or riyaz - iterating it time and again until one is able to resonate with a given tone. It is a skill honed only in practice, in copying, without any written notations.

I believe this second year studio turned out to be much like an arena of riyaz. I am not particularly sure how much students absorbed. What I am sure of, although, is that there was an induction of rigour, and its possibility. We left out the questions set out in the objectives. Perhaps, those will be taken up later when students have a method and space to reflect. It is in that time when the objective of the studio will be truly realised. Meanwhile, I still wonder if the objectives can be made integral to the evolution of the design process.

Aesthetics of Accumulation

photographs at
JAK Printers, Byculla


The smell of a lighting off wick, the camphor burning away, the jasmine incense, the sandalwood crushed with Kesar, the ghee burning Surma, the sweetness of savoury preparations, the flickering lamplights - fired or electric, the colours of Rangoli and flowers, the balcony lights, the shimmering coins, the red kumkum, the new books for prayers, the pattering crackers, the blooming flower pots, the sparkling sticks, the smoking wires, the constantly ringing telephone, the beeping WhatsApp messages, the endless forwards, the inventive Facebook statuses, the pleas to be quiet, the request to keep things unpolluted, the new clothes, the perfunctory rituals...

Another year of Diwali. 

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