What is a Diagram?

Saturday, August 17, 2019


We are often, time and again, posed the question of the 'diagram' in architecture in the course of our teaching. Inspite of the fact that there is generous discourse already available on the subject, even pretty articulate and thought-worthy; in pedagogy, mobilising the notion of a diagram seems extremely challenging.  When teaching undergraduates, to whom architectural methods, tools and terms are so new and abstract, so much of our talk ends up remaining rhetorical. Our use of the term 'diagram' when talking about the abstract relationships within a particular project - architecture or urban may sound rather incomprehensible, for at one instance we may be referring to the hidden formal logic of the building, whereas on the other, we may be thinking of it in a broader urban realm,  (wherein the project may be having a different dialogue). Sometimes, through diagrams, we indicate movement and encounter in a conceptual manner whereas at other times, we suggest volumetric rhythms which characterise a building. Needless to mention, all these are diagrammatic understandings through which we make a project amenable to the student, but all of these do not necessarily overlap into a single consolidate representation. Inevitably, in our discussion of building as a diagram , we keep changing our referential registers that overlap to (in)form, what one could call, an 'architectural composite'. In making sense of this representational multiplicity of such an architectural composite, students may be attributing the value of one diagram to another representation - that may fall short of making complete sense. It is perhaps in such confusion that the students beg the question "What is a diagram?"

Architectural diagrams are different from those used in engineering, economics, electronics, or other such disciplines. Linguistically thinking, 'architecture' and 'diagram' may almost seem tautological - for essentially, architecture is precisely the resultant act of bringing people or entities in a specified relationship. Think of it in terms of software or hardware, where the term architecture is particularly relevant. My father, an instrumentation engineer, would endlessly draw out circuits in drawings, replacing capacitors and resistors, in order to make a machine function more efficiently. There, the diagram was precisely the architecture of his work.  In a simplistic understanding, this singular diagram was the machine. This one to one co-relation of a digram to the real in the practice of electronics, for example, is often not the case for architecture of the built environment, for processes in a building or a city are layered with many systems and functions that have varying relationships. Thus buildings have multiple diagrams that are working together with each other.

We may borrow from the different disciplines to articulate a definition for diagramming in architecture. Each may seem applicable, but often these definitions become so abstract and theoretical to the extent of getting too subjective, and interpretive - and thus even debatable at times. This may happen due to the method in which one chooses to "read" a particular environment, thus removing an objectivity of the process of diagramming itself! But let us get back once again, to that innocent student asking, "what is a diagram" - where he is asking us to weed away our abstract and jargonized readings of a project to come to the point. What is being asked there?


Let us now move to the architectural studio, in India. The question of diagram becomes particularly perplexing for the discipline at several registers. Diagrams, to be sure, are representations through which invisible relationships between ideas or objects may be explained and/or established. As architecture is far too obvious in its physical presence, often, to think of it as a diagram escapes imagination. (Often for students here, architecture, or building is the physical object in front of their eyes, and it is as objective a reality as it can be. There is certainly, nothing invisible about it!). Thus to think about them as diagram and decipher "invisible" relationships within them does not occur to them.

Secondly, diagrammatic thinking has not been an integral part of architectural education in India, the roots of which may be traced back to the manner of its colonial institutionalisation. Still largely taught in the mode of draughtsman's expertise, the design of building in India has largely remained a matter of aesthetic composition or construction. This is reflected in the kind of courses and emphasis laid on visual processes in most syllabi of architectural programs or teaching in India.

Thirdly, the knowledge of diagrams have primarily belonged to the domain of science and scientific thinking - a branch that explains phenomena that is not necessarily visible. Thus, its discussion and application in architectural pedagogy has been marginalised, even obliterated to a large extent. One may argue that the loss of diagram resulted in the loss of the political voice of the average architect, for he/she never could think of the intent of the building beyond the needs of the client, budget or demands of beauty. Neither thus, could one actualize one's agency as an architect.

But for the studio, diagrams for architecture are not limited to two dimensional representations. A range of things constitute diagrams that can be harnessed for architectural imagination today. These include art objects, stories, models, machines, and so on. This charged space of representation through which students are made to wade through is often too hurried given the constrained mass-education formats of architectural education. In such a scenario, the process of filtering that must take place towards the resolution of any project ends up in a mere groggy experience.


As academicians, we passionately talk about building and its processes in metaphors using borrowed vocabularies from music, cooking, poetry or art (and other cultural domains). One wonders then, if architecture even has its own language? But it is here that we end up objectifying this fascinating act of architecture. To realise a building, is to realise precisely, how we bring the values in all of these acts of music, cooking, poetry or art in relationship with each other, only in a way that is visible and invisible at the same time for someone to read at yet relish, for someone to only smell and yet have the flower. Diagrams could then be those aromas which make up an environment and dissolve into the air. The only challenge is to bring students to breathe them. But can any one possibly teach someone how to smell diagrams off a building?

It is here that I am reminded of one of our first year design projects where we were to design a home for a comic character in the city. The character assigned to me was Chacha Chaudhary and Sabu - a short wise old man and his giant companion from Jupiter. What followed was a quick working of possible strategies into venn diagrams and their translation into three basic spatial types. When I presented these to my tutor, he was quite surprised at the clarity of my thought, to the extent that he asked me if I had been taught to do so earlier.

Diagrams for A House for Chacha Chaudhary & Sabu, 2004

To diagram is to prioritise, to decide and filter out anticipated redundancies within a given process. Diagraming is thus inducing a project with intent. What values do we read into built environment, and how do we charge them into architectural diagrams? These are aspects that need slow and careful discussions. Diagrams of architecture engineer values within environments. These can be experienced only with an attentive mind, and perceptive body. Pedagogical processes need to strengthen these channels. Diagrams, although, are not a formula, and thus they can not be learnt like theorems. They need to be practiced through observation and sensitivity.

The discourse on diagrams is rather convoluted for students. Perhaps, if students are able to voice their doubts with more honesty and eagerness, we may be able to develop sharper narratives to respond, and at the same time gauge the registers through which they approach the problem of diagram. However, the questions have to be deeper, and come from within them. Until then, we may keep asking, 'what is a diagram'?


This essay has very little academic value and is written to surface my own doubts as a teacher. All the opinions and expressions are personal. The author is aware of the gross inconsistencies and jumps made through the writing.

Description of a ritual

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

"Vedic rituals did not require temples or even the creation of statues. They were based on fire sacrifices of various kinds that needed only brick platforms. Fire was the agent that enabled the transformation of the sacrificial food (matter) into smoke and air (energy). Though no early Vedic altars have survived, the legacy of their rituals is still alive in Hinduism, which views this city as one of its most sacred. At dawn every morning, thousands of devotees gather on ghats leading down to the shores to face the sun that rises across the broad expanse of the Ganges River and is reflected in its waters. Half immersed in the river, they greet the sun by cupping the water of the Ganges into their palms and pouring it back into the river with arms extended. This is followed by a slow turn of 360 degrees while standing in place, a miniature act of circumambulation. A quick dip in the river completes the ritual. This ritual can be repeated many times or performed with greater elaboration that includes long chants and sequences of yogic postures."

Francis D K Ching, Mark Jarazombek, Vikramaditya Prakash. A Global History of Architecture, second edition, John Wiley and Sons Inc. 2011. pg. 97

How to write a good Research Paper?

Saturday, July 06, 2019

One of our faculties at Yale and passed this on to us and I thought it will be great to share it here!

How to write a good research paper?

Argument: What is it that you want to say in the essay? how does it differ from existing literature? why is your topic important? Make sure you state your argument clearly. The more original, the better.

Contents: wealth of sources, both primary and secondary, coherently chosen; all the sources are relevant to the topic

Structure: a good paper is well organized; it is a good idea to present your argument in the introduction, to articulate it in the main body (which can be divided into sections), to re-examine it in the conclusion. A well written, strong conclusion is crucial to a good paper. The sequencing of sentences should be logical, so that your reader is able to easily follow your argument. Your paper must have a bibliography at the end.

Resources: use more than just primary sources, include works from the syllabus or from other courses if relevant, write a good bibliography divided between primary and secondary sources. A good paper shows command of relevant secondary literature.

Style: clear points, elegantly made. Vivid vocabulary, structure of sentences varies. Never use jargon (unless relevant) or colloquial sentences. Quotations are clearly identified by indenting if longer than three lines or in inverted comas if within the text. Your paper should be a pleasure to read. Follow the Chicago Manual of Style for footnotes and Bibliography.

Orthography: very few, ideally no typos or mechanical errors. Don't rush! Read your paper carefully before sending it, ideally a few days after you've finished it.

Title: a well-chosen title is a good starting point. It should briefly introduce your paper, if it is witty, and your paper is good, it is a plus.

Length: Stay within the word limit, you don't need more words to write a good paper.

Images: If you use images, make sure to include captions where you explain briefly what they are and where they come from. Images are documents just like texts and need to be referenced.

Presentation: a good looking paper is NOT necessarily a good paper, but it is a plus if a good paper looks good!


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