Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Problem with Our Stars - II ( Or Architectural Journalism in the Information Age)

So much of how we look at design is based how we have taught architecture, and also how a legacy of celebrating certain ideas, personalities and design “trends” have shaped our own acceptance, understanding and stance on what might be considered good architecture. The fundamental basis of marking judgments usually relies and is formed by this at a rather early stage of our lives as we become part of world of design. 

Our first instances of design and appreciation come from names and personalities and critical acclaim attached to those names and projects. 

While good design is usually the ability to arrive at clear and manifest expressions of purpose and experience that more often than not is the result of many year (or instances)of practice. 

This many years invariably translates into a reputation, a certain sense of celebrity, that then overtakes the discernment and appreciation of well designed ideas and slowly turns into a celebration of entity that implies directly good design (whether it is perceivable of not). 

In the age when books and the cost to write them, to print them and the need for a captive audience necessitated the need of a certain degree of repute and personality to ensure a successful publishing, but that age is past. 

In the age of digital media (4g, Instagram and online publishing through blogs etc) and a much wider platform and faster speed of putting data out and also the opportunities that the many digital platforms offer to generate conversation, I find it problematic, that Good design still seems to be the domain of the celebrated Design professional. 

So what’s stopping us? Is it that there is little good design happening? 

Or is it that the conversation around design is rarely the conversation about design but more the conversation around the designer and why this or that represents good design in a wider body maybe (but surely reputation) of good design. 

So when I see internet and social media based Architectural journalism / curation and content creation that does little more than merely replicate the printed mediums. 

The lack of need of infrastructure, and the freedom and independence that the digital platforms afford seem to have little consequence on the conversation and content. And most surprisingly has had little contribution to the discovery of outliers and design that is actually testing/ stretching / breaking new ground.

Is there need for it? Yes, is there scope for it, given the minimal content available and the sheer volume of work being carried out, and the scale and geography of the subcontinent? Put simply, the scope is immense. 

Will it be economically viable? Yes. 
That’s a no brainer! 

So then why aren’t we seeing more of this?

Most models online even seem to rely on An older process of delivery, where architects and designers are asked to send in “material”, that includes self celebratory write ups and documentation on their work, this process models itself closely on the footsteps of the dead or dying “masters”, with a acceptable level of design. These look more like advertorials! 

I have been guilty of this. But as practices desperate to get heard, and eager to get our message out in the cloud of noise that is design journalism, you can forgive the practices!

But why isn’t there more frontier journalism,and more exploratory? And why isn’t there a uproar for this kind of material. Why don’t we see your journalists/ architects/ writer setting out armed with smartphones and 4g, with blogs and Instagram ablaze! 

Why isn’t there a loud clamor in the design circles calling for this kind of content?

And can it be a collaborative model? A network or people willing to share, converse and actually have a meaningful Architectural discussion that goes beyond the names! 

Of course everyone wants to name-dropped after a certain point in time.

After years of teaching at a few design schools, and having the good fortune of spending 6 years at Undergrad at SPA New Delhi, I think the answer is how we are introduced to Design and Architecture, where the case study seems to be central to the establishing precedents  of good design. But never seems to stop there! And it becomes a debilitating exercise of name dropping and reputation. 

But you can call content curated, if you will, but you cannot call it journalism if all you are doing is featuring contributions from the architects themselves without the slightest attempt at generating discourse!

But if we want discourse, we have got to be ready for a little criticism! (And if there is one thing I have learnt from the few wine-filled dinners (that I have started to avoid) and fewer meaningful talks and discussions I have attended in these past many years – Architects don’t seem to like criticism! Much of our architecture is pattern book stuff (High modernism when modernism is long since dead) or Stylistic interpretation like post-modern, (when we didn’t even have a modern) and form fantasizing. Not to say there isn’t grounded architecture that is geographically / culturally rooted and socially relevant – but those architects are not among our stars. And sadly, there’s little being done to add them to the constellations of our sky!

Monday, April 01, 2019

Of Architecture, Museums, Oversimplifications and the Taj

I am tired of hearing that the Taj Mahal is fantastic architecture 
it so follows that if people can appreciate the Taj, they can and must have good Architectural taste. 

I'm paraphrasing, but thats pretty much what was being expressed.

That’s like saying I must know good food because I follow Gordon Ramsay on Instagram! But I turn up my nose at the local Aloo-Tikky joint. (Or I watch Masterchef Australia!)

And, no, a tomb made by an emperor to remember a dead wife in an exercise of monumental excesses, arguably the most intricately and ornately decorated still would not be my benchmark for good (let alone great) architecture in the subcontinent. 

To me it is an object in the landscape. 

Like a icon, a flag, a post, appreciated and viewed singularly for its place in the distance in a landspace, as an place to be photographed before.

A marvel of construction, proportion and shape, and craft, definitely but architecture?

Also the common discussions around the Taj, rarely, if ever, go to the Char-bagh, or the Masjid and its mirrored Aaram Ghar, or how it fits in a larger landscape or urban precinct, those I have heard only in the confines of architectural conversation between very lettered conservationist, and architects.

No one I know thinks of the Taj beyond its celebrated imagery, its marvel of an Object-in-a-Landscape and the phenomenal pictures it lends itself to from every angle, like a finely crafted curiosity, that attracts travellers from all continents to marvel at its perfection. It is a wondrous tourist attraction, surely, but is it architecture? We could argue that.

Does it fit the Vitruvian Ideal? Commodity, Firmness? Delight? Or the 10 markings of architecture? How does it address climate? Or shelter?

Does it belong on that bank of the river? Or is it contrived, Kind of like the Guggenheim at Bilbao? And the word is divided on Ghery’s Bilbao( i’m being polite when I say divided, but we will leave it there) 

But that isn’t why I started out on this.

As the epitome of the Mughal Tomb, does it automatically become great architecture?  And even if it does (although i’d argue it doesn’t) does an ability to appreciate the Taj, an easily acquired (sometimes considered a default human birth condition even) automatically translate into an ability to appreciate and recognise good architecture elsewhere?

Or is that some sort of oversimplification?

Or more, condescension?

I’m tired of the logic of this - the ability of recognition and appreciation of established and over exposed examples of classical architecture(and I write architecture to address all the examples we may come across) being touted as a demonstration of an ability to appreciate architecture in all its complexity in its much less tourist-loved and academia obsessed vernacular and contemporary models that populate the places and spaces of our everyday lives. 

So why am I raising this?

So there has been talk about a museum of architecture for a while now and i’m wondering how we or anyone will go about deciding what is good architecture and what merits inclusion and what doesn’t. 

(And please don’t throw the “buildings designed by eminent architect” criteria at this, if it weren’t for the name, there isn’t much to most of theose buildings in most cases.)

The Architectural press and the glossy journals do an awfully bad job of this, with an absolute lack of any kind of critical investigation, where firm invariable contribute both written and visual material and articles are more like author monologues of “design” celebration, even when there is little design and less to celebrate about it.

So how else? 

The contention that if you can appreciate the Taj you can appreciate good architecture is, well less talked about, the better. And even then i’d argue that the Humayun’s Tomb complex is possibly higher in Architectural value as well as in its opportunities for learning and demonstration of Architectural thinking and purpose than its Agra Cousin, that is more an exercise in aesthetic brilliance than anything else. 

But to me it doesn’t end there, to a culture and a consciousness that views life as cyclical and regenerative, a tomb being the bench mark for architecture for the living is somewhat ironical

If you said temple? Would I have the same Discussion? And if you are going to bring up Khajuraho? My response is an emphatic YES!  And for possibly the same reasons!

So lets not bother to revisit the argument.

Much of our appreciation and acknowledgement of our own architecture comes from the volumes of Fletcher and Tadgel, who did a wonderful job of documenting our historical monuments, but seem to have been driven by a collectors view, of cataloging, classifying etc these structures with a Art Object view on them. While the documentation is exhaustive, it speaks little of culture, tradition, life, landscape (but being dead monuments mostly, you cant fault that), almost a taxonomists delight, those, but do very little for an understanding of architecture as frame for human life.

And nothing for the humbler cousins, the vernacular of the varied geographies that make up the subcontinent and have nurtured life for innumerable generations but have been skipped by schools and architectural historians in the their ever westward looking view (barring for a token study somewhere in the earlier years of architecture school)

Also, most of us at architecture school are taught to appreciate buildings as architecture because a certain name is attached to them.

So how would you appreciate a good example of Kumaoni House?

Or wait,

Would you appreciate a good example of Kumaoni House if you raved about the Taj Mahal? Or would you Rave about a Matharoo Building because you find the Lakhmana Temple in Khajuraho the finest example of temple architecture?

I think not,

The world’s rife with oversimplifications, but as an architect, oversimplification of architecture I’m not very good with!

P.S. i thought i'd post a picture of the Taj, but sadly i don't have one of my own, but im sure the internet will flood you with a million pictures of it in less than 0.08 seconds, as for the Kumaoni House, please visit Kumaon!

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