Beyond pretty things
As the Indian academic year sets rolling for another annual cycle, it is always an occasion for one to begin thinking about the broader field of practice. We educate students to become architects so that they can enter the profession and practice, as well as participate and contribute therein. However, the relationship between education and practice is more nuanced, vexed and complicated than that; education is surely not, and cannot be, subservient to practice. But often practitioners are heard grumbling loudly about how education is inadequate and does not give a readymade product — a person who from day one at the workplace can deliver all necessary tasks perfectly. And then there is the debate on whether we produce products that can fit offices, or whether we make thinkers who will hopefully, someday, contribute to the wider field of architecture. The problem is in the imagined divorce between skill and thought — not only at the level of the schools and colleges but also at the level of practice.
A similar problem exists when we imagine books, journals, publications, exhibitions, colloquia, and public discussions on architecture as separate, or worse, as subservient, to practice. The former forms of practice are as much sites of production as the normative arena of practice — that of building-designing and -making. As much as the central task remains that of building production — a building is produced in brick, mortar, and steel, and concrete, as much as it is produced in discourse, the recent discourse on conservation, especially that of Modern or 20th-century structures in India, in the wake of the demolition of the buildings in Pragati Maidan, fails to understand that it is not about History as much as it is about the contemporary imagination of architecture practice today in India. Architecture in today’s times is so relegated to the world of lifestyle and intricate detailing, and falsely celebrates craft as poetic skills, that it sits outside the robust discussion on culture and cultural politics, and is way beyond the imagination of politics. Politics, in fact, is seeped into every grain of architecture — neither architects, nor political scientists see architecture as the site of politics. This is not to say that architecture has to be symbolic, monumental, or expressive of some political ideology overtly via its form or construction. However it is about the everyday politics of place and being that architecture addresses, and can address, in good and sensible architectural works. How does the education of an architect respond to some of these issues of displaced architecture practice in contemporary times, and the role of everyday politics in the everyday act of designing and building? Politics is in the ethics of imagination and making of buildings today. It is about the sense of what defines a programme and a project, how far does the architect play along and where does s/he draw a silent and subversive, or intelligent twist to the tale. How much does the architect stretch her/his role in his everyday working? In what ways can s/he stretch that role within the practice of everyday designing and building? Politics is not the overt expression of an ideological position or a form of activism only; although those are obviously at times required as much. But politics required today is about the responsibility we need to have, beyond architecture, and to be played out through architecture. Architecture has its everyday existence — and so it is the site of everyday politics. Architecture defines the fabric and physical plane we occupy in everyday lives along with the inherent politics, as well as the intervention of design that is then the key to understanding and recognising the everyday sense of being.
Design has to address the nature and sense of everyday politics and cultural struggles within which it builds. Context can no longer be as narrow-minded as climate and soil, but is the culture of politics and the economies of culture. This is why we bring to you, in this issue, a conversation on a recent and very fine work of art history, a book that art critic and cultural theorist Nancy Adajania writes on the artist Navjot Altaf; at some point both claim it is a collaboration — the book as a collaboration between theorist and artist, between thought and action, between writing and making. Practice has been boldly redefined in this book as an arena of action, questions, sharing, and arguing. In the same issue we go on to discuss Beauty — an idea that is most difficult to trap in a definition or conversation, and a concept most deceptive and illusive. But the craft or words, the techne of poetry and drawing out sentences, as well as the conceptual debates over history and time — are all drawn upon to investigate, and ask, what is Beauty after all? There is another question — is Beauty outside politics? Is Beauty held between making and thinking, thinking and making? Finally, we introduce, from this issue onwards, a clear and elaborate engagement with Poetry — the architecture of ideas as held within the construction of words and word-images; the fleeting nature of words as they leave behind monuments to memory; and the crafted geography of sentences. This section, curated by poet, cultural theorist and critic Ranjit Hoskote features, in fact, the architect Mustansir Dalvi, who is also well-known as a poet and translator. In this engagement with poetry, the arts of video and installation art, or collaborations with tribal communities, we try to wrestle out the ideas of practice and action, thinking and making, Beauty and politics.
The two projects featured are purposefully those that strike a balance between the ideas of lifestyle-making and the workings of design. In the conversations, we try to see this fine balance and argue for a more dynamic role for design; juggle the dilemmas of prettiness versus design, the misconceptions on craft or superficial and banal assumptions on what makes art; and what stands as clear and crisp design. Let these readings stay with us as we look forward to reviewing soon the ideas on what shape architecture practice is in, in India today.