by Johan Patel & Sayam Mulani
They say that if walls could talk each building would have a story to tell, the same holds true for humans, each one trying to narrate their life’s journey in their unique style. Perched at the crossroads of construction and culture, architecture has seen massive changes since the beginning of time. Entering an age of unprecedented technological innovation, the construction industry becomes increasingly automated seeking to take full advantage of new machinery. This drastic shift in style begs the question, how much does automation take away from the individuality of the design? To a large extent, newer modes of building catalyze the process of construction but at the cost of being original. Architecture is a field that takes inspiration from something prevalent and turns it into something fresh, capturing the essence of what was and in turn inspiring what can be. Like art, architecture gives a unique identity and characteristic to the entity it is applied to or associated with. A great example of this is monuments that become a part of the timeless heritage of a place, living on through memories, books, and movies until ultimately becoming a symbol for that place and its society. It can elevate a place’s heritage and social image, bringing pride to residents that associate it with their hometown. This unique language given to a place works its way into the social fabric, making the place more visible and putting it on the map.
Anyone can build but only an architect can create. In many ways the role of an architect is complex, lending itself to a multitude of aspects that affect us daily. It can shape one’s mental and physical health to simply catering to the ease of living. An architectural intervention at its best has the power to influence people’s mindsets, alter or revive prevalent cultures and popularize niche interests and talents. A mundane instance of the same would be to allow natural light into a space through carefully planned and oriented windows. This brightens the interiors increasing the production of serotonin, which in turn improves the overall well-being and elevates the senses of those experiencing it. Typically misunderstood by many, architecture is classified into a profession dealing with looks and aesthetics, seen as a luxury only for those who can afford it. But there is always more to it than what pleases the eye. The lack of information about the role of an architect in our society stereotypes our professionals as opinionated individuals that may increase the program or budget. In most public projects due to budget restrictions, construction is thought to be uncompromisable to complete the project. Doing so in the easiest and cheapest way without exploring other possibilities. Architecture is a service that stems from a broad understanding of people, their activities, and at the same time, reflects society’s distribution of resources and authority, its history, beliefs, and values at a given time. It’s about finding the most environmentally sustainable, mentally and physically pleasing, socially responsive as well as contextually correct form of carrying out a project and cost-effectively executing the same.
The responsibility an architect holds is immense since what we create can influence the social fabric of a community bringing people together but on the flip side capable of creating division. This is commonly seen in our modern construction that groups similar typologies of apartments, indirectly categorizing people based on their economic status thereby creating an unsaid class divide. A great example of how different groups of people can be made more familiar with one another is by sharing the same space in their day-to-day lives. The Aranya Low-Cost Housing initiative aims to do the same by clubbing people of various income groups in a common communal living. Therefore, design and mindful planning can serve as a medium to bring people together catering to various narratives and perspectives to make a more holistic and well-rounded space. Architecture can elevate communities from their predetermined status in society, making them feel a part of it instead of alienating them, slowly breaking down unjust societal norms. Not everyone can be a great architect, but great Architecture can come from anyone. It may seem that the role of an architect is too much for any one person to fulfill but in reality, it comprises of simple humanistic qualities that one brings to the design. Evidence of this can be seen throughout history in the form of Vernacular Architecture. There is no star architect involved here, just the locals addressing their daily necessities by bringing all their skills to the table. This involvement of locals also adds a dimension of uniqueness and ownership into the design making the architectural outcome truly by the people and for the people. This also keeps in mind the contextual climatic issues and builds from locally available resources adding sustainability to the design. A great way of preserving the local culture and continuing traditional knowledge. But due to our ever-evolving times, Vernacular methods are only practiced in underdeveloped towns and villages hence becoming largely self-contained and left behind in terms of evolution. This is where an architect can come in, contemporizing local methods of construction and design that better address modern needs while adhering to the changing climatic conditions. In this way, the gap between the villages and metropolitans can be bridged, improving the overall understanding and relation with one another. In an aim to modernize and not westernize.
The primordial function of architecture is to provide shelter which is nonetheless embedded into the framework of democratic speech; hence becoming a political right. Striking a strong commentary on the incapability of local administration to tackle and address issues like homelessness. It stirs up a debate questioning the authorities and thus spreading awareness about the same. This is where architecture takes a political angle being able to determine one’s socio-economic status. And although the answer may not be completely in design, being sensitive or thoughtful about the same are humane qualities essential for an architect, making anyone willing to find solutions an innovator and designer. This is seen in low-cost housing projects and rehabilitation programs that aim at stabilizing the financial condition of individuals thus creating a more equitable society. Giving an individual a place, they can call home gives visibility to groups otherwise ignored by society. Speaking directly to the contemporary concerns of the time, architecture expresses a set of values through situations and activities it encourages and the ones it prohibits. Architecture has the great potential of taking on complex matters and starting a debate, it proposes scenarios, expressing solutions to pressing issues. Like being sensitive towards the disabled in planning suitable infrastructure even if it is as simple as a ramp. Understanding the problem with binary gendered washrooms to provide a unisex one in public spaces, accommodating the LGBTQ community. A subtle yet impactful way to make people feel less alienated, thereby breaking societal stigmas around these issues. It goes to show that small initiatives can impact and inspire an alternative path at the decision-making level.
“People who do not have access to basic amenities are the ones that require good design and the service of architects the most”, says Mariam Kamara, an architect from Niger, who transformed a weekly market for the local impoverished society into a hub of social interaction for the community. It changed from being a place of just commerce to a space where children could play under the shadows cast by the colourful canopies. The market was earlier looked down upon as being primarily occupied by people of the lower economic class. After the remodeling, it is no longer just for the poor but appealing to all crowds. In this way, not only was the status of that place uplifted but also the way society perceived the people that occupied it. Given the important role of the profession in shaping the built environment and urban life, architects must double their efforts and not only advocate for change, but actively get involved in jumpstarting social progress through activism. An architect has a unique ability to empathize with each stakeholder and their experience framing the user’s narrative, addressing any grievances that may arise thereby providing necessary solutions. Hence, Architecture can and always should, serve all types of people, or in the words of Winston Churchill, “We shape our buildings thereafter they shape us”.
How can architects change the world for the better? 10th January, 2019, (video file) Available from:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVxsZ9FhHWQ [20th June,2021]