Nasser Rabbat traces back social relevance in the architecture of pre-modern times, reminding us that historically architecture has been the preserve of rulers and high priests. In this series, Gautam Bhatia describes the erosion of a social conscience in architecture starting with economic liberalisation in the country.
Before addressing the question of the relevance of the architectural profession to the population at large, I would like to place the question in the context of other professions: Is the work of lawyers relevant to the population at large? How many disputes are meaningfully resolved through the formal legal system? Is the work of doctors relevant to the population at large? How much of the population has access to state-of-the-art medical care?
Stepping back to look beyond the confines of architecture, it becomes obvious that the question of relevance is not exclusive to architecture. In a paper titled ‘Neoliberalism: Oversold?’ even the International Monetary Fund, the primary global agent of economic liberalisation, now recognises that it causes an increase in inequality that needs to be compensated by a redistribution of wealth and opportunity. The book ‘The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance’ analyses this issue in the light of architecture and betrays its conclusions in its title itself. (Somewhat ironically, I have not yet got my hands on this book due to its high price, but it is on top of my list of books to read). Daniel Cardoso Llach describes how contemporary architects are able to compromise on their conscience for financial compensation (either motivated by greed, or simply to earn a living) in what he calls the ‘Architect’s Bargain’ with society. He shows how the increasing virtualization of the profession with globalized practices producing photoreal visualisations, parametric BIM models, and using computer numerically controlled fabrication are predicated on the ‘Architect’s Bargain’ and further consolidate it.
So, what is it that architects can do to make their work more relevant? There are two common sense ways in which a profession can make itself relevant to a population – one, by catering to the demands of the population, and two, by convincing the population of the relevance of what it does. In a neoliberal climate, catering to market forces (i.e. the client in the form of a financial investor) only directs architecture towards the profit motive of the 1% which is frequently acting against the greater interests of the ‘population at large’. Also, the ‘population at large’ is increasingly being co-opted by market forces and moulded into consumers through advertising, finance, techno-seduction, and other instruments of influence and compliance. This lands the social conscience of the architect in the familiar position of trying to fight the client, and going against prevailing consumer tastes (such as this). The question, “Can Architects be Socially Responsible?” was asked by Margret Crawford in 1991.
At this point one might be tempted into a feeling of doom for the profession, or feel compelled to come up with a grandiose, utopian (and inevitably simplistic and unfeasible) solution to all the world’s problems. Activist architecture – the practice of architecture that frees itself from the codified client-architect relationship to seek novel means to engage with communities normally excluded from the design process – avoids both pessimism and idealism. It does not to provide an alternative way of practicing architecture, but attempts to change the way all architecture is practiced. Swati Janu, in this series, describes how the work of architects can better engage with marginalised communities through collaboration with other professions. In his essay on the right of marginalised populations to architecture, Rabbat cites examples of projects designed in this way.
For better or for worse, a majority of architecture today is confined to ‘mallscapes’ (a delightful term used to describe, “the organized aggregation of gated communities, commercial centres, and other enclaves [from where social] segregation is only tangentially visible”). One of the greatest ironies of the irrelevance of architecture to the ‘population at large’ is that the masons and labourers who physically build architect-designed buildings are the very people who are marginalized from the activities taking place in those buildings once they are occupied. This irony is so commonplace that is mostly goes unnoticed. This irony is so commonplace that it almost goes unnoticed; a few exceptions being where it has academically analysed or comedically satirized (as in the last scene of Peepli Live).
The marginalization of the people building buildings from the buildings that they build can be linked to the marginalization of skilled craftsmanship from the design and construction of buildings. In the paper “Negotiating Converging Cultures of Designing and Making: Averting a Fourth Marginalization of the Hand” I attempt to trace the history how skilled manual labour has been relegated from a position of primacy, as seen in the work of historic master-craftsmen, to almost a position of irrelevance in contemporary discourses of digital design and fabrication. Important milestones in this process of marginalization were the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, Colonialism, and now neoliberal globalization. With every milestone, architectural design has moved further away from the work of the hand. Each step in the de-skilling of manual work in building construction has paralleled the social marginalization of those performing the manual work – the ‘population at large.’ The Industrial Revolution in the West was sustained by colonies in the East. The virtualization of architecture today is built on the infrastructural scaffolding of global inequalities and exploitation,.
Architects have influence over materials and methods of construction. By creating designs that renew the relevance of the hand one can socio-economically empower those populations marginalized by neoliberalization. Attempting this from the perspective of an architectural Luddite will only lead to further professional alienation and irrelevance. To be relevant, architecture needs to look beyond the dichotomy of the hand and the machine. The integration of the hand cannot stop at collaborations with machines, but needs to extend to a four-way integration of hands-minds-machines-computers in order to produce a cyborg design and construction process. The reintegration of designing and making needs to create new architectural possibilities that transcend the individual limitations of digital and mechanized technologies and of manual processes.
But the binary relationship between the architectural profession and the ‘population at large’ can no longer be considered in isolation from the environment. As the construction industry’s influence on the environment increases, any positive architectural impact of buildings will be offset by the detrimental effects of construction on the environment, unless sustainable construction practices are followed. One must be cautious not to define sustainability in narrow terms, but as inclusively as possible. Ignoring the effects of architecture on the environment is equivalent to ignoring the effects of architecture on the ‘population at large.’ Therefore the cyborg of hands-minds-machines-computers needs to include the environment as well.
This cyborg is not a terrifying Frankenstein’s monster, but an intricate web of interrelationships. There is no single way to produce this cyborg. This cyborg is the iterative integration of the decisions and actions of every architect with even the smallest remaining bit of ‘social conscience’ who continues to practice their profession, finding large and small, overt and covert ways to ‘do the right thing in their own unique and creative ways. Rather than let the individual actions of architects guided by their social conscience remain isolated one-time occurrences, recognizing the importance of these actions, celebrating them, and recording them in the institutional memory of the profession will help to gradually better integrate architecture with its social context.
Ayodh Vasant Kamath blends craft, design and computation in research, teaching, and professional practice. He is a partner at Kamath Design Studio, New Delhi; he is pursuing a PhD in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania on a leave of absence from his position as Assistant Professor of Digital Design and Fabrication Technologies at Lawrence Technological University, Michigan. Ayodh has previously taught at the Sushant School of Art & Architecture, Gurgaon, and the University School of Architecture and Planning, Delhi.