“So,” my professor asked, “why did you choose to study architecture?” Thank god I wasn’t sitting in the front row. I needed some time to gather my thoughts. Why, indeed?
Back in high school I was told that it was a good option for me, if I liked math and art, which I did. At that point I was not particularly proud of my artistic skills; I didn’t produce anything original, I just liked to copy what I saw, mostly portraits. I did make a few doodles, but they were just a bunch of words, written in a funky way around certain patterns on a sheet of paper.
Regardless, I was an 18-year-old student in India, wanting to do something other than crack IIT. I took architecture into consideration. (It’s not like I had made up my mind for anything else!) I went home and googled “A-R-C-H-I-T-E-C-T-U-R-E.” There were a few links, but a video caught my eye. The thumbnail showed some Ingels guy, from an overhead angle, drawing on a big white board below him. “Architecture is the fiction of the real world,” he told me, looking straight into my eyes. “Turning dreams into concrete reality with bricks and mortar…”
He went on to tell me how architecture brings together seemingly unrelated things and creates something amazing out of it. How it can bridge the gaps between what is and what we want it to be. To him, architecture was the ultimate dream—the one where your dreams become a reality.
There was another video in the suggestion box, an alternate reality, telling the story of a group of architecture students and how life was for them: the studio culture, the late-night sessions, the sleep-deprived marathons, the brutal “crits,” where a bunch of students and professionals sit together, reviewing fledging projects, one by one, a kind of intellectual firing squad. There were apparently arguments, injuries, some even got sick at one point, but they all seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. How?
Back to the studio: It was now my turn to get up and tell this bunch of strangers why I was sitting in the same room with them. What brought me here? Because I liked art and math? That sounds banal! (A word common here at school.) Surely I can come up with something better! “Well, I … read in a book that architects deal in nothing,” I said. “They do not actually put up walls, but the empty space within two walls is what an architect really creates. I am fascinated by that thought.”
And I truly was. But not more than the powerful idea that architects are also the anonymous creators of marvelous masterpieces. I always wanted to do that! At some point I became fascinated with the concept of “looking through the mist,” being the unseen observer, the unknown creator. To chisel the finest sculpture that has ever been, and not sign my name on it. Maybe it was an alternative manifestation of the “superhero dream,” to be the masked savior. Or maybe it was simply my inability to accept a compliment.
The first year was quite rough. Sleep was to be treasured, submissions to be dreaded, and life to be lived. The assignments were not always related to making spaces; some of them, in fact, were quite far away from reality, but they were interesting nonetheless. I got to know about this architect named Daniel Libeskind. We were given the task to study his work, understand his philosophies of design, and ultimately to design an office for him. As best as I could tell, his sense was obscure, twisted. He made galleries with sloped walls where nothing could be displayed, built elaborate spaces and then blocked their entrances—but he somehow persuaded the client to pay for it.
All I had to do was produce a model with no right angles, a bunch of irregular triangles stuck together to appear like a building, with exaggerated corners. The feedback I got for it was, “The volume seems slightly off, but you have got the architect right.” The main aim of our task was for us to understand volumes of spaces, but I was more than happy to have been able to think like one of the greatest minds in architecture, someone they called a Starchitect. I wanted to be just like him one day.
A new world opened up for me, where I just sat at my bed and stargazed at the genius minds, their works, their philosophies: The boldness of Hadid, the roughness of Gehry, the arrogance of Wright, the confidence of Corbusier, the subtlety of Correa. Architecture was the expression of the architect, and every architect strived to create a structure that expressed them. Architecture was art, indeed.
I loved math more than any other subject. It had a logic to it, largely dissociated from the prejudices of the scientists, unlike physics and chemistry. It was the closest to reality. Being able to produce a way to solve the equation after hours of brainstorming? No other feeling could quite match the spontaneity of that excitement, that discovery.
There were not many numbers in architecture. Estimation had not yet made its way into the curriculum, and it was silently agreed by all that structural calculations were not to be performed outside the examination hall. Meanwhile, I was beginning to wonder why it was even necessary to study mathematics to get into architecture school. You could simply walk as the master architects told you to—conjure up magical concepts and mystical structures. Libeskind once conceived a structure on the back of his boarding pass while flying over the site!
I could amalgamate ideas from different masters into an architectural bigamy (or not?).
“Why have you designed your museum like a maze? Why not give a proper hall with exhibits on both sides?”
“Halls with exhibits on the sides … that would seem daunting to the visitor,” I replied.
“Who said that? Haven’t you not been to a museum?”
“Correa does this in all his museums!”
“Because he is Charles Correa! You are a student.”
Worst crit ever. What does he mean? I can’t follow Correa? Who can I follow?
One day, back home, my father called me into his study. Someone else was sitting with him. As I entered, my dad pointed to me and said, “Here he is. He is studying architecture right now. You can discuss your requirements with him, perhaps.” And soon the three of us were driving to the site, and I was brimming with excitement. Was this going to be my first real project? I had only just finished my second year!
The site was a rectangular plot. The “client” was planning to build a two-story structure on it, his home. My mind started brimming with a ton of questions, about the members of his family, their interests and preferences, and the dozens of ways I could design for them! No professors to hammer limitations over me this time!
“Look, kid, here is what I want you to do, this is the plan,” the client said. “You leave 3 meters from the front and 1.5 from the back, the kitchen goes here and the bedrooms along these walls, with attached bathrooms. There is going to be a basement parking with a lift and staircase. You just have to make some changes to it. Can you do that?”
I was dumbstruck. I could not understand what he needed me for, if he already had the plan drawn up. But what I was even more amazed at was, I was still excited about taking the job. The idea of having an actual project to my name, so early in my career, was alluring. So much for the “masked savior.” I gave in to the temptation. I took the project back to the hostel with me. I sat excited, at my desk, ready to carry out and change the plans according to my liking. What I already had in front of me were plain boxes. Nothing seemed interesting about them. Perhaps I could redesign all of it from scratch?
Let’s see …
It was not that I was too afraid to fight for my ideas, but that I did not yet have any ideas. I could not imagine what it would look like other than a block of brick and concrete.
I tried multiple times but could not come up with anything, and in the end, I gave up. The responsibility was too heavy. And besides, it was not like I had much of what they call “creative freedom.” I was basically given a sheet of paper, but my hand was held by the client. It was not that I was too afraid to fight for my ideas, but that I did not yet have any ideas. I could not imagine what it would look like other than a block of brick and concrete.
I wondered: Is this really what architecture is going to be all about? Similar structures cladded in different facades springing up all over? That is what I see all around me, but is that what people dream of? How can they be satisfied with only this? Do they not want their rooms to be an experience in themselves, for their spaces to tell a story? Or do they want plain and boring brick walls with paint over them? Why can they not go a little over budget?
Later the same year, I joined an office as a summer intern. It was a small firm, with only the principal architect and two interns, including me, but somehow we were always working on at least four projects simultaneously. The office was actually an apartment, and there were certain rituals to be followed every day: we would write an architectural quote on the white board, nobody was to work without music, everybody had at least one chance to fail at beating our boss at chess, and we had to describe one project of an architect we admired.
“So,” my boss asked one day, “why did you choose to study architecture?”
“At first it was all very exciting,” I said. “But now I find myself asking the very same question.”
“Ah, don’t worry!” he said. “You will love it. It is irritating, long hours of work, only to have pointless arguments with clients about your designs, but it is equally crucial to understand the client. As an architect you will keep jumping from one building to the next, but the user will probably spend the rest of their life in that one building.”
I do love it. Architects make dreams into a reality, but maybe it doesn’t have to be their dreams. I came to study architecture because I was looking for a challenge, for a problem to answer, a puzzle to solve. I was lured away by the temptation of self-expression, the glamor of the “art in architecture.” Or perhaps I was simply looking at the wrong problem to answer; perhaps we all are. We call marginal open spaces “setbacks,” the on-site conditions “constraints,” obstacles to our “creative freedom.” Bullshit! Why not call them conditions, and take them up as challenges needing to be overcome, perhaps then creativity will find its way!
I am in fourth year now, waiting to go on my training. Maybe I should apply to BIG?
Featured image via The Urbanist.