What If We Could Choose Our Own Architecture?
Ding! The bell rings, and we begin lining up to go to the library. Ah, such a boring period! A room full of more books? My school bag is already so heavy with them. And who expects middle school kids to read them? They take forever to read. If you’re excited about the story, then just wait until the movie comes out!
Maybe this feeling had something to do with my aversion to being told to do stuff. I was never good at that. Adults are always telling you to do stuff; they never ask, they simply order and expect it to be carried out. They think they know everything, but they actually only know how to turn something interesting into something boring. I want to put on the music and groove to the beat while cleaning my room—just let me do that!
That’s why I didn’t like books. A book is a cage for stories. Once the story is cast into a book, there is no way to alter the narrative. The reader sits in a place, a powerless witness to the whims of the author. When people say, “Oh I love this book!” what they actually mean is that they agree with how the author decided to narrate the story. And they tend to read only those kinds of books. It is a coping mechanism.
My aversion to books would have stayed almost as rigid as the narratives they presented had I not come across the spectacular series called Choose Your Own Adventure, where the narrative can be navigated in different ways, based on what the reader chooses to do when given a choice at certain points in the story. Each decision leads to a further unveiling of the story, and more decision points. And they are really short stories. What more do you need?
My youthful encounter with that series was perhaps my first big epiphany in life: I realized that a book, or for that matter a story, need not necessarily be a linear experience, with a set beginning and a predetermined end. With Choose Your Own Adventure, the parameters of the narrative are flexible enough to exercise multiple outcomes along the same plot line. Why don’t other books allow readers to do this? Most humans are conditioned to follow, not create; the rest are constricted by social norms like “good always triumphs over evil.” As a narrator, you have unlimited freedom when telling a story. But not many narrators take advantage.
My knack for not following orders led me to architecture. (Or at least I think it did.) I still remember the first year, a studio full of rebellious young adults, all wanting to design masterpieces. But through the semesters, as we “grew” and “learned,” that flame started to flicker out.
During one of our assignments in first year, one of the professors was bashing us about the utter impracticality of our designs: “That’s not how it works!” “How will you fit the furniture here?” “What on earth would you do in a corner that small? Acute corners waste space!” “Why do you need so much variation in your design? Keep it streamlined so everything is balanced!”
As I checked out what my peers had done, I was not able to recognize who the designer might have been by looking at the design. But I could make an almost perfect guess at the mentor.
In the next semester we were divided into groups, each of which got a “mentor.” We were all given the same problem and had to develop our individual solutions to it. At the end of the process, we mounted an exhibition of our work. As I checked out what my peers had done, I was not able to recognize who the designer might have been simply by looking at the design. But I could make an almost perfect guess at the mentor. This obviously led to a series of uncomfortable questions: Who, exactly, are we designing for? Are we the ones designing? Do we like our choices? Are we really choosing?
One of our first assignments in architecture school instructed us to pick up something around us, find a problem with it, and then propose a solution. But that’s where our freedom of choice ended. Everything after that was a predetermined design problem, with a given site, size, typology, and set of rules (codes) that had to be followed. The process was streamlined through the set of submission requirements, beginning with an analysis of the site and an understanding of its climate and context. Then we looked around for a case study, figured out the area requirements from the “book of standards,” threw in some creative visuals from Pinterest and … ta-da! The design was done! Executed in the precise order: plans, elevations, sections, views. Maybe even a physical model, if we were motivated enough.
That’s how the process of design works for architects, right? In the professional world, the “real” world, the client would come to you with an empty lot and then ask you to volumetrically reduce its size and pollute the surroundings by making “something like this, I saw this on the internet the other day.” It’s not like we’d have a choice, then, would we?
What if our professional life were more like that first assignment? Architects would go out for a morning walk, look around until they spot something they believe has a problem, and then design a solution? Instead of waiting around for a client to patronise us, can we not look for problems on our own? Is it a choice that nobody bothers to take? Or is it not a choice at all?
Back in first year, after that professor was done bashing us, he walked out. Five minutes later he returned and said, “Look, your professors and mentors, including me, will always ask you to change things. But it’s not an absolute necessity that you do it the way they asked you to. Whenever they are giving you comments, listen to everything. But act only on the portions which make sense to you. People only give advice. It’s your choice whether to follow it or not.”
Now we’re in the last year of our professional degree course. All of us are spread throughout India, undergoing our “architectural training.” What is amusing is the difference in our experiences. Some firms are swamped with projects. Some have huge offices, where graduates and interns alike are squeezed into cubicles, with just enough room for them to sit and work on their computers. There are some principal architects who seldom come to their own firms, and if they do visit, briefly, they’re always on the phone, talking to clients, contractors or vendors. Some firms don’t even have the time to “design”: “Take the same plans as last time, change the façade a little, nobody will notice!”
They say it is how the life of an architect is. Due to the sheer volume of work, the amount of time consumed by each and every task, we have to work long hours to meet our deadlines. There’s no choice.
But then there are other narratives. There are firms employing just the right number of staff. There are some architects and firms that are not drowning in their work—it is simply a part of their lives. Some firms don’t accept just any project that comes their way; they agree only if the perspective of the client matches theirs. It’s like those firms have a superpower: the freedom of choice.
I am reliving my epiphany. Like the adventure series, we all started at the same point. Flipping through the chapters of architecture school, when offered with a choice, each one of us chose to do things differently—different mentors, different ideas, different principles—even as we sent out our applications to firms across the country. I just hope that when we go out into the world as architects, we remember to Choose Our Own Architecture.
Featured image via Choose Your Own Adventure.