The Fifth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2003
Berkeley Prize 2003

Priyanka Shah

A Globe in My Bag

Universal human values are a continuing consequence of human evolution. The deeds of every civilization have fed and will continue to feed the collective consciousness of humankind. In this stream of evolution as we move past the monumental towards the individual, these universal values are best asserted via their various indigenous manifestations. The Great Bazaar in Istanbul, St.Marks Square in Venice or Times Square in New York all stand for the same meaning to their people. They are democratic places that celebrate public life. And that is one of the things successful architecture does, it takes the same suitcase everywhere but unpacks the local garb.

The success of these places is measured by the kind of memories they generate. Those places that have a strong spirit and character are given easily to remembrance. Difficult buildings with total design and totalitarian attitude, which leave no room for adaptation, scarcely endear themselves to the public. Their memory remains only in fragments or is blocked out like an unpleasant encounter. It is the memory makers that become our heritage. For what is heritage but memories that we want to retain and pass on.

While monumental buildings, that are designed to be seen rather than experienced, are committed to memory as photographs, places like the narrow streets of older towns or open cafes in St.Marks Square are converted into memories themselves. We carry them around with us. On stimulus we can recall the solitude, the slight strain of walking on a slope and the music in the background. We can almost smell the place. Such places live on not only as fixed entities of the landscape but also as fluid memories that are recollected, reminisced and passed on.

The character of such and other lesser-known places like them is, however, being diluted. By an onslaught of western images and the desire to ape them in the east, and more subtly but certainly by designer buildings in the west, whose only embodiments are the painstakingly developed quirks of their creators, which often look the same regardless of which part of the world they inhabit. Homogenizing in their wake the diversity that lies at the crux of our evolution as a species.

As spatial experiences wane, we begin to forget that our built environments are not mute spectators to the events of our lives. In the question of how environments shape individuals, we fail to infer the most literal meaning of environment . While considering education systems, political climate and social structuring to play a role we unwittingly forget the effect of the built domain.

"We make our buildings, and then our buildings make us" (Winston Churchill)

"There is a fundamental difference between those societies in which people are able to make their environments come alive and those in which towns and buildings become dead." (Christopher Alexander, A Timeless Way of Building)

Architecture as a master s profession existed since the beginning of ordered civilization, but it came to be established as a common profession in the mid 19thCentury. Up till then living habitats were mostly generated by the people living in them with the help of vocational specialists like carpenters and masons. This know how was shared and people understood how towns and cities were made. These habitats were evolved over generations and contained distilled wisdoms in their parts. Whimsical absurdities that did not result from collective understanding were sieved out over time, and the fact that the built domain needed to be comprehensible to everyone was not seen as a hindrance to creativity because its design was not the preserve of any one group of people.

In a shared language, allowance was made for every facet of human experience. This sharing of language and participation expanded the sense of belonging and ownership to beyond the immediate vicinity of the house. In cities today, however, we increasingly demarcate our domain inside strict boundaries of property possessed through legal deeds and agreements. Anything outside this realm inspires little feeling of own-ership. Not being a part of the debates and decisions that shape the urban realm, people are isolated from the very surroundings they inhabit. A sustained feeling of isolation, exacerbated by this situation translates to the angst and anguish, we see all around us in rising rates of crime, depression and suicide. With the breakdown of social intercourse, survivalist beliefs that propagate the notion of each man for himself, are making cites a paradox of crowd and loneliness.

Since its consolidation as a profession architecture has been only too oblivious to the real lifestyles of the people and of events and occurrences that are as much a part of the experience of a place as its physical environment. While all other art forms thrive on the inspirations derived from the prevalent human condition, architecture in the modern era has mostly viewed it as a set back to be controlled, rectified or overcome. Trying to identify itself as an art form, it has ironically divorced itself from the wellspring that could be and should be its main motivator.

The most obvious difference between art and architecture is that while art is exhibited, architecture is inhabited.

In an effort to create a persona for themselves, architects used the dimension of art to be seen as more than just builders. A succession of theories and movements followed to lend authenticity to the persona of Architect as Artist and of course they were experiments in aesthetics and representation. Like gravity, human inhabitation was always a consideration, but in the sense of human as opposed to canine inhabitation. The dimension that distinguishes the profession from others is incorporated as an afterthought, following the aesthetic manipulations. Not internalizing the fact that architecture deals in generations not seasons, architects steadily continue to produce buildings whose appeal is only transient.

"The fashion game is fun for architects to play and diverting for the public to watch, but it's deadly for building users. When the height of fashion moves on, they are the ones left behind stuck in a building that was designed to look good rather than work well, and now it doesn t even look good. They spend their day trapped in someone else s taste, which everyone now agrees is bad taste. Here time becomes a problem for buildings" (Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn)

The media and architectural publications also perpetuate this image of architecture as fashion. The only coverage architecture gets is on specialty shows featuring high design like Frank Ghery's Guggenhiem Museum in Bilbao, or Caesar Pelli s, tallest in the world, Petronas Towers. While there are TV shows and debates galore on issues like education, law enforcement, and medical practice, how many debates does BBC or CNN conduct on architectural or urban planning issues? Camera savvy buildings get coverage and spread the designer s fame, which begets more work, and more buildings are designed to make instantaneous impact in a world of fifteen-second segments and even shorter attention spans.

Schools of architecture also propagate this drive for style, ignoring content in the process. Lectures on history concentrate on the history of style with only mild emphasis on the ethos the styles evolved in. Even serious design translates only to token contextuality encoded by convoluted symbolism or a literal cut and paste of motifs. All kinds of styles make it into the design studio, except lifestyle. This lack of emphasis on living patterns in schools translates to a corresponding lacuna in practice as well and in this climate of art for arts sake, students imbibe that appearances are the only reality.

"Art alone appears incapable of unmasking the spectacle." "It is not so much the representation as the presence of values that constitutes an event. It is not so much the aesthetic of the walled space as the aesthetic of the event that takes place within that walled space, the activity formulated in the programme that is of critical significance." (Roomer van Toorn)

In his landmark book A Timeless Way of Building , Christopher Alexander says: "What a town or building is, is governed above all by what is happening there." This encompasses all natural and man-made events that occur in that realm. Events here does not mean only cracker bursting festivities. It also includes natural occurrences like the incidence of sunrays on a windowsill and the motions of everyday life like dining, dating, shopping, begging, rag picking, studying, prostitution and infinite more.

The spaces and places where these activities happen acquire their spirit and character through the episodes that occur there, or more precisely the episodes that occur there repetitively. Such as a highway that is notorious for accidents acquires this notoriety due to the fact that accidents occur there repeatedly. These events are always defined with reference to their spatial backdrops, the space or place where they are happening. The mention of any event immediately conjures up images of its spatial setting in a given cultural context. Like shopping means the mall in suburban America and the market street in small town India. These activities are anchored in space much like the way thought is rooted in language. Ideas may occur in abstract forms but their elucidation happens only through language, be it verbal or visual. Similarly one cannot visualize these events divorced from their spatial setting. Hence like gardening or bathing the act implies the space and vice-versa. "The activity and its physical space are one; there is no separating them." (Alexander)

In current architectural practice and pedagogy, however, the arrays of events that make up our separate and collective lives are translated to one-dimensional classifications such as "open spaces" and "cultural provisions" or "reception", "living room" and so on. The understanding of how living is acted out in these spaces is relegated to the sub-conscious. It is understood, without being elucidated, what happens on a porch, at a window, in the streets or at the cafe. No cognizance is taken of how life choreographs itself in space. Architecture is reduced to making area allocations for these functions in the prettiest manner possible. But it is not enough to simply make provisions; that is not architecture. Architecture, is designing for life.

The places that exhilarate us, the ones that we make emotive and experiential memories of, have this design for life. They respond to the events that make up people's lives. It is necessary to incorporate these local events into the architectural process so that the built environment may relate back to the people. For example, the design briefs for sidewalks in Bombay and London would be different, because even though the element of the sidewalk is the same the events that occur on them are disparate. While sidewalks in London are used mainly for walking with the odd vendor found occasionally, the sidewalks in Bombay are the stages for life. With the informal sector overwhelmingly spilling out on them and everyone from vegetable vendors and junk food carts to sellers of fake stereos staking a claim, the design brief gets radically altered, or at least it should. Such places embed heady memories, whether certified as such or not they form the "heritage" of a larger chunk of people than the meticulously preserved facades of monuments. But with city authorities and urban design commissions consistently failing to acknowledge their presence they remain unrepresented on the urban programme. For the heritage of common people to be rightfully recognized, ideologies of creation and conservation will have to start looking beyond the facades to the events that occur behind and between them. To conserving and generating legacies of human endeavours, which are an integral component of the spaces and places that contain them.

"Our object today is not to fulfill the conditions of construction but to achieve the construction of conditions that will dislocate the most regressive aspects of society and reorganize these elements in the most liberating way." (Paul Virilo)

If we are to evolve to an inclusive future, we have to start by ensuring that nobody remains outside the agenda.

"By the year 2030, for the first time in history, 60% of the world's population will be living in cities." "Almost all the world's population growth over the next 30 years will take place in the cities of developing countries" "Industrial and commercial activities in the urban areas account of between 50 and 80 % of the gross domestic product (GDP) in most countries of the world" -National Geographic, November 2002

"The quality of life for most people in the future will be determined by the quality of cities."

If we wish to affect any broad based change it is evident the thrust will have to be on the urban condition. Before being able to propose any "design" solution to the sidewalk problem, we will have to push for those lives to be acknowledged. Architects who espouse social concern will have to extend their involvement to beyond the drawing board, and those who don t should consider retracting theirs completely. Whether invited to or not, we must try to become a part of the process of formulating the programme, the functional and ideological basis of the environments we are going to help generate.

If architecture has to change, architects will have to change first. This change cannot be affected through yet another movement or theory about representation. A paradigm shift emphasizing process over product, adaptability over intransigence, event over appearance, participation over exclusion, co-operation over monopoly and content over style has to be mobilized. We have to muster the strength to force the moment to its crisis

If architecture aspires to be an instrument for social change it must first become a social process. If relevance has to return to architecture, the people must be reinstated into the process. Without this human contact the people are faceless consumers who are much easier to disregard. As was seen in the public outcry over the bland proposals for the redevelopment of Ground Zero that prompted the subsequent design competition, a groundswell that comes from among the people has the muscle to resist mediocrity. The design of the built environment is the people s concern as well and their involvement should be asserted as a right. Local Action Groups mobilized from within communities should participate in program formulation and demand Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE), a procedure for judging how well a building works after occupation by surveying its occupants, cleaners and service and repairmen (who know its failures all too well) and recording how it is used and what is happening as against what was intended.

The media possesses the outreach to make these issues part of mainstream public discourse. To reach a wider readership, serious journals as well as architecture glossies could feature relevant articles and POEs with TV channels conducting primetime debates on planning and architecture. To focus for the first time on, not how architecture looks, but how it works.

It is in this empowerment of the individual and community, that the collective human consciousness resonates.


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Priyanka Shah, Rizvi College of Architecture, India
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