Saturday, May 05, 2018

Can we?

Photo from Venice Biennale 2014 curated by OMA
Superstudio was an architecture firm, founded in 1966 in Florence, Italy by Adolfo Natalini and Cristiano Toraldo di Francia. The founders had gone to school at the University of Florence with Archizoom Associati founder Andrea Branzi and first showed their work in the Superarchitettura show in 1966.
Adolfo Natalini wrote in 1971 “...if design is merely an inducement to consume, then we must reject design; if architecture is merely the codifying of bourgeois model of ownership and society, then we must reject architecture; if architecture and town planning is merely the formalisation of present unjust social divisions, then we must reject town planning and its cities...until all design activities are aimed towards meeting primary needs. Until then, design must disappear. We can live without architecture...”

Friday, May 04, 2018


For me the act of design constitutes actively engaging with all the tools at one’s disposal, sketching, model making, cad, 3d. Even while one is doing a completely banal task of drafting there are decisions being made of alignments, offsets, widths, heights, proportions. There is rationalisation that takes place of the sketch being turned into a cad plan, and while doing that there is a continuous sense of improvisation, an immersion in the design process. For me an apt metaphor to explain this process is a potter who sits at the wheel, the clay is fluid, it moves, and possibilities emerge in split second on the wheel where the potter engages with the combination of earth, water, air and gravity. This is possible only when the potter “gets his / her hands dirty” in exchange for knowledge of consistency of the clay, its fluidity, the speed of the wheel, gravity and other forces that converge on that wheel at that moment. Like construction lines in cad which may or may not be used but they record a potential that was surrendered for a better one.
When this is compared to the design profession and its hierarchy, there is an attempt to design not by engaging with the tools or the possibilities each tool provokes but through curation. An individual standing far away from the potter’s wheel trying to make pots through a set of potters! Coming from an architectural school that placed strong importance to process, I have come to believe this process is not about making an array of blue foam models by underpaid interns, but a genuine exploration by the designer and the design team. Where the lead designer if there should be one, too should actively engage with the design tools.
The design profession having split into specialisations that arrange the process of producing space into compartments and each compartment requiring a hierarchy to produce (faster+cheaper not better) efficiently, gives rise to a hierarchy which in turn creates this disjunction where the lead designer having more liability needs to split their time across 3- 4 projects, keep tabs on fee burn, alignment with the brief, scope creep, etc. In doing so despite having only say 15% of time to spare towards design process the position is consolidated through the lead having maximum say in the design process. The position is rationalised / consolidated through the design lead’s contribution in the process via curation!
No need to design, just curate design and become a designer!
When I hear people from the design profession exclaim, I do not have patience for Cad, or I am actually a “big ideas” person, or I am just so busy that I have no time for design, etc…I am alerted by this individuals genius that believes idea equals product…(ie. I just need a bunch of minions to realise my vision!)…and then I run for my life.

Thursday, May 03, 2018


For someone who has a natural tendency to sink and general angst towards beach holidays, I really loved reading two books on the sea, 
1) Un océan d'amour by  Wilfrid Lupano (Author), Grégory Panaccione (Illustrator) and 
2) Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

Monday, April 30, 2018


Dismantling through Platforms:
A recent trend of design jobs advertising “happy to work with individuals seeking flexible hours” or “position offers flexibility for individuals returning to the profession” sounds as if the profession has suddenly found its conscience for returning mothers or egalitarian duty towards part time students and young entrepreneurs! On the contrary this is Deliveroo-Uber, Pay-as-you-Go, No-strings-Attached employment at its best. The success of Deliveroo and Uber has only demonstrated that labour market can be fragmented further where through a platform, an employer can hire almost on an hourly or weekly basis with each individual in direct competition with the other. Obviously, this trend of dismantling existing laws is registered strongest in “civilised” world where there are necessary legal and constitutional mechanisms / processes to check and assert social justice, not so much in places where hire and fire is an accepted law of the land.
A Platform has become the new guillotine (Focault, Discipline and Punish), an invisible mechanism that shifts the locus of the act from the doer to the machine. A symbol that represents market justice and assists in management of guilt / liability / accountability.

Contradictions in Relevance:
Now unfortunately this trend has aligned with my own rather strategic decision to not comply with bullshit and become self-employed. So as I continue my social experiment of living the dream of borderline zero-hours employee, I am forced with every passing day to think of being relevant for my employers. But interestingly if I am part of this Deliveroo-Design it is absolutely essential that 
1) my employer is able to maintain me as dispensable / replaceable ie. Someone else should be able to pick where I left ie. My only contribution should ideally be restricted to time.
2) my employer is able to quantify my value purely based on time spent.
This is in contradiction to my inclination to make myself relevant through design and ingenuity, instead it places me and others like me in a position where we maintain relevance through hourly rate and speed.

Mitigation through Specialisations:
So to work around this, most people try to mitigate this erosion of hourly rate through specialisations. Specialisation through knowing tools or through knowing bureaucratic processes. Some invest time into accruing various alphabets after their names like Boy Scout Badges that will ensure the employer of their credentials. But believe it or not platforms catch-up and soon even if one can build a billion Revit families and have all the acronyms of professional excellence covered, someone will still be cheaper than you.
So when one of my employing practises started an enabling discussions on how “we” (their practise) could be more relevant, I brought up the possibility of specialisation and training the workforce to transition into more updated BIM tools.

Resistance through UnSpecialisation: 
But it was only a matter of time when the conversation leaned towards someone else out there being cheaper (offices charging lower fees) or faster or socially /politically connected to the client. At that point a close friend retorted, no! we don’t specialise. Another joined in saying we could diversify. Ofcourse this was a special group of people who have consolidated together in one such office. Me joining them has been a conscious decision, even if it means being part of the informal labour market. Back to the conversation, slowly a possibility was formulated…we become unique and NOT specialised. Meaning, if we specialise we will still be a part of a labour pool that sits in some vague classification that says knowledge of Revit, experience of Planning process in UK etc. So in case one such individual leaves the company, the product will still get delivered uninfluenced by his / her presence or absence (dispensability), whereas if someone who uniquely engages with design leaves the company the output is influenced. There is a conspicuous change in what will be produced…so we diversify, we become even more aggressive with design, we blur boundaries between departments of urban design, architecture, graphics and interior design…we pick tools of sketching, historical data, arts, music and everything that has been marginalised by the present market of production of space…we become Platypus.

P.S despite the grim picture I build of my self-employed experience, it certainly is not as financially taxing as someone who works for Deliveroo or Uber. The pressure to innovate and be relevant is certainly not as acute as, if I were a musician playing in the tube with a 3 second window to make my pitch and come with a new tune the next day. Day to day life is not filled with as much insecurities as someone at the shopping tills who feels the wave of automation. Ofcourse not a day passes by when I don't feel a peculiar hint of angst with regards to the immediate future but for now I am protected by my privileges.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Pixels of Development

 Not all ideas make it into the design. This was one of my early ideas for work I am currently doing. Looking at massing requested in the brief as a pixel of development (borrowed from the surrounding context) enabling addition and subtraction based on various conditions.
This has been done by various offices before and using far more sophisticated tools so certainly not an original idea, but as this is my first time with this, I was very excited by the possibilities.
Pixels are fun.

Sunday, March 25, 2018


“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”, is a quote by Winston Churchill. In 1943 after the destruction of the Commons Chamber during the Blitz, the Commons debated the question of rebuilding the chamber. Churchill insisted on the rectangular shape of the older layout was responsible for the two-party system vs the semi-circular amphitheatre shapes being adopted elsewhere. This design to this day forms a key element of British parliamentary democracy. 
It is this chicken or egg relationship between the built and us (culture / policy-regulations / politics) that over the recent years has broken down. Architects and Urban Designers are no longer cultural markers with capacity to imagine new lifestyles, new urban environments or new narratives, instead they have been reduced to service providers to speculators. In such a scenario we increasingly see urban environments transform from diverse morphology to a uniform image of banal, increasingly sterile, strongly surveillanced environments. We no longer have capacity to create multi-layered, diverse cities with complex environments, we can emulate it at the best like cheap Disney versions that amplify this impotency of the profession.
The locus has shifted from Design to Bureaucracy of Design.  But it is exactly this disjunction where planners attempt policy framework and hope to create good design without having the ability/patience to test it. Also policy frameworks through personal experience have been amazingly easy to be hijacked. A look at how “Cluster approach” to redevelopment has been interpreted in Mumbai can alone work as an effective cenotaph to that argument. Financial feasibility experts work as mere extensions of the current market and banking structure. I bet Grenfell Tower victims may have a different take on this.
Not to say I do not believe in multidisciplinary approach, where an Engineer works with a Doctor to make Frankenstein…the possibilities are endless. But I do strongly feel a multidisciplinary approach with current trend of specialisation only works towards amplifying this disjunction in the profession. A planner by the end of his / her course has become so specialised that he or she has no ability to develop form / space. Also, this structure of specialisation tends to work along some kind of Fordian system of producing design. This in turn results in creation of hierarchy based on which part of the machine is most useful, a motor or the windshield(?) This hierarchy where the designer is only incidental and often dispensable cog in the wider mechanism, a naïve fellow who does not understand issues that will have far greater influence on design, like policy framework, financial feasibility, blowjobs etc, shifts the centre of gravity away from design and towards management of design. This shift comes at the cost of the urban environments we inhabit, which in turn has a subtle retarding influence on our existence with every passing day.
So while everyone plays the multi-pronged Jane Jacobs, the Designer is the only one who is able to put pen to paper and provide something that is a committed representation. It is not abstract like set of words strung together which may convey multiple meanings, it isn’t a framework in the form of constitution and design guidelines that may or may not capture something meaningful, it isn't poetry, it is a solid form, something that will cast a shadow and when built will displace the very air. It is something that all the multidisciplinary idiots who have spent time ruminating can now come and critique, hopefully giving their sense of existence in the project and the world some reason to be. It has drawings that one can discuss around and draw over.
On another note, I watched four films over the last week,
1) Tuscanyness
2) Nostalgia for the Future
3) The Great Estate - The Rise and Fall of the Council House
4) What have you done today Mervyn Day?
Each of these films is beautiful and captures the loss of hope in Architecture / Design through a sense of Nostalgia…those were the days…or maybe I am just growing old.

Friday, March 23, 2018


A recent study undertaken by the Bank of England to look at resilience of economy and labour market predicted England would lose 15 million jobs to automation. This automation is different from the earlier historic waves of industrialisation, as machines can now replace not just manual work but also cognitive. Often being referred to as the Third Industrial Revolution, it conjures polarised ideas of the future. Unable to mitigate the scale of change the economy would need to incorporate this automation, some warn of the march of machines laced with dystopian visions of Artificial intelligence; While others optimistically look at this as an opportunity to break away from daily 8 hour jobs -a Star Trek like utopia where people have more time to pursue culture, pleasure, our place in the universe, space cakes etc.
Specific to the profession of design, tools like Grasshopper, Revit -Dynamo and other parametric software are able to not only test multiple options to find the one that mathematically best satisfies all the requirements, but they also enable for change mitigation if there is a change in brief. This has resulted in a much leaner workforce that knows the tools. A colleague of mine had once said “our profession thrives on inefficiencies, if we lose all the inefficiencies we do not have a profession” …which was a response to my wish that automation could get rid of all the manual work and free us some time to do design.
Another group is a group that maintains its relevance through knowing the bureaucracy of delivery and how like a well trained chartered account, one can bring value through strategic subversions -  maintaining the project within legal parameters and yet negotiate a “win-win deal” that facilitates desired profits. Sometimes hearing a planner with a classic C3PO voice explaining “lets put an outline planning application for a private park, then put in an amendment of terraced housing, after which we can get our community consultation partner to pimp us a good result and I know John in the council who can guide us through this…blah blah blah”, makes something inside me die a little.
But both these groups continue to maintain relevance due to their engagement with design delivery, rather than design. With further automation like Residential Engine, City Engine, etc the Developer could skip these “middle men” completely. 
When the camera disrupted the Art world and artists who maintained their relevance as purely replicators were rendered useless, this wave of automation too will strike at these redundancies and the only way to maintain our relevance as designers would be to find the locus, the purpose of our profession. This wave of automation according to me is the best case scenario, a massive disruptor which will come at a huge cost but will certainly take the design profession towards a more meaningful destination…until then we continue to patiently hear the hum of managers, bureaucrats and technicians talking bullshit.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Space Vacated

I remember the first day of my architectural training (1999 Bombay) started with the then Director of the school giving us an introductory talk. He emphasised on the diversity and flexibility afforded by architectural education where numerous students had gone ahead to do work that was only peripherally connected to the act of building. 
This flexibility over the years has allowed professionals to use the knowledge gained, towards working with NGOs, starting Art practises, Film making, CGI animations, Robotics, Cooking…turning into Magicians et al. While some have been genuine choices, others have come about through helplessness to find a legitimate venue to intervene as architects.
The individuals who stressed on structure of knowledge / way of thinking have moved to other professions from where they attempt to map, critique, frame ideas. This move has resulted in an intellectual void, a vacated space which has been filled by: 
1) Individuals who have the necessary inheritance and entitlement of networks and capital required to build and intervene as architects and with ease facilitated by having trained in the knowledge of structure, like Haussmann they are blameless extensions of the current system.
2) Labour force which wants to continue in the profession but being financially compromised through student debt / pressures of day to day subsistence, incapacity to take risk etc do not have a voice, so most tend to submit to the “that’s how the world turns” scenario.
This has compromised the quality of design as well and the discourse in the profession of design. It can be a multidisciplinary team with an all-encompassing multidisciplinary effort, but the final deliverable is built environment. The concerns are still to do with proportions, form, space and order. Not having capacity to interpret the “big picture” (gained through countless excel sheets, onsite interviews, GIS, etc) into specific interpretation as a committed form / space, according to me is wasted effort.
I feel to once again produce meaningful work that serves communities / people / society we as designers need to reclaim that space where design is envisioned, designed and delivered. When we do, through experiments and some failures we may bring back sense of hope and purpose that the profession was meant to have.