Sunday, March 25, 2018

Disjunction

“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 na├»ve 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

Automation

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.