Do we need an Artist, or an Architect?

An attempt at solving the ethical conundrum…

For almost a year now, I have constantly found myself looking deeper into design. The design of a building, of a space. Deeper in a philosophical manner. And I think the reason for this has been my education…

For over four years that we studied architecture in college, nobody really ever taught us ‘design’. Of course, they said design is the expression of an individual. It represents the way you look at things as a person and it is something that should come from within. We were like race horses — energetic, focused and fast. But no one ever took us to the races.

When I look back today, I noticed that as students, we never understood the importance of a concept. On retrospect, we never understood concept in itself. During the first year of college, people were designing buildings that looked like flowers or fruits. Embarrassingly enough, I designed something on the lines of a bubble. They never asked us why and we never bothered asking ourselves. As the years went on, some of us moved on from modeling flowers to creating spaces that revolved around artistic notions and ideals.

When I visited college recently, I happened to look into the studio of the first year students. Sadly, nothing had changed. On the contrary, it seemed like a grab from an arts and crafts exhibition. Strewn around the studio were models made of paper, wood and possibly any material that could be cut. Beads, grains, pearls, straws and ice-cream sticks mercilessly used to create three dimensional entities. At the back of the studio was what I would painfully call a representation of a city. Chart and tracing paper rolled to create poor imitations of the shiny, over-whelming facades of sky scrapers from all around the world. For students who have just started a journey in architecture, a curriculum that revolves extensively around painting, arts and crafts and lazy afternoons modeling play-dough will only serve as a rude awakening a few years down the line.

All this got me thinking. What our education system is doing today to students of architecture is creating poor imitations of artists, not architects. When we began, one of our professors said architecture is about art. Surely enough, what he failed to elaborate upon was that the art is all about how you create a space. It’s about how you have the ability, the power to make the users of a space interpret it in a certain way, to feel a certain way. And it seems like after all these years, some of us are still stuck in that bubble. The one where art takes over, where functionality is often concealed behind a masquerade; and at times, when the mask goes up, not everything is a fairy tale.

When I come across studios or exhibitions from universities abroad, I am usually dumbstruck looking at the depth and integrity with which design is executed. For instance, the Taubman college of Architecture and Planning has a sketching class taught by Perry Kulper. The class helps develop a varied insight into sketching that focuses on more than just representational drawing.

Architecture over the years, has seen a varied degree of art. Most of Calatrava’s works could be attributed to a strong inkling to art. On further inspection, I am forced to ask myself — would any of his buildings look just as good amidst a moderately populated locale? Or is most of his work significant due to its location? In all of Calatrava’s work, rarely are internal spaces spoken about. At the end of the day, all you remember is the grand image of soaring wings and calm, still water. Should architecture really be all about artistic form? Or have we become too business oriented that we have forgotten why we got here in the first place?

Perhaps, art is to architecture what salt is to food. If you don’t have any of it, your food is going to taste bland. Add too much and you can’t eat. Add a little extra for years on end and you might end up with a variety of medical conditions. Get the right amount and no one will be able to pin-point its presence but in the end, you’ll have yourself a masterpiece.

The struggle for this fine balance between an artist and an architect reminds me of Louis Kahn. The petite “ugly” architect from Estonia, as some of his peers describe him, was a fine example of an artist more than an architect. It is hard to deny that during his time, he gave the world some fabulous buildings, many that served as an identity. The Capital building, Bangladesh is described by architects from the country as an achievement that put the country on the map. The building took 23 years to build, the same amount of time taken to complete the Taj Mahal. As unfortunate as it is, Louis Kahn didn’t live to see it completed, its grandeur rising from amidst the vast templates of water that create a gentle conception of a floating structure.

The Capital building, Bangladesh courtesy Wikipedia commons

Most of Kahn’s consultants and employees describe him as someone who was lost in the vast realm of art and architecture that he created for himself. In more ways than one, he might have set an example for architects of the future. By the end of his time, some where in 1974, Kahn was deep in debt and most of his designs were scrapped or put on hold. He was an eccentric. Being more of an artist resulted in him making mistakes in design, mistakes that were evident in his design of the Richards Medical Research Laboratories. Spaces were cramped and faced severe glaring of light. Due to the recession of spaces, the building faced a bird problem. Internal spaces eventually had circulation problems since the building never really took into account the user specific needs.

Everything said and done, it is important to point out how Kahn designed the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad to be an intricate array of brick work that created interesting spaces and pockets of light. There seems to be a hint of solidarity in all of Kahn’s work. The buildings look settled and in a way, they seem to communicate with the viewer. I see a moral responsibility resting on every architect, to achieve design that sustains not only the forces of time and nature but also, the implications that a variety of users can have on it. In case of public buildings, it is all the more vital to create something that will invoke similar thoughts and emotions in the viewer even after half a century. Most internet searches of Louis Kahn direct you to articles of praise. Each article however, seems to have a metaphorical footnote that tends to point out rather harshly, of Louis Kahn’s shortcomings.
The impact Louis Kahn had on the Eastern countries is far from fleeting. In India for example, the most prestigious design trophy awarded to students of architecture, is called the Louis Kahn trophy. Had Louis been less of an artist and more of an architect, would he have had more masterpieces to his name? Or would he have ended up falling in line with the several architects of the bygone era?

In today’s turbulent times where projects and clients are hard to come by, architects seem to be aiming for quantity more than quality. In one of the interviews, I.M. Pei talks about Kahn being remembered for his quality over the quantity of projects he executed. As an architect, it’s great to hear that one has achieved quality over quantity. But in an idealistic world, quality doesn’t pay the taxes and the bills. As graduation looms over the horizon, every architect is faced with one of the most important decisions of his career — to be choosy or to jump at every project coming your way. Being choosy might improve your chances of becoming an imminent and recognized architect at some point or it might mean living out of a shoe-box.

Architecture could be compared to wine. You ferment it for about 15-20 days and let it sit in an oak barrel in a . If you are lucky, a few years later, you have a barrel full of something unique.

It has been 40 years since Kahn was found dead in a Pennsylvania station restroom. He never achieved stardom like many architects of his time and is barely even remembered. But Kahn taught us all a very important lesson. He set a benchmark of what an architect’s life is or can be. He taught us to talk to the buildings and create an emotional attachment with them. Most importantly though, he seems to be pointing out at the mistakes one should avoid as an architect and maybe on some level, as an individual.

When I think of Kahn, I picture the capital building and I remember the kind words by Shamsul Wares, an architect from Bangladesh. From within teary eyes, he calls Kahn the Moses of Bangladesh who gave them democracy. He talks about how every bag of concrete was lifted by hand, later to be molded into what stands of it today. Of how this was Kahn’s largest project, and how it eventually costed him his life. Louis Kahn was a traveler, a nomad of sorts, but I get a hint that he resides in Shamsul’s words and among the exposed concrete walls and facades that have molded the identity of Bangladesh. An identity that he shaped. A fleeting glimpse of the flower shaped roof over the assembly tower stirs me back into reality and I am reminded of that studio, the large volumes of colorful paper and the unending array of confetti.

This is not what architecture is meant to be…

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Architect, Photographer and Writer. Based out of Bangalore, India. tweet @DevAmbardekar

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Dev Ambardekar

Architect, Photographer and Writer. Based out of Bangalore, India. tweet @DevAmbardekar