Friday, April 26, 2013

Plural Practices

This was published in my column Cubes of Words, in the Magazine Design Detail, Volume 2, issue2, feb 2013

Design invades every aspects of daily life these days. There is a  proliferation of design disciplines too. Moving from agrarian societies to metropolitan cities this change is more and more visible and complex. When designs try to even out regional cultural differences, complexities in the processes of design are on the increase, as are the production processes. To a large extent, the complexity entails changes in the organisation of professionals and their specialisations and their marketing tactics.
Design, especially architectural design, in a social and communal production mode (largely in agrarian and earlier societies) was based on generalised codes developed over long time through trial and error. In many places, in Kerala state for example, even illiterate carpenters could work on codified systems and create intricate and complex structures. Many elements were repeated though. The hallmark was that the designer was no different from the producer. Design often evolved and happened on the work site. However, though this gradual social evolution of architecture, like folk arts,  is claimed/said to be best suited to a regional geography and culture,  can it repeat  in changed social and economic and political conditions? The design system that evolved for a political and economic context and social structure and low density settlement structure and a per capita resource availability, gives way with change when these parameters. 
The formal systems of architectural production evolved in places with excessive concentration of political power and economic means. The global expansion of capitalist and specialised manufacturing/production system developed since the middle ages in Europe gave birth to the evolution of architectural design and its profession as it is known today. In this evolution, design moved away from the site of production. Remote control and representation techniques like that   making and reproducing drawings  and development of geometry for communication and scientific basis for engineering design changed the way buildings and architecture came to be conceived. This led to the emergence of an architect coordinator. He was a master crafts man like before, an artist, an engineer, project manager and above all a visualiser like a poet, a mantle of a maverick anointed onto him. Avante Garde architect s  were among notable leaders in a societal context of dominance of the intellectual, so different from that of pastoral society.
The architect Stapathi or Mimar were almost invisible in Eastern cultures. In India , though architecture might have been celebrated, for political or social reasons,  architectural design process and the architects were anonymous. The profession of architectural design in India is of 20C origin and took its lineage from that European context.  Formal architectural education augmented the mysticism around design.  The disconnect from the past then was not of the manifestation of the architectural products alone, more so of the design and production processes. The unknown master craftsman got replaced by a trained designer professional, in formal/semiformal production environments.
Traditional production systems are on virtual collapse today, the virtual economy creations are globalised hyper mode, and a new pattern of design practice has been emerging. The scene is dominated more of entities than real persons, like teams, firms and associations. Management of design practice (that includes marketing), today is practically more important and necessary skill.  Many believe that MBA = making better architecture? All this is challenging the very concept of an architect. An international breed of firms is also emerging scrounging for gigantic investments in the emerging countries, betting on the quality in deliverable business terms.  A different kind of avant garde, backed by technology and capital are trying to be the leaders.  Markets are active, more in selling ideas as much as products. Obviously, different manifestations of designs and kinds of architecture are happening. Architectural crest  is being moved from phenomenological sensuous experience to cerebral adventures thus challenging    ` genius  locii’ to be replaced by global `genius mundi’. Or are they trying to find a coexistence? Or are they fighting for space?
 Still there exists space for avante garde ’ artist architects, pockets of traditional craftsmen productions, some middle designers exploiting the nostalgia for the chicness of it in the market economy claiming the idea of mainstreaming as a goal. Then there are notions of green, heritage and conservation as well. And there are arguments of justifications and oppositions and resistances from earlier models of practice.  Architectural schools still are largely in ‘heroic architect’ mode. So is the curriculum, though hardly it seems to make impacts on the students and the scene, generally.  Plural thinking is missing from the academia too, largely.
It is a new pluralist design practice that is emerging; a reflection of the social dilemma. Culture is not geographically/ regionally contained or separated, but socially and intellectually segregated.   Different value positions coexisting. Gated/closed communities of different strata coexist legally or illegally, overtly or covertly; in high society or middle class enclaves or in slums and squatter settlements.  In India, with a very unstable urbanisation Index where migration to cities take place in all segments, ( farm labour with no special skill to software professionals flock to swell cities every day) this situation has to be lived with to develop and not forged to fusion.  There seems to be no one way of living, or designing in the melting pots of Urban India. The entire gamut of construction cannot yet be formal. Or will never be, perhaps. There seems to be space for pluralism and different kind of practices at the moment.
This is a delicate situation and can shake up in violent ways, as there are indications, catastrophically, say due to global warming effects on economy, for example, or extreme social dichotomy or political unrest leading to civic strife. Perish the thought.

Thestepped well at Adalaj, community produced architecture by unknown craftmen and  Modern Star architect Le courbusiers’ mill owners association building Ahmedabad. Two different production and design prcesses. Two different times. (photos by the author)