The architecture of immersiveness

(Clicking on the images on this post opens it full size)

Hearing an architect describe their own work, is the best academic way to hear it. But what if I say it kills your subjectivity?

There was something which had been in my mind troubling me for a long time, and the presentations by the 3 architects have been able to pull it out of me. I believe Architecture is a truly experiential art – to be honestly judgmental and critical about it, you have to experience it.

Each of the spaces that we visited, made me look at different things. I’m actually not sure whether it was a good or a bad thing that I was not able to attend the presentations about the buildings by the architects themselves.

It’s funny how in any other creative field (literature, pottery, sculpture, or music come to mind) if I have to be able to judge it, I have to experience it in its entirety, but not so in architecture education (let’s set aside those practical considerations for a minute). Wouldn’t it be hysterical if you were my music teacher who had to judge me for a competition, and I turned in a paper describing my composition with words or a picture with the musical notes arranged beautifully? How then, for architecture crits? How can a living, breathing, space be judged based on pretty renders or overly complex sounding words?

In architecture utopia, (where finance and practicality don’t matter or till the technology of 1:1 immersive walkthroughs reach us), this seems rather silly doesn’t it?

Now put those real world caps back on again. Obviously it is silly to suggest that each student build his design on site for the review or each architect build a 1:1 model each time a client presentation comes up. (Or is it? :P) This was merely a thought exercise for 2 points I wanted to get across:

  • Is the current “design process” followed by us students in colleges the most optimal one? It might certainly be the most efficient one, but effective?

    I know how exciting and liberating I’m finding my internship to be, and it’s partly due to all the “real world” responsibilities I’m expected to handle, and knowing the amount of detail and attention that goes behind each detail. Most of my friends agree. Why this “real world” architecture shock? To use a medical school analogy, it’s akin to reading Grey’s Anatomy for 3 years and then suddenly being expected to assist in an operation!

    In fact, here’s a radical idea: why not be in a state of continuous internship throughout college life? If you’re in first year and designing a residence, say, you’d be required to have regular meetings with an architect who’s handling a similar project in their office, and be able to get your design up to the level to dot all your Is and cross all your Ts.

    I know the various implications of the idea I just said (and I might not even fully know it) and some of you might even find it downright silly, but that’s what the comments section is for. 🙂

  • Is experiencing architecture straight from the horse’s mouth ACTUALLY the best way? (NOT in an academic sense)Following the architecture as an experience idea (you may not agree with me on this), isn’t any form of presentation a way of clouding your subjectivity?In fact, this is more of an open question than an opinion : Am I supposed to feel differently about a space that strongly resonated with me if I learned that say, it was a design decision taken by the client that the architect was not happy about at all? What if I learned that a building I had loved as a whole was not the outcome of any thought out design “process”? Most importantly, are we weighed down by our own critical judgement that we can no longer truly be “just” participants in architecture?

All that being said, I’m truly greatful to Ar.Sriram, Ar.Pradeep and Ar.Mahesh for the presentations of those wonderful spaces. Here are some more pictures of those spaces (clicking opens a full size image)

Mr. Srikant’s residence at Neelangarai

 

The Hindu School, Indira Nagar 

 

 

The Book Building, Thiruvanmiyur (Apologies, these are from an earlier visit, as the lighting conditions there when we visited didn’t let me take pics in my phone)

 

 

 

 

 

The KFI model of architecture education

On Friday, 11th July 2014, we were given a chance to visit Pathashaala as part of the Intern-Mentorship program by CAF

Pathashaala is a residential wing of The School KFI in Chennai. A small school located in a vast amount of land, it threw up a lot of curiosities and pleasant surprises along the visit, from the way the classrooms were to the method in which the toilets functioned. I could write a couple of posts about that, but this one is not about them.

Outside the kitchen and dining complex (excuse the photo, crappy camera)

This is a post about the education model the school follows.

If you want a more indepth look at it, be my guest.  However I’ll look at the ones which caught my eye and were explained to us during the presentation:

  • Lack of the reward, punishment, fear model – students function as small groups within a classroom and each student’s individual expression and creativity is allowed to flourish due to the low student-teacher ratio. Students are expected, and taught to be bold enough to express themselves. Not your typical 40 students to one teacher classroom where it is easy to slither into a corner and be the one student that everyone knows just vaguely about.
  • Multi-age classrooms – This has been shown to work on some Montessori systems as well; however I do not know more about this so I can’t comment on its efficacy.
  • Overall engagement by students in the community – The total number of students + teachers + staff come up to around 150, the Dunbar’s number. This means a community where almost everyone knows everyone, and is a part of everything. The students there take part in the day to day activities of the school as well. Let me tell you – the kids I saw there were some of the most confident and well rounded ones I’d seen for their age.
  • No ‘standard model’ exams – Seriously, let’s do away with them already 😛

The School seems to tackle the issues the current education system quite nicely – and in all honesty, it seemed quite an excellent place to spend your school life in!

Now the question is : Can the KFI model work for architectural education?

The funny thing is, I found quite a lot of similarities already.

  • Multi-age classrooms – Although architecture schools don’t have such a pattern, most of the senior junior interaction which takes place outside classrooms ensures healthy conversation with not just your same age group. But this is ‘supposed’ to be coming down. 
  • The Teacher-student relationship – Yeah, this one is pretty much expected when you’re in college – you’re not going to be spoon fed. The “ideal” of teachers and students learning from each other might be far off, but more often than not, you’re expected to be able to know your stuff and back it up.
  • A limited number of students – This one’s fast changing; I’ve heard my teachers reminisce about times when there would be just 20 in a batch and 100 in the college, and everyone knew everyone else. But, no longer the case with each year having 80 students now. I’m not complaining here, I probably wouldn’t be studying in my college if there weren’t 80 seats.

Do you see the irony here? The present school education system is being revolutionized by schools like KFI, whereas architecture schools, which were KFI-like in several aspects, have started to resemble our schools!

Is there a solution?

 

Can Architecture address?

So I was thinking about this based on a conversation I had with someone today; consider movies. There are films like Harry Potter, say, which captures you in its world, and makes for an engaging watch anytime you go back to it. And then there’s a movie like Inception, say, which makes you think deeper after each watching. Not a fan of inception? Try Taare Zameen Par. The movie was excellently made, and it brought into limelight the issue of a condition in a society largely unaware of it.

Can this analogy be extended to architecture? The former seems to me, about experiential, evocative spaces whose charm exists purely when they’re around you. Not that it is a particularly bad thing – but what does it speak to the context around it? To the people standing out looking in?

Don’t get me wrong here – any piece of art or architecture will send out a message – be it a crappy movie like Chennai Express (that Deepika REALLY shouldn’t speak in Tamil) – or a any old building with a high compound wall around it (that NO, you probably shouldn’t just walk in.) – because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. But what about intentionally stating a message? Is it possible, or required for a building to speak to those around it as much as it does to those within it? Vernacular Architecture classes about Kerala architecture come to mind. The scale and grandeur of the Nair tharavadu was just as much, a display of wealth as it was about responding to context. And consider this – the gender and class stereotypes that a few traditional household spatial system encouraged and enforced seeped into the people’s minds as well. You colour your lens with what you get from home, right?

So here’s the question – as architects, should we focus on political/social/economical statements our architecture should be making? (Over and above what we put in unconsciously) Or should we focus on it as an experiential art as it is, and let the rest happen unconsciously?