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My favourite reading as a young boy was psychology and as an architecture student, I developed an interest in philosophy and the arts. It became an enriching experience. In architecture school, I would nose around, not looking to ‘do something’. But I read a lot and engaged with buildings, drawing or designing them.
Methods of teaching in architecture schools have changed along with the profession’s goals. We were floating particles, now it’s more career-centric. In my days, Chandigarh and Brasilia were getting built, and I pored over the iconic structures of those time in magazines.
Yes, we have the internet but Saturday visits to the nearby British Council and USIS, pillaging contemporary images, brought us up to speed. I was a loner, so I read in my room all the time— Huxley, Camus, Russell, all the humanists. My thesis combined both interests—‘Redesigning of the Madras Psychiatry Hospital’—where I had interacted with patients, doctors and staff.
Architecture drew up around me, creating a new world fashioned by my interest in people, engagement with the written word and search for utopia. In urban design classes, for the first time, we learned to look at cities as a complex expression of man, as objects and artifacts, and then on, I saw them as the sustainable expressions of history that they are.
Architects need to keep in mind that everything that’s built goes through time. It is read and interpreted again and again, and imbued with new meaning. Architects make history, unwittingly or wittingly. A building is less supple than music and the written word, but it is no less an expression of culture. As buildings last, they really impact people. How cluttered its walls, how high the roof, the material, quality of lighting in a room—all these transform how we relate to one another. If you build badly, you live much less of a life.
The Indian city is located in an old civilisation but it’s beginning to reflect global capital. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi said the railways would flatten India, digest its dissimilarities. It’s a conservative notion, but turning out to be remarkably prescient.
What matters most in this profession, too, is compassion. Without it, your work is against life.