Development of Architecture 2 – the Present!!

From the pyramids, and the old cities, let us now consider something more ‘modern.’ Say, something like the Farnsworth House? If one can, in his mind, plot the journey from Catalhoyuk to the Farnsworth House, s/he can quickly gauge the length that the practice of profession has travelled since its inception and the myriad way in which design has evolved and metamorphosed according to its immediate settings and requirements. However, this transition is not an isolated event – at the heart of this change is a man and his needs. It can be said that man’s necessities and requirements have indeed gotten complex over time (so much that a house made of complete glass is an icon of modernist movements in design).

Buildings have undergone a series of changes – the Romans, Byzantines, Assyrians, Greeks, and the Islam countries had all used architecture as a significant tool of subjugation and expression of their dominant culture. The Europeans refined it and made buildings a thing of ‘art.’ The 20th Century saw the slow rise of modernist designs and discussions, and we are now in the postmodern phase.

In the latter half of the 20th Century, Robert Venturi, Jean Jacob, and other modernists declared that architecture was too complex to uphold Vitruvius’s values. As a result, they promoted a pluralistic view of architectural values (Venturi, 1977). The fight was between the practical aspects of architecture and theoretical knowledge – the inevitable clash was now real. Toward the end of the 20th Century, traditional ways of practicing architecture were confronted with the evolving industry and commerce’s factual realities and needs (Burr & Jones, 2010). The ethics of individual architects were replaced by those of the architectural practice that they were employed with. Accordingly, in the name of professionalism and business in general, architectural ethics were reconvened by the professional institutions to emulate the business world (Kostoff, 2000). Although this dampened many artistic architects’ aspirations, the practice of architecture was quickly rebranded as a professional service-oriented consultancy, distinct from construction. An architects’ performance could now be majorly evaluated on professional conduct, rather than craft or quality.

This indemnified architects from direct responsibility, as now, they were only required to act within an ‘overall professional standard of skill, knowledge, and judgment’ (Sapers, 1988). Therefore, any error or mistake made during construction could not be blamed on architects. If a builder corrected the error, it was typically addressed as a change order, and the client had to pay for it again (Burr & Jones, 2010; Thomsen, 1999). This had many effects on the industry. While an artistic endeavour like the design of space cannot be strictly encompassed within corporate consultancy principles, an attempt to do so resulted in a widespread homogenization of design elements and systems in itself, which we so fondly call ‘western architecture.’

In the late seventies, theorist Charles Jenks characterized architecture and its values by building upon the same plurality concept, asserting that ‘pluralism is the Postmodern ideology above all others’ (Jencks, 1990, p. 6). By emphasizing the importance of ethics and pluralism’s morality, postmodernism advocated for ‘otherwise arbitrary preferences and hence greater social relevance’ (Spector, 2001, p. 40). Arguably, in modernism, art and utility were persistently intertwined, whereas, during postmodernism, they were liberated from that interdependency. Claiming the liberation of art and thus abandoning social benefit to be a by-product of such action, ‘[postmodern] architects were happy to stick to art and techniques, leaving morality to the politicians’ (ibid., p. 41). They based their main arguments on the origin of personal reasoning – they neither felt a necessity for a collective critical arrangement nor felt motivated to find a common area of agreement (ibid.).

This gradual association and disassociation of the ‘art’ and the ‘corporate’ happened almost the entire Twentieth Century, and its effects were far-reaching. With India adopting economic liberalization, construction boomed, and this led to the creation of thousands of studios across the country, most of which were more aesthetics and creativity oriented. As is understood in the market, the sense of business majorly lacks amongst trained architects, who see it as a creative pursuit for sustenance rather than an economic one.

Reflecting upon the history of architecture, one can discover that major transformations and critical movements in celebration of architecture were either a result of the Industrial Revolutions or an outcome of shifting radical ideologies and economic sequences (Rifkin, 2011). According to Walker and Newcombe (2000), the historical development of architecture is notable for the architects’ successful struggles to resist capitalism throughout the 19th Century, and this is how they act today. Architects always work for a fee and do not share any risks associated with innovation that they propose in projects (Ball, 1998). Tochtermann (1986) contends in this context that only the rich and powerful could afford to hire architects to design buildings for themselves or structures for communities and the public to live in and use.

Similarly, Alistair Parvin (2014b) remarked while commenting on and critiquing the illustrious architect Le Corbusier’s works that his philosophy and modernist visions were mainly manifestations of the state’s spirit welfare during the early 20th Century. Another noteworthy observation by Alastair Parvin while citing an example from the architects’ salary guide of the Royal Institute of British Architects was that the lowest-ranking architecture graduate earns a salary of around £24,000 (RIBA Appointments, 2017), which (income-wise) puts him in the wealthiest 20% of the UK population and the richest 2% globally (Global Rich List, 2017). This supports the assumption that to afford an architect, clients must be more affluent than the architect and must have large disposable incomes, which indeed leads us to an uncomfortable yet undeniable conclusion that virtually everything we recognize as architecture today is a design for the wealthiest 1% (Parvin, 2014b). Despondently, in the book Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture, Awan, Schneider, and Till (2011, p. 32) urge architects to think of themselves as agents.

Suppose agents (read architects) are indeed to allow themselves to act otherwise. In that case, the knowledge that they bring to the table must be negotiable, flexible, and, above all, shared with others. Agents [must not act] alone but as part of a joint enterprise, as a defining feature of the agent’s makeup. “Professional norms and expectations do not determine mutual knowledge” (Giddens, 1984), but rather is founded in exchange, in negotiation, out of hunch, out of intuition. Mutual knowledge means abandoning the hierarchies embedded in most professional relationships (“I know more than you do”) instead of welcoming contributions from everyone in the spirit of a shared enterprise.

Architects were indoctrinated to assume the fallacy that they are superior. Even when patrons and bureaucrats hired them, they rarely hesitated to claim that ‘it [is the architects], not their clients who were building for the upliftment of the society’ (Ackerman, 1969). Whereas, as also noted by Banham, Lefebvre, and many other historians, architects have only fought a one-sided battle, with the sole agenda of projecting themselves in an optimistic role, i.e., for the betterment of society. Even today, this misinformation continues to reign superior. India has a strange habit of taking things to its head, and in this case, we are fast filling the front row seats with architects claiming to know it all and having solutions to problems, whatever be it. The irony is, while they indeed are experts in their specific trade, their superiority often meddles with their functioning, leading to inevitable clashes and conflicts of interests.

Thus, efforts were made to create a make-believe image of architects as noble practitioners, capable of shaping entire cities with a sketch (Parvin, 2014b). They rarely admitted otherwise, instead spent much of the energy and focus in aligning their ‘worldview and perspectives’ to suit their whimsical belief that they have a moral responsibility to make the world a better place through design. Surprisingly, the awareness and empowerment of consumers, motivated by the conceptions of the so-called ‘Third Industrial Revolution,’ have rendered the illusory ambitions of aesthetic architects’ backfire, threatening the whole profession’s future. However, the real paradox is that architects still want to justify their fees and contribution through value-added in the design phase, even when it has been widely written that they struggle to communicate the value that they bring to projects (Hill, 2001; Till, 2009).

The 20th Century saw architects steadily inching towards isolating themselves into a sphere dominated by creative and aesthetic pursuits, to the extent that many design houses now struggle with finances. With architecture becoming more complex, the simple laws were long gone. What came in place was an ecosystem in which design was just a small portion of construction – this was unacceptable to most architects. Our training and mentality continually propelled us to be at the top of the pyramid and not be a humble part of the construction’s round-table effort.

Most of our problems originated from this point onwards, but that is for later.