Marxist Theory

Why Architects

Published on Friday, 21 January 2011 10:42
Written by Radical Socialist

Why Architects?

Sandip Pendse

The inspiration for the title of this note is obviously the publication ‘Why Sociologists?’ by Daniel Cohn Bendit, a prominent leader of the students’ revolt in France in 1968. Daniel Cohn Bendit articulated and spearheaded the student-worker revolts. At the forefront of the revolts were students of Sociology from Sorbonne University in Paris, France. D. Cohn-Bendit’s writing analysed, explained, and justified the leading role of Sociologists in the rebellion that shook France to its roots. Those revolts included strikes, street actions, occupations of institutions and factories, and often street-battles with the police. D. Cohn Bendit analysed why sociologists were the main group that developed the critique of the then existing system and social structure in France and sought to transform the same.

The similarity of this note with the said writing, hence, ends almost with the title. Architects – practicing, theorising, or budding are not in revolt. Street actions would be far from their minds and their activities. Nevertheless, this note shares one essential concern with the above-mentioned writing. It too feels that the discipline of architecture and its practitioners today have begun to develop novel critiques of the existing society in various countries – specifically in India, and particularly of the urban societies, in both their physical as well as social aspects. The architects are, of course, not alone in this endeavour. Social scientists, geographers, ecologists, and many others are engaged in the same exercise. Architects are certainly not in the lead or in the forefront in this critical activity. They are, however, important contributors to the developing critique and provide insights that may not be easily available to the other disciplines.
It is necessary to add immediately that there is a major difference between sociologists of France of 1968 and architects of India of 2010. The sociologists had risen en masse against the system, first at Sorbonne and then at other universities in France. The ‘critical architects’ are a tiny minority, particularly in India.

Some reasons for this difference are obvious and quite apparent. France then was still recovering from the devastations of the War and later military and political defeats in the colonies. The problems of the system were generalised and felt by almost all sections of the society. Further entanglements in predatory wars in Indo-China (now under the leadership of the USA – a sore point for the French) created even more dissatisfaction. The establishment did treat sociology as a science of ‘management of dissent’ and of ‘manufacture of consent’. Nevertheless, for even this role to be effective, the sociologists had to familiarise themselves with theories that analysed the society in radical and critical manner. These often left a stamp – not desired by the establishment – on the sociologists. France, more over, had a strong live and lively tradition of critical, radical intellectual discourse. Many leading intellectuals of the period wrote primarily in French. While the English-speaking world engaged in collaboration and compact (of course, not fully – USA too witnessed student, black, and anti-war protests around the same period) the French tradition was one of critique and at least an intellectual call for transformation. This was also the period when social science students faced problems of career opportunities. Not everyone then sought to acquire MBAs and positions in management. The corporate world was still in the traditional mould. It valued science and technology along with economics (not ‘critical’ political economy but economics as an adjunct of management). Marketing and advertising were then not using social/ social-psychological (now clearly termed ‘market’) research. The establishment did not rely heavily on sociological methods for manipulation, for creation of consent, for entrenchment of hegemony in a major and generalised manner. Probably ‘social management’ and ‘social engineering’ were not yet established practices. NGOs, Civil Society Organisations, and New Social Movements had not yet occupied centre stage, at least in Europe. (In fact, the terms ‘civil society’ and ‘social movements’ were understood very differently then.) Post-modernism had not yet dissolved all ‘meta-theories’ and ‘meta-narratives’. Class, revolution, socialism were still valid concepts.

India in 2010 is very different. It has no continuous tradition of critical social thinking. There is hardly any critical social thought of a path-breaking radical variety after Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Architectural practice and education in particular is dominated by technical considerations (partly justifiably so) of problem solving and viability of designs.

There is also a massive disjunct in the society. The upper 25% (of sole concern to the corporate world since numerically they form a massive market far outstripping that of many other countries – including the developed countries) have no connection with the lower 75%. Often they have no idea of how the lower 3/4th lives.
Very strange occurrences also take place – in thought and mind. Misery, poverty, destitution are often displaced to another realm – for example, the rural sphere. The media (to be seen only as indicators – though also as moulders – of ‘middle class’ opinions) cry themselves hoarse over the suicides of farmers but are silent over the plight of the workers or slum dwellers – their suicides are not even noticed or recorded! There is a tendency to deny middle class complicity in misery and destitution. The impoverished farmer (if at all) gets attention but escapes even visibility when s/he moves to the city as even a construction worker!

There is, of course, another duplicitous element in the thought process. There is a constant demand for the abdication by the state/government of its regulatory roles and responsibilities and yet there is a constant demand upon the very same institutions to provide relief and succour as well as to control, regulate, and punish financial misdemeanours!

Post-modernism (however ill understood/digested) rules a convenient roost to dissolve notions of metanarratives, metatheories, as well as concepts like class, revolution (or even radical social change), and socialism.

Architects in particular face no personal career crises. They have no problems regarding employment or practice – at lucrative remuneration – so long as they suspend critical thinking, innovation, ingenuity, and originality. BPO threatens to become the norm soon for architecture as construction activity becomes corporate (among other less salubrious aspects), links up with FDI, global firms and global dictates.
The social, political, and cultural situation is also vastly different. (Some of the elements relating to these also create opportunities for architects to become critical and radical.) ‘India Inc’ is on a high with share markets, real estate, gold and silver prices booming. Salaries (even of government servants) and earnings have increased in unprecedented fashion. The establishment does not concern itself at the moment with the 3/4th of the population that survives in misery. {Obviously, one day it will wake up with a rude shock but today it seems to insulate and inoculate itself from this eventuality with a few stratagems. One of them is of course ‘ostrich vision’ or denial. It buries its head in its own golden sand and refuses to recognise the broader reality. Second is its faith in and reliance upon its repressive apparatus. It is confident that it can crush any protest/ revolt with its technologically superior repressive power. This view actually ignores some social and historical facts. The wielders of this repression in social strata terms belong to the repressed sections and despite the mental straitjackets are likely to realise this fact some day. Also, historically, regimes have come down when the so-called keepers of law and order have revolted for various reasons against the establishment and joined up with their class.}

Let us take the discipline (in the broadest terms) of architecture. We do know that a vast majority of practitioners (meaning those that create designs of built forms – and usually in the traditional sense of individual buildings) are hostile to any critical thinking. The hostility extends even to the inclusion of cultural studies or humanities in the curricula of architectural education. Two crucial elements prompt this view.≠ One is the fact that every problem must find an immediate solution and that too through technical design innovations. Second is the innate though inarticulate belief that there are no systemic problems; each from social to ecological has technological solutions.
Why then does the critical thinking arise and why the title ‘why architects’?

I believe there are multifarious answers.

Urban thinkers and many of them architects – though not all - have been critical of the existing reality of particularly the cities. The urban bias is obvious as well as easily understood. Architecture, design, and planning really come into their own specific role only in an urban milieu. The rural surroundings do not actually provide an environment for any architectural practice even in simple terms. Planning a village with scientific principles and creating any kind of rational layout is of course not yet possible. Other principles (of purity and pollution, of upwind and downwind, of upstream and downwind) still dictate the spatial distribution of dwellings and of community facilities. Rationality of the modern type has very little to contribute to these layouts. Radicalism, hence, has concentrated on the cities. There are many other reasons as well. The complexity that a city provided along with the plays on time and space are interesting problems to tackle. The utopian urbanists, hence, came up with dream and realist solutions. The ‘solutions’ were only one aspect. The critique of the existing cities (and the social forces that created them) was the other substantive one. Brasilia can be a failure but the ideas had numerous kernels for the future society.

Non-architect analysts of the urban situation also came up with many ideas of the city – critical, radical, and prophetic. No architects could actually ignore these once they entered the public sphere. Sociologists, political scientists, geographers have played crucial roles in providing such analyses.

There are more contemporary and urgent factors apart from these historical ones. Almost until the 1980s, all social critique was monopolised by the formal political spectrum. It alone – apart from the establishment ‘scientific’ institutions – made any pronouncements on the shape of things in existence and more importantly on the shape of things to come. This situation came to an end almost suddenly. The political spectrum faces an eclipse in the last few years. The commitment, credibility, and capacity has taken a nose dive over the past few years. The only concern the politicians have seems to be identity politics. Those who are capable of any analysis either do not perform it or are unable to reach out and raise a public debate on the relevant issues. This abdication of responsibility makes it imperative for others to attempt, raise, and popularise any critique.

One major issue is the approach to the cities. This is precisely where the architects play a role. Of course, many treat their discipline – rather profession – as means to an end – the end being personal aggrandisement. There are many others for whom the discipline and its practice is a vocation – itself an end. Those are the architects with the critical vision.

For decades, most analysts saw the urban situation as problematic but under control – of designers and planners. The problem has turned into a crisis in recent years, particularly with the advent of ‘globalisation’ and ‘global visions’ for some cities. At various levels the proffered ‘visions’ are out of tune with the reality, particularly demographic and political. These ‘visions’, generally proved to be unrealistic and unrealisable though they heavily represented the elite dystopia, The textile industry could  shut down in numerous cities, the communal riots could drive out the migrant labour, but that still did not sanitise the cities; did not make them exclusive playgrounds of the elite. The urban crises continued to haunt the society in general. This too prompted those who were intimately concerned with the design (as against planning – that to date neglects living human beings) of the cities to rethink and become ‘critical’.

The most important factor is, of course, the nature of architecture as a discipline. I do realise here that for many it is not a discipline – only a profession. I am also aware that for many it is a discipline with all the critical abilities of a discipline. It is perhaps one of the only disciplines that is truly interdisciplinary. It does not only combine technology with an artistic vision but also informs each aspect with the insights from the other. It is capable of demystifying and humanising technology. It does so because it is intimately concerned with human beings, their lives, and their aspirations. Ultimately, it uses technology to create a living environment for real human beings who not only reside but also live, react, and feel. It is a discipline that must negotiate between the cognitive and the affective aspects. (The super rationality of high modernism is long dead.) That is precisely why the architects – those who think sensitively, beyond technical challenges of design – are today in the forefront of critical activity. They question the society and above all the urban and built forms it creates as adjuncts to its programme of domination.

Dr. Sandeep Pendse,