When one thinks of the state of architecture as an art form, one is reminded of beauty crafted under the hands of man. Come to think of it as a profession, one is presented with a mixed bag of perceptions and opinions. Some correctly pronounced and a few misplaced. One of these perceptions or rather criticism that architecture faces is that this is an urban profession for the rich and the poor have no place in its constituency. Architects are accused of cultivating and preserving this culture of serving only the affluent 2 percent of the country and ignoring the rest.
“Architecture is a noble profession. In the hands of its conscientious practitioners, it is a medium to serve the people and also the environment….It embraces both: reality and vision, creativity and practicality. It has been there from the dawn of the civilization and will always be there.” Shah, Kirtee. “Architects and Architectural Practice in India: Some Imperatives.” Bali, 2009.
When the state of architecture in rural and semi-rural India, where 60-70% of the entire country resides, is in question, we must come to reflect upon this description of architecture that Architect Kirtee Shah has presented. We must question whether architecture as a profession, the way it exists today, is serving the people or the environment. It must be discussed who these people are that the noble profession is serving currently and what does it mean for the architects of today to serve the environment’.
It is crucial now more than ever, for the phenomenon of globalization is at play and is rapidly redefining the character of indigenous architecture. The architecture that stood on the pillars of Indian culture and lifestyle is crumbling down under the weight of globalization. The homogenous, one size fits all ideology of contemporary architecture at the cost of the local environment is damaging the built environment of the country.
We need dialogue among the professionals and all other stakeholders and policymakers about the issue. And this could begin with questioning the absence of architects, in our villages. Despite having a huge amount of work that requires architectural expertise in the development of the rural built environment, we find almost a negligible number of architects working in the villages. Architects are needed in the villages and small towns. But they are not welcome with their prejudiced view towards the state of architecture in rural India and the lifestyle of the people who live in these parts of the country. An architect with the urban understanding and sensibilities if intervenes in rural architectural problems, s/he is most likely to add to the problem rather than solving it.
For example, when rural development authorities of the government under PMAY built houses for the rural populace, they happened to be the least thoughtful, unimaginative cheap versions of an urban house of brick and concrete. These houses are in striking contrast with the immediate surrounding and disturb the visual language of the village itself.
For reasons like these, an architect isn’t welcome into the villages and for the same reasons, architectural understanding of villages and it’s unique problems is crucial for our growth as a profession and is, therefore, the need of the hour.
The villages of India have vernacular style and techniques of construction which are local, environment-friendly, democratic, organic, and considerate of the climate. The architecture of the villages is in a true sense sustainable. It is the only Indian architecture truly left in the country where globalization has sucked up the character and identity of Indian Architecture. It was rightly stated by someone that, “villages do not need architectural intervention, they need preservation”. Preservation while solving their problems, is embedded in their culture very deeply.
A different set of different problems also present themselves as we move from rural to semi-rural. The architectural problem of small-town India is a beast in itself. Small town India is stuck between its cultural roots and global desires. They stand midway. And that dictates the architecture of these areas. Architecture often stands midway, being something and wanting to be something else. This confusion is the state of architecture of small-town India. This architectural blunder runs through most Indian towns and screams for solutions. It is more dangerous because if the slumber of inaction continues, soon this undefined, haphazard, and chaotic architectural confusion would seep into the villages, destroying the indigenously built fabric forever.
A discounted ripped, and misplaced version of urban architecture presents itself in the small towns. It is in these parts of the country that an architect is least valued for what they can do. They’re considered to be fancy engineers who draw plans and get them passed by the municipality. As long as clients are demanding this, architects that work in these towns (a handful in each) give it to them in return for the small fee they receive to pay their bills. If a client is unable to find an architect in the town at his expected price, he goes for an engineer or a contractor to get his house built.
This problem is not unique to architecture. Almost all fields of design have encountered this and still do. For every fashion designer in a city, there’s a tailor in a town. For every furniture designer or interior designer, there’s a carpenter and painter who doubles up as the aesthetic consultant. For every graphic designer, there’s a print shop. Architects, who are a very integral part of the construction industry in cities, are replaced by engineers and contractors, questioning the very need for an architect.
Is it because designers charge money? More money than what their clients would like to spend on ‘designing’ (read embellishing) anything. Design is a mystery word for semi-rural and rural India. Its definition, scope, significance, are all unclear. And architecture is in the same boat of unclarity while navigating through the waters of rural India and small-town India.
There is an urgent need for a thoughtful, empathetic, and reasonable discourse about the state of architecture in the non-urban parts of the country. It must begin with recognizing this as a problem in the first place and acknowledging the fact that this is a threat to not just rural but the entire built fabric of the country. Architects as professionals and stakeholders of this ‘noble profession’, must come together and discuss with one another, with the clients, with policymakers, and with the students of architecture to improve and preserve the character and essence of the built environment.