Heraclitus had once said, “The only constant in life is change”. This is an adage we have all heard numerous times in our lives. The veracity of this statement has never appeared as true as it does in the current scenario. With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic our daily routines have altered significantly and perhaps permanently. Several people have lost their jobs and those who haven’t have had to learn to work from home. Businesses have shut down, the economy has taken a turn for the worse and students have had to adapt to the tricky and somewhat new-fangled world of online learning.
For architecture students this means no more site visits, calling off the end-of-the-semester juries, postponing or even canceling the traditional thesis presentations and exhibitions and so many other events that are an essential part of our academic curriculum. Instead telecommunication applications like Skype and Zoom have suddenly become ubiquitous and indispensable. This shake-up in the education system might seem sudden and maybe even unwarranted, but the reality is that it was a long time coming. The changes our planet is going through are urgent and unavoidable. Sooner or later we would have had to learn to adapt, perhaps not so abruptly, but definitively all the same. We, educators and students together, have been thrown out of our comfort zones and told to in no uncertain terms to deal and to deal fast. One of the major upheavals has been the changes in the relationship between teachers and their pupils. The authority that teachers have wielded over their students for so long has been rendered futile due to their absence. Architecture studios are generally lauded as being creative spaces but the specter of upcoming submissions ensures that students manage to harness this creativity and convert into some semblance of productivity. Now however students find themselves in an unfamiliar situation. There is no pressure on upcoming exams or submissions. Yes, there are online lectures but who can blame us if our attention wanders to the greener pastures of social media and video games?
Architectural learning has always been more practical than theoretical. There are materials to be sourced, textures, and colors to be chosen, products fabricated. We need to visit sites, gauge their surroundings, and oversee constructions. Architects are service providers. We work with the aim of building something tangible, something which we can envision. This pandemic does not mean architects have stopped working. It just means the way we approach our work has changed. Schools need to rethink and rework their curriculums and methods of imparting knowledge. Maybe the current situation will finally lead to that final transition between meaningless and beautiful design briefs to architecture that can make a difference.
Architecture as a field not just encourages, but indeed thrives on teamwork. Any great building is not built by the efforts of the architect alone. There are always other, equally important, people involved. From construction managers to site overseers to technical consultants, there are limitless people involved in building any structure. In schools of architecture students are encouraged to work together for projects regularly. The aim is to prepare them for the working environment while simultaneously ensuring that they learn the value of team effort and adjustment. The pandemic has however guaranteed that social distancing is the new normal. Students no longer have the luxury of getting second, third, and fourth opinions from their classmates and professors. This means they need to be mentally prepared to rely on their own instincts and abilities. After all one can make squiggles drawn on paper appear like the next masterpiece in person, but it is rather difficult to do so in online submissions where you cannot explain them to your satisfaction.
Students and teachers alike have been distressingly reticent to accept online and long-distance learning in their daily lives. Telecommunication apps are not unknown or even very recent applications. They have been around for some years now. But there is an idea (which may be true) that art and design studios function better in-person. This is a huge change for students. Design studios are a huge part of the architecture course, and these studios generally work based on one-on-one discussions with professors or mentors followed by group presentations. This is a process that cannot be translated online. We need to present our work in our own words, explain it with passionate hand-gestures and entreating expressions. It is a part of the process. Now, however, architecture students, never very sincere about theoretical lectures, to begin with, are expected to attend early-morning sessions ranging in topics from anthropometry to design. For students in their senior years of the course, this routine is particularly tedious. Their creative souls, unused to such stringent rules and regulations, rail at the injustice. They cannot get used to the sudden sincerity expected of them. This does not mean online learning is impossible. It just means the process still needs to be interactive, encouraging imagination, not stifling it.
A person’s psychology develops according to his or her surroundings. We are all dealing with online learning during this pandemic in our own, peculiar ways. There are two sides to every coin. Yes, this social distancing is teaching us to be more self-reliant and independent. Students are building on their technical skills, learning new softwares that still allows them to present their work creatively. On the other hand, there have been inimical psychological effects too. Students have to battle with loneliness, having lost the fun, spirited banter of their classrooms. We often learn while comparing our work with others, getting new ideas from classmates and friends. Now that this process is no longer possible, our creativity has been restrained too. There is no routine to follow, our daily disciplines broken. There are no more study tours to look forward to anytime soon, where students learn the multi-fold benefits of group work, team spirit, handle leadership positions all while learning in person from the places they visit and the people they meet.
There is a lot that architecture students have to learn to adapt to. Thankfully, architecture has always been a field that has evolved quickly. From ever-changing technology to the latest trends, we are used to expecting the unexpected. If anyone can get used to this strange, new world we find ourselves inhabiting, it is architects. The onus of designing cities and structures that are better able to adapt to such pandemics falls squarely on the shoulders of architects and urban planners. Our way of living needs to change, and architects are amongst those who can guide us through the process.