Architecture school is an overwhelming experience. We foster immense efforts to gain that degree in architecture. Uncountable rejections, cold juries, immeasurable stress, pulling off late nighters, a negligible social life and so much more is dealt with while in college. During this prodigious ride, we live innumerable experiences- while some we cherish, the others we simply dread. One such experience that we often cherish is that of the infamous Case Studies and Site Visits. As I travel back to my architecture school days, I am reminded of this quote by the great Italian designer Vico Magistretti, which says “Look at usual things with unusual eyes.” In this context, what I infer from it is that the need to gain inspiration is so dire that we designers always look out for it in the minutest of things. Case studies and site visits are one such classic example.
I remember landing up on these sites and grasping very little from the place. It wasn’t because the place did not have much to teach, but because we didn’t know what to look out for. We would roam about the place, have fun and make presentations with some digital help. Unfortunately, case studies and site visits in an academic perspective are bizarre. There is an enormous gap in what we expect from the case study and what it eventually ends up to be. We can quote the same for site analysis. They hold no significant value, even though it’s a major influence in our designs. Today, when I look back at them, some experiences I have had during the visits are hilarious.
When I went to my first case study visit of a bungalow, we were a group of 10 odd people. Owing to our self-proclaimed outstanding analysing abilities, we simply roamed about the place and came out of the bungalow in less than half an hour. We took some measurements of the rooms and clicked a few pictures, thanked the owner and moved out of the place. With sheer confidence in our observations, we started making drawings for the presentation. We were happy with what we had put on the sheets, but it’s only when we presented it to the class did we realise what all we had missed.
There was so much that had gone unnoticed right from directions to details, landscape and services, which made our presentation incomplete. I felt bad not because we missed on to the elements but because we were not really taught to look out for them. But thankfully, the case studies did not hold more value in the marking system, which made us settle. And we were then so comfortable in our space that in the coming years, we just settled for overlooking that section. We made terms with it by considering it as a mere formality to be completed for the portfolio. Over time, as we became smarter (at least in our heads), we would visit the places, make decent notes about it, google the construction details and put up a fair presentation for the grading pattern.
Moving ahead, once, during the 9th semester, we visited this site in the eastern sea shore area of Mumbai. The college had provided the site location in the design problem for an exhibition centre. A site near the sea with flamingos flying by and good connectivity to the suburbs was an excellent site selection, we thought. Excited to be at the site, the whole batch skipped the lecture and went for a site study. All cheered up and happy, we thought of contemporary designs and organically flowing structures to come up with. But little did we know what was waiting for us.
As we approached the site, we kept looking for it, around it and in it for a good one hour after we could locate the petroleum tankers which were supposedly a part of the proposed site. The site hosted industrial buildings, foul smelling docks, a barren land to breed flamingos, garbage dump yards and slum settlements. The picture we had all painted in our head was rather not so rosy anymore. So basically, we were expected to place an elegant looking modern building amidst the factories, godown buildings and slum dwellings which made it an even more interesting design problem.! Here, the site visit again became a mark of mere compulsions. We clicked pictures of the cleanest areas; we climbed terraces to try and get a view of the sea, tried to spot a flamingo or two, gazed at the Porsche factory outlet and rushed out of the place. Yet again, we came up with a decent presentation and scored just enough to begin the design. The site study sheets looked beautiful with pictures, but the reality was far from them. We all ended up creating designs unsuitable for the site and were a juxtaposition in themselves.
This is yet another example of the fact that more than often, the site visits that we do, the case studies that we take up are a mere act of obligation. However, they are a major influencer of design. But they end up being the least of our concern, despite being the most significant decision makers. And this issue travels right up to our work desks as professionals. We see so many buildings that just don’t fit the plot or don’t suit the context of its surroundings.
This makes me wonder; why don’t we take key lessons from these visits? Why do we not understand that example and prototypes are something that we can learn from? Why do we have to always relate things in proportion to their academic value? Maybe it’s about time that we realize that design is beyond the boundaries of a college. We should rather give importance to elements that truly affect the useability of our buildings. We can learn to weigh things on the relevance of their professional value. Let’s deliberately make efforts to bridge this gap between academics and the profession. Because it’s only when we change our outlook towards education that we can expect ethical practice from the millennial professionals!