A lot has been said, written, orated, and glorified on what architecture is and what it can do for the ordinary. I aim to spell-check the above and narrate the ordeal of what architecture is not and what it has not been doing for the ordinary.  Architecture as a definition has over the years trickled through various layers of history, evolving, adapting, and thus defines itself as a response to cultural, social and technological, and philosophical shifts. As an educator I would like to take you through the circle of experience of the dual role that I got to live through; that of a student and an educator.

Where it all began; the delusional room of acclaimed critics 

Architecture, the captivating and ever-evolving discipline, can shape our world and bring tangible benefits to the lives of ordinary people. As an educator, I have been fortunate to embark on a personal and professional journey, reflecting on my own experiences as a student and contemplating the role of architecture in our society. Join me as we delve into the captivating world of architecture, unearthing its hidden gems, facing its challenges, and exploring its transformative potential.

Imagine yourself as a wide-eyed architecture student, filled with enthusiasm and curiosity, only to be confronted with the dreaded design jury—the room filled with acclaimed critics, a space that both intimidates and excites. I can still vividly recall my first design jury experience, clutching the roll number one, a position I would hold for the next four years. In that room, my designs were laid bare, vulnerable to the judgment of others, while I yearned for a helping hand that seemed absent, as my fellow students were engrossed in perfecting their models. It was an intense and demanding environment, demanding not only creativity but also resilience and the ability to defend one’s ideas.

Did I truly grasp the essence of architecture during my first year? The answer is a resounding “affirmative negative.” Architecture seemed like a peculiar realm where everything required a concept—a nebulous and elusive concept that seemed to dance just beyond my reach. Sometimes, it materialized as a coffee mug, symbolizing comfort and familiarity, while on other occasions, the building itself becomes a symbol, supplemented by a form based meaning (Hill J, 2009). Occasionally, a classmate would astonish us with an out-of-the-box concept that defied conventional thinking, exploring levels and spaces in unconventional ways. As for me, my concept was akin to a complex puzzle, requiring me to solve it on multiple levels—literal, symbolic, and metaphorical. I soon realized that my journey as an architecture student was an ongoing exercise in unraveling intricate puzzles, constantly pushing the boundaries of my understanding and creativity. Today architecture can be viewed as its extension, where every multifaceted discipline plays an important role in completing the entire composition to create something functional and fulfilling.

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The duck and the Decorated Shed_Robert Venturi Learning from LasVegas
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Recommendation for a monument_Robert Venturi Learning from LasVegas

Architecture as imagery and imagination

Architecture, at its core, thrives on the synergy between imagery and imagination (Pallasmaa,2011). As students, we were like stones catapulted into the vast expanse of architectural exploration. Some found their footing with remarkable precision, effortlessly excelling in their craft. They were the ones who possess an inherent understanding of design principles, seamlessly transforming their visions into reality. Others, however, found themselves in a bewildering place—creative oblivion, where they struggled to define their architectural identity. And then, there were the daring souls who adamantly refused to conform, fueled by a relentless desire to challenge conventions and push the boundaries of design. In our collective pursuit of architectural excellence, we discovered the power to transform ordinary objects into extraordinary spatial entities—shoe soles became the foundation for our imagination, humble cardboards took the shape of exquisite designer chairs and tables, and the weighty presence of bricks found its expression in poorly chiselled thermocol superstructures. The ability to give life and meaning to mundane and ordinary materials- isn’t that what architecture is all about?

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Spatial models made of shoe sole_Author
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Sculptures made of plaster of paris_Author

The Paradox of non-existent; from fiction to Reality

Amidst the captivating whirlwind of creative endeavors and imaginative exercises, we confronted an inherent paradox. Within the realm of architecture, we often found ourselves designing for the absence of human presence—a disconcerting realization. This led to questioning why we weren’t more engaged with real-life situations involving actual people. Instead, we crafted designs for architect families with two children, imagined the needs of hypothetical school managements, and even designed hospitals without truly considering the experiences of real patients. It became apparent that as students, we needed more opportunities to communicate and engage with real people and real situations. Fueled by this epiphany, years later as I assumed the role of an educator, I was determined to provide my students with invaluable connections to authentic clients and their genuine requirements. This transformative approach allowed them to cultivate a profound understanding of the human aspect of architecture and the profound impact it has on people’s lives.

Tidal Terrains_Author Mary Denman (Architect Designer)USA

The extraordinary and informal 

Architecture has often failed to reach its true potential in serving the needs of ordinary people. How often have we explored what architecture is not and what it has not been doing for the ordinary? It is not merely about aesthetics but about functionality and usability. It should not disconnect itself from human experiences, prioritising theoretical concepts over real needs and emotions. Architecture should not be limited to disconnected landmarks but should integrate seamlessly into everyday life. It should not neglect social consciousness, inclusivity, accessibility, and sustainability. Furthermore, architecture should not ignore the ordinary aspects of life, designing exclusively for the privileged few. To bridge these gaps, a paradigm shift is needed. Architects must strive to understand concepts in a relatable and accessible manner, ensuring that ideas are not confined to the realms of abstract thinking but are understood and appreciated by all. A human-centric approach is crucial, putting people at the heart of design decisions and considering their diverse needs and experiences. Lastly, spatial imagination skills should be honed, encouraging architects and students alike to think beyond the conventional and explore innovative ways to create meaningful and transformative spaces. Architecture is noetic poetry resting on the creative edge, waiting to be fed with interesting and ambiguous algorithms that can transform the lifeless, ordinary, and formal into one that is full of life, extraordinary, and informal. 

References

John Hill (2009) Of Ducks and Decorated Sheds: A Review of I Am a Monument [online] Architect Magazine.com. (2022). Available at: https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/of-ducks-and-decorated-sheds-a-review-of-i-am-a-monument_o.[Accessed 24 May 2023].

Kohlstedt, K. (2016). Lessons from Sin City: The Architecture of ‘Ducks’ Versus ‘Decorated Sheds’ – 99% Invisible. [online] 99% Invisible. Available at: https://99percentinvisible.org/article/lessons-sin-city-architecture-ducks-versus-decorated-sheds/.

Mary Denman.(2018).Tidal Terrains. [3D Visual]. 

Pallasmaa,Juhani. (2011)The Embodied Image: Imagination and Imagery in Architecture,     Chichester, West Sussex : John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Venturi, (1972).The duck and the Decorated Shed. [Sketch]. (Document number 345, London: Food Photography Library).

Venturi, R. Brown, D.S. Izenour, S.(1977) Learning from Las Vegas, Cambridge MA, MIT Press

Author

Afnan Ashraf is an artist, architect and an educator. She is the principal architect at TwoPoints ArtLab and a founding member of Coearth Foundation. Afnan excels in developing brand identities, conceptual storylines, and website content. She emphasises on a research based approach fueled through collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.