The first reaction from friends and family, when told that I’m an architecture student is, “Ohh! so you draw well huh?”. Well, they’re right … but not quite.
The general misconception about architecture is that it’s all about drawing. But the scope of architecture goes well beyond just that. Architecture isn’t just constructing buildings with brick and stone; it is the process of designing spaces for humans to inhabit. If so, how is one to do it without understanding human nature, requirements, and way of life. Observation and interaction are very vital skills required in an architect. Colleges have assignments introduced solely to instill this utterly crucial yet frustratingly difficult skill in students. Hence, the subtle art of initiating a conversation with an absolute stranger had suddenly developed into a necessity in my student life. And there isn’t a way around, because if you require to study a house or a neighborhood, what better ways than befriending the residents.
Site visits to remote villages or historical cities were a daily ritual in the starting days of college, and the first assignment would be collecting stories. This would help map the morphology of the place or know how they managed to construct their Havelis or from where did they source their construction materials. We would spread out in groups, taking notes and making sketches as the residents stared in confusion at the strange lot that roamed their place with sketchbooks, measuring tapes and stocks of pencils and cutters stuffed in their pockets. Children would gather around us with smirks and subdued squeals of amazement as we sketched out a cowshed or admiringly gaped at a broken jharokha. However, getting access to their houses was a tough grind and for this, we needed to gain their confidence. We would sit for hours on verandahs and roadside benches conversing with elderly men or the shopkeepers, simultaneously jotting down all the relevant points and scribbling down quick mind maps, in order to familiarize ourselves with the people. The loquacious ones would hit it off easily and would effortlessly get themselves invited in for tea or snacks.
The task of encroaching into someone else’s house uninvited and roaming around the place taking measurements was as embarrassing for us, as it must have been annoying for them. Hence, we would keep them distracted by engaging them in endless conversations, tactfully nudging them on from one topic to another such that they never ran out of things to talk about while we worked. These conversations weren’t mere rambling, instead were intended at understanding the lifestyle, traditions, and socio-cultural setup of the place.
The ease of interaction and level of hospitality varies with the degree of urbanization of the place. Our villages are often a gratifying source of refreshment and inspiration. This is primarily because the native villagers are people who have lived in that particular village throughout their lives. Their lifestyle, entertainment, festivals, construction styles, and every other aspect of their social life revolves around community life, socializing, and living in harmony with nature. This enables them to trust people easily and treat an outsider as one among them. That being the case, how can a bunch of half-starved students walking the lengths and breadths of the village in the scorching sun be left alone.
It becomes almost impossible to cross a house without being offered breakfast or lunch. Tea becomes an inescapable obligation, to the extent that one ends up having around twelve to fifteen cups of tea a day. Bags are often stuffed with fruits, corn, and other farm products offered by the villagers. There have also been several absurd yet hilarious situations where the locals grew overtly attached and came up with naïve requests of an alliance or marriage proposals for their children.
On the other end of the spectrum, cities are a hybrid of people and cultures with a majority of the population consisting of migrants from other towns and villages. There is no sense of camaraderie or even acquaintanceship among these people reducing the tendency to be generous and fair to others, especially when it would not directly benefit them. Urban studies have prepared us for what to expect for an unwelcome knock on the door. Most people wave us off from their gates, the rest talk in faint one-word responses from behind the safety of their mesh doors. The more humane ones, friendly uncles, or the sympathetic aunties are the ones who let us in and offer water.
Urban or rural, interaction and socializing make it easier for one to understand the customs, beliefs, requirements, law, legend, and lore of the land. A door banging on your face speaks of one’s insecurities or lack of time; if force-fed it speaks of their hospitality or generosity. An architect capable of reading the responses of a person can understand his expectations and necessities, and in turn, translate it into the design. In other words, an architect capable of effective communication can bridge the gap between his design and its user.