Humour, it is assumed, has no place in education, architecture or even science and they generally do not go together. Our colleges and universities, which are the highest institutions that deal with education and research tend to be conservative in their approach toward the imparting of knowledge even in the most liberal and creative of fields. Structure and familiarity seem to be the norm. Yet, in the rare moments when these two ideas of humour and conventional education meet, it creates a form of edutainment, much less didactic, encouraging divergent thinking and creativity. This leads to an imparting of knowledge that lasts and is meaningful, built on observation, shared experience and bonhomie.
In the creative field of architecture, humour may be allowed or experienced within the relaxed and creative atmosphere of a studio, largely beyond the scope of education. While architecture students are encouraged to be in observant realisation of the built form around them, to learn and understand space; they are still thought in conventional ways, this observation amounting to nothing. Workshops though have the innate ability to create a sphere of edutainment with its hands-on approach to education, including indulging activity acting on observation. One such workshop on barrier-free design, organised in college comes to mind which puts observation and hands-on experience to the test; in the process, adding a form of humour and edutainment.
A two-day workshop, it began as usual with the same conventional lecture series that seem so mundane, albeit with insightful knowledge in the ever so loved seminar hall. This very term ‘seminar hall’ means so much to so many different types of students. Preferred largely for its blasting air conditioning and comfortable seats; this seating itself has a sense of hierarchy in varying types. In the company of classmates and the distance of the seat from the front row is inversely proportional to the level of studiousness (not to be related to smartness) – the more the distance, the less the studiousness (with a probability of higher smartness). Contrarily, in the company of the entire department, juniors appear more studious than seniors. In between these hierarchies, come an audacious lot, some of whom manage to periodically doze off right in the front rows, a few who exchange chats and snaps and even few who with the pretence of writing notes on laptops, instead, play games! Nevertheless, every student takes back something from the lecture.
In the case of this workshop lecture, in between snoozes, I learnt that there exist multiple biases for segregation and the types of disability do not just limit to the physical but also include the intellectual and emotional in the form of dyslexia, autism, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etcetera. The idea of segregation to deal with a disability is a flawed one that inadvertently but adversely leads to isolation and exclusion of the disabled. Good design rather aims at inclusion along with aesthetics. Inclusive or universal design is about making any space accessible to all people groups; a strong direction towards true equity in the built form, the understanding of which can only be achieved after putting oneself in another’s shoe, even if only for a short while.
In another’s shoes is exactly where we put ourselves on the second day of the workshop. After a few standard instructions, we got into groups and were asked to navigate our college campus, a space we were already familiar with, albeit with certain imitation of a disability. Some put on a blindfold, some tied up a leg, some other a hand, while some got on a wheelchair and some put on earplugs. The outcome was respectfully hilarious and incredibly insightful, all the while serving as a curious source of amusement to other students and faculty alike across departments on campus.
With a blindfold on, I tried to navigate the campus, going from the entry to the canteen and finally towards the department building making my way up to the studio with a friend guiding my directions and others in the group noting down the observations. The immediate blackout of vision brings a gushing feeling of insecurity, heightening the sense of sound around you, bringing more awareness of the variety of noise, only so slightly assuaged by the familiar voice of a friend’s guidance. Moving from the entrance towards the canteen, we had to pass through a pathway – after climbing a few spaced out stairs – that lay between the main building to the left and a landscaped garden to the right, on it, a sign that read ‘do not walk on the grass’ which of course, blindfold on, I couldn’t read, save for the sound of the omnipotent sprinklers. The passage, so frequently traversed without a shred of alertness, was now a path of nervous steps forward, with conversations like, “take a step forward.“ – “Are you sure?“ – “yes, now mind the pipe.“ – “ow! Who places a metal pipe over the ground?! “ – “I told you to mind it! “ – “very quick of you!” – “there’s a step down ahead.” – “whoa, that was a lot lower than I remember, less than the standard rise!” The constant brick batting, a sign of reserved trust for fear of turning into a practical joke.
Once inside the canteen, the cacophony and whiz of movement right past you would overwhelm anyone. As the noise slowly reduces with comments under breaths, you could hear the loud stares! Quickly making our way out, we move towards the entrance of the department building. The relatively long walk, so far with confidence, comes tumbling down as I bump into a mound of dead landscaping and fall on my knees! With help and friendly, supportive laughter around I frantically get up and successfully make my way up to the studio, but not without bashing my feet twice into the rail of the gate; one at the entrance below and other at the entrance of the corridor to the department floor.
Meanwhile, the student on the wheelchair might have had a jolly ride around campus – much to the chagrin of those who had to push around – only to find that there is no way to make it up to the studio. The hilarity of this entire exercise was in no manner the disability itself, nor was it the imitation, but the sheer inability of us to perform what was understood as menial, habitual, everyday tasks already familiar with, just by merely imitating a disability. This begs the question as to whether we have all ever really been in an observant realisation of our surroundings.
Come summer and the start of a new semester, that wheelchair can now make its way up to the third-floor studio, a student can walk without stumbling over an ill-placed mound of landscaping and the gardener does not have to worry about his pipe causing a hazard. Small steps toward inclusivity, but steps in the right direction, thereby making the workshop fruitful, all the while also demonstrating the importance of a little activity and humour in the pedagogy of architecture.