And believe me, I wasn’t alone. Contrary to what the title may suggest, I like studying history. I enjoyed it thoroughly throughout my school days, reading about the Mughal era and Indus Valley Civilisation. Visiting the museums, the forts and listening to the guides talk about the same monument adding their own twist to it, always fascinated me. But, for some reason, I never saw my history book as a book of true facts, rather a book of stories complemented by present-day survival of products and buildings of the past.
While attending my Architecture college, we started analyzing the built structures of the past, in detail. Plans, drawings, materials, architects, their eras, the year they were designed in and many facts of such kind. Fascinating as they were, I, to date fail to realize the use of such technical knowledge, that can easily be accessed by Google, in design. Unless one connects two and two, that comes with a deeper understanding of the ‘whys’ of such details. Studying the ‘whats’ of history is like trying to mug up words and their meanings without understanding their context and usage. For me, knowing the answers of whys at every step-in design history imparts a deeper understanding and imprints itself in my memory database, not as information, rather as knowledge impacting my thinking process. Hence, I was never just interested in knowing the ‘whats’ of the past, rather the ‘whys’ too.
History never repeats itself by the virtue of time, as the circumstances change and hence, the perception of people. According to me, any object X, designed in a certain period, for a certain period, should not be followed blindly as the design basis of the future generations, because the aspirations, adaptability, acceptability, and many other ‘intangible’ dimensions leading to the object X changed. Repetition of an event/ object might not receive the same response, because the mindset acclimatized with the first event, further with the second and so on. Taking the example of courtyards which were common in hot and dry climatic regions, they may or may not be a feasible option today for the given climatic conditions, depending on the context- scarcity of land in the neighborhood, constant vigilance from a neighboring taller building rendering lack of privacy, unavailability of the desired materials or an increased level of pollution in the city making the outdoor space obsolete. Also, the traditions and cultures have outgrown themselves swiftly in the past decades. Faith has shifted from mysterious powers to science. The scenario has changed quite significantly from the glorious past that we look upon to so much.
Keeping the intangible factors aside and considering the tangible ones, material intervention and technological advancement have proceeded rapidly, evolving the scale of the products. We can now have multi-storey buildings going high up to a kilometer, a wireless telephone that fits in our palms and building spans that do not have to rely on the availability of modular dimensions. But, most importantly building typologies have evolved from horizontal to vertical expansions due to the scarcity of land and availability of technology that has made it possible. Criteria of efficiency and judicial usage have progressed accordingly.
Although the primal relationship between man and product has remained the same, their interaction has evolved. Hence, the analysis of contemporary may be the basis of future innovation. I believe in gaining the knowledge and the intent of the design from the past and not its physical implementation. As per a renowned historian, Clive Dilnot, design can never be fully understood without considering its social dimension. The conditions surrounding the emergence of a designed object or a particular kind of design movement involve complex social relations. The relations and dimensions described only in design terms obscure their social and socioeconomic aspects. Hence, important is the study of the social context that produces the determining circumstances within which designers worked as well as the conditions that lead to the emergence of designs. Agreeing with several historians, I believe there are several dimensions leading to the design and several further leading to its humanitarian response. Hence, studying a physical manifestation of these intermingled dimensions should not be enough-the process is more important than the creation. Looking for answers in the past, we must ask why and not what. Answers of why in the past leaves more scope for why not in the future.
Unfortunately, the education community continues to operate within an intellectual framework that frequently isolates design history from other contextual factors and does not engage actively with related fields such as business history, labor history, and the history of technology, invention, engineering or economics. We require a cultural shift within the design history community that includes all aspects of how the subject is taught and researched.