Architecture and Society: Designing Interactions

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This article was written in response to the brief for Writing Architecture Trophy ’17, which demanded a discussion on the means to bring the common populace closer to the practice and preachers of architecture. This is an extrapolation (or a second part if I must say) to the article titled ‘Profession & people: Bridging Gaps’ which I wrote a few months later. This article received the special mention 1 in the Writing Architecture ’17 trophy of National Association of Students of Architecture, India.


Buildings in the recent years have adapted their purpose from just being a habitation unit to an important part of the social fiber. No longer does a building stand disconnected from its surroundings but is designed to amalgamate into it, creating spaces assisting in social interaction, and metaphorically interacting with its users. Architecture is one of those sciences that considers the needs of the social realm, and as such is interactive in its nascent nature. This interaction occurs at multiple levels and the nature and depth of exchange vary in each of them. Communication maybe interpersonal (within thyself), interpersonal (between two or more individuals) and lastly mass (between a human or agency and the target audience). Mental monologues of an architect while he designs can be termed interpersonal, his conversations with his design team or his clients are interpersonal, and the architect addressing the people on issues diverse in nature can be termed as mass communication. The first kind occurs in abundance, while the interpersonal exchange between the architect and his client gets limited to a hazy and unclear discussion at times. The third form which is essential for raising public awareness is sadly almost absent in our country.

Architects and urban designers being party to customer-driven service industries are commissioned by clients and are answerable to them at all points of time. We are expected to design what we are paid for, and initiating a deep discussion often seems farfetched. Client meetings always involve discussing the final proposal(s) and changes to be incorporated therein; hardly any emphasis is given to take the discussion to a deeper level. Establishing an in-depth connection with the client is an essential part of the trade without which the design suffers from injustice. The client being the representative of the customer base needs to be given more information about the design. And architects being the protagonist in this tale, he should shoulder the responsibility of the spokesperson, and stand up to engage his client into details of the design which transcends the limitations of constraining factors like brief and budget. The training architects receive make them the best-suited party to initiate conversations with the multitude.

The Indian perception is that you don’t need an architect to build. Most of us reside in homes that our forefathers built by themselves, the master mason acting as the architect himself. Labors are mostly uneducated and seek jobs in construction as the easiest option. Profit-oriented developers having no aesthetic awareness strides to extract the extra profit. This paints a wrong picture that you don’t need any training for being able to build a house. And in this country where anything sells, a change is tough to bring.

Communicating about architecture is hard because the industry nourishes the interests of a diverse range of stakeholders, many of whom doesn’t have the technical background. This diversity results in a communication gap. Eradicating this gap completely is an idealistic stance impossible to achieve from the socio-economic standpoint.  The only ways to reduce this gap are education and increased interaction. Education will slowly cultivate awareness, and initiating active and engaging interactions will empower this awareness. The architect actively communicates with himself; this communication should extrapolate to his clients as well. And clients being point representatives of the community, these discussions will automatically involve the entire community once our clients feel deeply involved.

Communication that is not clear can result in unsatisfactory design results for the client.

Ayodele Elijah Olusegun, 2008

A one-to-one connection between the designer and his client can be achieved by bringing the patron into the design procedure and discussing the problem in details. His opinions are to be considered. Acknowledging that these views won’t always fit, we have to explain why it should be suitably modified into a working resolution. In an attempt to raise awareness, we have to involve people in the process rather than the end product. We need to smartly discuss the options and enlighten them on the problems that we overcame to arrive at the final resolve. Acknowledging the fact that we as architects too face challenges makes us more human, and every time we discuss how we tackle the challenges with our clients makes us more of an architect, socially responsible and willing to share. Only if our client has traveled the entire path and taken every ups and down with us will he completely put his faith in the destination. The final design shouldn’t be a surprise, it should gradually unfold itself to the client. This involvement is elemental in bridging the gap; only if our patron feels respected and involved will he be able to trust our designs completely.

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Our clients being individuals from the broader community, it will be easier for us to initiate dialogues with the wider audience if enlightened beings are present amongst them. Medium emerges to be the prominent challenge in such instances. Electronic and print media is undoubtedly the most powerful channel for mass communications, but such exchanges often take the form of a discourse with limited possibility of interaction. Without any exchange of thoughts, opinions and sentences, interactions tend to stagnate and becomes futile. One method to prevent such situations is to design special shows or sections interactive in nature, which are especially aimed to create active conversations between the designer and the clientele base. Talk shows crafted specifically to host building and construction-related discussions in the presence of an interested audience will reduce this interactive crisis to an extent. Designers can be invited to share the design procedure in details, the media and public should demand the same. Only if these discussions can be introduced to the public realm will there be a possibility for a more comprehensive debate. Questions from the audience can be entertained by the guest speaker, clearing confusions. The audience can pick any existing example, and the design and underlying philosophies can be discussed in details. The most important part is to actively involve the audience in an engaging and meaningful dialogue. And it is the responsibility of the architect to initiate this dialogue. Visits to any site with the architect playing host to a group of guests, explaining the necessity of the design adopted and the show being aired on national television will also promote interaction, and create awareness.

Print media like magazines and newspapers need to be used as tools in spreading awareness. Design journals will fail to bring about any perceivable change because the reach is negligible beyond the architectural fraternity. Magazines catering to a wider audience viz. lifestyle and general magazines can be instrumental in spreading awareness. Architects writing about the necessity of good design in such magazines will educate the common people, empowering them to make wiser decisions in future. Designers authoring columns in the leading dailies will also be a regular move as a huge chunk of the population has access to newspapers and read it. There are newspapers and journals in the western world where architects and critics regularly contribute to the state of the profession; it’s time we start the same in India.1 Interactive sections like “Ask the Architect” wherein queries will be answered by an architect should be introduced. An efficient and well planned collaborative propaganda involving both digital and print media will be phenomenal in reducing the communication gap.

The language of communication is perhaps the toughest hurdle. Architects tend to complicate matters, and people think they won’t understand what architects say. However, a little effort from both ends can solve this situation. A new language isn’t the need of the hour if we utilize the existing one properly. Architects should communicate in a simpler fashion, and people need to be more willing to grasp. Architects need to express themselves in a manner and language that people understand. Almost always, there are colloquial terms for technical terminologies; this colloquial vocabulary has to be adopted. Complex drawings can be replaced with line diagrams and instant sketches that people will absorb easily. Local language must be widely accepted and adopted. This warmth of expression is extremely important. People don’t enjoy what they don’t understand, and making them understand is our responsibility. A simple portrayal in the local language using colloquial expressions will do the job.

Education is the primary factor in raising awareness and hence is required at all levels. There are kids wanting to be doctors, engineers, lawyers, or dreaming to fly as a pilot; but there are only a few who aspire to become an architect! It indicates that the general population has very limited or no knowledge of architecture as a profession. We should actively mentor student-counseling programs to make young minds and their parents aware of the role of architects and the prospects of the same. 1 Children are taught to visit a doctor when ill; they should similarly be taught to consult an architect before they build! Only if the child is taught from the start will he grow up to be a conscious individual. The importance of effective communication must be stressed upon in architecture school, and measures introduced for the correct training and practice of it. Architectural journalism, a subject that has been ignored for long in the country can very effectively bridge the gap that restricts the developmental potential of the profession. Students are ignorant of the needs of critical architectural literature, and architectural writing isn’t present in the curriculum as of today, an aspect that urgently needs attention from the Council of Architecture. 1

A communication activity is an activity where the end user participates in the development of the product

Hartwick & Barki, 2001

Architects with time have to advance rapidly into the social realm to engage end users into the process and arrive at the final product with them. Pursuing alternative activities as a valid layoff is essential. Our training empowers us to be a lot more than just architects and we should start doing that. Architects can be great writers, and we should have lot more of that. An architect who is also a photojournalist will communicate with the public through vivid pictures of life! There should be more architects in administrative positions, influencing people through well-formulated awareness policies and regulations. Leonardo the Vinci was a great architect, a sculptor, a writer, a mathematician and much more. The world remembers him as an inspiring person as he continues to dominate the intellectual class with his progressive mentality. Architects need to evolve into inspiring figures to whom people will look up to and draw courage. Producing good designs are no longer the only responsibility of the architect; he/she needs to go out and lead the community in building a future- sustainable and green! 1

There are innumerable ways to connect, and this article enumerates a bare few. The next decade should witness architects coming out of studios and participating hands-on with the common populace in forwarding a general cause. In a recent public debate on the challenges and opportunities of communicating architecture to common people (hosted by OpenHaus and the city of Melbourne), statements like “architecture is addictive” and “next time, we use an architect” were materialized. 2 It is high time we talk people into realizing that architecture as a profession is no more elitist, and we can serve all the economic sections with equal efficiency. Merging the economic gap is a major task in bringing the people close. At present, architects should bring forth their personal mental monologues to the public and give people a taste of their minds. In the near future, I aspire to see architects becoming aware of their own social responsibility and cater whole-heartedly to the same. Apart from delivering our professional roles, our actions would uphold the statement of integrity that day.

Reference:

  1. Profession and the people: Bridging gaps (Shubhayan Modak, 2016); Centenary Journal, IIA.

https://lettersinred1993.wordpress.com/2016/10/13/profession-and-the-people-bridging-gaps/

  1. Salon Conversations: Communicating Architecture.

http://openhaus.org/media/ArchitecturalReview_adsarc.pdf


Shubhayan ModakShubhayan Modak is a graduate architect from Dept. of Architecture, Town & Regional Planning, Indian Institute of Engineering Science & Technology, Shibpur. He is the Co-founder and Editor-in-chief of Sthapatya that aims at raising architectural awareness amongst the common public by using local language and colloquial glyphs. He is passionate about visiting places and exploring the local rituals, cultures, traditions, and people. He has served as the Convenor & Editor-in-chief of Indian Arch ’16, the annual student’s journal of National Association of Students of Architecture, India.

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