As I quietly sat down in front of my laptop for interviewing Ar. Madhav Raman over skype, I wondered whether the questions I framed for him were appropriate, and would be apt for asking a starchitect! This was going to be the first interview (yes, I was lucky by that way…) I have ever done, and I was tensed! I shaved my beard during the ‘no-shave-November’ because I was to look decent. However, the tension evaporated minutes after our session started, with Madhav sir laughing his way and vibrantly putting things to place as we moved forward! Within 15 minutes, all my sense of fear was gone, and I was tuning along. I think he experienced a short trip down to memory lane as my questions took him to stories of his college life, of stories related to the drafting board and chai-sutta! A conversation I estimated to be hardly 30 minutes turned to be a fun-filled discussion of about an hour and forty minutes; I enjoyed every moment of the same!
Read on to know his thoughts!!
1. The first question for you, in the debate between form follows function & function follows form, what stance would you like to take?
This is a very old way of looking at architecture or space. We live in a much more complicated time and the idea that one should follow the other is actually a pallid point. It is more important to consider what the impact of creating space is. We as an architect build, create space and through space, we create experiences. The impact of that experience on people’s lives has far deeper significance than whether it should be form-based or function based. Why can’t it be both? It should be both and you can’t put one before another. We have done too much of damage as a dualism doing one end of the other; I’m not a big fan of that argument either way. I feel both of them are equally silly. In today‘s time and day, it’s not a critical question that should trouble an architect so much, we shouldn’t let ourselves think like this. We should understand that there is a certain responsibility we have towards society because we create space. Those are more self-congratulatory, that’s more for ourselves, no one is benefiting from that’s sort of debate.
2. Moving to the next question in this era of computer-aided design, what significance do you feel remains of the butter paper, of hand drafting & scribbling with the pencil?
I would have been probably in the last batch where I did my entire architecture by my hand, I didn’t use any computers. Towards the end of my college, there used to be a lot of friction between the faculty and students about whether the computer should be allowed. It’s not to say computer should not happen or one should not use them or one should not think creatively with them. Again it’s like debate, form follows function or function follows form. Computers are great at mimicking abstraction, but they are not capable of looking at abstract as a thinking process, as a way of looking back into so you can create an algorithm that can mimic an abstract situation. At end of that day what computer will do take is that algorithm and give you multiple options. Now fundamentally that is not different from what you do by your hand, but the real importance of hand is that if you work by hand, either by making a model or by sketching, it will be a different and natural skill set. It’s the hand that already have a sense of the material, they know how deep, how hard. I think that’s a critical difference. So again I don’t think there’s a debate, I think that some people find it more comfortable to work by hand and to think with something while working with hands. Some people like the virtual space and the possibilities that the computer offers. The important thing is that how closely knit is your mind to the process of forming an idea. That’s the critical thing for me and in that sense, I guess I prefer thinking things through hands first, and I see a lot of value in that because it helps. I don’t have a very large brain so it helps me to free up some mental space to think about other things. It’s something that you need to figure out for yourselves, just consider what happened in last five years, computers are being more tactile and advanced. You know there’s a hepatic feedback, there are screens where you can sketch on and the screen feels. Maybe tomorrow in the world of 3D computing we would be actually able to sculpt drawings in three dimensions, rather than trying to first make it in two dimensions and get it on the screen and then imagine the 3rd dimension virtually in the depth of the screen. Maybe we will have that. But, now the reality is that a computer now open up a window into the universe of the internet, to knowledge, to information, to the social network, to all sorts of things. We would again be doing a huge disservice if we restrict our thinking. As of now, I have not found an alternative of sketching by hand. I feel that the way things are moving it might be a reality in another 5 years, I might completely change my opinion and say it is much better to think, to sculpt something virtually and get something like a hologram. Don’t make a protocol of it. It’s just a simple thing, it’s just try and understand how you think or as a human being and as a designer.
3. What do you fell about the present architectural education scenario in the country?
I think there are two or three things that have both good and bad in it. The numbers of colleges offering architecture are increasing and the number of students who are considering architecture very seriously is also increasing. The third thing that has increased is that students are no longer restricting themselves to look at architecture as something that’s good only if you want to start your own practice; students are realizing that there are multiple roles, multiple jobs that they can do after doing architecture. I think these are all fundamentally good things because, until about again 5 or 6 years back there was a big difference between general public and architects. The general public never talked about architecture. So, I think in a sense, it is a good thing because it’s opening up architecture into being as important a practice as music, or food. I’m seeing more and more conversion in public about architecture which was not the case. Earlier we used to treat ourselves as a secret club. Only architects talked to architects about the architecture. So it’s changing. Now, what are the bad things? The bad things with expansions, one which is obviously worth worrying about, is the quality of education. I have a personal & fundamental problem about the architecture curriculum in the country. I think we have not seriously revised or restructured the way we’re teaching architecture. I would imagine that we are about twenty-five years later. But we are not doing anything to change that either. They are teaching things to the kids in an old way and the kind of things we’re talking about in the college should have died a natural death about a quarter of a century ago. In the education system, there are good and bad things. So hopefully there is enough good to change things. Let’s say from an organization like NASA, if you guys get students to give feedback on the way they’ve thought about this, it will be worthwhile. That’s an important thing because for me architecture is always a debate. The teaching of it and practice of architecture is a debate. People take possessions and they argue against each other, which is a natural healthy state of producing culture. Architecture is a form of production of culture, built culture you can call it. If there are debates, if there are conversions of it, then there is a good thing. So more people, more colleges are good things. Problem is quality; quality of debate, quality of education and quality of curriculum, these are things that you need to change quickly. If you’re considering the rapidly increasing number of architects, the number of architecture schools and the number of students, we have to take very quick steps to change curriculum accordingly, which I don’t think we’re done with. That’s a crisis in my mind, if it does not happen over the next five years, then that will be definitely a problem because we are already late. Architecture that was produced 10 or 15 years back in the ‘90s was something that had a big disconnection with people. It talked about architecture only to 1-5% of society. People keep saying that architects only build 5% of the architecture produced in this country. The fact that more people from very different backgrounds, small towns & villages sometimes are able to study architecture is very enriching to the debate of architecture, and what architecture should be in this country. So, I think that when you look at other people and say these guys are so much advanced than us, they’re also practicing, especially when they’ve come from outside of India, you have to realize that their context is very different to ours. We are a society with so many different types of people, I think we need not map or model ourselves on western architectural pedagogy so much. Our way has to be different. It can’t be the same journey. It’s important for students of architecture to understand the way in which architecture is produced in India. If we try to model our education on something which is not from India, then we won’t be able to do our jobs properly. So, we need to evolve our own understanding of how architecture should be taught over here.
4. How do you feel about the present students not getting sufficient onsite exposure and also on hand practices but spending too much time drafting and designing inside the studio?
I think that’s a fair point. I would not say on-site experience, I feel again it’s got to do with the hand. In our education, the correct term would be that architects are becoming Brahminical, they’re becoming like Pundits. We speak a separate language which only we’ll understand, we need to sit inside a studio and draw, only to completely lose connection with the process of building. So, all colleges should have workshops, design studios and even building construction studio should be held inside a workshop. But we’ve created this culture that designing is an intellectual activity and producing architecture is a labor. Somehow the production of architecture (because it’s wrongly considered as labor) is inferior to the idea of thinking about architecture and designing it. It’s a terribly fatal mentality to work with, considering how important the construction industry is to us or a society. We’ve completely disconnected this and we’ve done it actively. It’s almost criminal that we’ve done this; we’ve taken the education of an architect and pulled out any form of work magnet and crumpled it to the dustbin. When you’re in college, your faculty might take you a site, show you something. But that still is a visit, you can’t learn on site. If you have to learn onsite the only way is you apprentice with a carpenter or a mason, and spent 5 years with them. Then you will have expertise in only one way of producing architecture. So, the important thing for students is that in their colleges, building construction studios should not happen in a studio, it should be inside a workshop. This can only answer to the architects; no one else has to do anything. Only architects reconnect with the physical people. I think there’s hope until then, next, it’s a crisis. That’s a very important point you raised.
5. Thank you, now moving onto the next, given the handful number of architects in the country as huge as India, how do you feel we can really make a difference?
We’re growing very rapidly. So I don’t think there’ll be a problem there. There are so many architecture schools & there are so many students becoming architects. I think our impact is huge because basically people end up having to suffer what we design and we create people’s lifestyles. So that’s a huge power to have. We are not a political movement so we don’t really need a collective democratic sense. Because, we all at the end of a day are individually practicing architecture, doing it as a job, as a profession. So the problem of number is changing, to begin with, I think that every year there is a whole new bunch of architecture schools and colleges being opened. And you in NASA, you will know it, your membership is growing. So I think that it will keep growing, they are not few in number. They are plenty. How are we doing anything to help? That’s an important question. I don’t think we have explored the potential of such a huge pool of human resource. How many members do you have in NASA?
Well, it will very easily cross fifty thousand.
Fifty thousand? I would imagine it to be substantially more. The way to look at our potential is to imagine that is fifty thousand plus, let us give it a round shape by imagining one lakh. Now think, one lakh minds, we are not an army, or a political party or movement. So it’s not like one person is one body, a pair of hand. Every person is one mind. If we say that incredible ideas are one in a million and if we have a million people, we can have incredible ideas constantly, we can have incredible designs. Potential is present, but we as students of architecture are not giving enough force. When we are doing something, we are impacting society or changing society. We have allowed us for the past forty years to become much more specific. We have talked to the architects who were prime in the 60s, and they had a lot more hope from architecture. I think past 30-40 years has unfortunately made architecture very cynical. But I also think that being younger than many other practitioners, who got some kind of understanding of what’s happening, I feel that our generation and the generation after us will look at architecture very differently. So that’s a hope. I don’t think the numbers will be a problem.
6. Thank you for giving that assurance. Moving on, how do you feel has the architectural practice in India revolutionized overtime? What it is now, what it was before and what it can be in future?
The big thing about architecture practices is how they have changed over 15 years. It has become more collaborative. Earlier architects were positioning themselves at a place where they were at the pinnacle of decision making in any construction project, right?. Now that has adjusted, sometimes it’s the developers, sometimes it’s the project managers. There are lots of people who control the production of architecture. So, obviously, we’ve had to adjust our egos to that reality. It’s a good thing because now we start looking at people who work with us as our peers, as people with whom we can collaborate and I’m seeing more and more architects willing to collaborate with other people. So that’s one big change. With the internet, with computers and all these things the ability to work with other people, the tools to work with other people is also increasing. In the practice of architecture, perhaps this might be a little premature but maybe will happen in the future, architects have tried to be non-political. We have tried to say that we will not express or explicitly talk about how we think society should be through our work. Whatever our political positions might be, we’ve constantly told ourselves earlier that politics is not our space, that politics and stuff like that is too dirty, too nasty. I think we realize that politics is also like economics. After liberalization, we realized that economics plays a huge role in architecture. It’s not just the construction of buildings, it’s the speculative value of real estate. We’ve realized this in the mid-90s. Before that, economics was also not something that architects took very seriously. Maybe in the next five or ten years, we will start being more political. So again, that’s an evolution that perhaps I foresee will happen.
7. Of course, we all love to travel but how do you feel or how essential is it for an architect to travel?
I think its super, it’s incredibly important… Vaibhav (Ar. Vaibhav Dimri, Partner, Anagram Architects) and I didn’t travel until we graduated and since we didn’t do a post-graduate degree, we didn’t see the world. The first time we traveled abroad was 2007. That was six years into our practice. We’ve never seen anything outside India before that. Now we hunt for ways and means in which we can travel abroad because that’s literally how we can mature now. We can understand what is happening to us only when we see what is happening. It’s like being a frog inside a well as compared to being a frog in an ocean. So I think it’s super critical. If I would, I will advise students to travel widely, whether they are going out to study abroad, or are taking advantage of the fact that their parents are rich and can afford to send them on holidays, whether they get sponsorship, or they convince institutions that they deserve scholarships. I think you should definitely try and travel around the world as much and as far as possible and until the resources come, you should definitely try and travel through this country, around this country itself as far and as much as possible, into the deepest, darkest hearts. For us, nothing has been more powerful than the ability to travel. There is nothing more powerful at that age, the impact it has on your mind and your way of thinking is unparalleled; no five-year degree or Ph.D. can compare to that.
8. Journalism, for the love of travel, is becoming popular among the present generation. So what are your views on the same?
Architectural journalism is a very important part of the practice of this culture of architecture that I’m talking about. If you consider architecture being a cultural practice, then many countries who have the development of a long, continuous cultural stream have a much more mature approach towards architectural journalism. If you want to know one thing that’s worse in architectural education, it is the quality of our architectural journalism. We don’t have critical journalism. Most magazines that publish our work expect us to write about our own work. So suddenly you look at Indian magazines and you think- Oh there is only a good work being introduced…? There will be so much good work if architects just talk about themselves. So I think criticality is clearly missing. Democracy stands on four legs, the Executive, Legislature, Judiciary and the Media- the fourth leg! In architecture, that fourth leg is missing… We don’t have it in this country. It’s a huge contribution and therefore because it’s missing, I think it’s a huge opportunity.
9. So what do you feel, people should take up architectural journalism?
Yeah definitely, I feel very strongly about it because as practicing architects we need people to criticize us. Whether what we are saying and what we are doing is in touch with reality, has a touch with the sentiment of the society or whether our architecture has prospered in its aesthetic impact, the cultural, sociological and economic impact should be dealt upon critically. We are talking about architecture but there is not enough critical thought. The discourse has now only become public disperse. It can’t move forward in public disperse until architects themselves produce critics.
10. What is the most definable relationship between art and architecture?
Definable relationship… I think architecture like art has the power to seduce or to convince. You see an artist plays a very important role in the society because an artist can make the society look at themselves, make people believe in themselves and their condition in a way no other can, not a writer, or a sociologist. I think that’s parallel, architecture has that potential to reform you by just making you experience a space. Just an experience of architecture can uplift your soul, it can make you feel very bad, it can make you feel very happy, it can make you want to be a better person, a better being. It has this impact, it can convince people to do things, which can ultimately manipulate people’s ways of thinking about themselves. I think that’s the parallel between art and architecture.
11. Architecture & Entrepreneurship – how well do they fit? Are architects good entrepreneurs?
Well, we are not taught to be that. But I think at a basic level if you’re trying to start your own practice, in effect you are an entrepreneur. So you gamble on an opportunity and try to reach for the thing which is just beyond your reach. This can make you can move forward so it’s a big thing. It is very accurate to consider a starting architect as an entrepreneur. I think normal market forces force an architect to think like an entrepreneur all of the time, we admit it or not. But there lies a thought-provoking case with every entrepreneur; whether you are an ethical entrepreneur is a critical question, to what extent you are willing to compromise your ethics towards entrepreneurial opportunity, is something that people need to sketch for themselves if there are no rules on this.
12. Your inspiration to take up architecture?
My inspiration to take up an architecture, I didn’t have anyone. I was actually interested in two things quite clearly. I was interested in economics and I was interested in design, I would have been equally happy to join graphic design course had I not gone for architecture. I don’t have inspiration as such.
13. What is design to you?
I think design is awareness to me. As a designer, practicing design increases the awareness around you, you know more. Your designs can increase the awareness of the user, which I take as a personal goal. Through our design, if we somehow can change the way people perceive what’s happening around them, it’s a major achievement. So for me, a design is all about awareness, about being able to open horizons up, both for yourselves and for the user.
14. Not being able to sketch – is it a drawback for an architect?
You should ask Dimri, he can’t sketch. No, I think you have to have some kind of connection to your hand. Your eye and hands have to become your friends, whether you make a model or you make a sketch. It’s important for your hands to become your best friends rather than your slaves.
15. On the observation power of an architect?
We have the ability to look at the world in a very different eye, apart from other people, because I say we are lateral thinkers. So we can detect things which other people are not able to detect about the life around us. We tend to locate ourselves on top of very remote mountains from where we would like to see the world around us. Maybe we should stop looking at things in plan and starting looking at perspectives.
16. On the ability to appreciate a wide genre of an art form, whatever be it?
I think it’s a good thing that architects are opinionated. Trying to form an opinion about everything is very important. To try to look at a thing around us which may not relate to construction or building or whatever could it be art, music, literature, economics, law, medicine is very important for us. To try and understand what goes on behind these different things and to start forming opinions about them is equally necessary. But it’s also important for architects to retain the ability to change their opinion, most architects find it very difficult to change once they have decided. I think it’s important to be opinionated but it’s important to also be open to suggestions and open to being able to debate and revise your opinion. Like I said, for me, architecture is a debate so you constantly you have to do so.
17. Moving on to the next one, the strange happiness we get when we are standing inside a good space, what do you feel about it?
You know, my sister used to make fun of me when I was in college. She used to say that one day you will fall in an open manhole because when you walk around you’re looking at the buildings. This is one of those little joys. It’s like you look at a musician who sings right and you deeply observe them when they are singing and the kind of mental zone they are in. It’s a parallel reality; at that moment they are deeply connected to their world and also far removed. I can share in the joy; I would imagine when you say it is a good space, it possibly will give the designer a sense of joy. As an architect or as a designer or even as a lame person when I enter that space, I can connect to that man’s joy while creating it. That’s like the purest form of sharing the love. There is nothing purer than that. It’s a very special thing, and it’s one of the perks of being an architect or a designer. Imagine how someone has done something with love and joy in their heart and century later just by entering that object or space, you suddenly get connected with that same stream of thought or that same emotion. It just puts a different turn, suddenly you become that person for that instant and that’s like a high.
18. The different mindset or thought process that architecture has given us.
Like I said it give us the ability to think laterally, so can go under layers, go over obstacles. We can try and imagine things that don’t exist so we can live in the future, and we can live in the past. I think that’s a huge powerful ability we all have access to. We can if we choose to imagine any other object or idea, which may be some other form design also, and do it as powerfully as an architect can do.
19. What do you feel about the following common incidences of an architecture student? The frustration of an architecture student. How to get past that?
Wow, how would you get over with? I’m probably not going to make too many friends among the faculty. I keep telling my students that if you are passing, then beyond that, you should not worry. I think that’s very sound advice. What you should try and do is to discover where your heart is. That’s the biggest quest for me in studying architecture. The biggest thing I had at the end was not the skill, neither being able to draw, the biggest gift architectural education gave me is the ability to explore myself. If you focus on that, there is no frustration. If you feel that kind of frustration, I will advise you to look at it as a personal journey rather than as something where you need someone else’s approval. Then you will not feel frustrated. Plus, a little bit frustration is good because if you are very satisfied then after some time you will feel like ‘kya hai…. wheres the point’. So don’t get frustrated and stop doing your work. Beyond that don’t look at marks, just pass, Man that’s good enough. I just passed and that was ok for me.
20. Getting roasted at design viva, the biggest demotivator.
Is it? Yes, it is. I got roasted in my thesis jury. In a design jury, if someone is roasting you purely because they are more senior, because they are a member of the jury than that’s not roasting in a productive way, that’s bullying. It depends on whether you’ll call it roasting or a critical evaluation when you will be at the receiving end of it. When someone is being brutally honest to you, it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come very often, so you should grab that. But you should not consider that they are infallible, that they can’t possibly be wrong; argue as you would with a peer because in that moment and time a jury member has more power. That is that because they decide whether you pass or fail. They use that power to kind of basically win the debate and that is like ragging or bullying. But as a student, you also need not treat this as a personal attack. Because yes the design is yours, you work very hard at it and thus lack of appreciation totally bums you out; in a sense it is good to feel like your design is your child and you jealously protect it, but it’s quite possible your child is spoiled brat and if your teacher is trying to discipline that child, a good parent will realize the value in it. But of course, if a teacher starts taking a stick to the child and starts weeping that kid, no parent would consider that a good thing. Just keep your chin up and get past that.
21. Inglorious deadlines. What do you feel about a deadline?
I think deadlines are very important, deadlines are like the brief without which you cannot do architecture… The idea of setting the target by which you will arrive at a conclusion to your thinking is an important parameter for your mind to start functioning by. So deadlines vary from point to point, and I personally think it is a good thing. You will be able to produce more work with bit more time but it will not help you think of a better idea. You can conceptually think of powerful ideas and even design and resolve them very quickly. You know you don’t need time for that, you just need your mind to focus in a kind of stream of thought. Having a deadline means you can say I’m going to pick this line of thinking and I’m going to extract as much juice out of it in this much time. I think the production of architectural drawing should not define the submission, submission is completed when the idea behind the submission is formed and this drawing and all are communicated. Time is what you have in your hand.
22. About unplanned college trip.
Awesome man go as far, as many times as your attendance will allow. I’m telling you, for me, the value that traveling has given me is not really comparable to much else.
23. The diminishing hour of sleep. Is this a student’s problem only? Do you get enough sleep at night?
Sleep? No, I don’t think I do. See when you’re young you can push your body for the benefit of your mind, so it’s okay. When you start coming close to the age of 40, your body starts basically saying ‘what the hell’. So your body starts protesting in ways that your mind first has to listen. I think it’s important to sleep deeply rather than sleeping long. You will sleep deeply if you’re at peace with yourself, so the number of hours is not as important as how deeply you sleep.
24. The 10 minutes Chai-Sutta refreshment break, the day before submission. What are your memories associated with the same?
Wow, I don’t know man. It’s a representation of how over confident or guts you have, I guess. I don’t have an opinion. I have done it but like I said I have never eased my college. I don’t know whether it is of benefit or not.
25. On your favorites:
Color: Green I guess.
Indian city: Delhi. I don’t feel very comfortable spending 15-20 days outside of Delhi.
Country: My favorite country? I guess India.
A form of cuisine: AHH!! My favorite form of cuisine is actually, I like Punjabi food, you know like stuff from the village. Solid Punjabi stuff.
Travel destination: My home town I guess, Kodaikanal.
Favorite architect: My favorite architect? I don’t know man, I can’t say favorite but I find Shou Fuji Moto very cool.
Building or buildings: Favorite? I don’t have any. I can’t. There are too many and too few at the same time. Because if I start thinking it could be so many from different ways. So I can’t be specific. And you will just have to wait. I don’t have the mental capacity to think.
Genre of music: Blues
Travel companion: My favorite travel companion? I guess it’s a good pair of shoes.
Your priced possession: My friendship with Dimri.
You are in love with: I should say, my wife.
A piece of sculpture or art work that you possess: Me, and my wife, we just recently discovered the joys of Pichai style of painting. It from Udaipur area, I think it has a certain type of beauty in it. That would probably be my favorite artistic possession right now.
Camera, what you are using at present? I don’t photograph, I never did. I never got that talent or that skill in college which I wish I could have. A camera never actually happened. I have a camera on my phone and that’s my only camera if I need to take a photo I take it on my phone.
26. What do you hate about architecture?
Hero worship. Seriously, I do. I think that’s a very big drawback, you know, we don’t question. Even with us, when you say people look up to us, I will feel happy about the fact you look up to me only if that gives you the confidence to ask me the questions about myself, if that gives you the confidence to walk up to me and say that the building you made is messed up. I think it’s important to have a role model and it’s important to have inspirational figures. You have to fight to keep the ability to question people, it’s a fight you have to continue consciously and that’s very important.
27. A happy architect is a myth. Is it?
No. Not at all. Architects should be happy, because if you are not happy then you cannot be the best of yourself. So you have to hunt for something that makes you happy, perhaps if you are unhappy than may be you should be doing something else. But there is a lot of a joy. It’s fundamentally a very happy profession. A happy kind of thing. I think a happy architect is only the architect to be.
28. What has been your experiences in all this year of architecture. What has this society given to you?
It’s not being very long, it only being 15 years. I still think it’s only the beginning. I have been very happy. I’ve absolutely no complaints, nothing. I wouldn’t have changed a single thing.
29. And our very last thing….. Some word of advice for our readers, Sir.
See I think the biggest thing is to be, there has to be a certain part of your efforts that go into trying to be honest with yourself… It doesn’t depend on who teaches you or what they teach you, whether you go to a ‘good’ college or a ‘bad’ one. There has to be a certain ability to be honest with yourself whether as a student what you’re doing, and what you’re learning, what you’re putting out at the same time. I can’t even advice you on architecture because I know that lot of times, the 5 years that you do an architecture course, you can come out at the other end and realize that you don’t want to be an architect. Even that’s something which will only appear if you’re honest with yourself. It’s about being honest as a person to yourself. It’s got nothing to do with architecture. It’s about being honest as a person to yourself. You spend a maximum amount of with yourself.
This interview was conducted by Shubhayan Modak for the Indian Arch ’16 magazine. It has been officially published in IA ’16, the annual student’s journal of NASA India. Read the issue here.