Educating the architect
A.G. KRISHNA MENON
THERE is an urgent need to reform architectural education, yet no one is fully aware of the problem – not policy-makers, teachers, architects and, understandably, not students. There is periodic talk about improving the quality of teachers, course content or infrastructure, but no one is willing to confront the crux of the problem – the structure of the educational system itself.
Over fifty years after Independence, we find that the influence of a colonial past continues to hold most institutions in the tight embrace of mediocrity. This is achieved through insisting on conformity with inherited educational content and pedagogic methods. It is this that impedes meaningful reform, and unless this causality is recognised as an overriding issue, architectural colleges will continue to produce – all talk of ‘reform’ notwithstanding – architects who are primarily metropolitan in their orientation, and incapable of solving the critical problems of the built environment that confront our country. ‘Improving’ some parts of this system cannot overcome its intrinsic shortcomings and, in fact, may even result in reinforcing them. It is only by examining the structure and content of architectural education holistically that the web of historically rooted circumstances which have led to the present predicament can be unravelled.
Our attempt should begin by examining the larger field of education where the situation is no better. For evidence, consider the results of a recent survey of the top 100 Asian and Australian multi-disciplinary universities in this region (Asiaweek, 30 June 2000), in which the first Indian university to be ranked comes in at No. 40 (Jawaharlal Nehru University). The only other one listed is at 76 (University of Mumbai). One can quarrel with the method of evaluation, and many will, but at some point policy-makers will have to confront the fact that where there is smoke there is fire, and when they do, they are likely to find a conflagration. But policy-makers invariably adopt an ostrich-like posture when confronted with unpalatable evidence, and continue (as they have over the last fifty years) to justify that unseemly posture on account of our ‘uniqueness’ – social, cultural and economic.
On the other hand, a similar survey of management schools ranked the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, as the best in the region, followed by a clutch of other Indian management institutions. Will we quarrel with the method of evaluation now? Their survey of science and technology institutes ranked the four Indian Institutes of Technology among the top fifteen; so, not everything is wrong with our education system. Moreover, the same architectural colleges and multi-disciplinary universities have produced good architects and distinguished graduates in the past. Enough evidence is mounting now to warrant a comprehensive examination of the education system, to assess why our universities fare so badly when compared to those of the rest of the world, and why our architectural colleges are unable to focus on meeting the needs of our society.
To begin with, it is impossible to miss an obvious conclusion from the surveys carried out by Asiaweek, which is that, when educational institutes operate outside the university system, they flourish. The IIMs and IITs operate independently, and therefore, are able to set their own educational standards and agendas. They respond to emerging ideas and opportunities, whereas the university system is mired in policies and administrative imperatives established 165 years ago by Thomas Babington Macaulay. Thus, as the university system has evolved, particularly after Independence, the public has come to value the ‘degree’ more than the education, the students their ‘results’ more than learning, and teachers their ‘sinecure’ more than the pursuit of knowledge. Architectural colleges are unfortunately yoked to this debilitating system, besides of course being afflicted with problems uniquely of their own making.
And yet, there was time when architects could have taken charge of their destiny and mediated a more appropriate system for their discipline. Parliament passed the Architect’s Act in 1972, which set up an independent statutory body, the Council of Architecture (COA), to regulate the profession and, by extension, architectural education. This opportunity was allowed to pass and it is clear today that the creation of the COA has made little difference to professional practice, and none at all to education.
The sad fact is that the people at the helm, architects all, lacked the vision to strike out afresh, abandon old policies and practices and set their house in order. For small gains they accepted large compromises, and so the COA is today a hollow shell with only some nuisance value. The majority of the members on the executive of the COA are ex-officio representatives of state governments, with little interest or ability to contribute either to the development of the profession or to architectural education. As government servants, they are predisposed to administer, not question, inherited rules and regulations. Later, in 1987, when the Parliament created the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), the web of historical exigencies congealed, and architectural education became firmly embedded into the engineering disciplines. This was exactly as the colonial policy-makers had intended.
The sociology of the profession, as it developed in India, created a ‘weak’ profession, unable to define its core competence, or mediate its worth in society, the market place, or the bureaucracy (See Seminar 180, August 1974). Not surprisingly, it did not question the wisdom of aligning architectural education with the AICTE. In fact, the community of architects acquiesced willingly, perhaps because most architectural colleges – private as well as government sponsored – were in any case part of engineering institutions.
The sudden increase in the number of privately financed architectural colleges also contributed to the perception of impending chaos; it would have seemed prudent therefore to control architectural education by placing it under the purview of the powerful AICTE. In effect, a ‘weak’ system of education came under a strong, engineering-oriented bureaucracy, unfamiliar and unsympathetic to its specials needs. Even though the AICTE delegates’ responsibility to the COA on matters relating to architectural education, to the vision challenged bureaucracies of both statutory bodies, the exercise of control, as an end in itself, has become the common denominator binding their administrative purpose.
The system of controls in architectural education now consists of three formal layers, and some informal ones. First, there are the COA and AICTE. The COA’s statutory task is to regulate the profession of architecture by maintaining a register of bonafide architects and thereby, protect the appellation, ‘architect’. In order to perform this task it regulates architectural education, a responsibility it shares with AICTE. The COA and AICTE, jointly or separately, inspect/monitor architectural colleges to ensure that (minimum) educational norms and standards are maintained, and that all its other ‘conditions of approval’ are duly adhered to by the colleges. Being statutory bodies, the attitude of the administrators is that they are infallible. Hence, contemplating change at this level is difficult.
The second layer is the university. This is an important medium of control because education in India is a state subject, and state departments of technical education, often operating through state universities, exercise hands-on control over architectural education. They prescribe an ‘approved syllabus’ and administer the examination system. They also select candidates to be admitted to architectural colleges. There are many problems at this level, not the least being the fact that teachers and individual colleges are treated as mere cogs-in-the-wheel, who neither determine the syllabus nor fully examine the students they teach.
The rationale underlying this system of control is an implicit distrust of the entities being ‘controlled’. Since the university provides the authoritative stamp – the degree – to the education conducted by individual colleges, they find it necessary to control all as-pects of education, particularly the examination of students. Colleges have legitimacy only because they obediently accede to university dictates. Thus, in India, a university is not a collegiate fraternity, but a strongly hierarchical entity, a patriarchy, as it were: when benevolent it can be empowering, otherwise it is oppressive.
The university bureaucracy invariably seeks to simplify its tasks, so that when several colleges of architecture are affiliated to the same university, they impose complete uniformity amongst all constituent colleges. Differences would make administrative control more difficult. It is also practically impossible to make changes in the common syllabus prescribed by the university – let alone seek a different syllabus for an individual college. Both, because the process is cumbersome, and because architectural colleges are small fry in the policy-making forum of the university and therefore unable to push through specific changes for architectural education. Thus, this layer particularly enforces gratuitous conformity and uniformity and is a major impediment to change.
The third layer is not strictly germane to this discussion, but nevertheless exists, and consists of agencies like the Association of Indian Universities, who certify equivalence between one university and another, and the requirement of the Ministry of Education to obtain a separate certification from them, to enable graduates of architectural colleges to seek ‘first-class government jobs’. This layer, though less insidious, also contributes to the imposition of uniformity amongst architectural colleges.
There are other informal layers of control – such as the voluntary certifications sought from professional associations like the Indian Institute of Architects and the Commonwealth Institute of Architectural Education – to enable graduates of a particular college to access specific opportunities in India and abroad. But they have no direct bearing on the educational system.
How this system brutalizes educational initiative can be gauged by the fact that even though the COA’s model syllabus prescribes only 75 per cent of the curriculum, leaving individual colleges to determine the balance 25 per cent, all universities play safe in the formulation of their prescribed syllabus and spread the ‘minimum’ requirements to cover the entire curriculum. No university wants individual schools affiliated with them to have space to deviate and experiment, even within the boundaries permitted by the COA – again, it would make control more difficult. So we find that the strategy for governing architectural education always prioritises administrative convenience over educational objectives.
This unfortunate situation can be attributed to a lack of vision and confidence in the profession of architecture. The fault has its antecedents in colonial educational policy and building practices. Architectural education in India had its origins about 150 years ago, when the colonial government set up art and technical schools to produce draughtsmen and surveyors to assist British engineers who, in those days, ‘designed’ buildings. These engineers were unqualified to handle architectural ideas and so replicated, as best they could under the circumstances, architectural models from pattern books they ordered from home. Thus, very early in the development of the profession, the practice of seeking external validation for constructing Indian buildings was established.
Later, when architects came to work in the colonies, they advocated historical revivalism in the manner then fashionable in Europe, thereby initiating another ‘weakness’ in the profession: the pernicious process of valorising western themes in Indian architecture. The eclectic aesthetics of colonial architects were based on cultivated taste, seldom understood by their clients, who therefore valued their designs primarily for the imperial intent in using European styles. Thus, in professional terms, a third ‘weakness’ got rooted: that the input of an architect was decoration rather than design, or the more pragmatic contribution of engineers. Such unpromising beginnings for the profession established both the marginal role of the architect in building, and the vocational intent in teaching.
In England the situation is different, because both the profession and architectural education evolved out of a long and cultivated humanistic intellectual tradition. This ensured that architectural education was guided as much by disciplinary as vocational intent. The colonisers, however, did not replicate the pedagogy they had in their classrooms in India. They taught architecture to Indians as a vocational subject, because nothing more was required of them. After Independence, we have only carried this educational agenda forward. It is now deeply ingrained in the profession’s psyche, and it is this system that the controlling authorities are assiduously promoting. All architectural colleges are obliged to follow it.
At the dawn of the 21st century, it is time the profession recognised the roots of its problem. Continuing the vocational intent in architectural education in the face of mounting evidence for change can now only be considered a self-inflicted injury. We have to question whether the teaching of architecture should be treated as a vocational course or as a discipline which will address the problems of contemporary society.
Given the history of the profession, few architects may even be able to appreciate the importance of this distinction, let alone its implications for the development of the profession. However, no real reform in architectural thinking can take place unless the profession recognises the potential of teaching architecture as a disciplinary subject. Only then can alternate paradigms emerge, which will enable the profession to self-reflexively question the status quo. As long as this does not happen, it will continue to derogate its academic pretensions.
Architectural colleges, in any case, operate on the edges of the academic firmament. Even though there are 104 colleges/departments of architecture in the country, they do not capture the attention of policy-makers because they admit only about 3000 students in all – a small number compared to the multitudes who seek admission to other professional courses, including civil engineering (with which the course of architecture is commonly confused). Since most colleges are part of engineering institutes, it is the practice to conduct a common entrance examination for all engineering courses. Given the poor perception of architecture as a field of study among the public, one finds that many who finally decide to study it, do so only when they are denied admission to a more coveted engineering discipline. This double infirmity casts a negative mantle on both the profession and its academic aspirations.
Finally, there is the issue of privately financed colleges. This has become a major problem only in the last two decades because the bulk of architectural colleges which are in existence today, came up during this period and are privately financed. It must be recalled, however, that privately sponsored public education is an old and valued tradition in India. Many of the best colleges were set up by religious institutions or charitable trusts, who ran them honourably and with altruistic intent. They were almost indistinguishable from government-sponsored colleges, particularly with regard to the fees they charged.
The new crop of privately financed colleges were less charitable in intent and more self-financing in practice, and so charged fees considerably higher than government institutions. Many were even predicated on making a profit for the sponsor, and this influenced public opinion against the concept of privately financed education. Today, therefore, self-financing colleges face ‘caste/class prejudices’ not unlike those faced by the children of lesser gods. There can be no greater anathema to the judiciary, policy-makers and even other academicians in India, than the concept of privately managed public education.
Nevertheless, because of the paucity of resources, the government has had to permit private initiative in public education, but has done so with as many restrictive caveats at it could possibly conceive. These caveats are administered by COA, AICTE and the universities, and are so draconian that they have become a major impediment to reforming architectural education.
My intention in highlighting the issue of controls is not to argue for dispensing with controls altogether. Obviously controls are necessary, particularly in a complex, diverse and unequal society such as ours which is, moreover, coping with the negative consequences of globalisation, economic liberalisation and rapid social change. A laissez-faire approach is neither a reasonable nor a responsible proposition, but operating under the present system of controls is not a satisfactory strategy either. New systems of control, which will allow change, seek innovation and permit independence, need to be formulated. The objective of such an exercise should be to achieve the welfare of society in general, and a healthy system of architectural education in particular.
The rationale for any control mechanism is to assure the quality of the product being certified. A mere certificate – a ‘degree’ – without credible education to back it up does not assure quality. The problem with the present educational system is that there is a widening gap between what an architecture degree assures and what the architectural educational system delivers. In earlier days the traditional guild system ensured quality, both through the pride of the craftsmen and the mediation of market forces. With the introduction of modern architecture and architectural education by the colonial government, however, the state assumed this responsibility.
The manner in which this responsibility has been translated into practice takes neither pride nor the market into account. Cynicism prevails. The system of controls, as it exists in India, is unable to assure quality, but policy-makers are unwilling to change it. This, again, is a historically rooted problem: critically reading the historical antecedents of this system of controls, it may be inferred that the colonial government had one system for themselves at home, where they ‘administered’, and another for colonies, where they ‘ruled’. The system of assuring quality in post-Independence India merely adopted the system of ‘ruling’ set up by the colonial government, and subsequent legislations have only reinforced it.
Some may argue that the difference I am highlighting is only one of nuance, but that is belied by the fact that there are major consequences which follow upon this reading of administrative history. The system of control in India, for example, is not perceived to be mutable; in Britain, on the other hand, the governance of architectural education has been frequently examined and modified, often radically, if developments necessitated change. Again, because of the apparent immutability of existing rules and regulations in India, their application assumes greater significance than originally intended. Thus, administrators are content if the system cranks out more and more graduates, because this signifies the ‘success’ of the control mechanism. Today, it is well known that several universities are graduating sub standard architects who will cause more harm than good to the profession, and to the society in which they practice, but our system of ‘ruling’ remains blind to this fault.
Finally, perhaps because we are a Third World country, the ultimate ineffectiveness of control mechanisms is endemic to our system of governance. This hardens the stance of the educational bureaucracy when questioned or challenged, and they react with self-righteous fury by turning the ratchet of ‘control’ one notch higher. Such a response precludes the possibility of conducting sensible dialogue, and explains why genuine reformists find the controlling authorities a far greater problem to confront than the issue of content or pedagogy in education. It inevitably sets the stage for an adversarial mode of interaction, even on routine matters. I speak from experience, as the School I am associated with has borne the brunt of the fury of the COA and AICTE, and know its full import.
Ten years ago a few architects, concerned at the state of affairs in architectural education, started a new college of architecture – the TVB School of Habitat Studies in New Delhi (TVB/SHS). This was at the height of the capitation fee scandals rocking the educational establishment and, we now realise, when the restrictive control mechanism was not as vigilant. The school was set up to counter the negative perception of private education and challenge educational orthodoxy.
In the process of imparting ‘approved’ education, the school sought to initiate an open-ended dialogue to reform the content and pedagogy of architectural education. We found space to operate within the system, in no small measure on account of the encouragement of the COA, AICTE and the profession. By many accounts, national and international, the school performed well and acquitted itself honourably. It even made a modest contribution to the dialogue on reform in architectural education. But, not in the eyes of the same COA or AICTE that had initially encouraged our initiative.
Ten years later, these achievements, they now complained, had to be discounted because the school was not affiliated to an university. Thus, applying their magnifying glass to the faults (and, indeed there were some) and dismissing the achievements (this is our complaint), the authorities served notice to close the school down. Their focus on rules and regulations was by now so obsessive and shortsighted that they were unable, or unwilling, to distinguish wheat from chaff.
Implementing the Supreme Court directives on capitation fees (the Unnikrishnan judgment of 1993) is another case in point. By establishing the principle of ‘free’ seats and ‘payment’ seats to eliminate the evils of capitation fees, it has only instituted a more rigid economic caste system in private colleges, a cure as obnoxious as the disease. While some poor students have undoubtedly benefited, most beneficiaries, not surprisingly, are the elite who can afford better schooling and extra tuition to secure the ‘free’ seats. The fee to be paid by the student allotted the ‘payment’ seat is becoming prohibitive, and most privately managed colleges are unable to fill this quota, resulting in a severe shortage of funds to run the college well.
Similarly, the rules and regulations of AICTE are also flawed. They require all colleges to affiliate with an university, thus ensuring that they remain under some form of ‘government’ control. Not being affiliated was a key factor against the continuance of the TVB/SHS, the reasoning being that independent initiatives in education cannot be trusted to serve the public interest – even when there is ample evidence to the contrary.
Thus, when the school affiliated, as directed, with the brand new Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University set up by the Government of Delhi in 1998, it was immediately handed a comprehensive syllabus and scheme of examination – in content and pedagogy, as old as the hills – that all but wipes out the experience and gains of the last ten years. It accounts for all 35 hours of the weekly contact time with students. The system of evaluation ensures that the school is unable to experiment with either pedagogy or syllabus.
As this system will have it, having defined the terms of ‘imprisonment’, ‘prisoners’ are free to pursue innovation or achieve excellence as best they can. Naturally, this cannot, and does not, happen. Rules and regulations once again take precedence over educational objectives. In other words, rules and regulations seem to be the educational objective.
From the experience of running the TVB/SHS, there are many suggestions I can make to reform architectural education. But for the present, I will only broadly identify the directions that reform in architectural education should take. First, architectural education must be delinked from technical education. The discipline of architecture derives its content from both the humanities and the sciences – it was colonial exigencies which suppressed the role of the humanities in Indian architectural education. Delinking architectural education from technical education will open it up to the influence of the humanities, as in the rest of the world, and that will make a world of difference to the development of the profession in India. Attempting this at the TVB/SHS was its strength, and reason for its success. It should be noted that technical subjects will continue to be taught, but opening up to the humanities will enrich the disciplinary potential of architectural education by radically changing its perspective, both inward and outward.
Second, architectural education and the certification or licencing of architects must also be delinked. Linking education with licencing has resulted in the vocationalising of educational objectives. One of the disastrous consequences of vocationalisation has been the separation of ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’. Both are necessary, but vocationalisation distrusts ‘thinking’ and consequently architects pride themselves for being ‘doers’. The issue of the licencing of the architect is critical to the process of assuring the quality of the architect to practice and must, therefore, be dealt with separately from the education of the architect. Licence to practice the profession requires specific practical knowledge and field experience, which should be acquired and assessed after graduation.
To certify this knowledge and experience should be the primary task of the COA. The separation of education and licencing of architects is the norm in all developed countries, and obviously there is good reason for them adopting that system. It enables individual educational institutions to pursue different disciplinary objectives – the ‘thinking’ component – to meet the evolving expectations of a diverse society, and simultaneously, the licencing procedure assures the technical competence of the architect to practice.
Third, the link between a ‘degree’ and ‘education’ must be broken. This has resulted, at least in India, in the derogation of ‘education’. As a private, unaffiliated college, the TVB/SHS was officially, by virtue of a notification in the Gazette of India, permitted to award its own ‘diploma’. This ‘diploma’ was accepted on its merit, by universities in India and abroad, and by the profession in India and abroad. In fact, there was mounting evidence that the TVB/SHS diploma was valued more highly than the ‘degree’ awarded by universities to graduates of other colleges.
But again, not in the eyes of the COA, AICTE or the government. According to its immutable rules, a ‘diploma’ is not equivalent to a ‘degree’, even though, according to their own frequent monitoring, exactly the same prescribed education was provided in both cases. But the COA, suo moto, even went about notifying universities in India and abroad that the TVB/SHS ‘diploma’ was not an adequate qualification for postgraduate studies, nor did the government recognise it as a qualification for ‘first-class government jobs’.
There is an urgent need to put an end to such moral, ethical and logical perversity that enables the educational police to actively derogate educational initiative, and discount it on the strength of lables. Under the circumstances, architectural colleges should be encouraged not to affiliate with a university in the pursuit of their educational objectives, and to rely on institutions like the National Board of Accreditation to evaluate the quality of education imparted by individual ‘diploma’ awarding institutions. After all, this is how the IIMs have excelled.
Finally, policy-makers and their agents will have to learn to cultivate an attitude which valorises difference rather than conformity. This is the defining characteristic of an architect, and there is no reason why architectural education too should not diversify its pedagogic strategies in the same manner. In a diverse country like India there is need for as many kinds and types of architects as can be viably sustained, but our educational system attempts to produce the same indistinguishable product from all colleges.
Iam aware that what I have related regarding educating the architect links up not only with the problems facing multi-disciplinary universities, but with the wider and larger educational problems confronting the country. What needs to be brought into focus, however, is that they also link architectural education and the (mis)management of the built environment. The real, and daily experienced problems of living in our towns and cities adds the coefficient of urgency to the issues of architectural education that I have discussed.
Do we wait for the more important issues to be addressed before attempting reform in architectural education? I think not, for two reasons: first, the consequence of not reforming architectural education has immediate repercussions on the quality of life and the quality of the built environment; and second, the reform in this field is achievable, because there is an independent statutory body – the COA – responsible for redefining its objectives, and guiding its subsequent development.
Can the COA get its act together? At present this seems unlikely because of the corrosive consequences of low esteem, cultivated over generations, which makes architects administering the COA more disempowering than enabling in the discharge of their statutory functions. Ironically, the only fora where change could have been nurtured – the educational institutions – have been effectively silenced by the COA by ensuring conformity.
In the meantime, while reform initiatives are discussed the stakes become higher and problems of the built environment multiply – often in the guise of ‘solutions’. This is illustrated by the passionate fury with which Minister Jagmohan has deployed the bulldozer to ‘clean up’ Delhi, a ‘solution’ that finds the strongest support among architects and urban planners. (Refer to the newspaper accounts of the public meeting the minister held with architects and urban planners in New Delhi on 30 July 2000).
Predisposed by education to acts of ‘doing’, they vicariously exult with the minister in a show of strength on their behalf, and his attempts to resurrect an antediluvian Master Plan. Who asks whether the plan itself was an appropriate instrument to guide the welfare of our developing, changing society? Who will hold the professional responsible for not understanding and serving the needs of society? The profession has been dismissive of those who advocate ‘thinking’ as the more appropriate means of finding a solution to the problems of the built environment.
It is therefore my case that there is the strongest link between the problems of the built environment, the minister’s ‘solution’, the support of the profession and aborting the TVB/SHS experiment. They are all united in the ‘passionate fury’ they expend to support the inherited rules and regulations by which we govern ourselves.
But the objective of educating the architect is precisely to question this legacy, and overturn it.