As a boy I came to know the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. From the moment I opened the natural house, I did not put it down until I completed the last page. In a sense I have never put it down and I am still reading it, discovering and searching for what inspired me on that Christmas day. When i closed the book and walked out of my house, I was living in a different world. It was after midnight and the black sky was clear with thousands of stars gleaming in the heavens. Everything I saw looked different. It was not only nature which was singing a song in my heart, but my soul had switched on and my mind had begun to think! I saw things which I had never noticed before. Finely carved balustrades caught my fancy! Sculpted stone gargoyles made me smile. I noticed that one wood was different from another in its color, grains, nature and use. I was drawn to “feel wood” and to slide my fingers across it, appreciating its inner soul. I noted that a wood floor was warm in the winter and cozy to look at, while a marble floor was cool in the summer and soothing to sit upon. Stained glass windows, fine brass handles, well thought out paving patterns were my friends. I spoke to them, and i argued with sloppy workmanship and clumsy details.
Wright taught me that the human mind is a huge analogue for all things beautiful and all things ugly. He taught me that a human being is both a monster and a saint all rolled up into one; capable of creating incredible beauty, or of inflicting deplorable destruction and ugliness. It is the human mind, which separates humans form other animals, which makes us the monsters of terror and the creators of poetry, art and architecture. We alone can know the exhilaration of transcendence!
What Wright taught me was very simple: seek out the truth, find the generic order in things! See beauty in the truth! What he meant by the natural house was the natural self and the natural life! Buildings are merely mirrors of the people who live in them. They reflect how people behave, how people think, what their aspirations are and how they deal with materiality! They illustrate how evolved people are in their spiritual realizations; whether they live for material things, or they manipulate material things to reach transcendence? They place people and societies somewhere along a scale between beasts grabbing at survival to saints blessed with transcendental awareness. They distinguish people who only “take,” from patrons who nurture and “give.” Buildings indicate the extent to which people are in touch with the environment they live in; part of the context of the places within which they build, and harmonious with the social traditions and modalities that bring bliss and peace. Teachers like Liane Lefaivre and Alex Tzonis reinforced my credo, through their work on what they call Critical Regionalism, in which new functions and technologies are integrated with places, climates and cultures.
I believe there is something called generic architecture; that is architecture of carefully composed fabrics, of structures, of systems, of materials that all participate in a common order of nature, tradition, appropriate technology and social harmony. There is some rational stream of thought, some common process of analysis, some general considerations and modalities of study, which are always the precursors of beauty! In this there are eternal principles, truths and modalities, bringing all architecture into one immense realm of knowledge. In this sense we all belong to one huge “gharana” of architecture whose past masters are Michelangelo, Leonardo de Vinci, the emperor Akbar and Thomas Jefferson!
Today we live in a world dominated by contrivers, posing as architects, who are just screaming and shouting for personal attention. Our “architectural world” is like a crèche full of anal-retentive babies all whining and screaming to be noticed by anyone who will look at them. I would say these charlatans are less famous, and more notorious. Like the bandit queen, they are well known for their outrageous acts, rather than understood and appreciated for their contributions in a common search. As urban planners they carve out their own city blocks and surround them with walls, turning once friendly public domains into private spaces one pays to get in to. Inside of these secured, commercial turfs stuntmen are employed to amaze us with things bizarre! We live in an age when “being different” is mistaken for “being creative.” Ours is a time when “doing something new” is mistaken for creating beauty! Being different often means being a conformist of a specific nature. The skin-heads of my youth were seeking non-conformity through uniforms, so that they would be accepted into a larger group! Instead of seeking to be different, we should seek to be ourselves and to be happy with ourselves, whoever we are. Only when we are happy with ourselves, can we make other people happy with the honest products of our honest toil.
In October 2001 I was invited to make a presentation at the European Biennale at Graz. I noticed something very interesting! To be a “creative artist” in Europe, you need not create anything, but you must wear the black uniform of the artist! You must dress totally in black. You must wear black shoes, black socks, black pants, black belts, black shirts with black buttons and black ties. When the cold rains blow in, you must wear a black jacket and a black hat. I found that the super creative Europeans (as opposed to the merely creative ones) wear black capes! For these people creativity is not a form of liberation, or the finding of the truth. It is the creation of a lie in the form of a self imposed trap, and a make-believe world. There are people in America and in Europe who never design anything, never search, never question, but who dress in the costume of creators. They worry over finding just the right black g-strings and bikinis! They are seeming and not being! If i were to speak out any advice to a young student, I would say, be not seem! Carrying this paradigm further, there is an entire industry in the west creating images and promoting the “uniforms of creativity,” at the cost of the truth. This is called the media, the fashion industry, public relations and notoriety! The taste-makers are telling thoughtless people what is “beautiful” and what “art” is. The taste makers are telling people to “drop the names” of fakers who can not even paint! There are people who pay to be photographed and published on page three at drunken parties, standing about with illiterate chatterati, thinking of nothing, making no contributions to this world. This projects an image to the youth of our times, that these notorious personalities have achieved something.
It would be better to live, as ones own self in oblivion, than to be notorious for living in a trap! And this is exactly what the modern world is becoming: a trap! Brilliant professionals and artists are leaving their friends and native places finding wealth and huge spaces, but emptiness. They work in cold offices to be granted two weeks of vacation in a year when they can “be themselves.” They wear “correct uniforms” and speak politically correct statements, dropping the right names and muttering endless clichés! From dreaming of creating beauty, they end up worrying how they will pay their house loan installments and their credit card bills! They think by wearing black, that they can live the make-believe life of a creator, when in fact they are slaves of conformity. For them, life is a dead end! I hope that all young artists, poets and architects who hear this will avoid all of the uniforms and traps. Be yourselves and never seem to be what you are not.
A teacher and a guru
So my life as an architect, which began in my early teens, has been a life of searching for truth. At first, when Wright visited me, I felt I had been visited by the archangel and that I was the only anointed one! How wrong i was. Revisiting Wright some years later i realized that most of what one learns is learned from others. One cannot know everything and need not know anything! But one must search! One can learn from a leaf by studying its shape, its veins and its tapestry. One can learn from the spiral of a sea shell. One can watch birds in flight as they glide in the sky, or just study cloud patterns meandering about, for subtle structures and illusive orders in our minds. One will learn through search and not through mugging up knowledge!
I have known Buddhists who frown on kicking stones, because they know that even stones have souls. There is structure and beauty in everything on this earth. In each part of the universe is the entire universe! Pick up any stone and study it and you will discover the truth of its texture, shape and strength. Perhaps a good teacher just teaches us to look down our own mouths and to see the universe. A good teacher never teaches facts or knowledge; they open windows on how to search, or maybe even just to search. Maybe the “how” and the “what” should be left to each student? Teachers, I realize, do not tell us of techniques, or put facts in our heads. What they do is inspire us to search for the nature of things, the truth in matters, which is where beauty dwells. They often do this by revealing a glimpse of beauty through humor, through a bit of unexpected love, or maybe in some quick sketch revealing the rudimentary simplicity of some highly complex system. “Genius,” Einstein said, “is making the complex simple; not making the simple complex!”
My true gurus have always been able to cast such unexpected light on the world. I remember the great architect Anant Raje taking me to meet his mentor one Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia. Luis Kahn had privileged us several hours alone with him in his studio. A bit of good luck! At one point he crumpled up a sheet of A-4 sized paper and handed me a pencil and asked me to quickly sketch it! As a young professor of architecture at Harvard, I was keen to impress Kahn, so I immediately began creating a brain like image, trying to get in all of the impossible complexity. Pretty good i thought, not knowing I had entered the master’s labyrinth! He threw a fatherly laugh at me, grabbing my pencil and making four quick line strokes into a rectangle of the A-4 proportions! He had showed me a nature of myself to overlook obvious simplicity, in search of wrong, complex truths!
Creative attempts, exploratory acts and processes of discovery are modes that search for self! I have heard Kahn talking to bricks in Ahmedabad and philosophizing at the Fogg gallery about the sky being the ceiling of his grand courtyard in the Salk Institute. But this one “teacher’s trick” was a personal gift to me, that I shall never forget. Inspirations are always in the form of gifts of one kind or the other. Gifts of inspiration are perhaps in the form of an image such as a quick sketch, or a gesture (like a smile, just when we need encouragement), but it is always in a sign of what we can be, what we can envision and what we can become. My own attempts at architecture are but small analogues of something I yearn to discover, to draw into myself, and to make a part of me. These are my feeble attempts at becoming something, which is already there within me, yet undiscovered.
In the early 1970’s I founded the school of planning at the Centre for Environmental Planning in Ahmedabad, India. There my friend and mentor, Balkrishna Doshi, had just returned from a visit to Venkateshwara temple at Tirupati. I was eager to hear of his experiences and what had transpired within him on his pilgrimage there. He whipped out a thick, old-fashioned ink pen and drew three instant lines, which captured the entire essence of the mountain top temple in a second. Again, amazed at seeing the entire universe revealed to me at one instance, i saw in Doshi the true genius that he is. But I also saw something that was within me that i did not know. I could read his abstraction, because the nature of the temple, the generic character of its simplicity, and therefore the beauty, was already a part of the catalogue of my mind. Doshi had merely revealed this existing truth to me. In fact when i went to Tirupati years later I was a bit disappointed. The clarity which Doshi had revealed to me lay hidden in the complexity of the masses of pilgrims and the chaos of the management of the place. Temporary Shamiyanas hid much of the temple’s form. I understood that the “truth of Venkateshwara temple” was not something one just looked at and saw. It took a deeper understanding of the elemental structure of the complex composition and the ability to see through the chaos and the managerial machinations to get at the root of what was there. Once more the lesson of simplicity, of the elemental, of the generic!
Again, I would repeat that my own architecture is but an analogue of something I yearn to know, a utopia I desire to create; a glimpse of paradise in its pristine reality; maybe some bit of heaven; or a small glimpse of the universe I’d see if I could gaze into Krishna’s mouth, revealing my own vast truth, proving the larger conceptualization possible! Whatever the search, we must keep in our minds that what we are searching for is already there; something deep inside of us, undiscovered waiting to be found. We also have to realize that all humans participate in that discovery and we are often shocked to see something and feel, “hey, I’ve been hitting at exactly the same idea!” T. S. Elliot seemed to understand that we are all part of the same endless search for truth, when he wrote in the sacred wood, “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” In that sense there is just one large studio and we are all the draftsmen of its inspiration! We work with the same vision and the same passion for truth and beauty.
Thus, searching often deals with the study of precedents, with study tours to classical monuments, and seeking truth in prototypes. As a young architect I thought each design was a unique creation! Great designers just reached into the sky and pulled ingenious confabulations down from the heavens. I was thus disappointed one day when my teacher Jose Luis Sert gave me the unusual privileged of visiting the “model room” where he explored new concepts through styrofoam simulations at different scales. Too busy himself to explain things to me he asked Joseph Zelewski, his senior associate, to do the honors. As my past teacher at Harvard, and though thirty years older to me, Joseph was my best friend at the time and was very keen to hear what a younger designer thought of the new town Sert was creating on an island, just off the coast of Marseille in France. A lifetime opportunity, no doubt!
The opportunity to create a new town, on a craggy mountain island grabbed my imagination. I could see all kinds of new forms jutting out of the huge rocks over the sea! But to my disappointment Sert chose to make this work into a kind of summation of all of his past principles and prototypes! It was to me a terribly rational, collection of years of work I’d already seen. Each part could be viewed in Sert’s publications and he had seemingly just assembled all of these parts in to a large, no doubt beautiful, landscape! Joseph could sense the disappointment on my face, and as he suggested we go to lunch, he asked for my thoughts. Headed down the long, double running flight of stairs to church street, a sudden flash of light ran up the dark chasm, and the short, round figure of Sert made a black image in the light ascending the stairs. At a kind of moment of truth, a few steps below us Sert asked, “so what did he think of it?” Being truthful and putting me in an awkward position, Joseph said, (just as Sert was passing me, looking me straight in the eye) “he says that there’s nothing new!” My fears that this would anger the master to call me to his office immediately evaporated as he burst out laughing! A few steps further up he turned back and said, “you know Christopher, this is not California!” He was mocking a place famous for having to be different; for everyday craving to be new; and in a frenzy to be unique. Now even Joseph smiled realizing that all was right in the heavens, and that this young upstart had been put in his place!
The search and struggle for discovery are a difficult set of processes. But one can struggle, and should not sit waiting for miracles to fall from the heavens.
As Le Corbusier said, “creation is a patient search.” Le Corbusier used to tell his protégés to start thinking over a design problem, then to put it away in the head, and like a computer in hibernation the mind keeps secretly working on the design! My teacher Jerzy Soltan, who wrote le modular with Le Corbusier, has always been a firm believer in this. He always encouraged me to take up two or three designs at one time, and to move my conscious mind between them. But a little inspiration always helps!
Many young designers doubt if that magic called “inspiration” actually exists. If I mention music and ask them the name of their favorite song and then why they like it, they know they have been inspired! Some people get inspired hearing a romantic song that touches their heart and they yearn to sing and they do sing! Noise becomes music. Some people get inspired reading poetry and they yearn to write sonnets and they do create lyrics! Scattered sounds, miscellaneous words, a melody and some tones become magical moods!
A form of good luck
A wise sage I once met in his cave-retreat somewhere on the rocky slopes of mount Abu preferred to read my fate from my palm! As a young student of the empirical school of thought, I withdrew from his inane suggestion, thinking what my teachers at Harvard and MIT would think of a protégé who curried the favors of sages for their fate? But he charmed me with his flashing eyes and warm smile, and questioned my logical abilities to reject his findings, should I find them so whimsical? I suppose his charisma, directed at me through his piercing eyes, and the lyrical landscape of the forested mountain slopes, perched high over the desert of Rajasthan, swayed me like some magical potion.
He told me that I was a person of little wealth, but of great fortune! He declared that luck was my life’s companion.
Tempted further, i coaxed him, “but what do you mean by good luck?”
With an incredulous sneer on his face, he informed me that there is only one kind of good luck in life and that such good luck is to have good teachers!
I felt a chill spread over my skin, as if a sudden wave of cold air blasted the desert air, leaving goose pimples momentarily all about me. He had unraveled a truth within me that he could never have made out from my appearance or culled from his imagination! I knew he was correct and that I would be a fool to reject what wealth may come my way! From that day on, what had been a youth’s good fortune became a life’s endless search! To meet wise people became a passion.
I believe that passion, and my fated trajectory of good luck, have navigated my life’s story from a childhood Christmas gift to friendships, chance meetings, teacher-student relationships, professional associations, chancing an encounter with my life partner, and to work with some of the most inspiring people of our times. Most of the great teachers I have had are anonymous, little known and often my own students and studio associates. I must admit that i have been fortunate to have had many, many inspiring mentors. Some of them have been rather well known too!
A search for truth
I suppose these friends, teachers and gurus, were actually examples and role models. Just as the Olympic torch is passed from one runner to the next and is kept burning forever, through their humanity and brilliance, a spark of inspiration is passed on. Some people get inspired to support other people watching a good mother, or a devoted nurse. They do nurture others. What we may consider mundane becomes profound and it generates a meaningful life style.
An inspiration and creation
Education today has no link with inspiration and creation. Creating architecture, music, poetry or love, are all the media of inspiration. These tangible products of creation inspire others. Some great wheel of motion begins to turn. The moment of inspiration is a moment of transcendence; an instance of discovery and self-realization all in one.
It is when human intellect and emotion combine and take flight in a euphoric world of beauty and revelation. If there is a religion, it is a vehicle for such transcendence. For me architecture is that religion. It is meditation, it is truth and it leads to spiritual moments of enlightenment and revelation.
Still another lesson from The Natural House is that architecture is a language! Stone, wood, bricks, clay tiles, brass, luminaries, glass, steel trusses, paving blocks, sanitary fittings are all like the sounds which have to be transformed into the auditable words of a language! The language of architecture is composed of the elements of “support,” of “span,” and of “enclosure.”
In the Alliance Francais we evolved a very clear system of “support,” employing fourteen inch brick bearing walls, insulating the interiors from the heat of Ahmedabad. We used a small two feet, six inches square grid as a module to make square windows, or larger multiples to make larger square doors of three by three modules, or medium multiples to place exposed concrete beams five feet on centre, which also defined a large square volumes below which were on a fifteen foot square module. This became a simple statement of “span.” These same “words” were further used to create north facing skylights on the northern façade and to lift skylights up, over the roof, bringing indirect light into the spaces. A square grid on the floor, in the ceiling and on the walls, using the human scale module, ordered the entire ensemble into a system of spatial cubes and graphic squares. Giving poetry and playfulness to the language are the idiosyncratic “motifs” we introduced.
In the Alliance Francais we set a tall column in the centre of the main space. This was so contrived that when a person moves in the space, they can see the walls behind the column move! This simple visual device makes the space “move,” and makes architecture experiential! Water spouts became motifs to add accent to the overall structure. Square, modular window shade boxes protected small vistas from glare. A small balcony into the main space was left floating by pulling the supporting column off to the side! These became the signature parts and components, which evolved through the design process into a language. All of these emotive acts must be realized through built form, or as parts of materiality. Brick, exposed concrete, mild steel frames for square fenestration and glass were all the material vehicles to reach emotive experiences. Like written poetry, which uses printed words to reach emotions, we use “built words,” so that those who experience the spaces we create step out of the material world and into one of lyrical experiences. In this sense, buildings are the material poems that architects fabricate. Architecture is an experience of a place and not the built form! Construction is merely a vehicle for us to pick up people and move them through experiences into milieus of new experiences. In this respect there is a commonality between stage set design and the design of places. Architects confabulate material things, to make non-material experiences happen in their built compositions. These “experiences” are often related to the visual and psychological impacts of moving through space. They can also be the fall of light through space and onto textured surfaces. It may be the way the first morning sunlight slowly falls from a skylight drifting across a rugged stone wall during the day. It is not the wall, or the light, which is architecture. It is the experiential phenomenon that is the architecture. It is the realization of the universe turning; it is the morning revealing yet a new day in our existence; it is the anticipation of what the new day may bring and our realization that we exist! We confabulate experiences through the medium of building fabrics. Again, these fabrics are woven from a language!
Much of what is transcendental; much of what is experiential is created through putting together planned events, as people move through and planned experiences in space. In this sense architecture is carefully contrived. We “set people up” through ground textures, which are rough on the outside, but become smooth on the inside; through a dimmed entrance opening into a well lit main space. We welcome a visitor first with paving texture, then hold him by a wall, then cover him in a porch and finally embrace him in a low ceiling entrance foyer. Then the space “explodes!” Just by raising the ceiling we can make him feel wow!
People who manipulate emotions and feelings better than we do are song writers and those who sing them. In a romantic composition we are enticed into a mood by a light melody; a silent beat slowly becomes more auditable, and we start to tap our foot without even knowing what we are doing. A soulful voice begins to tell a story of sorrow, and we empathize with the human condition. Poetic lyrics lights the allure of love and our emotions swell! Within a few moments, the human mind, worried about all of the little irritations of life, leaves the day to day banality of existence, and is lifted up into an illusory ambiance of profound emotions. This is transcendence! Feelings of compassion and beauty are created!
How do architects achieve this? What are the visual and graphic mechanisms at our disposal? How can we manipulate peoples’ feelings, moods and temperaments? Are there modalities of color, texture and light, which we can employ? Can we use scale and proportion to inject a stimulus and get a predictable response? What is the impact of a shape or a form? Do they draw people in, make them step aside, focus their attention in a direction, and what do they discover when they change their glance to the focal point we have enticed them to? Architects are masters of seduction, enticement, transformation and the transcendence of the human spirit! How is this achieved? This is the search I call architecture.
Lessons and axioms
While any creative person is searching for generic truths and for answers, over time they will try to make sense out of what they are doing, to distil that sense into some kind of conclusions about what works and what does not work. As one gets older these conclusions and judgments start to fall into little lessons about what makes a good design and a well designed building. I would like to share some of these conclusions, which drift to the surface of my experiences, as flotsam emerges at the surface of a placid pool of water.
For me the individual moving in space is the focal concern. It is this concern, which generates a spatial framework for design. I attempt to use highly controlled visual-spatial compositions to achieve what Lefaivre and Tzonis have termed a design strategy of arranging masses of artifacts in controlled disequilibrium in “a manner that is portent of a changed state” (Tzonis and Lefaivre, 1998). My idea is not the form of space, not molded or flowing shapes…but the kinetic juxtaposition of forms, channels, paths, vistas, stairs walls, columns, etc. Which heighten a sense of awareness of both space and one’s place in space. As Siegfried Giedion noted, “space should be conceived relative to a moving point of reference, not as relevant to some absolute and static entity (Giedion, 1941). The central column of the Alliance Francais in Ahmedabad was used later as a visual device in the United World College, creating a moving point of reference. Such a column or, visual landmark point, continually changes its placement with reference to walls and other elements, heightening one’s sense and awareness of movement. In the capitol complex in Thimphu, Bhutan the ancient “utse” temple within the fortress monastery, the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, is used as that reference point for a number of structures and complexes within the precinct. The new monk quarters, or Dharma Sthal, which will house the four hundred novices in the monastery, links the center of the Dharma Sthal with the utse and heightens the alignment with three Chortens place within the circle. The ministerial secretariat brings one up on a small podium at the entry, which immediately presents to the visitor the view of the utse and other temples within the Dzong. As one moves through the connecting spaces this alignment reappears sequentially. Markings on the courtyards’ paving and the alignment of trees within spaces continually reference one to the utse, Bhutan’s focal religious icon. One does this with building masses also. They frame each other into compositions, which continually change.
I would contrast this “kinetic fabric” with the stand-alone “plan-mass” statements being created today and presented as world architectural monuments! University campuses, particularly in America, are becoming “collections” of stand alone pieces, rather than integrated fabrics, which characterized the early starts such as Jefferson’s design for the university of Virginia. In such cases one finds architecture as an alienating idea, as a static and as a forbidding visual force. Beginning with the Carpenter Centre at Harvard yard, continuing with the graduate school of design and James Sterling’s “piece” there has been a continuous process of destroying the integrated fabric of the yard with small attempts at monument making, which are totally inappropriate. Each structure is trying desperately to say something about the architect (of all people) and not much about the users and their surrounding context. At best one finds these static boxes and forms interesting abstract compositions and arrangements, presumed to be aesthetic.
We are not concerned with planning parcels of land, or individual building statements. We are concerned with the communities who will live in our works and how these communities reflect the larger societies they mirror. We are concerned with human interaction; with human emotional interdependencies; with understandings of “public-ness;” with civility; and with behavioral norms. These are the fundamental concepts of “society” and “civilization.” Architecture can both contribute to and distract from these. Movement in space and the visual noting of movement through various devices is the most dominant theme, which ties this diverse group of work together. In addition to this understanding a group of design principles are applied.
Integration with the environment has been a design theme in all of my work. At the Alliance Francais at Ahmedabad the “environment” was an urban setting of late nineteenth century red brick structures. The new structure participated with the existing setting to form a small public domain, where people can sit and relax. Site features and the local ecology help focus and mold other design themes. At the United World College i was fortunate to have a vast site in the mountains that could be apportioned between productive cultivation and natural landscape, with a variety of terrain and vegetation within which to integrate creative living space. At the capitol complex in Thimphu I had a heritage site centered on the centuries old national icon, the Trashi Chhoe Dzong. Thus, the idea of context, which Wright saw as nature, expanded as sites changed for me. Nature, urban fabric and heritage milieus all became environments that tempered my design strategies. While there was a clear mandate and program of activities in all of my projects, through which objectives were to be met, and there were contextual features, which had to be addressed, other principles for a “built environment” emerged that have been applied to my designs.
Architecture should be a natural expression of available resources, through the use of indigenous materials like terracotta tiles, basalt stone for walls, shahabad stone for external paving and lintels, and kotah stone for interior floors. Depending on the regional setting these materials will change, and relevant new materials can also be critically selected when appropriate to new functions. These materials are all expressed naturally, without the application of granite or marble cladding, gaudy paints or mirrored glass. Form finished concrete is also a way to use a new material critically and to express the reality of materials. More than the selection and expression of materials, the materiality of our works stimulates all of the senses from texture and feel; light and sight; and to density and sound. Even the choice of landscaping modulates aromas and smell! Space is created by the cues emitted from all of these senses. Thus, honesty of expression of materials is a fundamental design principle.
Employment of human scale, as opposed to the monumentalism so often found in institutions, is another principle. No building should dominate the landscape through brute size, or heavy architectonic statements. The architectural milieu must provide personal spaces, which belong to the inhabitants and engender interaction. This infers a “low-rise” fabric wherein the roof-shape should be a humble reflection of the landscape. Where buildings have to be taller, one can either step the massing down to the human scale, or bring human scale elements up and into the structure, as was done with the protective parasols at the entry to the Kochi refineries limited.
Continuity and harmony should be achieved through consistency in the architectural language and the environment. It is important that common building systems tie a complex group of structures into an integrated whole. For example, in a single campus or complex one building can not be of reinforced concrete, and another of brick bearing walls, and yet another of pre-fabricated concrete elements, and still another of steel, which we observe in American show case campuses these days, where each architect is competing with the others for attention. The university of Cincinnati even went to the extent of carving out isolated sites, and allocating each to “name brand architects” to put up individualistic, unrelated structures, much as a Nuevo-riche art collector shows off his ignorance of art by decorating his house with Picassos, Pollack’s and Stella’s. The outcome is a travesty of good design, taste and planning. Instead of uniting knowledge, as in the ideal university, these structures emphasize the boundaries between people and academic disciplines, becoming mirrors of what is wrong with the very system of education. Each building is packaged and decorated in the “hallmark style of the architect,” instead of the theme of the university, inured into the regional context!
An architectural language must be evolved through the selection of appropriate motifs. Motifs can include functional components like door lintels, window shade boxes, ventilators, waterspouts and various built-in components. These reflect the demands of climate and culture on life styles, customs and habits. Murals cast into natural, exposed concrete enrich the design. In Bhutan we looked at the enduring elements of buildings (the sloped white walls; the dark brown fenestration; the red and gold colors; the wide over-hanging roofs; the articulate doors and the iconography of Himalayan Buddhism. One can not “design a language” overnight. Elements, ideas and components may emerge from historical examples. An architectural language must evolve through a number of projects and experiences.
A sustainable environment must be created. A campus cannot just be a cluster of buildings on parcels of land. A building cannot just be a nice façade and an exciting section. These have to be integrated man-bio systems where nature thrives and people are nurtured. The sun, rains and winds must all temper the orientation of walls, roof coverage and openings. These are not issues of style or fancy, but facts of the environment. At the Kochi refineries limited we covered the generous glass sliding windows with louvers which totally blocked any sunlight touching the building, while still allowing breezes and panoramic views of the lush green Kerala backwaters. This “parasol” concept saved the refineries about thirty percent of their annual air conditioning costs and cut the initial investment in air conditioning by about forty percent, compared with the fashionable structural glass corporate image imported from the freezing cold Atlantic north. At the YMCA international campsite, we burroughed the structures within the natural slopes so that the internal areas are insulated from the harsh summer heat!
A circulation system must separate vehicles from pedestrians and visitors from regular participants. Noisy and, polluting vehicles must be kept at a distance. Movement must be pedestrian and service/visitor vehicles must be separated from this walking network. The circulation system can be a lattice, allowing choices of how one moves from place to place, or a unidirectional tree, which keeps gathering larger and larger arteries into a main stem. But as the designed systems get larger, the “stem” has to give way to the “lattice,” to reduce congestion at the gathering points and to disperse traffic. In the living areas there should be a tree-like structure, lending privacy and security to the most basic residential units. A campus or a neighborhood is not a city, and the circulation system must honor this distinction. On the other hand, a “city is not a tree,” to quote Christopher Alexander! A city must provide choices, alternatives and flexibility through latticed networks.
The architectural scheme must establish a main structure through the circulation pattern and the building technology pattern, which reinforce one another, integrating into a framework. Trunk infrastructure must also generate a structural pattern on the overall design. The building programme of functions will also have its order and structure, dividing into work areas, service cores and passive areas like courtyards and gardens. The main structure must respect the need for short span spaces to gather together, and for long span spaces to act as focal points and nodal centers. These can be clustered along circulation stems and channels, which are also trunk paths for major utility networks. Such an integrated circulation network-cum-structural system works to separate casual visitors, vendors, and suppliers from serious participants and key actors. In its subtle manner such a system reflects the daily schedule, requiring quiet zones to later become discussion, music or even loud zones, or vice versa. Space and movement; place and sense of being; form and sequence; are all part of this integration of movement networks and building systems. These elements are linked and integrated through a main structure.
Most of all, the ambience will be one of vision and a worldview. This does not mean the projection of a cold, cultureless image through an industrialized international style. It does not mean McDonald’s hamburgers will replace rice and dhal! It means applying principles which can unite mankind into a world community of values: honesty in expression; sustainable environment; respect for the individual; encouragement of constructive group action; use of appropriate technology and creating balanced eco-systems. It is in its role of promoting group concerns and life styles that architecture contributes to a future vision.
My campuses are based on the “vision” of a secure, safe and enjoyable environment. In such an environment national, racial, religious, gender, sexual orientation and other “boundaries” lose their divisive meanings. Architecture and planning are not merely geometric problems. They are problems in which time, space, life and purpose all become part of one reality.
The good and the truth:
The ancient Greeks, who i greatly admire, were able to give their due to both the study of aesthetics and ethics. Aesthetics was focused on pleasure, while ethics focused on morals. Both studies applied concepts of balance, or what would be called in Buddhism as the “middle path.” Pleasure included anything, which pleased the senses, ranging from taste, smell, feel, sight and sound. Aesthetics could be practiced through city design, architecture, drama, poetry, gymnastics, gourmet foods, clothing and sexual endeavors. All of these were admired so long as they were not practiced in excess, nor neglected! In aesthetics there are no issues of “right” or “wrong, but there are issues of balance, harmony and the golden mean. The issue is how harmoniously things are done. Pleasure is a primary goal in life, which i call the good! La dolce vita, or the sweet life is something any highly evolved person has tried to perfect through education, considered practice, studying and friendship. Any civilized person will avoid being directed by passion or lust, but will seek articulate and considered enjoyment. Reading, sketching, thinking about the world, singing, exercising, cooking good food, drinking good wine and seducing paramours are all part of the good life. To miss any of these is to miss a slice of life! Architecture and city design are the venues of the good, are the stage sets for pleasure, and are generic to the good life!
If a person can not experience the good, they have no reason to be concerned with what is bad, the right or the wrong! Ethics need not concern them. Without the operation of the pleasure principle, the ethical debates over liberty, justice and equality are empty drums, having no meaning. Liberty to enjoy what? Justice to be judged correctly for doing what? Equality of opportunities to what enjoyment and pleasures? Ethics are the monitoring concepts regarding relations between civilized persons in their pursuit of pleasure! They are intelligent principles through which pleasure is accessible to all! City design and architecture are both vehicles of aesthetics and of ethics. City design is a social and economic vehicle to bring the good to more and to more people, equitably, justly and liberally. It is a form of pleasure and is guided by ethics!
While espousing beliefs in ethics, our institutions (schools, religions, governments, and families) try to control and suppress aesthetics. Governments debate what people should drink and have prohibition; who can marry whom and have marriage laws; who can eat what and have laws about what kinds of meats people eat; and have censorship boards to decide what kinds of films we can see. They are even concerned about the ways mature adults express their mutual love! Thus, a democratic state can claim to support justice, liberty and equality, while suppressing the individual’s rights to the good life. Seeking the truth, without knowing the good, is a dangerous journey! Architecture and city design are all about that journey. Architecture and city design are embodiments of both aesthetics and ethics.
In my view, we as designers must see aesthetics as our own internal reflection of some generic or cosmic order, which is natural and true! We must see ethics, not as incursions into people’s personal lives, but as questions to be answered such as,
1. Is it right to consume non-renewable resources at the cost of other living creatures, or of future generations?
2.Is it right to live in opulence, while other people are starving and lack basic services?
3.Is it right to be dishonest for an honest cause? If we seek happiness, is it merely for ourselves, or for all humanity?
4.If we create beautiful things, is it for our personal pleasure, The /pleasure of a few patrons, or for all of humanity?
These are the kinds of ethical questions i would like all designers, planners and architects to contemplate.
This brings me full circle back to seeking the truth, knowing who we are and being instead of seeming! Ethics has to start within as an inner search and not from without. As the Buddhists’ gurus propose, ethics is not imposed from without through laws, balances of power and policing, but from within through compassionate wisdom, loving friendship which both modulates personal power and strength. But without the good all of this wisdom, love and strength cannot be applied! As the great renaissance thinker-architect, Donato Bramante, proposed:
“It is better to seek the good, than to know the truth!”
With that slightly confusing quote,
I will leave this essay,
Hoping it breads thought within those who listen to it.