Us. Vs. Them. Architectural Gaze

By Ar. Helly Solanki

“A familiar material?” “Introduction of a new material?” enough basic words to create an hour-long conversation between the Project In-charge and me. In mid-2021, we were designing a backyard poultry shed for the tribal community. My argument was to use the locally familiar material as easy to mend, while the other wanted to introduce modern, less maintenance-requiring material. But, of course, both have their merits and demerits. So it sounded more like an echo chamber, where decisions were being taken on behalf of the end user. But do we know what they want, significantly in the case of the developmental sector? Or do we, as a design fraternity, think we know what’s best for them?

This was a good enough query to take me back to a few incidents. They linked my perceived understanding of people’s needs and their real aspirations. In August 2018, I came across a farmer in Kerala who aspired to have a concrete house instead of his present mud and bamboo house. His inspiration was a portrayal of a “well-to-do-person” in media. On the flip side, ‘High Class’ are ready to spend lacs to create the same earthen feel. We think he is na├»ve as he is unaware of his present eco-friendliness. But to his eyes, a concrete structure seems more about class and convenience. So who is right here, the ‘owner’ or the ‘designer’?

A Heritage Head had once told me, “I can convince anyone to save an old house as I live in one and understand its nitty-gritty”. I also encountered a few designers who are demonstrable examples of their preaching. ‘Easier said than done ‘ but not when a precedent is set. But wait! What happens when slum redevelopment or mass housing design is approached? A house is just large enough for helium balloons to float freely but not big enough to accommodate an ever-changing family. These matchbox spaces are stacked and piled together to provide just enough movement for the original residents while keeping significant land share for big fish. So most of us stay in big houses, yet we design something like this. So why not do what’s already said?

A country deeply enamoured by ‘Western’ culture but still dealing with last-mile electricity availability. Glass castle designers marveling at their own creation’s reflection from two-way glass and showcasing their pomp in a poverty-stricken nation. We would have sensitised architectural education, creating informed designers if ‘Humanities’ were our core. Systemic approaches to policies and incentivising innovative design ideas could pave the way for popular buzzwords like ‘Socially Aware’, ‘Developmental’ & ‘Inclusive’ design. In this process, we cannot afford to lose focus on the word “EMPATHY”, the only one that would help the designer put aside their understanding and adapt to what’s needed.

Helly Solanki, an in-house content writer at Gharpedia. After graduating from MSU in 2014, she has been associated with COSTFORD, INTACH, and SELCO. This educated her in different domains like Sustainable, Natural, Low cost, Cost-efficient, Historic, Humanitarian and Social architecture. She is a passionate reader, and traveler who loves to freeze memories in form of poetry or photo.

One Comment

  • Deepanjan

    Thanks for sharing the article, Helly. Very well pointed out that the need of the hour is to have ‘humanities’ as a disciplinary core in architectural education in India so that a humanitarian approach to habitat design is nurtured in young minds.

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