This question had started haunting me quite recently. Given how I have reached a point in my architectural education where I have explored the views of various theorists over time, I realized their relevance in today’s world of architectural education and came to link the various ideas in my head. Also, due to a philosophical exploration (I’ll probably talk about this in another post), I sort of fell into an existential crisis. My interest in various fields, the exposure to a wide variety of subjects and the vision that I could possibly be treading down any other career-path puzzled me. What am I studying to become? Can I be many things at once? As a part of my Theory of Design assignment, I decided to then explore this confusion through an essay. I hope there’s more people out there as confused as I am. 🙂
‘Architecture’ is a fairly recent profession when compared to other fields, constantly trying to establish its origins as a necessity to mankind from the time we started settling and building primitive huts. (as mentioned by Laugier in 1753) The architect is an even more recent term that originated from the Greek word ‘architekton’ (archi-first in command, tekton-builder/craftsman). The term in itself translates more accurately to its former name-‘master builder’.The identity of the Master builder of early civilizations such as Greek and Roman, was someone who should be skilled in craftsmanship and technology as well as have the mind to understand culture and theory. As Vitruvius, the Roman architect, author, civil engineer and military engineer writes and discusses in the first chapter of “De Architectura”,
The science of the architect depends upon many disciplines and various apprenticeships which are carried out in other arts.
He mentions that an architect must be a man of letters, a skillful draughtsman, a mathematician, familiar with scientific inquiries, a diligent student of philosophy, acquainted with music, not ignorant of medicine, learned in the responses of juriconsults, familiar with astronomy and astronomical calculations. He also says,
So those who from tender years are trained in various studies recognize the same characters in all the arts and see the intercommunication of all disciplines, and by that circumstance more easily acquire general information.
This defines the intellectual mind of an architect i.e. all the knowledge of Arts and Sciences and understanding of the world that he/she must have in theory along with skills to draft drawings (this gains more prominence during Renaissance when drawings and perspectives are used to separate the architect from the mason/crafts-person. Specialization starts here). Vitruvius does in this text imply that architects are jack of all trades, masters of none. He supports this by saying that
Even those who severely possess the qualities of the craftsman do not succeed in reaching supreme mastery.
So in my opinion, there are two sides to the story-be a polymath or an architect who knows something about everything? Our current educational system supports the latter but I wonder what happen if the former were possible. Would it be able to make us better architects if we got an Engineering degree and Art degree as well? Does architectural education need to acknowledge and take forward that only a small percentage of people who pass out become architects while others are enabled by the course to pursue other professions? The architect may say that “I can be aware of everything else, I can’t be everything.” But surely we can possibly be more than one thing.
Vitruvius himself was skilled enough to be an author and engineer apart from an architect. Set in a much later time, that of the Italian Renaissance, Leon Batista Alberti, himself regarded as a Renaissance Man (or polymath) clarifies in the prologue of his “On the Art of Building” who he is in fact referring to as the architect. He says that an architect is
a person who knows how to devise through his own mind and energy as well as realize by construction, whatever can be most beautifully fitted out for the noble needs of man, by the movement of weights and joining and massing of bodies. To do this he must have an understanding and knowledge of all the highest and most noble disciplines.
His view resonates with that of Vitruvius in saying that it is equally important to be able to construct the building. But if we look at the present day scenario, we often debate whether it’s our job as architects or should the contractor be handling that. I feel the extent of understanding what we mean by “realize by construction” needs to be defined. The architect needs to have sufficient practical hands-on knowledge to be able to design something that is more than just for the sake of design. Art can be for art’s sake, but can architecture? Or does what we design always need to be buildable and the buildability is something we need to equip are designs intrinsically with? Here is where the architectural education tries to equip us by means of internship with a practicing firm. But I feel it’s like a vicious cycle. Moreover the feasibility of a design is equally influenced by the structural engineer. We are again and again told that the engineer will determine or handle the buildability. This attitude shifts the responsibility of craftsmanship and technology (that Vitruvius mentioned) away from the architect leaving him to handle only culture and theory.
Architecture is known to us as the perfect balance of Art and Science but I feel that scientific inquiry isn’t given its due in the architectural education. The practical knowledge and hands on experience of construction that can be explored to understand and create innovative structures is somewhere lacking. We are expected to sit at our desks and draw, let the structural engineer resolve the issues and handover specifications to the contractor who will ultimately build. If we try to shift our perspective a little to accommodate more of the engineering aspect and material exploration-more of the sciences, it may help us design better.
To understand how we got here, one needs to look at the time post the Industrial Revolution when the mechanization lead to production of building materials by factories instead of painstaking work by craftsmen. This advocated and made possible to build bigger projects with higher complexity than ever before. Thus arose the need for specialisation. From the Master-builder to the Architect and Contractor further to a number of consultants specialized in various fields such as lighting, landscape etc. In the 20th and 21st Century, this increasing extent of specialization not only reduces the importance of the architect but also leads to errors and mismanagement issues when handling a building project. What this probably means is the need for an Architectural Manager who yet again synthesizes the design and build. (Something on the lines of the role of the Master-builder?)
Moreover, because the specialization undermines the architect’s role, I feel that there is a need to redefine the image in popular perception. Whether one calls it ‘marketing the profession’ in order to explain the need for an architect as opposed to a builder/contractor who relies solely on one half of the game i.e. construction, hence leading to cookie cutter designs that hold no meaning in their cultural landscapes making our cities placeless. In popular perception, Architects are seen as egotists (The Belly of an Architect shows us what not to be) because all they care about is their design and want rich clients who can build those ideas (never mind the practical problems of construction and unfeasible glass panel sizes) As architects, we need to build for the people to live, work and dream in, not for other architects to see and appreciate. (This interview of the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels struck a chord with me) We need to communicate the responses of a building to its various contexts-social, historical and physical and how the building in turn aims to influence and shape the same. Architecture is not seen as but needs to be, as a social, political and economic response to a given situation and mind-set.
Louis Sullivan has mentioned how architects are heroes, carriers of social change but I’m not saying we need to glorify ourselves. I’m saying we need to make the users understand the extent of Architecture’s implication so that as a community, or as global village we are able to live together, grow together and build constructively as a harmonious society. The projects by Alejandro Aravena from Chile, The Pritzker Winner of 2016, do exemplify this thought, by means of what he calls ‘participatory design’.
So after looking at all these different views I would like to highlight my main concerns for the identity of the architect. We need to yet again establish our own importance while at the same time equipping ourselves better for designing and to command respect in the construction sphere of the building process. Practical knowledge, structural innovation and understanding materials and their potentials should not be completely relied upon after the architectural education is complete. These factors need to be integrated within the education system to equip us in both theory and practice and redefine us as master builders once again or at least give us the opportunity to specialize in more than one field to be able to synthesize the design with the build.
In case you read this till the end, thanks a lot for your time!
I hope this post helps you raise some questions, if not answer them. Please share your views, I’d love a discussion! 🙂
I referred to excerpts of the following:
On the Art of Building by Alberti (1452)
Essay on Architecture by Laugier (1753)
De Architectura by Vitruvius (30-20BC)
Bjarke Ingels –Message to Young Architects https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yMzZwAtZRw
Architect vs Contractor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7V_zcwYNMc
Architectural Management Channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7V_zcwYNMc
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