In this post I want to reflect on what does it really mean for architecture to engage with society.
Let me start by saying that there is no singular way in which architecture engages with society -that also includes architects as well.
In one sense it is like asking, what are the ways in which a tailor engages with society? Or, a construction labour, or a lawyer, or a coder engage with society? All these professions are literally shaping the society. I hope the reader would acknowledge at least this much, or else we will have no history, culture, economy, or society. We would have been a bunch of naked humans without the contribution of a tailor or a shoemaker, or a factory. Now it is often posed that architects do not build for more than 10% of population. Or that architects cannot offer their services to more than 10% of the population. The reason being that majority of the population in India lives in slums, villages, etc. and belong to a certain economic class which cannot afford the cost of services of an architect. One of the shortcomings of this argument is that it assumes that architects cater to the masses only by building houses for the masses. In so far as the argument is about building houses for the masses I agree that architects cater to a very small population. However, architects are often commissioned to design office buildings, factory buildings, stadiums, institutions, mass housing and affordable housing projects, theatres, shopping centres, etc. If we claim that these other types of buildings are not for the masses (with all their problems), then we would be mistaken.
However, if the real question is about architects directly ‘helping’ or ‘working for’ underprivileged, marginalised communities, vulnerable settlements, ecologically affected areas, and so on, then I wonder how much percentage of all the architectural work that claims to be doing this is ‘really’ helping or working for the above listed conditions. This is not to discredit the architects and planners who believe and work with direct engagement. In fact, it is thanks to them, that at least some of the marginalized groups get to see real change in their lives. But the point is to illustrate that, it is not necessarily to productive to point fingers at the mainstream architects, or mainstream architects point fingers to direct action practitioner (academicians, who can easily be framed as catering to a very miniscule population) etc. and say that architects do not do enough, or do not engage at all with society, with ground realities, with macro realities, etc. The point of this section is to change the way we consider what it means for architects to engage with society in various ways, various scales, and various levels. We will return to this point towards the end of this essay. Let us for now consider a case where architects have engaged regardless of their professional entanglements.
(1) Direct and Indirect Engagement
Another popular opinion is that architects should engage in direct action, or direct community engagement. Throughout the history of modern architecture there have been architects who have stood by and proposed manners and ways of direct engagement. If anything we have learnt from the learnings of Anthropology is that, it is not easy to overcome othering. Second, it takes years of engagement to be felt included in the community. Third, you are not the Hero! (Hero’s always make more mess than make more houses), Lastly, empathy to acknowledge other forms of living.
One of the biggest issues with thinking about direct engagement is not that it assumes a strange epistemological hierarchy, but that it assumes direct engagement as a project. The issue is not on the side of the architect, but it is the problem of the way this idea is posed to and assumed by architects. To best illustrate this, let me give an example of a civil engineer / architect (there was hardly any difference a few decades back). For our sake let us call this engineer Shripad. Shripad established his office in Belgaum, a small city by Indian standards, and at the peak of his career he had employed nearly ten people. It was a straight forward office of the late 80s and early 90s, with drafting boards, blueprint room, a typewriter, lots of drafting tools and so on. Clients would visit in a consistent flow with various kinds of building requirements (it was no different in kind than a CA or a lawyer’s office. After all, it was an establishment and not a charity organization). Drawings were made for the project, fees was exchanged, sites were monitored, buildings were built, and so on -it was the routine.
However, Shripad always had a desire to do something for the society (he wasn’t at all a wealthy person, perhaps he could have been, at that moment, bracketed as a middle-income person). Shripad did not put the burden on his professional practice or establishment for this desire of his (at least not entirely). Instead he searched for institutions, organizations, people, who would be open to make room for his desire. This meant that he had to now split his time between offices and places in order to carry out his direct engagements with society. What is interesting to note is that, not even once did he carry his ‘engineer-ness’ to these other offices. With an exception where he was invited to offer his pro-bono services and ideas. He has no qualms shifting roles between an engineer, a social worker, a manager, a treasurer, a community organiser, and never carrying the burden of one role to another. He had a tremendous capacity (needless to say with tremendous efforts) to juggle between the very many roles. Important to note here is that one can be invested in a mainstream practice of architecture, and yet have direct engagements with society in many other ways, the profession may or may not carry the burden (moral, ethical, pragmatic, personal, emotional) of engaging with society.
This tells us that it is possible for architects to be architects, do architecture, and yet make space and time to engage with other social concerns that they are not professionally entangled with. Architects need not always be too withdrawn from social concerns or overly committed to an extent where it is impossible to exercise architectural thought.
(this is the first part of the idea so far. I will elaborate on this idea in another post soon).