This short essay suggests that among architects after Modernism, and especially in India, there have been two dominant positions when it comes to the question of the architectural object. Either buildings are seen as set of surfaces, points, and lines, or buildings are seen as chunks or solids. While this question has been discussed several times in the discipline, this essay wishes to argue that these positions are helpful in explaining the ontological underpinnings amongst architects. By extension, this essay wishes to reassess the question of theory in architecture and what can its role be, once again, within the discipline. 


Since modernist architecture at least, a great deal of work is put in treating the architectural object as a set of surfaces, lines, and points. Frank Lloyd’s and Mies’ walls extend into the landscape / site. Corbusier windows are ribbons. Rijtvield’s houses are a De Stijl composition, and so on. There is a sense of freeness and freedom that one can sense in these works. It appears as if the classical work of architecture was too tight, formally closed object. Modernist architecture, even though under the guise of efficiency, sought to find a new formalism, that produced objects that literally broke away from the strictures of the classical form, extended into the landscape, and not remained confined within geometrical symbolism or symbolism of any sort or any such themes. They want to stretch their legs, extend hands, bleed into things, let nature in, find some wiggle room for buildings to loosen up -in a manner of speaking. 

This sense or the spirit of freedom, continues to our times as well -for without which it would be difficult imagine the proliferation of such great diversity in architectural response in our times. But more importantly, what has also persisted is looking at the architectural object as a set of surfaces, lines, and points -at least among a several architects. One can consider the works of architects like Sanjay Mohe and a whole lot of architects who have graduated under his tutelage at Mindspace (Mohe’s office). One can even look at the works of Bijoy Ramachandran of Hundred Hands, Kiran Venkatesh, some of the works of Praveen Bawadekar of Thirdspace Studio, among others. In the continental and the American continents (North and South) zone you see architects like Zaha Hadid, Thom Mayne, Louis Barragan, come immediately to mind.

Now, before we proceed further, the point that I am trying to make has nothing to do with whether a particular building is a work of good architecture or not. It is a matter of identifying some of the positions that architects take with respect to the architectural object and even to assess which side of the spectrum do I identify myself with and the kind of work that I would like to develop. This positioning nudges in certain direction and not in other direction -at least momentarily. 


The first thoughts for this essay emerged while I was briefly working at Hundredhands in Bangalore. What I noticed was that the way many offices worked -that means the way way they did models, drawings, sketches, etc. there was a great emphasis on the planes of any project. This was in stark contrast with the chunky and crunchy foam models that I was fascinated by when I got introduced to the works of so OMA and the offices that graduated from OMA -directly or indirectly. This sense of full-body-ness of the process of thinking and developing architecture by some of these Dutch architects had a different air about them. I am not just speaking of the wonkiness of many of these projects, but just the fact that these projects had qualities akin  boulders, sponges, pebbles, aggregates, etc. Knowingly or unknowingly there was a Kahnian sense of weightiness to the projects. The architectural object for these architects is not just a set of planes, lines, and points -it certainly was a full-form, a chunk.

One of the reasons to use the term chunks and not full-form is primarily to also to avoid giving an impression that a full-architectural-form can only be a completed form. On the contrary, what I wish to suggest is that these chunky projects also do not wish to be not-open, or not without wiggle room. The term chunky is used to avoid that conflation, and it also sounds and reads nicer.

What to do with this thought? (or the question about theory in architecture)

Here is the thing about taking sides in such debate: While the initial thought was a simple observation of different approaches to architectural design, it has now expanded into a philosophical, and particularly an ontological inquiry. How so? If you think about, what should we do with architectural theory today? One of the thigns that has happened with theory in architecture, especially in India, is that it has followed too closely the developments in social theory (which was much needed) –particularly in the strain of Frankfurt school or Critical theory. This turn, often has often either exagertaed or undermined the capacities and role of architecture and architect. Either Architecture is absolutely powerless or too closely aligned with power. But this does not tell us much about architecture’s theory per se. This is the question that is also a subject of ridicule today. As the big question that looms architecture theory is what is it? And what should one do about it? There is a certain “end of theory” feeling in almost all the works of theory in architecture in India. 

My sense about this situation is that we haven’t figured out how to engage with the objects in architecture. I can hear alarm bells and flippant gestures popping in your head at the moment, as it does in my mind. However, this is really an interesting question to think about in architecture. After all we deal with objects all the time n architecture -and also in social theory that we have all come to love and embrace so dearly (we are minority in that aspect). Even if you are a “hardcore practitioner” you do deal with objects in architecture, of various kinds and scales. It here that the question of ontology really presses us. What do we think of the architectural objects? Doshi considered that “Architecture is an extention to life”. Or, even Nature. One can see this effort in Doshi’s works where architecture bleeds and blends into nature (with a lot of articulation). In fact, if there is an Indian Modernism or a tropical Modernism, it is this. The Anti-nature position of the high-modernists melted into landscape. It is a kind of Wright’s modernism meets Mies, meets corb, meets Indian architects. However, all these architects really saw architecture as an object made of planes and surfaces, and lines, and dots. Which means, an architectural object is nothing more than points, lines, and surfaces. We of course know better now, that the mature modernists saw that there was something missing in this reduction or simplification of the architecture. It is here, particularly in their elderly age, that the modernists opened themselves to a spiritual dimension to architecture and space making. Doshi, Correa, Rewal, etc. particularly after 1980s were serious about this spiritual and even a cosmological dimension of architecture. Architecture, without this is incomplete for our Modernists turned Critical Regionalist architects. However, this spirituality took a leap from the abstractions of modernism to the abstractions of spirituality in a sweep. Yet, what do we make of the architectural object? 

This kind of reading borders very close to Heidegger’s reading of the Hellenistic Greek architecture of the Parthenon. As if the building emerges from the ground beneath. This is also the line of inquiry and thought advocated by John Dewey: The job of the artist is to show that the mountain in our perception is ultimately a part of the Earth’s crust. In this reading of the architectural object, the object is undermined in another way. The architectural object here becomes subservient and a sign that points to the background being -the earth- that supports the temporary beings (architecture). In many ways, this coming together of a Heidgerrian sense of spirituality (if I may) and modernist architectural language is the predominantly accepted “theory” amongst architects in India. One can easily push this idea and fold in the early parametric and digital architects -who’s buildings and designs often aspired this blending of arhcitectue and earth (or landscape) as a higher pursuit. This is a fairly concrete theoretical position with which one can do multiple things. And I think, architectural theory, if there were to be one, must say something about the architectural object. 

So, how does it matter if the object is chunky or seen as a set of surfaces? Ontologically speaking, everything is equally and object (if you are committed in that school). Or, everything is basically a nothing (if you come from the Critical school and particularly from Deconstruction). Or. Everything is in constant flux and change (if you come from a Deleuzian school). In that sense, how does it matter what one thinks of the architectural object? Practically, it may hardly make any difference, if you are indifferent to it. However, theoretically and especially for the sake of design approaches, it does help shift the aesthetic registers. If you find yourself working with surfaces, you might choose to shift workshops and try your hands on some chunky ways of doing architecture. The same goes to the other side also. Or, you can push your current position further to test new ways to deal with either the surfaceness of chunkiness of your way to approach architecture. 

As for me, as a realist in training, I am philosophically more inclined to align and start with those architects and approaches that see architecture as an autonomous, chunky, and full-body form. This for me would be the first step, as it avoids and moves away from looking at architecture as mere surfaces and planes.

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