Shaky foundations

Shaky foundations
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First Published: Wed, Jan 28 2009. 11 19 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Jan 28 2009. 11 19 PM IST
To whom do we entrust the planning and design of our urban environment? How do Indian schools of architecture compare with the best in the world? How qualified are the graduating professionals who design our homes, offices and institutional buildings?
Do our architecture schools pass the test?
In 2006, after 18 years of studying, teaching and practising architecture in the US, we relocated our practice to India. Shortly thereafter, we were commissioned by a prominent Indian school of architecture to evaluate their operations and prepare a comprehensive assessment report.
The trustees of the school envisioned this exercise as an opportunity to analyse the existing infrastructure and curriculum, the calibre of the teaching faculty and the academic performance of the students. Our findings would facilitate a vision plan for the growth of the institution.
Enthusiastic about recording first-hand impressions of the intellectual life of this institution, we resolved to direct our efforts through conversations with the students, administrators and faculty members. We hoped that our study would reveal the potential capabilities of India’s future architects (at least as represented in this institution).
Having served on university admissions committees in the US, we had reviewed student applications from across the globe. Having completed undergraduate coursework in their own countries, most applicants were applying for graduate or postgraduate degree programmes in architecture.
The applications consisted of grade reports, standardized aptitude tests, recommendation letters, essays summarizing the applicants’ aspirations, and portfolios comprising architectural design projects and samples of creative work in other disciplines such as film, music, sculpture or digital media.
Several students from India were represented in this applicant pool. In general, their scores on the aptitude tests and their academic transcripts were impressive; their essays were often zealous—expressing well-meaning, if slightly naïve ideas about transforming Indian architecture. In terms of the content and graphic quality of their portfolios—the most important criterion for admission—the Indian applicants fared poorly.
Weak portfolios
Neelkanth Chhaya, dean of the faculty of architecture at Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) University, Ahmedabad, attributes this weakness to a curricular deficiency where artistic and intuitive aspects of intellectual development are often ignored. “Our primary and secondary school system(s) seldom expose students to any serious study of the fine arts,” he says. “Most architecture schools pay a great deal of attention to result-oriented education. Design projects are critiqued on their feasibility in pragmatic terms only. Students should be encouraged to develop their exploratory capacity in tandem with a connection to societal and cultural realities. The design studio—the most important component of architectural education—is not conducted as an experiment, as a device to hone one’s speculative ability; it is conducted as a practice in known things.”
Report card: poor
Our review of the school of architecture echoed the following observations:
Students candidly expressed frustrations with inadequate infrastructure, curricular evaluations at odds with creative thinking, and lack of funding for travel, guest lectures and extra-curricular activities.
Faculty members privately bemoaned the general apathy in Indian architecture schools and its direct correlation with the poor quality of our built environment. Like the students, they seemed sensitive to the limitations of their circumstances, but also hesitant to project an alternative reality, especially one that might impose a more demanding assessment of their own performance.
Delhi-based architects Pankaj Vir Gupta and Christine Mueller are partners in the firm vir.mueller architects. Write to them at
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First Published: Wed, Jan 28 2009. 11 19 PM IST