South Asia’s architectural education is dominated by colonial ethos, even as West looks to India

unnamed (15)By Hemang Desai*

Winner of the 2012 Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, Anne Feenstra straddles the two worlds of architectural practice and teaching with poise and panache. A twenty-first century counterpart of his Dutch ancestors who navigated this watery planet during and after ‘the age of discoveries’, Anne Feenstra is known for his architectural work in India, Afghanistan and Nepal. Most recently he has been the Dean of the faculty of architecture at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Here he expresses his views on the state of architectural education in India today against the backdrop of turbulent globalization and what directions this education may take to render itself meaningful and useful to India during the coming decades by going beyond Noam Chomsky’s description of architecture as something embedded into “property speculation and an economic system exploiting laws and people’s aspirations”:

Q: How has your philosophy of design as a practicing architect influenced your architectural teaching engagements?

Anne Feenstra: My nearly 25 years experience (half of them in South Asia) as a practicing architect, have made it clear to me that great effort should be made to share and disseminate this accumulated knowledge amongst students. They can learn from mistakes made by me and they can see possible methods of design that are responsive and sensitive.

Architectural Design Masters students at CEPT, under the guidance of Prof. Miki Desai and me, made designs for Maternity Homes for the tribal people in different climatic areas in India where the mortality rates are unnecessarily high. Some students chose a site in the Thar Desert; some in the dense jungles of Chhattisgarh; some in coastal Odisha and some even in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh. This design task addressed a relevant, urgent subject following the research based, pro-local, pro-ecology and pro-people project I use in my work.

Between 2008 and 2011, I had designed and supervised the construction of five Maternity Waiting Homes for UNICEF Afghanistan. Afghan architects and I worked with Maternity specialists and midwives throughout the country. All five buildings are designed are tailor-made for the location. The Bamyan MWH needed to withstand one meter of snow on the roof, while the Herat MWH comfort was challenged by 40+ degrees summers. It was an intense and challenging task. I believe it is important to bring that intensity to the classroom.

Image 1
An architectural model used during interaction with Delhi children

Q: Since the establishment of the Sir J.J. School of Architecture in Mumbai in the early twentieth century, the creation of CEPT was a point of departure in the Indian architectural education that sets it apart till this day.  How would you describe the time that you have been at the helm of the Faculty of Architecture?

Anne Feenstra: First of all I am not too nostalgic as it can sit in the way of innovative thinking. The present situation of nearly 500 schools of Architecture in India is completely different from 1962 when Prof. Doshi, Prof. Vakil and Prof. Kohn started the School of Architecture. While the ongoing search for sustainable and human-friendly expressions had not wavered at CEPT, I did not see a mature Masters program when I arrived in 2015. Many students walked straight from their Bachelor’s convocation into our Masters program. The present admissions for M Arch is stricter and it values experience. Eight faculty members look at the prospective students and conduct two specific interviews. We just had the 2017 interviews and I am happy to share that we interviewed a lot of motivated, talented students with experience.

It is important that the Faculty of Architecture keeps on working on improvement. The only thing that counts in the end  is the output of our education. How good are our graduates? That is the key question. During the 2017 edition of Archiprix International, the competition of the best graduate projects from all over the world in the field of architecture, urban design and landscape, 385 projects from 87 countries came to CEPT. The international Jury members did not nominate one single project from India. I hope the present hard work of our students and our guiding faculty will pay off at the next Archiprix International 2019 event in Chile.

Q:  What are the salient central features of the contemporary architectural education in India?

Anne Feenstra: Faculty, faculty and faculty!

Once you have good systems in place for admissions, the faculty makes the difference. The way I have been operating as a Dean is in a horizontal way, not too much of hierarchy. Faculty and Visiting Faculty, who felt they were less part of the previous set-up, have now been empowered. Presently, they unleash great energy. They meet people all over the world; they organize seminars, start research projects in India and abroad. We can see that coming back in the work of the students.

This newly ignited team has eight more Academic Associates plus our present teaching fellows from Spain, Iran, USA and Bangladesh. The new formula also includes inspiring architects from Delhi and Mumbai, who conduct their own studio at CEPT for one semester. Good faculty and good spirits are quintessential. Without the positive team spirit, and empowerment, I would never have been able to do what we have been able to do in the last years.

Image 2
An award winning architecture project in Central Afghanistan: Community/Visitors’ Centre​ in Band-i-Amir

Q: In the increasingly globalized reality of today’s world, how relevant it may be to pay heed to the local Asian cultural contexts in imparting architectural education?

Anne Feenstra: Looking at the larger historical picture, South Asia has had strong traditions in architectural practice, while architectural education as a discipline, has been dominated by the colonizers. While the West is now looking at more sustainable architecture developments in other parts of the world, replicating western models is still a substantive part of the pedagogy of architectural education in South Asia.

A well documented example; the design Bawa and Plesner had made for Bishop’s college (completed 1959, Colombo) followed the starting points of the international Modernist Architecture. It did not work at all with Sri Lanka’s climate. They unfortunately did not create an architecture that dealt with the reality of our region’s harsh climate and it did not embrace the local context of resources. They learned, adapted and what an amazing work they have done!

The start of the CEPT in 1962 was also based on exposure of Indian students to international ideas. Doshi always brought people from outside to talk to the students​ and faculty. Bimal ​​brings in people from outside. In the last 2.5 years I have been bringing lots of people from all over India to CEPT. I believe it is important to have architects from Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Pune etc. participating in juries and teaching. ​We ​also were able to attract lots of international professionals who can give lectures and interact​ed ​with our students in CEPT s​tudios.​ The diversity of people is important. It helps our students to formulate better questions, sharpen their ideas.

An earthquacke resistant house in Nepal
An earthquake resistant house in Nepal

Q: In the rapidly urbanizing reality of the present day India where more than 300 million people live in urban areas out which some 105 million live in conditions often described as slums and facing acute water shortages while only 37 percent of the households are connected to piped sewer system, what may be a special tilt of contemporary architectural education in India?

Anne Feenstra: The ground reality is scary.

Urgent and relevant issues related to manmade and/or natural disasters are here every year. I initiated at the Faculty of Architecture something that we now call ‘Architecture and Resilience’. It factors in the availability of resources into the building process. The Japanese architect Shigeru Ban spoke about this to my summer school students in Kathmandu after the devastating 2015 earthquakes. Since the Nepali children​​ who lost their houses and the slum children of Ahmedabad do not study architecture, it is us who need to make an extra effort.

Students of architecture must learn that their responsibility is not just towards esthetics and construction standards, but also in the use of resources – choosing local available materials, minimizing the footprint of the built environment on the land, and making the building itself as self-sustaining as possible through water harvesting for example. These principles should be as important as that of safety, quality and color of materials – and the only way to do this is to make it part of the education and to do part of the education in the field.

*Contact: hemangsdesai@gmail.com

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