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Lesson Plan #5: Letter from an architect to the gurus [teachers] and chelas [disciples] of architecture

From India, Shirish Beri writes this special letter out of the restlessness that arises from a genuine concern for the present state of architectural education and profession, as well as that of our society.

By Shirish Beri
October 31, 2019

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series on the future of architectural education created and curated by Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics, winner of the 2019 Stockholm Culture Award for Architecture, and co-winner of the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award. See Lesson Plans #1, #2, #3, and #4 at the end of the feature.


Curator’s Note: One aim of this series is to bring in voices from outside the “official” narrative. I invited eminent international practitioners who have an entirely different perspective on the future of architecture from those who “toe the line.” And they are indeed alarmed. The only hope for saving their country’s culture, economy, and land lies in training today’s students according to a new paradigm of sensitivity. As readers will see, their concerns coincide with and reinforce what the other participating authors are saying. — N.A.S.



Our society has degenerated


My dear students and faculty,


I write this special letter to you all out of my inner conscientious compulsion.


It comes forth out of the restlessness that arises in me from my genuine concern for the present state of architectural education and profession, as well as that of our society. I also write because I still consider myself to be a student, though I entered the portals of C.E.P.T. University Ahmedabad, India, as a student of architecture 52 years ago.


Unfortunately, the values and priorities of our society have changed so much in recent decades. We seem to be living in a “society that is suffering from the fatty degeneration of its conscience, where our single-minded pursuit of money is impoverishing our mind, shrivelling our imagination, and desiccating our heart.” — (Nani Palkhivala, distinguished jurist and India’s former Ambassador to the U.S.).


Today, in all fields, including architecture and architectural education, so many relevant area-specific contexts and genuine human values tend to get lost and are usurped in the one powerful universal context of commercial returns.


Thus, don’t you think that we need an architecture of goodness for a better life in a better society? What can constitute this value-based architecture of goodness? Can our architecture be an agent of social change to bring about some goodness in this scenario?


An architecture of goodness


Could some goodness be brought about if our architecture helps us to reconnect with nature, with our fellow human beings, with our own selves and thereby with this underlying goodness of life?


Can this architecture of goodness be taught?


In this scenario, we should all pause to examine the following questions with the utmost sincerity and urgency. These questions are not really about the small details of the syllabus subjects being taught today, but about the overall form and nature of architectural education.


How can today’s architecture schools light up that inner flame in their students, which will encourage each student to ask questions and passionately address their genuine life concerns through their designs?


Could we realize that our main design concept, which shapes our design, needs to arise spontaneously from our understandings, values, and attitudes in life? As part of the architectural curriculum, students need to be made aware of the multiple ways in which their designs connect to the multiple parameters of life.


Can our architectural education help us in realizing the importance of these immeasurable and intangible attitudes in our work? Although our plans and sections are physical measurables, many a time they also touch the heart, rekindle memories, and travel the wonderful landscapes of dreams.


Thus, can we shift our emphasis from today’s measurable saleability to that of immeasurable sanctity? Only then will we know that the true measure of development of a city is not the height of its skyscrapers, but the width of its pedestrian ways.


Listening to our inner voice


Can introspection be encouraged by creating certain pauses and silences in the overall curriculum? The eminent Indian classical vocalist Kishori Amonkar lost her voice for 10 long years during her career. Even then, she says that the internal music – antarnaad (inner voice) continued, and she learned a lot during that difficult phase in her life.


Critical thinking and critical introspection needs to be encouraged in our education and profession.


As we all know how difficult it is to teach architecture, can an institute create an atmosphere that encourages creative unlearning and relearning in architecture to happen? Informal procedures, settings outside the typical classrooms, and flexible 24/7 college hours could help.


Explorations through making of many 3D physical models, sketching, travelling, and writing need to become the mandatory sanskaras (recollections) in architectural learning. A learning methodology that encourages students and faculty to question the prevailing norms, trends, and fashions needs to be introduced.


How can faculty and students develop that long-lost respect for each other?


For this to happen, don’t you think that a major shift is necessary in our attitude towards life – from the present anthropocentric approach to life, where everything is supposed to be for the consumption of man (for me and mine), to a more integral, universe-centric approach. The introduction of subjects from the Humanities (like sociology, psychology, anthropology), along with deep ecology (urban ecology, energy flows, etc.), may help students to grasp the true interdependent and interconnected nature of our world.


Being part of the web of life


Don’t you think that this understanding of being an integral part of this wonderful web of life is also the prerequisite for any truly sustainable action to happen? Only then can we design from this empathy and real caring and concern for all. Such an approach will naturally create designs that are genuinely eco-friendly, simple, and sustainable.


Perhaps our future architects could even transcend this sustainable architecture and create “productive sustainable architecture” – an architecture that produces water, energy, food, and air.


Knowledge of new materials and technologies should find its place in the archaic syllabus of building materials. But, at the same time, can our students realize that the modern materials, amenities, devices, and gadgets cannot replace real peace and happiness, just as a child’s toys cannot be substitutes for human affection? This greed for the fast buck tends to churn out repetitive, mediocre, manipulative, monotonous design solutions, which tend to devalue our profession in the society.


It is important not to confuse a good life with the number of goods we possess. As Leonardo da Vinci put it: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”


How can we all appreciate that, rather than creating iconic, futuristic, exhibitionist, sculptural forms that attract the eye? It is more important to create more humane, socially relevant, natural, and sustainable spaces that nurture the human spirit. While designing for the future, should we not look for perennial human values as our form generators, rather than getting caught up in transient, flashy, fickle fashion statements?


Overhauling architectural education


With the increased intake of students, can you examine whether the necessary personal rapport between teachers and students is getting diluted? And with the increasing number of architecture schools, would we have adequate, dedicated, and inspiring faculty for all these students?


Hasn’t the quality of our architectural education deteriorated? Many of the institutes (at least in Asia) do not even have the basic working infrastructure necessary for an architecture school.


Can architecture students correlate what they learn in school with actual professional processes, and vice versa, in a better way than it is being done today? Could more site visits and a better internship proposal be introduced to the curriculum?


We are also in the midst of revolutionary advancements in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and Biotechnology that have already started questioning the relevance of our education and profession as it is practiced today.


Don’t you think that the age-old knowledge-based learning methodologies need to change drastically very soon, as our machines are becoming better at it? We need to teach something unique (that which is wisdom- and value-based), which the machines can’t catch up with. Even the contemporary philosopher Yuval Harari says: “If you wish to teach something very, very practical for the 21st century, philosophy is a good bet.”


How can we get students to deal with this paradox of how to become modern and return to the sources at the same time?


Can an architectural design embody a similar content as that of a poem, music, painting, sculpture, dance, or drama? Are our students able to appreciate all these arts as a part of their curriculum, and then integrate their essence into their designs?


Can our architecture schools strike a creative, interactive rapport with other institutes of arts, design, dance, drama, music, and film?


Actually, wouldn’t it be great if some information about architecture and the spatial realm were introduced at the high school level itself? Can our modern digital networking be used to sensitize people at large to this world of architecture?


Now, with so many issues that need to be addressed, are we ready to completely overhaul our architectural education system in order to create better architects and better human beings for a better environment in a better society?


I sincerely hope we can do that, at least initially in some institutions of architectural learning, to help create sensitive and humane architects with the capacity, integrity, and zeal to create that architecture of goodness.


These are just a few issues that came to my mind. I am sure you, dear students and faculty, can add more as you are directly a part of this architectural education scene. I shall be glad to get your response as to how you feel about the above issues, and how you could include some of them in your daily architectural education.


Best wishes from your fellow traveler on this journey in life and architecture.



Shirish Beri is an architect based in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, India. Since graduating from CEPT University, Ahmedabad in 1974, he has been exploring the relevance of the quality of our spaces to the quality of our life through his numerous path-breaking and award-winning designs.


See also:


Lesson Plan #4: Response to Open Letter for Curriculum Change: A New, Biological Approach to Architecture
This response, in two parts, is from two instructors at the Boston Architectural College.
By Ann Sussman, RA, and A. Vernon Woodworth, FAIA


Lesson Plan #3: Beauty and Sustainability in Architectural Education
We were greatly heartened to see architecture students call for a curriculum change to address the social, political, and ecological challenges of our time, and we want to say something about how their proposals intersect with the work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.
By Nicholas Boys Smith and Roger Scruton


Lesson Plan #2: A Time of Change
The coming technological changes in architecture will impose a full deconstruction of the way we educate architects.
By Duo Dickinson


Lesson Plan #1 "Signs versus Symptoms": A Reply to the Open Letter from British Architecture Students Calling for Curriculum Change

Asking for radical reforms in architectural education, this courageous appeal could help this latest effort be taken seriously, and not simply dismissed, as previous cries for reform have been.

By Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Nikos A. Salingaros

Sensitive architectural education with intellectual weight reflects adaptive architecture that evolved along with humanity itself.