Thursday, May 10, 2007

Problem of scale-up in architecture education

Problem of scale-up in architecture education

by Remigius de Souza

DURING MY STINT with teaching architecture, I wouldn’t loose an opportunity to bring up the issue of “scale-up”, a major lacuna here in architecture education. It was no different forty years ago when I was a student. Obviously the problem of scale up continues in architecture and planning.

Once I gave a curtsy call to A’s town planning class. They were discussing on the drawings of a large housing project in Mumbai. It was for a few thousand residential units of various standard sizes, in high-rise buildings with roads, open spaces, amenities, FSI (Floor Space Index) and so on.

I thank them all for sharing, and asked, ‘whatever may be the numbers and statistics, how do you deal with the toddlers, children, youth, working and non-working women, the aged and the unemployed?’ of course, none, including A, had thought about it. I asked A, ‘what poison are you giving our students?’ They were treating people as if objects.

I once asked my final years students in design studio, ‘you are working at 1:100 scales. Tell me, how much the thickness of one of the wall lines will amount to actually on site?’ Predictably they were harassed at the bizarre question and fumbled at calculations: 0.5 mm lead line 100 times.

We go by conventions, perhaps, without stopping once to question, even though the times keep changing, now at a faster pace. Slowly, imperceptibly, a bureaucratic attitude of status quo and to treat people as objects creeps in the students.

Students live, go in and around, and work at buildings, like all others. Do they notice how the lines on the drawings get translated at the work site? Yes, of course. There must be workshop facilities at some of the colleges. Some students document the existing buildings in drawings for the NASA (National Association of Students of Architecture) Conventions.

They draw and see pictures on flat paper, or on the screen: cinema/TV/computer, which are either stills or moving in frames by selection. They make paper/plastic sheet models at a sale to fit standard size sheets. A project may be worth a few lakhs or crores of rupees.

THE QUESTION IS, whether the project is scaled-up on their mental screen to its real size on the ground? What and how many dimensions of architecture would they notice, or assimilate, or explore during the learning period, and thereafter?

A biotechnologist illustrates the problem of “scale-up” giving examples of a lion and a flea: ‘by comparison with its length, if a flea were the size of lion, it would be able to jump a mile. However, weight increases more rapidly with increasing size than strength, so that the scale-up flea would probably be unable to move. …It should be noted that such design is appropriate to its scale, and flea-sized lion is as impractical as lion-sized flea’ (‘Principles of Biotechnology’ Ed. Alan Wiseman, Urre University Press, 1983, p 96). This classic problem of scale-up is face when laboratory operations are to be carried out at industrial plant to process several hundred tons of material. This may be evident when regional plans look like blown-up land use city plans. It may also be evident in other areas such as, government policies, projects and laws, if examined without bias.

Once I gave a quiz to my students in final year. By now they were familiar with Secretariat building at Chandigarh by Corbu. I told them to go to seashore at any of the bays in Mumbai. They should sketch the bay with two land ends and place the building floating on the sea at any distance they chose. I also gave them an option to place the building against the backdrop of any chosen mountain near Mumbai. Anyone could predict the result!

On the drawing board, straight lines follow the Tee and Triangles. Now erotic curves appear in fashion, perhaps without a thought to how sight – sound – light – air work. Whispering galleries! Under the Millennium Dome everything is fitted in straight lines. A square peg in a round hole! Now computers draw the lines at a command.

Now there is CAD-CAM: a fine tool for multimillion rupee projects or for mass production of thousands of prototype units/buildings for the mass of people of the mass society, like china made at ceramic factory. This, of course, facilitates the centralisation of power and monopoly and grandiose. Otherwise about 30000 architects in the country of a billion people would have enough work for mote than one lifetime. What happens to the growth and economics of people and buildings is another matter.

IN THE PROCESS OF DESIGNING, production, and also the maintenance, of a building, how does one read a fine print produced on a drawing board or by CAD-Cam? We are reminded, without malice, few classic examples. Sydney Opera building languished for some time during its construction; not knowing how to make it on the site, leave aside the city coffers went dry. Engineering Building (by Sterling and Govan) at Leicester University, suffered freezing internal temperature in the winter of 1960, due to the glass curtain walling failure (Bill Holdsworth, Antony Sealey, ‘Healthy Buildings’, Longman, 1993). The Pruit-Igeo flats in St. Louis, Missouri, which had won award from the American Institute of Architects only seventeen years before, were blown up in 1972 at the unanimous request of the residents, because they had proved impossible for daily living (Graham Green, ‘Philosophy of the Arts’, Routledge, 1997). We learn from mistakes. (Not being a celebrity I don’t quote my failures. However, one could guess they are embedded in here: the reason to write this paper.)

Is there a tool to blow a whistle time to time during the design process? Yes, there is a professor. Perhaps there may be such a software package for a learner. Or, a checklist! We, perhaps, learn from mistakes (if they are made public) rather than instructions, if it is a part of the discipline. How does one foresee a room or a city that gets cluttered, crowded and starts over spilling with people, goods, furniture, and garbage, in a few years time, or be dead?

Experiencing architecture and measuring its multiple dimensions at first hand can only be realised by ‘field-work’ at a real event. For this one has to keep aside one’s judgement, prejudices, dogmas, status, and likes – dislikes; indeed they have no place in the public realm. More the dimensions more elegant and simple architecture is, like Kabir’s “Sakhi” – a verse form.

Starting to learn architecture at that age, however, has its own problem/s to negotiate. The curve of learning ability, which is upward from the birth as the brain is growing, sags substantially after the age of 17/18 years, and at the old age it either deteriorate or even picks up. Developing perception by “anushasan” – rigorous practice, however, could compensate the slow rate of learning, as if “life” matters.

IT and multimedia may pump up or dump as mush information as period of time allows. But validity of any information (including this paper) must be scrutinised at ground level. Besides there is need to ruminate the swallowed information. However looking at the present t5ends, there is greater need to balance the quantity and quality, with major emphasis on quality, of the output and the reward – both in scholastic and profession areas, by popular demand.

The issue of “scale-up” begins from the very inception of a thought /idea / concept that appears in our boundless inner space. Where does it come from? Does it come from within – mind – brain – conscience, or from outside – say, from some glossy magazine or an authority? But any thought / idea/ concept must be examined without believing, before it takes to demonic scale, like Nazism, either directly or by proxy, and swallows or eats us away.

Remigius de Souza
69-243 S B Marg Mumbai 400 028 India
Mumbai (10-05-2007)