If Not Political, It Is Not Design

Architecture is on the threshold of change, but it risks being reduced to the decorative arts unless architects accept the inherent politics of it. An essay by Akademie Schloss Solitude’s main juror, theorist and critic in the fields of visual culture, architecture, and city studies, Kaiwan Mehta, first published on the platform mint in May 2017.

The threshold to the future of design is marked by ‘demolition’! The future of architecture is marked by a boom, and demolitions, of which one is most iconic – the demolition of the Hall of Industries and Nations, and the Nehru Pavilion at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi in April this year. The future of design and especially architecture that is being projected is only possible if whatever exists is demolished. But is this the future we want, or should want? Design is based on thinking, and design is political; however, what is projected as Design for the future, does not want to think, and it only wants to dress pretty and forget that this is one of the oldest political practices. To design is to express, within the process of articulating function and need, the wider sense of what you think and believe.

To discuss the future of something – in this case design and architecture – we first need to clearly know, what is the definition or idea of this subject. Do we know what defines the idea of design or architecture? Design is not objects, or pretty patterns, and architecture is not a bunch of buildings. Design is the most abused term today. It is the most misused word. It stands in for anything that one wishes to see as hip and cool, or creative and sexy. And as a corollary, anyone who wishes to see himself or herself as creative and cool – call themselves Designers! What makes your practice adequate to be called Design? And what qualifies you as a practitioner to call yourself a designer? In a world where at one point we are celebrating cross-disciplinary roles and the freedom to act and think across different disciplines, there is also the need to exercise restraint in not losing the core sense of things or practices. The future of design is indeed marred by such confusions; we are at the threshold of drastic change, and we are totally confused. In some cases the confusion is happily adopted to escape having to answer critical questions.

In a recent project at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, in Stuttgart, Germany (a residency programme for artists and social scientists) they put forward a question – Is your practice political? I think this is a key question at this juncture for designers and architects in India today. We have no future if we do not see our practice as political. Designers and architects have withdrawn largely from the social and political space; sadly they do not see themselves as important contributors to the politics of everyday life. Architecture is something that is most public – from the home to the museum, it defines for us our sense of being, or notion of family, as well as our place in community and civilisation. Design and architecture have withdrawn to the pleasure palace – metaphorically, and literally so. Architects debate and procrastinate, and pontificate over details and technique – the sad part about this is, they do this not towards a larger vision, but as a withdrawal from larger life of everyday struggles; in fact the details of design are today at the cost of a larger sense of the world and life. Designers are today like full-time hobbyists and Design is hardly seen as a practice; in which case the question if their practice is political, does not even arise.

The future we are talking about is strongly linked to the recent history of the last 25-30 years, a period that structurally breaks away from its immediate past, the results of which we have begun to witness. A critical moment for contemporary design and especially architecture occurs with the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1990, and the events following the demolition of Babri Masjid on
6 December 1992 which as we know have changed the politics of culture and nationalism strongly. Since the 1990s not only did construction markets get swarmed with a large variety of materials, but we also see a rise in spending capacities, changing needs of people coupled with aspirations, newer building typologies such as the mall emerge, or commercial towers replaced the disappearing typologies such as the industrial areas as well as demolished slums. The exhibition The State of Architecture: Practices and Processes in India, co-curated by Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote, and myself, at the NGMA Mumbai last year, explored and studied architecture in India since 1947 in three parts, and the third critical phase of architecture in India is marked by the 1990s (the other two phases were – beginning with Independence since 1947 obviously, and the National Emergency of 1975 that socially transformed the role of the architect). The 1990s saw a burst of money and aspirations in design – often giving jobs to designers and architects, opening opportunities, and allowing explorations in the techniques of design. However, this upscale of design activity, also somewhere took away the critical edge design is supposed to have as an active contributor to the politics of culture. And so from this point onwards, design and architecture are much more about flourish, extravagance, and excess – it is the pleasure of surplus. Those who asked social questions and the need for a discussion on the politics of what we build, and how we build, get termed ‘alternative practices’ at best. The divorce of design and thinking is structural in our times, while on the other hand something as vague and generic as ‘design thinking’ is a popularly used and debated concept today.

This divorce became most evident on 23 April this year as The Hall of Nations and Industries and the Nehru Pavilion in New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan were demolished to make way for some swanky glazed corporate towers. The demolition took away from India two very important buildings from our modern heritage no doubt, but what is worse is that architects as a fraternity, or the architect as a figure in society failed completely to protect this building from demolition – all pleas, signature campaigns, meetings with concerned authorities failed; the demolition happened as if the architect did not matter. In the design of these two buildings, thought and structure came together uniquely, which made it the emblem of a modern nation and the modernism of a young nation. It is not only that the building is demolished, but somewhere very clearly the ideas this building embodied were demolished; so the demolition clearly indicates that there was no care for the thought behind the building, and the vision it represented, and the building was treated as simply an old piece of concrete construction; the idea of the building did not matter! The architecture fraternity was blatantly ignored, which indicates that the architect does not matter to society or even architecture – and s/he would be best seen as simply producers or facilitators in the making of buildings, and nothing more. The architect has no identity as a social or political entity today, nor as a distinct professional in the plethora of service providers that exist today. The architect is one other service provider. Where then is the future of architecture or design? Designers only exist within the larger plethora of creative producers. Designers simply do not have space on public fora, and it is the way we have withdrawn from social space to the decorative space of finance capital.

Designers and architects have found it convenient to be only creative producers, reveling over details and discussing form, and they hardly engage as cultural producers in the politics of the state of affairs. This convenience has today resulted in architects and designers reduced to being simply decorative fixtures on the cultural edifice of our society. And there is no future till we see the politics in our practice, and agree to dirty our hands in the debates on culture and real estate equally. The hope lies in the far and few architecture studios that try to practise with a conscience. Besides some of the senior practices, many younger studios that got set up in the last 25 or so years are thinking through the buildings they make. These practices have accepted the conditions of excess – opportunity, material, technology, and building programmes – and while working within this environment, they are producing a series of reflections on architecture and the architect’s role. They are thinking through practice. From Rahul Mehrotra and Shimul Javeri Kadri to Anagram Architects, Sameep Padora, Martand Khosla, Kapil Gupta, Ambrish Arora, Rahul Gore and Sonal Sancheti, Abin Chaudhuri, and Sameep Padora to name some of them – these are studios that work and design with questions – and the struggle is evident even in their very finely finished and eloquently designed buildings. The question of what they are doing and why they are doing that, looms around their design process wherein they may be handling the everyday affairs of designing – managing size and colour, forms and technology, or materials and joinery. In the design of furniture or fashion, products and objects, the practice of thinking through design is not substantially available today, and if present, due to pricing reasons the objects reach out only to a handful. If design does not reach out to a wider audience, it cannot be discussed within the larger context of design as a cultural and civilisational idea or practice. Luxury design is a niche, bracketed part of design, but should never be mistaken as the space for design experimentation or debates – one of the reasons why pretty vacation homes in Alibaug outside Mumbai, should not be discussed beyond a small limit as objects of design. Luxury, lifestyle, and vacation homes are a category of design objects, but surely cannot define what architecture in India is indeed about, and they are hardly a representative category. Design that faces the challenges of public presence and everyday use, and negotiates the politics of culture, and industry of economics, is the only Design we should focus on, the only architecture that should be discussed.

The future will be difficult to define, because the times we occupy are times where multiple conditions and possible actions dominate the scene; the real task is how amongst this rush of ‘multiple options’ and many opportunities the designer selects and edits her/his process as well as her/his role. It is not about denying what you may not believe in, but in fact embracing the conditions of reality and reworking them to suit a larger sense of cultural responsibility as well as ethics. Some of the younger practices listed above are interesting precisely for this reason – they embrace the challenges and realities of the conditions of the environment we live and work in, but yet produce a practice that uses the techniques of design to provide for an architecture of ethics, aesthetics of exploration as well as restraint, and intervene in the social space of collective action and imagination. It is not what the future of design will be, but we have to carefully and urgently articulate what we want the future of design to be – especially because the recent demolition has already announced a death knell for design and thinking to coexist. Design cannot be outside the frame of ethics; and we cannot any longer bluff around about being ethical and conscientious by talking about Sustainability – under this superficial garb of Sustainability we are reducing a serious issue to fluff (a serious matter completely appropriated for the wrong reasons).

Design can only be design if it is with a sense of ethics and the sensibility of politics. The future of design is in danger, as we more and more take design debates and practices to niche spaces and specialised audiences, removing it slowly out of the everyday life of people. Design can only be a true feature of everyday life and society as long as material and philosophical, as well as political cultures are integrally tied, however messy this integration maybe. Design is about making through thinking, and thinking through making!