Open letter to architects, on art of designing coffins

As my open letter to Council of Architecture (CoA) is raging across an ocean full of beards and ethnic wear, I am tempted to use the momentum to share my learning from the study of art of coffin-making for architects in India.

I am perfectly sure that architects may have heated debates for a few days on the issue; but, if anything is spilled, it will be dark coffee and not blood; as, on the whole they are happy people involved in creative work, so they will find their peace. The bliss of being engaged in creative pursuit will make them forget the problem quickly, so the window available to me is very short, and I would like to use it because demise of architecture is not their problem.

The nation will suffer if profession of architecture turns into a business.

So, like a good agitator, I would like to stoke their anger by exploring a bit of history that nation needs to know.

This time, really, as it is important that they can recognise suppliers of nails for their coffin through this example of almost a metaphoric rape in the temple as a fractal piece of the bigger picture.

My own tryst with Architects Act commenced when I registered myself with CoA (that was just after extinction of dinosaurs). Soon after completing registration, I became a proud recipient of the title and along with the certificate came a glossy book. As I flipped through its pages, I realised that my title was backed by a law enacted by the highest legislative authority of the nation and I had a professional code of conduct to follow.

The “Architects (Professional Conduct) Regulations 1989” was absolute pleasure to read, as it allowed me a sense of moral empowerment. Soon, while struggling to find work, my awareness of this written code of conduct started fading, but it was soon to get revived, as one fine day I saw a government tender that invited “architects registered with CoA”.

This was not rare, it was unheard-of, as existence of CoA and profession of architecture was never recognised by the state as far as my memory served me; so, I was excited.

Unfortunately, as I downloaded the tender, my excitement turned into shock, as the tender asked architects to compete by providing free designs!

Assuming that I may have misread the code, I re-opened the bible and read point 2 (xiv), which stated and still states “(Architect) shall not prepare designs in competition with other architects for a client without payment or for reduced fee (except in a competition conducted in accordance with the architectural competition guidelines approved by the Council)”.

Being naïve, I thought that it was a mistake by the government, so I went to the concern officers, confidently armed with a copy of the code of conduct and pointed out relevant clause. I received a wry smile from the officer after he finished reading the clause.

It was then I discovered that government, with all good intentions, had hired my own alma mater, a temple of architecture that must be knowing the professional code of conduct by heart to draft the tender conditions.

Inviting architects to compete by submitting free design was the brainchild of CEPT, as it was appointed by the state to prepare the document and oversee the process of appointing an architect for a prestigious project! (The exclamation mark used at the end of the statement only highlights that no language had anticipated such acts that cause utter disgust).

With supply of naivety not fully exhausted, I went to CEPT only to earn another wry smile and another promise to look-into-the-matter, but as my conversation had made a fleeting reference to approaching the court, for some inexplicable reason, in no time I received a call from a prominent lawyer representing the state.

Even though I had watched “Jane Bhi Do Yaron” a number of times, I had learnt nothing from it, so I enthusiastically shared my concern as I thought that a lawyer – a professional – would understand importance of professional code of conduct. As he indulgently heard me and offered third consecutive wry smile (making me almost an authority on wryness) with look-into-it promise, I was happy to see that a corrigendum was issued soon.

The tender, and all tenders issued thereafter by the state shifted from using the word “architect” to “consultant”.

The logic was clear. Why suffer inconvenience of a code of conduct, when even the highest priests in the temple of architecture didn’t see the need?

Rest is history, as today most of the critical infrastructure built by the government is getting designed by “juristic entities” (which, my dear law-agnostic architects, means legal “persons” like companies) often at 0.35 % fees, proving that we shall build a great nation for future generations, that too at 1/15 the fees that an “architect” is mandated to charge by CoA!

As I share this morbid personal story of what looks to be a rape of goddess of architecture in her own temple, and thus violate the code of conduct of journalism that demands unbiased third-person representation, I do it with a deep sense of feeling for a profession that I have always loved.

I can sense that my open letter to CoA has spread a sense of guilt amongst sensitive architects for having failed their profession and I want to make amends by making them see the bigger picture.

While repeated defeats in courts are caused by unjustified claims of engineering competence on behalf of architects by CoA, I know fully well that most architects have never interacted with CoA or engaged with its affairs.

Architects, per say, are solitary creatures engaged with a world of creativity and hence power-struggles don’t interest them, so they can’t be expected to rally around to fight. They rather do their work that suits their mental getup.

This battle is not of architects, it is of the institutions who are in charge. And this doesn’t limit to CoA, as real culprits are academic institutes and stalwart senior architects with access, vision and time to take up the role of guardian angels.

An average architect is unable to understand systemic problems or too busy trying to make a living. So, it is up-to the academies with intellectual resources capable of system-thinking, and more so with senior professionals now successful enough to spare time for the betterment of the profession.

Every professional must grow to pick up a role, and hence some senior architects who are far above survival struggle must rise to the occasion to serve the cause of the profession. It is a moral duty of chosen few in each human generation to take this up.

Profession of architecture is too precious, so we can’t let it go gentle into the good night.

If architects need an anthem for this seemingly hopeless war, it is already penned by Dylan Thomas:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.”

India needs its architects, and you must not fail her.

Awaiting for you to rise,

A citizen who understands what you can do for the nation.

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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