Working with Moving Parts: 2020 Vision, Resilience and Response in Architectural Practice

It was the end of the work day in late September. Our team was still remote after the lockdown reopened, but I worked in the studio from time to time. I was sitting in my chair with my feet up on my desk, enjoying the rain pouring outside my window. After a while, the sound of the rain began to seem oddly louder, reverberating and more urgent. I happened to glance down and to my shock my chair was already submerged in rain water that was rapidly and violently gushing into the office. Looking back, for me, this would be the defining moment of the year 2020. Hyderabad was under water for weeks, for the first time in over a hundred years. Our studio remained waterlogged for over ten days, something no one saw coming, or could have avoided.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

~Robert Burns

The events of 2020 were something no contingency plan could have taken into account. It is from a position of recognized privilege that I write this. We were able to see the flood as an opportunity to throw out the old, make space for the new. To start over afresh, tabula rasa, is a privilege not affordable by all. The effects of any disaster are manifold and multilayered. The whole world was directly impacted by the pandemic and the lockdown, our city was additionally affected by the flood, and though our damages stop there, there are many sections of society that are continually affected by additional misfortunes. When we began to look outside ourselves, we saw the larger-scale problems being faced by disadvantaged people and communities, with the odds stacked steeply against their struggle. Hundreds of people die in our country on a daily basis due to hunger, pandemic or no pandemic. Hunger is the real virus without a cure. During the lockdown, it was migrant workers, construction workers and daily-wage earners in the informal sector who were exponentially impacted, finding themselves without sources of income or homes overnight.

As the lockdown was announced, just like everyone else, we had to work exclusively online. We have long questioned, What is the role of an architect? It is not as limiting as defined by educational institutions and the architectural community itself. An academician, a researcher, a theoretician, a computational designer, an environmental planner, a writer or podcaster, a furniture or graphic designer from an architecture background is as much an architect as an independent practitioner with built architectural projects. However, the spotlight is skewed in favor of practitioners and starchitects. In order to open up discourse around the role of an architect and to introduce students and young architects to the various possibilities in architecture, we brought together architects from different cities internationally, who have chosen vastly different career paths, in a virtual lecture series called the Road Less Traveled. It was attended by students of architecture and budding professionals from all over the world. At the same time, we questioned ourselves, What is the role of an architect in times of crisis? Again, there are many roles. The one we took on was to channelize funds from this lecture series toward relief efforts by volunteer organizations for migrant and daily-wage workers, a small contribution to help reinforce the backbone of the construction industry. We called this movement #StarvetheHungerVirus.

I believe good architecture is resilient and good architects are resilient. The architect of today must adapt and respond quickly to the rapidly changing demands of the project, of practice, and of the profession. The role of an architect is not static, but ever-evolving.

This was a lesson learned while working on our first large-scale built project, a charity school for children from disadvantaged backgrounds inside the Golconda Fort in Hyderabad. It was a project riddled with challenges that taught us to think fast in response to curve balls that came at us from every direction. The context was a low-rise, high-density settlement within the walls of the 800-year-old fort, a heritage zone. The fort is situated on top of a hill covered with sheet rock dating back 250 million years, and this formed a cliff that cut through the site, dividing it into two different levels with a 20’ drop in between. In this tight context, and with a limited budget, we had our work cut out for us. After outlining our principles which we wouldn’t compromise (protecting existing trees and rocks, preserving open space, low energy, and natural ventilation), everything else was dictated by the demands of the site, the built form molding itself to the unpredictable terrain and profiles of the rock uncovered at every stage during excavation. The process was an adaptive, responsive and participatory one in which the teachers, students and execution team played active roles.

Many of the design decisions were ad hoc and in situ, like sketching directly on the rock to convey revisions or changes. We involved the carpenter in the design of the library while I was abroad, defining parameters and guidelines, then coordinating the fabrication process over WhatsApp. The school has now taken on a significance in the neighborhood beyond its intended role, acting as a makeshift clinic for vaccination and an awareness center for environmental consciousness of the community at large, something we could not have predicted and did not plan for. Sometimes it is better not to plan for everything, and not to design everything, leaving room for interpretation and user-defined spaces in the future life of the building, allowing it to evolve over time like a living organism. The role of the architect in this case becomes more high-level, and the architect can relinquish control over the design process. The results of this bottom-up approach are impossible to predict but often more rewarding than a controlled, top-down process. 

I have always aimed to create opportunities that I longed for when I was a student and recent graduate.

One of the experiences I found lacking as an undergrad student of architecture and working in small studios was the exposure to the construction site. Earlier in 2020, we began an initiative called BuildAware (a construction partner to our interdisciplinary design and experimental architecture studio, DesignAware) that would allow us better control over the execution of our designs and their quality, delivering built spaces almost as a product rather than a service. (Who’s crazy enough to start a new venture in a pandemic? Well, we are!) Under this initiative, we started a long-term educational program called _studio to site_ that takes students and young architects, designers and engineers to our live sites for hands-on learning and engagement throughout the construction process, experiencing it from conception to realization. It also gives architects the confidence to exercise their authority on site, answering the question, What is the role of an architect on the construction site? When construction activity was halted temporarily during the lockdown, we moved this program online, where participants learned about project management, site safety and stages of construction.

What is unique and unprecedented about the situation we are in now is that the whole world is going through a shared experience together. Herein lies an opportunity. As the world began to work exclusively online and remotely, geography ceased to be a determining factor in selecting what projects to take up and whom to work with. Though we have regularly worked remotely for well over a decade (our current team is spread out over three continents), now most professionals and organizations are opening up to opportunities for collaboration with people from the other side of the planet, and this allowed us to work with clients as well as colleges globally, all from home. During the lockdown and afterwards, we visited sites in India and abroad remotely via video calls, designed a restaurant in London, worked on various projects for the Government of Telangana (who were actively taking up work that benefited from the absence of traffic on the roads), attended design juries internationally, taught workshops in partnership with colleges in China and USA, as well as a workshop series that saw participation from all over the world through the year. We were able to collaborate with various international organizations, including the London Festival of Architecture, Turenscape Academy, the Boston Architectural College, Facebook, and the European Cultural Commission, to name a few. We also initiated an experimental remote internship, taking in interns from far-flung locations. As such, 2020 was spent working round-the-clock between timezones. Demonstrating that it is possible to work remotely, the floodgates of collaboration have been opened, and they will most likely remain so. 

Architects must be proactive instead of reactive, able and willing to take aim at moving targets. It is important not to view working remotely as an imposition or inconvenience, rather as a means of generating opportunities that become possible through remote work. For example, through online juries, we can invite international guest critics to the remotest of locations, as we recently did during a Fractals Workshop at the Kerala State Institute of Design. I would prefer never to go back to the old system of in-person juries at all, when it is now possible for students to gain access to international expertise and exposure.

A few of our ongoing experiments are only made possible through remote collaboration. Architecture is not just about solving existing problems but also imagining new worlds and scenarios that do not yet exist. Video games allowed us to build utopian worlds that were free of the problems of the real world, a means of escape from reality. Virtual reality spaces (that we can design ourselves) are extended reality and can create online communities when social interaction in the real world has been curtailed, but further, bring together people from across the world in one space. VR also frees us from the constraints of the real world: gravity, scale, boundaries. We created one such space as a part of the Fractals Workshop in partnership with the Boston Architectural College. Following an online generative design workshop, the computational models created by the students have been assembled in a virtual exhibition hosted on Mozilla Hubs. As further versions of the workshop series produce more design iterations, the exhibition will be augmented and continue to grow. The perpetual exhibition is designed to be self-paced and investigated by anyone, solo or socially. It is a developing space that we intend to grow and continuing sharing together.

Another project in the works is a remote-build concept in collaboration with Turenscape Academy, China. This workshop combines the ideas of remote design and remote build: an online workshop whose results can be manifested as large-scale installations on site at the Turenscape Academy, but without visiting the site itself. Participants anywhere in the world can remotely control the fabrication process through digitally-controlled prototyping equipment and augmented reality tools that allow for control of the assembly process of student-designed, reconfigurable tectonic construction systems. There is no value in new tools and systems if they are not applied to ideas and processes that rely entirely on the innovation made possible by these tools and systems.

I strongly believe that only when you become comfortable with uncertainty can you innovate and evolve. Just as in business, when a particular direction ceases to produce desired results, we must pivot. We are getting used to working with moving parts, the involvement of multiple independent, discrete parameters, shifting goal posts, and no guidebook.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

~Bruce Lee
Our hybrid internship with some interns working from their home towns and some in the studio.

This essay was originally published in the April 2021 issue of the Journal of the IIA, under the theme of “Resilience.”

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