Architects, not all, will perhaps offer a convincing reason for choosing the subject and the profession. Dialectics may vary from wanting to beautify the environment to contributing to the nation's infrastructural development, or more rudimentarily, from being inspired by Montu Kaka, to simply “bhallage”. In being bent towards skin-deep beautification, the architecture student may unknowingly convey to the less informed public as well as the engineers that his work is superficial. In truth, the wisdom of architecture is experienced by a content user and the visitor to an edifice (or space) without essentially understanding the cause of their joy.
I too had a reason. Letter marks in two SSC math papers did not dispel my trepidation about numbers. Thus, a misconception that the five-year course had nothing to do with numerals led me enthusiastically to the hallowed corridors of my department at BUET.
Little did I know that courses on Structure was all about bending moment and kips, Electrical Equipment about ohms and watts, Mechanical Services about differential equations, Plumbing about head pressure and thermal expansion, and of course there was maths in every sense of the word. In the end however they all made sense because honestly any part of a syllabus I ignored during studentship came back in vengeance; it's mathematical components greatly retarding till today my architectural design performance. Ignorance is not bliss.
Another incidental reason, though I had no way of knowing, was my 1972 batch was at the helm of women's revolution in technology education in Bangladesh. Almost a third of my thirty-five classmates were girls. After almost forty-five years, despite ups and downs, and breakups, we remain friends in split clusters. Together we roamed the terraces of the Roman Forum, we scaled the pyramid of Cheops, we orated by the stones of Parthenon, we braved the waves to reach Elephanta, we meditated at Paharpur, and we discovered light and shade at Shalban Bihar and in the courtyards of Ruplal House and Baro Bari.
We created castles with dots and lines, composed soaring skyscrapers with cardboard planes, and crafted space with voids in the same classroom but with unimaginable variations. Unintentional plagiarism is not possible in my profession. Today we make palaces for middleclass customers, build bridges between communities, compel a pedestrian to whistle as he strolls by a wall, and make children shout in joy in spaces that have attained the status of architecture. The architect must enjoy the moment of designing, be it with pencil or on a keyboard; I do. It has to be his passion.
The foremost quality of an architect is to understand and serve people, not only his paymaster client, but also members of the public whom he may never get to meet. The architect has to comprehend common human behaviour in delineating his dots, lines and planes, solids and voids, colours and shades of grey.
Through interpretation of the human mind, evaluation of the environs, choosing between materials and appreciating the usual financial constraints, counteracted with overwhelming client needs, architecture can meet the changing physical, socio-cultural and psychological aspirations of users. As a master of meaningfully juggling building components, the architect conceives better places in more liveable communities.
In his continuous endeavour to seek for the users a hospitable relationship between the inside and the outside, often the threshold, the architect is a natural guardian of the environment. The successful architect leaves a place better than when he first visited the site, like Baden-Powell's Scout, whom he implored before his death in 1941 to “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it…”
The architect can only deliver with brilliance through incessant knowledge and keen observation. An architect who has stopped to learn and perceive is a dead architect. A practising architect is trained by numerous design exercises well beyond his academic life to attain the ability to walkabout in his proposed building even before ground has been broken. There lies his advantage over others, especially his client, who may need the impossible life-size model to do the same.
Whereas there are countless factors contributing to an architectural design, the most important and decisive one must be “the client”. I am a proponent of my own adage that “Good architecture depends on a good client”. The building owner, a Board of Directors or an individual, public or private, should allow the architect to work independently for a scheduled time to achieve a worthwhile proposal that he will obviously defend, or risk being replaced. Real- life drama is a tragedy with many clients unduly and unnecessarily interfering at design and execution stages, resulting in a hodgepodge of widened rooms, truncated toilets, poor lighting and ventilation, and puzzling circulation. The situation is terrible during construction when some clients even befriend the contractor, mason and carpenter.
Post-construction phase takes yet another turn. If others commend the building, then the owner will claim all credit. If he is married, then it's his wife who gave all the major instructions. If however there are complaints here and there, then we all know who the client will blame, although it was he who meddled out of turn.
The same client diligently never intervenes in the decision of his medical doctor for fear of his life. Nor does he stick his nose in engineering matters for fear of the building collapsing or becoming electromechanically non-functional. Since he is certain that defying the architect will not lead to his death or that of the building, he assumes the role of Tutankhamun. This is where he is grossly wrong. Losses incurred in an architecturally badly designed building include negative effects on the health and mental wellbeing of residents. The otherwise benefits to those who view from outside are also negated.
In the national context, by undermining the role of the architect, some ministers, secretaries, corporate chairs and department directors have been doing harm at the cost of public money. In many cases, their lackeys encourage them to defy the architect and assume the function of an “expert”. These administrative, non-technical bosses decide what is “best” for the building. The concern of the country and interest of the public are swept under their thick carpet.
Let the physician attend to your health needs. Let the engineer steady your mansion. Let the shoeshine man polish your boots. Let the chef prepare your wedding biryani. For creating better buildings and inspiring urban spaces, and rural, for a better environment, let the trained experts do their work. That is best for you and the nation.
P.S. This column also calls out to architects to carry out their duties responsibly with accountability and dependability.
Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed is a practising architect, a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.