As the city gets crowded with some really ugly structures, here is why architects must learn to design for context rather than for signature

Architecture today is undergoing a transition from being a holistic art and science of building, or sometimes even the understanding of when not to build, to its current interpretation as cosmetic surgery and cake decoration. It is disconcerting to observe Louis Sullivan’s pioneering dictum of ‘form follows function’ distorted to a more Frankensteinian idea that the form of a building can be viewed and designed in isolation from its plan and purpose. A case in point is when architects are appointed to design only a building’s elevations or retrofit an existing building to make it ‘contemporary’. Architecture is fast becoming equated with elevation design which, in turn, is viewed as packaging mediocrity with whatever colour, material or shape is in vogue. Worse is when architects focus all their energy into designing the so-called all-important ‘front’ elevation, while the other sides receive a step-motherly treatment.

Disharmony in the treatment of a building’s facades or giving undue significance to just the road-facing facade is design immaturity. There may be vantage points from which a building is perceived best; notwithstanding that, it is not within the architect’s remit to wilfully discount the creative input needed for the ‘non-front’ facades. Ply, sheets, steel, glass and many other nouveau materials now find their way in varying degrees to building facades. Invariably, by inappropriate application, they suffocate the character of the spaces they envelop. It’s the desire to make appropriateness and contextuality exciting but not expensive that leads to innovation, which is what architecture today is in dire need of.

Buildings are systems, like the human body or a plant. Unless form and function complement each other, the end result will be a product with multiple personalities or worse, no personality. It must also be remembered that buildings are also viewed at nights.

How many buildings today, imposing in daylight, have any street presence after dark?

A good city is a tapestry. Of built and unbuilt, open and enclosed, place-makers and backgrounds. Not every building can become iconic but to create beautiful cities, it is important that eyesores and clones are minimised. Buildings in suburbia should be governed by different priorities than those for high-density, high-rise zones. Elevations of buildings in a commercial area need to be viewed differently from buildings in a nature or heritage conservation area.

The idea that avant-garde can actually accentuate tradition has to be understood by planners, architects and clients. The government should ensure that approval committees are composed of design-savvy professionals with exposure to design best practices in the rest of the world.

Elevations, once approved by statutory authorities, should not be permitted to be changed. Officials in statutory bodies must realise that allowing a stilt + 2 in an area of G + 1 might yield almost the same result in terms of density but completely alter the architectural character of the area.

In creating buildings and their elevations, the signature of the context is more important than the signature of the architects. It is only right that buildings look designed for their sites in specific places in the world than that they look designed by a particular architect in whichever part of the world they are located in. Let buildings not allow their facades to be crowded and marred by signages that are out of scale. Let the buildings have facades that don’t shout ‘look at me’ through garish make-up.

Let buildings and their facades be well articulated. Let them be easy to maintain and energy-efficient. Let them age gracefully and be sustainable, be a joy to look at as well as use. Let the buildings of tomorrow communicate — with the pedestrian and the motorist, with the environment, with time. Facades are important tools that architects possess. They are to a building’s spaces what eyes are to one’s soul. They have to be treated with the care and respect that they deserve.

1. Architects must realise that there’s more to buildings than just their front facades

2. When form outshines function, structures suffer from no personality or multiple personalities

3. In design, the signature of the context is more important than the signature of the architect

The writer is Dean, McGan’s Ooty School of Architecture, and Partner at Clay Onions, an architecture, project management and sustainability consultancy.