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Ring-fencing won’t rescue architecture

Competent practitioners have established design value by producing buildings worthy of commendation. A view of the India Habitat Centre.

Competent practitioners have established design value by producing buildings worthy of commendation. A view of the India Habitat Centre.   | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

Recently, the Supreme Court put to rest the decades-old dispute between the professional twins: engineers and architects. To the relief of engineers, it ruled that architects do not hold a monopoly over architectural services and that engineers and others could freely offer them. To the crestfallen architects, it assured them that only qualified candidates registered with the Council of Architecture (CoA), the statutory body, could call themselves ‘architects’.

Agitated architects fear that this ruling will dilute standards, decimate businesses, and put their already struggling profession in a greater crisis. Calls to amend the Act that underpins this judgment and ensure that the practice is protected are growing louder.

Also read | ‘Let architects design buildings’

The profession indeed is in deep trouble, but not for the reasons architects attribute. It is because the profession is beset with many problems that are internal to it. Demand for monopoly is only damagingly distracting architects from real issues.

Limited clientele

First, let us turn to the fears that torment architects. Currently, there are about 1,06,000 professionals registered as architects. Soon, the country’s 463 architecture colleges will add about another 20,000 graduates every year. Even if the market picks up in future, as some optimistically predict, architects do not think that more construction will mean more opportunities. Only a small group of clientele nurtures design talent and is mostly limited to private homes and institutions.

The government, one of the largest builders, and the IT sector, the new patrons, have unfortunately not supported best design practices. Given the constraints, architects believe that ring-fencing the practice will enhance the demand for their services. This idea not only reeks of naiveté but, importantly, will never get the sanction.

Until 1900, engineers were India’s prevalent building professionals. Subsequently, the colonial government started commissioning designers. Only in 1929, architects organised themselves to form a professional group, the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA), with a meagre 158 members. Inspired by the passing of the Architects (Registration) Act in 1931 in England, the IIA lobbied for their own Act to protect the practice. After many attempts, they finally managed to get the Architects Bill tabled in Parliament in 1968.

Fierce debates ensued; engineers and contractors opposed attempts to restrict the profession. A 45-member Joint Parliamentary committee scrutinised the Bill and concluded that spatial design, aesthetic considerations, structural safety and construction were entwined in the making of a building. Architecture appeared as collaborative production and the architect, a team member. The committee decided not to restrict architectural practice but recommended the protection of the title and style of ‘architect’. The Parliament passed the Act with limited scope in 1972.

Since then, architects have been unable to convince the state that conditions have changed and the Act needs revision. On the other hand, design and construction services have grown in complexity, and so has the necessity for more experts to collaborate. Besides, society and the state both believe that competition provides better services, and helps purchase them efficiently. In such a pro-consumer and anti-trust climate, demands for restriction will not find support.

Fluid boundaries

Demarcating jurisdictional boundaries, as Andrew Abbott, the noted sociologist’s seminal work “The System of Professions” explains, is central to the emergence of any profession. However, these boundaries should not be perceived as permanent. Though building design remains with architects and execution with engineers, such divisions are, in practice, in a flux. Some architects continue to venture into exploring structures and construction, while large construction firms employ many architects and offer design services. Clients also play an influential role in blurring boundaries. Many of them prefer to reduce transaction costs and increase efficiency, and thus seek large firms which offer integrated building services. The market is pushing architects and engineers to partner, and the sooner architects take a pragmatic view, the quicker they can focus on the real threats facing the profession.

The first concern is the limited constituency for good design. An injunction is neither possible nor will guarantee an increase in demand. The solution lies in exploring and following what architects have done to establish the profession thus far. Competent practitioners have established design value and gained reputation by producing buildings worthy of commendation. India Habitat Centre in Delhi, Ashwinikumar Crematorium in Surat, Jetavan learning centre in Maharashtra, are cases in point. They have also changed the perception that architecture is a metropolitan vocation. Currently, some of the best professionals are in smaller cities, such as Thrissur and Belagavi. The way forward is to keep at it and repeatedly construct exemplar buildings.

The second issue is the profession’s diminishing appeal to young talents. Anecdotal evidence indicates entry-level graduate salary is about ₹15,000 to ₹20,000, which is amongst the lowest. Even the salary growth over a five-year period is low. Given the fact that among the total registered architects, more than 60% are below 35 years old, this is a daunting problem. Fair competition, a gateway for young architects to establish practice, is also unavailable. If neglected, this issue will force prospective students to shun the profession. The failure of architects as a collective is most visible in this regard, and that is the third issue.

Failure of professional bodies

There are many exceptional architects, but their professional bodies have failed. The IIA and Council of Architecture (CoA) have so far not compiled any reliable data on the state of the profession. No survey of earnings, work demand, employment levels, and future strategies exist. Successful professional organisations around the world do not function like this. The task is to recast the collective to drive excellence, strengthen the knowledge base, and function as an influential think tank.

All professions seek to enhance prestige, control, and earnings. However, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre cautions that these are external goods produced by practice, and are vulnerable to social conditions. What is enduring are the internal goods of practice, which are high standards of excellence, the capacity to achieve them, and the feeling of well-being of practitioners when accomplishing them. Mr. MacIntyre would convincingly argue this is what matters. The final and pivotal task then is to turn inward, strengthen practice and keep architecture relevant.

The author is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Views personal

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Printable version | Aug 13, 2020 11:03:02 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/ring-fencing-wont-rescue-architecture/article32095041.ece

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