The Practice of Architecture: Traditional and Contemporary

There are inevitable features common to the practice and planning of architecture in both earlier and contemporary times. At the same time, there are obvious differences resulting from social, technological and cultural changes. Ironically, an important difference between the architecture of the past and that of the present period of human existence is the decrease in the general quality of architecture and urban space—despite the apparent increase in choice of construction methods, materials and technological skills. Why has this happened?

It may be useful to attempt to answer this by first discussing the method of conceptualising and practising architecture in contemporary and traditional contexts. This is, after all, the first stage in the process of realizing the built forms that we finally see, encounter or live in. For most architects today, the first step in visualizing a building or a group of buildings, is to draw out their conceptual ideas as sketches or more often as ‘plans’. Architectural drawings are thus, essentially receptacles of ideas. These ideas are communicated in a partially specialized language.

In traditional architecture too, some form of drawing was employed, though the rules and precepts of such drawing were markedly different from current methods. In the traditional Indian context, the established forms of communciating architectural ideas were prescribed rules of proportion and ornamentation, basic narrative drawings and scale models. This language, while formally codified in sacred texts and manuals such as the Vastushatsras, was in practice transmitted as actual knowledge in a family from father to son, and in the society through guilds.

For designers today, as ideas get more detailed and coherent, the drawing gets more complex and dense. In the present context of formal architectural practice, the initial attempts at design primarily record one’s ideas on paper. On successive ‘visits’ to the drawing, these ideas are evaluated, added to or subtracted from, and then detailed to the extent necessary to translate these into reality. Drawing-making is a continuous process. The final drawing or the final image of the building, is the result of many ‘sittings’ since there is a progression and development of ideas. Essentially, therefore, the drawing literally fleshes out for the designers, their own idea of a building or space from a rudimentary skeleton.

The form of the drawing is also influenced by the method of construction. Or to put it in another way—who the targeted audience of the drawing is. In today’s time, the drawing is meant for a variety of people, starting from the ‘clients’ who will fund it and who often have no clear idea of what they want, to the people who will implement the drawing and transform it into the building (such as consultants, masons, contractors). Therefore, the second purpose of a drawing is to act as a communicator of information without which the building cannot be constructed. Thus, a presentation drawing meant for a client to communicate the salient features of a design and to help him decide the specifications of the final product, is very different from working drawings which contain information necessary to put together the building.

The use of drawings in classical architecture, is well-established. However, in vernacular architecture, the requirement of drawings is more often than not, dispensed with. The existence of shared knowledge makes such a dispensing possible, and removes the necessity or the problem of drawing-making. The reason why drawing-making is perceived as a problem or as an unnecessary activity, is related to economic compulsions. Drawing-making is a specialised and time-consuming activity. In vernacular communities, all the groups comprising the community, even if and when they are specific to the building trade, are interdependent on each other, and are often relatively poor to afford either complete specialization or to undertake building activity in the manner that we are taught today. Resources are also generally comparatively limited at the vernacular level. Therefore, a mason does not necessarily build the entire year round. The clients (generally other villagers or occasionally, even rich landowners) who want to add on or construct new rooms for dwelling or other purposes, do so in stages. These stages coincide with periods of relative affluence.

Relative affluence in a predominately agricultural economy like the traditional Indian one, is related to harvest times. A good harvest may be followed by a spurt in building activity, which would also be the time that less hands are required on the fields. At other times, even if men can be spared from the fields, there are usually insufficient resources to pay a mason in cash or kind. Therefore, building in a vernacular context is generally a piece-meal organic activity. To supplement his special skills, the masons probably also have a subsidiary agricultural occupation, to tide them through the times when their special skills are not solicited.

So the inhabitants in a vernacular community who are engaged in the building trade—master masons, masons, carpenters, labourers, calligraphers, stone-carvers, wood-carvers—may not have continuous employment in building activities. Even when building is relatively continuous, it generally does not stem from just one or two clients. There will in all probability, be many clients, requiring smaller outlays of add-on, repair or adaptation jobs than a start-to-finish project as urban architects are trained today. Therefore, the use of drawings clarifying the ultimate product is not possible, since the ultimate requirements are not known to the client/ users. Additionally, paper in earlier times, was expensive and difficult to find easily; and the time taken to draw in detail and then build was economically un-viable in comparison to drawing basic sketches and building straightaway.
Such a building process was feasible, because of the existence of shared knowledge that was handed down about the acceptable/ comfortable/ appropriate forms of building depending on the region and the climate. This shared knowledge spanned both the image of the building and components and methods of construction. The image of the building extended amongst all the inhabitants of a region, patron, builder, or mason, right from the macro elements of a dwelling—such as the use of orchards as gardens, gatehouse/s, domains of use, courtyards as climate regulators and open-space areas—to micro elements and details such as acceptable and desirable decorative motifs. Therefore, there was unanimity and general consistency in the typology of buildings. To translate this image into reality, knowledge about the different components of a building were shared and divided as guilds or trades, where skill-levels varied but building vocabulary and techniques were passed on from generation to generation. Additionally, methods and materials of construction were limited, and therefore the prescribed ways of using them were few, and known intensively to all the people concerned with the building trade): brickwork, stone-carving, plaster-work, inlay, decoration.

Before the forced intrusion of Modernism, there was a degree of universality about this method of vernacular building—not confined just to the Indian subcontinent or to medieval times. The experience of Lawrence Durrell in the middle of the 20th century while adding to an old house at Bellapaix, a village in Cyprus demonstrates this.
‘…other community needs drew off workmen from one project to another…In the season of olive-pressing or carob-gathering the whole village turned out in a body—and at a blow now lost masons, carpenters, plumbers, everyone. Therefore, in order to build reasonably, one had to plan in short bursts, for such times as one could assemble a whole team.’
p. 90, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, Lawrence Durrell, Faber and Faber limited, London, 1957.

In the case of wealthy, traditional (and not necessarily vernacular) systems of construction also, the use of drawings though more detailed (owing to greater funds and therefore accessibility and availability of both men and materials) was still limited. Time was always a constraint, and there existed the additional advantage of shared knowledge which enabled the patron to extract the most skilled workers for their buildings—as in the case of the Mughal Emperors or the regional kings of various provinces. Thus, in the construction of the Red Fort, architectural models were used primarily only for newer building types, such as the vaulted bazaar of the Chatta Chowk. It is unlikely that the palaces of the Emperor, which were essentially pavilions, would have neccesitated detailed preliminary drawings, since it was a type of building experimented with and perfected in earlier acts of patronage by Shah Jahan.
However, the mere presence of money did not ensure great architecture. The best craftsmen, architects and masons went in search of the most supportive, responsive and prestigious patrons—generally, the emperors or rich noblemen—in the big cities known for patronage of the arts. Many of these would travel across arduous and dangerous stretches to the court of a renowned patron, as in the case of the Persians and Central Asians who flocked to the courts of Akbar, Humayun, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Architecture in smaller towns or even in bigger towns and cities that were far away from the main cultural centres, was noticeably less detailed and refined—in overall proportions, composition and ornamentation. This was true both in the cases where this architecture was a continuation of existing shared building knowledge (traditional dwellings) or an adaptation of a building seen elsewhere by rich vernacular patrons (foreign and regional architectural influences).

Thus, the Prime Ministers of the Mughal Emperors set up rival courts in Hyderabad and Avadh, and sought to emulate and further their example as leading patrons of art and architecture. However, both the Hyderabadi and the Avadhi royal architecture did not achieve the same heights of refined delicacy as that of the imperial Mughal. They display a reduction in refinement as compared to imperial Mughal architecture. Distances also mattered. Thus, Avadhi architecture (closer to the imperial Mughal cities) generally displays more classic proportions and decoration than the Hyderabadi. This is perhaps indicative of the greater willingness of skilled craftsmen to travel and even relocate to the Avadhi court, at a time when travel was difficult and besought with dangers to life and limb. It is understandable that the best craftsmen, most of them already well-established, would be reluctant to undertake far-off commissions. Younger craftsmen, artists and architects might have been tempted to relocate with the desire to win fame and fortune, but it is not necessary that all of them would have been the best. Moreover, the patron also had to have the qualities and the reputation to first, attract, and then second, to inspire good architecture. This is a situation that is common to architecture in all times. Even today, the same architect can produce differing levels of work depending on the aptitude, attitude and orientation of different clients.

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