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The Steady Decline of Architecture in India Points to an Increasingly Chaotic Future

Without trained architects, urban and rural development will be unruly and disorganised. So why has the Council of Architecture failed to understand the value of its own profession?

As small towns across India expand and grow into cities, providing employment to large numbers of people, urban development continues apace. For integrated, organised urban development, India needs trained architects. Every development, be it a small meeting venue or a cluster of residences in remote areas, benefits from the thoughtful intervention of a trained architect. The importance of such professional input is unfortunately not recognised.

From the mid-1990s onward, the number of young qualified architects India produces has multiplied. From just 12 schools of architecture in 1972, India now has 463 approved schools adding 20,000 graduates to the profession every year. But these newly-minted architects enter a profession that has lost its value and has been steadily downgraded. Many of the new schools are nothing more than money-making machines, admitting a large number of students without adequate experienced staff to provide proper training. The teaching programmes are supposed to be approved by the Council of Architecture (CoA), a statutory body, but unfortunately there is no system of periodic checking.

It is only when new architecture graduates look for jobs that the wide gap between the students’ abilities and the actual professional need becomes apparent. Faced with this situation, many graduates think it simpler to set up their own practice. The CoA admits them as members after they produce a certificate showing that they have worked for one year in a professional office. As a result, large numbers of poorly-trained graduates duly registered with the CoA begin practice, flooding the market with poor professional services. They are also most likely to flout rules and regulations.

The CoA needs to stop this kind of degradation by changing the rules to ensure fresh graduates work for a minimum period of two or three years under the guidance of an architect with a minimum of 10 years of professional experience. Following this, the CoA should conduct a professional practice examination to check basic competence before admitting new architects as members. This will both protect the reputation of the CoA and ensure a certain minimum level of competence among its members. So far, there has been a failure both on the part of the schools to train students to face the realities of professional practice and on the part of the CoA to protect the interests of the profession. Both issues are closely interrelated.

Many schools are charging unreasonable fees from students without taking into account either the current state of the profession or the kind of financial situation young graduates are faced with after completing the course. Recently, the privately-owned Sushant School of Architecture in Gurugram in the national capital region arbitrarily increased the annual fees to be paid by final year students from Rs 2.9 lakh to Rs 7.03 lakh, an additional Rs 4.13 lakh over the annual fee of Rs 2.9 lakh paid by all students in the five-year programme, for which there is no justification. Is the Sushant (formerly Ansal) University, of which this college is a part, claiming that their architecture graduates are better trained? Sadly, these fresh graduates will still be paid the same Rs 25,000 to 30,000 per month as graduates from other architecture schools, which is a pittance after paying such an exorbitant sum for a five-year course.

Sushant is not an exception. Almost all private educational institutions have become money-making machines, taking advantage of a large number of students hoping to be able to earn a reasonable salary after the completion of their studies and totally ignorant of the reality they will have to face. It is time the CoA took note of this issue and drafted a reasonable maximum scale of fees that may be charged by architecture schools.

The decline in teaching quality

The degradation of the profession started in the mid-’90s, with the Ministry of Education, then called the Ministry of Human Resource Development, issuing a notification that disallowed teachers of architecture from engaging in professional practice. This happened at a time when many of those who were teaching were also actively involved in the process of developing a new Indian architecture. Many of them gave up their full time teaching jobs but maintained a part time connection with the institutions where they were teaching. However, over time this brought about a split between the teaching and the practice of architecture, which has had a serious negative impact on the quality of education.

In due course, many of the older schools of architecture were converted into deemed universities. Since teachers in these institutions could not practice, some of them prepared a professional thesis and got a masters’ degree or a PhD which entitled them to be appointed as tenured professors at a handsome salary. It would have been good if they had coupled continuing research with teaching, but this has not happened and with the divorce of the link with actual design and construction, the quality of teaching has nosedived. This has had serious consequences on the profession as a whole, with the increased number of schools and the large number of inadequately-skilled graduates.

The Council of Architecture is born

The CoA was set up by the government under the provisions of the Architects Act 1972 to approve and oversee all institutions in the country that were conducting courses in architecture. The CoA also defined the scope of comprehensive architectural services along with the scale of professional charges. The CoA has a total of 52 members, including 35 architects who are state government nominees, five heads of architectural institutions, five representatives of the Indian Institute of Architects, six representatives of other institutions and a nominee of the central government. Although 45 of the 52 members are architects, this large majority has failed to safeguard the interests of the profession.

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Today this vast, unwieldy body has lost its meaning, unable to enforce its regulations in the face of blatant flouting of the prescribed professional charges or the code of practice, unable to control various government actions. There is a prescribed scale of professional charges included in the council’s charter which has been rendered meaningless by the addition of a clause that states that for works costing up to Rs 14 lakhs, the professional fees may be negotiated between the architect and the client. As far as government authorities are concerned, this gives them free rein to call for bids and negotiate fees for all size of projects, making a mockery of the fee scale.

Impressive main building at IIT Delhi built in the mid 1950s with hyperbolic paraboloid covering main hall. Architect: J.K. Chowdhury. Photo: IIT Delhi official website

Loss of control by the council

The process of deterioration began a couple of decades ago, with government agencies inviting architects to submit bids for projects, which the architects should not have accepted. They should have insisted that the CoA norms be followed both in letter and spirit and the CoA should have cancelled the membership of architects who flouted CoA guidelines. Because of the silence of the CoA, government agencies have persisted with even more blatant aggressive action.

Like contractors, architects are now often asked to submit earnest money to obtain the conditions for bid for specific projects and all manner of arbitrary restrictions are included, like being asked to show that they have done a minimum value of work worth so many hundreds or thousands of crores within the last financial year in order for their bids to be considered.

Other professionals like lawyers and chartered accountants have enforced regulations to ensure that their domain is not encroached upon. Why has the CoA not taken similar action? The CoA has even failed in its attempt to prevent engineers from claiming that they are as capable as architects to design buildings.

CoA members have allowed government representatives to insist on a series of actions which have degraded the quality of schools of architecture approved by them and destroyed professional credibility. Unlike other professions, the teaching of architecture calls for a close relationship with actual professional practice and hands-on involvement with construction is essential. Without this, young graduates face a shock when they join a professional office, as they have no idea of what real design for implementation is all about. 

The need for qualified professionals

In a July 2020 article, a professor from a reputable school of architecture states that ‘the clientele for design talent has shrunk’ and that is why architecture has lost its importance. This is an incorrect statement, because the number of people in need of architectural and planning services has actually multiplied. Government agencies who assist citizens in rural areas have failed to recognise the importance of planning. They have failed to ensure that development decisions are related to long-term needs and not short-sighted.

Planning is a process that helps to integrate various elements, including the building of a comprehensive transportation system, a services infrastructure, the provision of health and educational services and the framework to maintain law and order, which cater to the needs of all sections of society. Just providing toilets in every home without linking them to a process of overall health and cleanliness is not planning. Architects and planners are trained to visualise problems within the larger framework, but this is something that is not recognised.

In rural areas, planning for the future is essential to ensure that an orderly framework is in place to control inevitable change. With the help of the latest available technology, it is possible to map large regional areas and prepare plans with virtual urban simulation systems to ensure the proper evaluation of different options. Qualified professionals therefore need to be actively involved in all stages of planning for the future and for this they should be adequately compensated.

The steady decline of creative new architecture

It would be good to remind young architects that in the period from the early 1960s to the end of the last century, although there were fewer architects, several seminal projects were implemented. Consider the projects that were put together for the Festival of India in Paris in 1985-1986 and the article published in the French magazine Techniques & Architecture in its August-September 1985 edition, referring to a whole new generation exploring a new Indian architecture. This work is worth looking at and examining for the number of original concepts that were developed. It was free from the copy-paste approach being followed by many young architects today.

It is not the clientele’s wishes that have become limited but it is the architects who have lost their way. They have succumbed to the temptation of quick solutions picked up from examples across the world. Artificial intelligence has played its part by providing ready access to work being done elsewhere, allowing for the fast reproduction of superficial solutions. Many of today’s buildings and facades reflect an increasing mishmash of the vast range of finishing products available in the market. Architects are lured to use these materials on the pretext of creating exciting new visual effects, which are ill-conceived without much thought to their suitability. Architecture and interior design magazines are full of a variety of colourful advertisements which become compendiums to dip into, to enable something new for each project. Professional magazines with thoughtful critical comments are few and often good content is drowned in promotional data.

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This same superficiality has now taken over much of what passes for architecture and good design. As a result, there is a general perception that there is a limited constituency available for good, original architecture and design. Having picked up work at professional fees which are inadequate to cover the cost of professional service, architects are resorting to the easy way out.

Succumbing to corruption

Architects in practice today have accepted the prevailing situation and have resorted to devious means to ensure adequate financial returns for themselves, including the acceptance of kickbacks from contractors and suppliers of products.

It is of interest to quote part of a letter from a young architect practicing in Allahabad:

As a young professional I see most of the people I know are okay with unfair means to get building plans sanctioned. It is very normal and nobody is surprised that there is a process where you can file a drawing and make something else on the site by giving some amount of money to the employees of the local development authorities. I see it everywhere, qualified professionals fooling poor people.”

This is the state that the profession has been reduced to today.

Mughal Hotel Agra built in 1974 awarded the first Aga Khan Award 1980. Architect: Arcop Design Group. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Increasing cost of running an office

Members of the CoA, one presumes, are aware of the steadily increasing cost of running a professional practice. All over the country the preparation of drawings and documents are being digitised and even local authorities are now asking for digital submission. Externally it appears as if everything has become simpler and easier, without realising that it comes at considerable cost to the architectural firms. Architects now have to rely on software such as Autocad, Revit, 3DS MAX and Sketchup for drafting and modelling, plus Lumion Prop, Photoshop and ArchiCAD for graphics and visualisation, for which they have to pay an annual sum of

Rs 6.5 lakh for nine separate licences. Because software licences have to be renewed every year, the cost of running a professional practice has increased significantly. Companies selling software have been authorised to raid offices that they suspect are using software that has not been paid for. Professional offices now have to also change hardware every few years, which adds further to the cost of running of a practice.

The declining quality of design in government projects

Because of the inadequate professional fees paid by government agencies, the quality of design in government projects all over the country is abysmal. Architects are forced to limit office expenses and do so by adopting the simplest way of doing minimal work in the shortest possible time. Why spend much time on serious thought to find good innovative solutions? Design one simple block and if the project so permits, just repeat the block multiple times. This is the kind of work being done for government housing projects.

The clients, all government engineers and bureaucrats, are happy that their work of implementation has been made easier. Why bother to ensure that there is proper light or ventilation in the individual apartments and design screens to avoid seeing underwear hanging out to dry in balconies? This is what one sees at Delhi’s East Kidwai Nagar housing project implemented by NBCC – a government organisation that has been entrusted with thousands of crores worth of government work.

NBCC is one of the biggest builders in the country today. Unfortunately, in terms of both quality of construction and management, it is hopelessly outdated. There is no attempt to use new and improved systems of construction. There is no quality control. There are no pert (programme evaluation review technique) charts which plan in detail the sequence of various items of work to be implemented along with the time involved. And there is no proper project management to ensure overall time and cost control. NBCC charges a flat 15% above the total cost of a project as a professional service charge. Government authorities are happy to pay this charge but are not willing to pay the 5% or 6% professional fee to architects.

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Developers all over the country are following the lead provided by government builders like NBCC and continue to make a sizeable profit. They are quite happy to pay large amounts as professional fees for design proposals to foreign architects for their symbolic value, but are not willing to pay similar fees to their Indian counterparts who do the detailed design, prepare working drawings and oversee actual implementation. If architects are working for the government at reduced fees, why should the developers pay them more?

They have even gone to further extremes to squeeze the professional fees payable to architects. Consider this: A large development firm recently invited bids from a shortlisted group of firms for services that included architectural design and working drawings, all interiors, landscape design, structural design, all electrical and mechanical services including air conditioning, on a lump sum basis. After receiving the bids, all firms were informed of the amount that each firm had quoted. They were then invited to submit revised bids in order to see who was willing to do the work for much lower than the original lowest bid. It is difficult to visualise a more humiliating and degraded situation for professionals to be reduced to. 

NBCC Plaza, Vadodara Gujarat by NBCC. A typical example of poorly conceived current architecture with different unrelated elements. Photo: NBCC website

PDIL Noida Office. A
large office building with a series of unrelated elements arbitrarily imposed on the facade. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Architects need to unite and call for change

It is therefore time for architects to come together to reassert themselves and insist on their value being recognised. It is quite obvious that change is called for and this is not likely to happen on the initiative of bureaucrats or politicians. Young architects will need to get together in large numbers from all parts of the country and push the CoA to bring about change in order to protect their own long term interests. If this is not done now, the conditions for the practice of architecture will continue to steadily deteriorate.

Ranjit Sabikhi is an architect and urban designer. He was formerly Professor of Urban Design at the School of Planning & Architecture, Delhi.