Learning to teach, teaching to learn

No opinion is worth having if you cannot use it or convey it to other people. Gautam Bathia, a well-known Indian architect, rightly pointed out that the purpose of gaining experience is not just to put your experience into practice. It is also about passing it on. Practising your experience and passing it on to others to do with what they will are equally important. And do not make the mistake of thinking that this will help the next generation. If you do it right, it might. More importantly, it will help you. The ability to convey what you think in words and images, your ability to describe concepts and forms will help you. It will help you formulate the problems you are being confronted with. And formulating the problem is rightly seen as the main step in solving it. It will help you in discussions with other interested people: the client the contractor etc. It will help you pass on your experience when it is time for you to pass on. Being articulate will make you think with greater depth, with better machinery. It will make you ask more interesting questions.


Therefore: During your course in architecture, you will be asked to practice asking questions, thinking, talking and writing about ideas and about buildings. You will be asked to describe buildings. You will perhaps be asked to write essays, book reviews, perhaps a full-size monograph, even a manifesto.


Remember: Education is about becoming aware of things, naming the bits that make up the vast wealth of our experience. Being aware means that you know how those things are related to other things. That awareness allows you to know what a certain activity entails. What do you need to do something well? In our case the activity entails the design of buildings. By becoming increasingly aware of what design entails, it is hoped you will become competent designers, conscious of all the different pressures brought to bear on the design of buildings. That way you will acquire the habit of asking the right questions.


To create a good design we need to be able to use our judgement about what is appropriate within a set of circumstances. Judgement is about making decisions. Decisions are made with options. Options are revealed by one’s intellectual frame of reference. Education is about widening that frame of reference to increase the awareness of one’s options and make one’s judgement as generous as possible. A wide frame of reference is organised according to the most compelling view of the world. You cannot determine that a view of the world is compelling unless you allow yourself to be open to it and make the effort of looking at it sympathetically, before making your judgement. And then, when you have gone through that process you have earned yourself an expensive word: a paradigm.


A paradigm works in two ways for the architect. Firstly he uses it to determine his attitude and approach towards design. In this way the paradigm becomes the organisational principle of the task in hand. It orders and directs the designer’s thinking. The good designer will always take care to always remember that s/he is building for human-beings-who-are-part-of-the-world and that any discipline you introduce in the approach to your design, any system of ordering, placing, sizing, must, in whatever way you like, be connected directly to the human body. Even when you choose to alienate the human body in your building. The only thing that you lose, if you lose that connection, is your control. That is, you lose everything. But even the richest design is desolate if you refuse to look.


The other way a paradigm works is that we use it to look at the world anew. We renew our awareness of it and recreate this world according to the implications and suggestions that emanate from the attempt to understand this paradigm. What evolves is a new world, where the connections and relationships of the everyday, realign themselves along the network of realisations that this new paradigm throws up. It is then when you see how rich the everyday really is. To “deconstruct” a small house on the side of the mountain, for instance, is a rewarding exercise in contemplative philosophy.[1] It is our awareness and re-creation of things in our mind that makes life rich, defining wealth in the fullest way. In our emergence from the twentieth century, we might use our experience to look again at the purposes of buildings. We have not yet learnt to deconstruct architecture with reference to its everyday concerns.


History and theory, are ways to make the student think about those pressures by analysing the way other people and societies have dealt with those pressures. Writing down what you think, is not just a careful re-thinking of the thought but it is an indication of how aware you have become of what it is you are doing. Essays are a way of  appropriating knowledge, making it your own, making it serve your purpose. They are an indication of your awareness of the world around you. The most essential activity in that process of becoming aware is that of description.


[1] Philosophers who have done just that include Martin Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard and Jean-François Lyotard. The poetic qualities of the small house can also be found in Caribbean Literature such as the writings of V.S. Naipaul or the poems of Derek Walcott.