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Exchange Of Thoughts: ‘Architecture & Communications’ With Prof. J. Subramanian

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

This is a candid interview with veteran architect and Professor: J. Subramanian, Executive Director of STUP group of companies, Technical Director, AEEC; Oman and associated as Adjunct Professor with many architectural colleges pan India. His design philosophies acquired over the years include architecture as an applied form of Art, Buildings to be perceived as well-crafted products and user satisfaction to be of paramount importance. He feels that equally, it is architect’s responsibility to enlighten the user (client). His works are notably influenced by Mies Van Der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, and Pier Luigi Nervi.

Pappal Suneja: Does Concepts/Philosophy answer, Architecture & Design execution related questions?

J. Subramanian: Ideally concepts are to be driven by a philosophy. Also, no concept is valid unless it effectively answers Architecture and Execution related questions. But then the questions themselves have to be raised in a sound and logical manner. Specifically, my design philosophy is to achieve ‘User Satisfaction’. I strongly believe that no architect can be happy with his / her creation unless it primarily satisfies the end ‘User’. This calls for earnestly identifying the users which depend upon the typology of the building. For instance, when I have to design a hospital, I shall try my best to satisfy the needs of all the users - such as patients, doctors, paramedical staff, operations & maintenance staff, etc. This would call for a detailed and objective discussion with all these users during the design stage to understand their needs. I have found that very often the users themselves are not clear about their own needs - to the extent that they sometimes tend to overlook and/or exaggerate certain aspects - and it is the designer’s responsibility to arrive at realistic conclusions based on his/ her experience to arrive at the design basis. Also, it may not always be possible to keep all sections of the users satisfied fully, and will become necessary to establish the right kind of priorities and take a balanced approach while designing.

Pappal Suneja: What are your comments upon ‘Multiplicity’ related to Architecture & Design communications.

J. Subramanian: Architecture and Design are such complex subjects involving varied disciplines and possibilities and therefore any communication about the subject has to inevitably involve 'multiplicity ' to be comprehensive. Also, Architectural projects are getting increasingly complex based the functional demands. For example, when I was associated with the design and execution of a large sports facility involving about twelve stadiums with spectator viewing galleries it called for compliance with several requirements; such as international codes, safety and security stipulations, optimal use of financial resources, installation of special lighting fixtures, etc., Coordination and implementation of all these would not have been possible without a speedy and effective communication between the various experts and agencies belonging to multiple disciplines. This assumed great importance particularly since meeting the deadlines for completing the project in its totality was very vital to ensure the timely conduct of the sports events involving a large number of athletes/sportspersons from various parts of the country and also the associated ceremonial events. This enabled arriving at quick error-free and timely decisions relating to design and execution.

Pappal Suneja: What stops architects and designers from communicating properly?

J. Subramanian: I think it is a lack of clarity in their thinking; also architects can communicate verbally as well as through sketches/drawings. If an architect does not know how to effectively blend both verbal and visual mediums, then he fails to communicate properly even if his thoughts are clear.

Pappal Suneja: What are your comments upon the public sphere of discourse and critique related to architecture & design concerning three main parts: History, Theory, and Criticism?

J. Subramanian: For History: A proven successful Historical precedence always adds strength/credibility to discourse and/or critique. By the same token, a proven Historical failure also can be relied upon to establish a point. But then, choices of such precedence have to be relevant to the context.

Theory: I do not believe in relying on pure Theories unless they have been proven through applications. I am particularly guarded while quoting theories in my address to students/fellow architects unless I can support the theories with applications.

Criticism: While dealing with criticisms it is important to know who are the critics and how well informed they are. Very often even well-meant criticisms might be based on not having adequate information about that particular background and constraints.

Pappal Suneja: Architectural Communications considered as Analog v/s Digital. How far have we ventured in this respect?

J. Subramanian: Either Analogue or Digital, both are after all tools and therefore the inherent merit of the contents of the communication is what would matter. Much also depends upon the proficiency of the communicator with regard to these tools.

Pappal Suneja: How architecture and design are different in the notion of criticism associated with the same.

J. Subramanian: Criticisms of an Architectural and Design works may emanate from a variety of persons. It could be the Users, Funding agencies, fellow Designers / Architects, Environmentalists, social observers, urban designers concerned with larger issues, etc. Even reputed designers with a proven track record will find it difficult to meet all these criticisms effectively in a balanced manner. Finally what matters is the designers’ conviction guided by the right sense of priorities.

Pappal Suneja: How can one conceive architecture? How did it emerge as a global phenomenon for the spread of awareness associated? Does it need to be redefined in this digital age of communications?

J. Subramanian: Architecture has emerged as a global phenomenon essentially due to the common user requirements in various fields of activities - such as Sports, Information technology, Transportation, cultural exchanges in performing arts, transfer of technologies, etc., Nevertheless, Architecture despite becoming global has to necessarily respond to the local conditions such as climate, materials, construction practices & technology, social customs & practices, etc., Therefore a good architectural work can be conceived only when the awareness covers both the global practices & influences as well the local factors & sensitivities. I feel that nothing needs to be redefined as such simply because we are in the digital age.

Pappal Suneja: How can a critical public - be generated to discuss affairs of architecture competently?

J. Subramanian: Well, I don't know whom exactly you refer to as ' Public ‘? In my opinion, the general public can at best be sensitized to show awareness to city planning, urban aesthetics, and if tuned well can even participate in the city’s development. The architectural and engineering fraternity on the other hand must be trained through participatory programs to cultivate awareness and become quite discerning while supporting, Opposing, or commending the various developmental activities (including architectural works) that take place around them. It calls for a determined effort and committed leadership amongst the leading professionals to create this awareness to cultivate and nurture a competent “Public”

Pappal Suneja: Your views: Modern movements would never have been successful without publications related to the Self-Organisation of architects and artists during the Avant-Garde as the publications related to the same served as an important platform for discussion.

J. Subramanian: I fully agree. Modern movements will not be successful in the future also unless we continue to take this movement forward by taking advantage of the technological advancement in the communication systems without losing sight of quality control of the information. For instance, the Design and execution of Chandigarh in India started a new wave of thinking about design. Recently the activities in Auroville in Pondicherry have opened up several issues relating to the revival of traditional materials and construction methods, the importance of Sustainability, etc. Also, the pressure on urban housing and commercial development has resulted in the designers venturing into new technology, use of new materials, etc., Although none of the above can be termed as primary ' movements ' one cannot deny that they have caused a significant impact on the architectural scene.

Head Image © Pappal Suneja (Featuring Boeing 737 Flight Simulator- Hyderabad, 1970s & International Airport Hyderabad, 2008)

> via Inputs from J. Subramanian

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