To be a good architect, be a good human being.
To be a great architect, be a great human being.
– Seah Chee Kien
No, Chee Kien is not a Chinese scholar, with a long white beard, or a modern-day Sadhu playing golf or riding a bicycle across a subcontinent. He is a Singaporean Architect, who was once upon a time my boss, and now is the Head at RSP Singapore. That one line is distilled with so much wisdom and offers a plausible explanation to the ever-precious inquiry of what it takes to be a great architect, one who builds the built and sometimes the unbuilt spaces in our living and non-living world. And he could not be more right just as Samarendra Ramachandra, again a former boss, also the author of the book Architecture of Value, published in 2021. In fact, reading this book got me thinking of everything that Chee Kien would actively say every single day during my time at the leading worldwide firm that has a million square feet under construction at any given time. While goodness is a value, greatness is a quality and a fine one at that. It is embodied and then expressed in all its finery, one that is not just seen but intrinsically noticed. And all goodness or greatness comes from integrity, simplicity, and humility. In humans and then in architecture. That is the premise of the book and Ramachandra expresses the gist, leading the reader through a trajectory of reason before arriving at the conclusion.
There are a bunch of extremely valid and relevant points, that point one in the right direction, also affixed by not just the author’s personal experiences but a bunch of collective experiences from architects who have been practicing the craft across India. The author’s poem titled “It Comes” is something that I would like to imprint on my home decor, just so that I can read it every single day. In the few lines there is a truckload of wisdom, naysaying what seems to be happening, to toasting what could be, extrapolating again that in reflectiveness there is gold, silver and all the jewels of being alive. Being in the moment is extremely precious, that every guru tells us these days, but the only way to make something of wonder, something of relevance, the author reinstates is by reaching into the depths of one’s consciousness, into the mills of silence, of watching oneself to the brim, Here’s are a few excerpts of the said poem that begins the book.
not by cleverness of one’s mind
not by plodding a ritual’s grind
not of targets set or lofty missions
nor those well-rendered submissions
not by beckoning a well-timed style
nor a self-generated twisted profile
not for deluding others in many ways
nor bowing to a high master’s grace
in quietened thought, the answer dwells
like the prepared ground for a seed tells
the values learnt from a tradition grown
nurture the bold minds to hold their own
the subtle art to intelligence in design
where a human reaches, meets divine
in a silence deep, where the mind hums
quietly there, the truth creates, it comes
While the book begins and ends with several notes from architects across the country, including the likes of Charles Benninger. Jaisim, Shirish Beri and Yeswant Ramamurthy, Architect Shanker Narayan quite in essence captures what the book tries to say, in four words he says, “your architecture is you”, so one can be quite certain of where certain buildings come from, they are all after all inspired by people. To headfirst dive into the subject of the book may be too random, so the author first provides definitions of what is value and then what it is to be an architect. An architect’s definition he says must go well beyond a person who designs buildings or who supervises their construction but should ideally encapsulate one who contributes through design, thought and practice to the creation of our built environment. While having a scientific temperament is a must for an architect, there is no denying the crucial part that artistic insight plays in the being of an architect to enable one to see beyond the mundane. We all know that an artist perceives subtleties of emotion and beauty, then expresses them in various mediums – visual, literary, theatre, and music. But then, more important than science and art, more important than what meets the eye is the essence of what is, is value, thereby he says instead of hustling to build a marvel of science or wonder in art, architecture must be centered on a core of value and that value centered architecture can only take its root in a value-centered aspect of the human mind. A pursuit of value in architecture is simply a pursuit of truth and hence an architect’s creation is an expression of the highest truth that a human mind can produce.
The next part of the book explores the human story in correspondence with architecture focusing on evolution, need vs greed, nature vs human, technology vs progress and then the need for aspirations of empathy, oneness and freedom in the architecture of the future. The idea of the country India is explored, more so as a gesture to pay heed to our roots, to what value a motherland imprints on its citizens, and finally coming to why clarity is important, of where we come from, where we want to go for confusion is the cause of conflict. And the conflict can be done away with, when there is a pause, an ability to reflect,and understanding the essence of our being. The following chapters address concerns that the students of the profession face and the doubts a young architect may harbour. Of course none of it would skirt an architect or a person who is conscious or even is aware with crystal clarity of their reasons for the choices made. Like they say when you know you are in the (k)now!
Now here is a book that tries to make a very relevant point to architects in the practice, mentors students of architecture and presents a philosophy that every person should do well to embrace. It is a conversation with the author, one that looks forward to further initiating a conversation within one, and in that intent, championing the spirit of inquiry it wins.