Dr. Sonam Mansukhani

Faculty, Anant National University

The built environment comprising anything made by human beings is imperative to human existence just as much as the natural ecosystem. This assumes additional significance in the context of urban areas. Various issues confronting the latter have come to the forefront in recent times, for example, the smog in Delhi and the aftermath. Broadly, it is extremely difficult to determine the link between built environment and issues in a linear, deterministic fashion as they may both reciprocally influence each other.  Frameworks involving neoliberalism, minority rights, and ecology came up at a symposium involving a dialogue between India and UK on ‘Built Environment, Knowledge, Praxis: Post-Colonial Conversations’ at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL in 2014. As a sociologist and as a proponent of liberal education, it becomes important for me to locate built environment in a social context, understanding the reciprocal linkages and impacts in terms of organization of lives and also points of acceptance as well as dissent between man-made structures and communities. 

I came across a book by Amos Rapoport – The Mutual Interaction of People and Their Built Environment wherein the socio-cultural aspects of the relationship between man and the environment have been highlighted.  This entails an understanding of the characteristics of people in groups not only in terms of their tendencies and predispositions but the broader fabric in terms of values, beliefs, institutional frameworks in which they are embedded.  It also involves an analysis of the symbolic meanings that communities confer to physical creations. Thus, built environment cannot be merely looked upon from a macro perspective. It is an area that can be explored within and across regions, in fact, cross-culturally. If there are decisions shaping the acts of creating, at the other end of the spectrum they also involve choices on the part of communities to accept or resist these creations.  It is important to understand the forces shaping the choices at both ends. If the ideational aspect of the creation is significant, so also is the interpretive aspect of it. Reinforcing this, Dickens (1992) has highlighted the social construction of nature, in that people create it and in turn, are modified by the process of creation.  The spatial dimensions intersect with cultural. A comprehension of challenges and opportunities through disciplines like sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science and for that matter even history among others is the need of the hour, especially in the Indian context.

To what extent is our education equipped to address these issues is a question. Whilst programs dealing with architecture, design, and planning are inching their way towards adopting an ‘interdisciplinary outlook’, somewhere a holistic perspective with ‘application’ seems to be lacking. One cannot deny that a broad spectrum of courses related to liberal studies may exist. However, discourse may not necessarily entail applications to the architecture and design that are so fundamental to the landscape. So there might be students heading towards post-graduate technical programs with a view to ‘employability’, but the employment scenario itself is open to candidates who do not merely possess the requisite qualifications, but who are willing to explore phenomena from different angles and then propose solutions.

The Anant Fellowship Program at Anant National University is a one-year postgraduate diploma program that seeks to make candidates ‘solutionaries’.  This is an amalgamation of two words – ‘solution’ and ‘revolution’. Thus, when students propose solutions, the latter cannot be constructed in a vacuum but taking into cognizance different aspects of the broader society and cultures. The curriculum offers an exposure to the technical spectrum along with liberal studies, experiential learning, and self-growth. Thereby equipping students seeking professional careers in the domain to understand their roles from a broader perspective by being exposed to multi-disciplinary discourse.

This program offers faculty the freedom to come up with and frame courses that would train ‘solutionaries’ to design, build and preserve a sustainable India. One such course taught at the Fellowship is ‘Social Dynamics of Organizations’ to enable students to comprehend the internal and external dynamics of organizations. The course covers an understanding of organizations from a micro to a macro approach, focusing mainly on processes. Very often, conventional/mainstream education could question the rationale behind this course as in terms of how or why is it relevant to built environment?  Since Anant Fellowship endeavors to have a blend of people from diverse streams in terms of education and work experience, the course makes the students traverse another path. Students begin to understand that organizational design is generally viewed from a techno-centric perspective. However, the ‘human’ element/s need to be considered as well, since workplace or organizational designs are reflective of and reinforce organizational cultures, in terms of what organizations value. It is imperative to understand how organizations work in terms of lines of authority, hierarchies, rules and work processes. An understanding of people in their workspaces provides insights into how spaces or a mix of spaces can be designed to facilitate individual and/or collaborative behavior. Moreover, the course deals with corporate social responsibility and brings in the ‘development versus displacement’ debate. These address the sustainability debate as well. So what a traditional view of education rejected and still continues to reject in most cases, becomes a very real gap that practitioners of the craft are unable to address since they have never been trained to look at their work as a tool to effectively address social issues first and foremost.

In the contemporary scenario, we need people with a vision, who can transcend ‘classroom learning’ and be exposed to multiple perspectives. If we cannot forge linkages between disciplines and broaden horizons, I am afraid we will have ‘robots’ attuned to think and act in rigid ways. Are we then educating ourselves in the true sense of the term?