The profession of Architecture in India is weird. After completing a gruesome 5-year degree in a technological university, usually where you find schools of architecture, we start a journey as an apprentice to a like-minded architect in a hope to learn the wisdom that architect has accumulated over his journey. Even though there is an enormous industry to which architects can serve, here we shall only consider an architect who has a practice in mind, as is the general culmination of an architectural education.
The smallest drawings of a design in an extensive project is the usual starting scenario facing nascent architecture graduates in an apprenticeship. Some get to learn the nuances of drafting toilet details, some curating paraphernalia in existing drawings, a few luckier ones might get involved in the initial drawings of a building. I believe that architecture is a very personal experience and a student must choose his mentor carefully as he will invariably develop his style in close relation to that of his mentor. That said, few ever pay attention to this aspect as we all seem to be in some kind of race reminiscent of a culture picked up in the ambience of an engineering college.
Continuing to learn in a firm, the student transforms slowly from a junior architect filling the gaps to an architect taking on bigger responsibilities and developing the confidence required to approach a design problem and solve it. At the end of an apprenticeship, an architect is born, ready to take on the world. At a juncture like this, it is impossible to assess if he is, in fact, an architect yet. The illusion of completing a successful tenure under an able teacher usually clouds the architect of the millions of details, required to run a practice, that he has missed while having his head buried deep in design. This slips by the cliched advice, “you will learn on the way”.
Once an architect starts his practice in India, there are many obstacles that have already piled up for him. Deciding on an office space, how big, how small. Hiring junior architects, budgeting for the expenditure soon to happen, maintaining accounts, taxation, compliance, software, tech support, administration of the office, etc., we haven’t even touched upon client acquisition and servicing, let alone design, drawing, supervision and execution. India being a country of jugaad, most of these things sort themselves out ever so messily and an off-the-cuff framework develops. The premier institutions for architects in India, like the Council of Architecture, the Indian Institute of Architects, the Institute of Indian Interior Designers, provide little support to a fresh architecture firm.
Looking for reinforcement from other Government, Non-profits, or Trusts, also comes to no fruition. An Architecture practice does not easily fit the stringent description of a startup, nor is accepted publicly as an SME. Even though the government website says that an architect can be registered as a small enterprise, there is too little to gain out of it as the challenges faced by a tech startup, a manufacturing unit, or even a construction company are entirely separate from an architecture firm. They do not recognise a simple concept of an architecture license giving us the right to practice architecture anywhere in the country, in a local bank as a document to open a current account in the firm’s name. Crunched-for-cash fresh architects cannot afford a financial advisor who can help them navigate through the complex, so-called One-Tax policy. Even with income tax, formative practices can draw hidden reliefs, but never do.
In all this confusion, the architects forget that they started the architecture practice to design wonderful buildings, instigate community interaction, solve the world’s water problems, promote sustainability, look after the environment, research, collaborate and share the knowledge. What ensues is that race to the end involving building after thoughtless building, to keep up with the system and expenditure that unorganised practice affords you. Taking cues from Bjarke Ingels, if someone competent, someone who knows how to run a company were to take over these unarchitectural parts of the architecture practice, architects could focus on design innovation and ideals of architecture. For a fresh architecture firm, this may not be a reality to achieve at a young stage. But there might be something that might help.
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London, which is the counterpart to our Council of Architecture, recognised this and recently started the RIBA Incubator for RIBA Chartered Architecture practices. RIBA’s headquarters houses the Incubator and supports a coworking atmosphere with about 25 desks, meeting spaces, a FORUM for interaction and they even have a model-making space.
They constantly promote events, seminars, exhibitions and access to the renowned RIBA library, to share knowledge and peer support. The highly subsidised desk costs include amenities like showers, coffee, unlimited printing, WiFi, private lockers, and postal services. They also provide business services and products like pension funds, business insurance, accounts and payroll services, R&D tax relief (specific to the UK), marketing solutions, cybersecurity services, HR, and legal services. If you are a chartered RIBA practice, then you have two years of support lined up for you. Tom Cole, the cofounder of Hoos, which is breaking up into separate practices according to their website, was the first to graduate from the incubator into the professional world after 18 months in December 2016. RIBA formed the incubator in 2015. Architects Patrick Theis and Soraya Khan completed the new RIBA headquarters featuring a bright and spacious cafeteria, custom made plywood furniture, vibrant colours, temporary materials and plenty of natural light. RIBA’s values of sustainability, inclusivity, and professional ethics transfer on to the incubator.
According to RIBA, architects who previously worked in large practices for many years and later changed their career paths, are one of the largest groups of people attracted to the incubator. RIBA draws about sixty thousand users a month, out of which a lot of them are potential clients seeking an architect, consequently creating one feature of the RIBA Incubator, “Find an Architect”. Taking from RIBA’s business intelligence model helps architects test the progress and performance of a practice in criteria such as profit, turnover, marketing, and salaries.
A large public authority backing architects in the most crucial and rudimentary manner and helping them find their way is what actual help, to architects who dream of starting a practice, can be. In India, the nature of competition, a culture of technical problem-solving and the pressures of an overcrowded profession make this seem a distant dream. A dream where collaboration, and knowledge sharing without borders overrules clamouring for paltry and obscure construction projects to one-up the faltering economy.
Considering India’s situation where architects don’t figure in the government policies, or public sector banking products, private enterprises offering exorbitant rates for coworking spaces are exploiting this opportunity. Despite many non-profits like the Charles Correa Foundation, Deshpande Foundation, Reliance Foundation, etc., operating in India, we have yet to see a specific, organised sector helping young architects find their way. The initial orchestration of the business of architecture will help architects become the true visionaries of the future.