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Viewpoints: Sanjeev Shankar on the Collective

Sanjeev Shankar

The hidden hand at work: unlocking the potential of collective architecture

How do we create and what inspires creation? How do we perceive and how do we know? How do we think and learn? How do we feel joy and love? And what constitutes ‘we’? Is ‘we’ the body or the mind? Is ‘we’ a collective or an individual? The conscious or subconscious? Tangible or intangible? In my opinion, ‘we’ represents the living continuum of human knowledge, experience, skill and behaviour, and its relationship with the human body and mind. ‘We’ creates, and is being constantly and simultaneously created. ‘We’ is our collective existence, our collective development and our collective intelligence. Creation is a deeply intuitive process, which emerges through a complex flux of infinite associations triggered in the body and mind.

Jugaad cans being transported

Jugaad cans being transported

Dynamic movement of the body is a critical part of this process, and here the hand plays a pivotal role. We are intrinsically, ecstatically and intensely dependent on our hands and their relation to our unique cognitive abilities. A lively hand is a product of a lively mind. As creators, it is important to understand what constitutes the ‘hand’ and what transpires when we make things with our hands. Hands are not limited to the visible physical boundary extending from the wrist to the fingertips.

From a biomechanical perspective, a hand is an integral part of the entire arm; and from a neurological perspective, the nerves near the fingertips under the skin extend through to the spinal cord, where they transmit impulses of sensation to the brain. Hands have always been an undeniable constant through all the material gestures on this planet. They have been the key to humankind’s most sublime creations, translating our conscious and subconscious thoughts into material realities. Puppeteers live through them and so do musicians, weavers, blacksmiths, gardeners, bread-makers and many others. In the past, when we used our hands and built together, almost every material gesture had a spirit; it was alive and honoured with a celebration.

Building together gave us a distinct material, cultural and spiritual identity and instilled in us a sense of purpose and desire for growth. Societies that built together were models of love and joy, and this resulted in cities that were exuberant and inspiring. Yet big city architecture, which was once a great opportunity, has now reached a dangerous and tragic state of repetitive boredom. Manual skills are shunned, and practical and material concerns prioritised under the label of efficiency.

Cities are losing their revered souls. Surrendering to shallow and arrogant architectural solutions, concealed behind the veil of slogans and gimmicks, will be disastrous. As architects and humanists we must challenge this. Architectural pedagogy needs to reassess the mindless quest for the ‘new’, and reflect upon and nurture the enterprise of using the hand. Handcraft traditions are repositories of great wisdom, and by integrating these with recent developments in technology, new and more inclusive opportunities and processes can be generated. Balancing the two is an exciting challenge. Our hands will continue to shape our future as they have built our past.

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