Through observation and hand-drawing, students at CEPT are designing for today’s complex reality
As a fresh-faced first year at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), alumnus Prachi Acharya, now 27, was sent off by her studio tutor to spend the morning at Ahmedabad’s bustling railway station. The purpose of the outing was not to study the building but to carry out, she recalls, ‘a conscious documentation of the habits and space-use patterns of people’. Sketching luggage porters, chatting to strangers, watching the world go by in its ordinary detail, Acharya and her classmates were embarking upon a journey of architectural discovery that would come to define their outlook on life, guided by a pedagogy that hasdistinguished the school since its establishment almost 50 years ago.
With its insistence on the centrality of everyday life to design, this educational approach is reinvigorated by each new generation of faculty at the CEPT. Vishwanath Kashikar, who began teaching soon after completing his postgraduate diploma and now holds an assistant professorship, explains: ‘We believe in recognising existing contextual realities by experiencing them first-hand.’ The implications of this ostensibly banal philosophy are far-reaching. ‘It is easy to fall back upon nostalgia for a localised past. We want our graduates to understand the layered dimensions of truth that encompass both the global and the local, and to design in a manner attuned to today’s complex reality.’
This down-to-earth engagement with the architectural site, rooted in the experience of actually being there, has an instructive provenance. Founded in 1962, CEPT was the brainchild of eminent Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi, whose teachings and buildings invoke a fusion of modernity and spirituality while celebrating ordinariness. The name of his practice, Vastu Shilpa Consultants, echoes the Hindu shastras associated with ancient place-making customs, yet his formative years were spent at the heart of the Modern Movement in the Paris office of Le Corbusier.
Doshi schooled his students to embrace cultural traditions and at the same time to adopt an unsentimental, scientific approach to construction. His university buildings at CEPT, all concrete frame and exposed brickwork, offer an object lesson in the social impact of this approach. For Acharya, the quietly symbolic campus architecture has the capacity to ‘make one feel at “home” away from home… the design does indeed facilitate student interaction’.
Today’s cohort of students continues to benefit from Doshi’s pedagogical commitment to combining up-to-the-minute concerns with timeless values. Each year, undergraduates conduct a measured survey of a vernacular or historical site, engaging with their surroundings through the medium of drawing. This leads to positive outcomes for both school and students. CEPT’s considerable architectural archive of hand-inked drawings documenting settlements across India demonstrates the sketching competence that has been nurtured through studio and fieldwork exercises.
Over the years, it has provided a measure of students’ environmental awareness and their ability to anchor proposal within the real world. For Kashikar, ‘the proliferation of data means that teaching must increasingly focus on making sense of today’s visual overload, instead of imparting information [but this] has pushed us towards emphasising the value of first-hand experience through making and sketching, rather than simply seeing’.
Design projects in Kashikar’s fourth-year studio, which he runs with visiting tutor Surya Kakani, address the challenge of urban housing. Students investigate case-study sites − slums, bungalows, tenements, multi-storey blocks − generating a spatial vocabulary of occupation, which informs studio seminars and helps to bring design proposals to life. Hemal Tilvawala’s project for mid-rise housing at Bimanagar, drawing on his studies of how people gather and move through public space, looks to reinvent the maligned motif of ‘streets in the sky’. Kashikar explains: ‘Hemal is trying to transplant the heavily inhabited Indian urban street into an otherwise dead multi-storey housing corridor.’
The street is a perennial theme. Supervised by Kashikar on her final-year project, Acharya surveyed entrance thresholds in four local housing types, including a tightly knit, traditional low-income urban quarter. Illustrated by 39 hand-drawings, her micro-studies − documenting a shady spot that affords certain forms of encounter, or the way informal traders appropriate an articulated doorstep − provide evidence with which she builds a case for improvements to housing in Ahmedabad. For Kashikar, the implicit give and take between seeing and making is irreducible: ‘We want our students to appreciate that the right design processes can lead to a better understanding of one’s context, which makes it possible to create better design solutions.’