Being an Architect

Reflections on the profession, design, art, books and life in general



Make Sure it's Your Train

Accept it. Student architects are always confused about choosing the right career path. It gets all the more complicated with myriad options (and specializations) available today. Though the scene has changed a lot, I think the speech by Charles Correa more than a decade ago (Convocation Address at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, 1996) still is very relevant. I want to share his thoughts as a continuation of my post 'architecture as a profession'. His observations are sharp, as usual, and I am sure that any architect at any stage of his career will get useful (if not motivating) insights from the speech. Extracts from his talk are given below.


Make Sure it's Your Train


much we grow depends on the issues we have the good fortune to address. This brings to mind a story told to me by Arvind Talati, a young Indian architect who followed Doshi at Corbusier's office in Paris. After working for two years or so, when Talati decided to return to lndia, Corbusier (who was really a taciturn old man of over 70 by then) came to his desk and said, "l hear you are leaving – where are you going?" Talati replied, "To Mumbai." "What will you do there?" "Well, I don't know, but I'm sure I'll find a job." Corbusier looked at him and said, "Be careful, eh? Whenever you get to the station, there's always a train leaving. Don't jump on just because it's leaving. Make sure it's your train."



Make sure it's your train - that's a really wonderful advice for young architects and planners. You know, it's not so much the talent you possess but the nourishment it gets, that makes you grow. And this nourishment can only come from the work you are doing. So if your first job is on a train going the wrong way, it really doesn't matter how much you are paid or how easy your life is. lf your talent is denied the nourishment it needs, it will gradually dry up and atrophy. This is why, ten or twenty years down the line, you will find that those among you who are doing the most interesting and significant work are not necessarily those who graduated at the top of your class - but those of you who had the good fortune to address the right issues.

Now how do we recognise the right train when it comes along? This is a crucial question and it doesn't help to pontificate about the answer because, by definition, for each one of us the right train is a little bit different. To recognise the right train I suggest you begin by concentrating on those aspects of architecture or urban planning that you enjoy doing. You know, if you really like doing something, you are probably going to do it well. Someone once said that all intelligence is a matter of curiosity and what is called 'genius ' is just a kind of passionate curiosity.

So I've always told my children that they should take up a line they are interested in. That way, they have a fighting chance of getting to be good at what they're doing. But the other day, I came across some writer who had phrased it much better. He said his advice to young people involved five steps: identify what it is you enjoy doing and know you do well. lt could be anything - singing, painting, mathematics or tap dancing: Now concentrate and do it in the very best way you can: The most difficult step of all; look at what you have just done and very objectively ask yourself if it is really good: lf the answer to that very objectively is yes, then just go ahead and keep doing it: Someone will step forward and pay you to do what you're doing.

As the writer pointed out, most young people get exactly the opposite advice. So the poor things start by choosing a job that pays them very well. Then when they find they don't enjoy their work, they tell themselves that if they try very hard, they'll get to really like it. So they work very diligently indeed and then of course find they now hate their job more than ever. Don't let that happen to you.


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Today is really a big day in your lives: you have become full-fledged architects, urban designers and planners. But I must warn you: none of these fields are great for making big money. lf that's what you want, then switch to law or surgery. A successful surgeon makes a hundred-fold more than the average practitioner, but a great architect like Wright or Mies charged the same fees as you or me, No, our profession has other rewards for us. The first we have already discussed: the chance to grow. The second, equally crucial, is the fact that our work is holistic. That means to say, if you change the detail of how two walls meet at the corner of your building, this will probably change the column grid, and so forth, all the way back to the overall concept of the building itself, and vice-versa. And the same thing happens on the urban scale. lf you change how two streets meet at the corner of a block, then the implications will ripple all the way back to the layout of the neighbourhood, back and back, all the way to the master plan for the whole city. From the part to the whole and back again to the part - back and forth. Design is a reiterative process, not a linear one, To design is to understand these connections."


Make Sure it is Your Train