Building on humour: Notes from life as an architect in India
What does it feel like to be an architect in a country where concrete blocks rule? Meet the Leewardists, a group dedicated to humour and pathos built around the woes of being an architect in India.
You study the skill for five years, only to find yourself designing the same toilet over and over again, goes one post on Instagram. Another shows a beautifully fluid plan for a new construction, slowly morphing — after meetings with clients and post-budget drawings — into, what else, another little clump of concrete blocks.
Leewardists gets its name from the term for the neglected side of a mountain or building. Leeward, the opposite of wayward, is the side that gets no wind or rain — and in structures, the rear, which often gets no design attention either.
On the Leewardists pages on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are funny and heartfelt comics that date back to 2015, when the pages were set up by urban designer Anuj Kale, 34.
His early drawings reflect some of what he was then studying — the perils of city planning, waste management, public transport — as well as student life. As his work became more popular, he started being invited to college-level events. “I would be the funny guy amid all the serious architect speakers,” Kale says. It was the type of exposure he needed, he adds, to dig deep into the profession and dissect it from the inside.
The Leewardists’ world is experienced through an archetypal caricature of an aspiring architect. He’s young, wide-eyed, bespectacled, obsessed with his craft but often beaten down by budget and circumstance. At a museum, while others look at famous paintings, he has eyes only for the detailing on the walls behind them. He models his broken heart into a building plan. He endures five years of architecture school, pausing at different points to explain how and why.
“The comics are contextual to India, but we’ve found that they relate to architects around the world,” says Shreya Khandekar, 25, who started working with Leewardists in 2017, first as an intern and now as part of the core content-creating team. “More than half our audience (the account is just short of 200,000 followers on Instagram) is actually international.”
Khandekar travels with Kale across the country to create long-form comics around the history, politics and wonders of India’s new, old and ancient buildings. The Hathi Gaon elephant village in Amer, Rajasthan, received a visit; the demolition of the iconic Kenilworth building in Kolkata (estd 1948) for a high-rise residential building got a video. Some of these trips are sponsored.
“Studying urban planning taught me to turn a critical eye towards anything I see, including architecture itself,” Kale says, During the lockdown, when Leewardists activities were at a standstill, Kale and Khandekar worked on a comic titled Do We Need An Architect After Covid-19?
“In it we have questioned the degree, the title and the contribution. If you break it down, architects are supposed to design shelters, and yet, here we were, at a time of crisis, and so many people across the country did not have basic shelter as they walked home,” Khandekar says. “Those who did have a home couldn’t find a comfortable space within it. And this void will eventually be turned into a marketing strategy to sell houses instead of bringing about real change.”
In an effort to simplify and also expand architectural education, Leewardists offer workshops and short-term courses that aim to teach aspiring architects how to make it in the real world. They started in 2018 with 30 students, and now register about 3,000 through the year across 15 modules. In addition to architecture students and graduates, enrolees have included a climatologist from the US and an illustrator.
Jinnie Saren, 28, a freelance architect, has taken five Leewardists courses over two years. One was on how to design a portfolio, another on the different avenues for architects within and outside the field. “The courses made me feel empowered,” she says. “Anuj’s is an inspiring story on how to carve a path for yourself in the field, or out of if need be.”