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‘For architecture to be appreciated, we need design literacy within the masses’

Professor Aparna Soni, an alumna of Apeejay Institute of Technology-School of Architecture and Planning (AIT-SAP), believes the time that she spent in college made her industry-ready

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Aparna Soni has had a long journey as an educator in the field of urban planning. Apart from teaching bright minds at premier national urban planning institutions, Soni also has considerable experience in research—she has collaborated with various research teams and has presented her findings internationally. Currently working as an assistant professor at School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal, Soni talks in an interview about her alma mater AIT-SAP, her learnings as a professor, and the future of architecture. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about your experience at AIT-SAP. How did it prepare you for the journey ahead?

My days at AIT-SAP were the best in my life. We were young and energetic, and the school channelled our energies beautifully. I remember participating in anything at hand! Going to the National Association of Students of Architecture, India (NASA India), competing, winning, and losing–it would all be happening together. The best part was doing all this together with friends, some of whom are still very close to me; I also got the love of my life!

As a student, AIT-SAP ensured we had a balance between creativity and practice. While we were allowed to think out of the box, we were meticulously guided by the experienced visiting faculty. The journey in college made me industry-ready. The one thing that kept me going was self-belief and the passion to be myself. I wasn’t taught to ape, and I have practised this learning.

You actively participated in extra-curricular activities in college. Tell us more.

Yes! I danced, acted, joined music bands during Republic Day, Independence Day, and Foundation Day celebrations, and so many other events. The experiences at NASA are worthy of special mention. Winning national prizes is always memorable. I even remember a short poem that I wrote for a dance drama to be performed in zonal NASA. I was an active participant since school days, but Apeejay helped me to continue to shine on stage.

Did you always aspire to become a professor of architecture? What have been your major learnings?

I always wanted to be in academics. I like teaching. It’s the reading-writing, articulation, and critical thinking that attracts me. It’s a very modest profession. I primarily teach urban planning.

Having been in the profession for a decade now, I do have some major learnings. One, you never know enough. There is always more to learn. Two, you are a teacher only when you are a truthful person. Three, architecture and planning are not to be taught but made to be experienced. I have taken my time to understand the role of books and textbooks in our field of study. They are meant to widen your horizon, but not make you rote learn. These books are open to interpretation and re-interpretation. Four, a good teacher is a good listener.

It is becoming increasingly challenging for academicians in India to remain relevant in the field of art- architecture- built environment studies. Professional practice no longer takes a generation for metamorphosis. Technology is disruptive in many ways. I am of the view that a professor in the field of built environment must be facilitated by the university itself to engage in practice. Students must be taught using live projects. It is time for industry-lead education but certainly not at the cost of theoretical knowledge. Theories have a foundational role to play.

One big area where architecture education in India lags is research. We at schools do not encourage research-based thesis topics, or even pedagogy. At the graduation level, we are not even taught research methods in architecture, or academic/research writing skills. This is where international students have an edge.

What do you think of your overall professional journey?

I am happy with my progress in life. I have taught in all premier urban planning schools across India- SPA Delhi, Vijayawada, Bhopal, Jamia Millia Islamia, etc. I am currently pursuing my doctoral degree in public policy. In the capacity of an assistant professor at SPA Bhopal, I am glad to have bright minds to steer. I acknowledge the role of my students in my learning graph. Many of them have been instrumental in making me explore newer areas of research. I think my journey has just begun. I have a long way to go.

Please share some advice for students who want to pursue architecture or are pursuing it.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ mantra in architecture. I just want to tell each aspiring student to keep an open mind. Observation, perseverance, and novelty are the three keywords to imbibe in your lifestyle.  

We talk about AI and other innovations in architecture; on the other hand, there are discussions about eco-friendly, sustainable practices as well. What, according to you, is the future of architecture?

It isn’t new to have newer concepts, fresh paradigms, and shifts in practices. Every era has seen changes. Obviously, the discipline must embrace the changes wholeheartedly. However, I deny that architecture as a field of study was ever divorced from the study of sustainability. Don’t you think we design buildings so that they are sensitive to the social, environmental, economic contexts they are in? Yes, they are. Architecture, however, fails to reach the masses. This is where I often say, we need ‘design literacy’ within the masses. Consumers and clients must be appreciative of the plethora of possibilities a ‘good design’ offers. Such aware clients are a rarity! The battle shall be won when architects don’t just design landmarks but design everything a naked eye sees.

Disha Roy Choudhury is a Senior Correspondent at Apeejay Newsroom. She has worked as a journalist at different media organisations. She is also passionate about music and has participated in reality shows.

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