A self-reflection into my architectural thesis
It seemed impossible, now it’s history
A little context
I completed my Bachelors in Architecture from the ‘School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi’ and as part of the course requirement, I had to write my thesis in the final semester. My architectural thesis project was based on designing a proposal for the National Center for Arts (NCA) at IGNCA lawns, Central Vista, New Delhi. A thesis is usually one of the most memorable periods of academic life and mine was no exception. Looking back, there were many ‘accidents’ which seem like a fun story now, things I’m proud of till date and things which I wish I would’ve done differently. Here’s the story of my thesis and events that made it memorable. It all began in Jan 2019.
Choosing a project
Choosing an architectural thesis project is all about priorities. Some people decide on basis of location and other on the basis of project typology. I belonged to the latter category. By the end of my college years, I knew I didn’t want to pursue a career in architecture. Not that I had anything against it, there were simply other fields like graphic design, product design and UX Design which appealed to me more. So, in my mind, I was sure that the thesis is going to be my final architectural design project. (which isn’t, however, true as, at the time of writing this, I’m working on a real architectural project) So there was no reason for me to be overly ambitious about it.
The final semester of college is usually a tricky period. While you’re working on the most important project of your academic life, the realities of life outside college start to haunt you. “What would I do once my thesis is over”, “Will I be able to get a job — what if I don’t?” were some of the questions which would keep me occupied in my thoughts. In my case, I wanted to make a transition from architecture to visual/ product design and this was all the time I had to prepare for it. So, keeping things simple only made sense and I’m as proud of this decision now as I was back then. I decided I would rather improve my portfolio and add project related to fields I wanted to venture. So I made my own priority list of projects based on building typology and arranged them in increasing order of complexity (based on my own experiences, of course). All I wanted to do is buy some time for my interests along with my thesis.
Getting approval for the proposal
Getting the thesis proposal approved by your guide and coordinator is nothing less than a milestone event in the thesis. In my case, it was more of an accident. Between the urban design semester and the thesis semester, we had a one week window in which we were supposed to come up with 2 or more proposals. The approval, however, is no easy task and usually takes something between 1–4 weeks. In order to get an early approval and thus a headstart, people work their ass off during that 7day vacation. I decided to spend my time even more wisely by sleeping it off.
Even till one evening before the day we were supposed to meet our guides and present our proposals, I had nothing with me. I naturally switched into panic mode, called up seniors for help, looked up some proposed projects online and somehow landed up at proposal of NCA from a news article. The project was to design a cultural centre which is something I preferred, but the location site at Central Vista(CV) of Lutyens Delhi increased its complexity manifolds. I knew no guide would ever approve of a project in such a strong context. However, I still decided to present it to buy myself little time. The calculation was simple — if I present nothing, I fail in my grades. However, if I show something and get rejected, I’d still be graded for my efforts and get more time to come up with another topic. This logic made a lot of sense and I slept peacefully, again.
“Vaibhav, this is a very prominent project and very challenging too. Do you think you’ll be able to handle it?” and I nodded “Yes sir”. I pretended to be very confident while I wasn’t. I just wanted them to reject it for me. My guide looked into my eyes for a minute, without blinking, and said, “I trust you. Go for it”.
This was the first meeting with my guide and we never met before. I don’t know what made him trust me but there I was. At this point, I knew there was no going back. Still, I tried my luck by saying “Sir, should I come up with an alternate proposal given the context in this one?” “No, come up with research related to this instead”. The first day, first meeting, first proposal — approved, just like that.
Collecting the data
Once my proposal got approved, I was left with no option but to conduct research about the project and collect as much data as I could. Soon enough I found out that it being located on the CV wasn’t the only challenge to the project. It was a disputed site or one with rather an interesting history. I’d spare the details here but due to political tussle, the site which was earmarked for Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) was split into 2 plots — one for IGNCA and another for NCA. The detailed proposal of NCA was kept hidden from the public however I did manage to get a sneak peek by persuading the concerned authorities continuously for nearly a month.
For this project, my guides were highly concerned about how well I understand the physical context I’ll be designing for. So they suggested me some readings and made me study all the buildings alongside the CV. At that time, it seemed a waste of time and efforts, however, I did everything they asked me to. As I did that, I had a much better understanding of the context, plus my guides became even more confident in me. Looking back, I tend to think it was also a factor of mutual understanding and respect. Those studies at initial stages did give me an edge and for my guides, I looked like a sincere student. It paid off well in later stages.
Designing the proposal
I don’t know if I’ve ever met a designer who can always deliver the best solution in the first attempt, but I sure tried to become one.
Once I was set with ground research done, I had to naturally move to the next step which is designing. However, at the point, it felt I wasn’t ready for it. It just seemed too soon whereas the reality was that in a 16week semester, I was left with 11. I still have a faint memory of sitting on my desk trying to draw the first line on a blank sheet and failing. I think the idea of getting a perfect output in first go paralyzes our ability to start small and experiment — but I hadn’t understood that by then. For the entire week, things stayed the same way and I started doubting my own abilities. More frightening were the questions my inner self was asking me — “Are you even ready to step out of college” or “Have you learnt anything at all in the last 5 years”
Designing with these thoughts lingering behind is as tough as it sounds, but sometimes deadlines do wonder. Till that point, I wasn’t lagging behind compared to other classmates who weren’t lucky enough to get their proposal approved in the first go. But I needed the rush to move forward— The kind of rush you get on seeing a heroic movie or an action-packed sports event. For me, it was watching the documentaries of Indian architects working their way through complex challenges. I remember watching a movie on Charles Correa and BV Doshi which gave me the zeal I needed. Combined that with an upcoming deadline, I completed my first draft in 2hrs and by end of the day, I had a design I loved — and so did my guides.
While my guides approved of the scheme I presented, it had many issues which were rather too big to be ignored. I had the form worked out, but functionality had gaps. So I was back to my desk, this time with little more motivation but still no clear vision.
Felling in love with your own design is a sin for a designer and I learnt it then the hard way. Any change in the existing design would end up impacting overall form and flow of the architecture which I resisted badly. In fact, I was willing to ignore the functionality just to preserve the form, but that’s not how things work. Soon all the motivation evaporated and I felt I was back to the square one, this time with a design deadlock.
Over that week, I figured it won’t be possible for me to make changes by myself as I was unable to look beyond what was there. I called for help and luckily two of my seniors (Nayan and Akash) whom I was very close to came for the rescue. They sensed my aversion for change and obvious flows in the scheme. Akash literally redesigned the entire plan for me while I was begging him to preserve some elements of the past design — he didn’t, for the good.
Based on what he created and minor improvements from my end, I had something which didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to the earlier design, was much more functionally resolved but something I didn’t love. It was both good and bad. Good because I could now think more pragmatically without a sense of affection coming in between and bad because I had no sense of attachment with that-at all.
Time behaves strangely when you lack motivation. It would feel still as frozen and suddenly it passes by without a hint.
I was entering 10th week of the semester and things started taking a toll in life. At that point, things were going rough in my personal life and the inner questions of life after college intensified. Each passing day, it felt increasingly difficult to cope up and more so with a project which wasn’t simply moving forward. Day by day dragging through the tussles of thesis, career and other things brought me to a point where it all seems to start breaking apart. Simply put, I was going thought the lowest phase of my life (so far). I started convincing myself to take a drop.
SPA has a beautiful culture of juniors helping final year students with their thesis project. I, as a junior, helped some of my seniors too. In other words, a thesis here feels like a group effort rather than an individual project. However, seeking help is a process in itself. Usually around the final phase of thesis people start lobbying juniors based on their skills. Most of the times these bookings are done a semester in advance. However, at that point, I was battling my own self to continue where a part of me wanted to leave. I was sure that asking for help won’t serve anything as it was too late. If I needed to continue, I’ll have to make it through on my own.
One evening around the last month of the semester, while I was struggling to work battling my inner thoughts, Sundaram came up knocking at my door. “Vaibhav, do you need any help” — yes, I did need help but wasn’t in a condition to ask for it. “Not sure”, I said, “My project is nowhere near to completion and I don’t know where it’s going”. “Well do you have anyone to help you?” and I told him “No-one yet”. “Count me in”
Next day Ayush came in “Vaibhav, you didn’t call me for help. I was waiting for you. Even refused other seniors who came to me for you”. Then came in Raghav, Divyansh and Nitesh. Nitesh was at that time completing his internship in another city. He left that early and travelled back to help me with my thesis. Just like that, I had an entire team of juniors without me calling for help. The best team I could ever ask for.
I don’t know whether at that point I needed help to get my work done but I sure did need help to get out of the phase I was in. It’s difficult to stay in gloom when there are people around you telling jokes, playing music and willing to put in their best efforts for you. Also, no motivation seemed bigger than the fact that in a few weeks I’d be out of this college and there are people to help me reach there. To this day, I feel indebted to every single of them for whatever they did for me.
With people there to help me and Nayan to guide me for the final phase, I was all set to accelerate forward. I decided that I could no longer continue with that design and created another one from scratch which was essentially a blend of the 2 schemes created before it. Now, I would recommend against making such major changes at that stage of the project but back then I was so done with what I had that I was willing to do whatever it takes to get to something I like. My guides were also major support at that time. I would even visit one of my guides offices during the weekend and he’d be very generous with his time and inputs.
With inputs from my guides and seniors, I ended up designing something that I was proud of. Now all that was left to do was prepare for final juries. Everyone in the team poured in so much effort which is difficult to narrate. I at times would feel that my contribution to the thesis is overshadowed by what those guys have been doing. Towards the end, I received even more help from Shiva Sah (senior), Sandeep Raju (batchmate) and Vaidehi, Gopi (juniors). Looking back, that time was indeed the most memorable period of my academic life. We’d play loud music, joke around, work entire day and night living on coffee and snacks. If I were given a chance to relive those days, I’d say yes without thinking for a second.
Finally, the jury day arrived and things went smoothly. There were still some detailings which were missing but the quality of presentation and the model made up for everything. I feel little ashamed in admitting that I didn’t have a minute worth’s contribution in making the model (shown above) and it was entirely made by Ayush, Raghav, Sundaram and Nitesh. The fact is, if I were to make it myself, there was no way I could’ve reached anything even closer to what they made.
Here’s the link to the final project in case you’re interested.
Getting through the thesis is tough and could be even tougher when you’re going through a rough patch. For me, the thesis was one hell of an experience and full of good and bad memories. However, it is important to keep moving and ask for help when needed.
For all those who are going through a similar phase or writing their own thesis, here’s a little motivation — This too shall pass. Good luck :)