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Construction Guru

Senseless architecture
Himanshu Burte

A review of the book, Inhuman Architecture by Hugo Keukelhaus (1974) translated by
Elmar Schenkel, and published by Studio Naqshbandi, Auroville, 2007.

How relevant can a slim German book written by an educationist, and published in 1974,
be for contemporary Indian architecture today?

Plenty. It is not a coincidence that this English translation of Keukelhauss ruminations
on the humane and inhumane aspects of architecture has been published by Poppo Pingel,
a practicing architect and one of the founding settlers of Auroville. Over the years, Pingel
has sustained the inspiration of a meeting with Keukelhaus in 1982 in his own work and
has been able to publish this translation (by Elmar Schenkel) in late 2007. Though over
thirty years old, the passionate and well crafted argument speaks directly to all those
committed to a humane approach to architecture today.

Keukelhaus focuses on school environments. The logic of this choice is immediately
obvious, particularly given the typically paranoid school environments of the West he
writes about. Since the school is the social environment the child is most immersed in
during the formation of its personality, its design effectively shapes future citizens (or
earth dwellers, if you like) too. But what Keukelhaus observes about a specific set of
school projects (which, sadly, he does not name, so we cannot go back to old magazines
or books to study them) is as true to different extents about many contemporary building
types in India- hospitals, airconditioned (elite) schools, call centres and different office

In his approach Keukelhaus approaches our bodies, nature and architecture as always
interrelated. He refuses to see any phenomenon in isolation, and everything is formed in
an ecology (Shape is the result of the interplay between growth working from the inside
to the outside with resistance working from the outside to the inside , p.11). Most of
all, he argues for an architecture that recognizes what the body needs beyond good
ergonomics. One broad theme here is the necessity of stimulation and challenge for our
senses. Another is the necessity of a dynamic, and changeful engagement with our

A stupid wall is a surface deprived of processes, says Keukelhaus (p35). Of course, the
epithet stupid is here transferred from the person who feels stupid in front of such a
wall, to the wall itself. We feel stupid in front of some walls (usually blank) because they
do not engage our capacity for recognizing or forming patterns. We also feel stupid (or as
Keukelhaus worries, become stupid) when the wall refuses any relation with the rest of
the environment including our bodies. By contrast, our relation to a wall is enriched when
it corresponds to our own embodied experience of gravity, and of uprightness. This is
vividly experienced in the notional wall that a row of columns sets up.

Keukelhauss critique of school spaces that damage the biological and psychological
development of children is brief. It is therefore more suggestive than comprehensive.
Doubtless, many objections to his argument can be imagined on methodological grounds.
And yet, his fundamental criticisms and suggestions are prima facie of great importance
today when architectural form and space are either produced as industrial commodities or
spectacles (often both). Its central question- How should we build so that architecture
engages the human bodies that dwell in it as well as the larger ecosystem within which
both are lodged?- is today often hidden behind a celebration of technique.

Keukelhauss essay reminds us that the homogeneity, lack of adventure and challenge,
and the blindness to the human bodys way of engaging its environment that
contemporary architecture aspires to can only damage our future. It is therefore a work
that would be of interest to all concerned with building a humane and sustainable