Things I Didn’t Learn in Architecture School
Two events took place in the summer of 2022, in this order:
- My much-anticipated graduation from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
- The unexpected death of my grandfather.
I was recently flipping through the well-worn pages of the home test that got me into Cooper Union–a stack of frankly cringeworthy projects on cheap paper that, for some reason, I am unable to throw out. Among the test’s prompts is a quote from Georges Perec: “I’ve often tried to think of an apartment in which there would be a useless room”.
The predicament of the useless room has sat at the back of my mind for the last five years, surfacing only occasionally during rare moments of free time. I finally came upon a satisfactory answer last month while staying at my grandmother’s home, in between funeral services:
A room is rendered useless when its occupant has no more use for it.
In the case of my grandfather, it is because the occupant no longer possesses a physical body. Death, I have learned, leaves behind a string of useless spaces. This is not something they teach you in architecture school.
I have found that those of us who remain corporeal insist on maintaining this state of uselessness for as long as possible. There is no reason for the armchair in the spare bedroom to remain perfectly angled towards the TV–no one is there to watch cricket matches or Bengali movies. The boar bristle shaving brush in the bathroom serves no purpose, there is no need for a chair at the head of the dining table. But the preserved uselessness of space becomes a mechanism of grief–a way of suspending time to avoid contending with what is no longer there. I am the only architect in my family, yet we all recognise that the nostalgia surrounding certain spatial arrangements allows us to refute my grandfather’s absence.
The destruction of the physical body is paramount in Hindu customs around death. We burn rather than bury, believing that the soul is liberated at the moment of cremation. The skull of the burning corpse is often deliberately shattered for this very purpose. The body, much like my grandfather’s perfectly-positioned armchair, is rendered useless.
I suppose that this ritual is intended to be cathartic, in the same way that acts of throwing out and cleaning up are often portrayed in popular media—we are told to discard all that does not spark joy. But as I contend with the intertwined narratives of entering the profession of architecture and grieving the death of my grandfather, I am striving to make room for the objects that evoke nostalgia, and spaces that welcome sadness. Questions of emotional rather than functional utility guide this design project.
But for now, my family and I work together setting the table for our evening chai—a daily ritual composed of tea, snacks, and convivial conversation. We find comfort in the repetitiveness of daily life in between the larger, more performative moments of catharsis. We sit down, passing around the box of sugar and the tin of biscuits—amongst the sounds of laughter, things feel almost normal. No one mentions the extra teacup sitting in the kitchen cabinet.