Collected short notes on a year and a half of living/teaching/learning in a pandemic

The SEA Diaries used to be produced more regularly by the School of Environment and Architecture as the SEA Newsletter. This was a short reportage printed over two spreads on the goings-on at the school over the course of a semester, compiled and put together by the faculty and the students alike and published biannually. We closed the school on the 17th of March, 2020, as per directives from the state government and a whole new school was cobbled together from everything that ensued. The form of the newsletter, eighteen months later seemed to us to have run its course for a while. We weren’t gathering in the same ways, or learning in the same ways. The prosaic regularity with which we conducted teaching-learning dissolved into the ether, the print shop and the fold out newsletter seemed obsolete, even quaint.

The school shape shifted and what the pandemic forced us to confront immediately was the idea of the institution. The digital made the school vast, unwieldy, important and obsolete, and more necessary than ever as our physical worlds shrunk. This was not simply because the school was the knowledge dispensing institution that helped us make sense of the world, but rather because the school became the closest to the “outside” that we were able to hold on to. It held our stories, and small and large fears, you made sense of what was happening through the shared experience of others. 

That uncertainty was not, however, without its hopeful edge. I was reminded of Joan Didion writing on the riots at San Francisco State College in 1968, in a mood that seems to reflect the precarious optimism we felt, “the future was no longer arduous and indefinite but immediate and programmatic, aglow with the prospect of problems to be ‘addressed’, plans to be ‘implemented.’ “


The dissolution of boundaries - home/school, work/live, meet/work, share/learn, teach/learn - generated in a small school, already engaged in serious, regular discussion around architectural pedagogy and the role and limits and meaning of an institution, a newer dimension of compassion and intimacy. It is this, the idea of the intimate, that breathes new life into the newsletter. It is an invitation to share, reflect on, and lay bare what transpired, what we held important and what we held close, in a form that is agile and doesn’t flatten different arrangements. Its discordancy, if any, underlies what is at the heart of the reimagination of the school - it being a collection of practices and people, where passing through it would be inherently driven by coming in contact with these various practices which shape and give direction to your own.

SEA Newsletter is now called SEA Diaries.


Nothing brought about the sea change (pun cautiously intended) that we felt at this rewrought, far out sense of the school as much as the introduction of the Allied Studies course in the August of 2020. To truly see the school as a coming together of different practices (here, specifically those of the teachers), with their own methodologies, their own questions, their own, diversely situated orientations to thinking, the Allied Studies course was introduced. The intention of the course was to dislocate architectural teaching from outmoded, straitened ideas of what, foremost, architecture should “look like”. An architect was not someone who was embedded in a market driven idea of practice, where practice is exclusively the participation in the logics of the construction industry, but was, rather, someone who was critical of space and space making, and asked questions in diverse ways.

The school offers eleven courses, each anchored by a faculty member, and each rooted in their specific inquiries. In both 2020 and 2021, these courses have produced exhibitions, city studies, narratives of environment, art practices, fictions and performances, and material experiments, among others. A bulk of the SEA Diaries for 20-21 comprises the teachers’ relevant excerpts from the courses.


The expansion of the school into a gathering of practices is also held in a broader, more durable structure with the formation of the Centre for Spatial Studies. Here, the school’s varied directions in research, conducted since its formation and housed across several studies, material experiments, notes, papers, a plethora of shapes actually, are gathered and held together on the website Centre For Spatial Studies. However, the adhering principle and ambition of the CSS is much larger. Beyond a compilation of academic explorations amassed online, the website is the school itself - tentacular, nebulous, critical of the practices of spatial pedagogy, with a stretched sense of the teacher as well as the student, synergetic, welcoming, and looking to make interventions in culture that don’t prescribe to the boundaries of conventional understandings of “academic”, “artistic”, etc but are playful with them.
The CSS is young and its research clusters will be populated over the coming months as the work builds itself, but it already carries some deep investigations in South Asian Architecture and Urbanism and Environment and Spatiality, and invites and seeks collaboration from the larger world. One of the other agendas of CSS is to liberate teaching-learning activity from its institutional boundaries and towards that, a programme on open pedagogy has been initiated where pedagogic events shall be conducted inviting the world to participate.

We use the word “produced” - produced exhibitions, produced work, produced research and design - but the idea of production and productivity itself was a difficult one to consider in a year marked pointedly by personal distress, collective trauma, and their processing. Time opening up with the shrinkage of our daily radii could not translate into opportunity and energy to pursue ideas that niggled you before, nor did one often find capacity to engage with the breadth of new concerns that, as an academic institution, you feel compelled to join your voice with. One couldn’t be industrious-productive in the same ways anymore, too much took our attention and our time. Students especially felt this very keenly. Even while schools and universities relaxed guidelines around submissions in order to alleviate stresses, at SEA the idea of productivity itself came under the scanner very closely. Learning was situated not in the tangible “outcomes” of a module, because that was located in problematic, capitalistic measures of productivity; nor in the persistence of effort in the face of uncertainty that led to fully formed conclusions or designs, but rather in the ways in which a mode of thinking, or a core question was able to generate a critical lens for you to renegotiate the systems and structures of the world. It could (and did) result in the inchoate writings / drawings of students, but as long as there was a thinking and an inquiry that was held, and could make its presence felt in the work, it was considered far more valuable than the generation of schemes and solutions. Nevertheless the school slipped and struggled, rearticulated both “complete” and “productive” for ourselves, and bargained and argued our way through coming to terms with these new definitions. The incomplete, the smudgy, the ‘becoming’ had become more valuable and appeared to have more agency.


The start of the pandemic provoked a slew of conferences and debates hosted on digital platforms. There seemed to be a haste to contribute opinions, to lend voices to the succession of conversations, the mullings over the future, the reimaginings and the speculations over the state and the fate of our lives. Architects especially seemed charged with the idea that the glaring difference in the everyday spaces of our lives could be and needed to be addressed instantaneously through interventions, reconceptualising the ______, rethinking the _____. They harnessed the language of the profession and spoke at length with measures of optimism and suspicion about what was held in store for us. It all felt very quick. The pandemic had barely taken hold and in that climate of abrupt isolation and precariousness, the energy of these efforts seemed somehow precipitate. It could be said though that they gave us some anchors, brought up new ways to pull together a profession in an unprecedented context (arguably the profession was never in crisis), and they certainly set the tone for how we would meet and host dialogue for the foreseeable future.


The school stewed for a long, long time over how to participate on this stage. It was crucial to contribute, and to contribute experience - to collect our episodes and ordeals, our observations as the world went through a stoppage in all kinds of work, a shortage of provisions, financial crises, illnesses and deaths, the breaking down of healthcare systems and an exodus of the migrant workforce from cities. The self became the field, that is to say, in order to make sense of the world, we started by interrogating and surveying our own lives. Our homes and neighbourhoods, our new everyday lexicons, the changed nature of our friendships - the pandemic forced us all to contend with these in strange, often uncomfortable ways and a lot of the structures that we took for granted were reformed in these assessments. It is through the collection of these individual accounts that the Covid Glossary took shape.

The Glossary is a container and a map where these stories are layered with each other. They form clusters and connect and contradict each other, and one can pick constellations through them in order to journey through the experience of the pandemic in a multitude of ways. Its form has been designed to further the idea of thickness and complexity that is the inherent value of such a collection. As of June 2021, it holds more than 400 entries, contributed by students, teachers, staff, and friends of the school, and all are invited to add entries as the pandemic and the virus continue to mutate in form and meaning around us.


The self as the field took shape as the underlying principle of a whole range of study conducted across various years. While the 7th semester continued its research and survey of second cities via the study of secondary sources and previously compiled work, the restriction of access to field study and site required us to think more carefully of what could constitute the field. While it came together in a larger, more generalised sense in the Covid Glossary, and in several oblique ways in the dissertation research conducted by the final year students, it was explored most keenly in the Semester 01 courses. The structures and ideas that shape us - those of family, of religion, the institutions we participate in, the images that make us - whose dressing we emulate, what posters we frame (if we still frame posters); all these were examined that a sense of the mechanics of the world could be instilled, as an important part of building critical thinking ability. The first year was perhaps the most confusing, challenging set of courses to run for all those participating in it, compressed as it was into four dense months. But it held together nonetheless and this could be attributed to an expansion of the practice of asking questions, initiated first in a course that breaks down primary concepts that shape us (like god, and country, and family); which, when extended to the other modules through the optic of the self as field, saw students break down the forces that make everyday objects, collect and describe pattern from local flora, draw the self and home in complex ways, and test ready material for structural and sculptural properties, both.

The collapse of our physical spaces also expanded our contact with the world. SEA City, the final year thesis symposium, the annual conference, all hosted contributors and speakers from a range of disciplines and practices. Started by the series of talks on South Asian architecture and urbanism which invited thinkers / practitioners from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and neighbouring Indian states, the possibilities of collaborating opened up like never before. SEA City was previously hosted on the school’s campus and the bustle to set up a studio, the AV equipment checks, the biscuit array, all have already taken on a nostalgic tinge when we reminisce. We may not return to conducting it in the same way and if we do, it will be to a lesser degree. Glitchy Facebook live streaming is already passé, geographical constraints are obsolete, warmth and camaraderie extend to conversations on Zoom as well which all mean that friends of the school, both new and old are greater in number, more engaged, and our networks of care and fellowship extend far beyond what they did in a pre-pandemic world.

For the school, it was Devarsh Sheth’s compassionate study of the ways in which stray animals occupy our streets and public spaces, the first year’s dense interpretation of Ursula Le Guin texts, Dhruv Sachala’s “Joseph-ian technicolour dreamcoat” produced in his Allied Studies course, the shared worry we felt as so many at the school combated either the virus or its direct effect on livelihoods, the shared loss as friends and family succumbed, new energies that were generated by talks across all scales of borders, the experiments in argument-making through drawing, and several, several others that saw us through an arguably difficult, uncommon eighteen months.


Through this diary, we look back on a year and more of shifts in thinking and practices, both lived and academic. Of experiments and mutations in the forms of our pedagogy, of planned shifts and makeshift arrangements thrust upon us, that we may, not dissect or conduct a post mortem, but reflect on these changes, on our learnings and our productions and most importantly, on the comfort and solidarity generated with the stretching of what it means to be a school.

Apurva Talpade

22 November, 2021