Buildings Don’t Matter, Intentions Do

calI. UC Berkeley

My alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, is an extraordinary place. It consistently ranks among the top few universities in the world. The Academic Ranking of World Universities ranked it fourth overall—behind Harvard, Stanford and MIT. It ranks world’s second best in science, and third best in engineering, and in social sciences.

UC Berkeley has been a stellar institution ever since its founding in 1868. People associated with it have won 71 Nobel prizes, and scores of top awards such as Fields Medals, Turing Awards, etc. It has been and continues to be a truly great university. Take a look at the wiki entry on UCB to get a feel for how good it is.

The campus is impressive, as you would expect any great university campus to be. The buildings are architecturally beautiful and the grounds are lovely. Admittedly, parking on campus is a problem but the saving grace is that if you win a Nobel, you get a reserved parking spot on campus close to your office.

You might wonder what explains UCB’s obvious and persistent success. To answer that question, we have to first understand what precisely UCB is. It is definitely not its buildings or any other physical attribute, though they are not irrelevant. Is it because of the people associated with it? Certainly the people matter. But there’s constant churn in them: generations of faculty, students and staff pass through it and yet it continues to have a persistent quality that transcends them all.

The most fundamental description of the University of California at Berkeley is that it is an institution. It is an extraordinary place as I said before but it is not just a place: it is an institution. What defines any institution is its objective, and the necessary rules and regulations that follow from that objective. The objective gives structure to the institution and determines its success through the rules that govern it. If the rules are good, the results are good.

In any interval of 50 years or so, the entire set of people associated with UC Berkeley gets replaced but the essential character of the place does not change because the objective and the concomitant rules continue to be the same. It is the persistence of the objective and the rules that follow from it that make it what it is.

I have chosen UC Berkeley as an illustration because I spent eight years of my life there. But what’s true about it is also true of any arbitrary successful institution. The objectives and the rules matter for the success or failure of any institution.

II. The Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto

Douglas Adams, the author of such fine books as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (you’d expect him to write a trilogy in five parts, no less), wrote what is in my considered opinion one of the finest books on environmental conservation you could ever read – Last Chance to See. It’s a funny book, as he appears to be incapable of writing anything un-funny. But it deals with a very serious topic: the loss of biodiversity and extinction of biological species.

I was particularly struck by one passage in Last Chance to See. Allow me to quote that bit in full.

I remembered once, in Japan, having been to see the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto and being mildly surprised at quite how well it had weathered the passage of time since it was first built in the fourteenth century. I was told it hadn’t weathered well at all, and had in fact been burnt to the ground twice in this century. “So it isn’t the original building?” I had asked my Japanese guide.
“But yes, of course it is,” he insisted, rather surprised at my question.
“But it’s burnt down?”
“Many times.”
“And rebuilt.”
“Of course. It is an important and historic building.”
“With completely new materials.”
“But of course. It was burnt down.”
“So how can it be the same building?”
“It is always the same building.”

I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.

What I call the objective is what Douglas calls “the intention” and that’s what’s immutable. The wood used in the construction of the temple is not material to what it essentially is. The living institution transcends the materials that give it form and shape. The objective is an idea and ideas are the foundation that institutions are built on and with.

III. India

Depending on how you figure it, roughly for around 150 years, the geographical area now called India was under the control of the British Empire. It was certainly comprehensively under the total control of the British between 1857 and 1947. During that 90-year period, the rules and regulations that defined India were created by the British. That period is commonly referred to as the British Raj.

The British Raj was an institution like any other. It had its objectives, and the rules and regulations that the British created were consistent with that objective. The objective was to exploit the economy and extract as much as possible. Colonialism is undertaken for profit, not just for fun on a whim.

As it happens, all things come to an end. They end when circumstances change, as circumstances usually do. The British colonial rule eventually ended for various reasons, primary among them was that the cost of colonial rule exceeded the benefits. The Second World War had enervated the Empire and besides, colonialism was going out of fashion around the world. The British left and did not need to be persuaded too much.

There was a change of guard in 1947. All of the British – with some notable exceptions – left for home, leaving behind all the institutions that they had created for ruling the Indians entirely intact. The new rulers took over the task of ruling the Indians quite enthusiastically. The first task at hand was the creation of a constitution of the country.

A constitution is an institution. Actually, it is the most fundamental institution since it defines the basic character of the country. Time was of the essence. I guess considerations of expediency required that the old rules created by the British were incorporated into the constitution of India without changes. And while they were at it, the objective – the British government objective – was also left intact.

IV. British Raj 2.0

Here’s the bottom line. The British Raj ended in 1947, and yet it really did not end. The Britishers certainly left but the objective they had when ruling India – the government domination of the people of India – remained unaltered. The rules and regulations that the British had established in pursuit of that objective were written into the constitution. The government established by the British continued post-1947.

India did not prosper under the British. That’s not surprising because countries don’t usually prosper under foreign domination. Not just countries, individuals don’t prosper under domination. India did not prosper after the British left because the institutional structure did not change. The same old rules, the same old game, the same old outcome. The rape of India started with invaders and foreign rulers creating institutions for their own benefit, and it still continues under those same institutions under the same set of rules.

Sure the names have been changed. The ICS is now called IAS, to quote just one tiny example. But does changing one letter in the title change things all that much? The man who lives in what is called the Rashtrapati Bhavan is not as fair-skinned as the one who lived there before 1947 but skin color is only skin deep. The new rulers still go around in cars with red flashing lights on top, and the relationship between the rulers and the ruled still remains as before.

India did not prosper under the British Raj and it should not come as any surprise that it does not prosper under what I call British Raj 2.0. Institutions don’t change merely because people working in them are replaced. The intentions of the original builders matter, not the buildings themselves. For real change, you have to change the objectives, and the rules and regulations that follow from them.

For India to prosper, the idea of India has to change.

{This piece originally appeared in, “Buildings Don’t Matter, Intentions Do.” }

8 thoughts on “Buildings Don’t Matter, Intentions Do

  1. Atanu:

    Nice post as always. I really like the quote from Adams book.

    In my current role I see the challenge of building institutions like that. It’s actually very hard work and it is a great achievement to continue for so long as UC Berkeley has done.

    However, as the Kyoto example shows it all starts with that clear intention or objective and I see that missing in so many places.




    i guess when the british left, people who took over the administrative services must have said to themselves – dude, we can either dismantle this and create a new, more democratic system or, or we can keep everything exactly the way it is and just slide into all the places where the british used to be. that way _we_ get to rule this country from now on. we just need to keep acting like the british officers and nobody will even notice.

    i think they chose option 2 😀


  3. Thank you for talking about UCB. Among all the things in the US, I like the universities the most. If I had to choose the best place in the world, it would probably be one of the US universities. I have been to be the best Indian universities and I don’t like them.

    Unfortunately, when people in India think about the US, they only see Hollywood or MNCs or the US politicians or US military actions. And, even among those who study in US universities, they use it only as a stepping stone and rarely appreciate all that has gone into making a university and rarely do they immerse themselves fully into the atmosphere.

    We are quick to copy Hollywood, reality TV, accents, mannerisms, real estate property names, luxury cars, etc, but rarely do we copy the deep aspects of democracy and institutions. Its all about the cargo cult attitude. We want to appear prosperous, but we don’t want to do the hard work that is needed to be truly prosperous. Get rich quick and to hell with institutions. Why bother when one can get education, healthcare for the family outside the country?


  4. Why pick on UCB? The public library on Shattuck will put most of India’s biggest libraries to shame. You can find 1950 art movies from India there. Try that in Mumbai!


  5. og, you have a point. But we have to refer to the most basic fact about India — that India is an impoverished country. India cannot afford libraries like they can in even rinky-dinky towns such as Berkeley. I am certain that budget for the Berkeley Public Library must be greater than the combined library budgets in Mumbai (public or private.)

    Just to be sure, let me repeat what I always say: India is not just poor; it’s been impoverished.


  6. My point was that the government of India is easily lured by mirages to invest in technology colleges (which are in the final stages of asphyxiation for want of adequately trained high-school graduates) than to invest from the ground up, as in primary schools and public libraries (which could prime the pump of the human resource ecosystem). When it comes to governance in India, what you could explain by malice you should never write off to stupidity.


  7. PS: Impoverished? I think not. The cash is there. It gets blown through inane+insane “tablet manias” and “building the world’s fastest supercomputer” at CDAC and IISc. It gets channeled to IIXs to build swank-looking lecture halls with bad acoustics that fall apart in five years.


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