Chronicles The Architect's New Clothes

The story goes that a Russian delegation, on being taken on a conducted tour of the architectural splendours of the city of Bangalore, remarked, "Have you no architecture of your own? These are all European buildings!" Between the architecture of two empires, Independent India has been unable to create anything that would rival the great buildings of the imperial eras.

The history of post-Independence architecture in India is replete with those great blunders of 'modernism' that come from borrowed ideas and forms, from a failure to develop a unique idiom, and a confusion that continues to produce and add clutter to the enormous and unimaginative mass of concrete, steel and glass blocks that constitute the architecture of our cities. These have done little to invent an inspiring architecture, to extend, as V.S Naipaul, expressed it, "people's ideas of beauty and grandeur and human possibility - uplifting ideas which the very poor may need more than rich people - much of the architecture of free India has become part of the ugliness and crowd and increasing physical oppression of India. Bad architecture in a poor tropical city is more than an aesthetic matter. It spoils people's day to day lives; it wears down their nerves; it generates rages that flow into many different channels."

It was Nehru's ardent desire to build a new India in a new idiom, but the one that was eventually hit upon seemed tragically at odds with the Indian ethos. There is no denying the spirit that drove Nehru's wisdom, inspiring architects to break with tradition and attempt to refashion the way cities would be built 'unfettered by the past.' Joseph Allen Stein, the famed architect, noted the extraordinarily stimulating and interesting times of the Nehruvian era, likening it to the United States under Thomas Jefferson. Nehru, he noted, "had his flaws - many great men are flawed… but he was an extraordinarily beautiful and intelligent man, and he cast an aura over India that was very attractive." The memory of Gandhi and Tagore was also strong among Indian architecture students, and they were immensely "idealistic and dedicated." Why, then, was their combined output so pedestrian, so uninspiring? The difference perhaps lay in the fact that Jefferson was himself an architect and was able to realise his vision, while Nehru had to look to a new generation of inexperienced young architects, all trained in architectural schools abroad, or to rely on the services of a man generally regarded as one of the great architects of the time, Le Corbusier, a man who had reportedly approached both Hitler and then Mussolini with plans for creating and building a new city for them, and who was rejected by both. This was the vision that was, then, to alight on designing democratic India's first planned city.

It is strange that in our rejection of our colonial and pre-colonial heritage, and in our assertion of new-found independence, we were so quick to imitate and embrace the dominant western aesthetic. Our architects were either trained at or influenced by the principles of the Bauhaus School, which drew upon ideas that were then shaping Europe. Walter Gropius, the founder of this school outlined its ideals in his 'Manifesto'. He believed in the creation of a new guild of craftsmen who would be unencumbered by class distinctions that 'raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists'. His ideal was to "desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together" to "combine architecture sculpture and painting in a single form". While these were ground breaking ideas, they seemed completely at odds within the Indian context.

Was India ready for such ideas? Today, more than five decades later, we are still to create a new guild of craftsmen 'unencumbered by class distinctions'. And that is just one unrealised facet that undermines the creative application of the Western model to the Indian ethos. Traditional builders and craftsmen, the mistris and shilpkaris were not trained to grasp the new idiom and their skills were inappropriate for the underlying scientific principles of engineering and building that constituted the new architecture. The disjunct between the architect and his builders has become even more pronounced now. The underlying principles of the 'international style' was the outcome of a 'rational approach to design, unhampered by historical and cultural restraints' - but these restraints are a reality of the Indian milieu, and such an impersonal 'rational' ideal could only serve to further alienate architecture from the secular public who remained divorced from these concepts.

This could explain why most of our buildings lack even basic neatness; the best of them have a rough, clunky finish. It is in post-independence New Delhi that we can see the unfortunate realisation of this misguided spirit and aspiration. Not a single public arcade or institutional building stands out and distinguishes itself in comparison to the imperial buildings. The New Secretariat, the NDMC building? The mass of indistinguishable towers that choke Connaught Place with an air of claustrophobia? Or the unforgivable Shashtri Bhawan which has been described as having a 'secular character' that is 'accessible to the people', a 'democratic building for a democratic people'. Does this mean that 'the people' are to be excluded from beauty and grace? As for being easily accessed by the people - just try walking into Shastri Bhawan.

The nature of the architectural profession today seems a closed one, where only a privileged few have access. And it seems like a world where no one has heard of the concept of critique, where no one dares to tell the emperor that he is not wearing any clothes. Disguising the shoddiness of their work with a great deal of pretentious jargon has become the order of the day, and a good example that demonstrates the rather sorry state of architecture, and the exaggerated state of architectural pretensions, is apparent in a comparison between the original Parliament Complex and the new Parliament Library. The two buildings stand next to each other, one supremely confident in what it wishes to state and the fact that it is capable of achieving that statement in stone; but alongside it - what? What is that confusion of mixed metaphors trying to say? The Parliament library is nothing but an ugly building embodying the weak and tentatively imitative style that we have adopted. It attempts to mimic the basic structure of the Parliament building, even as it tries pathetically to make some garbled assertion of its own, but fails miserably. Yet, it has drawn gushing praise from an uncritical and incestuous architectural community.

Today, we remain far from creating an architecture of our own. Attempts at cloaking buildings in the outer garb of Gujrati havelis and Rajasthani palaces only ends up as kitsch. Even the vast temple complexes at Chattarpur or the Akshardam Temple are so revoltingly small in their achievement, so painfully mediocre and hopelessly imitative, a mere parody of temple building, when compared with the great and ancient temples of the South. We have lost the connection to the past and in our rejection of the colonial and imperial tradition, we broke the thread of continuity that may have helped rediscover the principles of beauty and power which once underpinned and stamped our great monuments and public buildings, and which could have opened the doors to actually creating a new style that we arrived at through our own exertions, through processes of working out an idiom more in harmony with the spirit of India, rather than one we have slavishly imported in its entirety from the West.

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, April 06, 2006



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