One of the rare advantages of a philosopher is the authoritative sway he holds over an audience. Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo’s ease with a range of subjects makes him both a curious, intelligent bystander, and a convivial conversationalist. The combination produces a barrage of ideas that are free of professional jargon and the wordy despair often associated with scholarly inquiry. The coming together of a man who has written a lot and another who has built a lot has generated an oddly satisfying book on architecture. Unlike other books on the subject, Talking Architecture is shorn of the glib double-spread colour photography that reduces buildings to dream-like seduction—beautifully deceptive images devoid of the messy reality of Indian life. Instead, the book poses the serious questions that government and civic authorities should have been asking of themselves. Why are our cities so despicably ugly and inhospitable? Is there an Indian architecture? If so, how is it affected by globalisation? Indeed, what makes Indian architecture different? These larger public questions are posed by Jahanbegloo and addressed through the private vantage of one of the country’s leading architects.
Raj Rewal’s career spans four decades and includes a formidable variety: housing, institutes, exhibition halls, homes, even the parliament library. Having witnessed at close range the construction of large scale public works, he is in a position to raise difficult issues of urban despair and repair. The book is a personal view—a gentle harangue, on the possibilities and lost opportunities in a country that could have chosen its own distinctive rationale for building after Independence. But the path towards Le Corbusier’s modernism, and Nehru’s ‘temples of modern India’ led India into new shackles. An unfortunate aesthetic imprisonment that left the country with a destitute heritage. You see it everywhere, in small towns and metropolises—brick-and-mortar buildings, broken, monsoon-stained, repeating in endless smudges to the horizon. Unloved spiritless citadels, without thought or inspiration, they are the visible public face of modern India.