"Here are my rules. What can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose.... A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose."
That was Howard Roark, the revered fictional hero of Ayn Rand’s 1943 book The Fountainhead, on what he believed to be the true spirit of architecture. But look around the great mass of concrete around you today and you wonder if somebody, anybody, took that worthy quote seriously? Modernity, it is touted ad nauseam, has claimed many a victim. Is architecture one of them?
Why is it that all the public architecture we marvel at in our cities—palaces, forts, temples, mosques, public gardens, havelis, stupas, lakes—are all either built by the British, the Mughals or other pre-modern dynasties and kingdoms?
Our nation-building project may be heading towards its septuagenarian decade but how is it that in so many years since Independence, there hasn’t emerged a single structure of note in any of our cities, barring a stray Lotus Temple in Delhi or a Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai? Why have we lost our mojo in architecture when we had all the aesthetics, the engineering and energy to build the temples in Khajuraho or the fort in Jaisalmer? How have we come to making the ugly malls that we are building at a frenetic pace from the tranquil temples of south India we were capable of raising? And now, with all hands on the deck for building the first 100 Smart Cities, are we hurtling towards creating more monstrosities?
Pune-based American-born architecture legend Christopher Benninger in his book Letters to a Young Architect says: “We are passing through a period in which the baby who cries the loudest gets the milk.... Architects are screaming and yelling like babies to grab attention. Facade architecture—the packaging of buildings in trendy wrappings—is popular. Fashionable western architects are ‘selling styles’, not making architecture. Each building they make looks like a copy of the one before it.”
Of course, ‘inspiration’ has been the hallmark of architectural marvels through history, like all other creative arts. If it was the Lutyens’ hangover that characterised the ’40s-50s, with its symmetrical lines-domed top look informing much of post-independence structures, by the ’60s, “it was the boldness of architectural form and the internal logic of Rationalist design arguments (that) captured the hearts and minds of a new generation of Indian architects,” notes Jon T. Lang in A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India. Parallely, a mix of foreign architects (Joseph Stein, Benninger, Bernand Kohn, Laurie Baker) and West-returned Indian architects (Habib Rahman, Achyut Kanvinde, Charles Correa, Balkrishna Doshi) were giving Indian architecture new direction, exploring new ground, notwithstanding their share of hits and misses in search of a unique Indian context and identity.
Cut to now, Indian architecture has lost all direction. Among the contemporary crop of Indian architects, where stalwarts are fewer in number than ever, there is nothing of the enthusiasm that once came with the profession. “The last few decades have been radar-less, clueless in terms of public architecture,” says Mumbai-based architectural conservationist Abha Narain Lambah. “Apart from buildings like Kanchan Junga (by Charles Correa) and the NCPA, other buildings are anything but iconic. All we can see is aspirational glass structures and towers. We are aping Dubai, and Dubai apes New York without any climatic context. A lack of vision and space has marred creativity. Also, there is not enough debate on urban aesthetics, like in Delhi, where there is an Urban Arts Commission.”
The general sentiment is that, within architecture circles, there is a great lull and disconnect, a serious lack of intellectual debate, and good, credible writing. “Our generation needs more dialogue, as the profession is getting more and more isolated and undermined, with fragmented creative efforts,” says architect Brinda Sen. She wishes contemporary construction took inspiration from the rich structural forms found in the older parts of our cities. Raj Rewal, a veteran in the profession, says he feels more appreciated abroad. “There is a lack of general public awareness about good architecture in India. So is our organisational ability within the profession to push issues with the government,” he says.
The problem may also be one of false perceptions. “Somewhere in the late ’60s, early ’70s, we decided that we were a poor people and good architecture was a luxury we couldn’t afford,” says Hyderabad adman Anvar Alikhan. “It was an impoverishment of the spirit—and soul—of India.” This view, that good buildings needed a lot of money and hands that we could ill afford, seems to have signalled a slow death of cultural ideas. Says the man behind the capital’s rustic crafts centre Dilli Haat, Pradeep Sachdeva, “Good architecture doesn’t come from a place where the clientele is increasingly developer-driven. If a project is driven 99 per cent on technicalities and finance, how can you expect high-quality architecture?” The Commonwealth Games held in Delhi in 2010, says Sachdeva, were a lost opportunity in creating inclusive structures with a lasting impact. We’re still living in the legacy of our historic structures, with no concept of how the architectural dialogue can be taken forward, he adds. So all our new townships are seemingly being built with no particular thought in mind, except to cash in on the real estate boom with borrowed, twisted western ideas of what constitutes posh living and working quarters. “Look at Gurgaon,” says architect Anupam Bansal, “where there is not one piece of work that is noteworthy. We use imported material and technology, but it isn’t quite coming together culturally as a whole. Bansal, incidentally, is one half of the duo (with Rajesh Dongre) who conceptualised the Alliance Francaise de Delhi.
Other factors are at play too, like politics. All those humongous statues that Mayawati built in Lucknow, for instance, as a show of strength. A Chennai resident rues for her city, “A horrendous example of how political rivalries can destroy a piece of public architecture has to be the conversion of the ‘new’ secretariat buildings, started by the DMK and inaugurated by Sonia Gandhi into a multi-speciality hospital when they lost power.” Rajeev Sethi of the Asian Heritage Foundation offers the perfect diagnosis: the central figure is no longer the architect, but economists, politicians, corporate clients. The builder is all powerful. Alongside, we have stopped patronising traditional systems and materials, instead “building glass towers pretending to be Shanghai”.
Infosys’s imposing corporate parks in Bangalore, Mumbai’s many skywalks, Gurgaon’s bleak skyline and the new administrative quarters at Chennai’s Fort St George—all of these have may have been built with much fanfare and moolah, but aesthetically they have been written off as first-rate eyesores by culture specialists. Crossing all speed limits on the road to development, most cities are letting their distinct character and architectural identity fall by the wayside. “There is a lack of reference points,” says culture critic Sadanand Menon. “You can read the personality of the people who reside in a certain locality, as architecture reflects the assimilation of a culture or absence of it. But architects today are more like client servicing agents, where they look at your budget and present a model, downloaded from international catalogues reflecting western ideas unsuitable to the Indian climate. Architects have stopped creating for the consumer and the possibility of a more integrated lifestyle and economy of a place.” “We are limited by our environment,” argues Auroville-based architect Suhasini Aiyar, who feels one cannot hope for meaningful designs and expressive buildings if the outside is so hostile.
“It is not that people’s tastes have deteriorated,” the legendary Benninger tells Outlook, “it is that they never had any choices before allowing them to actualise their bad taste.” Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to expect contemporary structures to be as grand as they once were, when lavish patronage served them well. “It is wrong to compare the two time-periods (Mughal, British vis-a-vis the last 50 years) because those structures were built under one patronage,” says Mustansir Dalvi, writer and professor at Sir J.J. College of Architecture. “The current scenario is pluralistic, and each one is free to build individual, independent designs with multiple influences and sources. Historically, one needs to look at post-World War I & II, when a new philosophy of ‘modernism’ emerged. It is characterised by rejection of past, functional designs and structural concern for ordinary people. It uses modern technology for the benefit of a large group of people but doesn’t have ornamentation. Jehangir Art Gallery, built in the 1950s, is a fine example of urban modernist design and an urban statement.” It’s true that there is a lot of pressure owing to frenetic construction, says Delhi-based French architect Stephane Paumier, “the emphasis is on quantity, not quality. So everything becomes generic. Look at someone like Hafeez Contractor, who handles dozens of projects at one time. Those are the kind of market pressures at play.”
Contractor, the much-sought after Mumbai architect, is used to finding himself at the other end of this debate. The man behind Infosys’s offices across south India and multiple structures in DLF city, Gurgaon, is often dismissed by those in the business for endorsing a copycat culture. He says he’s just making the most of the current swing of things. “We should be thankful to the builder lobby for driving the profession where the government is not. We have nothing to show post-independence because the government isn’t bothered. The construction boom has at least provided us some food for thought,” he says.
Architecture critic and academic Himanshu Burte also strikes a positive note. “With green buildings and organic architecture, there is some amount of innovation happening which may not be immediately recognisable, and may not even be visually appealing,” he says.
These though are still a few stray sparks, the contrast between the old and new stark as ever, with nary an effort to bridge the gap. This despair has become the inspiration for filmmaker Mainak Bhaumik’s Kolkata Calling, showcasing the construction of hideous structures in the name of public-private enterprise. Compared to the colonial structures in the city, Bhaumik observes, the incongruous highrises and new-age temples give the impression that Calcutta is trying too hard to be something it is not. That could apply to most Indian cities today. But this is merely part to a process, Benninger hopes, “a period of transition. It will change for the better as people settle down and become more articulate and considered in their choices”.
As things stand, fast and cheap, new and tasteless is the way to go. The buzz ranges from highbrow jargon to basics like ‘built-up area’ vs ‘super area’. No longer are architects commissioned in public-private projects through merit-based open competitions, tenders instead go to the lowest bidder, stooping to as low as 3 per cent in fee, placing the architect in the same bracket as the builder. We might also have gone up from the fewer-than-a-dozen architecture schools in India in the 1960s-70s to a healthy 350. “But the standard of the schools is so disparate that it reflects in the standard of work, with zero innovation, zero experimenting,” says Bansal.
Even as we fall over ourselves trying to build the tallest highrise, the most spectacular glass-wall corporate park and the biggest statue ever built, we are forgetting the long-term social consequences. “Intellectually, we’re still stuck in mid-20th century,” says city planning expert Dinesh Mohan. “Our cities and satellite towns are increasingly designed to be desolate, making them unfit and unsafe for women, children and older residents.” The land of the Taj Mahal could certainly do better than the jagged skylines that belong to no one.
By Neha Bhatt with Prachi Pinglay-Plumber and Dola Mitra