July 29, 2020
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Architecture As Amnesia

We ask little of our buildings, yet agonise over mere spectacle

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Architecture As Amnesia
A vaulted corridor of the Khirki masjid in Delhi, a fine example of the architecture that flourished during the Tughlaq dynasty
Architecture As Amnesia

When Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Open your windows and let the winds of change blow through your house”, he had not anticipated that the action would upturn the furniture and break everything that lay within. Much of what has happened in Indian architecture since Nehru’s prophetic words has been destabilising and destructive. The civilising influence of building, seen in the independence ideals of Chandigarh, is lost in a haze of changing aspirations, and now almost three-quarter of a century later, the struggle to find an identity within the urge to globalise has left Indian buildings with a crisis of design.

Nehru’s view of architecture arose from western modernity and the hope of creating a national culture through architecture. But it was mistakenly interpreted as a break from tradition. Rather than the original doctrine of an ascetic and frugal simplicity bestowing a visible equality for all, Indian modernism began to emulate a capitalist ideology; certainly, it chan­ged the perception of the country from ‘third world’ to ‘de­veloping’, but in its wake left a muddled inheritance.

The new Indian lost all time-bound links to place and operates in free time. He functions with global institutions and networks, building houses and glass office complexes that could be in Rio or New York. He may live in Gurgaon, but dre­ams of New York, carrying his own inner city of memories wherever he is; he learns to populate the familiar with new urges—a Swiss chalet in Himachal, a hotel in Mumbai with a revolving glass lobby, a private farmhouse in Delhi of a Germ­anic minimalism bordering on discomfort. Given the sights of Europe, lure of Dubai and technology of America, architect­ure mutates into shifting sites and explorations, built quickly in small, walled-in parcels containing a range of surplus facilities—pool table, tennis court, valet parking, golf view and barbeque. As the new resident of the gated community, he lives in material gullibility, a spectator in his own home.

The yurt-like circular cob-and-thatch house of the Meghwal tribe of Gujarat is energy efficient and earthquake resistant

Photograph by Getty Images

When architecture is formed out of the mere wish for spectacle, it sinks to a new irrelevance. Foreign funds and transnational businesses have little concern for culture and heritage. Forgetting all local characteristics, a misplaced architecture emerges out of what cultural anthropologists describe as ‘slash and burn’ history. At one time, the larger cultural view of architecture was necessary to project an identity of a people, a region, even a nation. At its very core, architecture stood as an emblem of national unity. The persistence of a long-established building tradition so crucial to that suggestion hardly needed stating. It grew instead—as in the arts of painting, sculpture and craft—as an unselfconscious expression conveying a multitude of influences, beliefs and adaptations. A mere glance down a street of traditional buildings confirmed they could be nothing else but Indian. In small places far removed from the cosmopolitan structure of larger cities, there still remains something of India’s enriching legacy. Stone houses in Jaisalmer, the white courtyards of Udaipur, Bohra houses in Gujarat, and the odd stone monuments are now—like much of the country’s valuable history—closer to archeology than architecture, living as they do under the shadow of the glass shopping mall. Yet, all around in the neighbourhood, cultural concerns are still being carefully modulated in a local language.

Sri Lanka’s embrace of a tropical modernism has produced a type of building that emerges from the humid climate and landscape presence. Walls in Colombo are streaked by the monsoon and engage with abundant foliage. Terracotta traditions of Bengal fuel a new brick architecture that stretches across paddy fields and restates old ideals in Bangladesh. Obviously, a changing urbanity in South Asia creates newer conditions, materials and social dem­ands; yet, unlike India, much of the neighbouring work ­reflects an older order. Bhutan specifically restricts all flamboyant commercialism and even enforces strict guidelines for new buildings to follow traditional patterns. A view of Paro conveys a Bhutanese city sitting tranquil and familiar in the valley. Next door, a dispirited and erratic Gangtok rises in a messy Indian urbanism, part shop, part house and slum. A looming gray fog envelops the hillside with borrowed facsimiles of glass and cement—ragged, ramshackle and always incomplete.

Why do we ask so little of our buildings, yet agonise so much over architecture? When architecture is not formed out of ­existing circumstances—materials, technology and cultural insights—it is formed out of nothing, and becomes a mere fanciful object of design. Without an understanding of cultural requisites, and their continued expression in new buildings, the architect flounders, and a case for red­undancy looms large. In the larger scheme of things, the Indian architect betrays a lack of faith in culture, and forgets that the basis of the future is the past. In the shining chrome and glass building, that ­belief seems far away.

Gautam Bhatia Delhi-based ­architect and artist

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