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Identity, Architecture, Modernity

Modernity as a concept is not something that should be, or is, exclusively generated in the West, but is also a product of time and place. Why should modernity be exclusively restricted to the standards used in the West?

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When we think of “modernity,” we often think of being up to date, having the latest gadgets, the latest cars, branded clothes. But modernity is much more. Modernity is also a state of mind, a belief in the power of the future, and of the power of rationalism and scientific thinking to solve problems.

The roots of modernity lie in the 18th and 19th centuries, when humankind first came out of the depression of the middle ages and began to (re)discover the power of science and technology. New disciplines were invented to cope with a rapidly expanding world — physics, chemistry, the life sciences, mathematics. A world full of global exchanges emerged — trade routes between East and West meant that it was now possible for the West to learn from Chinese and Indian wisdom, to import their spices, and to build lucrative connections.

What exactly was the role of “East” in building “Western” modernity? While the exact nature of this exchange remains hotly contested, it is clear now that the East was a vital factor upon which the West built its conception of modernity. Indeed, for the West, the only way it could measure its modernity was to compare it with the “primitive” East.

That this sort of thinking gradually became the rationale and raison d’etre of colonization of the East and Africa by the West is something that has been accepted within certain schools of thought since the late 20th century. What is also now emerging is that the East had its own versions of modernity, which have not been accepted into the Western canon until very recently. Thus, while the West has its own “universal” standards, for example literature, art, philosophy, and so on, for the East, these things were usually designated as a subset of the universal. Thus we had categories like Asian art, Indian philosophy, African art, Japanese fiction, and so on.

Until the late 20th century, the same seemed to be the case of architecture. While Western architecture was the “father” of movements such as Modernism, Postmodernism, Deconstruction and so on, for the major countries of the East such as China, India and the Middle East emirates, architecture was forever doomed, it would appear, to aping the West and producing mimetic copies of the parent canon, which, it must be said, were never true and independent in themselves, but were always subservient to those that were found in the West.

Is this a true picture of modern architecture in India?

We argue in this article that it is not, and that modern architecture in India — and by this we mean the architecture of South Asia from the 1800s to the end of the 20th century — evolved its own particular brand of modernity and modernism that was not dependent on the West, but rather in dialogue with it, and depended instead on a past and an imagined future that was at once rich, full of possibilities and dependent on an imagined construction of reality. We will return to this point a later in the article, but let us start by imagining the roots of modernity in South Asia.

 European Imperialism

So what exactly are the roots of modernity in India, and those of modern architecture? India in the 17th century, before the arrival of European powers, was in a state of flux. The all-puissant Mughal empire, that had gone through centuries of domination of the region, was in decline. Ironically, it was this decline that led to new systems of thought that ushered in modern ways of thinking.

In Jaipur, in 1721, during the rule of Sawai Jai Singh, far reaching experiments were made in the use of celestial instruments to measure the movements of the moon, the stars and the planets. Sawai Jai Singh was a truly post-Renaissance ruler, inviting to his court learned men from far regions of the world. Jaipur, was among the earlier “planned” cities of India, basing its city plan on a cosmic and mythical “mandala” that sat comfortably within the flat and hilly terrain of the Jaipur region.

What was Sawai Jai Singh actually saying with his observatories and city plan? What claims to modernity was Jaipur city actually making? It was this: that by laying down a rational grid over previously unordered land and terrain, humans were actually capable of making their own destiny, of asserting their power over nature which hitherto had reigned supreme. However, Sawai Jai Singh’s Jaipur does not only do this — through making references to cosmic Mandalas, Jaipur also harks back to a past which was already very ancient in Sawai Jai Singh’s time, and by inference this past is a golden one which deserves imitation and replication.

A similar reference to a “golden past” can also be inferred in European constructions of modernity in the discovery by 17th and 18th century “grand tours” of Roman and Greek relics, and by placing these at the apex of architectural development by historians of Western architecture.

From these two examples, we find that the possibilities for Western and Indian modernity to have similar intent are rich: in both cases we find the desire for possession of nature and objects hitherto untameable, and in both cases we find referents to a past that was possibly imagined, possibly constructed — but always a source of inspiration and mimesis.

Another example of modernity in India is the 16th century city of Vijayanagara in the south of the subcontinent. Here, a very rich landscape of rivers, boulders and hills was sculpted using architecture of sacral temples and a landscape of fields and cultivation. Indeed, as the roots of Vijayanagara show, its founders built it as a bulwark of Hinduism in the south of India, and as an empire that had a history of resisting the Islamic sultanates that surrounded it. Vijayanagara’s architecture is a pre-modern construction that shows a very alternate, possible modernity that might have resulted had the empire lasted — a modernity that is in harmony with nature and attempts to blend in with its surroundings, rather than act as a conqueror of nature. Here too at Vijayanagara (now called Hampi), temples and other sacral architecture makes reference to a Vedic past that was a bit closer than that of Jaipur, but still, in the absence of historical documents, had to be imagined through word of mouth and mythical constructs.

What might have happened to Indian modernity in the 19th and 20th centuries without the intervention of the West is a moot point. Would Indian modernity, as was the case with China and Japan, have come into violent conflict with that of the West? It is difficult to say. But as it happened, British Raj in India changed for much of the 19th and 20th centuries Indian conceptions of modernism, with far reaching effects on architecture and urban form.

 British Imperial Architecture

When the British came to India they were confronted by a plural society unlike any they had encountered in their own homeland. The British mission quickly changed from trade, to colonization and dominance with the decline of the Mughal empire. How was colonization justified? One very important element in justifying colonization was the project of re-writing history, or of portraying Indians as a “people without a sense of history.” In this portrayal, Indian civilization, though vibrant, was decaying through the lack of a proper canon, of literature, of art and of architecture. It was the British mission in foreign lands to “civilize,” or in other words to introduce a modicum of civilization into colonized lands through Western education.

Where was the place of architecture in this debate? In the words of James Fergusson, an early historian of Indian architecture, “Indian architecture had created wonderful forms, but had not yet attained the rationality and precision of European architecture.” It was thus the British architect’s mission in India to introduce “precision and rationality” and further the aims of Empire through building, construction and architecture.

Much of this change from building for purely utilitarian purposes (as was the case with the early Presidency towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras) to building to showcase British imperial ambition, came about after 1857, when the Indian Sepoy rebellion against British hegemony effectively ended the British East India Company’s direct rule over its possessions in India. Henceforth, it was the British crown that controlled India, and needed the help of architecture to showcase its power.

From then on, the architecture that the British built came to symbolize power and dominance. From the Gateway of India at Bombay, to the cantonment architecture in various towns across South Asia, to the final sway of Raj represented by the imperial buildings in New Delhi, Raj architecture came to symbolize the power of the British. There were concessions to Indian styles, of course — witness constructions like the Chepauk Palace and Victoria Terminus in Bombay. But in the main British architecture followed what its most prominent architect Edwin Lutyens, who planned New Delhi, exemplified — an aesthetic dictated by imperial concerns, and tempered by icons and motifs of “traditional” Indian architecture.

It is important to see here the work that British architecture did for the development of modernity in India. For one, the aesthetic of what was “powerful and dominant” was changed for the next two centuries. Secondly, Indian architecture itself was relegated to second place, to an aesthetic that was not quite “rational” or “precise.” Third, the practice of British architecture in India gave rise to an “interrupted modernity” of sorts for the development of Indian architecture that had seemed to be on its way through Jaipur, Vijayanagara and Mughal Delhi and Agra. It’s true that the British did a lot for “traditional” Indian cities — witness the laying out of sewage and waste disposal systems, and the introduction of schools of architecture and training in draughtsmanship, yet for the Indian architect, the concept and origin of what it meant to be rational and correct were translated to a power that had its center in the other corner of the world.

Post Independence Architecture

When Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress came to power in 1947, the situation was different. There was a perceived need by Indian leaders to somehow “build” the nation, and in the model followed by postcolonial countries in Asia and Africa, to build the nation along lines that in some way reflected the “identity” of the country. This question of identity was controversial and disputed, and in many ways was reflective of the diversity of India. For one, there was a rift between the “moderns” and the “revivalists,” those who wanted to look forward, and those who wanted to look to India’s past for inspiration. Possibly India’s past was too fractured and too vague an entity in postcolonial India to evoke associations of form and design in a truly national way. The danger of going modern was also the association of the word with the British, which Indian leaders felt would be too reminiscent of the recent past. Inventive solutions were found in state sponsored architecture that circumvented these debates, or at least strove to keep all parties happy. In the new town of Chandigarh, for example, a French-Swiss architect and planner Le Corbusier was engaged as the principal designer of the new project. In Bhubhaneswar, Otto Koenigsberger, who had already been working in India for some time, was hired. The Scotsman Patrick Geddes, the American Albert Mayer and others who were not too evidently associated with the former colonial power too found their place in the sun in post-1947 India.

Architecture of the state, however, continued to be a closely controlled phenomenon, part of a cartel of designers and architects, who in conjunction with the powers that be, produced forms and designs that were modern in their outlook, yet attempted to create an “Indian” identity with the use of materials such as concrete, brick, sandstone and others used in ways to offset the main features of the Indian climate — the harsh sun, the summer and the monsoon. Architecture also made a strong political statement, one that emphasized the power of the state as the patriarch and benign overseer of the masses.

Much of this was possible as long as the Congress Party held power as a near monopoly. The cartelization of architecture as a profession was also possible as long as there remained a few select schools of architecture in the country, predominantly in Bombay, Ahmedabad and Delhi. However, change was imminent, and change came with the Janata Party and Indira Gandhi’s emergency. These two projects proved that power could no longer be held by a monolithic apparatus, and with the first winds of liberalization that came in the 1980s, architecture and design in India too experienced change.

 Architecture of Liberalization

With liberalization, also came into India global forces such as the world wide web, cable television and international publications. Travel became easier, and for the global Indian this meant exposure to architecture of the world. Architectural practices started to employ non Indian architects with the result that more and more international concepts were embraced. This had a big effect on the architecture that could be, and was produced. Shopping malls, cinema multiplexes, industrial warehouses and factories, tall buildings and skyscrapers, all became part of the new architectural vocabulary. For architects, this meant two things: the first was to acclimatize themselves with a global world and technology, and the second was to update themselves constantly with the latest gimmicks and software. Indeed, for the Indian architect his Ipad and his smart phone have become an essential part of his image, as are his buildings, but this would come a decade or two later. For the moment, the Indian architect grappled with need to build modern and global, and the reverse force, which was the backlash by established architects and powers of the insidious nature of the “foreign.”

Indeed, as new firms have shown, architecture and projects that employ high tech imagery and gizmos still have to prove themselves as having an Indian and domestic influence. The tendency to employ and contract large multinational contracts to large multinational firms has shown an apparent unwillingness to “trust” Indians with complex projects, and to ascribe to the “Indian” anything else than what his or her own identity proves him to be. “Be Indian, buy Indian,” the famous (and not apolitical) slogan of the 1980s is Orwellian in more than one instance in this case.

 New Millenium Architecture

What has been the scene in the new millennium? The future of Asia is gradually shifting towards its cities, and it seems that of the Asian giants, the one with the most efficient cities will be the eventual victor in terms of economy and environment. Indeed, Asian cities are showing a dynamism that is unmatched by their Western cousins, though this dynamism sometimes comes at the cost of quality in development and equal opportunities. Architects, designers and planners are recognizing this new reality — that architecture cannot be, in a globalizing world, an isolated instance of a single building or site. The mantra for the new age is “connected urbanism,” or a collage of sorts where the development of cities and towns goes hand in hand with the development of nations and states.

Two challenges have arisen with the boom of the Asian city: to provide housing for all, and to provide for a city’s development in a sustainable way. It is difficult to say if Indian architecture, apart from a few isolated practices who are working against the grain, has risen to the challenge. The outskirts of most major Indian cities are full of urban brownfields and waste, sprawling developer inspired blocks of architecturally insipid apartment housing, and chock-a-block traffic. The new hopes of the last millennium — towns like Gurgaon and Noida near Delhi — while a cut above the rest in terms of architecture and development, are bedeviled by problems of urban connectivity, power disruption and poor services. Meanwhile India’s inequitable development means that while a select few may build profligate houses — witness Mukesh Ambani’s $1 billion home Antilia in Mumbai — for the majority a house of their own remains an unaffordable dream. The responsibility lies as much with architects for failing to live up to their social responsibility, as with the oft documented and recent problems with accountability and performance at the top levels of the country.

Signs of hope, however, come from committed young professionals, who, with idealism, courage and hope, are addressing the challenges and demands of the young, but infinitely old, India.

 Questions of Identity

We started this article with a question — what is modernity, how is it applicable to India, and is there a modern Indian architecture? It’s clear that modernity as a concept is not something that should be, or is, exclusively generated in the West, but is also a product of time and place. For a medieval Indian ruler, the attempt to be modern lay in opening his kingdom to wider horizons. In that sense, he was as modern as his counterpart some 400 years later. Why should modernity be exclusively restricted to the standards used in the West?

With this basic conclusion arise questions of identity. Is there a “typical” modern Indian architecture? What identities and questions does this modern architecture address? It’s equally clear that for a country with as diverse a past as India, the question of which “India” to assume an identity of is a major challenge. In the past, as has been the case with Chandigarh, the question of identity has been neatly side stepped by employing a non British architect who brought to India rather abstract notions of what modernity is, and should be. We might even say that Chandigarh, as major an experiment as it was in town planning, was architecturally an escape from responsibility.

The third question is the forces of globalization. With the rise of an apparently numbing homogeneity of time and place in the developed world, man is increasingly turning to nature to provide succor from modernity and modernization. Asian countries are determined (or should be) to avoid this path to modernity and its consequences. The problem lies in tradition, the lack of an informed debate, and a slow and inefficient political process. 

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Life | Arts & Entertainment | Magazine | November 2012

Image gallery

Jantar Mantar, New Delhi. During the rule of Sawai Jai Singh, far reaching experiments were made in the use of celestial instruments to measure the movements of the moon, the stars and the planets. Vijayanagara’s (now called Hampi) architecture is a pre-modern construction that shows a very alternate, possible modernity that is in harmony with nature and attempts to blend in with its surroundings. Above: A view of the ruins thought to be a marke in Imperial architecture, such as Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus, made concessions to Indian styles. British Bungalow:  British architecture followed what Edwin Lutyens exemplified — an aesthetic dictated by imperial concerns, and tempered by icons and motifs of “traditional” Indian architecture. Medieval Jaipur Plan:Jaipur, was among the earlier “planned” cities of India, basing its city plan on a cosmic and mythical “mandala” that sat comfortably within the flat and hilly terrain of Jaipur region. Chandigarh, a lead experiment in town planning, was architecturally an escape from responsibility. Palace of Assembly, designed by Le Corbusier. The architecture of the Raj, such as the Gateway of India, symbolized power. Chepauk Palace was a concession to Indian style by the architects of the British Raj. Hampi Historic Center: A rich landscape of rivers, boulders and hills was sculpted using architecture of sacral temples and a landscape of fields and cultivation.

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