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‘Buildings in India are not designed by architects but produced by a wide spectrum of designers’

The discussion of Indian architecture tends to be a discussion only of the works produced by the Western-trained and influenced architects

Originally published in AR August 1987, this piece was republished online in May 2016

The discussion of Indian architecture tends to be a discussion only of the works produced by the Western-trained and influenced architects. Yet their work represents a tiny proportion of Indian building activity (there are 10 000 architects in India: 1 per 75 000 people) and, parallel to their work, run three other streams of building.

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First, there are the works of engineers and untrained designers who produce the bulk of city and small town architecture. Then there are the temple, mosque and other religious constructions designed by vastu shilpis-the architects of the traditional Indian system. Last, and most important to the evolution of architecture in India, is the ever-renewing reservoir of indigenous, spontaneous architecture built by the people of both town and country who have no access to trained architects.

These four streams run parallel and overlapping, through different strata of society serving different needs and with varying environmental consequences. The trained architect is a metropolitan creature, inhabiting the pastures of high surplus economies and power centres. The engineer turned designer and the ‘quack’ survive in the bleak peripheries of the city, the small towns and at other urban-rural interfaces. The vastu shilpi and the self-builder are ubiquitous and omnipresent.

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The architect’s contribution

The work of the majority of trained architects reflects the history of Indian architecture since 1947. The new republic with a parliamentary democracy and a socialist vision generated architecture of a grotesque type. Le Corbusier brought the Modern Movement but its revolutionary intent was lost in the process of transplantation from the Western soil to the Indian. The Modern Movement and its foster-parent democracy have both played pimp to consumerist capitalism. Discarding the socialist garb, India’s Modern Movement developed through faithful imitation of the Masters.

In mere stylistic reductionism Le Corbusier is reduced to deep exposed concrete fins or awkwardly curved sun shades, or by the more adept to mere proportions of apertures. Louis Kahn comes alive behind circular brick openings, in geometric wastefulness in plan, in endless repetitions of the arch, circle and the triangle. For three decades now Indian Masters of innovative imitation have garlanded each other in exclusive forums, given each other gold medals and lauded each other’s imitations as originals in jury reports.

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In the last decade this has begun to produce multiple counterpoints in the younger generation of architects who are appalled by the way in which the long blighting, shadow of Corbu and Kahn has lingered over the Indian s􀂋cene. On one hand, for example, is a new architecture now labelled as ‘appropriate’, cheap, ethnic, hand-crafted, innovative, or romantic. It is also often low-rise with a pronounced presence of the natural, apparently of low technology technique (which can be deceptive) and by its very nature appears to challenge the existing values and even provide a social critique.

On the other hand is a growing number of computer buffs, young architects with absolute faith in the systems approach and models with their Futurist dreams firmly placed in the impending communication revolution. India which has a centuries-old tradition in conceptual sciences (not in the deterministic, mechanist variety but the esoteric, mathematical variety) is bound to take off soon into the electronic era. But its diversity and multiplicity of character and its ability to transform alien systems and ideas into a thick, well-cooked curry, can perhaps be counted on to offset that ominous cloud of electronic rain.

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Now, after a good three decades of historical distance, the early pretentious of a socialist architecture through the Modern Movement appear to be a mere political trick played on the people. All over the ‘Free World’ it has turned into an architecture that produces cheap packages of saleable space; in the Eastern bloc it has been reduced to a boring, morose symbol of authoritarianism. Were the forbidding facades of Le Corbusier’s Secretariat, Assembly and the High Court (these are the three pillars of parliamentary democracy) with their dramatic but alien language, a premonition of the impending alienation of these institutions from the ordinary people? Was it an ominous signal to indicate the all-too-common schism that has developed between the designers’ symbols and people’s aspirations?

The common stream

The urban villages, the middle and lower middle class city extensions, colonised peripheries, small towns and villages-these are the domain of the engineer turned architect, the self-appointed professional of locally accepted ‘good taste’ and those versatile, skilled mistris (masons) who offer a package deal to the not-so-rich. The resulting architecture is a monster baby of the popular paradigms of the main city and a fractured version of the traditional sensibilities with its own characteristic vocabulary drawn from the immediate historic and cultural contexts. It ranges from the most boring, drab nondescript box to a celebration of kitsch and the bizarre.

‘Nowhere is the schism between the cultivated taste of the trained architect and spontaneous affectations of the man on the street more visible than in this aspect of contemporary architecture’

The plasticity of reinforced concrete is exploited to its limit to create forms that turn, twist, curl and bend to become anything from arches, domes, shells, vaults or straightforward slabs, all embellished to look like brick, carved stone or plain plastered surface, often painted in ways expressive of regional cultures.

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These bizarre structures often form the focus, in an otherwise degenerate street picture, as a physical expression of the local community power structure. Contrary to the repulsion or the condescending amusement of the trained architect, they may be hailed by the local people as important design achievements. Nowhere is the schism between the cultivated taste of the trained architect and spontaneous affectations of the man on the street more visible than in this aspect of contemporary architecture.

The temple builders

On 25 March 1987, at the small southern religious town of Srirangam, a 236ft high temple tower was inaugurated. The construction started in 1979 and it was built using reinforced concrete and bricks. This was reported in many newspapers and general magazines while the professional magazines on architecture have ignored it. Contemporary architecture, yes. But with a difference. The tower was built using modern technology and materials on an existing 400 year old stone base but within the dictates of the ancient Shilpa Shastra. A sthapati (the counterpart of the modern-day architect in the Classical system) was in charge of the construction along with engineers of the government departments.

‘The vernacular variations have usually been passed on through oral traditions’

Throughout India, new temples, mosques and other religious structures are rising on the skyline. These structures are not only large in size and form visual foci, but also are magnets that generate a great amount of activity. They are major urban design nodes that develop entirely outside the realm of the trained architects, who are anyway not trained to design these structures.

The design of the Hindu temple is based on the tenets of the ancient Hindu treatise on architecture. Outlined in the text called Shilparatna these principles are not taught in the schools of architecture. Based on esoteric rules ranging from the fields of mathematics, magic, metaphysics, astronomy, material sciences and so on, the system involves years of direct learning under a teacher (usually the father of the student since it was a hereditary caste profession) in the field. It has variations in many vernacular languages and undergoes necessary permutations depending on region. The vernacular variations have usually been passed on through oral traditions which in the last decade or so have been written down, published in a number of languages and are even now being taught in a college at Mamallapuram. The vastu shilpi system not only outlines principles of temple construction but also of all other kinds of civic buildings and houses of different varieties.

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Contemporary practices even today in many cities and small towns are subjected to structures through the vastu system. The orientation of the main entrance door, location of the kitchen, or ventilation of cooking platforms and location and disposition of the prayer room (most middle/upper class houses have a small room or space devoted to prayer) are the most common elements which are controlled through the vastu system. After a sketch scheme is prepared by the trained architect, the plan is given to a vastu shilpi who suggests the necessary changes in these elements. The trained architect is lucky if the client approaches a vastu shilpi first and sorts out the vastu criteria and feeds them into the design brief. This may sometimes result in even a change of site or mandatory location of a wall, type of trees and their location, and so on. The educated, uneducated, professionals, businessmen: everyone is keen on being on the right side of the vastu system. Ignoring these principles is believed to lead to calamities like loss of life to members of the immediate family, disease, or even lilss in business and general degeneration of one’s quality of life.

The socio-religio-economic forces that gave rise to the Classical and popular practices of the vastu system have undergone considerable changes over time. But the survival of basic values and the consequent survival of the myth in an altered form is characteristic of the Indian milieu. The word vastu purusha mandala means the ‘field’ of vastu purusha-the anthropomorphized manifestation of all physical form. Within the wholistic Indian world view, everything in the universe is interrelated and the act of making space and form into a unified field (architecture) is a highly significant activity. I think this is a viewpoint that no contemporary architect with a basic awareness of environmental principles can ignore. The fact that the traditional wholistic viewpoint still persists in contemporary Indian practice has so far been largely ignored by trained architects.

The vernacular stream

The last in the set of four streams of contemporary architectural practices that run parallel in the Indian scenario is the vernacular stream and by vernacular I mean architecture built by the people for their own use, using whatever materials are available, in traditional and innovative styles, as spontaneous response to climes and specific social schema. Spread over the vast stretches of rural and urban areas across this large country, it encompasses diverse typologies which differ from region to region.

The strength of the vernacular lies in its ability to adapt and change, transfer and transform within a given environment while maintaining the basic integrity of its tradition.

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The vernacular is usually built in locally available biodegradable materials, and the processes of building, maintenance, renewal and additions are linked intrinsically to the culture cycles of the community which reflect festivals and other celebrations. Thus during specific festivals, mud walls get replastered and embellished and painted on, roofing materials are renewed. Craft guilds and caste groups which specialise in specific types of building activities develop expertise in handling materials available in the region. Master masons who head teams of workers of various skills also advise and decide on the design with the active participation of the user. Accepted conventions are followed in these designs, using colours and symbols to reinforce the social/religious status of the user. A large number of rural artisans involved in activities like weaving, dyeing, carpet making, basket making, develop the physical support structures necessary for their activity on their own.

‘The multiplicity and diversity in the Indian milieu is so integral to its nature that almost any sphere of human activity is bound to find multiple manifestations within it’

Modern town planning with its apparatus of master plans, land-use charts, statistics, transport engineering and zoning is unable to accommodate and is often destructive to the delicately balanced network of opposites found in old organic communities and spontaneous urban centres where intense mixes of function prevail. Architects and planners are beginning to realise that a settlement is not a land-use plan or an island of buildings. In a time of a building boom, saving the traditional fabric from destruction requires local action coupled with an understanding of the complexities of urban activity which the growing interest in Urban Design may be able to provide.

The four streams identified and elaborated are by no means strict divisions and are merely convenient categories. The multiplicity and diversity in the Indian milieu is so integral to its nature that almost any sphere of human activity is bound to find multiple manifestations within it. Even more so in architecture, since architecture symbolises both the tangible and the intangible in a culture.

One of the main reasons for the castrated condition of Modern architecture in India is its inability to learn from its immediate environment.

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Delicate balances are achieved in the traditional environments, between architecture and all other social, religious, economic networks. Opposites come together to lock themselves in reflective equilibrium. The future is with contemporary architects who transcend their own learning and explore the areas of ambiguity to reach the state of equilibrium of the opposites. What the Modern Movement has failed to give us is not just pretty architecture, but the humility to learn from what exists. Beyond the boundaries of narrow nationalism, beyond styles and architectural isms, through cross fertilisation of ideas, forms and cultures, could evolve an architecture of innocent response.