The AR surveys the work of some architects whose were representative of the search for an Indian architecture in the 1980s and assesses the different ways in which they utilize indigenous building and design traditions
‘India lives in the past and the future – we live 2500 years of history together’ explains Delhi-based Cambridge and AA-educated Romi Khosla, as he describes the peculiar circumstances of the architect working in India. It is this continuity evident in all levels and aspects of Indian life from the living traditions of Sari design to the continuing rituals of Hindu worship that suggests a mature and sophisticated approach to the use of history in the search for an architecture that is in tune with Indian traditions but responsive to the multiple demands of modern Indian society.
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Yet it would be simplistic to imagine that a relaxed relationship between past and present would lead automatically to an architecture that is a convincing fusion between tradition and the demands of a society that is deeply conservative while at the same time committed to industrial, materialistic progress.
As A. G. Krishna Menon – another Western trained Delhi-based architect – puts it: ‘Because of our education, most Indian architects feel like strangers in their own land. They have lost touch with the values of traditional – especially rural – society.’
‘A contemporary architecture can only emerge from the countryside’
But this is only part of the problem facing an architect seeking to give his work a national identity. The other major issue is to do with the nature of the country with its enormous regional, climatic, geographical, cultural and religious differences; there are, in consequence, fundamental differences in building materials used, as well as methods of construction and design approaches. Added to this there is now also a tremendous range in types of building needed, from extremely economically built rural housing to the most sophisticated of modern industrial plant. Clearly it is not feasible to attempt to discover, or invent, an architecture that is applicable to India as a whole. It is not, as architect and theorist K. T. Ravindran points out, even desirable, ‘the problem with seeking a national or regional identity is that such efforts are basically reactionary in spirit. Historically, they have been an important cultural manifestation of fascism’.
But, notwithstanding this structure against ‘regional identity’ it is obvious that any search must end ultimately in a form of regionally-based design that is capable of expressing local traditions of building and construction in a rational and logical manner (not pastiche) while also being able to accommodate the demand for a wide spectrum of building types. And in India, a country in which 82 per cent of the 750 million population is rural with a strong self-build tradition, regionalism must inevitably mean reference to rural traditions. M. N. Ashish Ganju goes so far as to insist that ‘a contemporary architecture can only emerge from the countryside’ and cites, as a model, the way in which the Arts and Crafts movement revolutionized English architectural thinking in the late nineteenth century. Laurie Baker explains the relevance of rural practice in more detail. ‘In Kerala nice curled-up roofs, or Jaali [pierced windows/screens] patterns were a slow evolution, an empirical development to meet [local] needs with limited means to also suit the climate and the cultural patterns, to cope with wild beasts or wild neighbours. What we see in indigenous architecture is this response … I learn my architecture by watching what ordinary people do; in any case it’s always the cheapest and simplest.’
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This approach, which Baker has followed for nearly 40 years, is now being investigated, by both the immediate post-Chandigarh generation of Indian architects (Charles Correa, Raj Rewal, B. V. Doshi) and by the succeeding generation.
But, to many architects, indigenous architecture seems to offer merely a style of design and construction that can be used as an alternative to Western Moderism when the conditions and brief permit. For example, in 1958 Charles Correa pioneered sensitive tradition-based design with his museum in the Mahatma Gandhi Ashram, Sabarmati, Ahmedabad, an approach which he has continued with his architecturally and socially sensitive housing at Belapur, New Bombay. But, in the early 1970s, Correa felt able to design the LIC office tower in New Delhi which reflects the fashions that then dominated Western commercial design. Clearly Correa felt that it was more appropriate to refer to Western prototypes when designing a building of a type for which there is no relevant precedent in Indian traditional architecture. But, although this approach avoids the absurdity of, for example, attempting to design a large office complex as a palace or a fort, it does not avoid the problem of context. The real problem with the LIC tower is not its design but its site which forms part of the huge Connaught Place circus. This early twentieth-century Classical composition has a strong architectural character and urban quality which are both ignored and eroded by the Correa tower.
This concern for site is, naturally enough, one of the cornerstones on which this Indian search for an architectural identity is being built. The other concerns – mirroring those in all societies where architects are now looking for a culturally and environmentally appropriate architecture – are a determination to utilise, rather than fight against, the limitations of available building materials and building skills; to realise the potential of time-tested local details and forms of construction rather than to impose techniques from elsewhere; to respond to and reflect local traditions of decorative design, motifs and composition without descending to pastiche; to echo the spiritual and cultural values of the locality and, last and perhaps most important, to regard the demands of the client and the user (if they are different) as of paramount importance. This last point was put in memorable form by Antonin Raymond whose Golconde residential building of 1936-48 has been called the finest example of modern functional architecture built in India in the pre independence period. As Raymond said: ‘We should base our designs directly on the needs and requirements of the clients and deal directly with conditions growing out of the work itself and the location. There should be no empty imagination or abstract speculation involved; our work should be structurally clean and pure (and the solution) the simplest, most direct and most economical.’
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Thus we see a key principle of the Modern Movement coinciding with the principles of those currently engaged in the search for an architecture relevant to contemporary India. As K. T. Ravindran puts it: ‘an architect must avoid dogma and the temptation to impress the stamp of his own personality. He must look to the client for inspiration.’
Putting the argument in more practical terms, Laurie Baker says ‘I think it’s foolish to impose your own ideas when you’re dealing with people who know what their problems are, and you can’t know these till you’ve actually lived in the place.’
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Although most of the architects currently involved in this search would concede that these criteria provide the basis of an approach, few would be so foolish as to claim that the mere application of these criteria as a formula would automatically produce architecture of quality. The observer of these rules may produce buildings that are inoffensive but an artist’s creative spirit is necessary to transform the principles into a means of achieving memorable architecture. This is not to say that it is necessary to be self consciously inventive, wilful or witty – quite the contrary. What is needed is sensitivity and an ability to create within the limitations imposed by the criteria. The process is described well by the artist/architect Satish Gujral who designed the Belgian Embassy, New Delhi, completed in 1983, ‘I did not want to create anything Indian or Western; I just sat down to design – as I paint. An architect must work as an artist, with no false pride. He must work with the mason and make his contribution – his poetic vision. Architecture must become an art form again.’ A purple passage perhaps, and elsewhere in this issue (AR August 1987, p36) the Belgian Embassy is called ‘close to cultural caricature’ but it has architectural qualities – achieved through the intuitively correct use of traditional forms to meet the client’s demands – that have been matched by few contemporary Indian buildings.
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A visit to a building by Uttam Kain makes a fine complement to a visit to a Gujral building: both reveal the way in which the criteria can be applied to create and architecture that is rooted in tradition yet demonstrably contemporary.
Uttam Jain, based in Bombay, is well known for his Rajasthan buildings in which determined use is made of local buildings materials and skills. The Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, just now completing at Goregao, Bombay, not only continues this practice but also reflects Jain’s ability to bring into play the full gamut of criteria to achieve a well-tempered regional architecture. This dexterity is particularly impressive in this job since Jain also resolved to create a building that is not only locally apposite, with regard to materials and design, but also of ‘national significance’ with an ‘image that reflects’ all India. This, felt Jain, was incumbent upon him because of the status and national importance of the institute.
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This determination to create a building of national significance while also relying on, and responding to, local building practices and traditions, permitted Jain a great freedom in choice of imagery. Thus, arriving at the main entrance is ‘like arriving at a city gate in a city wall or like arriving at the temple door’. These likenesses are, admits Jain, perhaps ‘not obvious but are relevant to India’. Pursuing the temple metaphor, entering the building one goes from light to darkness, a primary sensation felt on entering a cave like Hindu temple or, as Jain says,.. from known to unknown’. The nearby ancient cave temples at Jageshwari and Elephanta are cited by Jain as inspirations. The route through the building is also, in a way, a temple-like experience: one’s progress, towards the inner sanctum of director’s office orientated toward ‘the higher part’ of the site and towards the source of light at the open ends of the barrel-vaulted and colonnaded corridors invokes, says Jain, the vaulted roof at the cave temples. This serpentine route – the ‘snakewalk’ as Jain terms it – is utilised by Jain to ‘filter out’ users of the building as they progress from the entrance court. As Jain puts it ‘the plan is like a hand – the palm is the common area, the court, with the fingers branching to different uses’. This analogy is, of course, inspired by the mandala that ancient Tantric symbol used for ordering both sacred and profane space to create a series of, usually circular, concentric courts with only initiates, or those in power, having access to the inner space or sanctum – in this case the director’s office.
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The mandala is primarily a Hindu and Buddhist image but Jain does not hesitate to invoke forms from other religions. There is, in the Institute, a reference to Mughal toplit spaces and to geometric garden (combined with terracing as in Hindu wells like Modhera) but, as with the Mandala, these references are not too literal or laboured. ‘Indian-ness comes not from dress but from feeling and sense of thinking’ says Jain.
Respect for the hot climate and the nature of the site (on the very edge of the municipal area of Bombay and bordered by a permanent and sizeable shanty town) are major forces in the evolution of the design. Hence the shady spacious verandahs attached to all the buildings which are linked by the meandering barrel-vaulted corridors. The buildings themselves are, as Jain puts it ‘porous’ to allow generous horizontal and vertical cross ventilation. The squatter colony is acknowledged by a certain blankness in the elevations that look directly towards its sprawling mass. But the most intriguing and unusual piece of passive solar control is Jain’s two-skinned facades. This device – like, as Jain says using another physical analogy, eyelids – allows the plan and the facade to be organized independently so that the placing of windows in rooms follows one logic while, externally, the wall is pierced by windows in places ‘where they look right’. This creation of what is effectively a decorative screen over a random array of functionally disposed openings does not do much for the view from some of the rooms but, says Jain, ‘works superbly climatically’, and is an improvement on the traditional Chhaja or Jaali (overhanging cornice) as it not only shades the window openings but also channels breezes into the rooms.
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Local building materials are not used by Jain just for reasons of visual continuity with existing structures but also because transportation is very expensive in India. And even if materials were brought in they would not be greatly different in quality to those found or made locally. The large scale use of steel is generally just not an option because of its prohibitive price, and even wood is increasingly scarce and so too becoming expensive. The usual materials, as at this building, are concrete, local stone and brick (often made on site). This limited choice can lead to feats of remarkable ingenuity on the part of Indian designers, architects and engineers. As the renowned engineer Mahendra Raj puts it, ‘In India most elements are made on site-anything is possible structurally but is often achieved by extraordinary means.’
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At Jain’s Institute, two types of local stone (one quarried as part of the site excavations) have been used for both structural and facing work. The facing stone (not that quarried on site) has been applied to a composite structure of reinforced concrete frame with brick panel infill.
The labour force, as is common in India, is made up primarily of villagers who have either been forced by crop failure to leave the land or who have got work on the building site during a nonproductive agricultural season. The consequence of employing this labour force is that the entire family lives on site with children being roped in and women labouring at least as hard as the men.
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Construction in India is very labour intensive and it is these people who provide the labour with even basic machinery rarely used. Here, it seems, a simple financial equation comes into play: the moment wages rise to a level that makes it cheaper to use a machine than a gang of labourers, then a machine will be bought. If this happens not only will many people be relieved of back-breaking labour, they will also be relieved of a job. The resolution of this riddle – mechanisation leads to the release of human beings from excessive physical toil leads to unemployment – is one of the many problems of nineteenth-century Europe that India will have to face and solve for itself as it moves remorselessly towards greater industrialisation.
The more skilled workers on the site, such as plasterers, are usually full-time members of the building industry although bricklayers and masons are usually practised if not highly-skilled seasonal workers. Finishing trades – electricians, joiners – move in a separate world and are invariably full time.
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This system, which is used to build even the towers of Bombay and Delhi (and, until recently, generally without even cranes with the occasional heavy precast concrete members being passed up by a vertical human chain) has advantages as well as the obvious disadvantages of slowness construction takes three times longer than in the West, says Romi Khosla. As Raj Rewal says ‘We can do things here that you cannot do on the West because of resources of human labour which is cheap and available therefore variety and complexity of plan and so on is not more expensive because each object has to be made individually so they might as well be different as the same.’ Concomitant with this is the fact that, since the economic principles of mass production do not apply, there is no money saved by specifying a repetitive detail. This is not necessarily a problem. But a real difficulty in this hand-crafted system is that work is often more hand than craft. As Romi Khosla says ‘All things can, and are, made by hand but few carefully.’ For numerous reasons the work force feel alienated from the process. Either they do not understand the architect’s aim, are not informed, or feel no sympathy toward the building they are helping to create because it is just too far removed from the reality of their own physical environment. Whatever the cause, this curious workforce ensures the persistence of flaws in the Indian building industry: lack of finish, poor resolution of detail and inaccuracy of construction. This latter can be accommodated, or at least mitigated, by a thoughtful designer. Jain talks about his ‘pneumatic connections’ at the Gandhi institute between galleries and main building ‘which are able to accommodate unavoidable inaccuracies of construction given skills of workforce’. To compensate for fluctuations in horizontal and vertical distances between galleries and floor levels Jain designed the junction as a flight of steps, a device inspired perhaps by the carefully designed and placed steps that connect the different levels at Fatehpur Sikri – ‘some connections are made by four steps, others by six’. Another consequence of the workforce’s lack of conventional construction skills is the – to Western eyes – distressing amount of unbuilding on site. Freshly plastered brick walls are hacked by the electricians and plumbers installing conduits and pipes. ‘There is’ says Jain ‘lots of overlap in our thinking and so in our working but making good is cheap, certainly cheaper than trying to organise because drawings are not used for detailed work.’ Odd practice, but no irreparable damage need be done to the building. But the lack of finish and poor detailing can, and does, cause grave loss of quality. This is caused not just by unskilled and unmotivated workers or by the crippling economics of construction or poor building materials: these all play their part but there are other problemsincluding corruption at all levels (though, no doubt, not all concerned are corrupt) and the determination to introduce the machine aesthetic into Indian architecture in the absence of machines. What is certain is that immaculate detailing has been achieved by Indian craftsmen this century – be it the stonework detailing in Lutyens’ New Delhi buildings (see p30), the brickwork of Arthur Shoosmith’s Delhi churches (see p31), or Louis Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (see p35), or the concrete detailing of J. A. Stein’s India International Centre, New Delhi (see p34). Equally certain is that this is a problem that the Indian architectural profession must solve as quickly as possible.
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These points and approaches can be expanded by reference to the work of a number of other contemporary Indian architects.
A group of buldings by Raj Rewal in Delhi reveals an ingenious fusion of Western and Eastern traditions; but it also reveals some of the pifalls in attempting to apply vernacular forms – that have evolved organically and in response to particular social and climatic conditions – to a modern brief and building programme.
The Asian Games village in South Delhi (see p32) was built between 1981-82 to the designs of Rewal with the detailed design of one portion being undertaken by Sachdev & Eggleston. Initially the village housed athletes attending the 9th Asian games. The layout of the ‘village’ is complex though geometrically repetitive. The units of housing (200 houses, 500 apartments) are arranged to form a pattern of courts inspired by the traditional courtyard housing and village forms of Rajasthan. There is also a sprinkling of traditional detail – such as pierced parapets which allow draughts to waft into shaded exterior spaces.
This courtyard pattern, which traditionally reflected complex patterns of habitation, is here used merely as a device to make an interesting urban grain, to allow for the integration of different housing types and to facilitate a certain amount of cross ventilation and to create shade for interior and exterior spaces.
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The scheme was generally held as a triumph when completed – and indeed it was, in so far as Rewal had to battle against the unimaginative and entrenched attitudes of the authorities which saw, in the deliberate complexity and casbah-like quality of the designs, only confusion reminiscent of the squalid and overcrowded old city centre. This official dullness is particularly hard to understand since the idea of lower-income housing being arranged around courts and of complex balconied form had been pioneered as early as 1973 by the Design Group with their excellent Yumana apartments which stand near the Asian village in South Delhi. Achieving this complexity of form also demanded a good deal of dedication from the architects for the amount of time spent on drawing details and supervising construction was far greater than that needed for the usual barracklike form of housing that has too often been run up by the Public Works Department. Though far superior in concept and construction to the usual PWD – designed housing schemes the Asian Games ‘village’ is, of course, not a village at all. There is no significant mix of uses and the complexity of form is – despite the sensible hierarchy of spaces ranging from courts serving clusters of a dozen dwellings to the single main square ultimately without any real meaning. The complexity is, after all, only ingenious urban pattern-making and reflects neither the structure of occupancy or complex social organisations that led to the evolution of the traditional courtyard house.
‘As the engineer Mahendra Raj says, everything can be achieved by the use of ‘extraordinary means’ - even the similitude of concrete panels’
The method of construction is also revealing. The houses are of reinforced-concrete frame with brick infill and then finished with aggregate render. The render is divided into panels with horizontal strips ‘expressing’ the floor slabs and vertical panels looking, to the architect’s delight, like precast concrete panels. As the engineer Mahendra Raj says, everything can be achieved by the use of ‘extraordinary means’ – even the similitude of concrete panels. The division of the render in panels also has the more useful, if mundane, function, of providing expansion joints and dividing the facade into areas that can be easily rendered in one go so avoiding cracks and colour change.
Much of the thinking is continued in Rewal’s current chef d’oeuvre – the National Institute of Immunology (Nil) which forms part of the Delhi University campus (see p39). Here complexity is achieved by the use of diagonal axes that cut with geometrical precision through, and link, the different elements of the Institute. Courts are again used – but larger and, in the case of the court-cum-amphitheatre in the research scholars’ hostel, with really striking effect. Also the craggy site – of extraordinary grandeur considering its location in the suburbs of south Delhi – has clearly inspired the architect and allowed him to deploy his axes with maximum effect. Thus the image from a distance is, in form and profile – though not in detail – of a Rajasthan citadel. Within the Institute, Rewal displays a sensitivity to the potential of vistas and contrasts types, levels and forms of external spaces in a manner reminiscent of Fatehpur Sikri and Jaipur. This is a romantic building – a romance intensified by the rusty glow of the wall surfaces. The construction method at the Institute is similar to the Asian Games ‘village’ except that chips of local red stone have been mixed in with the render used in the horizontal bands marking floor slabs while stone from the site, was also used for walling. It is an object building, sitting on an acropolis that, its critics may say, holds no lessons for those concerned with the pressing problem of how to design in the Indian city. But perhaps the building’s aloof isolation only reflects the relation an academic institution has with Indian urban society generally. Two other buildings by Rewal must be mentioned for the light they throw on two fundamental issues: the potential offered by the use of local buildings material and the problems of reconciling an overtly contemporary design with a traditional setting.
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The National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (see p42) stands on a site that, though adjacent to the Nil, enjoys none of its dramatic distinction. It is flat, on a main road, and hemmed in by other Institutes and commercial buildings. The client required library, offices, auditorium, classrooms and residential quarters, and the budget was strictly controlled. Only the first phase is completed (in 1980) and in this uses (excluding residential) are arranged around a central court. The form of this space is derived from a rather more Western approach to the use of history. The court has three gallerie – -two octagonal over a square which, says Rewal, are ‘geometrical shapes that were very important to Indian architecture in the past’.
More interesting is the cladding of the building. Local stone, suitable for facing, costs a mere two rupees (10p) a square foot, but metal suitable for cramps was too expensive. The solution devised by Rewal was to fix the stone sheets by the use of concrete ‘coach bolts’. These have broad flat heads that restrain the stone sheets and long shafts that are bedded in concrete in the brick wall to which the stone sheets act as facing. These ‘studs’ are, coincidentally, reminiscent of Otto Wagner’s Postsparkasse, Vienna, but, more to the point, are most effective in the strong Indian sunlight by casting ever-moving shadows along the facade.
‘The budget for the building was higher than usual in India so that more expensive materials have been used to achieve a higher standard of finish’
The French school and cultural centre (completed 1986), attached to the French Embassy building on Aurangzeb Road, New Delhi, is a very different building (see p44). Here Rewal was wrestling with the problem of designing a building that fits both with the 1920s’ Classical bungalow that it adjoins, with the geometric and brick aesthetic of an adjacent residential building that Rewal himself designed in 1968 and which is not subservient to either. The solution that Rewal finally decided upon was to ‘design the building around the trees on the site’. This deference to the existing trees, rather than to the surrounding buildings, presumably inspired the thin double-height columns that embellish and articulate the facade. These are striking but perhaps create more problems than they solve, for the architect seems, at times, defeated by the puzzle of how to relate visually the columns to the floors which project over them. The budget for the building was higher than usual in India so that more expensive materials have been used to achieve a higher standard of finish. For example, the open galleries have stone skirtings and stone copings to gallery walls.
Two recent works by Charles Correa deal with some of the ideas present in Rewal’s work and develop them to extraordinary length. Rewal’s Asian village and the Nil use traditional urban forms (courtyards) or spaces shaped in accordance with ancient geometric principles (the court at the Finance building). Correa, at his Vidhan Bhavan (State Assembly) for the government of Madhya Pradesh at Bhopal, has used the rnandala in the most literal of ways. The building, which was designed in 1980 and is still under construction, is a perfect circle in plan and, within this circle it is divided into nine compartments. The five main compartments, linking to form, roughly, a cross within the circle, consist of halls around central courtyard: all provide generous shade, have running water, and are intended to possess tranquillity. In fact, each ‘box’ also fulfils the humdrum role as quarters for civil servants. Specialised functionsupper and lower houses, assembly hall and library, occupy the four ‘quadrants’ of the circle that are left by the cruciform plan of the main courts. These ‘specialised’ buildings include a space covered by a shallow dome inspired by second-century BC Buddhist stupa at Sanchi which stands only 50 km from Bhopal. Also inspired by Sanchi-where circumambulatory paths surround the stupa allowing for forms of worship – is a system of paths, ramps and bridges winding around the main halls. These will allow the public to experience the building – worship the bureaucrats? – while being excluded from the main spaces for security reasons. Explaining this building, Correa talks of the generating idea of a central formal tranquil courtyard, an ordered space behind whose walls are provided those facilities that are needed, where they are needed, in the form they are needed. This central space following the analogy of the mandala, is the Shunya (the absolute void) and bindu (the source of all energy), the nothing is everything. ‘A truly mind-blowing concept’, says Correa, ‘similar to the black holes of contemporary physics’ The central court in a mandala-inspired plan is a recurring feature in Indian architecture – both Hindu and Muslim, for example Bir Singh Deo’s Palace, Datia, of c1540.
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At the Vidhan Bhavan, the formal ‘disorder’ that surrounds the central space is ultimately given external order by the all encircling external round wall. A compelling idea that, in an intelligent way, attempts to discover the essential qualities that characterize traditional Indian spaces and plans. But the imagery used to realise the idea is hard to reconcile with the vitality of the idea. The catalogue accompanying the Correa organised exhibition, ‘Vistara: the Architecture of India’, which opened in Bombay in late 1996 carried an unsigned article that criticised Lutyens’ use of Indian imagery at New Delhi. Having observed that Lutyens: ‘easy facility (and) extraordinary visual talent unanchored in any specific credo … rendered him incapable of conceptualising the kind of transformation’ represented by the Diwan-i-khas at Fatehpur Sikri and Jaipur, the author goes on to criticise the Viceroy’s house in particular. ‘Lutyens surmounted [it] with a dome reminiscent of Sanchi-from where he also took the design of the stone wall marking the entrance to the capital complex. But of the great Buddhist mythical values and images the sacred mountain, the axis mundi – he took nothing. The result: an architectural pastiche involving only the superficial transfer of some indigenous idioms.’ If this can be said of Lutyens’ masterpiece then it can also be said of Correa’s work at Bhopal.
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A similar approach to historic precedent is displayed by Correa’s Jawahar Kala Kendra (cultural centre) project for the State Government of Rajasthan at Jaipur. Maharaja Jai Singh, who founded Jaipur in 1727, was, among many things, an astronomer and mathematician (he built the five Jantar Man tars or observatories, with giant instruments for observing planetary movement) and so applied astronomical principles to the layout of his city. The basic plan is a Vedic ninesquare mandala corresponding to the Navagraha, or nine planets. The void central square-the Shunyawas dedicated to the sun and contained the palace garden and was linked to the square above it which contained the palace and its related buildings. The other modification to the mandala was brought about by the nature of the site: a hill caused one of the corner squares to be shifted diagonally across the plan. This ‘model of the cosmos’ has been used direct by Correa for his cultural centre, ‘Each square relates to a planet and each square contains functions relating to that planet’. For example, the library is located in the square of the planet Mercury which traditionally represents knowledge. The wall defining each square is decorated with an opening in the form of its planetary symbol. ‘Each box is a complete world’ explains Correa, who uses this scheme as an example of his theory that we have to ‘Reinvent myth each time. This is what transformation is about producing something that is contemporary but with roots going back. We must use past traditions as directly, unselfconsciously, as the French make wine or the Indians wear saris-they do not feel compelled to reinvent each time.’ ‘It is’ says Correa ‘necessary to have a resonance with the past – as Corb, Aalto and Frank Lloyd Wright had with theirs. They were artists, with no direct one-to-one relationship with the past. The images worked like depth charges – they sank to the bottom of the consciousness, exploded, and re emerged in a different form. This approach – ‘absorb, internalise, transform’ – is perhaps better represented by Correa’s housing scheme at Belapur, New Bombay (AR October 1985). Here Correa has applied a series of sound principles. The houses, in form, relate to the Gujarati visual tradition; they have pitched roofs, yards and raised terraces. In this they are spectacularly different from the monotonous flat-roofed boxes that characterise New Bombay. The houses are arranged in clusters that aim at creating a sense of place and community: seven houses cluster around a small court (about 8 m square) with three of these clusters combining to form a bigger 21-house unit. Three of these larger clusters interlock to form the next size of community space. This complexity of plan is not just unlike the regimented housing blocks of the rest of New Bombay but is also unlike Rewal’s contemporary Asian village in Delhi, for at Balapur all the accommodation is formed by 16 types of structural independent one- and two-storey houses on individual sites – there are no flats. This structural independence means that the occupier of each house is able to increase the covered floor area of his house as he desires, so that the court can be built over, terrace roofed and so on, but the planning authority CIDCO – would not allow such major additions that might threaten the character of the village. The houses are constructed of loadbearing brick walls rendered but additions have, in many cases, been constructed with poured concrete. In an attempt to give the various courts more of an individual character a palette of ‘traditional’ earth colours has been introduced into the estate. The idea is to give each court its own ‘house style colouring’ for various details such as doors, window frames and so on. Tradition has also been invoked in another way: Correa has used the mandala module – approximately 1 metre square module – for proportioning both house plans and details.
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Of the same generation and international eminence as Rewal and Correa is B. V. Doshi whose work has developed from post-Corbusier Béton Brut of the 1960s to include the most sensitive and thoughtful of contemporary Indian architecture. But characteristically Doshi claims Corbusier’s influence is behind even Sangath – a building which Doshi designed in Ahmedabad in 1979 as his studio and which encapsulates the essence of much traditional thinking about passive climatic control and the introduction of soft natural light: concerns which, at Sangath, create the building’s form (see p47). As Doshi put it ‘Sangath is truly representative of Le Corbusier … the quality of light, for instance, would not have been possible without him’.
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This Corbusian concern with the more abstract qualities of architecture has been combined with the consideration of more practical problems such as the possibility offered by local materials and workforce, and the use and development of low technology. The Gandhi Labour Institute, Ahmedabad, completed in 1984, continues ideas found at Sangath. Barrel vaults are used over the corridor and office accommodation and are pierced, as well as provided with glazed and ventilated end elevations, to allow cross ventilation and a particular quality of soft lighting. The roofs of the vaults are, as at Sangath, covered with gleaming white mosaic to reflect sunlight and help keep the interiors cool.
In recent years Doshi has applied his approach – an approach fuelled by the fusion of Western and Eastern influences – to the solution of urban poverty. The most impressive result to date is the ‘demonstration project’ for Aranyanagar, Indore, which deals with the creation of a new township comprising 7,000 housing units on a 220-acre site for a population of 40,000.
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Sixty-five per cent of the flats are allocated to ‘the economically weaker section of society’ (EWS) with other flats to be developed and sold to higher-income groups. The profits from these must be used to cross-subsidise the EWS flats which can only be developed with a large amount of self-build. Doshi’s approach to this self-build is to supply basic facilities – wcs and water – and to provide simple guidelines for the self-builders, showing how the standard plot can be developed in stages as money becomes available. The master plan of the town is also organised to reflect and accommodate the social, cultural, economic and religious demands of the population.
A development of, and in many ways in contrast to, the work of Rewal, Correa and Doshi is the work and writing of the younger generation – the, generation which the architect and critic Malay Chatterjee observes has ‘a sharply-defined ideological perspective on tradition’ and looks ‘to the vernacular architecture created by the common men and women of India over the ages as a source of socially and economically relevant design ideas’: a position which has ‘amounted to a direct critique of the International Style and its sponsors and practitioners’.
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Two houses by K. T. Ravindran show the architectural result of a concern for local building traditions and materials, and a sensitivity to cultural and site conditions. Ravindran is determined to resist the temptation to impose his personality on the design. These principles are tough but then, to Ravindran, the task of excavating an architectural future out of the confused and conflicting present is a serious business demanding both sound analytical thinking and sensitive reflection. As Ravindran says: ‘India is just learning to deal with the outside world; it has been an enclosed culture in which ideas were not challenged by outside attitudes and individuals. vile have now discovered complexity and have to cope with contradiction and that is where design comes in.’
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The house for K. T. Raghunath (the architect’s brother) in Kerala has a central courtyard – a formal space surrounded by an organic plan – which, like the Shunya Bindu in the mandala, represents the ‘intangible’ void that is the source of energy, or the stillness and tranquillity that is sought through meditation. The orientation of the house is governed by local ritual based on astronomy and in accord with beliefs as to what is, and is not, auspicious. The construction details and materials are local but ‘transformed’ by adaption.
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In the house for Rathi and Balan at Cochin, completed in 1986, the accommodation is also arranged around a central court and the construction is loadbearing brick with wood used only for the detailing of the facade. In form it is ‘a traditional karnataka house, porous, with lots of through draught’. The external detailing, enough to create shade within, is also a permutation upon local tradition. But what is not traditional, nor local, is the use of loadbearing brick. But this deviation just highlights one of the problems of attempting to revive or sustain local tradition. Wood is now scarce and expensive, and, though used traditionally for structures, an architect ‘cannot promote the use of wood because of the massive deforestation now going on in India’.
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M. N. Ashish Ganju
A house in Delhi (see p48) designed by M. N. Ashish Ganju acts as a summary of the issues and attitudes raised by Ravindran’s projects. The forms, construction (loadbearing brick with reinforced concrete columns to achieve internal open spaces), and the details, make it clear that this house lives in the rhodern world. Yet the thinking behind it reflects the practical concerns that characterise traditional building. Like the Ravindran designs, the house is organised around an open central court and is very carefully orientated. But here the orientation is not in any way esoteric but is determined solely by the site, by the demands of the climate and by the ‘all important aspect of living’.
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Two projects by Ashok Lall reveal how this younger generation of architects applies its principles to the design of large and complex projects. The commission to design the Indian Institute of Health and Management research complex was won by Lall in competition and work begins on site near Jaipur next month.
The starting point for the design was a response to climate and, as the architect explains, ‘the traditional architecture of Rajasthan provides the basis.’ Putting compact buildings around the courtyard is a time-proven method for effective protection against a hostile summer. The materials and construction methods are also inspired by local practice, ‘Jaipur possesses the finest tradition of the crafts of building. The use of locally available skills and materials, while being inherently economical, also realises an important objective; that of preserving and strengthening a fine building tradition’.
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The resultant loadbearing masonry construction is used in an inventive manner. The offices are formed of three parallel rows of loadbearing walls, with cross walls freed from a structural role and thus allowing a flexible system of partitioning.
Another competition-winning design is for the S. P. Jain Advanced Management Research Centre on a site in the south campus of Delhi University. This design makes excellent use of the rocky sloping site – the ‘study court’ rests on a plateau, is enclosed and reflective; the ‘interaction court’ is on the slope and encloses a natural amphitheatre created by the fall of the ground and the stepping down of the building form.
The shell vaulted roofs provide both ‘a traditional skyline’ and create softly-lit, and well ventilated, upper spaces. Further cool shade is also provided by the use of Jaalis.
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The way forward
As Romi Khosla says ‘India has many parallel realities – as many realities as there are Hindu aspects of God’ and that whatever happens, the ‘future of architecture will be incredibly pluralistic’. From the rich mix of Western concern for new materials and techniques and traditional building knowledge a vocabulary of design is being forged that will be relevant to architects internationally for it will relate to problems that face architects throughout the world. How to use history without lapsing into pastiche, how to reconcile the demands of industralisation with the more subtle demands of context and culture, and how to apply the lesson that can be learnt form traditional practices are topics of international concern and topics that are being faced and solved in different manners, in India today. As Malay Chatterjee says, since 1974 Indian architects have moved from slavish dependence on the west and have felt the confidence to ‘be on their own’ – the evidence so far suggests that they have every right to feel so.
The AR published a special issue on India in May 2016, which is available here. The AR had previously published a special issue – in which this article originally featured – on Indian identity nearly 30 years earlier, in August 1987