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Modernism and the search for Indian identity

Archive: the best recent architecture in India may contain relevant hints for other developing countries

Originally published in AR in 1987

‘Our generation has been trying to discover the common thread in which the fabric of Indian Architecture has been woven in the past; and its significance for our times’ - Raj Rewal, 1984

There is a vast uncharted region of twentieth-century architectural history that will one day need to be written: it concerns the dissemination of modern forms in the countries of the so-called developing world. It is a process which contains many different episodes all the way from the impact of the debased international style, to the enriching effects of Poetic Modernism. In the caricature version, Western rationality and myths of ‘progress’ confront and oppose: the authentic and the indigenous, but it is rarely that simple.

Sometimes the modern is a liberator which even allows a new way to re-examine basic values in tradition after a period of decadence, or fragmentation or foreign occupation. Much depends upon the strength and relevance of the import, and upon the resilience and cultural depth of the recipient; attitudes towards modernisation will also take on many different ideological shades.

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Raj Rewal’s Asian games village, Delhi, 1982

Recent architecture in India is particularly interesting because it suggests that when the initial modern forms are of high quality, they may provide a filter through which both contemporary reality and the past can be sifted. The best recent work manages to crossbreed certain lasting lessons from Le Corbusier and Kahn with traditional principles for dealing with climate, space, urbanism, and habitation.

It is a synthesis which has to do with a post-colonial re examination of roots, but which also involves a reconciliation of both modern technology and indigenous methods. The hope is to combine valid propositions from the sphere of international knowledge with ones that are still relevant in local traditions. At its best, this architecture seems to touch certain substructures of Indian culture.

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The fifteenth-century step well at Adalaj, Ahmedabad, an inspiration for modern spatial compositions

Modern architecture was adopted during the Nehru period as a suitable vehicle for the technological and social programmes of rapid modernisation. After Independence, it was necessary to make a clean break with the cultural forms of the Raj: Modernism had some of the right associations with ‘progress’ and ‘liberalism’. But Gandhian admiration for the supposed moral integrity of the village was never totally displaced by this progressive ethos. Even today, craft and industry have a special alliance in India and this allows the use of computer and intensive manual labour in the same project.

Many different societies and stages of development coexist, and the tension between country and city is continual. Some artists try to bridge the gap, combining modernity with the lessons of the rural vernacular. The Modern Movement’s dream of harmony with nature is reinvigorated by an older philosophical framework placing man and community in a natural and spiritual order.

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Rajasthan courtyard housing

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Raj Rewal’s National Institute of Immunology, Delhi

Search for roots

The search for ‘roots’ takes place within the structure of a modern nation state. A secular democracy, India contains deeply embedded religious strata. The task is one of revival but without overt reference to the imagery of particular communal groups. With a perspective that was not available to his pre-Raj ancestors, the contemporary Indian architect is able to look back over millenia of Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, vernacular and colonial inventions and to seek out common themes. As always, the most probing excavations are those which touch the basic types. But the architect also needs schemata relevant to the problems and technologies of today, and that is where the more recent inheritance of Modernism is relevant.

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Le Corbusier’s Parliament building, Chandigarh, 1950: the imagery of the cooling tower crossbred with an ancient solar observatory

Le Corbusier has rightly been called the father of Modern architecture in India but his seminal works were archaic as well as progressive in tone. Nehru called Chandigarh ‘the temple of the New India’ and thought of it as a showpiece of the new order, free of the encumbrances of imperialism but also secular in meaning: an antidote to the cramped quarters of old towns and an instrument for social change. Le Corbusier’s plan contained memories of his pre-war utopias, while his ‘Indian grammar’ of parasols, brises-soleil, terraces, tanks etc. resulted from a fusion of his usual hot-climate devices with fundamental patterns grasped in a variety of temple, palace and bungalow prototypes.

He evidently thought of India as a country which might integrate its spiritual and rural values into a liberal, democratic and industrial system: at any rate he celebrated this notion in such complex symbols as the funnel of the Assembly (a cooling tower crossbred with an ancient solar observatory), the crescent roofs (alluding to bulls horns and images of planetary paths) as well as his panoply of cosmic images (dealing with sun, moon, water, earth and issues of natural harmony). In the Ahmedabad buildings, Le Corbusier experimented with a range of slab and vault solutions to the dwelling which opened up an entirely new definition for the hot climate house.

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The legislative assembly building, Bangalore, 1952-57, by the Public Works Department, Karnataka: a national style sought by turning the clock back to a period of ‘Hindu purity’

But Le Corbusier’s route was only one of a number in the 1950s. Achyut Kanvinde had returned from Harvard a few years before Le Corbusier’s arrival and had brought a version of Functionalist philosophy and international style vocabulary with him. There were also various attempts at the overt revival of tradition. The more modest followed the hints at fusing East and West of Waiter George but there was also a more fanatical mood which envisaged turning the clock back to a period of supposed ‘Hindu purity’ (the eleventh century).

‘Early Modernism meant a moral commitment to human betterment’

Nor was Le Corbusier the only international starting point. The American architect Joseph Alien Stein (who had worked with Neutra and was influenced by Wright’s concern for nature) designed a series of buildings in Delhi in the late 1950s and early 1960s which used planar walls in local masonry, delicate concrete louvres and terraces, and a fine combination of craft and abstraction. Stein’s work continues to be committed to the search for a decent ecological balance in the increasingly confused and destructive atmosphere of the overcrowded Indian city.

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Detail of Joseph Allen Stein’s India International centre, New Delhi, 1962

Early Modernism meant a moral commitment to human betterment, as well as the use of certain forms, and it may be that the slow evolution of a regional strand of the Modern tradition was helped by the relatively slight impact of international consumerism. In any case, materials like steel and devices like air-conditioning were prohibitively expensive in the 1960s, and this only encouraged designers to work out solutions using labour-intensive solutions, natural means, and local materials. The influence of Le Corbusier was varied. The facile imitators erred in the direction of pastiches using concrete scoops and ugly pilotis; the more discriminating grasped his manner and analysis and extended his principles.

Pivotal Correa

The 1960s then, was a period in which a younger generation (some of them educated abroad) began to search for a viable Indian Modern architecture. Charles Correa’s Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad (1962) was a pivotal building. The brick piers, concrete beams and low pavilions were an intelligent blending of Le Corbusier and Kahn, but the humble scale and meandering route evoked the Indian vernacular as well as encapsulating the moral restraint of Gandhi. The Institute of Indiology by Doshi (of the same date), extended another proposition of Le Corbusier’s-the hovering parasol roof which, in this case, took on the character of a wooden verandah. The YMCA Engineering Hostels of Faridabad (1964-66) by Ranjit Sabikhi and the Design Group used bold brick walls, steps, and terraces in a way that suggested the dense aggregation of traditional settlements. Doshi’s housing and township projects of the mid-1960s were also based upon a limited number of types laid out to create close-knit street clusters. Towards the end of the decade, Raj Rewal’s small project for peon’s housing at the French Embassy in Delhi integrated the section of the traditional desert courtyard house or haveli with a vocabulary derived from Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaouls and Sarabhai. Each of these projects was an attempt at combining modern and indigenous principles.

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Charles Correa’s Gandhi Ashram building, Ahmedabad, 1962: a pivotal building blending Western Modern and Indian vernacular influences

By the mid-1960s, Kahn’s influence was also substantial though like Le Corbusier-he was not accepted unconditionally by the younger generation. The Indian Institute of Management (IIM) at Ahmedabad was designed from 1963-70 and was laid out as a dense network of streets, courts and squares on different levels. The dormitories were disposed diagonally to catch prevailing breezes while interiors were protected from glare by deep-cut loggias. Bold brick columns gashed by shadows evoked, simultaneously, raw industrial structures and a more archaic mood. Kahn’s metaphysics were stimulated by the ancient traditions of India, and, like Le Corbusier, he soon developed an interest in Indian traditional architecture. His abstract geometries and parallel slots of structure pre-disposed him towards Islamic, especially Moghul examples, but he was also infatuated by the Jain temple at Ranakpur. Like Le Corbusier, Kahn revealed essential values to the more probing of his followers: another feature of the late 1960s was the struggle to reconcile the lessons of these two major mentors.

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Charles Correa’s Gandhi Ashram building, Ahmedabad

It was around the mid-1970s that Indian Modern architecture began to achieve a momentum of its own. One sign of this was the increasingly successful integration of indoor and outdoor space, a reaction against clumsy point-block planning in housing. Another sign was polychromy, using a variety of local materials or washed grit finishes instead of the tired period uniform of brick and concrete. Yet another was the evolution of natural climate devices for dealing with light, sun, air, etc other than the obvious brise-soleil. Then there was an interest in a more complex order using ambiguous spatial transitions, ledges, steps and screens. Behind a wide range of experiments was the notion of the modern building as an analogue to the traditional city with its streets, squares, gates, doorways, terraces, private courts, and platforms.

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French Embassy staff quarters, New Delhi, 1968-89, by Raj Rewal: an integration of the desert courtyard house with a vocabulary derived from Le Corbusier

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Entrance detail of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, 1963-70, by Louis Kahn whose ‘metaphysics were stimulated by the ancient traditions of India’

Elements of Correa

In the 1960s, Charles Correa had already demonstrated a capacity to bridge new and old, monumental and folk, but it was in the 1970s that he seemed able to formulate a kit of basic elements such as: section types for hot/wet and hot/dry regions; sheltering roofs of various sorts; sunken courts and outdoor rooms; platforms, terraces and steps for transitions; planar walls to create a dense labyrinth of public and private spaces. Correa hoped to use these elements in different combinations to deal with a wide range of social tasks. The luxury apartments in the Kanchanjunga block in Bombay (1973-86) blended the section of the hot climate vernacular with an organizational type inherited from Wright and Le Corbusier. A variety of low-cost housing experiments combined standardised elements with local building practice.

In his various hotel designs Correa has had to adjust to such different climates and heritages as those of Goa, Kovalam Beach and the Andamans; in each case he tries to follow local cues in his search for a solution. In the arts centre for Bhopal (the Bharat Bhavan of 1982), the Complex is treated as a sequence of platforms and sunken walkways: concrete and local masonry are combined. The low lighting hoods respond to the domes across the water as well as being rustic descendants of Le Corbusier’s light funnel at Chandigarh.

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Left and above right: the Kanchanjunga apartment block, Bonbay, of 1973-86 by Charles Correa. Right bottom: the Arts Centre for Bhopal, 1982, by Charles Correa

Urbanisation is obviously the central problem in India, related as it is to the increasing population and the economic failure of the rural base to deal with sheer numbers. Most people build their own shelter whether it is in the relatively healthy situation of the continuing peasant vernacular, or in the squalid conditions of the lowest end of the money economy, ie the squatter slums. Housing models-even very intelligent ones-designed by architects, usually end up far further up the housing market than intended. This leads many committed designers to realise that their function could be to bring expertise to an uncontrollable informal sector at the level of technical assistance. Indian reality forces questions to the base-line: how can natural resources like water and forest best be prolonged and allocated? How big can cities get before they clog and die? How can economic vitality be encouraged in the countryside so stemming the flow to the city? How can massive indigenous skills be mobilised even in the horror of the urban slums?

These problems are so daunting that the mere architect can do relatively little to touch them, but he can at least adopt the tactic of treating each housing exercise as a pilot study towards a new urbanism. This surely is the significance of the numerous housing colonies designed as close-knit aggregations in the Delhi area during the past decade or so - such projects as the Design Group’s Yamuna Apartments (1973), or Raj Rewal’s Sheik Sarai Housing (1976), and Asian Games Village (1982). The latter has achieved some international recognition as a refined combination of modern housing principles and ideas derived from the havelis of such desert towns as Jaisalmer. Units combine into neat clusters of six which can be laid end to end as streets, or grouped to form squares. The sequences of half-enclosed precincts with planting are separated by gates formed from linked upper level terraces, in a manner which recalls traditional mohallas or neighbourhoods. The amber grit finish with grooved incisions signals the standardised modern structural system while also echoing masonry. In most of his work. Rewal manages to bridge the gap between modern technological means and substructures in the urban past. He has also been interested in Moghul palace complexes, with their repeating themes, their stratified terraces, and their fusions of primary geometries such as the circle, polygon and square.

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B.V. Doshi’s ECIL housing at Hyderabad, 1960-73: vernacular reinterpreted to suit modern conditions

Certain building types are international in character and it is therefore a special challenge to try to regionalise them. Except for Bombay, which has been building bad skyscrapers for 30 years, India has relatively slight experience of this building type. But the huge pressure on urban land and the increasing internationalisation of the economy are leading to more and more, tall buildings. Rewal’s State Trading Corporation in Delhi uses concrete megatrusses as shading devices. Various other louvres and screens are now appearing, but so far less thought has been given to urban context than to climate. Stein and Bhalla’s offices for new environmental agencies in Delhi attempt to combine high density with planted courts protected by a steel awning where blades are angled to admit winter sun and exclude summer glare. Centralisation of employment and resources seems to be an irreversible process in India, and there is a massive challenge ahead: the design of decent work spaces which may be islands of calm in a turbulent urban world.

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The Yamuna apartments, Delhi, 1973-80, by the Design Group. This, and more particularly the Asian games village is the result of integrating functional demands with forms inspired by traditional courtyard housing

Educational models

If housing schemes are used as laboratories for low-cost solutions, educational institutions are sometimes used as models for a more humane urbanism. Doshi, Stein & Bhalla’s IIM for Bangalore is a series of shaded precincts linked by galleries, courts, and shifting axes. The network planning principles of Team Ten (eg Shadrach Wood’s Free University of Berlin) have been crossbred with ideas abstracted from traditional complexes like Fatehpur Sikri or the Temple cities of Southern India (eg Madurai) with their labyrinths of shaded galleries. Ban galore has a relatively temperate climate which permits a relaxed verandah existence and Doshi’s concept for IIM is a much looser and more ambiguous version of Kahn’s prototype in Ahmedabad. Trellises and pergolas are interwoven with greenery and the ambiguous spaces between are used for informal teaching sessions. Urbanism and architecture are locked together in a single system. Tradition is probed for its spatial and organisational lessons.

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Raj Rewal’s State Trading Corporation tower in New Delhi: less thought has been given to urban context than to climate

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Detail of B.V. Doshi’s Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, begun in 1977

By the end of the 1970s the issue of Indian identity was being treated with increasing selfconsciousness. Satish Gujral (also a painter and sculptor) designed the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi in an associational sculptural language using faceted red brick walls and arches. There were various evocations of centralised tomb and stepped temple prototypes, while the landscaping was handled with considerable subtlety. The supporters of Gujral see him as a liberator beyond the confines of a too limited Modernism (although it is evident that he has learned much from Louis Kahn). The sceptics see a sort of theatrical orientalism close to cultural caricature (see p52).

Issues of cultural representation were obviously critical in the case of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, a project which was opened to competition a year and a half ago. The site is at the intersection of the Rajpath and the Janpath, two of the major thoroughfares of New Delhi, and the programme included a vast array of facilities to house the study and collection of the Indian heritage. Probably the client and advisers hoped to construct an important national symbol, not just a building, and the document sent to competitors stressed the deep-rooted continuities of Indian culture. But the procedure of an international competition was virtually bound to disqualify most of India’s most mature architects (who were either on the jury or else associated indirectly as consultants). It was also bound to exclude most known architects of high standing abroad (who prefer invited competitions).

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Anant Raje’s 1983 sketch of a garden building at Mandu: inspiration for the form of the indian Institute of Forestry Management

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Detail of Ralf Lerner’s competition-winning design of 1986 for the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi: an embarrassingly awkward attempt at cultural cross-breeding

The project chosen was by Ralph Lerner and Associates from Princeton, New Jersey, and it was selected primarily because it fits reasonably well with its Lutyenesque setting. The physical context was something which every jury member could judge for himself; the cultural context was a far more difficult and intangible question. Lerner’s design is a repertoire of recently fashionable issues from the West-contextualism, Neo-Classicism, axes, facades, Gravesiana and Stirlingisms, references to Asplund, etc, and its debts to Lutyens are obvious. But it is this very adherence to the Colonial neighbours which raises the troubling contradictions: one charge which has already been levelled against the project is that it re-uses British imperial forms in a way that is totally inappropriate to contemporary Indian social reality.

The elite responsible for financing and building this vast pile must surely ask themselves whether the design’s authoritarian overtones truly embody the spirit of their programme. And what ‘Classicism’ has to do with the search for an authentic Indian expression? After all it was Lutyens who sneered at the Indian architecture of the past as so many ‘Moghul and Hindu contraptions’. If the winning project can make any claims on ‘Indianness’ it is at the dubious level of decorative elephants, attached gopurams and an embarrassingly awkward attempt at crossbreeding a temple Sikkara and the Diwan-IKhas from Fatehpur Sikri. This seems to be more of an exercise in image collection from history books than a valid transformation of past principles. It does not seem that the Post-Modernist fashion for instant history has much to give India, the more so as the fashion is already dying out in the West.

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Model of Anant Raje’s Institute of Forestry Management

Three recent buildings

It may be appropriate to end with three recent buildings which are liable to make longer range contributions to Indian architecture. The Indian Institute of Forest Management is still not complete and stands on a hill close to Bhopal. It was designed by Anant Raje who worked with Kahn on IIM Ahmedabad, but who, in recent years, has gradually pulled away into expressive territories of his own. The programme of IIM has been broken down into separate pieces such as curved auditoria and rectangular teaching blocks. These have been reunited on the contours so that they are inflected to respond to winds, views and topography.

Raje’s vocabulary is intricately connected to the means of construction; concrete piers, arches, and beams, walls in textured stone and brick, an ornamental system arising from joints in the actual fabric. In plan and section, he created complex interpretations using parallel slots of structure. These extend across the site as galleries, courtyards, and pavilions. Raje seeks out a fundamental sense of order in ruins of both Eastern and Western monumental traditions; one of his chief inspirations is the derelict palace/garden complex at Mandu near Indore with its platforms, tanks and roofless halls. With the help of Kahn’s abstraction, he penetrates ancient memories at a deep level.

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A B.V Doshi drawing, in the manner of an Indian miniature, of elements of his Vidhaynagar project

Balkrishna Doshi’s own studio, Sangath (1980), stands on the western outskirts of Ahmedabad where country and city meet (see p47). The scheme is formed from low vaulted spaces rising out of grassy platforms, and it defines a verdant precinct of water channels, grassy humps and huge clay pots. The interiors are half buried in the ground for protection from heat, and a transversal section suggests a primordial earth shelter. A shallow cascade of steps defines an outdoor theatre for informal gatherings, not unlike the communal space in a village. Among Doshi’s earliest sketches for Sangath were ones showing small villages rising out of strata of landscape, and this is an architect who draws many lessons from indigenous design. But he does not indulge in an imagery of sentimental peasantism.

The vaults of Sangath are ceramic insulated tubes coated in concrete then covered in broken white china to reflect heat and glare. The diagonal approach is the prelude to a meandering path through interiors which combine single-, double- and even triple-height volumes. Again there is the fascination with the labyrinth galleries of temple architecture. But Sangath is also a descendant of Le Corbusier’s earth-hugging Sarabhai House (1953) which stands only a few miles away. A modern prototype rich in regionalist potential has thus been transformed to encapsulate a different vision 30 years later: Sangath is a microcosm of Doshi’s belief in harmony between individual, community and nature.

‘Rewal explores connections between the modern concrete frame and ancient trabeation’

The National Institute of Immunology by Raj Rewal is on the point of completion and stands to the south of Delhi on a rocky site covered with low trees (see p39). A few kilometres away one can make out the Minaret of the Outb Minar, the first large Islamic ensemble in the area. The primary function of the Institute is scientific research. The programme contains laboratories, study rooms, a library, auditorium, a director’s house, and clusters of residences for staff. Rewal has conceived the ensemble as an analogue to a traditional city with courts, galleries, terraces, platforms, and steps; it is also a landscape conception in which levels blend with the surrounding contours. Pink and beige terrazzo bands indicate the lines of the concrete frame beneath but also recall Moghul marble geometry.

With its primary and secondary axes, its shifting vistas, its fine proportions, its stratifications and its outdoor rooms, the Institute is a modern reinterpretation of complexes such as the palace city of Fatehpur Sikri. Rewal explores connections between the modern concrete frame and ancient trabeation: in the scholars’ hostel, an open-air theatre offers a framed view over nature. Spatial organisation from past Indian architecture are thus abstracted and transformed.

It remains to be seen how wide an impact the buildings singled out here will have on patterns of construction in India. The present environmental problems are daunting indeed and cannot be solved by a Luddite retreat into lost certainties. By the end of the century, the population will have greatly increased; the proportion living in cities will also have increased. Bombay may be as big as Mexico City, and for miles to the south of Delhi there will be a massive sprawl of polluted trunk roads, clumsy concrete boxes, industrial tracts and, of course, squatter settlements. The social tensions that are likely to be engendered by deracination and competition for basic resources are incalculable. Therefore, planning will have to become a national priority sooner or later.

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Leo Perira’s work must be acknowledged for its contribution to the development of Indian architecture. This is his own house near Ahmedabad design in 1981: a subtle fusion of Wright and of the vernacular

The old reassuring myths of the village as the solid social base are already badly shaken, however appealing these notions may be to an elite that likes to soothe the urban psyche and the tourist with decorative crafts. Evidently a more equitable distribution of resources between the overstuffed cities and an increasingly bereft countryside is needed. If not, whole rural areas may become denuded and depopulated. In recent years Doshi, Stein & Bhalla have attempted to emphasise decentralised, regional models: Doshi’s scheme for the city of Vidhaynagar outside Jaipur, for example, explores a new urbanism, combining the reformist ideals of Gamier and Le Corbusier (the re linking of man with nature), with sound indigenous principles for the creation of dwellings and social space. But much more thought needs to be devoted to the shape of the new industrial environment if it is not to devour all.

The best recent architecture in India may contain relevant hints for the developing countries. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the uncritical adaptation of Western models is no real solution, as these are often inadequate to climate and culture: the results tend to be alien and alienating. But the answer does not lie in the superficial imitation of local traditions either, as this fails to update what is substantial about the past, and does not address what is pressing in the present. The hope is to make a relevant synthesis of old and new, regional and universal. The best recent Indian work is so challenging because it is open to the tests of the future as well as the grandeur of the past.