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‘Doshi described Corb as an acrobat and Kahn as a yogi’

Archive: the AR reports on how India’s architects are dealing with the modernist legacy of Corb and Kahn, evolving new principles, returning to craft, and celebrating the everyday

Originally published in September 2010

Much has changed in India since we last devoted an issue to the country with Dan Cruikshank’s comprehensive survey over 20 years ago (AR August 1987). Over that time India has become increasingly important on the world stage, with a rapidly expanding economy and a thriving democracy of over 1.2 billion citizens.

This edition of the AR, however, reflects the magazine’s desire to find out what’s happening on the ground. Our ambition is to engage more meaningfully with those producing contemporary architecture; to see their workplaces, visit their projects and understand the processes they undertake.

Along with long-time AR collaborator, photographer Edmund Sumner, a ten-day tour was made earlier this summer. The chosen route focused on familiar territory - Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad - which was felt would give continuity to non-visiting readers who may choose to refer back to previous AR reports.

There is, of course, much more to see, with areas such as Bangalore changing beyond all recognition, as vast new global centres of trade, commerce and service industry have literally sprung up from nowhere. Using the familiar as a starting point soon led to new relationships being established.

Meetings were convened with architects young and old, from the widely celebrated BV Doshi, to the emerging talents of practices such as New Delhi’s Morphogenesis (category winners in the 2009 World Architecture Festival) and Matharoo Associates (2009 winner of AR Awards for Emerging Architecture and most recently winner of the inaugural AR House award).

Meetings were also set up with architects who write and teach, such as Meghal and Vijay Arya who, together with Meghal’s parents Kulbhushan and Minakshi Jain, wrote the wonderful book Thematic Space in Indian Architecture (India Research Press, 2002), which highlights ‘the significance of certain notions of space in Indian architecture, particularly those most commonly seen’. It teaches that we should not overlook the commonplace or, as Kulbhushan describes it, ‘the mundane’ (as opposed to ‘the sacred’).

Traditionally, writers on the subject have focused on the sculptural and the decorative attributes of architecture in India, however Kulbhushan adds that ‘it is observed that some of the simplest and most obvious features of spatiality have been sustained for centuries in almost all types of built forms[…] if one eliminates the elaborate trimmings, the essential features can still be discerned right across the spectrum.’

The devices the authors catalogue through drawings, photographs and text are stylistically neutral, and can be seen in the second half of the 20th century to have formed the basis for much in Indian modernism. Elements of the pavilion, the courtyard and the cave all endure in new work, propelled most obviously by the radical influence of architects Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. Their impact also endures, taken on wholeheartedly and with loyalty by those they collaborated and taught with, such as 83-year-old Doshi, who still practises and teaches today.

Neatly distinguishing the influence of these two architects on his own work, Doshi described Corb as an acrobat and Kahn as a yogi, alluding to the manner in which Corb would somehow find balance in more radical compositions, in contrast to the rigour and rules established by Kahn. Their manner even extended to their palate, with Doshi’s son-in-law Rajeev Kathpalia recalling: ‘Corb would eat anything - buttered chicken with naan. But Kahn was very strict and only really liked boiled fish.’

Characteristics of the nimble acrobat and the stoic yogi prevail in today’s generation, seen for example when comparing the work of Bimel Patel with the flamboyant inventiveness of Gurgit Singh Matharoo. However, modernism’s influence hasn’t satisfied everyone. Architect and landscape architect Aniket Bhagwat described how modernism in India - as all over the world - soon became too neutral and too unspecific, taking little of the delight from Indian precedent.

‘Post Corbusier, or post Antonin Raymond, the kind of modernism that happened in the country gradually got very empty in its emotive content,’ said Bhagwat. ‘It summarised the idea of modernism. There was no soul left in buildings. Unfortunately many of us have grown up on that diet, looking at these buildings and being told that they were good; but somehow the heart didn’t seem to be in a lot of them.’

In Bhagwat’s architectural circle, and apparent in the work of many others like them, there has been a commitment to promote a return to craft - unlike anything seen anywhere else currently in the world. The projects unveiled on the following pages reveal the spectrum and diversity of recently completed work in the country.

Patel’s new campus for the Indian Institute of Management relies on a few references from Kahn’s original campus to create the most ‘die-hard modernist’ project featured here. Others refer to older precedent in search of new forms of expression, such as Sameep Padora’s Shiv Temple, and Stephane Paumier’s headquarters for designer Tarun Tahiliani, both of which strip away the ornament of their precedent to focus more on their essential qualities relating to light and space.

At the domestic scale, several houses demonstrate how the smallest unit of India’s architectural currency encapsulates all that has been previously described. For this month’s Skill piece, Studio Mumbai’s inspiring workshop shows how this craft-led take on design-and-build procurement can significantly raise standards. Finally, the Urbanism essay focuses on Mumbai’s largest informal settlement, Dharavi, to further describe the ‘mundane’ and to show how the proliferation of India’s ad-hoc architecture also encapsulates enduring and essential architectural qualities.

Beyond those featured architects who were generous with their time and attention, credit and gratitude is extended to the author’s hosts and collaborators, Manit and Sonali Rastogi, Gurjit Singh Matharoo, driver Philip and photographer Edmund Sumner.

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