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Towards an architecture for India

Mahalakshmi Mumbai 23x28

In an age of rapid industrialisation, rampant construction, a networked economy and state indifference, meaningful architecture in India is elusive

Since Independence in 1947, democracy, development and the economy have been the driving agendas in India. After seven decades, the country has undergone profound political and socioeconomic changes. Over the last twenty years, since it adopted liberal economic policies, India has witnessed a pivotal acceleration in growth and more is in sight with current figures indicating that it may well outdo China. In this story, cities are not the backdrop, but the subjects of transformation with the country taking a decisive urban turn. Opportunities to build abound, and the proliferation of architecture schools (423 in total) and the presence of international design firms scouting for work attest to this. All this should neatly add up to a healthy present and promising future for architecture in India. But does it?

‘Since Independence in 1947 democracy development and the economy have been the driving agendas in India’

The State of Architecture exhibition held in Mumbai (6 January to 20 March 2016) was the first major attempt at stocktaking in decades. As the curators Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote and Kaiwan Mehta explained, it served as both an ‘archive and a forum’, sieving and curating the works of 50,000 architects over 70 years. Juxtaposing key social and political events with architectural landmarks, the engrossing exhibition culminated in a showcase of 80 relatively young practices that characterised what one critic called ‘the polyphony of voices’ in India today.

Chandigarh Legislative Assembly building by Le Corbusier 1955

Chandigarh Legislative Assembly building by Le Corbusier 1955

Source: Iwan Baan

Chandigarh Legislative Assembly building by Le Corbusier, 1955

‘India has witnessed a pivotal acceleration in growth and more is in sight with current figures indicating that it may well outdo China’

Describing architectural development in India without categories such as Modern, Postmodern, New Pragmatism and so on, is not just an outcome of the ‘observatory nature’ of the exhibition and its flat narrative. The fact is that contemporary architecture in India can no longer be understood through Western canons and frictionless narratives; its bewildering variety defies any attempt to pigeonhole. The exhibition has made visible what was invisible; a significant shift and an expectation that Indian architecture will now move forward on its own terms.

The popular narrative is that post-Independence architecture of the 1980s is a shadow of the international Modern architecture ushered in by Le Corbusier and Kahn. Such stories are not only factually incorrect – they also portray a country with no alternatives. While some were idolising Chandigarh, others at Gandhi ashrams across India were shaping different views about habitat and resources. Architect Prem Chandavarkar noted how cities like Bengaluru stayed away from the axis of Delhi-Mumbai-Ahmedabad and flourished in the background.

Chandivali Slum Rehabilitation Scheme

Chandivali Slum Rehabilitation Scheme

Source: Lars Rolfsted Mortensen

Controversial Chandivali Slum Rehabilitation Scheme

‘The fact is that contemporary architecture in India can no longer be understood through Western canons and frictionless narratives; its bewildering variety defies any attempt to pigeonhole’

Escorts scooter factory in Faridabad by Joseph Stein 1964

Escorts scooter factory in Faridabad by Joseph Stein 1964

Source: Madan Mahatta

Escorts scooter factory in Faridabad by Joseph Stein, 1964

At the same time, architects Chatterjee and Polk in Kolkata earnestly worked to address regional issues; Polk wrote about the spirit of place before such phrases were familiar. Laurie Baker’s conscientious and pragmatic works, Joseph Stein’s careful responses to climatic conditions and landscape, Nari Gandhi’s integration of material and surroundings, and Ranjit Sabikhi’s creative use of courtyards were refreshing, inspiring alternatives.

The same can be said about post-1980s architecture, often defined as Postmodern, but the search for roots in India was not necessarily a borrowed reaction following the West’s disappointment with Modernism. The past was never fully extinguished and lived experience often encountered traditions. As UR Ananthamurthy writes, the marga, the universal, and desi, the local, shaped Indian literary and philosophical works. Colonialism not only turned critical attention towards traditions but also created deep suspicion about its modernisation project. Gandhi and Nehru, as political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh remarks, were critical traditionalist and critical Modernist respectively. Both understood that neither tradition nor modernity were sufficient in themselves. Architects growing up in this milieu could not entirely embrace either; they searched to find their balance.

YMCA staff housing Delhi by Ranjit Sabikhi 1963

YMCA staff housing Delhi by Ranjit Sabikhi 1963

Source: MIT Libraries, Rotch Visual Collections, courtesy of Peter Serenyi

YMCA staff housing, Delhi, by Ranjit Sabikhi, 1963

‘Gandhi and Nehru understood that neither tradition nor modernity were sufficient in themselves’

These practices are not mere counter examples; they represent a committed search for a meaningful architecture. Young architects who have inherited this legacy no longer conceptualise themselves or their works in stifling categories. They increasingly address issues from first principles and their practice is reflective and grounded at the same time. There is a diverse and healthy crop of talent, from Sameep Padora of sP+a and his Buddhist Centre in Sakarwadi (see p54), the Book Building in Chennai by MOAD, Health Care Centre in Dharmapuri by Flying Elephant Studio, the Alila mixed-use development in Bengaluru by Hundredhand, DCOOP’s student hostels in Kadapa, Surya Kakani’s office and Anthill Design’s pavilion (see p52), both in Ahmedabad, SEA’s Sai Temple in Vennached (AR Apr 2016), Abin Chaudhuri’s management institute in Bhubaneswar and the Department of Life Sciences in Chennai by Architecture Red, to name a few. These practices are about sensibility, possibilities and exploration.

Lijo Jos and Reny Lijo of LIJO.RENY, based in Thrissur, Kerala, a place known for its wood and laterite buildings, often face questions as to why their buildings do not reflect the local identity and character. To them, as Jos explains, context is not defined by signs and symbols, it is about the issues it poses. Kerala faces an acute shortage of sand, laterite is no longer harvested in large quantities, and there are restraints on using wood. Scale and cost are pressing issues and buildings have to be climatically responsive as much as they are evocative.

Raj Rewals Hall of Nations New Delhi 1972

Raj Rewals Hall of Nations New Delhi 1972

Source: MIT Libraries Rotch Visual Collections

Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations, New Delhi, 1972

The practice finds past ways of addressing context and form inadequate. They try to innovate rather than remain trapped in old ideas of regionalism. The firm’s Breathing Wall Residence literally brings in fresh air as does ‘Walls and Vaults House’. Jos may not evoke theoretical ideas such as performative notions of identity as being far more sensible than mythical concepts, but the work of the practice is no less engaging.  

Despite the emergence of these creative practices, the demand for good design is yet to grow substantially. Without this, as Charles Correa presciently remarked, we have meaningless construction rather than quality architecture. This is evident in the manner the state, the largest builder, chooses design or recognises quality. Either it settles for mediocrity (more on that later) or it is seduced by star architects.

‘Despite the emergence of these creative practices, the demand for good design is yet to grow substantially’

The awarding of the capital complex design of Amaravati – the new capital city of Andhra Pradesh – is an example of the latter. Since it ceded the existing capital city to the newly created Telangana State last year, Andhra sought assistance from the Singapore government to create a new capital. Singapore design firm Surbana Jurong parachuted in a 217km2 masterplan. Architectural companies and consortia with an annual financial turnover of Rs 30 crores (US$4.5 million) were invited to bid for the design of the 1.2 million m2 complex. When 10 firms turned up, the state government, without much explanation, sidelined them. It then invited Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and Richard Rogers, and when Koolhaas declined, Frank Gehry. The final list of contenders consisted of Japanese firm Maki and Associates, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners and Vastu Shilpa led by BV Doshi. The jury, which included a Vastu consultant – an expert on traditional architectural principles that border astrology – awarded the design to Maki and Associates.

When the design presentations were uploaded to social media by the government, it triggered a protest. Architects launched an online petition against the design, also questioning why the state government didn’t invite more Indian designers to compete. This led to further debate on whether India had nurtured any recognisable talent over the past 60 years. It also rekindled the issue of whether the commissioning of foreign practices should be discouraged in India. Others claimed the new design was not Indian enough. All valid questions, however they ail to acknowledge the changing conditions of architectural practice in the country. Instead of looking at this new city, coming as it does 60 years after Chandigarh, as a significant opportunity to set new directions in planning and rejuvenate the public interest in architecture, the state settled on iconic names and forms.

Singh showing his plans for  the NDMC building to Pandit Nehru

Singh showing his plans for the NDMC building to Pandit Nehru

Singh showing his plans for the NDMC building to Pandit Nehru

This incident laid bare the paradoxes of practising in an increasingly networked economy and exposed new vulnerabilities, foremost that if architects are not vigilant they could invent new forms of parochialism. India has benefited from dovetailing into the global economy. It is one of the leading software exporters and its technically skilled workforce land good jobs around the world. Foreign investment in a variety of sectors has helped construction activities. International financial institutions such as the Japan Bank for International Cooperation have backed several projects, including Amaravati, on relatively favourable terms. It is only logical to expect that – along with capital – ideas and foreign firms would also flow in. The way to engage with these developments is not to seek protectionism. The issues at stake are the unreasonable entry barriers for young firms, a failure to seek wider participation, a lack of transparency in selection, and the unwillingness of the state to face public scrutiny. Debates have to steer clear of the traps of divisive politics played in the name of Indian identity. Instead, the concern should be about the choice of architecture that reinforces the overpowering state at a time when democratic values are under serious threat. Sidelined in this sentimental conversation is the fact that the state is squandering precious resources by acquiring fertile agricultural land when existing cities could have been upgraded to accommodate government facilities – a recommendation made by the central government-appointed expert committee.

‘When the design presentations were uploaded to social media by the government, it triggered a protest’

Another issue is the division of intellectual labour between foreign and local firms. Often the low scale of fees means foreign companies produce the concept and take a disproportionately large slice of the money pie. For them, the pay is insufficient to execute the project completely, so local firms end up dealing with the nuts and bolts for a relatively small fee. Firms are unwilling to discuss the financial arrangement on record, but off the record all is not well. Working with star firms may provide the opportunity to engage with new ideas, but do Indian companies want to remain an architectural back office or call centre forever? The way forward is to negotiate a mutually enriching collaboration between all partners.

Worli Fort Mumbai with its backdrop of high rise buildings

Worli Fort Mumbai with its backdrop of high rise buildings

Source: Lars Rolfsted Mortensen

Worli Fort, Mumbai, with its backdrop of high-rise buildings

Another challenge is to widen the constituency for good design. The best architectural talent is nurtured by the limited number of commissions for private homes and institutions. For most property developers, a building is a means to maximise profit; as such, it is not surprising that we are yet to see an elegant solution for vertical living.

‘The best architectural talent is nurtured by the limited number of commissions for private homes and institutions’

With few exceptions, IT companies are the most disappointing clients. Some, in their rush to reduce overall operational cost, have settled for dignified sweat shops wrapped in glass. A few fancy corporate offices have built, to use Mehrotra’s description, an architecture of indulgence. The ignominious examples are the campuses of Infosys across India – spaceships or wannabe Disneylands, mostly designed by Hafeez Contractor, a Mumbai-based architect (see p33). Contractor has a prolific practice which has grown from a staff of three in 1982 to over 550 employees today. But his architecture resides in the few inches of building exterior and his work is a classic example of what Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava describe as post-1990s architecture in India having ‘lost the capacity to engage sensibly and poetically articulate’.

New Delhi Municipal Council Building 1987 by Kuldip Singh

New Delhi Municipal Council Building 1987 by Kuldip Singh

Source: Madan Mahatta

New Delhi Municipal Council Building, 1987, by Kuldip Singh

In this context, architectural institutions have not been effective in rallying for quality buildings. The Indian Institute of Architects, formally founded in 1929, has lost its ability to shape public policy and discourse, as has the Council of Architecture, a legal entity to promote standards of practice and education. Neither have these collectives evolved into significant think tanks. Reinventing them is long overdue. In some cities, small interest groups are filling the vacuum and building a public interface, such as MASA in Bengaluru and FEED in Pune.

‘Rapid urbanisation and voluminous construction have brought with them environmental and social challenges’

Rapid urbanisation and voluminous construction have brought with them environmental and social challenges. The scale of development has put a strain on resources. In many cities, governments have started to impose restrictions on the use of materials such as sand. In its place, alternatives such as quarry dust are encouraged. Liberal economic policies have exacerbated this problem. A new bag of materials has been opened. Choice has expanded, but many of these materials offer poor environmental performance. Given the pressing energy consumption and climate change issues, architects cannot make design decisions only against the horizon of aesthetics or convenience. An environmentally sensitive design culture is imperative.

Rising inequality and disproportionate income levels have created geographies of difference within cities. While some are privileged and receive investment and infrastructure, other substantial areas await attention. Land prices have risen steeply and rendered many house-poor. The death of social housing is only too visible. In the last two decades, there has not been a single notable, well-designed social housing project. The existing ones are as depressing as pigeon holes and cattle sheds. Barring activist architects (few in number), practices cater to the private needs of the upper class.

 

‘The death of social housing is only too visible; in the last two decades there has not been a single notable, well-designed social housing project’

Disturbed by this disconnect, some firms have started to make amends. Sandeep J and his firm Architecture Paradigm, based in Bengaluru, seek to balance their work. ‘We are conscious and disturbed by the fact that engaging an architect has become expensive. Even small houses are now out of reach for the middle class. Affordable housing is elusive. As much as we work on mainstream large-scale projects, we also seek to build cost-effective ones.’ Sandeep believes that architects can bring innovation in spatial layouts and invent technological solutions for social housing.

Mountain Lodge for Jal Gobhai at Lonavala by Nari Gandhi

Mountain Lodge for Jal Gobhai at Lonavala by Nari Gandhi

Mountain Lodge for Jal Gobhai at Lonavala was Nari Gandhi’s first project after returning from the USA – where he had been an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright – in 1964

However, the experience of Biju Kuriakose and Kishore Panikkar, based in Chennai, shows this may not be so easy. When their firm sought to develop prototypes for slum redevelopment projects, the state agencies, weighed down by inertia and bureaucracy, did not respond enthusiastically. Undeterred by the indifferent response, they are patiently negotiating to make a difference through design.

A silver lining is the work of sP+a; principal architect Padora has extensively studied the old chawl housing in Mumbai and tried to develop a convincing, empirically based criticism of the deplorable slum redevelopment. In his housing projects, he has creatively incorporated features drawn from his research. They demonstrate how simple design moves can substantially enhance living conditions. It remains to be seen whether such efforts will cascade and have a wider impact on social housing.

‘A silver lining is the work of sP+a; principal architect Padora has extensively studied the old chawl housing in Mumbai and tried to develop a convincing, empirically based criticism of the deplorable slum redevelopment’

For Indian architecture, the path is promising, but there are caveats. Recent events, taken together, point to a complex picture where opportunities coexist with obstacles. Padora says architects must ‘simultaneously and with an open mind engage with research, practice, collaboration and advocacy if they are serious about converting opportunities to meaningful change’. But he cautions that if they fail to do so, architects will ‘continue to divest of their mandate as advocates and thinkers of the qualitative aspects of the environment and society.’ As much as there are numerous bright possibilities in India, the promise is entangled with paradox. Much of the future of Indian architecture will depend on how architects and society navigate these challenges.

Lead image by Lars Rolfsted Mortensen