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Arhitecture, Without Style

Gautam Bhatia engages in a critical discussion about architecture in India and hopes that its future will be better than its recent past.

prathma blood bank image
Gautam Bhatia. Hotel Khajuraho. Charcoal on paper. 24"x30". 2001

FOR A SUBJECT THAT has been beaten to visual pulp,  explored and split wide open in journals and exhibitions, surgically cut open in architectural drawings, tossed between the tourist and the historian, used as a backdrop for weddings and Bond films, displayed in colonial lithographs and etchings, been the inspiration for virtually every Indian and Bangladeshi restaurant in London, and been the focus of endless clichés, Indian architecture is a diverse and difficult territory. It is still the least defined of Indian artistic disciplines and one that is mired in a range of professional intrigues and bureaucratic conflicts. If a truthful history of it were ever to be written, it would have to be a history of constraints and indulgences. For, the real architecture of the country has been made only in the extreme conditions of gross affluence and abject neglect. Sometimes provoked into inventiveness by a lack of resources, at other times, abundant, desperately coiffured, and copiously detailed.

In the seemingly confined and parochial world of architectural practice, however, expression has historically been linked to economic progress and social change. The images are etched in the 61 years of Indian Independence: Nehru’s industrial model in Chandigarh and Bhakra Nangal Dam; the establishment of premier educational institutions like the IITs in the ’60s and the IIMs in the ’70s;   and smaller institutional ventures like the Bharat Kala Kendras and the IGNCA (The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts) in the ’80s. The ’90s witnessed a move away from Modernism to a resurgence of interest in regional identity, for instance, in the work of Laurie Baker and Joseph Allen Stein.

In periodic reflections, the profession has sought proof of its existence in seminars. But just as often decided – in the cold white light of the conference room – to refrain from too much needless thought. Redefined in volumes of theoretical recommendations, the practitioner knew that architectural deliberation was unrelated to actual application and always at odds with building identity. After all, architecture had even begun to grow seamlessly out of a builder’s proposal and the demands of the market place. The buyer raised the first notions of desire; the project management had the final say. Earlier, the architect was confined to the drafting room, a call center operator on AutoCAD. Occasionally, he looked in growing dismay out of the plate glass room, across the miles of Gurgaons, Whitefields, and Gomtinagars, he had helped create – suburbs over which he had no control. And he felt saddened. Through television and newspapers, he learned, with a waning idealism, that the Indians of the 21st century had even appropriated symbols of British imperialism for their own. Unable to find a building after independence of any visible worth, it seemed only right that Victoria Memorial, India Gate, and the Prince of Wales Museum be the logical symbols of a new India. Architecture had become just another form of nostalgia.

In his search for an Indian expression, the architect knew he had made the act of building into a parody of itself. Like a 1960s Studebaker car, its only quest was to look good, and to remain indifferent to craft and technology. For the most part, the traditional served as a convenient source of inspiration, and the architect returned, as always, to the familiar comfort of the pictorial vision: a stone house with wooden floors nestled in a landscape of trees and hills. In it was the enduring comfort of a settled view – architecture as an organic demonstration of its natural surroundings.

But things were changing. Another view, more popular amongst younger professionals, was similarly rooted in an archaic vision but also looked towards the future. The vast majority of the rising middle-class in India was seeking a better future, and the architect’s concerns were linked with provision rather than restraint. A colossal framework of steel, enclosed by glass, topped by skylights, the building no longer spoke of memorial pleasures but of a futuristic hankering. A supposed break from tradition, it remained rooted in personal whimsy. The architect sold it as a bold vision, but at the back of his mind, he knew it was as outdated as the stone house on the hill.

In the absence of a thoughtful and thorough public urban policy, the parcelling of land to private developers had led to discriminatory patterns of development related solely to middle-class aspirations. The builder made convenient appeals to a new life: “O’ give me your tired and hungry and homeless. And with an easy loan from ICICI, I will put them in air-conditioned glass houses, imitated from the latest American models.” Suburbs were designed as business ventures with quick and profitable returns; they were unlikely to produce a mix of urban situations that create livable and lively environments. But good money was to be made, so the architect shook hands with the builder.

Unfortunately, when foreign ideals became realities in Indian towns, Indian cities were less likely to be aware of their ecological consciences or to confront their day-to-day problems with overcrowding, crime, ill health, and transportation. As more and more wealth was directed owards a visible global glass and steel ideal, ordinary ambitions of urban safety, good sanitation, public education, easy access to local facilities and recreation, got overlooked. Efforts to create alternatives, that looked beyond buildings as mere symbols of progress, imposed pragmatic constraints. So, the architect returned to the seminar room to discuss options.

In the 1980s, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) initiated a study called ‘The Alternative City’. The alternative was not meant to improve existing conditions so much as to reject completely the various facets that make up a city. The research project hoped to provide a clear physical representation of a new form of urban living suited to Indian conditions. Besides the conventional professions of planning and architecture, the project enlisted the help of horticulturists, transport engineers, food specialists, educationists, consumer and business experts, as well as a variety of other disciplines that are involved peripherally in creating urban patterns of distribution and consumption.

The way people relate to their homes, places of work and recreation, and their proximity to local markets as well as their buying habits, desire for leisure, and need for security, were all meant to combine to produce a model of a new urban Indian community.

In India, such bold imaginings remain within the domain of the textbook. ‘The Alternative City’ – although it was intrinsically linked to reality – was felt to be too radical to be tried, even on the scale of a small neighbourhood. In the recent past, though, Indian architecture’s concerns are slowly and grudgingly shifting from ‘style’ and ‘language’ to ‘ecology’ and ‘environment’. In the parlance of the concerned citizen, the architect is dutifully realigning his vocabulary to suite the grim century of climate change. Today, however, much of the work that emerges from this new alignment is only verbally ‘sustainable’, and ‘conserving’ and ‘energy conscious’, and ‘green’ and ‘mixed use’ and ‘high density’ and ‘zero carbon’ and ‘zero waste.’ But, many recent buildings that profess to following Western models of ‘green architecture’ make only perfunctory gestures to ecology, using plants as roof covers or attaching expensive solar shields to façades. Adapting American standards of ‘greenness’ to India is as good as using the American family as a reliable benchmark for food consumption.

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