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India's history of modern architecture

Extracted from India: Modern Architectures in History
Peter Scriver speaks with STIR at the Frame Conclave 2019, to highlight intriguing insights on Nehru and Gandhi’s roles in shaping ‘modern’ India.

by STIRworldPublished on : Sep 11, 2019

As a Knowledge Partner with the Frame Conclave 2019, STIR attended the conference held in Goa in August 2019 and had the opportunity to interact with multiple thoughtful delegates and professionals including the speakers. One of them was Peter Scriver, an Australian architect, professor and author of multiple books on Indian modernity and varied other topics.

Our discussion with Scriver took various turns, from the weather in Adelaide (where he lives) to his recently published book India: modern architectures in history, that he authored with his colleague Amit Srivastava. The conversation led on to various annotations and further to multiple mentions he made in his talk at the conference, about what ‘Modern Heritage’ may mean and how history has changed to bring about new ways of thinking. Below is a part of the conversation where he explains his views about the era of post-colonial India and the way architecture was perceived, and liberated thinking of the leaders who gave ‘modern’ architecture in India, a new direction.

02 min watch Michele Perlini | NO.MADE | Michele Perlini | Milan Design Week 2019| STIR
STIR in conversation with Peter Scriver at Frame Conclave 2019, Goa Video Credit: Courtesy of STIR

Scriver was very kind to further share with us the first chapter of the book, that gives an epistemological understanding of the era of post modern India and its architecture and how it is, or not, connected to history. Below is an extract from the first chapter:

‘India’ is a word that invokes a host of clichés: a timeless civilization of living traditions, great spiritual wisdom and artistic riches; a subcontinent of astonishingly diverse yet harmonious regional, religious and linguistic differences; a crucible of cultural synthesis. Architecture is central to the supporting imagery, the forms and textures of iconic buildings such as the Taj Mahal dominating the phantasmagorical images of exotic splendour and ‘difference’ that tourism, the media and popular culture readily propagate. For the urban middle classes and elites of modern India, no less than the desiring foreign tourist, these are some of the decidedly romantic idealizations of India that increasingly must be distinguished, if not salvaged, from the invading sameness of global urbanity.

The idea of ‘Modern India’ therefore invokes rather more equivocal clichés: a world of contrasts and contradictions, rich and poor, extravagance and destitution, space-age know-how but medieval means – an incomplete project. It is construction sites in this case, more so than finished buildings, that furnish some of the most telling imagery. As the four-year-old daughter of one of the authors asked with innocent fascination upon arriving in Bombay (Mumbai) for the first time: ‘Daddy, why are all the buildings falling down?’ Indistinguishable to her uninitiated eyes were the gangling new structures that clambered for presence in the cluttered skyline and the ramshackle bustees (slums) at their feet. They were still girdled in rough-hewn wooden scaffolding and ragged shrouds of hemp, and she could not discern the difference between the rising apartment towers and luxury condos intended for the upwardly mobile new middle classes and elites of metropolitan India, and the provisional accommodation that the low-paid migrant construction workers from the impoverished countryside had cobbled together from waste materials to shelter themselves during their seasonal employment in the big city.

The Imperial - residential condominium towers under construction in Mumbai (2008); designed by Hafeez Contractor | Peter Scriver | Frame conclave| STIR
The Imperial - residential condominium towers under construction in Mumbai (2008); designed by Hafeez Contractor Image Credit: Courtesy of Peter Scriver, Reaktion books

It was a similar but almost wilfully naive sense of fascination with both the prospects and the paradoxes of India’s architectural engagement with modernity that began to be captured by architectural photographers in the 1950s as the newly independent, self-consciously ‘modern’ India began to build. Particularly telling are some of the early construction photos of Chandigarh. This, the stridently modern and progressive new capital city that was being built from scratch for the Indian state of Punjab, had been boldly projected by the prime minister of the new-born Indian republic as an architectural and urban ‘symbol of the nation’s faith in the future’. Now free from the imposed tastes and paternalistic expertise of British colonial technocrats, however, it was more than a little paradoxical that the commission for the planning and design of this icon of change had ultimately been awarded to a non-Indian team of senior consultants dominated, famously, by the Swiss-French ‘starchitect’ of the day, Le Corbusier, but still officially led by yet another Englishman, Maxwell Fry, in collaboration with his wife, Jane Drew. More paradoxical still was the gulf between symbol and reality from the point of view of technical development. Le Corbusier’s designs for the monumental capitol complex at Chandigarh were some of the most audacious masterworks of modernism the world had yet witnessed. Yet here they were in these canonical photographs emerging virtually handmade, as the picturesque compositions typically emphasized, from the rude materials and sweat of a still largely pre-industrial society.

For members of India’s young architectural profession who first viewed such images in the pages of progressive international journals like the Architectural Review and its aspiring Indian counterparts, Marg and Design, among other local professional and trade magazines, if not through their own cameras on pilgrimages to the new city itself, the iconic building works at Chandigarh were an almost sacred site of encounter with the cutting edge of modern architecture, as well as the gaze of the international architectural community.

Through the lens of Chandigarh, by the mid-1950s architects and planners abroad had begun to watch modern India with increasing interest. For both the advocates of high modernism and its emerging critics, the conspicuous roles that progressive architecture, design and town planning were being called to play in India’s nation-building efforts were test cases for the global extension of the Modern Movement and its claims of universal validity and utility beyond simply an ‘international style’. More than just an invigorating shock of the new, therefore, Chandigarh was the confidence-inspiring evidence that radically new architecture was conceivable in India and, moreover, that it could actually be built. This at least was the hope of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s erudite and charismatic first prime minister, who was the principal political patron of the project and its most articulate advocate to both his national audience and the world. 

In Nehru’s strategic vision for India’s modernization, Chandigarh was of ‘enormous importance’. ‘It hits you on the head, and makes you think’, he famously argued. ‘You may squirm at the impact but it has made you think and imbibe new ideas, and one thing which India requires is being hit on the head so that it may think.’ Chandigarh was, thus, more than just a symbol of the modernity and associated democratic institutions of the new India. It was to be a catalyst for the real changes in thinking that would enable India’s own professional experts to re-conceive the physical and institutional forms of a modern nation ‘unfettered by the traditions of the past’. From Nehru’s viewpoint, it was not the particular idiosyncratic templates for modern architecture and urbanism that Le Corbusier had exported to India that Indian architects were expected to emulate, but the free-thinking approach they might derive from a master modernist’s creative response to the particular challenges and opportunities encountered in India. A new cast of mind, not shapes, was the key to the genuinely modern Indian architecture they would develop in the course of time and in which ‘Modern India’ would be at home.

Philip Johnson looking at Le Corbusier’s (then) recently completed Legislative Assembly building in Chandigarh; photographed by late Indian architect Habib Rahman, c.1965 | Peter Scriver | Frame conclave| STIR
Philip Johnson looking at Le Corbusier’s (then) recently completed Legislative Assembly building in Chandigarh; photographed by late Indian architect Habib Rahman, c.1965 Image Credit: Courtesy of Ram Rahman, Reaktion books

Mohandas Gandhi’s vision was seemingly much more pragmatic and conservative if not reactionary by comparison to Nehru’s. But the modern India that Gandhi envisioned, in which the holistic coherence of its traditional village communities would be sustained against the insidious forces of industrialization and the city, was in many ways the more radical proposition. As the Mahatma (great soul) of the freedom struggle, as he came to be revered, Gandhi had an exceptional capacity to communicate effectively with the common people of India and transform the closeted nationalist project of an urbanized intellectual elite into a mass movement.

Metaphorical notions of ‘building’ were useful rhetorical devices for thinking through the compromises and contradictions of the freedom struggle, and for projecting the possible forms that the future Indian nation might take. Gandhi described modernizing India like a house in a storm: ‘I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed’, he wrote. ‘I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.’ Brute and ignorant resistance to the wider world was futile, but the modern India he envisaged would emerge wiser and stronger from the encounter if it fortified the deeper core structures that gave coherence and value to its own ways of life. In Gandhi’s view, ‘the blood of the villages [was] the cement by which the edifice of the cities is built’. Industrialization and its corollary, urbanization, were precisely the yokes of economic and social servitude to the modern world system of Western domination that India’s village-based civilization needed to throw off. Building on and reinforcing the core ideology of self-reliance and pride in indigenous cultural and economic production with which a previous generation of freedom fighters had launched the cause, the long final struggle for political independence was to be marked by Gandhi’s extraordinarily original and successful strategic focus on non-violent non-cooperation with colonial authority.

Late Indian architect Habib Rahman at work | Peter Scriver | Frame conclave| STIR
Late Indian architect Habib Rahman at work Image Credit: Courtesy of Ram Rahman, Reaktion books

While ideological debates seeded by the original Gandhi–Nehru opposition have continued to temper subsequent politics and practice, it was Nehru’s more conventional vision of progress for modern India that took the lead after Independence, with the death of Gandhi shortly thereafter, in 1948. Nehru’s subsequent advocacy for the cleansing rationalism and aesthetic challenges of Chandigarh’s architecture must therefore be interpreted in the context of the ongoing debate about the virtues and functions of tradition, not only with the Gandhians, but also with the colonial-modern regime they had jointly expelled.

The quest for new form, the creative struggles of the form-givers, and associated mythologies and realities of the actual means of production on the building site are intriguing threads of the story that followed. But the problem with subsequent assessments of the heroic late works of Le Corbusier in the crucible of the Indian sub-continent – and again with those of Louis Kahn a decade later, as will be seen – has been the tendency to emphasize the poetic inspiration and technological paradoxes of India as an ostensibly ‘timeless’ traditional society, at the expense of a more historically contextualized reading of the actual traditions in question.  Indeed, as the underlying question might be re-framed: ‘what was the modern India of the mid-twentieth century (not the imagined India) that these masters of high modernist architecture and their acolytes actually encountered?’

From the early 1950s through the 1970s India became a test-bed for the competing theoretical models through which the new superpowers of the Cold War world vied to influence the social and economic development of the so-called third world of emerging postcolonial nations.

Railway workers’ quarters, Ajmir, Rajputana, c. 1900, detail of vaulted concrete construction, Photographed by Habib Rahman | Peter Scriver | Frame conclave| STIR
Railway workers’ quarters, Ajmir, Rajputana, c.1900, detail of vaulted concrete construction; photographed by Peter Scriver Image Credit: Courtesy of Peter Scriver, Reaktion books

In the development of massive hydroelectric schemes, steel plants and their supporting townships, institutes of technology and scientific research, infrastructure redevelopment and slum-upgrading projects in major cities, Indian architects and planners continued to work closely with foreign consultants. Under the sponsorship of agencies such as the (American) Ford Foundation, the (British) Building Research Station and the United Nations, other luminaries of the modernist design pantheon – including Charles Eames, Richard Neutra, Buckminster Fuller, Isamu Noguchi and Louis Kahn – found their way to India in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Apart from the interventions of some of these individuals, the wider role of these agencies in the exchange of design knowledge and models has been little examined, but is crucial to the richer and more critical understanding of the story of modern architecture and planning in the history of India that this [India: modern architectures in history] book attempts to frame.

In a contemporary cultural landscape that simultaneously accommodates all states – pre-, post- and modern – of a society that continues to transform, headlong on its journey of becoming, recent architectural developments in India are interpreted as some of the more telling evidence of what has been posited as the potential ‘non-modern’ world of the future. Here both Reason and Rhetoric are seen to be thriving in equal measure.

(Extracted from the Introduction chapter of the book “India: Modern Architectures in History”, written by Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava; published by Reaktion Books Ltd., London, 2015. Read the entire chapter here)

(Read more about the Frame Conclave 2019, a content initiative by Matter)

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