WAF Newsletter - Towards a critical map of recent architecture on the Indian sub-continent - September 2021

Towards a critical map of recent architecture on the Indian sub-continent

William Curtis, 14 September 2021


William Curtis has been studying, visiting, photographing, exhibiting and publishing texts upon the architecture of the India sub-continent , ancient and modern, for 40 years. This began in 1980, with his first trip to India and with subsequent texts such as 'Authenticity, Abstraction and the Ancient Sense: Le Corbusier's and Louis Kahn's Ideas of Parliament’, Perspecta 20, Yale Univ, 1983, and 'Towards an Authentic Regionalism', Mimar 19, 1986, https://www.archnet.org/publications/3956

These laid the foundations for studies which continued with Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, 1st ed, 1986, and with monographs on Raj Rewal, Balkrishna Doshi and others in the same period. His photographs of India have been exhibited widely, for example at 'Architectures du Monde', Toulouse, 2004. Since then he has continued to investigate a vast range of other subjects including the vernacular and the architecture of Louis Kahn. He has also taken strong positions on the need to protect modern architectural heritage, for example in the context of the recent scandalous attempts to demolish Kahn's IIM in Ahmedabad. Here is his most recent speculation on the state of contemporary architecture on the Indian sub-continent, a sketch that may eventually become a book.

The water carrying vessel known as the 'lota': the refinement over the centuries of a design type serving multiple functions. (Photo WJR Curtis, 1985)

'The past reappears because it is a hidden present.' Octavio Paz

Contemporary architecture on the Indian sub-continent presents an eclectic panorama of different buildings, architects, values and definitions of practice. Individual works of quality are realised against a backdrop of massive environmental deterioration in a territory with a rapidly increasing population. Urbanisation on a vast scale exacerbates a long-standing imbalance between city and rural base. Desperately needed is a new planning model instituting a pact between technological modernisation, society and nature.

Despite these challenges, contemporary Indian architects have realised buildings of great richness that respond to local conditions while making valuable contributions to the international field of architecture. India includes many geographies and histories and the best recent buildings deal with regional and climatic differences by creating precincts of social, environmental and aesthetic quality: protected enclaves or artificial landscapes of a kind. The era of the 'modern masters' is long since past, but some of the fundamental propositions continue to be extended via the heritage of later generations. In effect there is an Indian modern architectural tradition combining several strands. Here the aim is to sketch a critical map of recent architecture on the Indian subcontinent.

The foundations of modern architecture on the subcontinent were laid in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly with the works of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn in Chandigarh, Ahmedabad and Dhaka. These announced a modern vision for their post-colonial societies while still transforming sub-structures from the past. The task for the generation of young architects which emerged in the 1960s was to extend fundamental lessons of these seminal works and undertake a more subtle interpretation of the complexities of Indian social life, building traditions, urban space, climate and craft.

In this endeavour, they drew upon diverse influences from India and abroad, including the ideas of Team Ten, the 'labyrinthine clarity' of Van Eyck, and the social landscapes of Utzon. In search of a new spatial order better adapted to the human and geographical realities of Indian existence, they reacted against a modernism of free-standing objects. They were drawn instead to the shaded courtyard and terrace urbanism of traditional desert cities such as Jaisalmer, the social structure of Indian villages and the perennial lessons of the vernacular.

The period of 1960 to roughly 1990 is marked by a series of remarkable works fusing modernism and tradition, the local and the general. One thinks of Charles Correa's Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad of 1960, an astute synthesis of 'open to sky space', fluid courtyards, the humble scale of Louis Kahn's Trenton Bath House and the naked brick and concrete of Le Corbusier's late works; of Raj Rewal's Hall of Nations in New Delhi of 1973 (designed with the engineer Mahendra Raj and recently demolished), a giant, pyramidal lattice structure on a centralised plan, realising Buckminster Fuller's geodesic principle in reinforced concrete rather than steel, and transforming the traditional jali or shading screen at a large scale; or of Balkrishna Doshi's own studio 'Sangath' in Ahmedabad of 1980 with its half sunken spaces under shaded vaults, its meandering route between giant clay pots, and its grassy platforms traversed by water channels.

An emblem of Doshi's philosophy for harmonising technology and nature, this elusive work drew upon Le Corbusier's Sarabhai House and the platforms of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, while evoking Indian villages, even subterranean temples. Sangath was on the knife edge between the industrial and the rural, the modern and the primitivist.

Such individual works of quality were realised against a backdrop of crisis immigration from country to city. The problem of the largest number has dogged Indian architects from the beginning, although Chandigarh laid in place a strong model partly based on Garden City and Ville Radieuse 'green' principles. Fine housing complexes were developed in the 1970s, for example the Asian Games Housing in New Delhi by Raj Rewal based upon courtyards and gates, but the fact is that most of the urban population lived in – and live in – informal, squatter settlements.

Much institutional work was in the public, educational sectors. Here the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (1962-74) by Louis Kahn supplied a cogent model as it was organised as a sort of citadel of learning, supplying a dense weave of shaded courts and transitional spaces in a vocabulary of naked brick and bold primary volumes. A whole string of transformations of these principles followed, including the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore by Doshi, Stein, Bhalla (1978), the Indian Institute of Forestry Management in Bhopal by Anant Raje (1983) and the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi (1984) by Raj Rewal, the latter strongly influenced by interlocking courts and platforms of Fatehpur Sikri (16th century) near Agra.

The Indian architectural past is rich and combines many temporal layers – Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem, other – so modern architects may transform diverse lessons from this heritage. Up to around 1990 there was a mythos of 'Indian identity' involving the search for roots and the desire to create an authentic fusion of the regional and the universal.* With post-modernism, some Indian architects were tempted by overt references, while others resisted by continuing to explore underlying principles and basic types.

The cultural atmosphere changed considerably after 1991 when the restrictions of the protected state economy were thrown over in favour of private investment and an increasingly globalised economy. One result was a shift southwards to the high-tech centres such as Bengalaru. Another was a diversification of private patronage, with an increase in luxury residences and gated communities. Yet another was the frantic imitation of international architectural clichés such as inappropriate skyscrapers (the Dubai phenomenon) and office parks with flashy glass buildings. Any lingering hope of a coherent urbanism, harmonising modernisation with nature and the public realm, was buried under polluted urban sprawl around the big cities, even around towns of relatively small size.

The architecture of the past two decades on the sub-continent is characterised by a wide-raging pluralism and by the extension of diverse lineages. The finest works fit no obvious category for, as always, architectural quality transcends style. The sheltered domains of Bipoy Jain and Studio Mumbai, with their slats of timber and hand-made bricks, rely upon a fastidious attention to craft and material. But their essential magic derives from their subtle handling of light and space and upon an abstraction suggesting the poetics of Barragan or the materiality of Zumthor.

The Wall House in Auroville, Pondicherry, by Anupama Kundoo establishes a primary sense of shelter in relation to nature, by reinvigorating the early modern language of rough brick walls, concrete pilotis and vaults in a personal statement. But Kundoo's rustic aesthetic also recalls another key foundation of modern architecture in India, that of Laurie Baker, whose modest construction techniques and stark brick walls punctured by openings have rendered up dozens of fine works across southern India over the decades, not least the Loyola Chapel in Thiruvananthapuram.

Another work to evoke a sense of the sacred is the Ashwin Kumar Crematorium in Surat by Matharoo Associates. This draws upon the late work of Le Corbusier, not just for its bare concrete volumes and surfaces, but also for its articulation of light and shade, its sculptural strength and its primal atmosphere. The curved crematorium ovens recall the Corbusian theme of objects protruding from a free plan.

In India today there are many different styles of architectural practice addressing a wide range of issues, from preservation, to historical research, town and landscape planning, collaboration with self-build cooperatives in villages, and teaching in the international field. Rahul Mehrotra and his firm RMA (based in both Mumbai and Boston) covers most of these squares. Each project is approached at several scales, taking into account the social and physical context. The Hathigaon Elephant Village near Amber in the hot dry desert region of Rajastan, supplies sustainable homes for 100 elephants and their lifelong guardians or 'mahouts'. The site was damaged by quarrying and it was reorganised to store water in tanks and channels. The individual courtyard houses, each for a single elephant with small adjacent residence for its guardian, were constructed from crude local stone with simple lateral openings.

Brinda Somaya and her firm SNK Consultants address many aspects of design, including conservation, an essential feature of architectural recycling in India. Her range is wide, from private houses, to post earthquake interventions in destroyed villages, to educational institutes realised in a colourful and undogmatic language attuned to place and time. Somaya was responsible for the successful restoration of the Library in Kahn's IIM, Ahmedabad and hopefully will be engaged to complete the work with the rest of the campus.

The direct material expression of construction is a recurrent theme in recent work in India but it takes many forms. The work of Matthew & Ghosh supplies stripped forms, interstitial spaces, effects of light, and linear steel details, in ways which extend the abstract language of early modernism (eg the Sua House in Bengalaru). The Development Alternatives World HQ in New Delhi by Ashok B Lall leans more towards handicraft, employing traditional brick domes, vaulted concrete ceilings and walls of compressed earth blocks with stabilising cement. With is shaded courtyards and natural ventilation, this sustainable design embodies the ethos of the enclosed institution. Sameep Padora explores combinations of modern and traditional techniques, giving shape to architectural ideas in lucid forms derived from a reading of context and history. His Maya Somaya School Library in rural Maharastra has a sinuous vaulted roof in laminated brick and supplies protected interiors enclosed by glass set into slender steel frames.

Padora explores materiality but not for its own sake: he disciplines it with a sense of order, as in the House of Multiple Courts (2020) in Goa with its interlocking voids and refined timber frames disposed with classical precision. His evocative abstraction comes into its own in sacred buildings such as the Balaji 'Temple of Steps' in Andrah Pradesh, which transforms the traditional forms of the Hindu temple into a stratified sacred mountain, surrounded by a precinct of stone and turf steps, and water tanks.

Architecture fits into time in complex ways and there may be slow-wave motions below the surface. In Bangladesh, the influence of Kahn's magisterial Assembly (designed over half a century ago) has endured in the architecture of later generations. The work of Kashef Chowdhury reveals a synthesis of Kahn's cosmic geometry and centralised archetypes in the architectural traditions of the region, including the centralised mosques of the Sultanate period (15th century) and even Buddhist stupas two millennia ago. His Changdaon Mosque near Chittagong (2007) distils these influences, establishing a forecourt and a prayer space under a circular void cut in the roof.

Marina Tabassum, his former partner, designed the Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka (2014) using humble brick perforated by slots and points of light, the result being a space ideal for meditation and prayer. In both cases there is an excavation and a reinvigoration of the past. Bangladesh has established a rich modern architectural culture of its own, stretching back even further than Kahn to the early works of Mazharul Islam, the true father of modernism in the country. His School of Fine Arts in Dhaka of 1951 relied upon a concrete frame, a free plan, articulate geometry and adjustable wooden blades to establish a relaxed sequence of spaces across its garden site: truly a masterpiece of tropical regionalism.

The Abin Design Studio (principal Abin Chaudhuri) has constructed many of its buildings in West Bengal close to Kolkota or in other eastern States such as Orissa, both close to Bangladesh. ADS respond to the geographical and social conditions of each site and programme with boldly articulated forms, protected precincts, landscaping, and a strong sense of materiality. Their Gallery House makes a virtuoso demonstration of woven textured brickwork while their Waterfront Clubhouse at Adisaptagam is a transparent frame open to the breeze and the riverside view.

ADS handle a wide range of projects from luxury dwellings, to commercial centres, to institutional buildings, to low cost structures, such as the Adisapatam Workshop, a well articulated shed with hooded skylights which supplies work space for local crafts people. But whatever the function, they reveal a consistent approach. With each project they seek a clear overall diagram which is heightened to create a physical, sculptural and tectonic presence. Great emphasis is placed upon layered protection from the elements, upon shading devices, upon transitional social spaces and upon the materiality of cladding and façades. ADS have experimented with a wide range of local materials from robust brick to bamboo, which are combined with modern techniques of construction to create counterpoints between one part of a building and another.

The approach of ADS to the complex programme of an institution of learning is well revealed by their International Management Institute near the city of Bhubaneswar in Orissa, a region in rapid development which shares with Bengal a fierce tropical climate and layers of history. The Institute is organised around a circular precinct irrigated by water bodies which help to cool the air. Solid red-brown laterite steps focus upon a central tower and create a shallow outdoor theatre where students can relax and mix. The programme of teaching, administrative and residential zones is broken down into different shaped fragments linked together by shaded walkways in a hierarchy. Differences of use are signalled by changes in material, colour and scale. There is a rich counterpoint between stone clad volumes and slender concrete frames. Complex geometries and shaded porticoes weave the ensemble together in a system of overlapping spaces which encourage social interaction.

Again we have to do with the abstraction of townscape in a modern institute of learning, a recurrent Indian theme. There are even traces here and there of international influence, such as social landscapes of Alvaro Siza. To lend the Institute a symbolic head, replicas of rock-cut statues in the nearby Khandagiri Caves(1st century BC) are reproduced in warm coloured stone of the main curved façade. ADS's International Management Institute is a unique work, but it also relies upon the inherited strands of a diverse modern Indian architectural tradition in its ideas and in its forms.

Copyright: William J R Curtis, June 2021

* See for example, William J. R. Curtis, 'Towards an Authentic Regionalism', Mimar 19, Architecture in Development. Ed. Hasan Uddin Khan, Singapore, Concept Media Ltd., 1986; WJRC, 'Raj Rewal, Architecture Moderne, Racines Indiennes', Raj Rewal: Architecture Climatique, Editions Moniteur, Paris, 1986; WJRC, 'Modernism and the Search for Indian Identity', Architectural Review, August 1987; WJRC, Balkrishna Doshi, an Architecture for India, Mapin Ahmedabad and Rizzoli, NY, 1988.

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