A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India traces, from the 1920s till the end of the 20th Century, architectural and political influences, identifies the pioneers and the trendsetters and describes the styles with its variations. TARA MURALI lauds the book as interesting and informative.
JON LANG, Ph.D., is currently Professor of Architecture at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Dr. Lang has served as a consultant for UNESCO in Turkey and for the Ford Foundation in India. He is the author of several books and has co-authored The Search for Identity: India 1880 to 1980 (1997). A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India describes and explains the architectural norms that have shaped the country and also the ideas that have shaped the architecture.
Written in an extremely readable manner, it traces, from the 1920s till the end of the 20th Century, the architectural and political influences, identifies the pioneers and the trendsetters, describes the styles with its variations, mutations and revivals and studies the search by the Indian architect for an appropriate idiom.
To present his viewpoint, the author has identified what he thinks is one of the hallmarks of a modern tradition ; division of labour. He is considering the sphere "in which the design of the product is separated from its making" and the book, consequently, covers the spectrum of modern architecture in India that has been designed by architects trained in architectural schools. Not surprisingly the major portion of his book deals with institutional buildings (and to a lesser extent city planning and the design of commercial buildings) as it was in these areas that the skills of the trained architect were thought necessary for "Modern India" to present herself. The bulk of residential work, large and small, was and is carried out by the traditional mistris, who both design and construct them.
Starting with an introduction to what is "modern" and the parameters from which he evaluates what constitutes modernism and modernistic architecture, the author goes on to explain the two approaches in Western Philosophy on how best to shape the future ; Empiricism and Rationalism. Empiricists argue that knowledge should be based on evidence and hence rely on precedents. Rationalists however argue that truth and beauty can be divined by pure reasoning. Modernism was perceived to be Rationalist and consequently more radical. However both modern architects and modern architectural movement in India have not clung to one approach but have "switched from one mode of thinking to the other". This is reflected in the work of almost all the leading luminaries of modern architecture who, starting with a total Western outlook, have later felt the need to look more closely and deeply at Indian thought and tradition.
The second chapter of the book is on the modern architecture in India prior to Independence. The date 1920 was perhaps a reference point for the book as it was around then that the earliest avatar of the Indian Institute of Architects ; modelled on its counterparts in Europe ; was started. The IAA, according to Lang, was "a modern institution for a modern country". Mainly, it was the work of architectural firms with basically British but with a growing number of Indian partners who, aware of the architectural changes taking place in the West, tried to give some expression of that in their own buildings. It is well known that Art Deco came into India well before Independence and several buildings of the Raj era were built in the style. Many residential and commercial buildings of the period between the 1930s and the 1950s were of the Art Deco style but Lang points out, that it was in cinema theatres and especially in Bombay, that the style was to be seen in its flamboyance. A "desi" version of this style, the Indo Deco, evolved not too long after. It is characterised by elements and decorations essentially Indian even while the proportions and the curves retain the original Art deco approach. International Modernism did have a few examples in pre-Independence India but it was the work of isolated foreign architects.
The next two chapters deal with the influences on post-Independence Indian architects and architecture and the ensuing results. Nehru's grand vision for a modern India opened the doors for international winds to blow. Jon Lang has separated the modern architectural movement in India into two ; one which drew inspiration from the Modern movement in the West and the other which was more directly influenced by Western architects working in India. Gropius and the Bauhaus movement of Europe and the works of Frank Lloyd Wright set a tone for some Indian architects, while Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn working on Indian soil, transformed Indian architecture.
Much has been written of these influences on India's architectural history in this and other books. It must be a matter of interest to debate what would Indian architecture be like today sans these influences! An extended period of Art Deco? Dominance of Modern Classicism? A more natural and less arduous reversal to the Vernacular? It would also be interesting to find out how much modern architecture impacted the growth of the cement and steel industries or the reverse.
One of the astute reflections of Lang is on the educational curricula set up for the National School of Design, Ahmedabad by Ray and Charles Eames. They had noted in the Eames Report: "India has a tradition and philosophy familiar with the meaning of creative destruction" and the need to "shut out all preconceived ideas and then to consider factor by factor." The author writes, "They advocated a problem solving process rather than a process of mimesis as the basis for design thinking."
This did much to radically alter the way architectural design was taught. The curricula changed from being based on composition focus shifted to design as expression. Lang's view of what happened as a result is clear. "The result of the shift from theories of composition to Basic Design have been less successful in architecture than in art. The abandonment of concerns for order, rhythm and proportion in favour of free forms expressing the architect's feelings has often resulted in the buildings competing for attention than complementing each other. The universal process of perception supposedly underlying the course is now known to be the highly creative invention by few artists of one way of representing the world. It is an alternative system with its own rules, never clearly articulated, and recognised only by those who possess the `right stuff'." How architects of today, most of whom have been taught under the Eames' curricula, would react to this criticism would also make for an interesting discussion.
An aspect of the "stand alone" building, a concept of the individualistic approach and perhaps of modern architecture itself, is its influence on land planning as one can see the preference for "plotted development" of the modern town planner vis-a-vis the continuous buildings of the traditional city. Lang's book, except for Chandigarh and Bhubaneswar, does not go into any great detail on town planning.
Lang's lament that "architects have distanced themselves from the engineering aspects of building design and thus lost touch with what was historically a fundamental aspect of architecture" is sure to find empathy with many in the profession.
Lang, in the next chapter of the book, looks at the several architectural styles that have taken place in the post-Nehru period when "unbridled optimism gave way to the beginnings of a more pragmatic political period". Even while Modernist forms continued to be built and international influences of other countries mainly from Europe continued to flow in, Modernism was no longer a Holy Grail and its relevance was often questioned. The ensuing results however were not radically different and several variations of Modernism occurred and still "buildings continued to be thought of as objects in space and not as environment-making elements". Without being too harsh on the ubiquitous architecture to be found all over India with its simplification of Modernism, and commonly referred to as "PWD architecture", Lang gives the style the nomenclature (tongue in cheek?) of "Utilitarian Modern Architecture"!
The 1980s and 1990s have seen a more inward looking approach from some architects and this introspection manifests itself to Lang as "Neo Traditional Architecture". For the architects who tried to bring back the quality of traditional Indian cities, especially of Rajasthan, Lang points out that one of the major shortcomings in the recreation was in devising ways to handle cars. "It has to be remembered that all these traditional patterns evolved in a pre automobile era, in a highly stratified society, and they do not serve present day ways of life well." Similarly, he assesses that the "Vernacular Revival" has its limitations in climatic suitability, given present day expectation levels of comfort.
The period of the 1980s and 1990s was also the time of the emerging consumer economy. "The Modern Indian Vernacular" is a reflection of this in "an architecture of display". (Why the term Modern Indian Vernacular when elements of this style come from around the globe?) The emergence of the builder-promoter with architects designing for them was a phenomenon to be seen all over India. The extravagant and lavish use of materials to be seen in these buildings raises the very valid question should not architecture be practised in a manner that will bring more equitableness. When Lang advocates this "architecture of popular middle class taste" should not be dismissed lightly but leaves unsaid the implications of this consumerist architecture, one wonders whether he is being too polite to Indian architects! However, when he points out that "the architectural profession has presented no real alternatives that capture developers' imagination" one is tempted to ask whether, barring very few exceptions, it is possible at all, since "the success" of the building means different things to each of them.
The search for Appropriate Architecture took different forms as the 20th Century drew to a close. Lang has slotted them with a variety of names. Whether the categorisations are box-tight may yet be another subject for debate. Some of these searches have an underlying philosophy and reflect more than mere form or style. When the designs are more contextual to their locale as to be seen in the continuance of the "Neo Traditional" or the involvement as an architect activist in "Community Architecture", the outcome is bound to make a qualitative change in people's lives. The rate at which commercial organisations change and the materials used age if not wither, the phrase "Neo Modernist Interiors" will last but perhaps not the interiors!
Lang ends the book with the observation that the lessons from past and present Indian architects are likely to influence future design even in this changing world. Whether it will cause as radical a change as when Modernism found its way into India or be as lasting, is a moot question.
The author has put together an interesting and informative book on modern Indian architecture that will benefit students and the architectural community. It would help for easier reference if the name of the architect were included alongside the name of the building on the pictorial references. The book may well be the springboard from which they dive deeper into the array of architectural books available on the subject.
A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India, Jon Lang, Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2002. p. 205, Rs. 975.
The reviewer is an architect based in Chennai.
Send this article to Friends by