“We cannot get rid of the Body of Tradition, murder it as we may. Tradition to me consists in our inherited sense of Structural fitness, in the evolution of Rhythmic Forms by a Synthesis of Needs and Materials and in the avoidance of arbitrary faults by the exercise of commonsense, coupled with sensibility”.
Seeds of creative Tension:
Massive building activity followed India’s Independence in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru’s progressive industrial and urban policies provided Indian architects with the opportunity to design and build. While most of this was done by government architects, there were also private commissions.
Bombay was already and existing centre of activity, and architects trained at the Parsi-endowed J.J.School of Arts were largely Claude Batley’s followers. Batley, and independent minded Englishman encouraged certain aspects of Indian Revivalism among his students.
There was also, however, a small but significant group of young Indians who were making a conscious attempt to break away from inherited norms. Somewhere between these two approaches was sown the need of a creative transition that was to determine the direction of modern Indian architecture in the following decades. Yet slowly and surely buildings designed in an international idiom started to appear within the urban Indian Landscape.
By some this was considered inevitable. Some apprehended it. Some foresaw the possibility of a synthesis. This last and optimistic feeling was best expressed by Walter George. George came to India to assist Lutyens and Baker with the Capital Complex buildings in New Delhi and stayed on. Walter George wishfully anticipated “a new architecture with the fascination of a sea-shell, so that this box-like, packing-case form will gradually be replaced by something more gracious… This new type of architecture will undoubtedly influence India. The beginnings of this new architectural language are already worldwide…. Unless India shuts herself up as China did she cannot escape these influences”1.
It will be remembered that the last phase of imperialistic building in India used Indian decorative methods, Indian sandstone and employed traditional Indian masons, together with English civil engineering. Lutyens himself represented the last grand phase of that curiously English anti-industrial movement towards traditional artisanship started by William Morris and Ashby.
It was Chandigarh, however, that set the pace for the new India. The creative use of concrete, innovative and distinct housing-solutions, and a visually powerful and cohesive style put India on the world map. Chandigarh became something of a Mecca for a new architecture. Competitions of commissioned work sponsored by the Indian Government as a result turned to contemporary Occidental concepts and to what was happening on the European and American continents in particular.
A greater number of young architects began to travel outward in the fifties for education and experience and on their return in the early sixties brought with them new ideas. By the end of the decade, many of them were winning competitions and setting trends for others to follow. By now, educational institutions had begun to play a vital role in dispersing the so-called “International Style”. The College of Architecture in Chandigarh stayed loyal to Le Corbusier. But teaching curricula in most schools exposed students to Western building techniques and methodology. Students, as a result, began to lean heavily on Western design-journals and published material as on the design philosophies of their new teachers.
Southern and Eastern India remained relatively unaffected by the Chandigarh experiment. Nevertheless, the new urban stereotype, clad with a variety of louvered patterns, left an impression on the development of most Indian cities.
By the mid-sixties, signs of discontent began to surface among a certain few. These were the fist signals of the evaluation and questioning of identity. How well did their forms marry Indian actuality? To what extent were they able to distinguish and fulfil the physical and social needs of its people at different economic levels? Were the sun-wind-and-rain-protection devices derive from Western methodology effective in Indian deserts, rain-forests, and Himalayan topography? How did the new buildings relate to the existing achievements of regional style? These were some of many questions.
Claude Batley’s broadcast of 1954 had warned against excess. Architects bean listening again. “It is pathetic that India’s younger generation of architects should be so infected with an inferiority complex…. As to prefer to take their cue from the hastily developed, inadequately tested but ready-to-hand ideas of the West, rather than by their own intense and critical but respectful research.” Batley had recommended that Indians develop a modern architecture “on the solid basis of their own tradition as eminently suited by long usage and experiment to the India of the future”2 Despite these warning signals, accelerated building activity produced more and more concrete cubicles throughout the country. As one would expect, imitation was the result of under-exposure and came largely from architects of below-average calibre, who could not afford or did not have the imagination to break with current stereotypes. To more honest and inquiring minds, what had begun as a stimulus now seemed increasingly rigid and unworkable or aesthetically irrational and incongruous.
By the end of the sixties, a number of architects had already started to re-examine the existing towns and villages in India. They reviewed for instance, the rationale behind the anonymous architecture of low mud-plaster houses in narrow shaded village streets and the traditional shared space at the centre of Indian dwellings and townships. On the other hand, the functional aesthetic of the mediaeval step-well of Gujarat and the subtlety of Akbar’s engineering at Fatehpur Sikri indicated a historic design-tradition a vital as the desert architecture of Jaisalmer. A new “architecture of associations” was being explored.
Not all architects, however, subscribed to this. Some saw, and still see, in this movement a fashionable “trend” which lacks understanding of the socio-economic and political contexts of traditional architecture. Their strongest argument for the mainstream lies in the problems of social transition and modern urban complexity. How far can one adopt a historical and vernacular style when needs and building-technologies have themselves changed so radically? Those who would “return” to tradition, however, counteract this argument by citing Japan which has managed to balance a highly developed technology-base with the spirit and aesthetic of traditional forms.
Today we have as a result two distinct Indian approaches. One explores the extensive use of new materials and techniques. The other researches indigenous materials and locally available techniques inspired by traditional values. At the moment the first still dominates. What will happen tomorrow is difficult to predict. It would be fair to conclude that Post-Independence changes have their own logic in modern India. But this in itself has laid the way open to additional choices and alternative solutions.
Le Corbusier or the Bauhaus architects who once provided leadership to the world’s architectural community, however powerful or memorable, are already behind us. Indian architects have learned much from their elegance and their rational and systematic design-traditions. They now feel they have the confidence to be on their own, or at least to search for alternatives.
Europe and America have, on the other hand, recently gown increasing aware of the need to conserve and to record their own architectural history. Urban renewal policies reflect this. The love and respect with which traditional structures are both conserved or revitalised by appropriate usage is a parallel movement. India’s new National Trust (I.N.T.A.C.H.) perceives such values to be valid in our country where several noble architectural achievements are no longer under feudal patronage. Ironically though, the climate for a return to tradition is healthier today than it was thirty-five years ago.
The most alert schools of architecture are encouraging students to explore the possibilities of regional vocabularies. As a more or less representative example of what is happening, sixteen of twenty-seven thesis topics offered by the students of the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi this year dealt with the problems of rural India. The degree of involvement with which students work on these projects is itself the strongest evidence of their search for relevance. Again, the National Association of Students of Architecture (N.A.S.A.), which began as early as 1956, presently awards the best-developed vernacular idiom projects; and these, if screened, would perhaps reflect the range and quality of current thinking on the subject.
At another level, the Indian Government’s desire for an architectural style which respects regional character seems to favour integrative solutions that are ecologically and sociologically appropriate. A special committee constituted by the Government’s Ministry of Works and Housing to suggest norms, guidelines and standards for design and construction of public buildings came out strongly against the “indiscriminate use of type/standard design”. New designs, it recommended, should be “evolved to suit the local conditions and the life style of that area”. It further added “buildings should be designed in conformity with the local character, material, and tradition, skill and climatic factor”. 3 The committee had been appointed at the instance of Mrs. Indira Gandhi who, during her visit to the Garhwal hills in 1983, was appalled by the domineering concrete cubicles laid out by the Public Works Department in complete disregard and even extensive damage to local human and natural ecology.
Now and Ahead…
There are many situations in India of which the Garhwal “disaster” is just one, if a representative, example. If we have spoken about the “International Style” versus the “traditional” as representative of the rift between urban and rural, or central and regional design-problems, we have also suggested the distance between the office of the private designer or consultant and government implementation through P.W.D. architects to meet the nation’s urgent building needs. If the private architect is privileged by greater exposure, the government architect is directly in touch with development. The private architect, unless by choice or commission, tends to the urban-based. Government organisation spreads through the regional into local grass-roots. One thing is apparent. We all need to know more in order to design ahead. And today’s students seem to reflect the need for extensive re-thinking programmes.
To be an architect in India today involves something more than the formulation of a formal or aesthetic style. The designer’s role has shifted. Material, construction, engineering and costing are only part of what he has to know. He must be a sociologist at many socio-economic levels, an ecologist, a landscapist and a humanist. It he speaks one of India’s twenty-six languages and can locate and communicate with local and traditional masons and woodworkers, it will not be to his disadvantage. In addition, he must be able to understand and to evaluate the accomplishment of the history of Indian architecture together with that of European Modernism and Post-Modernism, to be both a man of the city and an Indian.
If the contemporary European designer’s role has shifted in some of these directions, it is the degree of regional diversity and human community that complicates the Indian situation, together with an existing lack of infrastructure for information at a local level that one is likely to require. This in itself is a stimulus and there are certain ways in which we can design ahead. One way is for the architect to work together with a nucleus of collaboration where specific skills are pooled. Another, surely, is the formation of the information storage-and-retrieval cells at a local level throughout each of India’s five distinct zones. It is here that government could be most supportive to research-collection and a directory of sources. Student-projects should also be stored, screened and periodically re-evaluated to prevent reduplication. An information-storage system should in itself be an interesting design-problem, particularly when it must apply to so many varying situations of sophisticated technology coexisting with tradition.
Clearly, not all buildings lend themselves equally to traditionalisation. A factory, a stadium or a powerhouse for instance remain a factory, a stadium and a powerhouse. The cutting-edge of the debate for or against the indigenous disappears when we think how most appropriately to design for each specific project in hand. A pinch of humour, common sense, and the actual quality of a design-solution; what emerges from these (and not too far into the future) will determine the new language of Indian architectural style.