Riyaz Tayyibji considers the little-known architectural collaborations of Mahatma Gandhi, charismatic leader of the Indian freedom movement, in light of discourses of modern architecture. Weaving in discussions of phenomenology, material, and a discipline of privacy, the essay explores aspects of Gandhi's philosophical and political thinking that propose a notion of the modern with an ethical and spiritual underpinning for 20th century architectural practice.

Axonometric drawing, Bapu Kutir, Sewagram Ashram, Wardha. Courtesy Madhu Malukani.
Axonometric drawing, Bapu Kutir, Sewagram Ashram, Wardha. Courtesy Madhu Malukani. © anthill design

A note on spatiality of porosity: porosity must be distinguished from the transparent that is so valorized by European modern architecture. I have argued elsewhere that this porosity arises from an attitude of agrarian frugality rather than of mechanical efficiencies. This opening up distinguishes itself from the Wrightian corner window or the Corbusian plan libre (both contemporaneous with the architecture under discussion) as the mechanisms facilitating this openness are not dependent on technological articulations of material and structure, or for that matter, a mechanized production process. This openness is the direct result of the control over oneself, over one’s behavior, and the ability to transform the activities that underpin function with this changed behavior. If one of the credos of modern architecture is that form follows function, Gandhi would extend this inward ad infinitum: form follows function, which follows activity, which follows behavior, which follows resolve, which in turn is a function of discipline, which is a direct result of control over the self, which is necessary for an inquiry of truth, which is based on being able to hear and have a conversation with the “small, still voice” within, which in turn defines the modern individual. If our cumulative behavior aggregates into what we now call “lifestyle,” and we have a choice of lifestyle, then it follows that this choice also determines the material, technological, and formal choices that are ethically open to us. Gandhi’s visionary architecture demonstrated this long before it became an environmentalist credo that the future of the planet may well depend on the manner in which each of us chooses to live. As Gandhi often said, the purity of the means results in the purity of the ends. Form then has ethical and moral underpinnings. The choice of form must necessarily emerge from careful experimentation through a sequence that leads from a relationship to one’s inner self.

Another way to look at this would be to say that Gandhi believed that the specificity and differentiation of architectural form was simply excessive—unnecessary even. He noted that there is a striking similarity between the spatial structure of the Saurashtra house and that of a Hindu temple. The ordocorresponds to the closed garbhagriha, or sanctum, whereas the osri corresponds to the mandapa, a hypostyle hall, or social, sometimes congregational space. In Gandhi’s mind, the categories of house and temple are never very far from each other.