This episode of Monocle 24's On Design podcast, which briefly surveys the state of Indian architecture and suggests a blueprint for a 21st Century vernacular, was written and recorded by ArchDaily's European Editor at Large, James Taylor-Foster.
In the first half of 2016 an exhibition was opened in Mumbai. The State of Architecture, as it was known, sought to put contemporary Indian building in the spotlight in order to map trends post-independence and, more importantly, provoke a conversation both historical and in relation to where things are heading.
India, of course, is a unique and complex place of inequalities, overcrowding, issues of sanitation—to name a few—which give Indian architects more to think about than simply changing skylines. A nation of 29 states that stretch from the Himalayan peaks to the coastline of the Indian Ocean, it has magnificently diverse range of cultures, languages and architectural styles. Yet, as India experiences the processes of rapid urbanisation in its largest metropoli—such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and beyond—an odd phenomenon is arising. You could say that the “wrong” sort of architecture is being built – and discourse about the reality of Indian architecture today is, on the whole, lacking.
So what do I mean by the “wrong” sort of architecture? In the words of Rahul Mehrotra, a practising architect and Professor of Urban Design and Planning at Harvard, “architects [in India] are pandering to Capital in unprecedented ways – creating what we could call the 'Architecture of Impatient Capital'.” In other words, as money flows into certain people’s pockets it is manifested, foe example, in shiny glass towers – all built in the blink of an eye.
Vast air-conditioned skyscrapers, while representing only half the story, are both absurd and inefficient in the sorts of diverse sub-tropical climates that India enjoys. When Le Corbusier designed the government compound at Chandigarh, the capital of the northern territories of Haryana and Punjab in the early 1960s, he understood the importance of designing specifically for the city’s sun-soaked summers. A European import simply wouldn’t do.
One of modern India’s giants was the late Charles Correa. He had a finely tuned sensibility that found its aesthetic home in the lyrical qualities of light and shade. It was the quiet progressiveness of the Gandhi Ahsram, completed in 1963, that put his ideas on the map: an interconnected collection of modular huts—on the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s home—that together create a meandering pathway, and a memorial to his legacy. These huts provide shelter from the sun as necessary but are also open to the skies and, most importantly, the breeze. It is one of the truest example of what contemporary Indian architecture could and should be, if only progress would allow.
Across the border in Bangladesh (in Dhaka), these ideas are being practised today. Marina Tabassum, who won an Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2016 for a mosque in Dhaka, also recognises the power of contemporary vernacularism. Built on a sliver of land donated by her grandmother and with funds raised by the local community, the building is both simple and elegant. Perforated brick walls speckle the prayer room with light, and also allow the building to breathe. It is, in other words, a perfect fit for its home.
India can be the testing ground for raising the quality of life in the built environment for the many – but it must galvanise together in order to really make a difference.