Independence in 1947 brought forth a bewildering range of problems, opportunities, expectations and dreams. The partition of the country caused a refugee problem that involved millions of families. All eyes were on a newly formed people and its leaders as the nation settled down to doing what had to be done to set the wheels of development in motion. At first there was no time for elaborate building plans. Hectic building activity occurred because millions had to be re-settled all over Punjab, in Delhi, in West Bengal.
A crash building programme was undertaken in the public sector using whatever materials were readily available and thus a number of small towns and re-settlement colonies came up, almost instantly, in many parts of the country. In one sense this was the finest hour for the Public Works Department who had to contend with innumerable constraints and supply problems in restoring a sense of confidence to millions through provision of housing and services. All this was achieved by Indian engineers and the handful of architects then employed by Government1. At the time of Independence, we had less than one architect per 1,000,000 population. Britain had one architect per 4,000 population. Bombay had over half the country’s 300 or so architects. Yet even in that city, the following vignette will reveal the status of the profession in eyes of the public: “The other day, a new servant asked a colleague if he was an engineer. He said, ‘No, I am an architect’, to which the man replies with feeling, ‘God grant then that you may soon become an engineer’. This very concisely sums up the unfortunate position of the architect in India. Not as a professional man of high standing and long training, but, by the minority who have ever heard of him at all, as a junior assistant to another profession”2.
Just as architects were beginning to size up the enormous challenges of construction that lay ahead, the old debate on style erupted again. The central question in the debates on style in the decades before Independence was; How much indigenisation of style could the British afford to indulge in without appearing to be making political concessions to a subject people? After Independence, the question changed to: How much indigenisation could a newly independent nation afford without appearing backward and weak in both its own eyes and in the image it presented to the rest of the world? New phrase and slogans entered the debate. Nationalism, a widespread and understandable sentiment in the first flush of freedom, was sought to be expressed through Revivalism in all forms of cultural expression, including architecture. Building styles born of the Modern Movement and the colonial experience were perceived as foreign and hence anti-national. Some of the tallest political leaders in the land lent their support to the revivalists, who sought to reach back a thousand years for architectural forms and details which symbolised various classical eras and golden ages of Indian culture.
Ranged on the other side were a handful of intellectuals and architects who argued that monuments should be viewed in context of their times, that they were not to be imitated, and that modern India required modern architectural symbols and forms to express the dynamism of a free people on their march to economic development. The design of Golconde at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry made a lot of sense to them. Golconde was a dormitory for the ashramites designed by Czech-born Antonin Raymond (1888-1976). Raymond came to India after eighteen years of practice in Japan where he had gone to work on Wright’s Imperial Hotel. By the time he reached India he had outgrown the influence of Wright and was steeped in the International Style of the thirties with one important reservation. He was looking for richer forms and more tactile materials. In Golconde, an outstanding modern masterpiece, he totally succeeded in expressing his philosophy of design: “We should base our designs directly on the needs and requirements of the clients and deal directly with conditions growing out of the work itself and the location. There should be no empty imagination or abstract speculation involved, our work should be structurally clean and pure. By that I mean not to design first and give a problem to engineers afterwards, but to work hand in hand with them from the beginning, in order to find not an extraordinary solution, but the simplest, most direct and most economical.”3
Golconde was the earliest example of a good concrete building in India. All its details and features were evolved from a through study of climate and the psychological needs of its occupants: cross-ventilation and sun-protection were achieved by covering the entire building surface with parallel, horizontal louvers, and precast thin-shell concrete vaulting was used to crate a ventilated double roof for insulation4. The details of Golconde were evolved during the year Raymond lived and worked alongside members of the Ashram. The building was completed after Independence, in 1948. Through few architects in India were aware of its existence, Golconde was the first expression of a new era about to commence for contemporary Indian Architecture. The opponents of Revivalism sought and gained the support of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1890-1964). He came to their rescue. Two new State Capitals were required at that time as a result of partition and the process of boundary adjustments between the States of the Union of India: one for Punjab and another for Orissa. “Nehru outflanked the revivalists by inviting Le Corbusier and Koenigsberger to India. Koenigsburger caved in to the Chief Minister Mahatab, a supporter of Revivalism, and you have Bhubaneshwar. Corbu gave us Chandigarh”5.
Three broad stylistic expressions prevailed in the uncertain fifties. Foremost among the group of architects with the most to lose had the revivalists gained an upper hand were the first batch of Indians to receive their architectural training in America: Habib Rehman, Achyut Kanvinde and the late Durga Bajpai. They were all young and idealistic; they shouldered the enormous responsibilities, and were vulnerable to the criticism of seniors schooled in different methods. This generation had been exposed to Le Corbusier and other European masters via America and not directly. They were also influenced by masters of the American Modern Movement. Thus in Rahman’s New Secretariat and Kanvinde’s ATIRA Building, we see the austere influence of the Bauhaus; in Bajpai’s Jehangir Art Gallery, a plasticity and freshness of expression quite alien to the building traditions of Bombay; in Delhi’s Oberoi Hotel by Bajpai and Mody, a clear recognition that a new tourism required new functional forms which could economically integrate structure and services. And Correa’s memorial to Gandhi in Ahmedabad is a pioneering attempt to use a new architectural vocabulary to express both cultural continuity and ambiguity. This was the first work to consciously depict the ambiguity of the fifties: an India torn between the twin pressures of traditional belief systems and a simultaneous desire for modernisation. It could have come only from Correa.
A second grouping with respect too style is, generally speaking, ‘backward-looking’, to use Walter George’s evocative phrase. In Mhatre’s Marble Arch Apartments and in the Ramakrishna Mission Complex, by the prominent Calcutta firm of Ballardie, Thompson and Matthews, we see a continuing satisfaction and contentment with a tried and tested vocabulary dating to the thirties and forties when a fusion of Art-Deco, ‘modernistic’ and traditional elements was the prevailing norm for façade-making in Bombay and Calcutta. In the Supreme Court at Delhi, designed by the architects of the Central Public Works Department, the Imperial Style of Lutyens and Baker is seen to be worth repeating a full twenty five years later. In Doctor’s Ashoka Hotel, and the Vidhan Soudha Secretariat Building, designed by the State Public Works Department (P.W.D.) in Bangalore, the Revivalist Styles are seen in full power.
The third predominant stylistic vocabulary in this period attempted to express the spirit of free India at Chandigarh and in modifications made to the International Style in Delhi. In Walter George’s T.B. Association Building at Delhi, a contemporary application of adjustable light-weight horizontal sun-breakers signalled George’s break with an older vocabulary of arched or colonnaded verandas. In Chandigarh, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew brought their extensive African experience to bear on the task of evolving new scales, forms and finishes for government housing. Together with Pierre Jeanneret, the husband-and-wife team of Fry and Drew were responsible for evolving over fifty unit designs within strict cost ceilings laid down by the Punjab Government. Jeanneret introduced a pioneering interplay of decorative brickwork and plain plaster in his Peons’ Housing Type 13, because of this concern for making the “cheapest house look grand”6. Drew favoured a greater use of plain plastered surfaces in her Type 12 Housing, and Fry’s ‘Egg-Crate’ Housing Type 9, is representative of his partiality for concrete sun-breakers (braise-soleil). In Jugal Kishore Chowdhury’s Engineering College; the International Style is tempered by use of local materials such as walls set with pebbles from a nearby river bed. In Suryakant Patel’s own house at Baroda, exposed brick, concrete, and a novel play of soft and hard geometrical shapes heralded a new freedom of expression in domestic architecture. The above vocabulary was brought to India when Punjab needed a new Capital, and its purest and most abstract form was expressed in Jeanneret’s Gandhi Bhavan, and Le Corbusier’s High Court.
A striking montage of contemporary Indian architecture in the fifties is provided by viewing three buildings together: the High Court at Chandigarh, the Supreme Court and Delhi, and the Vidhan Soudha at Bangalore. Each building represented powerful ideologies at work and these offered patrons and architects a stylistic option, a choice of identity, an image of India. Evan as late as 1959, Prime Minister Nehru was obliged to defend the experiment at Chandigarh, and in doing so he titled the balance in favour of new ideas from the West:
“Now I have welcomed very greatly one great experiment in India which you know very well – Chandigarh. Many people argue about it, some dislike it, some like it. It is totally immaterial whether you like it or not, it is the biggest thing, because it makes you think. You may squirm at the impact, but it makes you think and imbibe new ideas. And the one thing that India requires in so many fields is to be hit on the head, so that you may think. I don not like every building in Chandigarh. I like some very much, I like the general conception of the township very much. But what like above all this is the creative approach -= not being tied down to what has been done by our forefathers and the like, but thinking out in new terms; trying to think in terms of light and air, and ground and water and human beings, not in terms of rules and regulations laid down by our ancestors. Therefore, Chandigarh is of enormous importance, regardless of whether something in it succeeds or it does not. As a matter of fact, even now many things in Chandigarh have spread; many ideas in small ways and big ways. Chandigarh, as you will know, is more famous in the world than most Indian towns or cities, excepting the well-known three or four, simply because it is a thing coming out. It is a thing of power coming out of a powerful mind, not a flat mind or a mind which is a mirror, and that to not a very clear mirror reflecting somebody else’s mind. There is no doubt that Le Corbusier is a man with a power, creative type of mind. Because he has that, he may become extravagant occasionally. He can produce extravaganza occasionally, but it is better to have that, than to have a person with no mind at all. Mr. Winston Churchill was once accused of having a swollen head. What was his answer? He said, ‘It is better to have a swollen head than no head at all’.”7
While the debate on style raged throughout the decade, the fifties also saw a significant expansion of architectural education. In 1947, there were three schools: at Baroda, Bombay and Delhi. By the end of the fifties, nine new schools had been established in recognition of the fact that the process of planned economic development would require a manifold increase in the number of architects. However, models of architectural education were imported wholesale, largely from Britain, and a significant number of students continued to migrate to England to complete the R.I.B.A examinations. Others chose American universities to escape the colonial link.
Graduates of the first few batches of the Delhi School found employment at Chandigarh, where they were exposed to the fresh methodologies of Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, Fry and Drew. In Ahmedabad, a new cultural and architectural awakening had been initiated by industrialists led by the Sarabhai family, who commissioned Le Corbusier’s four well-known works in that city. B.V.Doshi, who had worked with Le Corbusier in Paris, succeeded Jean-Louis Véret as site architect for these buildings and he chose to settle down in Ahmedabad. A few architects from Bombay migrated to South India to set up the first independent practices in cities such as Madras and Bangalore8. But, by and large, the winds of stylistic change discernible at Chandigarh, Delhi and Ahmedabad in the fifties, left the rest of the country untouched. The concerns of the Indian Institute of Architects, based in Bombay, began to extend to other states and cities largely due to the vigorous efforts of Walter George who was twice its President during this period9. He also helped to found the Institute of Town Planners in 1951, which started off with a membership of just twenty-five young men.10
India’s first Five Year Plan had been announced in 1952, and this gave an impetus to architecture and its allied professions. Significant resources were allocated for investments in heavy industries, new townships, industrial housing, and scientific and technical research and training. As the process of industrialisation got under way, a new independent profession of structural design consultants was born. The building industry began to manufacture, locally, items such as flush wooden doors, steel doors and windows, and a wide range of products in asbestos cement. The technical promise of air-conditioning led to an all-round (and perhaps unwise) reduction in floor-heights, and raising land and construction prices led to a shrinking of floor-space in residential and commercial buildings. All these developments began to affect the appearance and scale of architecture all over the country, independently of prevailing styles.
And the fifties were also marked by wild optimism in certain quarters: that air-conditioning would soon be as common in India as the motor-car was in the West11; that pre-fabricated aluminium housing units would be the answer to he middle-class housing problem in large cities12; that the Government’s announcement that “one percent of expenditure for all Central Government buildings may be and should be on artistic decoration” would lead to a thousand opportunities to bring the country’s starving painters and sculptors into the mainstream of national life13. The instances of optimism cited provide clues to the romantic belief shared by many: modernisation and industrialisation would solve all India’s problems within a decade. Chandigarh was a complete visualisation of this optimism.
- 1. Mahendra Raj, research interview, Nov. 1984.
- 2. Quoted in Architectural Education in India, Marg, Vol 2, No 3, 1949, Pg 4.
- 3. John Winters in Contemporary Architects, Macmillan, London, 1980. Pg. 659.
- 4. Published in Progressive Architecture, March, 1949. Pgs. 46-47
- 5. Mulk Raj Anand, Research Interview, Nov., 1984.
“The most important contribution of Le Corbusier was that he changed the status of architects and the whole attitude towards architects and architecture. This was possible under Le Corbusier because he was what he was – the giant from the international arena … and because of the support of Jawaharlal Nehru”
- CS.H. Jhabwala
Research Interview, Nov, 1984
- 6. Aditya Prakash Research Interview, June, 1985
- 7. From Nehru’s address to the Seminar on Architecture organised by the Lalit Kala Academy, Delhi. March 17-21, 1959.
- 8. K.S. Karekar, Research Interview, Jan. 1985
- 9. Walter George, Inaugural address, 1951-52, in J.I.I.A., Vol. 16, Jun-Dec,, 1951. Pg. 2.
- 10. D.N.Dhar, Current Trends in Indian Architecture Today, in J.I.I.A., Vol 19, July-Sept., 1954.
- 11. Jane B. Drew, Modern Architecture in India, in Indian Builder, Vol. 2, July, 1954. Pg. 4.
- 12. John Terry, Flexgarh – an Old Principle Re-Used, in Marg, Vol. 3, Nb. 2, 1950. Pg. 71.
- 13. Charles Fabri, The Decoration of Government Buildings, in Indian Builder, Vol. 4, Oct. 1956. Pg. 56.