Is it possible to formulate a National Policy for Architecture, and secondly, to discuss this subject from the standpoint of Architectural Expression?
What nature of national policy do we propose to formulate? Could it be a dogmatic set of rules to be adhered to or could it be a general policy stating general principles flexible enough to allow for original creative work? Dogmatism basically runs counter to the progress of creative art. As such a set of rules advocating dogmatic adherence is definitely not proper. But a general policy which takes into account all the progressive aspects without tending to restrict or thwart the creative faculties of an individual is definitely welcome.
Who is to formulate this policy and who is to supervise its implementation? Any policy that is formulated by persons not conversant with architects or architecture is likely to be full of tell-tale notions about architecture which the pedlars of so-called culture are trying to propagate. Therefore such a policy can only be formulated by architects who are better acquainted with the problems and nature of work. Also, it is necessary to have such a policy framed by persons in the profession who have shown a progressive trend of thought through their architectural work and theoretical exposition. For we do have a conservative group amongst our colleagues who desire to set the clock back to the 19th century in order to enforce the academism prevalent in these days.
Before discussing the subject of Formulation of National Policy one must consider the aims, objects and purposes for which it is proposed to formulate a national policy.
The oft-mentioned object for formulation of national policy is in order to have an architecture distinctly Indian in character. The aim is basically praise worthy but the approach to it seems to be improper because of the wrong outlook of considering architecture in terms of styles only. This idea of architecture is the aftermath of revivalist period when the architects at the beginning of industrial era were lagging behind in finding suitable architectural expression for new structures of steel and reinforced concrete and as such were resorting to clothe the buildings of steel and concrete with fragments stolen from the work of old masters. In those days most of the architects except for a few revolutionaries kept themselves busy with the manipulation of forms from styles created in the past.
To some persons the word architectural expression means style. As such it is proper to discuss the word style here in order to appreciate the real meaning which a superficial observer fails to realise. The word style is used by archaeologists and architectural historians in order to classify work produced in a certain period within a certain region. Also style refers to the expression arrived at during a period reaching maturity by the efforts of one or more generation of architects. That is, it is the end result of an evolutionary period. And when we come to think of architecture of the past in India created by the old masters we cannot fail to realise that the creators of the masterpieces were not consciously producing any stylistic versions but were designing them with the utmost sincerity to materials, structure, and the artistic taste of the existing cultural pattern. It was only the archaeologist or the architectural historian who with great difficulty was able to label them and put them in watertight compartments. Take, for instance, that broad level ‘Muslim Architecture in India’. Here the work in red sand-stone in Fatehpur Sikri differs from work in yellow basalt at Ahmedabad, though both have a trabeated system of construction. On closer analysis we find that differences are due to the potentialities and limitations of structure of these two materials. This is more clearly seen in detailing of system of brackets and overhangs. Even in Bijapur architecture, with its archuated system, this diffrence can be noted. Only similar principles of designing may be seen in fenestration and handling of walls because they are all in stone masonry.
In any field of art the peculiarities of the medium employed decide the handling of the form. In painting the handling of colour and technique in oil colours on canvas will differ from that of water-colours on paper. So also in sculpture a statue in marble will have form and detailing which marble is capable of taking and, if the statue is to be in bronze, the metals and the process of casting involved will decide the form and detailing which will be employed. So also in architecture the materials and system of construction decides the form and aesthetic expression. Indian architecture of the past bears an unmistakable aesthetic expression of stone construction in either trabeated or archuated system. And this brings us to another notion which came into being during the revivalist period and got firmly rooted and established in India due to the revivalism carried further during the British rule in India. It believes in what is called ‘application of style’. A traditional style is a living entity when we look at the work of old masters, because it has the form which rings true with materials and system of construction employed. But the style becomes debased, when the forms are removed from their structural context and used to clothe the structure in reinforced concrete or steel. Take the case of a sloping chajja. In olden days they evolved a system of brackets to support it. They handled it in such a way that aesthetic form was achieved without ignoring the structural correlation. But when the same style is applied to a contemporary building, R.C.C. chajjas hold up the dummy brackets under it and both are faked to appear as if they were made of stone with stone-crete. The old masters seem to achieve beauty born out of every structural element becoming significant and forming part of aesthetic composition. But in the so-called application of style the forms and enrichments are used indiscriminately without considering whether it has any structural con notation or not. This amounts not only to caricature and mimicry of the great works but the persons are also declaring by so doing that they belong to a generation of cultural degenerates, who have nothing to offer of their own, and as such must steal fragments from the work of their forefathers.
This brings us to consider the aspect as to whether it is necessary to have an architectural expression distinctly Indian in character and also whether it is possible to produce such an architecture. Modern architecture is sometimes referred to as being an international movement; also as the work of a school of thought called ‘Rational Style’. An international style, if there could truly exist such a style, would never have as fundamental an appeal as an intern point of view expression in a national idiom. I had occasion to meet some foreign architects and to show them round some of the works being done over here. And I was particularly curious to find out as to what was their reaction about it. At that time I came to realise one thing, that foreign architects coming to India would not want to come to India find there pallid copies of the most advanced or individualistic contemporary work in their own countries. What they look forward to seeing is how an Indian architect is interpreting similar requirements in terms of his own national and even local conditions. Leaving aside any arguments over the pros and cons of national expression in the broad field of human relationship, it is an undeniable truth that part of the interest of life lies in the retention of the national characteristics; and it is an asset to any country to develop an architecture based on the richness of its life as conditioned by geography, climate, history and ideals.
Then the next question arises as to what are the issues involved in the evolution of such an architecture; the object being to evolve a new living style of architecture without copying the dead styles of the past (dead because the system of construction that made it possible is no longer in use). By a new living style, I mean a style that could be referred to a hundred years hence as the Indian style of the latter half of the twentieth century. Such an architecture cannot be produced hastily or by throwing together fragments gleaned from architectural photographs and publications. An architecture rich and fruitful, with its roots strong and deep, can arise only when the architect has a genuinely natural affinity with the characteristics of the art of his own country. The architect must first feel that. A new regional architecture will not arise on the drawing boards of architects who despise the fundamentals that lie behind what definitely Indians expressed in the work of the past.
Another item to be considered is whether there is any such thing as a typical Indian expression. It is very difficult to define what is typically Indian and almost impossible to point out a particular work of the past as typically Indian. For Indian architecture of the past is so varied that such a demarcation becomes almost impossible. At the same time one cannot fail to realise that there is also an under-current of unifying qualities. It could be stated as that peculiar Indian characteristic, ‘Unity in diversity’. It is this characteristic of unity in diversity which strongly runs counter to the very idea of the regimentation of certain dogmas or rules. Also if the idea of unity in diversity is put into practice, there is greater scope for individual or a reasonably collective contribution to the cause of architecture.
We should also think as to how a living style comes into being. It comes into being when an entire generation of architects is animated by a common ideal. Ideals being the same, approach to the ideals by one or more individuals may vary making allowance for diversity. Also, subsequent generations have also to be animated with similar ideals and have to follow up by refining, improving upon and enriching what has already been achieved by the previous generation and so on and so forth until a time when at the end of an epoch by the efforts of many generations of architects a new style comes into being. Such a thing cannot be achieved by a single individual unless he happens to be an absolute genius which is a phenomenon which can occur only once in a century. A phenomenon like Leonardo da Vinci in Europe or Shonan in Middle East or even there might have been a genius whose name we do not know, who set forth a movement that culminated in the wonderful architecture of the past in India. The pity of the present generation of architects is that many of them consider them selves as men of genius even when no one recognises them as such. And this makes it impossible to make any collective efforts towards a common goal in the cause of architecture. But collective efforts are sure to bear fruits and even help in bringing to light a genius of hidden talents. As such there is nothing wrong in collective effort to mar individual creative urge. Instead it sharpens one’s creative faculties.
The next question is the nature of collective efforts. First and the foremost is that architects of the present generation should feel animated with the ideal that a new living architectural style distinctly Indian must come into being and direct all their efforts towards that end. Next we should do a creative research in the work of the old masters of India. A research that does not do surface copies but go beyond to understand the inherent qualities that make the great work of architecture—to find out as to what is that artistic taste or an approach to art, that differentiates it from others as distinctly Indian; and to explore what are the means employed by them to effect climate control and how far they are feasible within the framework of present technical means. With these preliminaries we should explore the possibilities of assimilating these qualities in our present-day work. The first part of the assignment of going beyond surface appearances is difficult to achieve for the simple reasons that in the field of art we are conditioned by visual images, i.e., appearances and so the difficulty to unravel the mystery beyond the appearance to realize particular bent of mind or approach to art which cannot be easily dissociated or explained without the use of visual images. The second part is still more difficult to achieve because of present-day pattern of life and its dependence on technological means employed in a building such as plumbing, electricity, airconditioning, etc. These services tend to run riot unless an austere simplicity is enforced in a contemporary design. The problem of services becomes still more complicated if the building is meant for some field of technology. We observe that architecture in the past derived a certain warmth of feeling and richness due to intricacy. Even in planning it may sometimes be difficult to introduce a peculiarly Indian approach of internal courts if the building happens to be multistoreyed with compulsion for land usage due to high cost of land. This cost factor has become more important today in a democratic society than it was when monarchs and emperors acted the patrons of architecture.
Suppose these assignments were fulfilled in spite of all the difficulties and handicaps and a successful work was created. Then the real critical situation arises when the lay public or even intellectuals who are in no way connected professionally with architecture insist upon acting as arbiters of art. The intellectuals usually may not go to assess the merits and demerits of any other field of knowledge except their own. But in the case of architecture the pitiable situation is that every one, though not be connected with architecture professionally, claims to know everything about architecture and insists upon passing judgment. It is true that architecture is in a broader sense man-made environment to human activity, and as such everybody seems to react to it. It is quite natural to react to a work of art with which one lives in a close contact. But the important thing is the nature of reaction. As I told you before in the field of art we are conditioned by visual images. So when you tell that a regional or national approach to design has been attempted, what they expect to find in terms of visual images in domes, chatries, minarets, etc. They fail to realise that domes were a product of a system of construction to span a space and that, that particular system of construction is no longer in use. Also chatries were used in forts for observation posts or as terrace pavilions and terrace balconies. Today when the pattern of life has changed these elements become redundant. And the minarets had a place in religious architecture and as such cannot be indiscriminately used in buildings for non-religious uses in a secular country. So even if a successful attempt in this direction comes into being, it may not be accepted just because it does not repeat certain visual images like domes, etc.
Architects who have the cause of architecture near and dear to their hearts should rise above these petty criticisms, because acceptance by people as such is not the criterion of the merit of a work of architecture. An architect who has a conscience of his own will not do a wrong thing even if it is likely to be praised by lay-public. As a creative worker he has to satisfy himself as to what he is doing is right, and discard what is wrong. When he asks his own conscience such questions as to whether he should make indiscriminate use of domes, chatries, minarets, brackets, etc., the answer is no. There are other means for evolution of regional architecture.
One must also avoid being a victim to certain propaganda before accepting a certain work as a reflection of Indian culture. For example, ceaseless propaganda is made to prove that a certain contemporary work is comparable to Taj Mahal. I do admit that the work in question is good example of contemporary architecture but the comparison with Taj appears to be far fetched. When we stand before the Taj Mahal the dominant impact is that of a romantic skyline. This particular building is a perfect rectangular cube with a straight line as skyline. The only Indian elements are internal court and jali. In Taj the jali element is subdued and is not dominating except in close up. Even in Indian architecture there is a particular approach for use of jali. It is used in between a column grid or to screen an opening which appears as though it were a chisel-cut hole in blank wall. But in this case the jali is used as an external screen wall which is contemporary approach. This is just to make it clear that an architect cannot possibly allow himself to believe a certain thing due to sheer propaganda. He must examine things rationally. Otherwise the real object of creative research is likely to be lost sight of.
There are certain points to ponder in order to realise that in spite of the difficult assignment with many handicaps which were described before, some progress in the right direction can be made. The creative research will also reveal that architecture of the past had a very interesting and romantic skyline due to the presence of shikhara, domes, chatries, etc. Even if we may not desire to make indiscriminate use of these elements, we can always try to make interesting skyline without rigidly arriving at straight skyline commonly seen in most of the contemporary work. Such a thing is possible due to the advent of shell concrete and folded slab. It is a fact that early modern work was stark and severe. But with the progress of technology and acquaintance with new materials of construction, it is also possible to achieve that warmth of feeling and richness by means of textures and elements of casting interesting shadows. A mode or an artistic approach has to be sought. Of course, these are very broad and obvious observations and that is why an intensive research becomes of paramount importance. It is very difficult to define exactly what is meant by national characteristics or expression. At its simplest and most obvious it is a kind of twist given to the handling of a work in its proportions, its materials, its detailing, the imparting of a flavour which cannot very well be captured in words.
I have discussed the possibilities for Formulation of National Policy and the pros and cons for evolution of a regional architecture without forgetting the handicaps which one has to face. The handicaps and difficulties are really genuine ones. But it is also true that difficulties sharpen the creative faculties of a devoted worker. The greater the difficulties the greater the gusto and determination to achieve the objectives. So the difficulties, even if they are really formidable, can be overcome if every architect bears a burning desire in his heart that a new living Indian style of the latter half of twentieth century shall come into being, and he as an architect has to make a significant contribution towards that individually and collectively. It is a challenge for the present generation of the architects and many more generations to come and I am sure they will face it squarely so that a new regional and national architecture shall arise before the end of this century.