People living in warm climates develop very specific relationships to their environment. During the day we need but minimal protection, such as a chhatri (an overhead canopy); in the early morning and at night, the best place to be is out doors, under the open sky. When we walk on a beach in the evening, or cross a desert and enter a house around a courtyard, it is the quality of light and the ambience of moving air that form the essence of our experience. At these moments, responses are triggered in our minds, responses conditioned by thousands of generations of life on this planet. Perhaps they are primordial memories of a sacred landscape, of a lost paradise. In any event, they condition very powerfully our perceptions of the environment. Thus while the little red schoolhouse is the educational symbol of North America, in India—as in most of Asia—it has always been the guru sitting under a tree. Not only does this image of the Lord Buddha and the peepul tree seem more sensible to us than sitting inside a stuffy box; it also appears far more conducive to enlightenment.
Religious ceremonies in Asia have always emphasized these open-to-the sky spaces, and the quasi-mystical sensations they generate within us. Hence, while the cathedrals of Europe (like the little red schoolhouse) are all variations of the closed-box model, the great Islamic mosques in Delhi and Lahore are at the other end of the spectrum: they consist inainly of large areas of open space sur rounded by just enough built forms to make one feel ‘inside’ a piece of architecture. So, too, the great Hindu temples of southern India are experienced not just as gopurams and shrines, but as a ritualistic movement through the sacred open-to-the-sky spaces that lie between them. This movement, called the pradakshina, is a pilgrimage around the inner sanctum. In the example of the Buddhist stupas, this pradakshina takes the form of a circular pathway around the central stupa—which is a dome structure of solid earth; in the centre of which is buried a wooden column representing the axis mundi.
This ying-yang relationship (open-to the-sky space surrounded by solid built forms, and vice versa) generates figure/ground patterns in which the open spaces can act as areas of visual rest between the enclosed volumes—a principle of enormous potential for museums. For not only does this pattern create the opportunity to provide a combination of concentration and relaxation, it also opens up the possibility of offering the visitor alternate paths through the various sections of the museum. As we are all aware, many visitors to large museums are interested in only a portion of the material; yet they have to drag their weary feet through endless corridors to reach the particular collection in which they are interested. In fact, since a major cultural centre like the Louvre, in Paris, actually consists of several large-size museums strung along in a row, like pearls in a necklace, why could not these units be organized in a manner which allows independent access to each one? Futher more, if the open-to-the-sky space is conceived as a pedestrian spine, then the spectrum of choices available to the visitor can be maximized—and experienced with delight!
These various ideas have gradually coalesced in my mind over the years into a particular typology of museum architecture, one which seems to hae considerable advantages in the Indian context. It is illustrated here by four project. The first, a Memorial to Mahatma Gandhi at the Sabarmati Ashram at Ahmedabad where he lived, was designed thirty years ago and was seminal to my conceptualization of this process. The second, Bharat Bhavan (a museum for the visual and performing arts in Bhopal), carries the theme further. In the third, the Crafts Museum in Delhi, the pedestrian path has become literally a metaphor for the Indian street as it moves from village to temple to palace. The fourth, the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, reassembles these ideas within the parameters of the ancient Vedic concept of architecture as a model of the cosmos.
Homage and treasure trove (1958-63)
This memorial museum is erected in the Ashram where Mahatma Gandhi resided from 1917 to 1930 and from which he started on his historic march to Dandi. Built by the Sabarmati Ashram Trust in homage to the memory of the Mahatma, and to propagate his ideas, the Sangrahalaya was inagurated in 1963 by Jawaharlal Nehru. In it is housed a priceless treasure trove of letters, photographs and other documents which trace the freedom movement launched by Gandhi, including hundreds of volumes edited by his secretary, Mahadev Desai, as well as the 30,000 letters written by Gandhi or addressed to him, some original, others on microfilm.
The materials used in the construction are similar to those in the other buildings in the Ashram: tiled roofs, brick walls, stone floors and wooden doors. The only addition is the concrete channel that acts as beam and rainfall conduit, and which permits expansion for additional construction to be addded in future. No glass windows were used anywhere in the building (in deference to Gandhi’s rejection of modern industrialized products), light and ventilation being provided by operavle wooden louvers.
These elements combine to form basic modular units of 6x6 m, in a typology analogous to the villages so central to Gandhi’s thinking. They are grouped in a casual meanderiing pattern, creating a pathway along which the visitor progresses towards the centrally situated water court (refreshing in the dry heat of Ahmedabad). Some of the units are enclosed by walls; the various display-cum-study places so created being counterpointed by areas of visual rest where the visitor can meditate. This configuration generates a wide spectrum of conditions, varying all the way from closed-box to open-to-thesky, the modifications from one zone to another along the spectrum being signalled by subtle and almost imperceptible changes in light and air movement.
Because the collection will, by its very nature, be added to in time the Sangrahalaya is a living structure which can grow and modulate. Recently, more units were added, extending the pattern. This process will continue as more photographs, letters and other documents are col lected, each generation of young Indians making its contribution and paying its homage to the Mahatma.
Prngressing casually (1975-81)
The site for this arts centre is on a gently sloping plateau overlooking the lake at Bhopal. The natural contours of the site have been used to create a series of ter raced gardens and sunken courtyards—off which are located a number of cultural facilities. These cover a wide spectrum and include a museum of tribal art, a library of Indian poetry (in all the seventeen major languages), galleries for contemporary art, workshops for lith ography and sculpture and a studio for an artist-in-residence. In addition, Bharat Bhavan houses a fully fledged theatrical repertoire company and extensive facilities for the performing arts, including the antarang (indoor auditorium) and the bhairang (open-air amphitheatre) over looking the lake.
As one progresses through the terraced gardens and courtyards, one comes across these various facilities in a casual manner, making them easily accessible to the citizens of Bhopal. Illumination and ventilation within the building are pro vided by overhead lights from the con crete shells and from slots along the terrace parapets. In addition, the open ings onto the courtyards and terraces have two sets of shutters: the inner ones consist of a combination of glass and hinged panels for ventilation; the outer ones consist of large wooden doors, closed at night for security.
As varied as India (1975)
The great temples of the past (at Bali, Borobudur, Srirangam, etc.) were structured around sacred open-to-the-sky ceremonial pathways, a concept, as mentioned earlier, of crucial relevance tb architecfure in warm climates. This Crafts Museum, casual and acceptmg of the artisan’s vernacular, is organized around such a central pradakshina, As one travels dowh this veritable spine, one catches glimpses of the principal exhibits displayed oh either side, e.g. the Village Court; the Temple Court and the Darbar Court. One can visit any particular exhibit or, alternativeiy, progress through all the various sections in a continuous sequence.
At the end of the sequence, one exits via the toof garden, which forms an amphitheatre for folk dances, as well as an open-air display area for large terra cotta horses and other handicrafts. The images of these scaleless non-buildings echo the old bathing ghats, such as those at Varnasi, or at the incomparable Sarkhej in Ahmedabad.
The initial stage of the Crafts Museum was completed in 1977. The final stage is currently under construction, In it, ancient buildings of extraordinary merit (for instance, an old wooden haveli from Gujarat and a stone temple from Tamil Nadu) are being incorporated into the new construction to make the architecture a collage as varied and pluralistic as India herself.
Model of the cosmos (1986—)
This museum-cum-cultural centre for the city of Jaipur, dedicated to the memory of India’s great leader Jawaharlal Nehru, is based on the ancient Vedic concept of architecture as a model of the cosmos. These mythic beliefs, which go back thousands of years, perceive the forms and events which constitute the visible world as being significant oniy to the extent that they help us understand the non-manifest layers that lie beneath. Magic diagrams, called yantras, explain the true nature of the universe. Of these, the vastu-purush-mandalas form the basis of architecture. Thus buildings are conceived as models of the cosmos—no less!
Each vastu-purush-mandala is a perfect square, subdlvided into identical squares, creating a series which starts from 1 and goes on to 4, 9, 16, 25 … right up to 1024. In temple architecture, the most commonly used mandalas are those of 64 and 81 squares, with the various deities allocated places in accordance with their importance and with the mystical qualities inherent in the diagram. The mandala is not a plan; it represents art energy field. Its centre signifies both shunya (the absolute void) as well as bindu (the world seed and the source of all energy). In all mandalas, at this centre is located Brahmana, the Supreme Principle. According to Hinduism, when the cycles of reincarnation ate finally over, and the atma (individual soul) is released from each one of us, it goes to Brahmana, that is, to the centre of this energy field.
The analogy to the black holes of contemporary physics is truly astounding. Energy devours itself, and the individual soul (after completing all the cycles of reincarnation) goes not to an eternal reward in Heaven or in the Garden of Paradise, but down the vortex at the centre of the black hole. How in credible that such a concept should have surfaced so many thousands of years ago. As Bachelard has pointed out, the intuitive insight of the artist (or for that matter the seer) cannot be explained through the cause-and-effect structure of scientific reasoning, but, like a depth charge, explodes in the centre of our being, releasing to the surface the debris of our unconscious.
Jaipur is a city built in the seventeenth century by the astronomer king, Maharaj Jai Singh. The master plan is based on the Navgraha, a vastu-purush-mandala of nine squares. In this unique city, Jai Singh embarked on a truly extraordinary adventure. He sought to combine his passion for two of the most powerful myths he knew: on the one hand, ancient and sacred yantric beliefs; on the other, the latest tenets of contemporary science. Hence his choice of the nine-square mandala, corresponding to the navagraha of the nine planets. The void in the central square he used for the palace garden, and because of the presence of a hill, a corner square was moved diagonally across.
The plan of the Jawahar Kala Kendra invokes directly the original navgraha mandala. One of the squares is pivoted to recall the shift in the original city plan (and also to create three entrances). The functions of the museum are disaggregated into nine separate groupings, each one corresponding to the mythic qualities of that particular planet. For instance, the library is located in the square of the planet Mercury which traditionally represents knowledge; the theatres are in the house of Venus, representing the arts; the central square, as specified in the ancient Vedic Shastras, is a void, representing the nothing which is everything. The external walls of each square are sheathed in red sandstone, in which is inlaid a white marble symbol of the corresponding planet.
Each one of these nine squares is 30 x30 metres, defined by a masonry wall eight metres high. It is totally autonomous, connected to its neigh bours only by doorways aligned centrally along the main north-south and east-west axes. This allows each of the squares to have its own archetectonic expression, true to its symbolic meaning and its function, Organizing construction on these principles allows considerable flexibility, since the contents of each square in the mandala can be designed—and constructed—at different points in time, which is a distinct advantage in the stop-go context of the indian economy. The construction is of masonry walls with columns and slabs. Expansion joints rim between the various squares, which allowed construction of the project to be undertaken simultaneously by three separate contractors, each working independently of the others.