Introductory Note

  • When we met in 1984, almost everyone presented their work (a project, a set of photographs, unbuilt work, a research study, etc.) and collectively we discussed these to understand/appreciate significant directions for architecture in India
  • After two decades of practice in the field or in academia, we can present our recent work and again try and arrive collectively at a normative understanding of the architectural situation.
  • Since the eighties we have lived through significant changes in the architectural scene.

The demographic profile of our cities has changed to make the habitat of the poor a majority phenomenon in most of our cities. The physical and social infrastructure is also changing, but do the current paradigms for urban development consider the majority population as being centre-stage?

Rural areas are also undergoing a major land-use transformation, with "new townships" replacing agriculture, and forcing more migration of the poor into the expanding cities. What is the architecture of the new rural-urban continuum?

Economic liberalization has opened up choices in building materials and construction technologies. At the same time our nationally-contained professional community is being encroached by international players. Can we foresee a new balance between local cultures and the global community? Can there be a new flowering of creative energy resulting from accelerated economic growth?

The information technology boom, which cuts across the traditional urban/rural divide, is changing the way we think about our environment. At its worst it fuels the consumer culture, creating an electric stage-set of gleaming high rises which polarizes society into haves and have-nots. The promise inherent in a web-enabled society requires much more intellectual effort to realize its beneficial potential. Can the architectural profession live up to this challenge?

Architectural education is undergoing transformation with the number of schools increasing exponentially in the last 2 decades. The new generation of architects is more exposed to global stimulation, but what are the sources of their architectural inspiration? What are the new areas of research which will encourage critical thinking on issues like identity, appropriateness, and modernity, which were some of the issues underlying our discussions in the Indian Architecture Workshop we initiated in December 1984?

MN Ashish Ganju, New Delhi. 6th December, 2006

Historical Note

It is difficult to recall, off the cuff, what was the Indian architecture scene then, in mid 80s, but by then some of who had known each other for about 10 years and sick of the replication of the cover pages of the Architectural Record and Progressive Architecture, both from USA, were wondering if architecture should not be more contextual as indeed it was taught to us at the school. As to what this architecture should be called we had no doubt: Indian architecture. And that is it.

Social, cultural and economic contexts were the terms almost always accompanying the discussion of architecture but the reality was much different. Perhaps the reality was that of the Indian architects deftly copying the west and carrying these with them to be applauded during their travels, then almost always to the USA.

Sure there were the Bharat Darshan trips and documentation trips, but these were more to appreciate the folk and primitive as outsiders looking in rather than lessons to be drawn thereof. Surprising as it may seem now but ecodevelopment and energy saving were on the agenda of many a discussions in many disciplines then but architecturally there was no response in India. Sure AD, London was a very different magazine then with a far more socially responsible agenda, not to forget Herman Kahn and The Whole Earth Catalogue with a picture of the earth setting on the horizon of the moon on the back cover.

Each time the few of us met we ended up discussing all these and finally in early 1985, we decided to do something in whatever way with whatever resources available. We began by looking in Mumbai and Ahmadabad for persons who could help to generate ideas, develop them and then follow up. During these meetings it became clear to us that such an effort should involve persons from as diverse geographies as possible and that defining Indian Architecture in all its theoretical and practical terms was the most crucial task. This included its past, present and hopefully stemming from it, its future.

So based on persons we knew personally or through works known, published, we started writing to may be 20 to 25 of them requesting to participate in our endeavour, soliciting suggestions, ideas specially what homework should we all do and what might happen at Mumbai. We fixed the dates for the meetings at Mumbai so that we could be there for the night of 31st December as the meeting ended.

As we corresponded and few of us met face to face in Mumbai and Ahmadabad, it became clear to us that it cannot be a meeting or a seminar or a conference but had to be a workshop and that we should work to define Indian Architecture to the degree and detail possible.

Given the diversity of the country we realised that there may be strong variations that might have to be dealt with and hence we decided to bring to Mumbai examples of writings, past and present examples of buildings from our parts of the nation which we thought were worthy of being termed as good examples of Indian Architecture.

1. At the Meeting

Since many of us were meeting for the first time and had no clue about the preparedness for the workshop, nothing went as planned but everything went right since sincerity and honesty were the most shared values for the three days.

Generally the mornings were reserved for open discussions, late mornings and early afternoons for looking at the examples we had brought with us and late afternoons to recapture the day and to see what sense we made for the day.

We struggled a lot during the three days to enumerate what might be termed as characteristic features of Indian architecture as manifest in the built and physical, social, cultural and economic contexts embodied there in while discussing the examples presented there.

Of course it was a vast agenda and an enormous task and on the last day we decided to continue our discussions through meetings in our own cities and in near future nationally again. We did have a follow up meeting at Ahmadabad in late 1986. But that was it. As usual the daily grind got the better of our plans. We feel, partly also because even as there was no formal conclusion or a publication, it was obvious that each one of was transformed in many ways and personally felt kind of enlightened, wiser from having been at the workshop.

It may be too much to say but for many of us, our outlook, our beliefs, the kind of work we have done or chosen not to do, has been quite a bit influenced by those three days in 1985. For more than that to happen in terms of getting more persons involved, more such gatherings, a publication perhaps, it is very necessary to be organised and committed, qualities which are generally in short supply in our part of the world.

2. Catch 22 in 2007

But life is full of surprises and the resurrection/revival of the 1985 meet as Catch 22 is a testimony to the survival of ideas and desire to seek more than just livelihood in life and look for meaning beyond. Hopefully with better organisation and the benefits and convenience of the digital world this round of the meet will be more sustained and fruitful than the last one.

Foremost among the suggestions is to have each participant bring her/his own definition of Indian architecture in formal terms and how that embodies the Indian contexts of social, cultural, economic contexts/forces. This must be illustratable meaning that whole buildings or parts/elements of buildings can be pointed out/identified to support the case.

The presentations may take the tone of each one arguing and building up a case to the effect that this is my definition of Indian architecture and this is how it can be designed or built and an architecture for India achieved/arrived at. This is not an easy thing to do but then the task for Catch 22 is not easy either.

Hopefully in all these definitions being touted as the right one, there will be commonly shared features/characteristics which then would be the tentative working definition we are looking for. This in turn must be the quality we must strive to achieve in our work.

This is obviously a pretty simplified reading of the work required and may not work at all or works only inadequately. But we would not let that hold us back.

Our task is not to endlessly debate till the words have been shorn of their generally acceptable meanings and associations like philosophers which architects are not. We strive to design and build right to the best of the knowledge and understanding at a given time, and improve the next time around with reasoned change. We will always remain at the cross roads and uncertain but act in good faith we must and always.

Finally, a word of caution from the past experience for the future. Quite a few of the participants at the meeting itself and subsequently felt they have no place in such a debate since their work involved designing towers in the highly speculative market, and the zoning and building regulations already defined the kind of urban fabric and architecture that could come up, specially in the metros.

This is a reality for many of us. The only way such situations can be dealt with is by recognizing that new ideas, hopes, developments need not be shaped or constrained by the not so wise ideas and practices of today. That if some of our cities or parts thereof have developed unwisely, we should let them be and instead focus on what is needed to developed for the needs of the people who are growing in number as well as awaiting to improve their living and working habitat.

Muktirajsinhji Chauhan, Ahmedabad. 7th January 2007

CATCH 22: A short note on the discussion

1. Development of an Aesthetic Tradition

In the first set of discussions, held 22 years ago, the following major questions had emerged:

  • What is the identity of Indian architecture?
  • What kind of architecture is appropriate to the Indian condition?
  • What does “modernity” mean in the Indian context?

In earlier times, an aesthetic tradition would develop, which was strongly rooted in culture and community, and such questions were dealt with in the context of such a tradition. In today’s contemporary and globalised world, there is no such reference. It is unlikely that a meeting of architects (such as Catch 22) would develop such a tradition during their deliberations. If fact, any such attempt would be counterproductive, as it is likely to get trapped in superficial issues such as style. As Alan Colquhoun remarked: “There is a difference between style arising out of an effort to create meaning, and style being seen as a predetermined solution by which meaning can be affixed.”

However, through a continuing discussion on concerns that individually preoccupy each one of us, a set of similar and shared concerns could develop. In the long term, this set of shared concerns (sustained by ongoing debate, deliberation and documentation) could develop into an aesthetic tradition.

2. Documentation

One of the serious handicaps in India is lack of adequate documentation on our historical tradition of architecture. While the major famous monuments have some compiled information, there is very little available from which one can glean information on a wider sense of tradition.

The drawings that are produced every year for NASA, as entries for the Louis Kahn trophy, constitute a ready and valuable resource on documentation of traditional Indian architecture. But it is a hitherto untapped resource. If this resource could be published, or widely disseminated in any form, it would contribute a great deal to awareness on our historical tradition.

It would be best if this effort is spearheaded by a neutral institution such as CoA or NIASA.

This would be the easiest point on which to quickly achieve tangible results.

3. Education and Courseware

On 7th January, we saw presentations that showed some interesting courseware and thinking on curriculum for the basic design courses for entering architecture students. It would be useful, if this thinking was pulled together into a common pool so that sharing and cross-fertilisation of ideas could occur. This would further the cause of education in general. We could start with the institutions that were represented in the Catch-22 discussions, and then widen the set of participants.

4. Urbanism

There is a cause for serious concern regarding our urban environment. We continually see a major segment of the population without adequate shelter, increasing degradation of the urban environment, failing infrastructure, etc. Globalisation and the rising rate of urbanization worsen this crisis every day.

On the one hand we could say that the reason for this continuing catastrophe is a distortion in the political system, where power and corruption divert attention away from pressing developmental concerns towards self-serving agendas. This is undoubtedly true, and political mobilisation is required to develop resistance to this distortion.

But it is also possible that there is a more serious problem, where our conceptual tools are so limited that we do not even perceive the real problem. Our planning method is dominated by western models that do not even serve western needs, and are largely inappropriate to the characteristics of the Indian city.

How should we conceive and articulate the problem? Is this a situation that calls for professional expertise or participatory mobilisation? While these questions (and there are many more related questions) are complex and require input from other professions, brainstorming and action plans that come from architects could provide some useful direction.

Prem Chandavarkar, Mumbai/Bangalore. 12th January 2007

Regional Meeting at Ahmedabad

Attended by Sarva Shri Miki Desai, Madhavi Desai, Pratyush Shankar, Surya Kakani, Himashu Parikh and NH Chhaya, at CEPT campus on April 28, 2007. 

1. The reiteration of what was discussed and agreed at the last meeting

Surya Kakani giving a brief introduction about the background of IAW and catch 22.

Miki Desai reminded the concern expressed in the last Mumbai meeting, which were:

  1. Need for documentation and portfolio publication
  2. Issues of Architecture of the Heroes and the problems associated with it

2. Format of IAW

Pratyush Shankar started by saying that we should really discuss the format and focus of IAW before moving ahead. The uniqueness of the IAW format lies in the fact that it is not formalized, and is loosely structured as a forum which should be critically looking at issues. He believes that threads of conversation here and which get represented in the mailing list becomes very important. It should be seen as an opportunity to raise and discuss issues that otherwise we are not able to pursue. For example critical review of contemporary architecture is not covered by any journal in India. Other issues that are interest to him are issues related to IPR, Patents, Globalization of Practices and software, which he thinks are going to affect the architectural community but today they are not being systematically and critically discussed in any forum. And IAW does offer opportunity for all of us to start such debates, contribute essays etc. He believed the internet offers a good opportunity to document opinions and extract knowledge from seemingly casual conversations. He further reiterated before moving into details that we should really discuss the format of IAW to get sense of everybody’s opinion. He personally felt there should not be any need to moderate posts because if that is done then the whole purpose of the effort gets defeated.

  1. NH Chhaya felt that if Pratyush Shankar can put up on the mailing list all what he said right now and slowly everyone can put their opinion on the web, soon it will become a very important knowledge bank
  2. Surya Kakani felt that the web is not necessarily the ideal and most comfortable format. He felt that the mailing list has it problems. The replies fly too often, sometimes you do not want to get into a conversation, you do not find your own space in it, and hence one gets alienated from it. He thought anyways it should not only be conversation but some tangible task based kind of format.
  3. Hamanshu added that some kind of topics can be posted for discussions on the mail list, so it can become slightly more specific and constructive. The key words, he said, were task-based discussions and issue-based criticism. Rather critical appraisal is more conducive than criticism.
  4. Miki Desai agreed and said tangible outputs and not just communication is something we should aim for. For example we can resolve here that by the end of this year we should come out with a small booklet on some topic. An example of such topic could be “Conversations between Architect and Engineer” to address the gap between the two professions.
  5. Everyone seemed to agree that some “task based” output apart from critical appraisal, criticism and discussion will really help IAW. The next round of discussion was on the nature of tasks.

3. What role can be played by the group present today?

  1. Surya Kakani tried to summarize the key things that can be done, which are (a) portfolio and documentation, (b) material related to teaching learning processes, and (c) architecture criticism/critical appraisal;
    1. Himanshu Parikh insisted on theme based conversations can help IAW to develop a focus. He said that let us first think why we are doing all this—we are a group of friends, who have done little more than average and we all believe that something better can be done.
    2. Madhavi Desai felt that we should make a commitment to write about our education experiences and processes, since many of us here are into it.
    3. Surya Kakani said that we have time till 2 to 3 month to think what we want to do. He again felt that it should not only be conversation but some other activities as well. Maybe we should get together to discuss our work a kind of peer review.
  2. Pratyush Shankar disagreed with Surya Kakani and said that we should not try to think that through IAW, we can do all the other activities that one has always wanted to do! There are other forums as well. He also felt that IAW should be more conversation and criticism type of mode, and if we can do in our own ways small little tasks like documentation, writing etc. but the activities should be individual centric and not group centric. For example Miki Desai could write about his Basic Design course and put it up for all of us to see.
    1. NH Chhaya felt that we need not wait 2 to 3 months, we should just start doing little things. He also felt that there is no real problem it being more conversation mode as that is also important.
    2. Miki Desai suggested finally their could be presentations that are opened to students community as well.
    3. Pratyush Shankar said there is problem here as it becomes too attached with “the CEPT way of doing things”. He felt it should have nothing to do with CEPT as an organization. We should move away from CEPT so that we become more vulnerable and in the process maybe learn more. I think that is the only way efforts such as IAW will succeed.

In the End...

  1. Madhavi Desai said that everyone should commit on some little things in form of writing or portfolio to bring out by the end of this year.
  2. In the end Miki Desai showed his documentation report on the Jamnagar Solarium to the participants. The discussions on building and many other issues went on for sometime then.

Pratyush Shankar, Ahmedabad. 29th April, 2007