We ask little of our buildings, yet agonise over mere spectacle
When Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Open your windows and let the winds of change blow through your house”, he had not anticipated that the action would upturn the furniture and break everything that lay within. Much of what has happened in Indian architecture since Nehru’s prophetic words has been destabilising and destructive. The civilising influence of building, seen in the independence ideals of Chandigarh, is lost in a haze of changing aspirations, and now almost three-quarter of a century later, the struggle to find an identity within the urge to globalise has left Indian buildings with a crisis of design.
Nehru’s view of architecture arose from western modernity and the hope of creating a national culture through architecture. But it was mistakenly interpreted as a break from tradition. Rather than the original doctrine of an ascetic and frugal simplicity bestowing a visible equality for all, Indian modernism began to emulate a capitalist ideology; certainly, it changed the perception of the country from ‘third world’ to ‘developing’, but in its wake left a muddled inheritance.
The new Indian lost all time-bound links to place and operates in free time. He functions with global institutions and networks, building houses and glass office complexes that could be in Rio or New York.
... unlike India, much of the neighbouring work reflects an older order. Bhutan specifically restricts all flamboyant commercialism and even enforces strict guidelines for new buildings to follow traditional patterns. A view of Paro conveys a Bhutanese city sitting tranquil and familiar in the valley. Next door, a dispirited and erratic Gangtok rises in a messy Indian urbanism, part shop, part house and slum. A looming gray fog envelops the hillside with borrowed facsimiles of glass and cement—ragged, ramshackle and always incomplete.
Why do we ask so little of our buildings, yet agonise so much over architecture? When architecture is not formed out of existing circumstances—materials, technology and cultural insights—it is formed out of nothing, and becomes a mere fanciful object of design. Without an understanding of cultural requisites, and their continued expression in new buildings, the architect flounders, and a case for redundancy looms large. In the larger scheme of things, the Indian architect betrays a lack of faith in culture, and forgets that the basis of the future is the past. In the shining chrome and glass building, that belief seems far away.