Architects and urban planners in India continue to follow colonial prescriptions to resolve present-day habitat problems. In a field dominated by generic global trends, the challenge is to develop a mindset that focuses on modern solutions rooted in the local context.
While there is indeed much to celebrate about contemporary architecture and urban planning in India, it however overlooks the significance of its failures, such as the stubborn persistence of the degraded quality of the contemporary built environment. These failures are the legacy of the colonial origins of the professions, which has created conundrums, or conceptual dilemmas, that its legatees have not resolved. Taking a cue from the works of the celebrated designer, Dashrath Patel, I argue that the key to resolving these conundrums lies in seeking the objectives of pragmatic indigeneity – focus on the local context – in strategies to engage with local habitats.
Patel was a polymath in the design disciplines, an exemplar of the proverbial native genius, whose designs evolved from a rational understanding of the local context. As a consequence, his designs displayed an unselfconscious indigeneity in a field that was striving to emulate global trends. This approach marked him as a quintessential iconoclast that offers salutary lessons for contemporary architects and urban planners in India.
The focus on new development has meant that the lessons of Patrick Geddes, who proposed culturally sensitive and humane urban renewal schemes for Indian cities, are treated as footnotes in the history of modern Indian urban planning, and duly forgotten while dealing with contemporary habitats. Instead, the lessons of Le Corbusier, the towering genius of Western Modernism, are valorized. Le Corbusier once said, modernity begins where history ends, and by following his dictates architects and urban planners in India have paid a heavy price to achieve modernity because it has contributed to the denigration of the rich legacy of historic cities and architectural traditions of the country.
It is in this context that I refer to Dashrath Patel’s approach to design. He advocated pragmatic indigeneity in design that was rooted in a deep understanding of ground realities. His approach aimed at neither stylistic expressions in design nor its rejection. It did not pursue indigeneity as a nationalistic or cultural symbol and it also did not reject it in favour of universal design principles.
Dashrath’s approach recalls the distinction Robert Venturi made in his provocative book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, between an “either/or” and a “both/and” approach to problem solving. His was a “both/and” approach, whose logic evolved out of a deep understanding of the local context. It enabled him to posit the integrated survival of community needs, livelihoods of craftspeople and the environment through his design interventions. In the process, he compellingly bridged many disciplinary boundaries that separate experts working independently on the ground, thus overcoming the limitations of postcolonial educational pedagogy.
The focus on indigeneity in design is difficult to appreciate today, particularly because India is far more integrated with the international economic and cultural systems. The global market is now, more strongly than ever, the arbiter of decisions to be taken for the welfare of local society – including, regretfully, in the field of education. So the questions that confront architecture and urban planning professionals in India today are whether they should be looking outwards for inspiration and solutions to local problems or inwards, whether to embrace the dictates of global models of architecture and urban planning, or pursue the principles of indigeneity, such as Dashrath Patel advocated, and thereby overcome the conundrums that persist in the postcolonial professional practice.