‘Globalization as omnipresent phenomena has ensured that any glass tower could be picked from one end of the world and transported to the other without any real consequences. Our quest should be to search for architectural identity, and not national identity, to search for style – rather than astyle’, says Ar. Aditi Dora
Much like the city is a collection of socio-cultural landscapes of people and place, emotion and expression and time and travel, the nation is an agglomeration of urban and rural systems seen through the alchemy of time and space. Place in its geographical and climatic milieu and society in its socio-cultural fabric, forms the mix through which one analyses the spirit of decisions, evolutions and impacts. The numerous filters of people, culture, religion, activity and history form multiple overlays of South Asia’s multidimensional overtones.
As architects, we often reflect on the environs in which we have evolved, developed and called ourselves citizens. The metamorphosis of any societal system from barbarian to tribal to democratic has been non linear and shaped by the dualities of traditional and modern, change and continuity, local and global coupled with the underpinnings of politics, power and economics. In the histories of a people and their experiences of a combined past, lie the tiniest nuances of pause, reflection and erudition. It is these gaps in time, that have brought change, whether appropriate or inappropriate and it is these discontinuities of life – in general and in generations – that pose one of the important challenges to an architect, where there lies the power to transform the socio-cultural landscape of a country and its architectural manifestations for the g-local scenarios.
Here, the role of an architect as a creator of built (and unbuilt) expression, as a sculptor of sustainable and humane living environments and as an interpreter deciphering human values comes into place.
South Asia: The breeding ground for ethnicities, geographies, territories and religions
The diversity of architectural past in Asia is mind boggling – for it encompasses within itself every major form of significance nurtured within the country or introduced from outside. The vernacular took root from its environs – climate and geography helped determine form, finding expression in courtyards (hot, dry) or in through-ventilation (hot, humid). At a much deeper level, they also helped determine the patterns of culture and rituals and the primary determinant of ritual, also determined built form. Whether in Egyptian pyramids or in south Indian temples, there is a great sense of pilgrimage and ritualistic procession. The monumental temples of south India are experienced not just as gopurams and shrines, but as experiences of movement through the great open-to-sky spaces that lie between them. The same temple in North India atop the Himalayas mandate ascend and toil before reaching the temple itself, as movement through valleys and ridges with the reward-destination in sight. It is why the symbol of education in America is the l’il red schoolhouse, but in India it is the guru sitting under a tree.
Of course, cross-culture, trade and commerce ensured that things never happened in isolation. Influence from the outside, whether through changing political regimes or through trade brought in creativity, expression and adaptation. The temples of Angkor Wat, Pagan, Borobudur and Prambanan bear evidence to the deep penetration of Indian art and architectural forms in these famous Southeast Asian monuments. Indian craftsmen who travelled to Java did the sculpting of many of the motifs on the walls of Borobudur and Angkor Wat resembling carvings of Konark and other medieval temples of eastern India.
War brought in new friendships that bore fruit through mutual learning and growing, and allies not only fought battles together but also pieced the saga of political, economic, architectural and expressionist agendas together.
From true arches and domes of Colonial and Islamic rule, neo-classical and art deco British architecture to royal palaces and tombs, vernacular ingenuity of wooden post and lintel houses and courtyard houses to sculpted religious teachings in stone, ‘neighbor’-hood learnings and much later, but more evident now, the euphoria of political freedom and a collective cry for ‘modernity’ – South Asia is an eclectic mix of forms not alien to the place but rather molded into the curvature of the ever resilient Asian life.
With the advent of democracy and the expectancies of a brighter, better and industrialized future, different pluralities took shape in different countries, coupled with the surge of modernism at a time when our politically free societies were seeking ‘new’ identities, unburdened with the ‘classicism’ of their past.
The western world models being our points of departure, we set out to create now, a future that symbolizes the freedom, strength, resilience and independent-ship…of chartering new paths to success and the road to being developed nations, at par with our western counterparts and with the world at large. Foreign architects were invited to build important commissions and set examples for the new vision of the countries. Appropriate or inappropriate- a matter of personal discretion- but these examples sparked new lines of thought and trained generations of architects to come, who sought better identities and brighter futures for their nations.
But is Identity not a process rather than a ‘found’ object?
The currency of “isms” – modernism, ultra- modernism, and now post-modernism, has plagued our societies for some time now, as something that is unsuited and alien to its climate, context and people, and irrelevant to our development models, resources, climatic circumstances and socio-cultural well being, and is ‘foreign’ in itself.
It is here that one wonders, were the ‘eclectic’ buildings of pre-modernism, those variant forms, representing a greater integrity than in most architectural expressions of today, or are they evidence of disjunctures?
Factors in play : Underpinnings of money, power, world recognition
Forces that have shaped these developments are multi-fold and multifarious. The unusual mix of socio-economic fora in South Asia has led to an array of multiple identities under the umbrella term of ‘South Asian Architecture’, which stood for the indigenous architecture of its time and socio-cultural ethos.
Initial Japanese cities were modeled and constructed based on Chinese plans for capital cities, where Nara and Kyoto still show the inspiration of this model. Later architecture was heavily influenced by Korean and Chinese understandings and styles as well as manifestation of the suzerain expressions in the built forms.
However, with the coming of the pacific war, things transformed for good. The most well known political changes are the rise of ethnic consciousness and nationalism and their popularization. The war, for japan, was a testing ground for a plethora of ideas, all complimented with its allied relations and smart strategies with other nations such as Philippines and Indonesia In Indonesia, for example, Japan set up camps for military training for youth and later established the “Popular Education and Cultural Direction Center” to educate and train artists for the purpose of promoting traditional arts and encouraged the production and screening of movies there.
With the dawn of realization of what worked for them and what didn’t, the Japanese encouraged indigenous cultures, recognized languages and people and promoted their art and craft, expressed through local languages in architecture, literature, music, theatrical performances, and movies. Religion and the introduction to Buddhism and subsequently Shinto called for meditative, minimal spaces, respect for nature and optimum use of resources and land and Japan, thus, managed to reconcile Western thought with its time honored traditions, and its architecture has proven that both can coexist, having done so many times in the span of just a century and a half as well as in the wake of modern globalization.
However, in other cases, the extremities of conflicts – war, genocides, migration and diaspora that gave rise to the necessities of housing, social infrastructure and birth to megacities were further remolded by ideological propagations of diplomacy, economics, trade and expanding cultural influences. Housing became a mass prototype to be stamped across political boundaries – alien to the people, context, climate and locale. Coupled with the underpinnings of political scores, the outcome was of increased crime rates, joblessness, rise in the urban poor, and a general, ubiquitous case of more demand and less supply everywhere, putting stressful pressure on land, resources and economy.
China’s communist agenda combined with policies of population control and labor availability largely led to mass produced, single prototyped housing schemes versus in the USA where a capitalist governmental regime moulded its cities in a significantly different manner. The communist regime of 1949 ‘fired away’ an architecture of its own – tearing down historic Chinese structures and replacing them with grey colored jenga blocks. The new regime regarded them as emblems of decadence and moribundity, and modernism clawed its way into the Chinese society in the forms of monotonously imposing concrete structures. The stealth to break away from the past took its roots in shades of numerous greys – forming the houses for its population and the backdrop for its cities.
However, for India, the land of antiquity, the country of countries, there was Classical to Saracenic to Mughal architecture which brought tenets of Islamic, hindu and vernacular styles together thereby adapting and adding value to its place, to the royal architecture of ‘mahals’ – palaces and darabars merging hindu architecture with European artifacts and western furnishings to the last custodian of domestic architecture, which fused local vernacular with Hindu styles.
With the ideation of democracy and expectancies to become an independent nation with democratic political entity, dreams of the welfare state and to join the newly created world order made us embrace modernism and invite foreign architects to create the India of a new reality. These provided opportunities for experimenting ideas in the realms of creative expression and the openness of asking for help, for eg. Otto Koenigsberger to design new capital of Bhubaneshwar in 1948 and Le Corbusier to plan Chandigarh in 1950.
Le Corbusier acted as a visionary to the architectural discourse in India and all four of his designs demonstrated examples of environmental comfort in hot and dry climate along with volumetric and materialistic expression. His interpretations of Brise soleil in ATMA to cut down on the west sun while still taking advantage of the dominant south west breeze to the hydrophonic roofs of Sarabhai house, Sanskar Kendra etc. to offer a reproductive culture while still insulating the spaces beneath, are all examples of adaptation and sensitivity to climate and culture and have continued to inspire generations of architects. Poetry created in brick by Kahn for IIM ably optimized on local materials and craftsmanship while remaining true to its culture and climate and still being aesthetically timeless. It also gave legitimacy to newer ways of building in brick and to exposed, clean construction and has since then, been extrapolated in numerous buildings across Ahmedabad and beyond.
Similarly, architects have also played the role of activists and contributed to the cause of architectural education as well as propagation. Christopher Benninger and Charles Eames, both trained internationally and invited by patrons to India helped draft course curriculums for the School of Architecture CEPT and the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad respectively.
Rapid urbanization and increasingly changing demographics has threatened largely, people’s livelihoods along with the need for socio-culturally appropriate housing and public spaces. By 2050, it is estimated that two out of three human beings will live in cities, with nearly 90 per cent of the increase in the world’s urban population being concentrated in Asia and Africa. With the ambit of such figures, the architect has also risen to be the voice of people and place where their cultural and traditional wisdom was threatened by mass housing and its disjunctures. With participatory processes and being the mediator for the people, Yatin Pandya successfully demonstrated in Ludia housing, Kutchh how the architect can be the interpreter of values and the fundamentalist to shape our built environment and preserve the socio-cultural ethos of a place and its people.
But, in the last two decades and less, the triggers for architectural diaspora in South Asia have been largely, world models of development and western imagery emulated to our cities with no and less consideration for critical thought, relevance and climate. The philosophy being brandished as ‘-isms’ and styles have been superficial copies and have proven desolate over time. In the name of globalization, the new generation of architects have failed to imbibe in our buildings, the human and humane spirit that was so apparently glorified in the architecture of the modern masters as interpretations and reinterpretations of a global language in a local context, thereby being g-local. It is thus, ironical now, when questions are raised about the architectural identity of South Asia. From being a region with diverse architectural grammar from Siheyuan houses to Tolou earth houses to the wooden houses of China to stone havelis of rajasthan to pol houses of Ahmedabad to the thoroughly ventilated, verandah wrapped Nalukettu houses of Kerala in India, we are now seeing an ubiquitous language of glass boxes and high rise scrapers that have backfired on the ingenious, localized vernacular. These are islanded buildings barricaded in their own compounds that severely pose risk to not just the identity of its place and public realm, but even association, ownership and performance. The architect of today has played subservient to market forces and the lure of a world economy to fault on his own values, wisdom and heritage.
Is the architect not a g-local visionary to propagate our shared future in this case?
Who are we? Who do you think we are?
The city is often designed and conceived by professionals, politicians, urban planners and architects, but it is also practiced, transformed, adapted and sometimes defended by its inhabitants. – Michael Herzfeld
Can architects be the crusaders of our generation- the visionaries and role models?
Globalization as omnipresent phenomena has ensured that any glass tower could be picked from one end of the world and transported to the other without any real consequences. Our quest should be to search for architectural identity, and not national identity, to search for style – rather than astyle.
As architects we change the situation, not by polemics, but by example.
Can we be architects of change?
Architectural manifestations may not always be the best outcomes in themselves. Yet, the architectural discourse seeks to not just question the final result or what is merely visible to the naked eye, but the intent. It looks for buildings that ask the right question; that raises the right concerns. We are not necessarily always the greatest architects, but we can look out to be one of the sensitive ones.
Can architect be the mediator – the common man?
The role of an architect is often perceived as a designer of the built environment. Yet, most of the decisions that go into making a built intervention, are not taken in the architect’s air conditioned office, but by the end users – by everyone who gets affected in the slightest of the manners – by the inhabitants. It is here, that at times, it calls for us to be mediators – to be torchbearers of communities and play the role of the ‘negotiating citizen’, with local democracy and encourage the active participation of the inhabitants. The realities of daily urban life and the decisions taken by authorities could be mitigated by the architect acting as the ‘bridge’.
Can architects be social activists?
The aspirations of a population are not expressed by the selective rich but more so and more importantly, by the ones with lesser of a voice and who are a lot more in number. The ones with a lot of questions but without any answers to their distress, the ones who seek cultural acknowledgement, social security and unadulterated dignity.
The architect has the power to harness cultural catalysts – to be the voice of those unheard. He is the interpreter of our values and holds the power to add value to our lives, to even be the propagator of life. We ought to not just advocate against the brandishing of ‘-isms’, but by doing work that seeks at heart, to become institutions of man.
Research credits: Durga Vitankar and Harsheen Mengar
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