First published in Domus India 46 December 2015
Reproduced with kind permission of the editor
Without the benefit of hindsight
In conversation with Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote and Kaiwan Mehta
Looking back to the time architectural practices first began to proliferate in India, one sees that they always operated within an ecosystem of practice, academia and association. We can trace this to the 1930’s, when the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA) was set up, which in turn emerged from the alumni of the Bombay School of Art. Teachers at the school were the most prolific practitioners in the country, and students made the easy transition from learning, to apprenticeship, to setting up their own practices. Even patrons, largely non-state (in the penultimate decades before independence) aligned themselves with the architects in a collegial association. The Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects and their annual lectures became the mouthpieces of collective praxis, as the many presidential speeches show. Everyone knew what everyone else was doing, knowledge flowed centripetally.
In the years after independence, these bonds became looser as the nation-state became the chief patron. While private wealth and industry provided steady work for architects all over the country, the IIA still continued to remain the platform of discourse and dissemination- an internal professional rumination, largely distanced from changing politics and culture in the country, especially from the seventies onwards. While students of architecture did briefly take political stances during the Emergency, practice remained unaffected.
By the end of the eighties, with the rise of the patron as aspirant or speculator, and, a few years later with the effects of liberalization made flesh, the erstwhile associations started to crumble, the ecosystem became unstable, and in some ways unsustainable. Architectural practices became myriad and diffuse, working centrifugally, aligning into various smaller constellations. The influence of the IIA waned, while the Council of Architecture, mandated to look after the concerns of practice in the early seventies through an Act of Parliament, by and large, came to focus on monitoring architectural education that had, by the turn of the millennium, boomed with colleges springing up in all parts of the country.
Education too, dispersed in the wake of overarching Modernism’s eclipse and the acceptance of pluralism fuelled both by the rise of critical theoretical positions in architecture as well as a dilution of the rigor that functionalism once imposed on its practitioners. Critical discussions on Indian architecture have since been restricted to a few conferences and the odd polemic in architecture magazines (which also proliferated since the eighties, but have mainly been showpieces of architecture for the rich and famous). Books on Indian architecture, when concentrating on the contemporary are in the form of monographs, vanity publications or, when serious, about urban change. Vistara, the exhibition, in 1984 was comprehensive, but an overview of Indian architecture. Three decades on, there has been no serious review of the state of the architectural profession in India.
That is what the exhibition ‘State of Architecture’ (SOA) seeks to redress. Scheduled to open at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai and other associated venues the SOA exhibition will be open to the public for around three months and will take a comprehensive look at our architectural present. The curators of this challenging endeavor are Rahul Mehrotra- architect, academic, author and researcher, professor at Harvard and one of the foremost architectural practitioners (RMA Architects) in the country; Ranjit Hoskote- cultural theorist, art critic, curator and author and Kaiwan Mehta- the editor of these very pages, of Domus India, also an author, academic and urban theorist. As the exhibition reaches its final stages of preparation, the curators had a free-wheeling conversation with Mustansir Dalvi about the exhibition, its objectives and the larger state of architecture; its practice and production, in retrospect and in prognosis; covering many issues from praxis to patronage, from theoretical positions to political stances.
Why is this the right time to take stock of the state of architecture in India today?
For several important reasons:
The first is clearly to correct or compensate for the absolute silence in the discussion of architecture in the last decade or two. For good reason, our discussions and our focus have been on urban questions, or at least we have approached our discussion about architecture through the lens of the city.
Further, the architecture that has been celebrated in India since the liberalization of our economy has been the ‘architecture of indulgence’- weekend homes, restaurants, resorts and corporate offices; and, as an extension of this limited spectrum of what is celebrated, the discussion is focused on material, craft, and texture in an almost fetishistic manner. While this is productive in its own way – it removes the perception of the usefulness of architecture away from the public. All such programs that, while they are crucial crucibles for architectural innovation, touch a very small fragment of our population.
Lastly, in India, the State has more or less given up the responsibility of projecting an ‘idea of India’ through the built and physical environment as it had done in the post- independence era when several state capitals, government and educational campuses were built across the country. Today the major state-directed projects are highways, flyovers, airports, telecommunications networks and electricity grids which connect urban centers but don’t contribute to determining or guiding their physical structure. The State is now obsessed with a statistical architecture – GDP, etc. So the idea of this exhibition, through focusing on public architecture is to bring this issue into focus and question the State’s role as patron for architecture, or more broadly the role of the architect in contemporary India society.
Do you project the exhibition as a historical unfolding or a critical deconstruction of Indian architecture?
The exhibition is interestingly both a historic unfolding as well as critical deconstruction - a productive hybrid, which we believe, results from multiple curatorial hands.
The exhibition should be imagined as a diagram of the curatorial team’s own experiences as practioners, critics and theorists - at one point it emphasizes memory and history, but on the other it also makes tangible and hopefully discernable the living chaos of the present. We are at the threshold of classifying and clarifying the chaos that maybe accorded to the present state of architectural manifestations and, rather than a rush to classification, it is important to understand what the presence of chaos or multiplicity means. Naturally this creates an ambiguity in terms of our roles and our instrumentality as designers and so this is a condition that’s worth interrogating productively. In that sense the exhibition shuffles between the protocols of established histories and establishing arguments in light of dramatic historical shifts and the need for newer criteria or lenses of analysis.
The architect as a professional figure will also be drawn out in the exhibition and the events that surround the show, as against only talking about architecture and buildings, per se. The architect as individual needs to be recovered, not as a hero or a socialite, but as a technocrat, a social being, a political entity, a professional contributor and a public intellectual.
Could you briefly take us through the three parts of the exhibition you have envisaged- ‘the State of the Profession’, ‘Practices and Processes’ and ‘Projections and Speculations’.
The first section, ‘The State of the Profession’ will present data on the profession all the way from education, to the media’s representation of the profession to issues that face practioners today.
The second section is an historic overview sliced by three milestones: the first- Independence, the second- the Emergency and the third- economic liberalization. We believe these three moments had a fundamental bearings on the DNA of the profession and a clear sway in its agenda, from one of national identity construction to much more of a regional obsession starting in the 1990s.
The third section is focused on the present generation of practioners – broadly under 50 years of age. In this section we have curated approximately 80 projects that we think signal the contemporary issues as well as aspiration of society in India, but more importantly also register the talent of an emerging generation of practioners in India.
What is the more significant, in your opinion- the product or the praxis?
Clearly, what is more critical is the praxis. The modes of engagement and the forms of patronage that support these different models of architectural practice are thus going to be privileged in this exhibition. The three parts we have envisaged will take the viewer through both a historical perspective as well as confront them with the present state of the profession, while in terms of the pure data what the present generations of practioners are producing.
Do think that the architect today has a more muted voice and lesser agency than in the last century? To extend this line of thought- is architecture in the county driven more by the patron than the architect?
Architecture is largely being driven by patrons and the voice of the architect, at least as we see it, is muted – far too muted, sadly so. Since the liberalization of our economy, architects are pandering to Capital in unprecedented ways – creating what we could call the Architecture of Impatient Capital.
Capital on account of its impatience creates architecture that is often whimsical, most often vendor driven, for ease of speed of construction, with new roles emerging for architects who now interface with technology but also exchange and access information in a renewed relationship, sometimes productively and often in a subservient way. This then, by extension, is a critical issue for practioners – the ideological stance of most patrons, which is largely based on and invested in Capitalisms.
Twenty-five years after the processes of liberalization commenced in the country, the State has loosened its stranglehold on the production of infrastructure, preferring to outsource that which it once mandated to the entrepreneur/speculator, transforming, in the process, the consumer from occupant to aspirant.
Interestingly, in today’s world no ideological stance can be singular or clear. Through the last 25 years we have the simultaneous experience of transitioning out of socialism and transitioning, simultaneously into capitalism (or some form of it). Thus there have been other patrons, trusts, faith-based organizations, NGOs and civil society more broadly that has also supported architecture and recognized its role in the well-being of society. We hope we can celebrate this other half of architectural production in India that is, equally or if not in greater measure, altering and making the ‘new landscape’.
If the developer is playing a role in the building of our architectural physical fabric, then we will have to see where and how we can engage with that set of players. Real-estate is as much about planning, policy, and culture as much as it is economic and finance - this reality has to be elaborated, researched and explained, while as a profession we have to negotiate these forces for the larger good of our built and natural environments.
Architectural education has a massive role to play in articulating and negotiating these conditions. Building appropriate capacity and training a generation in the various modes of engagement with practice, etc. But the media more generally must also make this more central to its imagination and agenda. We don’t see enough of this discussion in the mainstream media in these critical terms.
The last significant exhibition on architecture in India took place in 1986. Vistara was part of the Festival of India, and brought new paradigms and a new vocabulary into the architectural mainstream.
Yes, no doubt Vistara is important - it is a landmark, it is iconic, and the more we view it with historical distance it emerges as a turning point. This event has been visited at least at 3 points in the pages of Domus India. The other exhibition designed and curated for the Festivals of India, curated by Raj Rewal in 1985 called ‘Architecture in India’ was also very important.
Do you think that Vistara has cast a long shadow (particularly on the SOA) or was that exhibition a product of its time?
We actually think that SOA will compliment what the previous exhibition did in a productive way by actually narrowing the lens to the time since independence where these exhibitions more or less stopped. In fact, Vistara was also trying deal with the confusions of its time, or dealing with the predictions of confusion in the immediate decades to come- it established concepts and narratives as a way of talking about architecture for India. Having recently revisited some archival photographs of the exhibition, it is also clear that Vistara was a manifestation of anxieties and ideas that many architects were concerned with- in some way a community of architects contributed to the exhibition, in spirit. The exhibition was possibly a manifestation of many collectively discussed issues.
Vistara was very much an exhibition of its time. One could say it was the last significant event in the history of architectural discourse in India that attempted, in an extremely successful way, to construct a meta-narrative about and Architecture for India, a pan-Indian identity construction. The State of architecture (SOA) is about Architecture in India not for India as an instrument of national identity construction. SOA, we believe will signal this shift and thus it consciously takes the moment of nation statehood as a starting point but unfolds its narrative to show how these deconstructs over the last few decades.
Of significance is also the fact that Vistara was a state-sponsored show as part of the Government of India’s exhibition for the Festivals of India held between 1983 and 1986.This was a nation attempting to reclaim its glory and traditions after the devastation of its image through the period of the Emergency. These exhibitions intended to show case the deep traditions of India to the world outside and presented a narrative of India’s rich architectural traditions. SOA on the other hand is clearly about internal introspection and reflection. It is a critical stocktaking of the role of the architect and architecture in India from, in a sense, within the profession. We hope it will be the first of a series of events over the next few years to interrogate the State of Architecture and the profession in India.
What is the state of architecture in India today? Does the exhibition offer us tools by which we can appreciate or assess contemporary Indian architecture?
The precise problem is that architecture is floating in murky waters, that is indeed its 'state'- fluid and ambiguous!
From a point in the early twentieth century when architects fought to stand apart from engineers, and projected themselves as designers and thinkers, participating in the cultural landscape of society, today architecture has slipped into modes of luxury or vanity commodity - pretty houses and rich interiors! Today architects are introduced as lifestyle-producers - handmaidens to a demand for style and fancy living! This condition was the urge behind setting up tents whenever and wherever possible to discuss architecture. Lack of valuable and critical discussions on architecture and the simultaneous pressure on urban development resulted in discussing architecture as an aspect of urban studies or regional/rural studies (often as the counter-story) to perhaps symbolically embrace the social sciences and their humanizing effects.
But then, what does it mean to bring architecture back into focus - and how would we study this object-space which it is, as well as occupies? In framing programming at Arbour: Research Initiatives in Architecture or the editorial intentions within Domus India, one struggled on experiments to develop the tools and system of understanding, analyzing, and discussing architecture, and whenever necessary, to understand architecture in India!
Do these struggles imply that we may be chronologically too close to making useful readings?
It is now important that we stand within today and talk about today!
We have to discuss our times as our experiences of political realities in everyday life - and here we draw in architecture, as one of the primary modes in which everyday life is lived and experienced. The production and consumption of architecture, as function or symbol, it is an everyday lived reality. The task is then to produce tools that will understand architecture as a material reality as much as it is a cultural topography. So in fact to ask questions of 'today' while we occupy 'today' - may indeed be the important position to adopt - to asses, and make useful readings - and make architecture realize what it is, what it has come to be, what it could potentially be, what it has missed or lost, and where can it (maybe) recover!
Here is a counter question to your question – how do we even decide when is a good time?
We don’t believe any time is right but different distances from the present give you different readings. This is also why we have consciously constructed a curatorial team that brings different pulses to our readings – one of an art critic, architectural critic as well as a practioner. We bring different lenses to view the trajectory of architecture in India and our perspectives will offer different readings of time and distance. Each of these lenses is inherently better equipped for different distances!
Besides this multiplicity of curatorial lenses, we believe the structure of the exhibition move from an objectivity of presentation in the first section to a subjectivities reading or curatorial reading in the third section. The second section is a bridge from where we can look at the past with some distance.
As a generation passes it becomes in some ways easier to read the immediate past, while in other ways harder because even for the immediate past we do not have an adequate culture to archive, capture and reflect on the production of architecture. So the chronological proximity can be used in both ways- to construct robust links and a sense of the continuity with the past but also to interrogate it with the ambiguity that the proximity to reality allows us.
The exhibition will hopefully invite a discussion through provocative questions that will try to clarify the ambiguity that naturally fogs our reading of the contemporary and immediate past. The many events we are organizing around the exhibition are as critical as the exhibition itself – in fact they are intended to deconstruct the artifact of the exhibition so that more nuanced readings emerge for the profession as a whole!
What is the position of contemporary Indian architecture in the larger discourse of nation building? In the first few decades after independence there seemed to be a synchronicity between the aims of the architects and that of the fledgling nation state. Even private patronage seemed to follow a similar mindset. Now in the liberalized present, there seems to be a greater priority on the rights of individuals rather than on collective responsibility especially in the urban environment. How do you assess this transition?
This transition in the nature and role of architecture in India clearly reflects the arc of political change in the country, from the primacy of the State as engine of social, economic and cultural transformation in the early decades after Independence to the gradual withdrawal of the State from this dirigiste position and the emergence of private capital as the source and reference point for the formation of social values, the direction of economic policy and the texture of cultural production.
In the earlier phase, architecture was clearly aligned with the utopian, nation-building ambitions of the postcolonial State, whether the patron was the State or private enterprise. In the current phase, architecture is equally clearly aligned with the aspirations of an emergent class of financiers, speculators and investors, with the State often following this cue in any projects it commissions.
The premise of the earlier phase was the Leviathan-like delegation of decision-making by individuals and communities to the postcolonial State, which would guarantee the greater good. The premise of the current phase is the contrarian equation of individual liberty with private property, and thus with the individual quest for personal happiness, with the greater good falling by the wayside.
There is a difference in the geographies of the location of the new patronage that has emerged. There is an explosive growth of building in the southern states of India. The traditions and cultures of building in these new geographies is very different from the contemporary building culture that had formed in what has been referred to as ' the spine of architectural awareness' stretching from Chandigarh to Goa via Delhi, Ahmedabad and Mumbai, as well as Pondicherry which had, for other reasons, a robust architecture culture developing there even before independence. Interestingly this new form of patronage comes in a post-socialist era where the individual is at the center of the decision-making through an empowerment that is the result of capital accumulation. So this is a new form of patronage but also coming out of specific cultural and physical geographies.
What role does the globalized/liberalized economy play in shaping the localized/socialized urban sphere?
The globalized economy operates through a complex circulation of global goods, services and imaginaries that are threaded through a local set of conditions: the relationship between these is parsed through a variety of modes including translation, mistranslation, reflection and refraction. The urban sphere that is thus produced is characterized by inchoate and often volatile aspirations, a pursuit of images that seem always out of reach, and also a culture that emphasizes the primacy of privatism rather than solidarities of any kind.
The last two or three decades have been important times and a period that marks a turning point in not only just the history and politics of India, but the world as well. The fall of the Berlin Wall, demolition of Babri Masjid in India, 9/11 in New York, the liberalization of economic policies in India and the shift from manufacturing to service industry. These decades have also been characterized by shifts in our cultural imaginations, aesthetic decisions, and political choices as is evident in the material world we produce and occupy.
There some wonderful trends within the profession that are becoming evident, a new set of architectural practices have emerged, and have established a critical body of work that can be evaluated for their different ideas and theoretical perspectives. At the same time, today change occurs at an escalated pace- and to understand the present and future trajectories for the profession we need to build conversations that can facilitate this process. A nuanced, critical, robust and rigorous discourse within the academy of architecture education and more importantly the profession - we sincerely hope that SOA will be a contribution to this broader aspiration.
Can you take a brief overview on the quality of architectural writing today?
Writing on architecture is in an abysmal state! But this statement does not take us far. Lack of writing indicates our lack of critical interest in architecture as a professional community, as a culture (national or otherwise).
To theorize a subject for a field is to indeed appreciate its value and existence beyond its mere need-to-be; and the discussions on architecture have happily slipped into rhetorics of regionalism or climate, hate-glass or love-brick and stone, outdated notes on power and architecture - in fact, they seem to be living in a time-warp! The world changed drastically and rapidly in the 1990s - and we could not as an architectural profession keep pace with it - unable to understand what had hit us. Rather than developing newer languages and idioms, and tools to asses and read the new architectural turns, we often resorted to a denial of the shape of things, to a rhetoric of rejection, and misplaced nostalgia.
Politics has become ever more complex, and architects from once being agents of social and aesthetic revolutions, now maintain a technocratic attitude, where you fine-tune your skills, but avoid addressing the very environment (social and cultural) that you ironically depend on for your daily bread and butter! Until we address the conditions of our reality, writing will not be effective or incisive - because the drive to write, argue, shape/unshape will be missing! To write is to create a world that furthers the meaning and role of architecture in a society. It should not be imagined as a skill-task of decoding some hidden meaning in an existing building; it is not supplementary to architecture, or to deliver formulas for a 'better' design - but to enlarge the existing space and terrain of architecture productively.
Are there contemporary texts that can potentially become canonical in the future? Does the SOA exhibition reflect upon architecture as a discourse?
I am not sure if there are particular iconic essays - if we decide to identify some, I am sure we will find them - but I would prefer to say there is a good enough cluster of texts. One has also in the Domus experience got more interested in exploring the forms of interviews and discussions, parallel to the essay format - as that leads to a nurturing of many voices and many experiences - the practitioner and the theorist both are heard.
The SOA exhibition is an attempt to generate/develop the terrain and landscape to engage with architecture - to produce accounts in a way, even at the cost of repeating descriptions, to address what exists, to generate the network of dots, a set of thought-images which will prepare us for a thesis. The final thesis is the excuse to develop this density of thoughts - finely shaped clusters that will help us understand fragments that shape a history.
Yes, of course, some of the contemporary texts on architecture have the potential to become canonical text. These texts capture the conflicts and conditions of an era today of amazing transformation and reflections of the emergent condition will become the framework for any theoretical discourse in the future. Theory, after all, emanates from insightful reflection of the conditions on the ground.
I think the quality of writing that we see today is extremely good but there is just not enough of it! There is such a dearth of writing that the few pieces being produced today will be precious records of the contemporary condition. Contemporary writing also represent the conflicts and struggles of the first couple of generations of architects in post-colonial India – which itself holds the potential to be a representation of a wider global churning. SOA will capture the state of writing and the broader discourse on architecture. In fact this is one of the core agendas of the show and its related events.
Is the architecture of India today reconciled with its many pasts? As an ideological position, the early Modernists could willfully reject history in the course of charting architectural futures. However, considering that a lot of buildings are part of brownfield developments, often in the heart of some of our ageing cities, what is the possible positions contemporary architecture should take about precedents and contexts?
Both positions are a problem - excessive sensitivity to a past or a denial/rejection of it - and that somewhere is our situation today, to be oscillating between two positions. Some of the interpretations of the past have also been problematic - where often past is reduced to a monolithic imagination or simply a set of images, to be cut-and-pasted. To the credit of many architects - some in the generation that established studios in the 1970s as well as the younger ones establishing studios between 1980-1990s there has been an expression of this dilemma - where do I address the present time and its own material reality, while also caring about a history and heritage we grow up to respect; at times this has been a dilemma and it has been evident in the architecture, at times it is purposeful expression of that struggle.
The need is to struggle in these times and see what languages of architecture will work for us today, and suit or challenge our political and functional existences. Some of the younger practices are indeed doing that - they may not be able to express that all points in time - but they are intuitively struggling with the present.
There is also the shameless activity of building - which is more the real-estate end of architecture - where you binge on building and construction, where architecture is used to suit greed and some promoted idea of aspirations. Architecture in this realm can only be countered when some well-meaning and ethically-sound architects will enter this sphere of real-estate architecture, and try to push the boundaries from within these specific practices. On the other hand, one will have to work on the idea of public awareness regarding architecture. There is no discussion on architecture in non-professional forums, or the popular media; this is a big lacunae! Architecture is the most public of all arts - it sits in your face - it has a strong public presence in everyday living space - but there is no discussion on architecture in the public sphere.
Is Indian architecture today political? Has it ever been political? Does this exhibition have an ideological standpoint?
Indian architecture certainly articulated a politics of rupture and compelling forward movement in its heroic Modernist phase, when it presented itself as a force that would clear away the residues of tradition and the compromises of the colonial period, and would, both literally and figuratively, build a future for the nation-state that had no precedent in what went before. Even when they used motifs and devices, or redeployed typologies from the legacies of previous times, Habib Rahman, Achyut Kanvinde B V Doshi, Charles Correa and Raj Rewal embodied this spirit in their early work. And when some members of this generation circled back to the retrieval of the embedded wisdom of regional building, architectural and visionary lineages, as they did during the 1980s, that was a political gesture as well– a gesture articulating a politics of critical retrieval.
The State of Architecture exhibition does not proceed from an emphatic ideological premise, but it does bear witness to some of these shifts and transitions. It also, in its choice of contemporary practices and projects, prefers to focus on work that is socially oriented, is informed by the relationship between architecture and other discourses such as conservation and ecological awareness, and in other ways explores manifestations beyond what is possible in a developer-driven domain.
This is indeed a tricky subject- on the face of it there clearly is a lack of political engagement that contemporary architecture has today. Having said that, in many architectural projects today, one can feel the struggle some architects are going through with this divorce of form, design, and politics.
What we need is not to mourn this divorce but to try and figure out what is the current engagement that form and design have with everyday life- politics and culture. There are many formulaic references established about people and public life, living and working, and often architects are simply reusing them again and again. These are no more than rhetoric. However in some cases there are new adjustments being made, to deal with the political and cultural negotiations of life in India now. It is probably more writing, more studies that will make this new forms of anxiety clear and understandable.
Is it still relevant to believe, as the Modernists once did, that good architecture will inevitably lead to good society?
All the Modernists who believed that good architecture– or noble art– would inevitably lead to a good society have come to grief.
Mondrian believed that his rectilinear, flattened paintings offered cues to the spiritual refinement of life; mass culture has reduced them to shower curtains. Le Corbusier believed that his ideal designs would enable the citizens of tomorrow to lead lives of significance; his work was flawed from the beginning by his desire to subjugate all individual will and desire to the absolutism of the plan. There is no necessary connection between good architecture and a good society– at best, the former can be an image of the latter; it can gesture towards the latter. But the best architecture can be distorted by elites bent on exacerbating the asymmetries in society.
'The State of Architecture: Practices & Processes in India' exhibition
opens at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai from 6 January - 20 March 2016.
The exhibition will present the nature of contemporary architecture in India within a larger historical overview since Independence. It will not only map emerging practices but also discuss the aspirations they represent and stimulate a conversation on architecture among the architectural fraternity, patrons and public at large. Embodying a spectrum of positions that characterize architectural production in India, the content is intended to be provocative and make explicit the multiple, and often simultaneously valid, streams of architectural thought and engagement that truly represents the pluralism of India.