ARCHITECTURE AND IDENTITY

The question of how best- if at all- India's architectural heritage could be used to self consciously create architectural expressions has been always a complex one. The issue has been further compounded by the regional diversity of the country and its people. British hegemony tended to impose a set a ideas on the whole country, altough there has been a continuos debate in India about how they ideas should be treated. With political independence in 1947 came a desire for new ways of thinking, which together with the entrenched ways, resulted in dual set of values that continued to shape the work of architects. One set focussed on the future and the other on the past.

The search for a symbolic aesthetic reflecting the aspirations of India has focussed largely on what a building, building complex, or urban scheme is made of - its structure and materials- and, more generally on what it looks like, its external appearance- its size, proportional schemes, decoration and relationship to its neighbors and site.

While the focus on the issue of identity communicated through the exterior appearance of buildings is fundamental, the internal spatial organization of neighborhoods and buildings and the purposes they serve are also important.

Buildings and urban patterns also have a fourth dimension- time. There are two aspects to this dimension. In the first place to understand the environment in the course of the everyday activities of life, a person moves through it, and therefore the sequential experience of one space after another, or more correctly, one behaviour setting after another, becomes important. The expected sequential organization of the built environment is very much culture bound and it changes over time as culture changes. The second aspect is that the built environment, at any moment, is a compilation of the changes made in it over time. it is seldom static; it changes as human needs and perceptions of the good life change- as people's aspirations change. These changes may be carried out unselfconsciously by people as part of everyday life or self consciously in the purposeful pursuit of specific design objectives. The buildings around us thus contain memories of the past.

The link between a pattern of built form and its meaning depends on an association between the form and some referent. The relationship between the pattern (or symbol), the thought (or the meaning specified) and the referent (idea or another with which the symbol is associated) is often represented in a triangular form.

The symbolic meaning of a particular urban or architectural pattern depends not only on the pattern itself but also on its geographical and cultural context. The indian patterns used by John Nash in the Brighton pavilion on the south coast of England carry meanings very different from those they would have if the pavilion was in India or built today or designed by an Indian architect. The meaning would also differ if the building was located in a residential area rather than a commercial one.

It is the design of the façade of the buildings that has most frequently been the focus of self-conscious attention- the presentation of a face to the world- the external appearance. There are more subtle variables that carry meaning. The internal spatial organization  of a building, its degree of enclosure, the proportion of enclosed space to open, the plan layout, the sequential experience as one moves through as set of spaces and the degree of penetration an outsider is allowed into a building are all culture bound,
The variables of the built environment that communicate meaning are vast, having many values and interacting with each other. They can, nevertheless, be categorized into a number of basic architectural elements-
1)     The overall configuration of a precinct of a city or a building carries meaning. The patterns and masses that comprise an architectural style have specific associations. Thus the organizing principles behind a specific pattern and its components are of great architectural concern in communicating meaning.

2)     The materials of which any building is constructed and the construction techniques used carry meaning.

3)     The illumination of buildings and their interiors has been a major carrier of symbolic meaning. Usually one thinks of light in this way only in he case of ceremonial buildings such as the Bahai House of worship designed by Fariburz Sahba. Certainly the explicitly symbolic use of light has been associated with such places, but, except for the blind, every behaviour setting possesses some level of light.

4)      The use of colour- colour serves many mundane purposes such as reflecting light or hiding dirt but it is also a medium of aesthetic expression.

5)     The uses to which spaces have been put and ther relationship to each other have meaning. Some uses are sacred, some are mundane.

6)     The activities that take place in specific spaces- the behaviour settings that comprise the environment- are associated with particular cultures.

 Creating Symbolic Expression in Built Form
Designing purposefully to communicate specific symbolic meanings is a complex task. It is even more difficult if one seeks to do so in a new way. It is difficult to think of any architectural expression as something completely novel, a total break from any precedent. While modern architecture did introduce a new special order and construction ideology, it had a number of antecedents. Complete spatial and visual novelty can only come with a radical restructuring of society.

According to Lucien Steil, there are three modes of architectural production: imitation, copy and pastiche. To Steil, the first is the truly creative. Imitation is the process of creating something new- not simply novel- out of a thorough understanding of the principles underlying precedents. The design objectives and the architectonic and technological mechanisms of achieving them need to be fully comprehended; the affordances of specific patterns of built form must be understood. A copy, in contrast, is a replication, or reproduction, of a precedent, while a pastiche is a reproduction of a number of elements- compositional or stylistic- of some precedent. A pastiche is thus a ‘ partial and imperfect’ copy. It focuses on the appearance- or rather the impression of appearance- of an artifact, be it a small object or a city. Copying might be seen to be the least productive design mechanism but it often requires great skill, particularly in craftsmanship.

Indianization has different meanings for different people both in the sense of an idea and the possible manifestations of that idea. One view is that the government and governmental agencies such as the Central and State Public Works Departments and institutions such as professional including architectural associations, for instance, should be run by Indians and buildings be designed by Indians. A second view is that those institutions and their modes of operation should be based on Indian traditions. In both cases not only were instrumental ends sought but self-esteem and a sense of identity; there was a symbolic dimension to the development of both the architecture and the profession.

The goal has been to develop a symbol system that has, as Nikhil Perera puts it, a ‘capacity to accommodate diverse social and cultural representations with the nation.' It implied more then simply copying the past.

While some of the efforts of the nationalist movement focused on the maintenance of traditions, the movement was generally modern in spirit because it sought change. The questions were ‘Change to what’ and implicitly,’ Will we still be Indians if we change? ’The arguments in architecture over the course of the last century reflected and shaped, at least partly, contemporary national debates on the nature of progress and the meaning of being Indian. In Indian architecture one sees this tussle between modernism, traditionalism and revivalism reflected in built form.

The maintenance of traditions was one way in which local aspirations subverted colonial and modernizing forces in India. Seeing traditions in architecture solely as the maintenance of past building forms is, however, a limited view because a part of the Indian tradition consists of foreign ideas successfully incorporated into indigenous life and indigenous architecture. In this sense, much of the architecture, which has sought to amalgamate foreign and indigenous elements over the past five hundred years, has been in the Indian tradition. Few people, however, understand traditional architecture in these terms. To most, including architects, tradition involves the maintenance of past social structures and past architectural patterns rather than the use of past processed of change. This limitation is unfortunate.

Many buildings in India continue to be designed in a traditional manner not only in rural areas but also in cities. Mistris continue their traditional role in society either working with a tried vernacular architectural vocabulary, particularly in the design of religious buildings, or in a transformed manner as contractors or designers. In contrast, there is the continued development of architectural activities and increase in the number of activities, further separating design and construction processes.

The terms modernization and westernization are often used synonymously. Westernization, in the Indian context, usually means changes introduced by the British prior to Independence and afterwards through the application of ideas from European and American sources.

Modernism is simply The State of being up-to –date. The use of the term here implies changes from the past in certain structural characteristics of a society a well as the adaptiveness of socio-cultural systems to change. Modernism is an attitude. It is based on the perception that change away from the past is required in order to make the future better.

Architecturally, the term ‘modern’ has been applied to whatever contemporary ideas were regarded as good. The modern movement, however, represented a specific set of attitudes towards design. Modern architecture responded to the need to provide for the new patterns of behavior that resulted from political and technological change in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It began with the perception that the classical orders and composition do not present a universal bias for the appreciation of beauty in architecture.

Regionalism attempts to out back into architecture what Modernism conspicuously took out, a continuity in a given place between past and present. Regionalism is seen as the champion of local values against the universalizing tendencies promoted by technological advances.

Critical regionalism in the Indian context

(With extracts from anjali shukla's article on critical regionalism)
In the early fifties policies of a progressive and forward-looking approach to everything gave the Indian architects an opportunity to design and build.

The late sixties, however, saw the emergence of a question of identity. Questions like how well did the forms conceived marry Indian actually. Their meaning and social relevance came under scrutiny and questions arose as to whether the forms proposed were actually devoid of sensitivity to Indian ethos and rootedness of regional styles, materials and climate. This quest brought about the development of a conscious effort to bridge the gap between the two variant schools of thought.

The seemingly divergent forces of traditional architecture and contemporary building methods and materials created a conflict, which became complicated.

As the early seventies approached, this tension, struggle and questioning got weaker. In the eighties and nineties it totally lost its body and meaning and got replaced by a very dangerous complacency. There was a certain loss of collective thought –a holistic approach that is totally lacking today.

In the words of Paul Ricorur,." We face a paradox; on the one hand the nation has to root itself in the soil of its past, forge a national spirit, unfurl this spiritual and cultural revendication before the colonialist’s personality.

But in order to take part in modern civilization, it is necessary at the same time to take part in scientific, technical and political rationality, something which very often requires the pure abandon of a whole cultural past. It is a fact that every culture has to sustain and absorb the shock of modern civilization. There lies the paradox: how to become modern and to return to sources: how to revive an old dormant civilization and take part in the universal civilization...”

The realization of this crucial problem confronting nations just rising from underdevelopment, like India, leads us to the question that, in order to get onto the road towards modernization is it necessary to totally abandon the old cultural past which has been the "raison d’ etre" of a nation?

To resolve this paradox, Kenneth Frampton proposed the theory of critical regionalism. By way of general definition, regionalism upholds the individual as well as local architectonic features as against the more universal and abstract ones. Critical regionalism, as the name suggests, involves the critical synthesis of a region’s traditions and history, their reinterpretation and finally the expression of these in ’modern’ terms. Hence, the essence of the concept is to mediate the impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from peculiarities of a particular place.

The features of this theory seem most relevant in analyzing where the blind adoption of architectural form without any questioning can be turned back towards a more relevant context.

Consciously bounded architecture: Critical regionalism manifests itself as a consciously bounded architecture. Most of the contemporary buildings in DLF, Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi, do not seem to have any binding to where they are, only to a blindly borrowed image. This is a glimpse of what is prevalent in other parts of the city as well.

Territorial orientation: It states that a building is not a freestanding object but established a territory and is established in a territory.


 Architecture as tectonic: It looks at architecture as a tectonic fact rather than the reduction of built environment to a series of ill assorted scenographic episodes. Like the imagery adopted for these buildings which is then just pasted on to the urban fabric.

 Optimizing building systems: It stresses on optimizing the use of building systems like air conditioning and a tendency to treat all its openings as delicate transitional zones to respond to specific conditions of climate and light of a place. This factor is totally ignored insensitively. Consequently, most of these buildings suffer inefficiency of resource management and maintenance.

 Emphasis on the Tactile: It stresses that the tactile is as important as the visual.

 Experiential qualities of space are irreplaceable: It claims that one can’t replace experiential qualities of space within, with information. Sensitivity towards local light, ambient sessions of heat, cold, humidity and air movement are the tools of space making.

 Reinterpreting vernacular elements: The most important feature is that critical regionalism attempts to reinterpret vernacular elements in the making of space within and space without. It endeavors to cultivate a contemporary place oriented by culture without becoming too simplistic or direct about formal references or levels of technology.

With these features forming the backdrop, if one were to now understand and reinterpret the qualitative and tactile qualities of traditional Indian architecture such as order, unity, geometry, form and centrality in the context of modern materials and technology, it might just be the answer t create an architecture of reason and relevance. An architecture which would not need to hang its head in shame when, asked -what are you and where are you?

A fitting example would be of the India Habitat Centre by Joseph Allen Stein which is an office complex with the entire modern systems and requirements of any building with such a scale. Yet it has captured the essence of the Indian climate-light and shade and also the form of the courtyard which is one of the most basic and suitable elements of space making in our local traditions and reinterprets it in the modern idiom: The use of materials is very sensitive.

Thus, we are at a juncture where all architects and facilitators of large and small building projects like the DLF Group of builders need to be keenly aware of the fact that lasting meaning for anything they create lies in the roots which the built environment has into where it is. A great depth is required to understand the phenomena that India is with its various nuances of traditions, art, culture, climate and light and then to reinterpret it into the modern building type with all the high technology building systems and materials.

All these concerns and concepts must have influenced architects in India fifty years ago when India got independence. Yet it seems that, without undermining the work of a few great masters, the thrust towards modernization blinded the makers of the nation to the need of mediating the impact of a universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place. The light, nature, climate, topography, abstractions - religious, mythological and symbolic --- the many different nuances of ‘ a sense of place’--- all screamed to be noticed. It was instead preferred to simply import western concepts to make the new cities and institutions.

After fifty years a chaotic, rootless picture of the nation has emerged which addresses a change. At such a time when there is an emergence of pride and a surgence towards pschycological and political independence , in the true sense of the word it is essential to examine the concept of Critical Regionalism. The understanding and use of this concept needs a keen self -consciousness. As a step in this direction, Charles Correa stands out amongst other Indian masters who has the vision to abstract the cultural history of India and root the present in the past.

Sigfried Gideon’s concept of the ‘Eternal Presence’ is the deep source which links Correa not only to his youth in Goa, but also to the absolutely inexhaustible history of a subcontinent where past, present and future co-exist in an undistinguishable continuum. His work has reflections of a thought process, which embodies an understanding of the subtleties and ambiguities of variations in air and light in various regions.

In his own words - "India is a source of spiritual sustenance that is as universal in it’s implications as it is deeply rooted in it’s geophysical conditions and the mores of a particular place."

Correa’s work spans many regions of India, and the essence of the ‘open- to -sky space’ irrespective of it’s many variations, is the pervasive theme of his architecture. A study of his work provides an insightful glimpse of his quest for Critical Regionalism.

Before staking any claims to fully understanding the concept of Critical Regionalism, it is essential to be aware of the danger related to gravitating towards being too literal in interpreting and reflecting the past. And so does the work of Charles Correa have a few instances of this kind like the L.I.C. building. Yet, being an architect of the sixties, he managed to cast aside blind adoption of western concepts and has dealt with trying to capture the ‘meaning’ of India.

As he puts it himself - "…at the deep structural level, climatic conditions, culture and it’s expression, it’s rites and rituals." In itself, climate is the source of myth: thus the metaphysical quantities attributed to open to sky space in the cultures of India and Mexico are concomitants of the warm climate in which they exist : just as the films of Ingmar Bergman would be inconceivable without the dark brooding Swedish winter.

"The fourth force acting on architecture is Technology. No other art feels it’s influence so decisively …the prevailing technology changes every few decades. And each time this happens architecture must re- invent the expression of the mythic images and values on which it is based."

The sensitivity to such a large canvas with its many differences is indeed a challenge for the Critical Regionalist - an architect of the nineties. Setting afoot in search of the pride of being an ‘Indian’ architect there is an urgent need to concentrate our focus on clear -rooted thought and reflecting on the past .

The words of Karl Kraus are an appropriate summary to what the architect in India today must be “...In this noisy epoch which resounds with the horrible symphony of facts that produce news that is guilty of facts: in this epoch let no particular word be awaited for me... Nor could I pronounce any new word, for in the room from where I write,  the noise is so loud, and whether it comes form animals, children or only from mortar is not something to be decided now...Those who now have nothing to say, since facts are allowed to speak, continues to speak. Let anyone who has something to say, step forward and keep quiet.” 
The definition of what is legitimate Indian modernism has often been left to critics from the developed world, who make patronizing journalistic forays into India or those theoreticians who inversely complement themselves by recognizing the third world modernism as the only sign of survival of a style they have long discarded. In architectural terms one is looking at contemporary architecture that is set free from all ‘isms’ and stylistic categories to inquire into the nature of architecture as an aspect of the dynamic, living, and changing conditions that determine the content of our actions. 

 The ‘free’ movement of ideas in time and their growth and evolution within the human psyche, are what invest architecture with its most powerful political situation, as a symbol and an instrument of myth. Conceptualization and the consequently stylistic reductionism have always inhibited its total expression.

In the ongoing debates on contemporary architecture, we have continuously attributed a purely fictional hiatus between the traditional and the modern, the superstitious and the rational, Western and eastern, Indian identity and internationalism and so on.

This form of highly individuated discussions on architecture locating the debates outside nature and the social milieu that actually nurtures architecture throws up primarily three major issues.

The first issue-

It has progressively destroyed the integrity of both the urban fabric and natural systems. All over the world today it is an accepted fact tat the integrity of the urban fabric has been compromised most, though the modernist era. The single most important criticism one can level on modernism, is its callousness towards the city, in the way it asserted the narcissistic individuality at the expense of the integrity of the pre-industrial; city centers.

However, it is a well-known fact that urban design is nothing but an integral way of building that sees every piece of architecture as a growth module in the city fabric. To this extent urban design is antimodernist , along with architecture conversation, which again is but a reaction to the callous postures of modernism to  the old fabric.

The distinction between what is classified as the traditional and the modern in buildings, then melts into this air and becomes the extended range of sensibilities that one can respond to as a designer.

The second issue-

By relying outside its own core for sources of abstraction and thereby creating a deep schism in sharing of meaning between architects and communities, much of contemporary architecture has forfeited the right as the prime mediator of the myth making process of societies. A myth is the quintessential expression of the complex, dynamic value-frames.

The contradiction between communicability and abstraction is something that every contemporary architect in India faces sometime or the other. Some of us have bluffed our way through it, others have made commercial disasters of themselves and some have given up in the middle. Few have confronted and come to terms with this great dilemma of contemporary architecture in India.

The third issue-                                 

By excessive servility to markets and bartering the freedom to cohere the essence of our time, contemporary architecture in India has become too vulnerable to global machinations of the marketing of professional services. The architect is trapeze artist swinging between creativity, technology and an uncouth market. The market feeds and imprisons the profession simultaneously. Popular paradigms that are marketed by the architect at once define the persons as well as provide the architect the lock that he can break to stay afloat in contemporarily. We have to continuously draw those fine lines between marketability and expression, and one can easily say that the unfair structure of the architect in India is the single most important factor that endlessly stifles creativity in this country.

The poor profits we make, the miserable pay that is offered to the bright young fresh architect compared to other professions are camouflaged in imaginary freedom to create and the sheer kick of design. Besides most agencies that we deal with in construction are unreliable and hardly accountable. Materials are poor and a highly exploitative building labor market suck competence out of the building workers.

It is this adverse market and the servility that it demands that has left the contemporary architect in India, incapable of taking criticism or engaging in any meaningful dialogue about the direction of our contemporary architecture.   

How the architects approach the issue of identity-

CHARLES CORREA-"Our identity we are searching for is going to be pluralistic. It is not a mono centric one."India is a pluralistic society. It has many layers of orders. Firstly overviews are very important in looking for identity. Secondly identity is not a single pattern. It is not a single pattern. Identity is dynamic and continually changing. Identity is a process. It is not an end in itself but a by-product.
If identity is pluralistic and dynamic does that mean that anything goes? That anyone can come in and build anytime, anywhere?
We might not know what something is but we surely know what it is not.
Architect should have the right instincts so that he can tell the difference between something authentic and something superficially picked up.
There are three streams that create built form.
The first is what is being constructed in the rural areas. It is indigenous. And the second is new popular.
The third is the architect. We are the purveyors of myths and of ideologies -very often with the wrong ideologies. In order to change this there are two ways we can proceed.One is to go back to the indigenous and other to try to invent the future. New attitudes of life styles should not decide this approach.

 RAJ REWAL-"I  don’t believe in blindly copying our past. We have to learn from the precedents to solve our existing problems. I feel we have to re-invent modernity in terms of our own traditions and cultural heritage. It is an important task to search for a modern architectural language, which responds to our requirements, lifestyle, climate and building materials. Market economy and the consumerist culture are facts of life and architectural language is based on it.

 Traditional architecture was based on a vocabulary of design which may not be relevant today even in Kashmir or Rajasthan. We are building with concrete with concrete frame structures, infill walls and now also beginning to build partially industrial structures. The base of contemporary architecture has to be new techniques of building and a sensible use of modern and traditional materials.

 ROMI KHOSLA " The search for identity in our architecture lies in creating buildings of the horizontal (contemporary plane) which will recognize and develop out of the historical (vertical plane) and not purely out of modernism." I don’t believe that architecture is intended to respond to technical and economic scenarios. Architecture evolves over time. The Indian sub-continent has a craft-based building industry that is beginning to get industrialized at the periphery. So, buildings are still hand-made and have industrialized components attached to them- that is the architecture of today. Tomorrow it may be different. Architectural patronage has always come form the well-to-do middle class with a disposal income with which it wants to project its image. 

Money multiplying factories and real estate flatted buildings seldom are at the cutting edge of architectural ideas in the metropolitan cities of Mumbai and Delhi. The demonstration of architectural bravado is more often that not confined to farmhouses, hotels and private farmhouses as well as institutional buildings whose mangers wish to project a progressive image of their institution. There is a wide range of work going on in India and each architect is busy doing a wide range of work within his office.

 

 The Indian architect is heroic, he will accept my challenge and is far bolder and more courageous that his western counterpart. He is trying to fight practice against enormous odds. Firstly, he has no professional support. For all intents our professional such as the Institute and the Council are still suffering form birth pangs that have rendered them professionally sterile. Secondly, he is unable to find enough space to work in because as we all know, the real estates of Mumbai, Delhi, and New York are on the par.

Thirdly, he is powerless to influence the fate of his cities, which have been donated to the builder who is essentially corrupt. In this architecturally hostile environment you do need to be heroic to try and build good buildings.

 Contemporary architecture is saddled with the same problems and beset contemporary life. India has a vast architectural heritage and the phrase ”Indian architecture” is as meaningful or meaningless as the term “Indian mind”. In trying to define what is Indian, there would be tendency to identify it as Hindu Indian.. We will then certainly have to accept that the Taj Mahal is an imported structure. The truth is that India is like a funnel into which everything keeps getting poured. 
 How lucky we are! That is the strength of our architecture.

 AGK MENON
(Extract from AGK Menon's article "Interrogating modern Indian architecture)


"It is one of the paradoxes of globalization that even as it imposes transnational values and process in local cultures, it simultaneously gives them a ‘presence’ they never had before. The more globalization disrupts, displaces and overlays local traditions, the more one is made aware of the significance of what is lost in the process.

The interdisciplinary and intercultural scholarship encouraged by globalization brings to light the value of historically evolved architecture of a region and the indigenous knowledge systems and practices, which produced it.

With the attainment of Independence, the idea of a unified and homogenous  ‘Nation’ became an ineluctable reality, and manifested itself in many forms of artistic expression, not least in the field of architecture. The imperative to modernize, the urgency top ‘catch-up’ of course reinforced this idea.

Architects in India innocently traipse through the minefield of cultural representation, oblivious to the contentious issues inherent in the positions they take. When they aspire to achieve ‘Indianness’ in their works, it is attempted without pausing to consider the ontological significance of he quest; when they reject it, their position still bristles with their indifference to the urgent ideological and philosophical issues of contemporary cultural formations. In the last fifty years, architects have not considered this conundrum an issue, and have thus failed to develop the colonial legacy into transformative architecture after Independence."

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