The monumental failure of modern Indian architecture

All great civilizations boast architectural wonders that are not only expanses for the soul, but temples of the mind. I gaze upon temples and stupas and get a glimpse into the heart of ancient India. In the medieval forts and palaces, I am transported into my country’s heritage. I look at the Taj Mahal and see both the extremes of love and the cruelty of a Mughal emperor. These are all icons of our glorious past. But when I wish to see a vision for our nation’s future, I am left bewildered. As someone born in in free India, I humbly ask my fellow citizens, why is it that we have failed to create architectural icons representative of the nation in over sixty years?

Kalighat: The simple grace of Bengal.

The post-colonial establishments of free India – Parliament, Raj Bhawan, India Gate were designed by our British rulers. Even the Supreme Court of India, which was designed by Ganesh Bhikaji Deolalikar shortly thereafter, bore the hallmark of the same Indo-British style. Our rulers changed with Independence, and they changed the names of our cities, streets, and buildings. Yet ironically, the physical reminders of a foreign regime became the most visible icons of modern India.

I find it disconcerting that we cheerfully embrace all our colonial icons in post-Independence India, especially since there has never been a dearth of architects in this country.

The first years after Independence, Nehruvian thinking and Five-Year Plans guided our development. Massive dams and bridges were built. Roads, schools, and hospitals were constructed. These were very noble ideals that were required then, as much as they are now. However, the resulting architecture neither represented the cultural aspirations of the local communities, nor were the buildings entirely utilitarian. Nehruvian Chandigarh is neither an example of simple living, nor of high thinking. Frenchman Le Corbusier’s Modernist structures for Chandigarh are massive, stately buildings, yet they are vapid and sterile. Where is the link to the rich living heritage of the people of Punjab and Haryana?

Clearly, Modernist architecture did not mesh with local culture and identity. Even in urban conglomerates such as Mumbai, the Indo-British style epitomized in colonial-era buildings such as Gateway of India and Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus was more appealing than the vague Modernist style found in monstrosities such as the Bombay Stock Exchange.

Perhaps, the concept of pan-Indian architecture is a foolish notion. In a pluralistic country such as India, the concept of nation might be best defined as the sum of the myriad disparate, and often chaotic subcultures. Perhaps, we should look locally for inspiration.

After Independence, the chief minister of West Bengal, Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, spearheaded efforts towards the development of the state. Durgapur became an industrial complex; Digha became the popular beach town; and Bidhannagar was planned as a a major suburb of Calcutta. The first Indian Institute of Technology was established at Hijli near Kharagpur. For economic progress, we required bold, utilitarian buildings. Unfortunately, that is all we ever got from successive governments.

As a result, today, the icons of  Kolkata are the icons of imperial Calcutta. Victoria Memorial, Raj Bhavan, Writer’s Building, Shaheed Minar, and Howrah Bridge are lasting legacies. Religious monuments in Kolkata and surrounding areas such as Kalighat, Dakhineswar Kali Temple, St Paul’s Cathedral, Belur Math, Nakhoda Masjid, and the Jain Temple also predate Independence. Major projects since Independence such as Vidyasagar Setu and Salt Lake Stadium are useful, but nondescript, and forcefully linked to the city only in  physical presence. Other buildings such as Chatterjee International are downright offensive. The only sense of architectural belonging I feel in the city is in the Metro rail system with its beautiful murals.

Elsewhere, buildings pop up like mushrooms during the monsoons. Shopping malls, cinema mutiplexes, steel technology “parks”, and high-rise housing complexes jostle for attention in the bustling metropolis. I know that the problems for architects and urban planners are daunting. But where is the sense of identity? Where is the link to Bengal’s cultural past and vision for the future? Every day, old buildings are torn down and replaced by ugly ones made from shoddy materials. Memory is fleeting and mediocrity substitutes for creativity.

Urban architecture stands in stark contrasts to the vernacular buildings dotting the countryside. The temples of Bishnupur are always inspirational, but we need only to look to the nearest thatched kachha-houses complete with courtyards and intricate alpona designs for elegance and economy. In fact, I find the small tulsi-mancha in front of nearly every home in rural Bengal to be more aesthetically appealing than any of the thousands of hideous buildings coming up these days.

Image (circa 1945) courtesy University of Pennsylvania Library Online Archive.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

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15 thoughts on “The monumental failure of modern Indian architecture

  1. I enjoy all your insight and information presented here. I wanted to say, “Well what about the Lotus Temple?” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotus_Temple

    I immediately thought that this is an issues familiar to the US too, though not comparable since it’s not fraught with the same cultural implications you bring up; i.e. lamenting a free India embracing colonialist architecture.

    I think many American buildings that were architecturally unique have also been replaced by unimaginative, and sometimes ugly, or as you so accurately say, “vapid and sterile” architecture. For example, my city of Minneapolis torn down the interesting Metropolitain building and what followed, “1961 as part of major urban renewal efforts in the city that saw about 40% of the downtown district razed and replaced with new structures.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Building

    Those new structures were mostly lots of plain glass buildings. 😦 Then the preservation movement began in the city in response to what had occurred.

    Anyway yaar, when you consider that India has been free for only so long, it’s not so bad that the new inspired architecture hasn’t arrived just yet.

    • Sita-ji thanks for your detailed comments. You have a point regarding the Baha’i Lotus Temple and I was thinking about it briefly as I wrote this. I think it is exceptionally imaginative in design. Is it Indian in conception? Perhaps, if you consider that the lotus definitely has significance in Indian (particularly Hindu and Buddhist) iconography. I am not concerned that the architect Fariborz Sahba is Iranian; in fact much of our Mughal architecture arose from a melding of ancient Indian and Persian forms. I enjoyed visiting the Temple, as do millions of others, but did not personally feel connected to it, and I am not sure it has inspired any great school or movement in modern Indian architecture. Is it representative of Indian culture? I am not qualified to comment. Perhaps, I am being unkind (as usual) and it is too early too tell.

      I will be in Minneapolis in a few months so I can see first hand. In North America, some cities are better than others at preserving architectural heritage, and in my opinion Chicago and New York have done an exceptional job.

      • Right, the Bahai temple is sort of outside of the realm of your overall point, I was being a bit oppositional. 😉 I think the religious buildings and monuments are in another category for consideration anyway. (When I traveled to India I found the Golden Temple infinitely more interesting than the Taj Mahal)

        Minneapolis is a gorgeous city, and second to none as far as their chain of lakes and parkways within the city itself, and while the downtown area is clean and now includes some attractive buildings, the twin city of St. Paul across the mother Ganga, I mean the Mississippi, has preserved more historical buildings. We’ll have to be in contact and I can give you (and your family /friends if they come too) a tour.

      • You know Sita-ji part of my exasperation comes from the fact that India has a very unique and vibrant post-Independence arts, literature, and film scene compared to some other areas.

        Re Minneapolis, I will definitely get in touch before I go. Looking forward to visiting.

  2. A very good post that should inspire more ethnic designs if people care.But here in the South there is no dearth of ethnicity in ARCHITECTURE especially when you travel by road to Kerala and you see beautiful houses that have incorporated ‘Tharwad’ style and more and more people have shifted to the use of Indian Vaastu colours instead of the English muted pastels.Use of Rosewood found plenty in these areas as well as the artisans who are still skilled in traditional styling. However most designs are now ‘fusionist’ with a Tulasi Thara in the front too. That because modern times allow neither the time nor the resource for maintenance.People want beauty that is easy to maintain and retain now more than anything else.Also the new fast pace lifestyle makes some inconvenient to live in.Trust me on this and if you can just come and have a look and you shall know that with all these health problems much of which is a result of the new life style makes traditional houses painful to stay for long.As a result fusion is the mantra for the day. In Chennai too traditional Chettinad houses have been given a fusion makeover for the same reason.But our latest achievement recently in news has been the New Secretariat Building.But this too as you say has nothing for local identity but more having a global identity.Don’t know why but remembering Howard Roark in ‘Fountainhead’ now and can go on on…

    • Thanks for reading. That is good to hear that in the South there are fusion buildings. Maybe this will resonate into a regional style that finds use in major projects?

      On another note, I know Charles Correa has some really great designs that combine Indian and Western elements. Up until very recently houses in Bengal had Indian elements too. People wanted courtyards because they’re an integral part of our traditional homes. Nowadays I see them only in rural areas and some school buildings. You hit on a key point with respect to residential homes though.

  3. The Bartaman Bhavan near Ruby Hospital in Kolkata, even though not iconic, is off the beaten path.
    Vidyasagar Setu, when completed, had the second longest span among all Cable-Stayed bridges in the world. That’s a remarkable achievement considering the soil condition there. (No Indian may have been invloved in the design, though). had there been some marketing, and may be a ‘Vista Point’ overlook for getting nice photos of the bridge, you wouldn’t complain about it being ordinary :-p

    • Technological feats are not necessarily architectural wonders and architectural wonders do not necessarily have vista points as you imply. The Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate are both technically and aesthetically appealing. On the other hand, the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway is either the longest or third longest bridge in the world based on definitions, but it is not iconic or indicative of modern American architecture. The aesthetic and the technical do not have to overlap and I would argue that there is no strict correlation either.

      In any case, my point is there is a need in modern Indian architecture for an aesthetic sense born in Indian concepts and Indian materials. That is my central thesis and why I end with a comment on the aesthetic appeal of the tulsi-mancha.

      • I may have a problem finding aesthetic superiority of Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge over Vidyasagar Setu, but I somewhat agree with you about the need for more iconic structures ‘born in Indian concepts’.
        I was merely mentioning that Vidyasagar Setu is a Technological milestone, _too_. I didn’t hint at any causation or correlation.
        You’re very correct that a technologically sound concept may not result in an aesthetically pleasing structure. My point was not to contradict that, but to add to that. Add the point that not all aesthetically sound structure (hugely subjective, though) may get the same attention or marketing.

  4. Felt like a preparatory class kid with all the knowledge to grasp..was a good starting point must say..

    That pic is all grace and calmness..loved it

  5. To me Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore seems to be a good example of modern/Post independence architecture. I believe its architectural style is called “Neo-Dravidian”.

    Built with locally available materials by semi-skilled labor in 1956, Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore is a very impressive and imposing building. Having visited offices in this building multiple times I would hate to call it a monumental failure of modern Indian architecture.

  6. There are many buildings in South India which boast of our culture and heritage. Maintenance of these buildings must definitely cost a lot.

    I had been to Hyderabad as a child and I still remember Nagarjunsagar dam. I was enthralled by its beauty…

    I agree that now a days most of the building are all glass and metal, but some of these buildings do have their own modern beauty.

  7. I think the Archaeological Survey of India does a lot of work in India and also helped in the restoration of Angkor Wat in Cambodia too. What about local preservation societies? Do we have many of these in cities?

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