‘India: Modern Architectures in History’

Peter Scriver

A Recorded Lecture from FRAME Conclave 2019: Modern Heritage

In this lecture, Prof Peter Scriver articulates a historical perspective on the changes and challenges of Modern Architecture in India since Independence. The talk also dwells on the Nation-building efforts, the nation-builders and the significance of this body of work in contemporary India.

Edited Transcript

Welcome, everybody. Just before I proceed, I just want to show due credit to my colleague, Prem Chandavarkar for a profoundly significant opening thought-piece for us to all think about in the days ahead.

I think FRAME Conclave’s expectation of what I might do was to also help set up some ideas, but they will be far more humble, and they are more prosaically engaged with the stuff of the architecture around us and the careers of many of the people in the room, and some of the backgrounds that I have had the opportunity to observe over a number of years. This talk will open up some of that perspective for you and hopefully also be of some use.

But I guess I just wanted to note particularly how a term that Prem, someone among many in the room that I have known for some years, this architecture, the background, your final point, which you published about and talked about in the past. I think I have a much deeper understanding now of what you really mean by that. So thank you for putting those thoughts together.

It is interesting we are in Goa. As my introduction indicated, I have been involved in trying to know India as an outsider and an interested onlooker for over three decades. I first came to Goa in that early period, 34 years ago exactly, and it is actually my first time back. It is rather interesting to hopefully have a chance to see more of what it is today and to reflect on this larger Indian and South Asian question of Modern Heritage from this perspective. I thought I would just begin by reflecting on that.

When I came with my colleague, Vikram Bhatt, who was my collaborator and an invitation into becoming sort of ‘talking head’ about architecture and ‘critical writer’, rather than a practitioner of architecture early in my career. We had come to see Charles Correa‘s buildings, of course, and they just built Kala Academy, in which we were to have been seated today and Cidade De Goa Hotel, were the buildings we knew we needed to see. We were trying to figure out what was happening in the architecture of the ’80s and how we might comment on it – with the beginnings we thought of a critical perspective. As we saw them, these buildings of Correa were the sort of sassy tongue-in-cheek representations of local architectural character and cultural history.

[05:00] Here are the images we made at the time on our research and that were being published at that time, which caught our attention and we said: “We must come see this.” They were indications of, as we were beginning to write about it subsequently, as the emerging commodification of cultural identity, as the “It Factor” in the late 20th century Indian Architecture. But what I did not see so clearly, and appreciate at the time was the altogether more earnest and masterful work in its own ways or equally masterful work in its own ways of local Goan architects of note, such as Ralino D’Souza for instance, who we met at that time and for whom the Hybrid-Indic-Vernacular was a living tradition informed by an equally cosmopolitan world view to that of Correa’s. Which as we know, in Correa’s case was framed by his continuing engagement with the critical discourse and the architectural and teaching and practice worlds of the East Coast America in which he remained engaged.

In D’Souza’s case, this was a view from Lisbon where he had studied, and in which the world of the greater Portuguese Colonial Empire was still to some extent very real and operational in the 1980s. In other tropical locales around the planet, Goa had its own uniquely Colonial Modern Architectural history as a result of those transnational dimensions that have only become clearer, at least to me as an interested onlooker, with time. And one hopes the increasing wisdom and discernment that comes with those many years of looking on and that is what I want to share with you in today’s ‘look-back’ as a historian, what I would call myself with more confidence today than I certainly was then. That is what I am recognised by my students to be a sort of fuddy-duddy, a rather old guy who writes about history and is not that boring.  My mission always to my students, and then certainly to the many students in the room and my colleagues and such, is to make history real and present, another argument, that I think was framed well in Prem’s opening comments. But the immediate context is a book (India: Modern Architectures in History) that some of you will be aware of – a book that I will try to unpack in the pages ahead, but I will come back to in more specificity later on.

The question that we begin with that book, and which I think is latent in the setup for this weekend’s Conclave is: ‘What is, or what was Modern India?’ Here I will revert to reading some excerpts from the actual introductory chapter of this book published three years ago, which attempts to kind of put my several decades of working on India and thinking about it, into a longer, richer historical perspective. To the uninitiated, foreign tourists for instance, or our colleagues overseas, the idea of Modern India often invokes rather equivocal clichés, a world of contrasts and contradictions, rich and poor, extravagance and destitution, space-age know-how, but only medieval means; an incomplete project. It is construction sites, in this case, more often so than finished buildings, that furnish some of the most telling imagery.

As the four-year-old daughter (my daughter in this case) of one of the two authors of a co-authored book, asked with innocent fascination upon arriving in Mumbai for the first time. Now, I quote my daughter, my four-year-old daughter, “Daddy, why are all the buildings falling down?”

Indistinguishable to her eyes, her uninitiated eyes, with gangling new structures that clambered for presence in the cluttered skyline and the ramshackle bustees at their feet. She could not discern the difference between the rising apartment towers for the upwardly mobile new-urban middle classes and the provisional accommodation for the low-paid migrant construction workers, that they had cobbled together from waste materials and other such items themselves during their seasonal employment in the big city.

[10:15] It was a similar but almost wilfully naive sense of fascination with both, the prospects and the paradoxes of India’s architectural engagement with modernity that began to be captured by architectural photographers in the 1950s, as the newly independent self-consciously Modern India began to build. Particularly telling were the early construction photos of Chandigarh, and many will recognise perhaps that image on the left, the stridently Modern and Progressive new capital city, was projected as we know, an Architectural symbol and Urban “Symbol of the New Nation’s faith in the Future”.

Now free from the imposed tastes and paternalistic expertise of the British colonial technocrats, however, it was more than a little paradoxical that the commission for the planning and design of this icon of change had ultimately been awarded to a non-Indian team of consultants, dominated as famously by the ‘greatest or the biggest International Starchitect’ of the day, Le Corbusier, but still officially led by yet another Englishman, Maxwell Fry, in collaboration of course, with his wife Jane Drew. So that was an important subtlety but dominated by English advisors.  More paradoxical still, was the gulf between symbol and reality from the point of view of technical development.  Corbusier’s designs for the monumental Capitol Complex were some of the most audacious Masterworks of Modernism the world had yet witnessed. Yet, here they were, in these canonical photographs emerging virtually handmade from the rude materials and sweat of the largely pre-industrial society.

For members of India’s young architectural profession who first viewed such images in the pages of progressive architectural journals, like the Architectural Review and then aspiring Indian counterparts like Marg and Design among others, local professional and other local professional trade magazines, if not through their own lenses on pilgrimages to the building site itself. The iconic building works at Chandigarh were an almost sacred site of encounter with the cutting edge of Modern Architecture as well as the gaze of the International Architectural Community.

Through the lens of Chandigarh by the 1950s, architects and planners abroad had begun to watch Modern India with an interesting increasing interest. For both the ‘Advocates of High Modernism’ and its emerging ‘Critics’, the conspicuous roles of progressive architecture design and town planning were being called to play in India’s Nation-building efforts, and were test cases for the Global extension of the Modern movement and its claims to Universal validity and unity beyond simply an International style. More than just an invigorating shock of the new, therefore, Chandigarh was the confidence-inspiring evidence that radically new architecture was conceivable in India, and moreover, that it could actually be built.

Nehru, as we know, was one of Chandigarh’s most passionate and erudite Champions. “It hits you on the head and makes you think”, he famously argued. As he saw it, Chandigarh was more than just a symbol of the Modernity that associated with democratic institutions of the New India. It was to be a catalyst for the real changes in thinking that could enable India’s own professional experts to re-conceive the physical and institutional forms of a Modern Nation, unfettered by the traditions of the past.

[15:05] From Nehru’s (the Prime Minister’s) point of view, it was not the particular idiosyncratic templates of Modern Architecture and Urbanism that Le Corbusier had exported to India that Indian Architects were expected to emulate, but the free-thinking approach that they might derive from a Master Modernist’s creative response to the particular challenges and opportunities encountered in India. A new cast of mind, not shapes, was the key to the genuinely Modern Indian Architecture they would develop in the course of time and in which Modern India would be at home. This is Aditya Prakash‘s work coming out of the background of being a collaborator with Le Corbusier as a very junior architect, but ultimately innovating in an increasingly independent way. Metaphors of building or metaphorical notions of building were powerful rhetorical devices in the political imagination of India’s leaders.

Thinking through the compromises and contradictions of the freedom struggle and a way of thinking through those compromises and contradictions, and for projecting the possible forms that the future Indian Nation might take. If Chandigarh was Nehru’s muse, Gandhi described his idea of Modernising India famously as ‘house in a storm’. “I did not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be shut or to be stuffed,” he wrote. “I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” And then to paraphrase in my own words, brute and ignorant resistance to the wider world was futile, but the Modern India, he envisaged, would emerge wise, wiser and stronger from the encounter if it fortified the deeper core structures that gave coherence and value to its own ways of life.

In Gandhi’s view, and again I quote his own text, “The blood of the villages was the cement by which the edifice of the cities is built.” That was rather proficient understanding of how literally they are built. Industrialisation and its corollary, Urbanisation were precisely the yokes of economic and social servitude to the Modern world system of Western domination that India’s village-based civilisation needed to throw off.

To begin, as we have with Chandigarh, is not to start the beginning of the story, but to address upfront the relatively huge but equally problematic impact this singular project has had not only on the existing discourse about the Architecture and Urbanism of Modern India but also on the larger canonical story of Modern Architecture and its global diffusion as well. Nehru’s advocacy of the cleansing rationalism and aesthetic challenges of Chandigarh’s architecture must be interpreted in the context of the ongoing debate about the virtues and functions of tradition. Not only with the Gandhians, but also with the Colonial-Modern regime they had jointly worked to expel. The tendency to normalise the paradoxical contradictions of the encounter between high modernism and traditional India, and the heroic creative struggle that this entailed in high-profile projects such as Chandigarh has underplayed the significance of the middle ground of Colonial-Modern development on which post-Independence India was actually built.

In its Public Works in buildings as in its social policies, Colonial India under the British was a test-bed – not only for some of the most radical ideas about social and spatial engineering in the history of Modern European thought but some of the most reactionary policies and practices as well. To understand fully the differential nature of Architectural Modernity in India’s modern history, it is therefore imperative to appreciate the role that architecture played in the intrinsically intertwined history of India’s colonisation and hence into the inherent post-coloniality of the architectural production and discourses that followed.

[20:33] The quest for ‘new form’, the creative struggles for the form givers and associated mythologies and realities of the actual means of production on the building site are intriguing threads of the story that I have already begun to underpin. But the problem with subsequent assessments of the heroic late works of Le Corbusier in the crucible of the Indian subcontinent, and of course others like Kahn who were to follow has been the tendency to emphasise the poetic inspiration and technological paradoxes of India as ostensibly timeless traditional society at the expense of a more historically contextualised reading of the actual traditions in question. Instead, indeed as the underlying question might be reframed that the work, I am now speaking to and I quote myself “What was the Modern India of the mid-twentieth century?” Not the imagined India that these masters of high Modernist Architecture and their acolytes actually encountered.

(In the rapidly diminishing few minutes of my presentation, I have remaining) I just want to speak on a few images about what the argument of the recent work is. Those of you who know me know that my first work that brought me to Goa a few years ago was after the Masters in the mid-1980s attempt to begin writing critically about how frankly an outside young greenhorn architect with a wiser CEPT-trained Professor who taught me in Canada, might look upon the work of his colleagues and his mentors at that time. Subsequent work in my academic life has given more depth to what I have been referring to as a Colonial Modernity. The book we brought out together, that is, with my own former PhD student in the same model of inviting a junior collaborator to give another voice to write about India, enabled us to write this book that the publisher asked to revisit the story of Modern Architecture from the historical perspective of the context. In essence, that was our mission to rewrite, not the grand narrative, but to look at Indian history through the lens of its own architecture, and perhaps address what this question of Modern India was. As these points indicate, our strategy was to open up the type of dialogue which I think this chance to speak to my work and these reflections is all about. It is a multi-dimensional thing. We were particularly seeking to speak to those many students in the room and their young teachers who do not necessarily have the perspective that I have been privileged to get over these many years, to understand how that recent history informs, of course, the questions that we have today and ultimately, of course, to speak to my many professional practitioner colleagues here in the room to engage them and keep them engaged in the relevance of this past.

The argument I will just quickly outline in a few slides here before I get to my conclusion is really to revisit that grand narrative but complicated with many other threads. So the organisers were hoping I would dwell on the mid-century period that we think we know well and try to unpack the different threads. So we are looking here at an image, combination of images of the teacher, really the work of people who were thought to be in the woodwork or in the background, perhaps Prem’s background here in the service of the state, but not the glorious consultants, their foot soldiers and those who brought in other threads which were unknown in the past and understand how in fact, serving the state with that conviction that it was building this thing called India as a professional occasion, not in counterpoint to it was the idea of this chapter.

[25:00] But of course, recognising that there was perhaps this counterpoint brings up a second chapter that really parallels the same period of time that articulates a very important argument of the book that there is this constant tension if we look back across the hundred-plus years that the book covers, almost a hundred fifty years from the present back to the mid-19th century, where we see the tug and the pull between the notion of the state or the idea of India, the idea of a place that is ‘Oneness’, that the architecture might reflect and contribute to making and of course, the counterpoint that as individualists, as modernists, perhaps in that term that Prem helped us kept thinking about, that there is the constant effort to distinguish, to separate, to isolate, to define ‘region’, as one ideal. The independent thoughts of a client or a masterful emerging architectural talent that prefers to work in practice, if not in the background, and particularly the agency in the same period of institution builders who were not necessarily contributing to the same programme of the state and sponsored in many cases by complicated international agencies that had other agendas.

The underlying counterpoint at the argument is of course what I have already underscored that this story is a much longer story, that we need to look back to the mid-19th century to see how Modern India already was becoming through its infrastructure and the work of its state at the time, the Colonial state, its agencies that saw clear environmental problems, and of course, social and political problems to solve the environmental and hygienic problems, were the first layer of rationalising and changing radically the way we built buildings and cities leading to a much more complicated period in the height of the Independence struggle where that continuing story in the overt aspiration to Modernity, initially orchestrated by the Public Works and Public Colonial bodies themselves taken over by stages by the Institute of Architects, where interestingly, Claude Batley, the famous teacher, is no longer the white man at the centre. That is John Begg in the centre of the bottom. In the middle Claude Batley’s sister to the side, in the 1930s. And by the 1940s, the agencies are beginning to be taken over by their Chief Senior Indian Draughtsmen who are more qualified than their own English leaders to run the show. But we understand that complex counterpoint with the struggle between traditionalism or revivalism of an Indian Architecture versus notions of the radical modernity that we will hear about later today. That we argue was there even from the 1920s and the work of the Gandhians, literally, socially, engineering through architecture different ways of confronting and understanding the very traditions that superficially are perceived to be reproducing in false recognition of this work as conservative.

We look at the 1970s, very importantly from this perspective in a fresh light. We think we need to look at a complicated period of politics where the tensions between the centre and the regions are now acute, and more and more exposed. New political realities are fomenting but this sense of not yet identified as Indian identity, but sort of indigenous understanding of modes of production still very much harness to a socialist ideal of what Modernity might mean certainly in the professional agency of many of the colleagues, senior colleagues in the room now, how those play themselves out.

The decade in which I came to know India in the 1980s, we revisited all almost as question marks because this was the period when identity and difference were embraced with such passion and such colour, and here we have the first bit of colour coming back into it. Was this in fact, the breaking point? Was this what we assumed at the time was Post-Modernism writ large?

Interestingly in the book, we probably said that time these are studies that I did for a possible cover, for looking at the formalisms of the moment. Mapin’s choice to focus really on this sort of surviving modernists read even in Doshi’s work, at the moment when another possibility was arising raised different questions. The challenge we faced in writing the book in the present was how to deal with this extremely complicated array of great possibility and increasingly complicated pluralistic storylines as Rahul Mehrotra sort of analysed it into a sort of separate threads almost completely.

[30:05] I would finish by emphasising the point that, now we see the face of Habib Rahman in the middle there; if Charles Jencks famously, you know, defined the end of Modernism in the Western experience with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe buildings in St. Louis, where the great social housing project was brought to the ground literally within one generation of its creation, the failure of the great Modernist ideal. Perhaps our comparable project that we might think through is Habib’s proposition for how we might resolve as a Modernist, I would say as a Modernist to the end, resolve the Ayodhya problem in 1993 with this proposition to a national newspaper that architecture could solve the issue if just saw that architecture was at issue, but it could also be part of the solution.

The question of Modernist Heritage, this is what this weekend is about. I think it is a tricky one here. I think again I will revert to one of Prem’s other closing points where he said: “Heritage is really about Now, the writing of History, the framing, the reframing of History is always about Now.”. We write history, we re-write histories as I have just offered you my latest version because we are addressing present questions. It is not about recounting the authentic version of past facts, and that is it. No, it is about re-seeing, re-viewing from our reflective present, what is relevant in the past and why these buildings are important to us now. So I think one of the big questions of this whole coming together is to decide what we value of our recent past and why are they important to us now and what we learn from them. I hope that my opening comments and my slightly over-stretched talk here have not tried your patience too much, but gave us some more opportunities to reflect much further about the sort of recent paths that we have tried to review and impart the way I and many others who have written about it in the past have been responsible for framing it perhaps too definitively or presumptuously in the past.

Thank you very much ♦

Peter Scriver is an architectural historian and co-founder of the Centre for Asian and Middle-Eastern Architecture (CAMEA) at the University of Adelaide, where he has directed postgraduate research since 1996. Author of several path-breaking books including After the Masters: Contemporary Indian Architecture (1990), and India: Modern Architectures in History (2015), he worked in Delhi and Ahmedabad as a graduate architect in the mid-1980s following his initial studies at McGill University and has continued to be engaged with India in his scholarship and teaching ever since. In addition to his extensive critical work on post-Independence India, Scriver is an expert on colonial modernity. His pioneering doctoral research on the British Indian Department of Public Works, completed at TU Delft in 1994, examined the instrumental role of the PWD system in the propagation and institutionalization of modern architectural and engineering knowledge in colonial India and beyond.

FRAME is an independent, biennial professional conclave on contemporary architecture in India curated by Matter and organised in partnership with H & R Johnson (India) and Takshila Educational Society. The intent of the conclave is to provoke thought on issues that are pertinent to pedagogy and practice of architecture in India. The first edition was organised on 16th, 17th and 18th August 2019.

Organisation and Curation: MATTER
Supported by:
H & R Johnson (India) and Takshila Educational Society 


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