EXPERIMENTS IN CITY PLANNING AND IDEAS OF MODERNITY (1880 – 1940)

Pratyush Shankar

A Recorded Lecture from FRAME Conclave 2019: Modern Heritage


In this lecture, Pratyush Shankar speaks about the development of cities during the pre-modernist period between 1880-1940. He also addresses the role of two architects, Patrick Geddes and Otto Königsberger, who were deeply involved in the movement. The talk also emphasises on the the evolution and questions of the City, of social institutions and public spaces.

Edited Transcript

If you really, really need to understand what happened in the 1950s, you must understand what happened between 1880s and 1930s because it is an important period. And that is where actually I would like to begin. 

My presentation is not really on architecture, but it is on cities. Well, that is an area of interest. That is something I have been researching for a very long time. I have been looking at cities from a historical perspective; and these days I am particularly curious about the period that I have listed here. I think it is relevant for the theme of this conference also, and I will give you a couple of reasons why I feel it is relevant to look at this period. 


First and foremost, I think sometimes there is too much attention given to the high-modernist symbolism that was created and the idea of Nation building or Chandigarh. I mean, these are extremely, extremely important examples, but then one cannot really say that this is when modernity hits. It does hit very hard, but then modernity has a huge lineage and I think we need to, as Peter Scriver was talking about ‘other histories’ that need to be excavated to understand what is happening today, in today’s world. That is where I would like to make a distinction between what we would like to call as ‘Modernity’ and ‘the Modern Movement’. The Modern Movement which is the post 1930s – late 1930s phenomena, comes with a specific agenda – it is manifesto driven. It is a culmination of modernity of many centuries, but it is a specific movement with the agenda about where architecture and art are the tools to create this new world which you do not have. It is a utopian idea.

The two or three things that are remarkable about it: one is that it is totally committed to the idea of Universal. Something that works at one place should work at another place. So the idea of Universal seems to be almost like an obsession – that is one. Second is a huge reliance on technology and the fact that technology can solve the problems.

And third, which is I think the most important is this kind of a belief – almost like the Roman times when the Roman citizens were told you are participating in history because what you are creating is something that has never been seen before. So what you are trying to say is actually a very utopian thought – they were trying to create a whole new world.
This world is not only about cities or architecture, but it is a whole new social order that one is talking about. That is what I mean by agenda or manifesto driven, and definitely it coincides with Nation-building, the end of the second World War.

Whereas modernity itself, specially in architecture, and also city building, has a huge lineage. I mean, right from the Enlightenment project, it kind of has its own trajectories where definitely you are looking at the ideas of creating something new. There is a kind of a skepticism with tradition, definitely, but it need not necessarily be an approach which demands that you start afresh with a kind of a blank slate. I think that distinction would be very useful when we discuss what we discussed today. 

[05:30] What I am looking at is the experiments – Now, these are little fragments that I am picking up, it is not still formed as a complete thesis, but I thought I will still share with you. In city building during 1880s and 1940s and I am talking about Princely cities (I will come to later about why I think Princely cities are important). But I think it is quite interesting to look at how the Princely states were thinking about transforming a society at that point in time, I think that would be very interesting to know. In some sense, the simplistic binaries of Modern being Western and tradition being India, and that kind of binary sometimes are very difficult to deal with because, ‘here this building by Le Corbusier, which is actually meant to be concrete, but see this concrete is actually handcrafted’. It is almost like a self-oriental kind of an attitude and I think we need a more nuanced way of looking at things. So that is generally the background that I am just trying to lay out here.

However, before I can actually begin talking about examples, I would just lay out the kind of framework that I am using. You can call it the bias of a researcher – but then what am I looking for? What do I mean when I say I am looking for Modernity in a city?

I think for me, one of the biggest benchmarks would be ‘what are the kind of possibilities that cities offer, that is not there in the countryside?’. This is not something new, this has been discussed for the last hundred years in urban theories and if I were to caricaturize this problem, this problem can be seen as well if I come to a city, it is possible for me to forge a new identity. It is possible for me perhaps, theoretically speaking, to be able to do something which my father or my mother are not doing. So, can I come here and be someone else? That seems to be the distinct kind of a promise of a city, its economic progress, as well as a kind of a social promise. That is the promise of the city, – that has been the kind of promise of places like Bombay/Mumbai.

For that to happen, you will have to create a public sphere. You will have to have an idea of commons for an idea of public. Otherwise, the cities get reduced to being simply many little enclaves of communities, and that is not what is Modern about cities. For example, if you are denied a house because of your religion, that is a promise of a city not fulfilled. If you are denied of a house because of your caste, that is the promise that is not fulfilled, and I was fascinated by the documentary that Rohan Shivkumar was showing of the LIC Housing and he pans the camera through all these names of people who are living. They are from all parts of India, right? 

That is what I mean. That is the kind of possibility it offers. That is where in my recent new publication on history of cities, I am sometimes extremely critical of medieval cities. I mean Ahmedabad, if you have the pols, which we celebrate for its architecture, beautiful meandering streets, but the way I look at them is that it is the same pols that kind of created these solid enclaves for communities to remain in their caste-based inward ways of living. The same pols do not allow a new kind of a public place to emerge. For me, it is a gain in architecture, maybe, and the spaces that sometimes are claimed to be public are actually more like community spaces. It is a gain in architecture but what does the city stand to gain? 

Those are the kind of questions that are in my mind. When I look at the cities between this period, or when I am saying I am looking for what constitutes as Modern, I think I am also trying to look at the idea of public places or of public sphere to begin with which also manifests in space. That is the kind of interest that I have.

I am a Professor of History so I tend to keep going back. From 1935, I have reached 1880, but just to see what was happening before that, and I call this period before 1883, the ‘Dark Period of City Development’. This was the time when most medieval cities in the world were actually taking a new turn. They were changing because of technologies, they were changing because of new ways of economy, new industrialisation or just new thoughts that were coming up or new ways of living, and that does not happen for a variety of reasons. 

[10:21] Firstly, it does not happen because Britishers totally disengaged with the old city. They did not want to deal with it. The only reason why they dealt with it was either for the purpose of security or for the purpose of hygiene. Veena Talwar Oldenburg‘s book on Lucknow really exemplifies how they deal with the old city. So really, the old city is fossilised for centuries actually. If you were to look at the form of these old cities, around this period, it has really not changed much as compared to many other old cities. Britishers themselves have before this an ad hoc approach and it is very well documented that they have a very ad hoc approach to Urban Planning. They did not come from that tradition, unlike the French and it was only post 1960s that they became serious about it. But I am not talking about Colonial cities in this particular presentation. 

Before this (more or less and I am just picking up some, just to show, this is not part of the main argument that I am making) medieval cities really focused on the main Royal Complex or maybe the Mosque in case of Bijapur and the rest of the city is actually an adjustment here. Or, you know, the two most prominent structures in the case of Bidar would be the Madrasa or the Mosque, and rest of the city there is no other scale, there is no the space that really exists that we can say is a kind of a common space that gets created.

Or, the only other prominent public place is actually outside the city, be it the Tomb of the Sufi Saint or be it the Royal Necropolis. This is the one place that people actually visit in terms of a public place where people go around. Or in the case of Shahjahanabad, which is much celebrated, the focus is not the city, but the focus of the aristocrat is to build Havelis by the riverside. No wonder it was said, it had a camp-like feel. Well, forty percent of the time in the lifetime of a Mughal ruler, he was actually on the move, and that is where they were living. These are like tent cities where at the drop of a hat, half of the city would actually be in a tent and would move. 


We are talking about the idea of a city which almost feels like an unfinished project. I will come to these little fragments that I am picking up today. So I am looking at Urban Planning and Design in Princely cities. The biggest debate that has been around is, “Is it like some kind of a mimic modernity?” That is what it has been sometimes portrayed as.

Well, these guys were who travelled to the West and they were trying to please the Western Masters or something, and they were simply copying or they were mimicking. I also look at works of two other architects, they are more like freelancers and I think we need to begin to acknowledge a lot of these freelancers who were doing interesting experiments. This is not a comprehensive picture but I am just trying to create the different strands of thoughts that were existing at that point in time. So I am looking at Patrick Geddes and I am looking at Königsberger.

We all know what Princely states were. Well, this was a very interesting arrangement, a very convenient arrangement for the British. What they would say is well, ‘You have to pay obeisance to the Queen of England, you are under us but on many matters you have an autonomy. You can not mint your own money, you cannot have your own army; you are under us, but your autonomous for some reasons.’ This autonomy was actually used very smartly by many Princely cities and some of them simply squandered it. If you were to look at cities like Baroda, Gondola, Hyderabad, Indore, Gwalior, and many more, you find some very interesting things that happened around there.


The question really is, why were the Kings or the Princes, as they were called, doing what they were doing? Obviously, a very simple answer is that there is prestige involved. They want to earn a certain kind of prestige, but then, if we look deeper, then we begin to find that there were also other ideas that they had. They really found this as an opportunity to do something that can have much more meaning.

This whole idea of a partial autonomy was accidental but had some interesting consequences and that is what we will see. They could freely hire professionals, in fact, they were the biggest patrons of a lot of consultants and professionals that had a wide variety of exposure. So Robert ChisholmM Visvesvaraya, he would work in many different places, William Allenson Borden was a librarian that was hired by the state of Baroda and Krumbiegel was a botanist-horticulturist, who was a gardener.

[15.15] They had this kind of an access to people, they themselves were traveling, and mostly when they were traveling it was for health reasons. What they started doing is rather interesting; for example, I just pick up the the city of Baroda, not that this is a complete case study – they started something like the Library Movement in the whole state. And the King Sayajirao III begins to build libraries which are publicly accessible; that are meant for people, not just within Baroda, but he starts to build them in all the different parts of the state, which is a fairly large state. Now, this is happening around the turn of the century and it was called as a Library Movement which is pretty well documented. But then the whole idea here was that we need to bring the books. It is a kind of an idea, we need to bring knowledge to the general population. This is not the library for the Royals, and that is why they would even have traveling libraries that would travel to various places.


This was a kind of a new culture that was being introduced. It begins with a kind of a social agenda to bring about certain kind of social change. It reflects in space, in terms of architecture, but more importantly what I am looking at is how the institution of Library and then I come to the Museum, the University and a Botanical Garden actually becomes the most important public place for the city. So you have the Library, which itself is a demonstration of the new kind of technology, inside of it is built in cast iron, and many such structures actually begin to come in the city. They are large-scale engineering projects, practical projects are taken up for Water Supply and such.


A University comes up around the same period, 1880s and -90s and this was a rebel University.  Many a times these Kings were at odds with their Colonial Masters because you would have a regent or something at their court, and many a times therefore defying or navigating in that area where they were trying to impose themselves. It was a kind of a tussle and it has been fairly well-documented. Homi Bhabha says, this is almost, but not quite ‘Western Modernity’. It is definitely inspired from Western ideas but is contextualised to a place. As other people like Manu Bhagavan call it; this actually created grounds for a whole counter-Colonial culture in these kind of enclaves.

So our University becomes very very important because this is a place where scientific disciplines are taught. And University is an extremely important idea of a public place in city-making because it brings a whole crowd of people from all over the country and the University then begins to influence the city. These were very very important moves that were made long back, the education of the girl child, the laws for child marriages, hospitals and others. The Prince begins to make some moves that have a lot of social consequences. For example, vocational training, which is something that affects people – these are the kind of different initiatives that begin to happen. Now, that is rather interesting, and it happens in the period of twenty to thirty years, which is quite fascinating. 


A Botanical Garden: now, this is not a park, this is not like a Baroque Garden in front of the palace. It is actually far removed from the palace, and that is of importance. From day one, this garden is supposed to be a public garden and it is a Botanical garden and a Zoological garden and it has a specific purpose. If you read the chronicles from the time, the purpose here is to expose the citizens of Baroda state to the wonders of nature. This is a very modern idea thatI’ had the ability to decipher the rules of nature. It starts from Darwin, the whole kind of a classification system. So a Botanical Garden or a Zoo is exactly that. It is a very clear statement. Well, it does show the King as being Modern and Scientific, that is one part, that is the prestige of the King. However, at the other level it is also a kind of a symbolic statement of what it is. 


[19.51] Then you have something like a Museum in the garden. Now that again makes it very interesting. The museum is not within the palace, it is purposely kept in the garden. And what does the Museum showcase? One, it obviously showcases all the curio-artifacts that the King has collected. So this King is well-travelled; he has been to China, Japan, Europe. That is the prestige of the King which is getting enhanced. But at the same time, this is the way one can see the world. You see you have a skeleton here, you have a fossil there, this is a very Modern idea that begins to be introduced. So these are the kind of things that were happening in a place. Now, this is not just about Baroda, it is just a symbol and this perhaps in different ways was happening in many cities. But this is a history that has not been documented or analysed too much . There is the Museum building, and a Townhall which became a Nyay Mandir.


So there were lots of policies, that is what I have listed out, you had – the Widow Remarriage Act, Primary Education Act, and that reflected in some kind of Social Institution. But the million-dollar question is that ‘How does that begin to affect space?’. So, one thing that I have argued is, it does create a public place, it does create a ‘public-ness’ in the city, but the second thing which is morphologically very important is, none of these institutions were just adjacent to the Old City. They were purposely kept far off from the whole city. Cities have had huge problems breaking free from the walls or confines of the medieval city because they are just entrenched in it. But here, these social institutions really allowed the city to grow in a very different fashion. 


In fact I would argue, City has grown around social institutions. It has this kind of a layer of publicness even today and you know, when we say there seems to be some kind of a difference, some kind of a cultural difference in cities, I would really sometimes put my finger to certain things that happened in history. So that is one way of looking at what happened in a city like Baroda might have happened in other places.

Now, I will just pick up works of, or ideas of Patrick Geddes, because people like Patrick Geddes, and these days there is a lot of interest in Patrick Geddes the world over because it seems a lot of things that he said seem to make so much sense now. Being heavily invested or involved in himself, a kind of a botanist trained in the scientific tradition, and there are some wonderful records that make for a great reading, as to how he was looking at Indian cities.

Again, they were hired by the Princely states. It was very heartening to know that they were also professors. He was also teaching and practising, so you know, makes us feel good about ourselves. Moreover, if you were to understand his philosophy (he comes from the Romantic tradition), so William Morris is a huge influence, Rabindranath Tagore or Wallace. There is a skepticism about rampant industrialisation, he celebrates the small town and was skeptical about large cities but then has an integrated approach, a holistic kind of a social approach, would like to consider everything together and as for family – seem it always talks about the women, which is very interesting, – the Family and the Woman. And variety of reports that he makes for the town, somewhere implemented, some were not.

One of the remarkable things that these guys were saying, such as one was – ‘There is inherent idea of conservation’. So, planning for future while conserving the natural heritage and architectural heritage, scientific surveys as a basis, social awareness and public participation. That is where the interest in social institutions really come in. They had a very pragmatic low-cost approach. In all his writings, he keeps saying ‘this you can do in only this much money, you do not need to spend too much’. That is the kind of ideology that you know these oddballs really, freelancers, represented and experimented with. These were some of the diagrams.


That is the kind of an integrated view he had of the profession, of life, and he would believe in what was called as a conservative surgery; a very well-documented fact. If a problem has to be solved in a congested place, then he would do it with minimum intervention possible. There was a proposal to cut through with the crossroad in Madurai, but that is what he came up with. So how can you intervene with the minimum of intervention? How can you do little and it can have a maximum impact?


[24.54] You also had things like the Mechanical industry, and Western education is having a disastrous effect on the colour sense of whole of India. So there were these lots of statements we might not agree with but remember this is 1915-1920s. To look at what is there and to make the best use of it seems to be the strategy that he is following. So he does a whole survey of Baroda and he says, ‘like the park is well designed and we see no reason why it should not be preserved’ or ‘public libraries are there, make for an ample provision’, keeps talking about the Woman all the time and the family unit, so that is rather interesting. He is very much hell-bent on this whole idea of Municipal services, and how do you give dignity to the lowest Municipal worker? 


These are kind of, seems almost, (this was 1915, and this guy seems to be talking about these issues); very interesting. That is why I call them as experiments, or you know, freelancers, madcaps kind of things. So, a very thrifty approach to Urban Planning. That is the kind of thing that you begin to find in works of Patrick Geddes.

Then you have another of these free-floating freelancers – Königsberger, known more for the book that he wrote when he kind of had to leave India in very very, you know, not good circumstances. But then, whereas Geddes was pretty focused, he already knew what he wanted, Königsberger was kind of growing while he was in India. It is worthwhile to see the different things that he was trying to do while he was in Mysore. That is where he begins his journey. As Vandana Baweja has called this in her paper, ‘A kind of a messy Modernism where he is trying to incorporate an Indian style in some kind of a rational plan making’. But then I think Jamshedpur project really becomes interesting. He comes from Berlin. He is more familiar and influenced by the Russian model of planning and they are already doing interesting experiments on social housing, and social cities, and how do you create these kind of neighbourhoods. There are two or three things that I really take away from his work. One is, he is not talking about a complete plan right now. When Jamshedpur is being planned, I think it starts in early 1940s, he is not talking about a complete plan, he is talking about an elastic plan.


What he is actually talking about is a neighborhood unit – what we call is a sector. You have what is called as a sector in R.K. Puram. So what is that unit of neighbourhood? And what all should it have to make sense for a new life, for a new city? It must have a primary school, an education center, playground, dispensary, open-air theater, maternity welfare hall with outdoor stages. That is what he is trying to do in Jamshedpur. In Jamsedhpur, actually he wanted to do mixed housing but he was asked not to because that was not possible. His idea really is about neighbourhood units that are strung on a single axis. That is the kind of argument that he makes. He also does interesting experiments with prefabrication. He succeeds here, but that actually became a problem much later and we will talk about that.

‘Like a leaf to the branch of the tree’, that is the word he uses. ‘Neighbourhood unit as a major unit of planning’, and then he says ‘Neighbourhood should open out’. On one side, it opens out to the road and on the other side, it must open out to the countryside. So he is talking about a snake-like planning, and if you do that, the nature is close to them and you do not have to give open space inside.

That is the kind of interesting arguments that he is making. Also, there is this kind of a passage where he says that ‘this neighbourhood will work like it will have the comfort and predictability of a village’, and that is where he is acknowledging that the folks that are coming here would be from the village. And then he says, I mean in a patronising way, ‘where the rural folks are gradually going to learn civic responsibilities’. That seems to be the kind of concern that he has, and that is the kind of plan he comes up then for Bhubaneshwar, so on a single axis. His preoccupation at that point in time is very much with the idea of neighbourhood, and not a complete plan. He is not talking about the nine squares or six squares, that does not seem to be the obsession.

But then, the same person once appointed in the Government of India, leads to certain kinds of decisions that really do not work. So he was able to operate at a certain scale but he was not able to operate because he was asked to actually come up with a policy for housing. He comes up with a variety of policies, he actually does Faridabad and Gandhi Dham as refugee settlements. In Faridabad, (I have read about it, I still have to get more information), he actually tries a primitive form of participatory planning where all the refugees are actually building their houses and also building some of the civic centers and markets. But his earlier obsession with pre-fabrication takes over and he proposes a major project on prefab housing, the Government Housing Factory in Delhi, which ends up in a sheer disaster because of the fact that machineries could not reach on time, there were huge technical problems, a huge scandal and then he had to leave India and he goes back to, I guess the UK, where then he goes on to write a book that we all refer to, on tropical housing. 


[30:50] All I am doing here is just presenting some of the different fragments of things or experiments that were happening. They are all Modern, they are all imagining a kind of a new way in which the city can be shaped. Some of them, especially the Princely states, are deliberately trying to break free from the medieval hold, deliberately placing institutions not on the outskirts of the city, but far off, imagining a new kind of Urbanism. More importantly, and I think that more than the morphology or the geometry of the proposition, it is the presence of these Social Institutions that create that kind of a ground for public. We can debate whether they were really public or not, but they were some new kinds of spaces that were created. I thought that it would be nice to present this kind of a period in-between. This is also a time when some of the most interesting Railway Stations happened, some of the most interesting Textile Mills happened, and they are all great projects of Modernity to be analysed, critiqued, debated. All I am trying to do is to open your eyes to the question of City, of public places and the period before, what we call when ‘High Modernity’ really strikes.

Thank you.♦


Pratyush Shankar is a practicing architect and an academic. He is the Dean of SEDA Navrachna University, Vadodara, India and a visiting Professor at the Mundus Urbano Program at Architecture Faculty, TU Darmstadt, Germany. He presently writing a book on the History of Urban Form in India (Oxford University Press). 

Pratyush received the Asia Fellowship in 2008 for the study of Himalayan Cities. He was awarded the Senior Fellowship by Alexander Humboldt Foundation, Germany in 2015 at the University of Bonn. In 2013, he was bestowed with the 22nd J K Cement Award in the best Residence Design category. In 2014, he published a book titled ‘Himalayan Cities‘, Niyogi Press, New Delhi. He has an architectural design practice and has recently built his own studio in Baroda.

Pratyush is extremely passionate about drawings and uses them as an important tool in his research and design. When not teaching or writing or designing, he illustrates and writes comics and repairs his vintage bikes.


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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