Friday, December 18, 2009

The Superlative New Architecture

In my fourth year in the canteen over a lemon tea I asked one of the visiting faculty, “What are we trying to do as architects?”. It has been a long while since then, but I am not certain what I see will give me the clues to an answer.
In a modern, post colonial, resurgent, liberal, capitalistic India this seems a question that repeatedly wants to be asked of us.
In the last decade one could say that there has developed a trend of sorts between the cost of cheap airline tickets, bargain price package tours and the dominance of a certain shopping destinations on the imaginations and subsequent skyline of our cities . For the present it is wide-eyed desire for the “new-popular” not-so-far-west development.
Has the idea of value lost its place? In main-stream, contemporary architecture has the idea of value actually sunk rock bottom, to that of the morning clamour of the grocer trying to sell you his wares before the others.
A hundred acres of prime agricultural land now posh residential development; three and four bedroom flats, (nothing for two and one bedroom aspirations!) 21 kilometers from IGI etc, etc, etc. with sample flat ready. And it isn’t rare to find the furniture supplied by the biggest names in designer furniture. Showrooms that are asked to make the pieces some times even six inches shorter in plan dimensions so the rooms will look larger.
This isn’t so atypical of Gurgaon, where the expressway with all its clamour and glamour is a fitting metaphor for development/ growth / progress whatever you will, in India. Here you are allowed to build a 150 meter wide right of way, and no green belt, to sever a single settlement in two, with no concern for any thing other than the vehicles speeding to Jaipur. None at all for the foot borne poor who might need to cross the road (some one might have learnt from the absence of any footbridges, or underpasses at the AIIMS flyover). And still less even for traffic that might not have Jaipur on their minds.
This is the story of most contemporary architecture. RCC frame with single layer toughened glass façade and more air-conditioning than would make an HVAC engineers wildest dream, seems to be the preferred model of all commercial architectural enterprise in the wake of the ‘just completed’ shopping festival tour package. With an aluminium sandwich panel crown. Each building a pathetic reminder of every man’s hope of writing his name into immortality. Sad mishappen crusades to build another Taj Mahal. Architecture for the dead of India.
It is either that or an architecture that will systematically reduce architecture in India to a cloning exercise of western European, or American travel magazines or shopping festival brochure architecture from closer home – Dubai.
The Modernist movement and its heroic architecture of the 1900s was probably the most misappropriated of all in India. Not in its syntax or geometry or construction ( if anything, you cannot fault us on construction technique) but in its advent or arrival. It was as if it was conjured up by some magic trick, snatched out of the blueness of the sky and wham- there you have it- modernism came to India.
The call for the “Temples of Modern India” has nothing but strong, unforesightly, political desire of the also-us. Although it might be fitting to note that what was promoted as the temples of modern India were the massive concrete marvels that are our hydroelectric projects in the Punjab. They would make for some temples by a good stretch of the imagination! But the claim would forever echo in the “sheep - in - wolf’s – clothing” stance that many practices have made ever since to the wide eyed world.
It is some times sad to see most new edifices make an almost apologetic “also-me”. Not unlike an advertisement on national television for a certain brand of sanitary napkin that ran a jingle, “ Unhe bhi to pata chale, hum bhi modern hain”( Let them know, that we are modern also).
In the great speech of the temples of modern India, we at once forgot that India unlike Britain or America (no I will not write Dubai, because we did not even know if it existed then), is a nation of centuries of history, culture and traditions. And nobody, not even an oxonian, shervani clad, royalty of Indian real-politic was going to change that. The temples of modern India are the temples of not-modern India or the temples of old India; more correctly the temples of Ancient India. But from here was born the schizophrenic character that troubles all contemporary architectural traditions in India.
We have Corbusier clones, Kahn clones, Gaudi and Bota clones, and now Shanghai and Singapore clones. Some of us will swear by Koolhaas and Liebeskind, by Hadid and even Moss. Adding slowly to the numbers of half-ling orphaned children of a learned-by-rot modernism that fell out of the sky.
The same sky I looked up at and swore, against none in particular for the half hours waiting on that morning on the Gurgaon Expressway many months ago. Finally I had paid my passage and was relieved to look out over a patch of tarmac large enough for eight football fields simmering in the heat. Ahead atop towering pillars into the blue blue sky two sign boards answered my question.
The Largest Mall in India
1 Km of Shopping on Every Floor
The Mall of India
This was not the answer I was looking for. None the less it was an answer. As a country, and a consciusness, our only measure of value has turned very measurable, empirical, and direct, the measure of quantity.
For a country that has changed science, shaped consciousness, nurtured cultures and still holds a lamp to the human race it is a come down indeed.
How much am I getting for a single rupee? Am I getting the most for my rupee? Is this the biggest I can get with my rupee? Is the newest I can buy with my rupee? Can you make it wider? Or Taller? Or Bigger? Higher? Can you make it cheap(est) and best so I can get most for my rupee. The tallest building, the biggest mall, the highest housing tower, the widest roads. The unquestionable superlative new architecture.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Looking Back

At Fatehpur-Sikri, un-learnt lessons and looking forward.

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