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The Invention of the Modern Indian Architect

By A. G. Krishna Menon //

Like the Indian nation, the contemporary Indian architect is a modern invention. In structure and form, both are products of colonialism. Consequently, both have struggled with their colonial legacy in shaping their postcolonial identity and purpose. While political analysts will agree that the nation has emerged as a complex, dynamically evolving entity, architectural critics confront a profession largely frozen in time.

Of course, the products of Indian architecture look different from the architectural products of the Raj, but under the veneer of modernity, the basic ideology of the profession remains unchanged. The invention of modern Indian architecture can well be recounted as the story of how architectural images were appropriated from other times and other cultures to meet contemporary exigencies. In sharp contrast to, say, politicians who must, perforce, respond (even if only opportunistically) to the changing needs of the polity, the modern Indian architect unfortunately continues to respond primarily to architectural images produced by celebrated international architects. Relying on the architectural norms and solutions of other cultural and economic contexts to serve local needs was a strategy established to meet the priorities of the colonial government. Not surprisingly, the uncritical perpetration of this strategy in postcolonial India has meant that the country’s architects are unable to comprehend the specific nature of and challenges posed by contemporary Indian urbanism.

Architects in India regard buildings as self-evident artefacts whose physical form encapsulates the sum total of the design intent. The language used in communicating the idea of the building is that of its images. Utilitarian considerations reign: the programme provides the why and what to generate architectural design. This is contrary to contemporary theoretical discourse in the West, where buildings are often justified as non-architectural ideas derived from sources like literary theory, philosophy, computational algorithms and sculptural expression. India’s is a profoundly practical architecture, one fixed by the specificity of the client’s needs and grounded by budgetary concerns. In practical, rather than theoretical terms then, imported images of iconic buildings provide the contours of local architectural imagination and establish the conceptual boundaries within which architects operate.

These boundaries are not totally deterministic but, rather, quite flexible and porous. Indian architects have a wide range of images at their disposal and their choice among these influences the evolution of any architectural project. This choice reveals how architects negotiate the needs and desires of the client, the particular site and its context, the demands of the programme and the decisions and concessions made to address those demands and, finally, the physicality of the building (its image) and the space it inhabits. Imported architectural images constitute the core of a local architectural vocabulary and practice which is, regrettably, devoid of a theoretical substance of its own with which it could, in other circumstances, have engaged in a productive dialogue with these images. The etymology of this visual vocabulary, therefore, determines the nature of the architecture that is produced.

In recent times, on account of globalisation and the communication revolution, this vocabulary has enlarged, almost indiscriminately. The flood of celebrated architectural images inundating the imagination of the architect is supported by global business which has enabled easy access to common building materials and technologies, making buildings all over the world more similar. This similarity results in the loss of contextual references when exotic images are deployed to serve local purposes. In the last decade these decontextualised images have become the medium facilitating the spread of modernism and determining the characteristics of regional architectural identity in much of the Third World. Thus, cities like Shanghai, Manila, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Mumbai, each attempting aggressively to assert a local, modernist regional identity, are increasingly constituted by the same kind of architecture. And increasingly, foreign architects are the agents facilitating this process.

The instinctive valorisation of the ‘foreign’ emerges as the deep structure of societal expectations. It creates a profound dislocation in the role of the local professional in society because the worth of the local architect is not only derogated by the value accorded to the contributions of foreign architects, but also, in their desperate attempt to “catch up”, local architects too try to produce a kind of architecture with which the society at large is not familiar. The local public, whose tastes and expectations are also evolving eclectically, neither understands the significance of the particular images guiding the architect’s work, nor, being increasingly articulate and demanding, does it accept them. The modern architect, therefore, has low credibility in society. Of course, there are several other reasons for this unfortunate state of affairs, such as the postcolonial propensity to perpetuate the colonial style of decision-making, the dominance of the client/bureaucrat/developer in determining architectural matters and the routinely low fee structure assigned for carrying out public works. Together these factors create an environment that is not conducive to producing high quality architecture. In this article, however, I focus on the professional decision-by-default to develop an image-based architectural sensibility.

Locality versus Universality

At the time of India’s Independence in 1947, Indian architects were conscious of the need for a ‘national’ identity. Their search for ‘new’ architecture pursued two avenues: the Revivalists sought alignment with a pre-colonial past, while the Modernists an alignment with the progressive image of the International Style. The strategies used by the Revivalists were, ironically, similar to those used earlier by colonial architects who had attempted to indigenise their designs by creating the so-called Indo-Saracenic style. These architects had debated the relative suitability of various styles for their architecture: something expressive of Britain’s role in India and something the ‘natives’ could relate to instead of being intimidated by. With necessary changes made on account of political Independence, the Revivalists used similar arguments to justify their works. The basic nature of their architecture, however, did not change and, except for the new rhetoric, Revivalist architects never questioned the ontological significance of the way they designed and built. Both the Indo-Saracenic architects and the Revivalists plundered the store of iconic images from the past without the impediments of taste and understanding.

The Modernists were no better. Their icons were the buildings in the International Style then holding sway in the West. They too sought to infuse their buildings with a ‘desirable’ image without questioning the colonial roots of their architectural strategy or seeking to create a dynamic, locally grounded and contextually responsive architecture that could engage seriously with International Style without being overshadowed by it. To their way of thinking, International Style represented the only (and best) route to modernity and progress and they mimicked this style in order to demonstrate their ‘progressive’ understanding of architecture. Modern Indian identity, it should be noted, continued to be constructed using non-local icons. Such self-perpetrated dependence was reinforced by the decision, soon after Independence, to have Le Corbusier to design the north Indian city of Chandigarh. The heroic stature of Le Corbusier in the international architectural firmament ensured that he had a profound influence on nascent architectural developments in India. The works of Louis Kahn in the subcontinent in the 1960s must also be seen in this light.

In hindsight, it is clear that both the Revivalists and the Modernists re-established the hegemony of Western architectural epistemologies: the former sourced a ‘native past’ in the manner of the British architects working in colonial India, while the latter sourced a (presumed Western) ‘future’ by mimicking the iconic images of International Style. In tying indigenousness to an Indian past and modernity to a Westernised future, neither could truly problematise the condition of postcolonial locality and urbanism. Furthermore, in both cases, a reliance on architectural images substituted for the need to develop ideas to establish an autochthonous architectural tradition after Independence. Perhaps this may begin to explain why Indian architects have so far been unable to meet the spatial needs of society or produce a satisfactory quality of living environment. It must also be noted that many successful architects practicing in India today have had an important part of their education in the West and, thereby, experienced the power of the iconic images of Western architecture first-hand. They seldom attempted the more difficult task of emulating the technological transformation taking place in the West which was the basis of those images. For example, the evolution of modernism in Indian architecture created a schism between the building and the process of building: the culture of building as an integrated entity was unaffected. Such a schism is, in fact, contrary to the tenets of modernism. Even as newer generations of architects changed the architectural image, there was no thought for the development of construction processes, which remained primitive. Changes in the construction industry have only recently begun to take place and, that too, on account of the introduction of foreign construction management firms and capital.

And for those who did not have the opportunity for a first-hand experience, professional journals and imported architectural books provided equally evocative substitutes. Western architectural journals have had far greater influence on the architecture ideals of generations of Indian students than any teacher in the Indian schools of architecture. The power of these journals lay in the iconic images they reproduced as attractive photographs and, though second-hand, they nevertheless influenced those who could not avail of a foreign education and experience the buildings directly. The power of such images also derived from the fact that, as editors of architectural journals have sadly pointed out, architects do not read: in these circumstances, the photographs indeed spoke a thousand words and became powerful substitutes for theorising. These journals have, in the process, contributed to the ‘Indianising’ of international icons, but little else has changed, especially when one considers the fact that they reinforce the power of images in determining architectural production. I would like to make one qualification here.

The Influence of Magazines

Locally produced architectural magazines like Architecture+Design, published from Delhi, and The Indian Architect and Builder, published from Mumbai, have facilitated some change in the nature of images accessible to Indian architects. These magazines have featured the works of a diverse range of architects who have pursued different, more appropriate, strategies of form-making and place-making. For instance, the issues of sustainability and low-cost housing are now more widely appreciated. But my point is that the power of iconic images from foreign sources continues to dominate the imagination of the modern Indian architect. Earlier attempts at ‘Indianisation’ were merely literal representations of architectonic elements taken from historical buildings, like chhatris, domes, chhajjas and arches. Even the Modernists merely transferred the images of the International Style on to local buildings but continued to use primitive technology, skills and materials. But, from the 1970s, a few architects attempted a more interpretive strategy by manipulating traditional building and spatial typologies in the modernist idiom. By the 1980s their works began to be recognised internationally by architectural critics like Kenneth Frampton. This was also the time when locally produced architectural magazines came into existence. Charles Correa, an influential Indian architect based in Mumbai, who has designed several important buildings from the late 1950s all over the country and recently in the MIT campus, distinguished between “transfers and transformation” by explaining that one was about the literal quotation of historical forms – “grave digging” – while the other was about the assimilation and reinterpretation of those forms in the contemporary context. He compellingly demonstrated his transformative strategies in such buildings as The Legislative Assembly Building in Bhopal, Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur and the hotel Cidade de Goa in Panjim, among others. Similarly, Raj Rewal, based in Delhi, and Balkrishan Doshi, in Ahmedabad, both prominent and prolific architects now in their seventies, have emphasised the relevance of “traditional architecture” in their works. Using these strategies, Rewal recently completed a commission for the Ismaili Cultural Centre in Lisbon. The reference to iconic images in their works has been more thoughtful and subtle than the earlier attempts of the Revivalists and Modernists.

However, these reinterpretations of traditions are limited to the planning and spatial organisation of buildings and do not address the development of their architectonic form. For instance, Rewal interpreted the spatial morphology of the desert town of Jaisalmer to design public housing in Delhi and Correa the mandala used in the planning of Jaipur to develop the plan for Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur. The visual vocabulary and aesthetics remained Modernist and Western. The development of the plan and the elevation of buildings were sourced from different iconic images, one indigenous and the other Western, but the indigenous was still interpreted through the values of the Modernist West. This move was lauded by western critics – whose approval consequently established local benchmarks. The situation has now changed further.


In the process of the use and reuse of iconic images, there is little that remains identifiably ‘authentic’ or ‘pure’. These icons are hybrid in nature, having evolved out of the continual intermixing of Western and Indian cultural sensibilities over a substantial period of time. The hybrid architecture which has resulted must be recognised as a new architecture, rather than hastily derided as the debasement of older models. Architectural critics in India have as yet been unable to recognise the true meaning – and challenge – of these hybrid architectural formations. On the one hand, this hybrid architecture is dismissed as comic – “Punjabi Baroque” as the title of architect Gautam Bhatia’s provocative book claims. On the other hand, it is valorised as modern Indian architecture, but merely as a regional variation of the master narrative which was, and continues to be, of Western architectural development (perhaps not an unfair assessment under the circumstances, but still missing the point). Again, both evaluations are based on Western criteria of aesthetic appreciation. There is a strong need for an independent, hybrid, local framework for assessing these architectural developments, because the circumstances necessitate it: politically, socio-culturally and, of course, architecturally in a globalising world. In India, we are living simultaneously within, between and after culture, and neither the Western nor the traditional Indian framework is adequate to explain current architectural formations, as has analogously and forcefully been demonstrated by the proliferation of Indian writing in English. The specific legacy of postcolonialism is recognised and problematised in other disciplines such as the social sciences, fine arts and literature, but not, unfortunately, in architecture.

Colonial Heritage

The paradigmatic shift from images to ideas as the source of form-making and place-making must begin in schools of architecture, where theory and the study of history are neglected areas of academic pedagogy. This is the legacy of colonial art and architectural education. This neglect results in the inability of Indian architects to confront the deeply complex structure of their architectural culture in order to transform it and thereby address the contemporary needs of society. The ramshackle condition of Indian cities is evidence of this neglect. It is not merely the individual client to whom an architect must be responsive; the profession, as a whole, must also be sensitive to the specific exigencies of Indian urbanism.

The present architectural curriculum is ill-suited to promote this paradigmatic shift because most current schools of architecture are hold-overs from the earlier colonial schools that sought to train Indian draftsmen and surveyors to assist British architects and engineers. Independence has not substantially altered this educational imperative to impart a vocational skill and most schools regard the teaching of theory and history (except as an incidental opportunity to inculcate ‘facts’) as an impediment to producing the pragmatic architects the country is presumed to need.

And yet, a commitment to the critically informed teaching of theory and history is essential for understanding our contemporary disciplinary and cultural condition and for charting meaningful directions for professional development. To accomplish such a shift in emphasis in architectural education, the disciplinary base of the profession must be widened. The prospects for such a change are bleak.

Few schools acknowledge this intellectual and institutional crisis. At the time of Independence there were just two schools of architecture and, by 1972, when the Council of Architecture was established by the Indian Government to regulate the profession, there were 16. Today there are about 140 schools that, together, produce about 4,000 architects a year. There are only about 40,000 architects registered with the Council of Architecture to serve, at least notionally, a population of over one billion people. Since the number of architects is grossly inadequate, most of the architectural work in the country is carried out by non-architects: engineers or masons who double up as petty contractors. These sobering statistics determine the paradigm within which the Indian architect operates today. Furthermore, even though architects like to consider themselves part of the Westernised elite transforming the country, their actual status in society as effective professionals is low. Their advice is routinely substituted by others who hold influential opinions about the architectural product, thus reducing the economic worth of architectural service in the market place. It is, consequently, unsurprising that in governmental and popular perception, the advice of the engineer has greater authority in deciding architectural issues than that of the architect, whose contribution is reduced to merely manipulating the façade of the building under construction.

The burgeoning of architectural schools in the last 15 years has, sadly, resulted in a precipitous drop in educational standards as the shortage of architects needed to service India’s developing economy has consolidated the debilitating colonial pedagogic agenda that imparts vocational training. The ubiquity of computers in architectural practice has also only reinforced this vocational trend as schools churn out mechanically skilled draftsmen instead of thoughtful practitioners. And, in the globalised marketplace of business process outsourcing, there is a growing demand in the West for Indian technicians, thus vindicating the intellectually colonised pedagogic choices of most architectural schools.

From Image to Idea

Finally, the fear of increasing chaos in the system is forcing bureaucratised agencies like the Council of Architecture to standardise benchmarks and curriculum. To achieve this objective the focus of governance in architectural education is to discipline and punish Schools for infraction of rules; for example, there are currently over 40 Schools listed for de-recognition. This has radically stifled new educational initiatives and increased conformity, thus reinforcing the colonial agenda yet again.

Nevertheless, a few Schools are trying to break the mould in their pedagogy by engaging with the ground realities of architecture and urbanism in India. The School of Architecture at The Centre for Environment and Planning (CEPT) University in Ahmedabad, the Kamala Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies (KRVIA) and The Rizvi College of Architecture in Mumbai, and the recently closed (for infraction of rules) TVB School of Habitat Studies in New Delhi, have consistently demonstrated the efficacy of undertaking regular academic research to improve their educational agenda on the one hand, and effectively mediating the development of architecture and urbanism in India on the other. The KRVIA recently mounted an exhibition of their academic research works of the past 15 years entitled, Make/Shift Mumbai, Imagination and Propositions, which explored important issues confronting the city. In a similar manner the TVB School of Habitat Studies has considered the city of Delhi its laboratory to establish a ‘lab-to-field’ link with government agencies managing the city. CEPT and Rizvi conduct regular national and international workshops to add value to the understanding of Indian architecture and urbanism. In these Schools the invention of the modern Indian architect remains a contested domain in theory and practice.

The challenge for Indian architecture today is both intellectual and institutional. It must, at long last, confront its lingering colonial legacy (without regressing into parochial revivalism) and formulate a disciplinary philosophy and professional practice that is both substantive and mature enough to reflect and respond intelligently to its historical context (local and global). This requires the development of an independent, hybrid, local architectural sensibility that is based on the rigorous generation of ideas rather than the easy and mechanical mimicry of received images. Architecture must be understood (and taught) as a way of engaging sensitively with society and its changing needs rather than as a routinised tool with which to implement pre-determined and formulaic solutions. And meeting this challenge requires not just a cadre of critically innovative practitioners and teachers, but also the firm support of institutions that are bold enough to unshackle themselves from their particularly postcolonial bureaucratic adherence to the inherited status quo. The modern Indian nation deserves no less.