Agendas for architecture

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST


A Moment in Architecture by Gautam Bhatia; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2002; pages 167, Rs.400.

The Loneliness of a Long Distant Future: Dilemmas of Contemporary Architecture by Romi Khosla; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2002; pages 253, Rs.750.

ALMOST everyone has an opinion on architecture, but the culture of architecture remains the least developed of the arts. This is evident from the paucity of media coverage on architecture. It is common for newspapers and magazines to report on music, dance, theatre and cinema - thereby enriching the culture of those disciplines - but not on architecture. There are occasional articles on ancient monuments, but critical commentary on contemporary architecture is conspicuous by its absence.

This has stunted - perhaps distorted - the development of architectural culture and has fostered widespread "spatial illiteracy". This condition insidiously subverts even the most earnest attempts to improve the built environment, not unlike the way functional illiteracy undermines welfare programmes. One has only to take into account the endemic failures of city master plans to appreciate this process at work. In the absence of sustained public dialogue, the culture of architecture cannot develop. Consequently, little substance of critical importance is demanded by the public and little that is appropriate for our developing society is offered by architects. As V.S. Naipaul commented on the state of Indian architecture (India: A Million Mutinies Now):

Far from extending people's ideas of beauty and grandeur and human possibility - uplifting ideas which very poor may need more than rich people - much of the architecture of the free India has become part of the ugliness and crowd and increasing physical oppression of India. Bad architecture in a poor tropical city is more than an aesthetic matter. It spoils people's day-to-day lives; it wears down their nerves; it generates rages that flow into many different channels.

Writing architecture for the public is, therefore, an important means of achieving the ends of a good architectural culture. It can even help mitigate the real problems of poverty and lack of resources by acquainting the public with the causal link between the way architects think and what they produce on the one hand, and between what the public demands and gets on the other.

What little is written about architecture is dominated by glossy coffee-table books that treat buildings as extraordinary aesthetic objects. They reinforce the public perception that architecture is an elite indulgence and a matter of taste, not necessity.

It is for all these reasons that this reviewer finds these two books, both written by architects in an attempt to influence the public discourse on their craft, most welcome. Coincidentally, the two books are on different ends of the literary spectrum. One is almost Proustian in its personalised rumination on architecture while the other could be compared to Rushdie's work for the inventive use of the language of architecture and its almost surreal architectural proposals to resolve seemingly irreconcilable political problems.

At the outset, however, it must be underlined that the preamble to this review notwithstanding, these books will not immediately help solve our architectural problems. But they could certainly contribute to a more informed dialogue.

GAUTAM BHATIA'S A Moment in Architecture would be familiar to those who have read this prolific writer's other books: Punjabi Baroque and Other Memories of Architecture, Silent Spaces and Other Stories of Architecture, and Malaria Dreams and Other Visions of Architecture. In fact, the new book contains many passages which have already appeared in the earlier publications. We have already met "Madanji" in Punjabi Baroque, and we have walked the campus of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, in Silent Spaces, among other events recapitulated in the new book. But it still has much to offer.

In the past, Bhatia has exposed the humour and pathos that characterise the profession of architecture in India. He has almost single-handedly created an alternative vocabulary of popular architectural terms such as the characterisation of "Punjabi Baroque" for a smorgasbord style of architecture which is now a common term in the architectural lexicon. In a witty illustration in this book, titled the Tower of Babble, he has cleverly depicted his entire invented dictionary of architectural styles. With droll humour and tongue firmly set in his cheek, he has purveyed the rambunctious architectural scene of contemporary urban (and rural) India, and drawn our attention to the titanic clash between the powerful consumerist public imagination and the hollow intimations-of-glory that fuels the imagination of architects. Underneath the humour is a serious and perceptive writer.

In his earlier books Bhatia had also discussed the considerable and legitimate pleasures of writing architecture as a creative alternative to practising architecture or as he wryly pointed out surveying his meagre practice, not building architecture. In this book he brings the subject centre stage, and writes movingly about what architecture has meant to him: "How, in twenty-five years of looking at buildings, architecture has influenced the life of one architect." His own. In evocative prose and poetic insights "from the heart", he reveals the mind of a sensitive architect who is overwhelmed by the materialism and banality of the new India, to which he returned in 1983 after having lived and studied abroad. He sublimates his feelings by writing about the great buildings he has encountered and their architects and about memories of growing up in a different India. In the process he brings to light the hidden qualities of architecture that many of us tend to ignore.

For example, we may have come across a "simple mountain hut" in our time but few of us would have experienced it in quite the same manner as Bhatia.

The mountain sojourn changed my perception of building altogether. From being an acquired design discipline, I began to understand architecture as a way of comprehending whole places - a method by which I could relate to surroundings rather than the buildings. More than that, I began to see that the way I looked at buildings and their environments had a lot to do with me... if I cherish something in the way my surroundings are structured it is only because I am a product of that particular time and place. My identity is the identity of the places I know, the people who grew up around me. I am the houses I had lived in.

Bhatia turns every experience, from the most rarefied to the most ordinary, into an occasion for architectural introspection. The colonial bungalow and the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the citadel of Jaisalmer and the step-well at Adalaj, Le Corbusier's Church, Frank Lloyd Wright's house, and Louis Kahn's campus at Ahmedabad, all trigger a poetic stream of consciousness, in the manner the tea-biscuit catalysed the sub-conscience of Marcel Proust. They lead in Bhatia's case, to a deeper understanding of the sublime quality of architecture which he claims the "analytic approach" and "scholastic strains" cannot capture. He extols the "spatial and sensory qualities of buildings" in the elliptical manner of Bacon defining beauty: "that is the best part of beauty, which a picture cannot express".

He advocates the return to a different sensibility, a slower pace to appreciate the meaning of architecture, and is perhaps out-of-step with contemporary needs and expectations of both the clients and the architectural community. When this advice is served in excess, as it often tends to be in this book, it can become difficult to digest. One might legitimately disagree with Bhatia when he states, quite categorically, that the central role buildings play in the social, cultural and political life of a society has "nothing whatsoever to do with the phenomenon called architecture."

ROMI KHOSLA'S book presents a completely different view of architecture. He confronts global events and conflicts polemically and argues for the need to employ boldly architecture as a solution. The six independent but interlinked chapters define the meaning of "modern" in different parts of the world. Khosla uses the terms "ancient futures" and "abstract futures" to distinguish between the perceptions of societies that turn their backs to modernity and others that ride its wave. He is wary of both and firmly believes that "we have to invent the future, not the past".

Khosla is an architect who has been practising in Delhi for almost three decades. His concerns have, however, extended beyond his practice. He graduated in economics from Cambridge University, and even worked as a chartered accountant for a while before switching to architecture, graduating from the Architectural Association in London. Over the last six years, he has been a consultant to various United Nations agencies and the Aga Khan Foundation. The essays in this book are largely based on his international consultancy assignments.

As a consultant to the U.N., Khosla visited the war-ravaged areas of Kosovo and Palestine. Surveying the destruction wrought by "modern weapons originating in the arsenals of the West, as well as the garage-sales that the erstwhile Soviet republics have been holding to bolster their state finances", he observes that "with every calamitous outbreak it is always architecture that is destroyed and the search for solutions is inevitably monopolised by the military". The rhetoric of reconstruction is, moreover, "traditional, ancient and often religious". These circumstances motivated him to seek architectural solutions that were contemporary and modern and also relate to "futures beyond the ancient".

With the virtual collapse of the socialist project, Khosla identifies the rise of new bipolarities based on "perceptions of the future". At one end are the "abstract futures" largely prevalent in Western cultures, and in architectural terms he identifies Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain as its symbol. At the other are "ancient futures", which are being reformulated and reinterpreted in large parts of the rest of the world, on the basis of knowledge of ancient wisdoms and strict adherence to original religious texts. In architectural terms he picks such gargantuan projects like the ISKCON (the Hare Krishna movement: International Society for Krishna Consciousness) cult's Temple of the Vedic Planetarium in Mayapur, West Bengal, as its symbol. While "abstract futures" seek to be the cutting edge of the avant garde, defining future directions in architecture, "ancient futures" calibrate their achievements against past achievements by merely enlarging the familiar to make the contemporary point. He argues that "it is possible to interpret this as part of growing plurality, but I suspect more and more that this is going to be part of a narrative of irreconcilable differences".

In another essay he provides a good overview of the dilemmas faced by architectural conservationists in Central Asia, Tibet, India and Nepal, and their contentious search for architectural "authenticity" in their works. The imposition of 'universal' principles to conserve the monuments of societies, which still possess a living tradition of the crafts of building, raises fundamental issues that questions the very purpose of undertaking the exercise. Does one conserve the building, or the craft of building? When both are attempted, old buildings get restored in a manner that is anathema to conservationists in the West.

This process of "inventing authenticity", whereby old buildings are made new, meets the expectations of traditional societies but conservationists in the West consider this a cardinal sin because historical evidence is irretrievably altered, along with the condition of the once ruined but "authentic" monument. This sets the stage for an ideological conflict that Khosla expertly navigates by citing examples from his numerous foreign assignments. He deplores the banality of mere imitation and calls this practice "unmodern".

As an example of a practice he commends, Khosla discusses the restoration work carried out by two European architects in Nepal, who boldly resorted to the complete reconstruction of old buildings (something they may not have attempted at home). He appreciatively points out that by unifying "the aesthetics of the past and the present" they have demonstrated how "historical buildings could comfortably ride into the twenty-first century using new materials and without being fossilised in the past". He terms this process "counter-modernism".

WHAT is not equally compelling in Khosla's narrative is his speculative proposals for future museums. Museums are repositories of the past but they must also serve the future. To achieve this imperative in a completely "modern" manner, he proposes the "Museum of Varying Distances" and, the "Museum of Varying Amplifications", to "leave behind the baggage of the last 200 years of European thought". While one will not quarrel with his objectives and even his arguments for the need for a new type of museum, his actual proposals are something of a let-down: one proposal appears to be a museum on wheels, albeit using advanced digital technologies, while the other is a stadium wired for a rock concert.

In the concluding sections, Khosla writes about his experiences working on U.N. assignments in Palestine and Kosovo. In Palestine he cuts the knot which has kept Israel and Palestine tied in a deadly embrace for the last five decades by proposing a bold and simple scheme: an integrated train-track and water-carrier project that both countries desperately require for sustainable development in future. The train rides, so to speak, on the tube carrying water would link the north and south of ancient Levant, which he proposes to call Canaan, or the United States of Palestine and Israel. He suggests that the national capital of this newly formed country should be Jerusalem and there should also be two separate state capitals, Ramallah and Tel Aviv. Each of the ten stations on the route would provide the nucleus of a civic space for economic and social exchange. While the political solution of 'one nation, two states', is not new, the vision underpinning the spatial integration of the two states through architectural intervention has been brilliantly conceived and worked out. It is this kind of architectural imagination that is required to solve the spatial problems confronting cities in India.

In a similar inventive vein, Khosla suggests that the rubble of destroyed houses in Kosovo should be used to construct new houses, thus "moving away from traditional images and memories of period houses", and through the process of reconstruction introduce a new aesthetic to the village houses of this region.

As broad concepts both the "long distant futures" are intellectually stimulating but as specific architectural building projects both display a disturbing affinity to the very ideas and ideals of "abstract modernism" whose relevance Khosla had earlier questioned in the context of "the rest of the world". The illustrations of the abstract computer-generated drawing of the Guggenheim Museum and the computer drawing of the Jerusalem station with its free-form roof cover are clearly rooted in the same ideology of "abstract futures" and are promoted by mainstream Western avant garde architectural practices, which that he had earlier pointed out, produce "ethic-free haute couture designer buildings". After all the message of his "lonely" architectural journey into the "long distant future", as this reviewer has understood it, was to avoid this form of entropic globalising destiny. In this sense, he has not fully addressed the problem posed by Prabhat Patnaik in his introduction to Khosla's book: "If there are no 'abstract futures', and if 'ancient futures' are non-starters, then what is to be done?"

The issue to be emphasised is not one of agreement or disagreement with the authors. As practising architects, both have drawn on their experience, and delineated clear agendas for the profession which decisively depart from the conventional. In doing this, they have defined at least two boundary conditions of the discipline with which many professionals and laypersons are not familiar: the considerable rewards of introspection and the potential for effecting decisive change through imaginative activism. Both qualities are required to counter Naipaul's derogatory observations on the present quality of contemporary architecture of free India.

In their own way, both these authors have also communicated what can arguably be described as the masochistic pleasures of the profession. This too the public should know in order to understand the mind of the architect. It is often felt by architects that architecture is something like an intellectual contact sport, similar perhaps to rugby or American football. The effort required can be exhausting, the goal can be futile and one can be hurt in almost every play. But these obstacles do not deprive the architect from enjoying peculiar pleasures derived from playing the game. Both Gautam Bhatia and Romi Khosla have demonstrated the private and exquisite rewards of playing the game a different way, and following different rules. By doing this and by writing about it, they have enriched the culture of architecture.

A.G. Krishna Menon is a practising architect and director of the TVB School of Habitat Studies, Delhi.

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