Most people must have wondered what the fuss over demolishing some dormitories in IIM, Ahmedabad, was all about, why the move to replace them with new buildings was being opposed at all. The answer is, architecture.
The problem is that most Indians don’t know what architecture really is, having lived and worked in drab, cuboid buildings all their lives.
Architecture is more than just the built environment, it is a representation of how we see ourselves, as well as how we see the world.
We even seem to have forgotten our legacy; from the Sun Temple at Konark to the Meenakshi temple of Madurai, to stepwells such as the Rani ki Vaav in Patan, Gujarat, to magnificent Rajasthani places and forts to the Taj Mahal.
Architecture has been described as frozen music, an expression of values, a quest for the truth and inhabited sculpture. But how are we to appreciate it if even apartments costing Rs 5 cr don’t have the basics, such as cross-ventilation. Cross-ventilation, in fact, has gone out of the window.
Coming back to IIM, Ahmedabad, which is universally recognised as one of the best institutional buildings. Designed by acclaimed American architect Louis Kahn, its cylindrical towers, vaulted corridors and geometric play of light and shadow make it a masterpiece.
In fact, the red-brick campus, with its spartan residential dorms with a play of light and shade, mass and void, the built and the open have been likened to the monastic cells of Ajanta and Ellora. The interplay between architectural design and human psychology, totally ignored today, had been used by the early Buddhists who made these rock-cut monasteries.
Place of pilgrimage
Architect Narayan Moorthy of LokPATH India, a citizens’ collective of architects, urban planners, environmentalists and social activists that seeks appropriate transformations of habitat, says the IIM-A campus displays the uncanny intuitive ability of a foreign mind to respond to India’s unique light, climate and social mores and thus remains a place of pilgrimage for architects and aesthetes.
One only has to compare it with other college campuses to realise what is wrong with Indian architecture today. In fact, the evidence is all around.
Just look at the hideous buildings in the business hubs of Mumbai at Nariman Point, BKC and Lower Parel. Is there one building which stands out or which is a landmark? Are the buildings arranged according to a plan?
Look at the ugly tower which is home to the richest Indian. And to think of all the money and effort that has gone into making it so spectacularly ugly.
A visit to our public hospitals is enough to convince anyone that the buildings themselves are sick. Absolutely no thought is given to aesthetics or even purpose while constructing schools, government offices, courts and business complexes, all of which look alike.
Even our malls, multiplexes and airports lack imagination. Architecture has lost its enriching sense of purpose, all that matters is milking every square inch of FSI. In the words of celebrated architect B V Doshi, Indian architecture today lacks context, content and a message.
Incidentally, he is from Ahmedabad and had worked with Kahn when he was designing the IIM-A in the late sixties. Doshi went on to design the IIM Bangalore, IIM Udaipur and NIFT Delhi as well as the 'Amdavad ni Gufa', an underground art gallery, and the Tagore Hall in Ahmedabad.
India is at risk of losing its architectural identity, he feels, because our design schools aren't teaching students to respect local heritage and traditions.
The doyen of architecture also says that many Indian architects are too concerned with aping the aesthetics and practices of other countries. For instance, the glass façade buildings, which are good for trapping the scant sunlight in European countries but not in India which has a harsh sun. They may look bright and shiny but it takes a lot of electricity to cool them in tropical countries.
It is ironical that this insensitivity to architecture was being shown in Ahmedabad. This is the city where the famous Le Corbusier, who designed Chandigarh, made four iconic buildings. This is the city which has the country’s foremost architecture school, the Centre for Environment and Planning Technology, and the premier design school, the National Institute for Design.
Ahmedabad was also the place where Prince Khurram, to be Shah Jahan who gave us the Taj Mahal, acquired a taste for architecture. As governor of Gujarat, he was impressed by its architectural marvels such as the Jama Masjid in Ahmedabad, the magnificent structures of Champaner, the Adalaj stepwell and the Modhera sun temple.
Dull, repetitive buildings are not only boring, they also have been clinically proven to induce stress. In some cities, citizens have voted to keep out such buildings. The Tour Montparnasse, a black skyscraper looming over the beautiful Paris cityscape is an example. Parisians hated it so much that the city was forced to enact a law forbidding any further skyscrapers higher than 36 metres.
On the other hand, it has been shown that people who work in well-designed spaces take less sick leave, are more focused, and generally contribute more to their company.
It may take us ages to rectify our blunders in concrete but a simple paint brush can liven up things on the street, as the group St+art India has shown. The non-profit group engages the public through huge, eye-catching murals painted on street corners, intersections or apartment buildings. It has created the country’s first art district in Delhi’s Lodhi Colony.
Mumbai's heritage buildings
Coming back to Mumbai, you might be surprised to learn that it has the world’s second largest concentration of Art Deco buildings, characterised by streamlined forms and geometric motifs inspired by new technologies — ocean liners, airplanes, automobiles etc.
It has more than 200 such structures including Eros Cinema, New India Assurance Building, Empress Court and the buildings lining Marine Drive. These are now part of a World Heritage site and hence, have escaped redevelopment.
Redevelopment, coupled with philistinism, have led to the recent demolition and removal of the iconic Hall of Nations in Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, which ranked in the top 100 of the world’s most significant buildings of the last century.
Bad architecture and design is not only robbing Indian cities of all character and charm, it is choking them at a time when the Covid pandemic has underlined the need to put people first and create livable cities.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.