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Looking to the past to design future cityscapes

Conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah feels it’s the smaller projects, working on a local, sustainable vocabulary currently, that will be relevant in the future

Ambedkar Memorial Park, formally known as Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Prateek Sthal, was constructed by the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, in Lucknow. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By Avantika Bhuyan

LAST PUBLISHED 13.08.2022 |  07:58 AMIST

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Sustainability has been at the heart of every project handled by conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah: be it the restoration of heritage sites like the Ajanta Caves, Golconda Fort, Crawford Market, or the Lalbagh Palace in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. In an interview with Lounge, she looks back at key moments and people that have shaped India’s architectural heritage over 75 years and the transition from the ideology-driven practices of the 1960s-70s to the aspiration-driven ones of the 2000s. Will this shift to a climate-responsive, sustainability-forward approach 25 years from now? Lambah hopes so. Edited excerpts:

You have often said architecture is a political statement. Why?

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It is reflective of the politics and vision of a leader or regime. In India, in the early phases of colonisation, we saw the emergence of neoclassical architecture as a tool, for the British colonists were trying to impress upon the natives the glory of European civilisation. Thus even though the Parthenon was not an English building, its Greek classicism inspired copies among early colonial structures such as the Asiatic Library. Things changed after the 1857 mutiny and the transfer of power to the British crown; the Indo-Saracenic style was adopted for public buildings. Borrowing elements of Sultanate and Mughal architecture, this style was used by the colonisers to give the subliminal message that the British crown was the new power centre and the successor to the Mughal empire as the rulers of India. That was also a very political statement declaring that the English were here to stay.

What about the post-independence period?

It is not a coincidence that in newly independent India, the choice of architect for Chandigarh was a French and not a British architect—Le Corbusier. By adopting modernism as the style for the capital of Punjab, a state that was divided in Partition, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of a modern India could be showcased. This was a conscious vision of a nation making a new beginning, breaking away from the shackles of a colonial past. That heralded the era of modernism, signifying the optimism of a newly forged nation. It also reflected the coming of age of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as a leader, creating a confident, economic and scientifically advanced nation. We saw the design of Santiniketan in the early 20th century, which was about revivalist modernism, and then the architecture of Chandigarh, which was a more robust and monumental modernism. Parallel to this was the emergence of some revivalist buildings, which sought to explore a new Indian modernism that incorporated architectural elements from the past—among this genre were buildings such as the Ashoka Hotel.

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Le Corbusier’s Capitol Complex in Chandigarh. Courtesy Abha Narain Lambah

If we were to view architectural history from the vantage point of India at 100, the other major iconic buildings would be those created by (Bahujan Samaj Party leader) Mayawati to represent the masses of unsung Dalits. Even the present reconfiguration of the Central Vista, and the urban interventions around the Kashi Vishwanath and ghats of Benaras (Varanasi) bear a significant political message. One is related to the fabric of Delhi, once a Mughal capital and then a British one that is now being reconfigured by a new government and ideology, thus staking claim to the Capital. The same goes for Kashi Vishwanath, which is like the sanctum sanctorum of Hinduism, a clear case of architecture as a political strategy.

Could you talk about some of the most iconic architects India has seen in the last 75 years?

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The influence of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh had an impact on an entire generation of iconic Indian architects like Kuldeep Singh, who designed the NDMC building, and Shiv Nath Prasad—an almost brutalist modern—who designed some of the most iconic post-independence structures in the Capital, such as the Shri Ram Centre and Tibet House. Then there was Joseph Allen Stein, a Jewish-American, who first came to teach in West Bengal. His architecture is truly contextual and is grounded in the textures and materials of India. His design of the India International Centre and the Ford Foundation, set in the location of historic Lodhi tombs, was very modern but also very respectful of the colours, textures and scale of the monuments. This was in the 1960s-70s. He set up a practice called Stein Doshi Bhalla—it featured B.V. Doshi, who had worked with Corbusier earlier. Also, Achyut Kanvinde and Raj Rewal, who created new iconic buildings, are among a list of eminent masters that emerged in the architectural landscape of Delhi of the 1970s-80s .

IP Bhawan (1965) from the exhibition ‘Delhi That Was: Habib Rahman, Madan Mahatta, Raghu Rai’ by Ojas Art

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What about the towering figure that was Charles Correa?

Charles Correa gave a new direction to Indian architecture. He began to interpret ancient Indian concepts such as the Vastu Purusha Mandala and the navagrahas in a very contemporary context. His architecture celebrated materials such as Agra red sandstone, used in the Rashtrapati Bhavan earlier, in a wholly contemporary context in the LIC building in Delhi or the Jawahar Kala Kendra (JKK) in Jaipur. At the same time, one can see a low-key, almost vernacular exploration in his Craft Museum in Delhi, where he dabbled with terracotta tiled roofs, traditional courtyards and mud plaster seen in India's rural structures. At the JKK, he explored cosmic spatial concepts such as the yantras. These tall, larger-than-life figures, be it Correa, Kanvinde, Doshi were part of a generation, the likes of which you read about in the Fountainhead.

What changed from the 1990s?

These larger-than-life architects gave way to more anonymous teams of architects in larger practices. Collaborative models as well as corporate ones, with 300-400 architects, were also seen. These were not the Howard Roark-rebel kind of characters that you almost see in Correa. In the 2000s, there was an economic resurgence, corporate funding, and the coming of private banks. Architecture began to be led by multinationals. This was also an architecture of aspiration. Hafeez Contractor started building houses for the upper-middle class in Powai which had lobbies like five-star hotels. From being fuelled by ideology, architecture began to be powered by aspiration. Unfortunately, this led to cookie-cutter style architecture in tier 2 and 3 cities with pastiche facades, glass facades and aluminium cladding. Today buildings in Lucknow look the same as in Hyderabad or Dubai.

What kind of projects can fuel a change in the future?

There are certain projects that are emerging on the sidelines, which are driven by ideology. Take, for instance, Abhikram, started by Parul Zaveri and Nimish Patel; then there is the practice of conservation architects Kulbhushan and Minkashi Jain, who focus on craft. Several practices in Auroville and Bengaluru spotlight sustainability and some architects from Kerala have experimented with local material. In the last 10 years, such practices have emerged, which are not large or mainstream, but smaller. They are driven by certain concerns and responsibility. Especially interesting is Rahul Mehrotra’s work on the CEPT University Library in Ahmedabad. It is not the mammoth trees but the smaller grasses that are growing on the side that are meaningful. Given time, they will forge a more local, responsible and sustainable vocabulary.