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Is the future of architecture political?

Architecture is on the threshold of change, but it risks being reduced to the decorative arts unless architects accept the inherent politics of it

The Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, before it was demolished. Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times.
The Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, before it was demolished. Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times.

The future of architecture is marked by a boom, and demolitions, of which one is most iconic—the recent demolition of the Halls of Industries and Nations, and the Nehru Pavilion at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi, just last month. The future of design and especially architecture, is only possible if whatever exists is first demolished. But is this the future we want, or should want? Design is based on thinking, and design is political; however, what is projected as Design for the future, does not want to think, it only wants to dress pretty and forget that this is one of the oldest political practices. To design is to express, within the process of articulating function and need, the wider sense of what you think and believe.

To discuss the future of something—in this case design and architecture—we first need to know clearly what is the definition or idea of this subject. Do we know what defines the idea of design or architecture? Design is not objects, or attractive patterns, and architecture is not a bunch of buildings. Design is the most abused term today. It stands in for anything that one wishes to see as hip and cool, or creative and sexy. And as a corollary, anyone who wishes to see himself or herself as creative and cool—calls himself a designer. What makes your practice adequate to be called design? And what qualifies you as a practitioner to call yourself a designer? In a world where at one point we are celebrating cross-disciplinary roles and the freedom to act and think across different disciplines, there is also a need to exercise restraint in not losing the core sense of things or practices. The future of design is indeed marred by such confusions; we are at the threshold of drastic change, and we are totally confused. In some cases, the confusion is cheerfully adopted to escape having to answer critical questions.

In a recent project at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany (a residency programme for artists and social scientists) they put forward a question—Is your practice political? This is a key question at this juncture for designers and architects in India as well. We have no future if we do not see our practice as political. Designers and architects have withdrawn largely from the social and political space; sadly, they do not see themselves as important contributors to the politics of everyday life. But architecture is something that is most public—from the home to the museum, it defines for us our sense of being, or notion of family, as well as our place in community and civilization. Design and architecture have withdrawn to the pleasure palace—metaphorically, and literally. Architects debate and procrastinate, and pontificate over details and technique—the unfortunate part about this is, they do this not towards a larger vision, but in fact as a withdrawal from the larger life of everyday struggles; in fact, the details of design today are at the cost of a larger sense of the world and life. Designers are today like full-time hobbyists and Design is hardly seen as a practice; in which case the question of whether their practice is political does not even arise.

The future we are talking about is strongly linked to the history of the last 25-30 years, a period that breaks away structurally from its immediate past, the results of which we have begun to witness. A critical moment for contemporary design and especially architecture occurs with the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991, and the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, which as we know marked a change in the politics of culture and nationalism strongly.

Since the 1990s, not only have construction markets been swamped by a large variety of materials, but we have also seen a rise in spending capacities, changing needs coupled with aspirations, newer building typologies such as the mall emerging, or commercial towers replacing disappearing typologies such as the industrial areas as well as demolished slums. The State Of Architecture: Practices And Processes In India, an exhibition co-curated by Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote and myself at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai last year, discussing architecture in India since 1947 in three parts, and the third critical phase is marked by the 1990s (the other phases were marked by independence in 1947, and the Emergency of 1975). The 1990s saw a burst of money and aspirations—often giving jobs to designers and architects, opening opportunities, and allowing explorations in the techniques of design. However, this upscale of design activity also somewhere took away the critical edge design is supposed to have as an active contributor to the politics of culture. And so, from this point onwards, design and architecture are much more about flourish, extravagance and excess—it is the pleasure of surplus. Those who asked social questions on the politics of what we build, and how we build, get termed “alternative practices" at best. The divorce of design and thinking is structural in our times, while on the other hand something as vague and generic as ‘design thinking’ is a popularly used and debated concept today.

The recently demolished Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times

This divorce became most evident on 23 April as the Halls of Nations and Industries and the Nehru Pavilion in New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan were demolished to make way for some swanky corporate towers. The demolition took away from India very important buildings from our modern heritage no doubt, but what is worse is that architects as a fraternity, or the architect as a figure in society, failed to protect this building from demolition. All pleas, signature campaigns, and meetings with authorities concerned failed—the demolition happened as if the architect did not matter. In the design of these buildings, thought and structure had come together uniquely, which made them the emblem of a modern nation and the modernism of a young nation. It is not only that the buildings have been demolished, but somewhere very clearly the ideas they embodied have been demolished; so the demolition clearly indicates that there was no care for the thought behind the buildings, and the vision they represented, and the buildings were treated simply as old pieces of concrete construction. The architecture fraternity was blatantly ignored, which indicates that the architect does not matter to society or even architecture—and s/he would be best seen as simply producers or facilitators in the making of buildings, and nothing more. The architect has no identity as a social or political entity today, nor as a distinct professional in the plethora of service providers that exist today. Where then is the future of architecture or design? Designers simply do not have space in public fora, and we have withdrawn from the social space to the decorative space of finance capital.

Designers conveniently enjoy reveling over details and discussing form, and they hardly engage as cultural producers in the politics of the state of affairs. There is no future till we see the politics in our practice, and agree to dirty our hands in the debates on culture and real estate equally. The hope lies in the far and few architecture studios that try to practise with a conscience. Besides some of the senior practices, many younger studios that got set up in the last 25 or so years are thinking through the buildings they make. These practices have accepted the conditions of excess—opportunity, material, technology, and building programmes—and while working within this environment, they are producing a series of reflections on architecture and the architect’s role. They are thinking through practice. From Rahul Mehrotra and Shimul Javeri Kadri to Anagram Architects, Sameep Padora, Martand Khosla, Kapil Gupta, Rahul Gore and Sonal Sancheti, and Abin Chaudhuri, to name some—these are studios that work and design with questions, and the struggle is evident even in their very finely finished and eloquently designed buildings. The question of what they are doing and why they are doing it looms around their design process, wherein they may be handling the everyday affairs of designing—managing size and colour, forms and technology, or materials and joinery. In the design of furniture or fashion, products and objects—the practice of thinking through design is not substantially available today, and if present, due to pricing reasons the objects reach out only to very few.

Ballygunge Retail in Kolkata, designed by Abin Design Studio. Photo: Abin Design Studio/ Domus India Archives
Ballygunge Retail in Kolkata, designed by Abin Design Studio. Photo: Abin Design Studio/ Domus India Archives

If design does not reach out to a wider audience, it cannot be discussed within the larger context of design as a cultural and civilizational idea or practice. Luxury design is a niche, bracketed part of design, but should never be mistaken as the space for design experimentation or debates—one of the reasons why pretty vacation homes in Alibaug, outside Mumbai should not be discussed widely as objects of design. Luxury, lifestyle, and vacation homes are a category of design objects, but surely cannot define what architecture in India is indeed about. Design that faces the challenges of public presence and everyday use, and negotiates the politics of culture, and industry of economics, is the design that warrants broader discussion.

The future will be difficult to define, because the times we occupy are times where multiplicity of conditions and possible actions dominate the scene; the real task is how amongst this rush of the “multiple options" and many opportunities the designer selects and edits her/his process as well as her/his role. It is not about denying what you may not believe in, but in fact embracing the conditions of reality and reworking them to suit a larger sense of cultural responsibility as well as ethics. Some of the younger practices listed above are interesting precisely for this reason—they embrace the challenges and realities of the conditions of the environment we live and work in, yet produce a practice that uses the techniques of design to provide for an architecture of ethics, aesthetics of exploration as well as restraint, and intervene in the social space of collective action and imagination. It is not what the future of design will be, but we should carefully and urgently articulate what we want the future of design to be. Design cannot be outside the frame of ethics and we cannot any longer bluff around about being ethical and conscientious by talking about issues such as sustainability, which are completely misappropriated.

Design can only be design if it is with a sense of ethics and the sensibility of politics. The future of design cannot only cater to niche spaces and specialized audiences, removing it slowly from the everyday life of people. Design as a feature of everyday life and society must combine material, philosophical, as well as political cultures. Design is about making through thinking, and thinking through making.

Kaiwan Mehta is an architect, academic, and researcher. He is managing editor of DOMUS India and author of Alice In Bhuleshwar: Navigating A Mumbai Neighbourhood and The Architecture Of I.M. Kadri.

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