In the hands of the State, architecture becomes iconic, a symbol for larger political ideas, as seen in the three Legislative Assemblies built after independence: the Vidhan Soudha, the Capitol Complex and the Vidhan Bhawan. The new Secretariat in Chennai, in a clear break from the past, makes startling design departures…

When the city of Chandigarh and its legislative assembly buildings were built, the architecture cast in concrete was very different from the Parliament and other legislative houses built before in India. It looked neither like a palace nor a temple, the two traditional archetypes that served as a model to represent power or ‘culture'. Chandigarh's lexicon of forms was new. Not everyone liked it. Dismissing the scepticism, Nehru, who ardently supported it, said, “some like it, and some dislike it… You may squirm at the impact, but it has made you think.”

Provocative

Coming almost 57 years after, the architecture of Tamil Nadu Assembly building in Chennai, inaugurated earlier this month, may not be a ‘knock in the head' as Chandigarh was, but it certainly provokes. It points to how much farther debates about architecture and political institutions have moved from the ‘battle of style' (should it be neo-classical or Indian?) that besieged the construction of the Parliament in the 1910s.

The polished granite walls, flat facade with slit windows laid in regular pattern and gleaming metal screens of the new Assembly building does not even faintly evoke the ubiquitous temple architecture of Tamil Nadu nor does it pretend to connect with the iconography provided by Chandigarh. There is nothing remotely tropical about it either. Barring the dome on top and few sparse kolams or floral patterns engraved on the columns, no strident symbolism is articulated.

Questions about suitability of an architectural choice for an assembly building are usually settled by referring to three buildings: Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore, the Capitol complex in Chandigarh and Vidhan Bhavan in Bhopal. They serve as the three rallying points embodying three different attitudes. The Tamil Nadu Assembly building, it appears, has changed this. The significance of the new building lies in the manner it engages with the three rallying points and how it has departed from the buildings that preceded it within the State.

The late K. Hanumanthaiya, the former Chief Minister of Karnataka and the de facto architect of Vidhana Soudha, understood the importance of architecture as a significant marker and as a powerful visage. He may not have put it as articulately as Hitler, who remarked that architecture is a word in stone and it outlasted other arts. He knew well that by choosing ‘appropriate architecture' a lasting icon could be produced and it served as a powerful symbol for larger political ideas.

It is understandable that Hanumanthaiya overruled the earlier design that was ‘modern', simple and small. Instead, he preferred a large building with a long flight of steps leading up to a grand portal, a large dome in the centre and shorter ones at the end. The grand columns and ornamentation made the Assembly building look like a palace. When the building was completed in 1956 and cost Rs.1.84 crore, some criticised it as a wasteful expenditure and disagreed with it as inappropriate. Hanumathaiya deftly sidestepped these questions and brought the architectural issue centre stage.

He remarked that “sovereignty has shifted from the palace to legislature and it was therefore imperative that the building should depict the transfer of power…. This should be the main characteristic of the building.” Traditional architecture, in this case an eclectic mix of various architecture symbols ranging from the Hoysala to Vijaynagara temples and the Mysore palace was seen as the most suitable.

Critics debunk such attempts as “flunk architecture” and deride it as ‘slipcover' since it never explored either its own potential or helped societies cast their evolving identities. Such ideas may not have found favour in Bangalore, but it did in Chandigarh.

The decision to build a new Capital city for Punjab in Chandigarh was made in 1948.

The initial plans and architecture for the assembly building proposed by Albert Mayer, the American architect, and Mathew Nowicki, his assistant, was far from what we now see. Studies show that Nowicki designed the new assembly building ‘based on the stupa' and Chandigarh was not conceived as ‘a city of bold winged engineering and cantilevers'. All these changed in 1951, when Le Corbusier, the famous French architect, took charge.

Reflecting the times

Ravi Kalia's insightful book on Chandigarh points out that Corbusier thought that India had failed to ‘create architecture for modern civilisation'. He preferred the kind of modern architecture that developed in the industrialised Europe with sun screens and parasols. This appealed to Nehru as well as it fit his vision of creating a city ‘unfettered by the past'. He too believed that architecture has to be a product of its age. Chandigarh became a stellar showpiece of modern architecture and a symbol of the India that was yet to come

It was only after 40 years in 1996 that an alternative intellectual formation and architecture surfaced in the construction of Vidhan Bhavan, Bhopal.

Charles Correa, one of the eminent architects of India with a wide international practice, was chosen to design the building. Correa was not shy of using symbols and architectural motifs from the past. He designed it in a circular form, the spaces were laid out around courtyards, kunds or tank-like spaces and gardens. Perched on top of a small hill, the Vidhan Bhavan, with its dwarsor gates and a large dome on top, clearly evoked the imagery of the Sanchi Stupa, the ancient Buddhist monument nearby.

When this building won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for architecture in 1996, the jury appreciated ‘the use of local red stone, handmade ceramic tiles, and painted surfaces' as it referred ‘to the architectural traditions of Madhya Pradesh' and for developing ‘a new imagery based on traditional forms'. Correa believed that the traditional forms could be used to the extent it can be re-invented. He clearly avoided the trap question — “What suits us best, traditional or modern architecture?” This approach found favour with some and was celebrated as ‘critical regionalism' — a regional architecture that creatively engaged the universal modern.

Different imagery

None of such hybridisation happened at Chennai and its imagery and organisation was markedly different

When the decision to build a new assembly building was announced in 2007, many expected it to be cast in an inventive version of Dravidian architecture with its leitmotif ornate columns and arches. There were reasons to think so.

Since 1967, when DMK first came to power, memorials and monuments such as the ones built at Poompuhar, an ancient port town made famous by the Tamil classical poem Silapdhikaram and Valluvar Kottam, a monument dedicated to the Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar were done in the Dravidian architectural style. Valluvar Kottam, for instance, had a temple car cast in stone with the axis leading to it bound by ornate colonnades. Stapatis or traditional architects were usually involved in such buildings. The architecture was rooted in the past as it was seen suitable to represent the Dravidian identity and helped emphasise the continuity of the long Tamil tradition. In the process, the regional architecture was recovered from its exclusive religious associations and located in the larger cultural sphere.

Of the three short-listed designs for the Tamil Nadu assembly building, the one that lost out was similar to the architectural style of Valluvar Kottam. The chosen one was a clear departure from what was hitherto built.

Visual statements

The intention, as Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi explained in 2008, was to have a futuristic look from the outside “to signify that the State is staying abreast of the times…At the same time,” he further explained, “there will be a courtyard, an extensive use of traditional Tamil Kolam art and elements from the Valluvar Kottam, such as the dome.” The design firm gmp (von Gerkan, Marg und Partner) Architects, Berlin, echoed a similar note. This approach is similar to Vidhan Bhavan, but the architectural resolution is different.

The sternly plain, opaque and huge facades, the severe play of colours — large swathes of black polished granite interspersed with almost equally large swathes of golden yellow metal screens — reflect a new preference for abstraction. This is further optically emphasised by limiting the surface elements only to the repetitive shade-less slit-windows. Even the dome, which is seen in full from a long distance, evolved from the Valluvar Kottam, has morphed so that it can comfortably sit on a clean elliptical box.

Placing the building on a pedestal smothered by a lawn, the long flight of steps leading to a grand public place and its scale could be seen as elements from the old ideas of monumentality, but the building has its refreshing points of departures as well. It sits alongside the road like any other office structure and appears more like a building block of the city than a monument engulfed by a garden. The State has agreeably overridden the architect's clichéd attempt to explain the plan as an extension of mandala — a traditional religious pictogram. To the State, the plan containing the four functional cylinders represents the age old democratic practices. It wants the new building clearly placed in a secular realm.

The meaning of any building evolves so will this and the terms of further evaluation will include what more it is able to offer.

RELATED NEWS

Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012