The architect's progress

Some have shown that it is possible to escape the captivity of the patron; to approach the cultural landscape with humility, and to probe for the etymologies of architecture... RANJIT HOSKOTE examines the changing image of the architect.

MANY young people go to architecture school with a self-image of the architect drawn from the deplorable writings of Ayn Rand. In this version, the architect is seen as epic hero and Romantic genius, as a lonely Howard Roarkian challenger of history who is equally indifferent to the needs of others and to the currents of the time. This image emphasises the sovereignty of the architect, and draws upon various potent myths to reinforce itself.

But the figure of the architect in these myths turns out, on examination, to bear quite another connotation. Whether it is Daedalus in Greek mythology (who is locked up in a tower by Minos so that he cannot offer his magical devices to other rulers), or Maya in the Mahabharata (who is held hostage by the Pandavas until he has built them a bewitching capital city, Indraprastha), the architect's principal condition is that of captivity. He is the maker of marvellous instruments, the creator of tantalising environments and, therefore, he is held in bondage by his patron. He produces seductive objects, and is himself seduced into slavery; he generates virtual realities, and is trapped in them. He must continue to produce wonders, or suffer punishment. This image of the architect in slave mode, which is concealed by the image of the architect as masterful genius, is a most instructive one. Indeed, it is more relevant than ever today.

The formally trained architect, metropolitan in orientation, tends to be confined by a model of mainstream practice dictated by the economies of production. A lack of nurturing patronage also reduces his or her creative freedom. In such a situation, the built environment is shaped by forces that are not conducive to sensitive architecture including archaic by-laws, the profitarian instincts of real-estate developers, the whims, anxieties and aspirations of private and corporate patrons, and the hidebound conservatism of government institutions.

The limitations of the architecture that is produced in these circumstances are only too obvious: an assembly-line monotony that lacks character; a detachment of the built environment from the ambient environment; a divorce from place, needs, community; an indifference to the imperatives of tectonic innovation and material resources. The quantum of such architecture may be minuscule in itself, but the impact that it has on the profession and the landscape should not be underestimated. By virtue of its location in India's larger centres, such architecture has come to be identified with the metropolis; it has, by extension, acquired an association with globalism. This has turned it into a prestigious model worthy of emulation by architects down the line of patronage and scale.

Over the last two decades, various models of alternative practice have emerged within the architectural profession in response to this malaise. These attempt to relocate the architect within the broader social processes of change, connecting him or her to a sense of the past, local building traditions and the importance of a continuing dialogue with the user and the workforce. This shift of concern has a direct bearing on the resulting built form as well as on the mode of practice itself. As a counterpoint to the protocol-driven pattern laid down by the corporate firm, the newly emergent practices tend to emphasise a direct involvement with building, the intimacy of scale, and an activist preoccupation with political and legal issues that impinge on, or involve, built form. These practices are an argument for architectural diversity; they acknowledge the value of differences, which plays a critical role in the evolution of an architecture that is deeply relevant to its ethos.

This view of the development of contemporary Indian architecture ought, also, to be mapped across the history of the post-colonial Indian nation-state. For architecture is one of the narratives of the nation, it is one of the economic and cultural practices through which the nation tells and retells its stories. The first, or heroic modernist, phase of modern Indian architecture would correspond roughly to the period of the Nehruvian State (1947-1975). Architects like Habib Rehman, Achyut Kanvinde, Charles Correa, Balkrishna Doshi and Raj Rewal arose during this period, when the State was viewed as a visionary agent of social transformation and cultural regeneration, one that extended its aegis to innovative art and architecture.

The Nehruvian State came to an end, not with Nehru's death in 1964, but in 1975, when Indira Gandhi abrogated democratic freedoms and imposed the Emergency (1975-1977) to contain popular unrest against her policies and her authoritarian political style. From 1975 begins the next phase of Indian architecture, post-heroic and post-modernist in nearly equal measure. In the aftermath of the Emergency, the Indian nation-state lost much of its earlier momentum, and most of its idealism. In architecture, this general situation was reflected through a degree of exhaustion: the civilisational vision that had sustained the earlier generation of architects had come under severe strain. At the same time, the strange fruits of architectural post-modernism had begun to become available from Western centres. All these factors led to a questioning of identity, purpose and method. While the older generation responded to this twin societal and aesthetic crisis by seeking refuge in cosmology, the younger generation then taking its first soundings appears to have moved in the opposite direction that of locality.

Architecture, like all forms of human activity, constitutes an intervention in the order of nature and a modification of it. Such interventions and modifications are often damaging to nature, and therefore also to humankind (the natural and the human being part of the same continuum of interdependence, the fate of one impinges upon the fate of the other). Sensitive to this, architects who have consciously adopted alternative practices take the ethic of non-violation as a cornerstone. They enter into a potentially more fulfilling relationship with the site and its history, with the community of users whose needs they address, and with the members of the work-force who are their collaborators. Such a practice is an invitation to the moral imagination. The architect is seen, here, as a pre- eminently social being: a participant in the cultural processes of his or her time, an agent of political and economic change.

By their very nature, these alternative practices are experiments and subversions carried on at the margins of conventional architectural practice. By choosing to operate at the boundaries of the dominant structure of capital, these alternative practitioners make a series of explicitly moral choices.

They are innovative in the matter of patronage and technology: their projects are sometimes commissioned or supported by the State or the corporate sector in a compassionate mood, but more usually by NGOs or charitable trusts. In the same spirit, alternative practitioners reject certain clients (such as developers and real-estate speculators), and treat with caution certain technologies, such as RCC.

These themes recur in the work of architects of the younger generation, like K. T. Ravindran, Neelkanth Chhaya, Asha and Prabhakar Baste, and Revathi Kamath. Ravindran devotes his attention to the manner in which the iconographies of the traditional and the vernacular can be mediated into a contemporary language of architectural images. Neelkanth Chhaya emphasises a receptiveness to the implicit order of traditional spatial arrangements. Asha and Prabhakar Baste have evolved an interactive system of designing in conversation with their clients and workforce. Revathi Kamath is committed to the use of mud as a basic building material; she regards mud, and the technology and scale that go with its use, as a legitimate and appropriate demonstration of dialect or non-standard options (to adopt a metaphor from linguistics) as against the received standard derived from the West-dictated manual of construction procedures.

The architects under review do not romanticise the traditional or the local. If their arguments are sometimes offered on the basis of clues taken from these sources in such themes as the granular order of urban design or the environment-conscious recycling of material these arguments are mediated and translated into a contemporary idiom. With its respect for ethos, community and environment, such an idiom could serve as the material foundation for an organic and mutually nourishing relationship between Self and Other, rather than a colonial and mutually damaging one. This accentuation of responsibility over power, in turn, would lead to forms of organisation that operate in more inclusive ways than conventional ones do; in this way, it might become possible for architectural practice to overcome the alienation of labour from its products, which is the spatial and psychological hallmark of all capitalist forms of organisation.

What these architects have shown is that it is possible for the master builder to escape the captivity of the high tower and the palace of the glass lake; it is possible to approach the cultural landscape with humility, and to probe again for the etymologies of an architecture that is simultaneously shared and private, which encodes autobiography yet opens its doors to the memories of all its users.

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