When Architects Made Worlds

MoMA explores an era of sweeping change, when South Asian architects — pioneering women, among them — redefined the postcolonial era and helped construct new nation states.
By Michael Kimmelman

Back in the 1950s, the architect Minnette de Silva pioneered a new version of the modern house in Ceylon. She floated living quarters above gardens on slender concrete pilotis. She conjured up airy interiors of fluid space for family gatherings and Buddhist ceremonies, the rooms circulating around a sweeping staircase, the building made with homegrown timbers like jak and halmilla.

De Silva’s design responded sensibly to Ceylon’s tropical climate and treated European modernism as another tool in a toolbox already stocked with local traditions, materials and techniques. Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, had lately declared its independence. De Silva gave Ceylonese autonomy a new architecture.

During the early 1970s, the Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari was experimenting with a different idea for housing. Anguri Bagh was a masonry development of shaded streets, sun-bleached courtyards and two- and three-story homes, constructed by mostly unskilled laborers using community-sourced bricks. Lari hoped the project could become a template for housing large masses of people. Its layout took inspiration from the Greek architect Constantinos Doxiadis’s plans from the 1960s for Islamabad, the new capital of Pakistan, but also from the old walled cities of Multan and Lahore.

In modern Pakistan, Lari believed, housing should adhere “to the measure of people’s songs, weaving the pattern of a village as if on the village looms.”

“The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947-1985,” at the Museum of Modern Art — organized by Martino Stierli and a team of curators and advisers — surveys Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh in the wake of the dissolution of the British Raj. It’s a sweeping, occasionally heartbreaking exhibition full of big ideas and beautiful work, too much of it not widely known.

Spreading the word is naturally the show’s first goal: to go beyond the old tale of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn bestriding South Asia, which, in the standard Western account of modernism, has exiled figures like Lari and De Silva to what the Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has termed “the imaginary waiting room of history.”

You may remember that Stierli, the Modern’s chief curator of architecture and design, co-curated an exhibition a few years ago about postwar Yugoslavia called “Toward a Concrete Utopia.” One region at a time, he is retrieving great, underappreciated architects from that waiting room, unpacking a big-dream, blue-sky era, after World War II, when designers, planners and engineers from Brasília to Belgrade to New Bombay were suddenly tasked with constructing cities, societies and nation-states from scratch.

Yugoslavia is not South Asia, of course. South Asia is a far more diverse, complex, geographically enormous swath of the world to explore through what is, ultimately, the same old lens.

What I mean by old lens is that “The Project of Independence” is still premised on a Western theme, namely the end of British colonialism, and around ideas about the anxiety of Western influence — as if all the many centuries of South Asian temple architecture, Mughal architecture, local masonry traditions and other veins of vernacular construction and design, from which so much of the work in the exhibition clearly derives, can still only really be understood in relation to the West.

I’m not sure how to get around this problem, if it is a problem, at a place like the Museum of Modern Art. I suspect the exhibition will spark debates about the topic among those who know the material far better than I do.

I wonder, for instance, whether others will take issue with the absence of architecture from, say, Afghanistan or Nepalese Pakistan. And I’m curious whether anybody else misses more of a historical context for what happened in the lead-up to 1947. Modernism, after all, arrived years before the interests of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, aligned with Le Corbusier’s interests in the foothills of the Himalayas. Art Deco and an industry for concrete existed in India by the 1930s.

At the same time, South Asia was left destitute when the British receded. The economist Utsa Patnaik recently estimated that, over nearly two centuries, the Raj looted the equivalent of $45 trillion from India. The former Under secretary General of the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor, asserts that as many as 35 million South Asians died under colonial rule. But unlike in Europe or East Asia, there was no post-colonial Marshall or MacArthur recovery plan.

What was possible with meager resources?

Someone reminded me the other day that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed the Istanbul Hilton in 1955. The Hilton was Europe’s first major modern hotel to be constructed ex nihilo after the war, built with glass, steel and White Portland cement from Germany, marble from Italy, aluminum windows, elevators and air-conditioning units from America.

In newly partitioned India and Pakistan, designers had to cope the old-fashioned way with challenges like summer heat, using verandas and cross ventilation. They didn’t have German steel, glass and air-conditioning. I don’t know about you but it’s a joy and relief, not to mention useful in an age of climate change, to see so many projects that aren’t sealed glass boxes, like nearly every big building today. Making do with less produced some of the most beautiful, textured, thoughtful designs of the midcentury. I’m thinking about works like Balkrishna Doshi’s edenic campus for the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore; and Chittagong University, in Bangladesh, by Muzharul Islam; and Laurie Baker’s decorative Center for Development Studies in Trivandrum, India, whose brick walls are perforated by latticed openings, called jali, that cast patterned shadows and let air circulate indoors.

Judging from headlines about calls to tear down various landmarks of the period, there seem to be South Asians today who dismiss post-colonial architecture as a relic of deprivation, from an era now best forgotten. One can understand. Half a million people are said to have perished after India was partitioned. Millions suddenly found themselves refugees in their own homes, caught on the wrong side of freshly drawn religious borders. The scale of atrocities would haunt generations of Hindus and Muslims.

And a tsunami of demands rose overnight for mass housing, schools, public institutions, whole new cities. Where would people live? What forms would independence take?

Architects and engineers were called upon to solve these riddles. Nehru thought a cosmopolitan India needed to clear the architectural slate and erect modern temples to global commerce and industry. To him, Le Corbusier’s city of Chandigarh was admirably “unfettered” by history. Mahatma Gandhi had another idea. Gandhi believed an architecture of post-colonial self-determination depended on local traditions and tapped into native veins of handicraft and village culture.

How these visions were reconciled runs as a motif through “The Project of Independence.” The show oddly omits an obvious example, the Gandhi Memorial Museum in Ahmedabad, Charles Correa’s first major independent project, which Nehru inaugurated and loved. Stierli stresses other cases like New Delhi’s Hall of Nations. Designed and completed in 1972 by Raj Rewal and the great structural engineer Mahendra Raj, the hall — a series of truncated pyramids, its free-span interior crisscrossed by oversized ramps — was the centerpiece for an international trade fair marking the 25th anniversary of Indian independence. Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter and India’s third prime minister, cut the ribbon at the opening.

Rewal and Raj had imagined using steel. But because there wasn’t enough of it at the right price in India — and no commercial space frames were available in the country for a structure the size of a football field — the hall was redesigned in concrete, engineered to suit what India did have in abundance: manual laborers, large numbers of them, casting each module one at a time, on site, by hand.

What resulted was a tour de force of structural expressionism, a handcrafted variation on industrial-scale Brutalism that split the difference between Nehru and Gandhi.

Rahul Mehrotra, the architect and Harvard professor, writes in the catalog about the challenge of housing. Faced with millions of refugees, the new nations of South Asia ended up proliferating developments that doubled down on centuries of class division. Islamabad was built for Pakistan’s military and bureaucratic elites. Refugees and the poor were settled in Korangi.

There were a few exceptions, like Anguri Bagh and also Correa’s Artists’ Village from the early 1980s, in Belapur, on the edge of Navi Mumbai, a new city that Correa also helped plan. As Mehrotra points out, Correa recognized an organic sort of intelligence in the evolution of Mumbai’s slums and other informal settlements: He took lessons from the creative ingenuity and optimism of people making homes for themselves, and urban spaces for shared communities, with few or no means.

Correa tried to codify these lessons at Artists’ Village, a settlement of free-standing, whitewashed houses with stone yards and pitched-tile roofs, organized around common areas: a lost-cost, low-rise, high-density, incremental development for a mix of different classes.

I gather that Artists’ Village by now has dissolved into the sprawling megalopolis of Navi Mumbai, a little worse for wear like all aging developments. But as Correa hoped, it’s still expanding on the urban DNA he planted, upholding his dream for a better India.

The same can’t be said about the Hall of Nations, alas. It was razed one night in April 2017, after officials on the heritage conservation committee for India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, turned a deaf ear to architects and historians around the world who pleaded to save the project. The hall wasn’t old enough to be protected, officials argued, and it needed to make way for glossy new development.

In the show’s catalog, Stierli calls the demolition “an act of vandalism” against a work of architecture that had symbolized a progressive vision of India now “fundamentally at odds with the Hindu nationalist stance of the present government.”

As I said, heartbreaking.

The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947-1985

Feb. 20 – July 2, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, 212-708-9400; moma.org.

Michael Kimmelman is the architecture critic of The New York Times. His work has often focused on urban affairs, public space, infrastructure and social equity as well as on new buildings and designs. He was the paper’s chief art critic; and, based in Berlin, created the Abroad column, covering cultural and political affairs across Europe and the Middle East.

The original article was posted on nytimes.com on 19 February 2022 at 05:00 am and retrieved on 3 March 2022.

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