If architecture matter in India?

Does architecture matter in India? A new exhibition offers some answers
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Historically, the profession of architecture in India has been driven by individual firms –or practices, as they’re known in the profession. Under patronage of various kinds, from the state to the resource-rich individual, architects have sought fulfillment. One criticism that may legitimately be leveled at the architectural profession in India is that it has rarely looked beyond itself, critically examined the ecosystem it operates in or has actively been informed by disciplines outside of architecture.

An exhibition titled “State of Architecture: Practices and Processes in India”, which opened in Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art on Wednesday, is conceived both to address and redress this criticism. A profound dissatisfaction with the state of mainstream architecture has driven the exhibition’s curators to make the processes and practices of architecture in India face themselves, full frontally.

Architect, author and Harvard professor Rahul Mehrotra; author, curator and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote; and author, academic and editor of Domus India Kaiwan Mehta decry both the mainstreaming of architectural practice in its control by the pressures of global homogenisation and by its corporate-driven patronage. Mehrotra has often referred to this as resulting in “the architecture of Impatient Capital”.

In post-liberalisation India, the state has virtually abdicated its responsibility of providing architecture for both, the public at large, as well as for its citizens with the least resources, leading to what Hoskote calls “the primacy of privatism rather than solidarities of any kind”. At the same time, the production of architecture has diversified, much beyond the mainstream in the form of individual expressions that actively tackle some of these issues. These have never been brought together under one roof, as it were, and that is what the curators have actively sought to do.

A panoptic view

In a recent interview for the architecture magazine Domus India, I talked to the curators about the challenges in conceptualising an ambitious exhibition like this one. Their viewpoint is broad but consciously subjective. “The exhibition,” Kaiwan Mehta said, “should be imagined as a diagram of the curatorial team’s own experiences as practioners, critics and theorists.” The vast spaces of the NGMA (as redesigned by the architect Romi Khosla) present a panoptic view of “the State of Architecture”. The exhibition is presented in three sections.

The first, called “The State of the Profession” presents architectural practice within the ambit of its larger ecology. This is something that has not been attempted before. Architecture in India will be located within the praxis of architectural education (the explosive mushrooming of architecture schools in India, and its inevitable qualitative base-lining), the representation of architecture in India since Independence in books and journals (where the Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects was the oldest, starting from the early 1930s) to the contemporary challenges that architects face today.

The second section positions Indian architecture in a chronological context in the light of three significant events in the history of the country – the formation of the nation in 1947, the events around the Emergency in 1977 and the effects and challenges of liberalisation post 1990. Mehrotra believes that these events defined the “DNA of the profession and had a clear sway in its agenda, from one of national identity construction to much more of a regional obsession starting in the 1990s”. There is a historical imperative that led to the mainstreaming of the architectural profession as we see it today.

A peek at the future

The third part of the exhibition presents 80 works of architecture by current practitioners that will be exhibited in a labyrinth of displays that show the diversity of practices in India, many outside the mainstream. These are the work of the younger architects, mostly under 50 years of age. This climatic space allows for an overview of the present but also a prognosis for the future. There has always been a concern whether one can objectively comment on the state of the profession today with no hindsight. If there is a space where this may be usefully attempted it is here, for presented comprehensively and devoid of essentialisations one may be able to see contemporary Indian architecture for what it is.

The last time any such attempt at viewing Indian architecture with an Indian gaze was made was in 1986, with the Festival of India’s exhibition “Vistara”, largely conceived by Charles Correa. This state-sponsored show, in the post-Emergency period attempted to look at our architecture in all its glory from the Harappan age to the present, but also included in the discourse for the first time vernacular and indigenous practices. Both of these latter practices have since become part of the larger narratives of architecture in India, and have also informed and influenced mainstream practices.

This show differs, for it observes architecture today at the cusp of change when the country is, hesitantly and uncertainly, poised to make a great leap into a world economy, where the “inchoate and often volatile aspiration of the urban sphere” (as Ranjit Hoskote puts it) often trumps actuality. That is why this show is important, not only to those in the profession, but to the citizen at large.