An exhibition on the “architectures of decolonization” of the subcontinent which struggle under their own weight

Challenging Architects of Independent India, Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1958 called on them “not to be bound or constrained by tradition, but to develop free spirits”. Summarizing the promise of modern architecture for the post-colonial period, Nehru told the Lalit Kala Akademi that “the buildings they constructed must fit with today’s work and functions”.

In Nehru’s understanding, the challenge of contemporary architecture in India was no different from that faced by the nation itself. The “static conditions” of Indian architecture over the previous 200 years “really reflected the static state of the Indian mind at the time”.

The challenge for young architects, explained the Prime Minister, was to break with this past and give visual and material interpretation to the ideals that guaranteed independence from social stagnation and colonial domination.

How far did the architects of the subcontinent go to meet Nehru’s expectations? This subject is explored exhaustively by the exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art, The Independence Project: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia1947-1985, currently playing in New York.

Taking a look at dozens of iconic designs and structures across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka during the time period in question, the exhibition, curated by Martino Stierli, Anoma Pieris and Sean Anderson, aims to distinguish works that have served as a “tool[s] for social progress” while leaving colonial idioms and ideas behind.

A testament to Nehru’s expectations, many of the works in question are those of local architects engaged in their respective national development projects across South Asia during the first four decades after colonial rule.

Rather than the more well-known monumental designs airlifted to the region by itinerant Western architects such as Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, it is instead the work of Charles Correa, B.V. Doshi, Geoffrey Bawa, Minette de Silva, Muzharul Islam , Yasmeen Lari and others. which takes center stage.

BV Doshi was among the architects of Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Credit: Harshavardan Raghunandhan.

In a way, such curatorial interventions cannot come soon enough. The heritage of modernist built experiences in the region today rests on fragile foundations. In India, pronounced revulsion towards the ideas and aesthetic sensibilities of the Nehru and Indira Gandhi years has lent itself to a crisis in heritage conservation, with notable modernist structures demolished without wide public consultation.

Chief among them is Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations Complex at Pragati Maidan in Delhi, demolished in 2017 by order of the central government. A few kilometers away, a number of ministerial offices designed during Nehru’s time are also to be demolished as part of the project. Central Vista Redevelopment Project.

In Sri Lanka, others noted, what remains largely of de Silva’s works are 2D approximations of what once stood. At a time when the architecture of religious reaction rather than secular learning or cosmopolitan living being at the receiving end of state patronage, returning to the aesthetic hallmarks of a more socially inclusive vision of design and community is as necessary as it is refreshing.

Visitors to the exhibition are treated to a series of building models, photographs, floor plans and town plans, not the least of which is a painstaking wooden reconstruction of Rewal’s former complex in Pragati Maidan by graduate students from the Cooper Union of New York.

Beginning with the design of Chandigarh, Corbusier’s concrete capital for Punjab, which served an educational function for regional architects in the early period of independence, the visual material presented spans across the subcontinent. Visitors to the exhibition are rotated to Islamabad, Chittagong, Colombo, Bangalore, New Bombay, Pondicherry and the small town of Gujarat, among others.

A photograph of the collection of models on display. Credit: Harshavardan Raghunandhan.

These places featured new universities, workspaces, public buildings and urban plans that the curators of the exhibition identify as part of a typology of self-determination in the region.

Certainly, newly constructed university spaces such as the exposed brick complex of Muzharul Islam in Chittagong, featured prominently in the exhibit, served as forums for heated debate about the future of postcolonial independence among idealistic students.

But self-determination in a region as diverse as South Asia was not easy. One constituency’s conception of the term often came into conflict with another’s continuing struggle for independence, as Pakistan was to learn in 1971 with the creation of Bangladesh.

If the ideological connection between architect Anwar Said’s plans for Islamabad’s sleek mosques and Islamic learning spaces in Dhaka and Chittagong seems unclear, it’s because there are none. not. Their projects were contradictory, the first centered on Muslim modernism, the second explicitly on secular regionalism, notwithstanding a community of visual mannerisms.

A recreation of the Ahle-Hadith Mosque in Islamabad, designed by Anwar Said. Credit: Harshavardan Raghunandhan.

Indeed, at times the exhibition’s ambitions seem to struggle under their own weight as they attempt to tie these conflicting priorities together. Which ends up being a cluttered jumble of projects rather than a precise intellectual focus. Indeed, the limits of such efforts are clear, for example, in the exhibition catalog, which incorrectly classifies Pakistan as one of the region’s “predominantly secular nation states”.

The search for a remote unity of purpose across such political divides also lends itself to a lack of engagement with the keywords around which the exhibition is organized. The words ‘independence’, ‘modernity’, ‘decolonization’ and ‘self-determination’ are used interchangeably without serious consideration as to whether these ambitions opposed and thwarted each other in the pursuit of new built environments.

Rather than self-determination, in Pakistan post-1947-built modernity has been integrated into American power itineraries. Take Korangi, the township of Karachi destined to receive post-partition refugees, strongly highlighted in the exhibition. Historian Markus Daeshsel remind us that deputies from the U.S. State Department and USAID lent a hand in carrying out township development to demonstrate the value and social importance of U.S. foreign aid.

The fact that the project was enthusiastically promoted as a public relations spectacle but ultimately remained unfinished speaks to the reluctance of Ayub Khan’s regime to promote new forms of life, mobility and circulation in Karachi. . Daeshsel reminds us that the reality of such circulation threatened to foster self-reliance rather than dependence on the state on the part of the new citizen-refugees.

Ayub’s regime eventually backtracked on the project and left many Korangi plots unfinished. They have been cut off from Karachi’s public services and transport networks, leaving refugees behind.

In India, the promise and feel of exposed concrete collided with climatic considerations and labor regimes to produce buildings that were strongly alienated from the surrounding landscape. Building on Corbusier’s efforts in Chandigarh, local architects such as Rewal, Correa, Achyut Kanvinde and others maintained the French master’s preference for exposed concrete, even when the material’s heat-trapping properties militated against liberal use in tropical and subtropical environments.

Achyut Kanvinde was among the architects of Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth University at Rahuri in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. Credit: Credit: Harshavardan Raghunandhan.

In this respect, these efforts reflected the developmental sensitivities of the Nehru government, erecting huge concrete dams, transformed into “new temples” of independent India, in an effort to accelerate economic growth. It was even as the environmental and social displacement costs of these efforts were mounting. Almost 20 years after Chandigarh was built, Correa has publicly disavowed Corbusier’s contributions, promising a greener approach in their wake.

Meanwhile, the preference for concrete has driven out labor-intensive industries long present in South Asian construction, namely brickyards. Brick went out of fashion even as its use promised to include a greater share of local labor and better integrate new construction with the climatic requirements of the region.

Unlike their Western and Indian counterparts, the creations of Islam and Lari in Bangladesh and Pakistan are notable for their deliberate use of bricks drawn from local kilns and serve a more diverse social base than the works of their counterparts on the other. side of the border.

Rather than “static conditions” in the Nehruvian understanding, the persistence of local building traditions using brick amid the frenzy of industrial modernity embodied all around spoke of a degree of climatic savvy that has gone too long unnoticed. by leading Indian architects.

In attempting to compress such a wide range of aesthetic conceptions and practices across South Asia into a neat narrative of postcolonial eminence, the MoMA exhibit ultimately leaves us with more variety than clarity. Worse still, it threatens to water down and smooth over the competing beliefs of the designers it honors by lumping them under one unwieldy umbrella. It therefore remains to be seen whether the presentation of the exhibition is as convincing as it is diversified.

Harshavardan Raghunandhan is a graduate student in history at Yale University.

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