11 July 2018

In the three decades since India abandoned socialism, its landmark architectural projects have been dominated by glass and steel towers wholly unsuited to the country and its climate. Overworked and underpaid, most Indian architects have few chances to try anything new, but that is not stopping a dynamic set of young designers from trying, blending antique techniques and modern aesthetics with dazzling effect. Andrea Valentino talks to architects and academics from across the country about these changes, and the continued challenges that make building so difficult.

Haksar ki Haveli, an old building in the centre of Delhi, India, was not always full to the brim with ripped plastic bags and skinny cats. A century ago, its fluted columns had not crumbled, but stood tall, giving shade to the vendors and guests who came and went. Its entrance was not piled in a corner, all rubble, but welcomed visitors with elegant motifs. Any cats that dared get close were quickly shooed back, beyond the walls, into the street.

This was an important place, after all. Its colonnades and balconies witnessed key moments in Indian history. The mansion was built in the first years of the 19th century by a patrician family of Delhi merchants who recently arrived from Kashmir. British troops then ransacked the place during the worst violence of the Indian Mutiny. They later helped restore it, understanding its architectural importance. No wonder Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, chose to be married there.

Like the politician, the old Haksar ki Haveli is gone. Only the cats are left – and even they might be running out of time. In April, residents protested after hearing the ruins could be swept away for a new development. “I was appalled,” complained one resident.

She surely had a right to be angry, but not surprised: its fate is typical of contemporary India’s architectural legacy. With GDP exploding, the country has witnessed a frenzy of development. Every year, the country’s builders put up 900 million square metres of new floor space – the equivalent of a new Chicago – and let treasures like Haksar ki Haveli fall away.

This is helping Indian towns look like every other global city in China or Indonesia. Impractical concrete and glass towers loom over squashed historic centres, while corrugated iron shacks huddle behind, like shy children. But things might be changing. Some designers are moving away from the ‘internationalist’ style that has characterised recent Indian architecture, instead focusing on buildings that actually fit the lives of normal people. Retreating to the antique comforts of Haksar ki Haveli can help yet it still is not enough. The country’s most ingenious architects are opting to mix old and new, shaping a distinctly beautiful, wholly Indian, way of building.

External influences

The building sites that sprinkle modern India are symbols of what the country has become: energetic, globalising and capitalist. But for most of the post-independence period, it was a socialist state. Spurred by reforming zeal, governments vigorously intervened in national life, with architecture being no exception. For decades after partition, Delhi promoted enormous public works, inviting luminaries like Correa and Le Corbusier to design everything from universities to government headquarters. The results are still impressive. Chandigarh, a planned city in the fields north-west of Delhi, is a modernist marvel, with concrete curves framed by trees and flanked by handsome squares.

From the 1990s, as India liberalised its economy, state-sponsored architecture fell away. Not everyone is comfortable with what came next.

“India embraced things it picked up from Singapore,” says Rahul Mehrotra, an architect and professor of urban planning and design at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, US. “We began to get thin, glass boxes and high-rise buildings in the wrong places.” These resentments are shared by Sanjay Puri, a Mumbai-based architect who has grown tired of the generic glass towers popping up in desert states like Rajasthan, even as the scorching climate turn them into ovens. “Why would anyone want a glass tower here?” he asks. “Because the developer demands something modern, like they saw in America.”

These cultural trends intersect with economics. A roaring economy is growing the need for new offices and apartments. Demand for construction steel rose by 12.7% over the decade to 2016, 11% faster than the global average. All this means companies are under pressure to build quickly – aesthetic or practical considerations be damned.

“Architecture has become massproduced because of the number of buildings required,” explains Amit Gupta, another young Indian architect. “Firms just rush and copy things because the country is booming, and there is a lot of money in construction.” Mehrotra agrees, noting that pressure from capitalism often produces “some terrible forms”.

It hardly helps that the industry is already saturated with architects. India’s 428 design schools pump out 15,000 new graduates each year, meaning staff can quickly be replaced if they cause trouble. All this has a depressing effect on wages. Young Indian architects may only make 1% commission from a project, compared with 7–8% in Europe, pushing them to constantly chase new clients. Whatever their own talents, many local designers spend their careers putting up generic luxury compounds.

Borrowing from the past

One of the biggest closed-gathering spaces in India is not a convention centre or a concert hall, but the Global Vipassana Pagoda, a Buddhist meditation temple near Mumbai. Its gently sloping walls can fit 8,000 worshippers, and its immense 26m stone dome is the largest of its kind on earth. But if the Pagoda is a new building – it was finished in 2008 – the design is not. Its spectacular dome was modelled on the Shwedagon Pagoda, a medieval temple in Myanmar.

Squeezed by internationalism, some Indian designers are returning to the safety of history, what Mehrotra calls “the resurfacing of the ancient”. As the Global Vipassana Pagoda implies, the style is especially popular in contemporary religious architecture. All over the country, gurus and other spiritual leaders are building enormous ashrams (spiritual hermitages), copying the past architectural glories of India and its neighbours. This is as much a technical choice as an aesthetic one. Abandoning the cranes and diggers of modern construction, gurus encourage their followers to source materials locally, and use wooden tools and scaffolding.

Mehrotra is frustrated by this trend, just as he is depressed by the bland conformity of glass and steel towers. “Global architecture has no social agenda,” he stresses. “That edge of modernism, which was about social transformation, completely disappeared.” On the other hand, he continues, stumbling into nostalgia risks relying on outdated forms and techniques. “Every era must build towards what is relevant in terms of technology. We need an architecture that is contemporary and responds to the different locations, cultures, geographies and climatic conditions of India,” he explains.

Finding a balance between old and new is not easy, but the field is far from bare. From Somaya & Kalappa Consultants to Mindspace Architects, a new generation of Indian firms is developing its own contemporary style, all while appreciating what made buildings like Haksar ki Haveli so remarkable.

Puri is at the centre of these changes. One of his most thrilling designs is an office building in the Gujarati port town of Surat. Tan orange walls radiate out from a central hall, each angled to protect staff from the blazing Indian summer. Other projects blend form and function just as well. Reservoir, a new township in Rajasthan, borrows from local history by recessing the windows several feet into the walls, protecting rooms even as the sun aims directly at them. Not that Puri is chained to history. Reservoir has a confidently modern aesthetic – its flat-roofed buildings slinking out of the desert as if from another planet.

“We shouldn’t go back exactly to what was done before,” he states. “We cannot simply use what our ancestors relied on. But we can use some antique elements to make our architecture more sustainable.”

Contemporary designs

Studio Symbiosis has similar ambitions. Founded by Gupta and German-born partner Britta Knobel Gupta in 2010, the firm is now one of the most distinguished in the country. Like Puri, they are struggling against reflexive internationalism and mawkish nostalgia, Gupta explains.

“We focus on designs that are not just copies from the West,” he says. “They are more contemporary, but traditional at the same time.” A recent example is the headquarters for the newspaper Punjab Kesari, near Delhi, which has a sleek frame covered by jali, traditional latticed screens that keep indoor temperatures low.

At the same time, Studio Symbiosis is using this ‘culturally embedded language’ across larger master-plan developments, working to advance urban life from the mishmash of steel and slums that characterises much of India today. This can be as simple as planting trees to give shade in hot weather, or providing safe paths for cyclists who are worried by erratic Indian drivers. Devoting 20% of the space to parks “gives a clean experience for everyone living in the city”, Gupta adds. “The idea is to have a central green to promote healthy living. Parks are the lungs of the city.”

A new hope

All this is good news, but there is plenty more to do. Bureaucracy is one challenge; dozens of antiquated regulations, like the Mumbai rule that limits open-to-sky terraces, can hinder innovative blueprints. “The amount of permission you need for a building is so complex,” Puri says. “You have to go separately to the fire department, to the environmental department; there are so many procedures to get approval for a building.” It’s no surprise Indian building projects are so slow, with one 2017 study finding that 42% of Hyderabad building projects were delayed by over a year.

Corruption is another problem. Bureaucrats sometimes make regulations deliberately opaque, only clarifying what they mean if architects slip them an envelope filled with cash. “When you want a grey area clarified, the official will say, ‘OK, you want to do it this way? I’ll charge you for it.’ The government has been talking for years about closing these loopholes, but it’s never going to happen,” Puri explains.

This pessimism may not be warranted though. In Maharashtra, for example, officials give financial help to architects who build according to green standards. Further north, in Gujarat, developers now apply for building permits remotely and can be accepted within 24 hours. An online system also puts off sticky-fingered officials. “The government is moving [forward], at least with new projects,” Knobel Gupta says, adding that these legal shifts are shadowed by cultural changes. “The sector is trying to move in a new direction. People graduating from MIT and Harvard are setting up practices here. I think a lot of smart architecture is starting.”

Customers are maturing too. Rather than demanding copies of skyscrapers in New York or London, they are increasingly happy to accept more thoughtful designs. “Clients have become smarter,” Knobel Gupta points out. “With the internet and freedom of information, they can see what is good and what is not.” Her partner agrees, noting that clients and architects are working together to “try something different. People are really making an effort in the country.”

Can this new awareness save Haksar ki Haveli? After local uproar, the High Court of Delhi ordered officials to carry out a survey of the site, though its ultimate fate remains unclear. But for now, at least, the cats have somewhere safe to scavenge, even as the city around them twists and changes, and its architects push to build the new India.

The Courtyard House by Sanjay Puri Architects in Rajasthan.
The firm also worked on The Crescent office block in Surat, Gujarat.
Shree Cement hired Puri’s firm to create The Bridge, which links a reservoir to a major residential development.
In Rajasthan, the site for Reservoir has been steeply contoured for water collection.
Punjab Kesari’s interior is kept cool by jali.
Sanjay Puri Architects designed The Street, an 800-room building for student housing.

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