Architecture and India


Reflections on Trip to India after winning the Ella McDanial Travel Prize

India is a country of enormous variety, it almost beggars belief that it functions as a single nation. In reality it is a geographical body that contains so much variation in cuisine, religion (Hinduism is a misleading umbrella term), language, climate and more. Within this context, as a visitor, you get a very strong sense of place in moving from one part to the next, even between different neighbourhoods of the same city.


Jama Masjid Mosque, Old Delhi

This is all the more remarkable given that, following very rapid population growth over the past fifty years, the construction is, on the whole overwhelmingly generic. The same reinforced concrete, brick infill, plastered buildings are everywhere from the dense winding streets of Delhi to middle of the Kashmiri countryside. However, it is the way that this built environment is inhabited, imbued with life, colour, filth, smells and how the buildings sit relative to each-other that makes different parts of the same city so distinctive. Of course it is the combination of all these elements that is the real architecture (or atmosphere if you will), this is where the gesantkuntswerk lies. So what I want to ask is, in the context of an architectural debate in the UK that is concerned by the loss identity of place and the spread of notopia[1], what lessons can we learn from India?


Architects are apt to overestimate their own influence on the appearance, identity and ‘place’ of a city. This is entirely understandable; architectural education trains us to see the world through the lens of what the buildings have done to affect the psychology and behaviour of people inhabiting them. This new way of looking was described by my former tutor as your architectural revelation. This is no false or bad thing, however it can lead architects to view themselves as the sole enactors of ‘place creation’ that use ‘incisive strategies’ of ‘ethical architecture’ and ‘phenomenological approaches’ to generate ‘morally robust, authentic places within a multiplicitous context’. With this mindset, architects can feel that they hold the keys to humanity’s happiness, and this is an attractive position, nobody wants to argue themselves out of usefulness. This idea is highlighted by Jeremy Till in the final chapter of Architecture Depends.[2] However, the reality is that the architect’s building plays just one role in creating the identity of a place, and India, with its architectural homogeneity but exciting cultural diversity, really highlighted that for me.


Delhi as an archipelago of places, Old Delhi street

Delhi as a city, feels not as a place but as an archipelago of places, reminding me of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. A combination of an excellent metro system, heat and distance means that travelling between areas feels less like a journey and more like a series of incisive manoeuvres into different worlds. The only unifying feature is the means of getting there: as the temperature rises above forty degrees and even sitting in the shade leaves you in a state of count-down to heatstroke, you dive into a yellow auto-rickshaw to be buffeted by the hot, dense, polluted air of the road until you reach the respite of the air-conditioned metro, which scoots you across town, then on exiting, you find another yellow auto-rickshaw as fast as possible, rattling you through the streets to an entirely different place all built out of exactly the same stuff. I’ll take you through some of these places.

Paharganj is the budget travellers’ area and is full of grotty hotels and hundreds of shops selling all the tourist tat from every part of India for a third of the price. There is a bombardment of people selling, begging, smells of street food, spices and every colour of every piece of clothing. The construction is the same as always, and rapid growth has bustled the buildings haphazardly very close together. But the atmosphere of the place is intensely distinctive: there is a dirty feel, and every shop covers itself with everything it sells such that the buildings appear to be not made out of concrete but clothing.

Nizamundin West consists of buildings constructed fairly indistinctively in an entirely similar manner; just as in Paharganj, they are all of concrete clad in various tiles, stone panels or painted shades of cream. However, the atmosphere could hardly be more different; it is a residential area of Delhi that is well-off, it has been laid out as a planned street pattern with wide, tree-planted streets that are quiet due to traffic controlling and pleasant to walk in. The area is relaxed with children playing cricket in the streets and the odd collection of fruit-sellers and cycle rickshaws on street corners. It is clearly an instance where the town planner has had lots of control but the distinctive feel of the place has been generated not by the buildings which are very similar to elsewhere in the city but in their relation to one another.

Throughout the city, small concrete dumps are filled up daily with rubbish that is grazed on for edible matter by cows, pigs and dogs overnight and into the morning reducing its volume to a residual amount that is indigestible and taken away to the landscape outside the city. This we passed as we left Delhi by bus as dusk was falling on a day that had reached 46oC, hot polluted air buffeted in through tinny fans and wide open windows. A landscape of mountains, valleys and rolling hills surrounded us but as you got closer, you saw that these were mountains of rubbish. The odd fire burned amongst them and smoke rose up through the smog into the grey orange dusk silhouetting the odd solitary cow on the ridge of a hill.


The Tibetan Colony in Delhi from above

The Tibetan Colony in Delhi feels like a medieval European town might have, unregulated buildings crowd close to eachother, tumbling over one another up towards a slither of sky; they form narrow wynds full of rubbish and street vendors sell everything from watermelon to ear cleaning services. Dirty-faced children run wild through the tunnel-like lanes that are too narrow for even motorbikes. The winding passages compress and then open out into a tiny square with two Buddhist Temples and a tree. The building (apart from the two temples) is indistinct as with everywhere but it is the urban pattern and the inhabitation by the Tibetans that gives the place its atmosphere.

These are just some of my experiences. When I got back to Edinburgh, I read the Architectural Review May edition which featured India, and discovered that architects look at India and despair. I quote the very first paragraph in the magazine “meaningful architecture in India is elusive.” [3] Hmm.

If we take architecture to be ‘place creation’, which some people do, then I think that India is actually overflowing with meaningful architecture. It is misleading to lament the blandness of architecture in India based on boring constructions because it is misleading to see just the buildings as the architecture; something that architects are particularly apt to do.

Imagine a painting competition… In India, everybody has been given the same type and size of canvas but every contestant has explored every possible way of painting, subject matter, composition, colour palette. In the West, contestants have used their money to get hold of every possible size, dimension, shape and type of custom-built canvas, but they’ve all done something similar to one of three prevailing fashionable paintings in a tasteful grey-pastel colour scheme. Now the canvas-makers (architects) would view the Indian competition as bland and tragic but the Western one as lucrative and exciting, allowing them to explore their creative expression as canvas suppliers.

I’m not going to say that one of these exhibitions would be more interesting to visit than the other, they would both be fascinating if what interested you was the experience of seeing the art (living in it). But if you were a canvas maker and what interested you was the possible sizes and types of canvas then you would be very bored by the Indian exhibition and criticise it for lack of interest whilst praising the Western one. As architects, we have to ask ourselves whether we are really interested in the world and places as lived environments, as used places or whether it is the objects of buildings that our excitement, the shadow gaps, tactile materials, crisp details. Clearly the best architects are really fascinated with both. But in the rarefied context of the architecture world and media, where what is really talked about are notions of beauty, it is the latter that can absorb the architect’s attention putting them out of touch with the rest of the world who really appreciate the world as it is used not just as it looks.


Old Delhi Monkey

It’s clear from this rather imperfect analogy that the ideal painting competition is one where the canvases vary and so does the content.  Indeed the richest parts of India that I experienced reflected precisely this. Old Delhi is an example where serious built architectural expression from the Mughal era was imbued with enormous life by the rich tapestry of subsequent and current inhabitation. Here the old street patterns wind through ancient havelis that crumble in faded splendour. Once the mansions of India’s Mughal courtiers, they are now split into many flats and at street level ever sort of product from beads to paper folders spill out of shopfronts. Narrow passages lead to glimpses into old internal courtyards painted vibrant blue and inhabited with washing. Just as the original buildings express themselves their grandeur in style of their era, a glance up sees the vigour of today, with urban monkeys swinging through obsolete and current electrical and telephone wires haphazardly strung from one crumbling palace to another.

India’s bland constructions have generated a culture by necessity of excited engagement, participation and real inhabitation. If you live in a concrete box, you have to do something about it. The context of cultural heterotopy and natural physical engagement of people with their built environment in India is a force that could be captured by architects over there to great effect. And, importantly, is a culture that we could really gain from over here. Could we use this to shake up and energise our lives or are we just a bit too cosy watching TV?

The reality is that we’re the ones suffering from bland architecture syndrome, not the Indians; to misquote the Architectural Review, ‘Meaningful architecture in the West is elusive’. We’ve been duped by the fact that there is just about enough good architecture being created here to fill the pages of the architectural press. This has disguised the reality which is that new building here has been for many years and remains stupendously bland in the overwhelming majority.  The real notopias come not in places where there is a lack of architectural involvement but in places where architects have been heavily involved but succumbed entirely to the financial drive of capitalism, as seen in generic financial services districts, large-scale profit-driven housing projects, and out-of-town shopping centers. We need to start thinking about why we’re doing what we’re doing, come off our architectural high horse, and admit that we’re not the cutting edge but really in a bit of a mess.

Taking a look at India can help us do something about it. Let’s get inspired.


[1] As raised by The Architectural Review in its issue June 2016

[2] Till, Jeremy, Architecture Depends, (MIT Press, 2013),  pp. 189 – 195

[3] Srivathsan, A., ‘Towards an architecture for India’, The Architectural Review, May 2016, p.4