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Concept of a Modernism in Indian Architecture Exploring Multiple Approaches

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India undoubtedly has a great architectural heritage which conjures images of Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, South Indian temples and Forts of Rajasthan. But, what represents Modern Architecture in India? Yatin Pandya provides a critical appraisal of Modernism in the context of Indian Architecture.

India has been a country of long history and deep rooted traditions. Here history is not a fossilized past but a living tradition. The very existence of tradition is proof in itself of its shared acceptance over changed time and circumstance, and thus its continuum.

This spirit of adaptation and assimilation continues to be an integral aspect of Indian architecture in the post independence era as well. As such post Independence India had voluntarily embraced modernism as a political statement by inviting world renowned Modern architect Le Corbusier to design capital city of young and free nation with democratic power structure.

Despite strong continuum of classical architecture from Indian traditions, these new interventions gained currency and came to be preferred choices for emulation of architects of the following genre. Not only Corbusier, even Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright and Buck Minster Fuller had their stints in India, Indian masters also got trained and apprenticed overseas, under international masters and continued the legacy forward.

Early Modern Architecture 1950

Chandigarh and Ahmedabad aptly demonstrate two different equations of patronising modern architecture in India with reverence, response and reverberations. While Chandigarh represents the Government patronage to international architecture, Ahmedabad stands for the initiative of people and entrepreneurial development patrons. Government of India commissioned Le Corbusier to make city plan of Chandigarh and device architectural syntax for its civic buildings. While, at the same time, visionary entrepreneurs of Ahmedabad commissioned Corbusier to design private residences and civic structures under their patronage. Both milieus had common aspects of: desire for avant-garde architectural explorations, faith and respect in the creator and his universal aesthetics, as well as full freedom to the creator for his design interpretations. No wonder, such faith and freedom got graciously reciprocated by the modern masters through their creative explorations and by actually applying their dream concepts and realizing their theories. Ahmedabad and Chandigarh became canvas for the modern masters to come, experience, interpret and apply their three dimensional art.

As if a book on architecture, the four Corbusier buildings in Ahmedabad take upon themselves the challenge of demonstrating nearly contradictory directions to achieve the same goal of environmental comfort in a hot and dry climate.

The four buildings represent two architectural prototypes – the residences and the public institutions. Although built around the same time, these structures show remarkable diversity of space resolution and contrast of comfort strategy. For example, Sanskar Kendra relies on its introverted courtyard like square doughnut configuration along with the service floor and cavity walls for external insulation. On the other hand, ATMA is largely an extroverted platform, using the parasol and the Brise Soleil, a roof that would let the light in yet provide shade against the sun.

One aspect, unique to Corbusier’s architecture, and one that commonly manifests in all his projects in Ahmedabad, has been the resource value ascribed to the roofs. Corbusier assigned additional value to the roofs of buildings in Ahmedabad; not treating them as leftover surfaces. The garden over the living unit and vegetable farming over the kitchen unit of Sarabhai house is probably the most apt example.

Corbusier also proposed hydroponic cultivation of Sanskar Kendra roof as an effort to explore roofs as productive resources, while providing insulation within. Spatial contiguity, easy accessibility and surface rendering of roof terraces with built in seating or planting elements render roofs of Shodhan house and ATMA as outdoor rooms, which are most pleasant in the late summer evenings. Indeed, an apt element in Ahmedabad which has had a tradition of actively using roof terraces for day to day living as well as festivities.

At spatial core, the commonality is through its experiential richness. As seen in ‘pols- traditional residential precincts’ of Ahmedabad, step-wells or the temple complexes, their spatial constructs rely on the ‘kinaesthetics’ (kinetic aesthetic) – a dynamically changing visual perception while in movement- as the basis of organizing spaces, especially the movement structure and its sequence of spaces.

Modernism in 60’s & 70’s

Even after Corbusier and Kahn, international architects chanced their arms over this open canvas. French architect Bernard Kohn and American teacher Christopher Beninger had made the city their home for a decade or so and have to their credit numerous buildings in their impressionist years. Bernard Kohn championed the cause of Riverfront development half a century ago and Christopher Beninger helped drafting the course curriculum for the school of Planning. Charles Eames was the other designer who was invited by Gautam and Gira Sarabhai to help set up the Design school- National Institute of Design and conceptualise its teaching ideology and design the curriculum accordingly.

Engineering wizard and German Philosopher Buck Minster Fuller’s geodesic dome was adopted at Calico mill’s showroom way back in seventies. Calico mill’s administrative building design was originally commissioned to none other than American architectural Icon Frank Lloyd Wright. Due to legal and financial issues the sketch design failed to materialize for real. But visionary patrons of the time continued to invite the best in the field to immortalize their dreams in their city.

Louis Kahn created poetry in brick at the campus of Indian Institute of Management. Brick masonry- considered to be the local material found very different dimensions through three dimensional structural arches. City learnt a new way of building in brick and also upgraded its quality of construction having trained through rigorous and stricter construction norms and practices of Kahn. It also gave legitimacy to bare aesthetics of exposed (unplastered) brick construction – alien to place and people then. However, institutes and residences since half a century then continue to admire and emulate this modern aesthetics and outlook.

Not only buildings but cities got designed on the hieroglyphics of Corbusier’s Chandigarh. While Gandhinagar – a new capital city of Gujarat province designed departmentally by Government planners like Mewada, was nearly a diagrammatic remake of Chandigarh’s footprints, Vidyadharnagar city plan by Doshi imbibed the essence of interspersed pedestrian pathways, hierarchical road structure, diagonal greens and so on.


Changing perception through variations of visual alignment in vertical or horizontal plane, shifting movement axis and introduction of pause points at every change of such alignment become the nuances of Early Modern architecture. Layering and gradually unfolding of spaces entice the onlooker with curiosity and elements of surprise. The relative assembly of spatial elements become clues in themselves to encode and decode messages. These frames constantly change to bring in a different sense of scale and proportion to the same static plan layout.

From the national scene, even with no lineage to the city till fifties, Pune born architect Balkrishna Doshi (apprenticed with Le Corbusier in Paris for four years) made Ahmedabad his home. Noted legends of contemporary India, Achyut Kanvinde from Delhi (Trained in USA in Bauhaus tradition) and Charles Correa from Goa-Mumbai (also trained in USA) have numerous trend setting buildings to their credit.

Modern Architecture of 20th Century

Seventies and eighties was the fertile time for Indian architecture where it questioned the core issues of architecture within the parlance of the Indian milieu. It broke the bounds of ‘Ism’, freed from the shackles of masters as well as came out of the shadows of world architecture.

There were plural and multiple approaches chosen to address core issues of socially appropriate architecture with Indian ethos and sensibilities. This is the era after the euphoria of an independent nation to leapfrog in to global scenario and futility of search for answers from global arena. It had by now realized that one has to look within for meaningful answers.

This was therefore the time when there was search for Indian identity and contextually appropriate architecture. Different paths were explored from: appropriate technology being an answer to interpreting and inferring from Indian traditional architecture, to even pursuing higher technologies. Post market economy compounded by globalisation there was sudden loss of direction and priorities shifted from core social issues to superficial packaging and product driven aesthetics.

Architects played subservient to market forces and along the process became indifferent, if not irresponsible, to the place and its people. Pluralism of path, devoid of core engaging values, is getting resulted as idiosyncrasy and collective resolution of cacophony where each building, islanded within its own compound, oblivious and indifferent to its surrounding is yelling at its loudest to catch attention. It is the time to reassert core values, believe in ourselves and approaches laid by these values and act responsibly to guard these against disruptive forces.

Interpreting Modernism Today

With reference to Modernism, Indian sub continent has been blessed in a way that it has the best of examples of modern architecture illustrating sensitivity of their creative genius at their peak of career. As much as ancient civilizations, these modern structures have also become point of reference as well as inspirational case study for today’s young architects.

The implication being that the architectural resolutions not only caught fancy of the rest of the world but this also found legitimacy of the place and its people. They were not only architecturally significant and developing country’s placards to showcase to the modern world, but they were also responsive to local climate and constructions.

In fact these examples have proven their wisdom and worth by emerging as better role models for creative management of sun and light, ventilation and shading, green roofs and green facade, insulative walls and material mass, large overhangs, use of terraces and outdoor spaces as well as multi use flexible spaces, local materials, skills and non mechanised construction and so on…Even after six decades they have proven the true test of time by being timeless in their aesthetics. Also, they continue to be in use and lived in as integral dimension of the contemporary world. In fact these examples have become worthy references for professionals to infer, for their timeless aesthetics, engaging spatial experiences technological explorations as well as environmental sustainability.

The issues have been with their translations in newer times.

By reducing an ‘ideology’ into an “ism” several clones have emerged by superficial copies and false interpretations. Many of these have failed to imbibe the spirit and have only latched on to form imitation or the material remake. These have unfortunately raised questions about modernism’s validity in Indian milieu.

Remaining ego centric to designer and indifferent to its context, such architecture remained esoteric and their socio cultural appropriateness got questioned. However, thankfully seminal examples from Indian masters have helped muster faith for the modernism through their blending of modernist learnings with traditional Indian ethos.

These breeds of “Glocal” have been the renaissance of the sort for contemporary Indian architectural landscape. They remain a direction to emulate in this otherwise globalised world with free market economy preoccupied with packaging and translocation anything anywhere without local bearings.

Tradition is about ‘of place’ and ‘for people’. Not only has it evolved in response to the prevailing forces of the place and time but also it has perfected its resolution over time. That is where traditional is a balanced resolution accounting for culture, climatic and construction technology of the given place. This is therefore holistic and proven response to environmental, social and material factors.

The very fact that tradition exists is a proof of its shared acceptance over time and continuum of values even in the changed times. This speaks for its timeless aesthetics. Thus tradition is relevant and long lasting not simply because it is old but is an effective, time tested resolution out of accumulated wisdom. Modern need not be anti thesis to the same. In the context of India, Modern can interpret essence and imbibe lessons from the tradition and recast them in newer knowledge base and technology. It can sensitively combine the Local with Global to become.

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