The exhibition “Charles Correa: India’s Greatest Architect” on at the Royal Institute of British Architects, at 66, Portland Place in London, has a rather bombastic title, one that a self-effacing Correa would shy away from. But it is not without reason that the show’s curator, architect David Adjaye, singles him out. In post independent India, as India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought modernization through public symbols, architects like Correa, Habib Rahman, Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier among others, envisioned India in new ways, under a government mandate that sought for change through public buildings and cities, to establish India’s new identity as an independent nation.
As I walked the two floors of the exhibition, I progressively got more and more depressed. Initially, to see a vision brought to fruition was heartening. One’s eye rested on Kanchenjunga, his high rise of houses that still stands as Mumbai’s finest building; or the Craft Museum in Delhi, which functions as a wandering through several enclosed spaces that would not unsettle a village craftsman in an urban setting; or a home round a courtyard – all successfully assimilating modernity in function and design within the context of location and climate and ancient Indian tradition and form. The depression sets in as you see the visionary plans Correa had for Mumbai, plans that were inclusive of all people, that in hindsight make perfect sense – in the 60s (the proposed move to the mainland) and in the 90s (the democratic, sensitive re-use of the mill lands) – but at both crucial moments in time, went unimplemented by governments that could not foresee the problems that the growth of a city brings. Those plans exist on paper, testimony to an architect’s vision, and a reminder that architects and urban planners fashion the growth of a city, not politicians in an unimaginative government.
Bijoy Jain/Studio Mumbai; Courtesy of the artist and Mumbai Art Room.
Jump to 2013 (almost half a century after Correa proposed Mumbai’s expansion to the mainland), to ‘Bijoy Jain and Kapil Gupta / Indian Contemporary Architects’ at the Mumbai Art Room. In a show curated by architect Aaron Schwarz, an American practicing in the city for a couple of years, two Mumbai architects, Bijoy Jain / Studio Mumbai and Kapil Gupta / Serie Architects are presented – and this choice alone, throws up a myriad of questions on architecture in the city. Jain has his office across the harbor (the city’s government didn’t quite move across to the mainland as per Correa’s plan of decongestion, but its citizens have started to, albeit mainly the rich acquiring second homes). Both Jain and Gupta have no heft with the builders, who mafia-like have taken the city over. In a complete blitz of any respect for urban design, towering blocks are put up in a city that has no prior infrastructure in place to sustain this kind of growth nor do they have a connection with the majority of its citizens. These buildings have no foundation in, or deference to the surroundings, but rather, in a tasteless aspiration to the mythic cities of the desert (Dubai), or of communist China’s capitalistic dreams (Shanghai) they only mimic what these cities mimic themselves (mythic dream cities of the West?). Shorn of any local reference yet adorned with the unsuitable (both economically and for the climate) commonality of glass and steel, how do Jain and Gupta place their practice in this insensitive milieu?
Schwarz chooses their practices for this very reason – in this crass building rage of indifference, their response is through need and the particular in the immediate surroundings and beyond. With knowledge of the historical and traditional, both, who have trained here and abroad, remain local in their understanding of space and adaptation, even as their formal training brings in the clarity of form so lacking in the busy madness around the city. Theirs is ambitious architecture; in adaptation of indigenous knowledge and of the human condition in negotiating an overwhelmed city, the ambition is in inverse proportion to the scale of their projects, but immense in the outcome. Here, innovation is no blind imitation but a thought out parameter, from adapting to the lie of the land, to tapping into traditional, centuries-honed skilled craftsmanship, they meld fine detailing into large projects using material that is not alien to the site.
Bijoy Jain/Studio Mumbai; Courtesy of the artist and Mumbai Art Room.
Schwarz puts his spatial skills to practice, dividing the room that is the gallery into two spaces; on the left, Kapil Gupta showcases projects and on the right, Bijoy Jain’s practice is put up for spec. Gupta’s project of a model of Aarvli Resort, Goa, that is still under construction, is supported by photographs and drawings of the building, site, and of a local hill fort, from which it takes inspiration for its sinuous, curvilinear form. Built into the land with the landscaping melding it into the horizon, it is contemporary yet rooted in its locale. One of his earlier projects in the city, the Blue Frog studio saw similar curvilinear patterns; albeit concise and enclosed, he brought the sense of the city within, the mingling of sound and people interweaves with movement. In a remodeling of a large industrial structure in the heart of the city centre in Hangzhou, China, Serie Architects chose to retain the drama of the massive central space placing the “supporting programme” of shops, bars, restaurants and offices in a surrounding plinth. Increasing the floor space by four times the previous, the historical core was left intact – this connection with the past is how urban architecture can re-adapt to new needs that affect its citizens' lives in humanizing ways, keeping roots of memory to stabilise destabilizing scenarios.
Jain’s studio, comprising of twelve architects and 120 artisans, sums up what his practice is about – a collective endeavor. Using traditional skills paired with contemporary design, the attention to detail and need is astounding; a client must have patience and faith. His worldwide projects are indication they do. Schwarz chooses to spotlight the journey to a specific end: a book highlights the mixing of lime and color; as one flips the pages, sheet after sheet of shades of celadon are documented, till the precise color and patina to be used on walls and wood of a house is achieved. Tiles marked with these colorings, are also on display below a table that holds models in copper of some of Studio Mumbai’s projects. Finely rendered, this practice away from the grind of the city seems to have honed in to an indigenous way of life that is all but forgotten in the maverick construction around. A drawing done directly on the wall, with ink and puck marks, reveals all that the practice treasures – uncluttered form, patina, subtlety in the surround.
As unplanned construction rages, our city views get more perplexing, the architectural styles even more unfathomable. The show highlights the practices of Jain and Gupta, bravely bludgeoning the values of adapting traditional ways, combining new concepts and technique, and so providing a perspective that is at once a world-view, yet understood where their buildings stand. The outreach needs to broaden; Correa showed the way to low cost housing in the 60s, and this still remains an urgent need.
The Mumbai Art Room is a small room. But it throws up thoughts much larger than the sum of its contents. The large scale hopes that architecture held for Nehru’s India, of forging a modernity rooted in Indian tradition is now envisioned in a few current practices, working from close to the ground. Perhaps this contemporary grassroots understanding is what architecture in India needs to move ahead, with a style that’s more attuned to locational needs and still raises the standard to compete in the world.
(Image on top: Kapil Gupta/Serie Architects; Courtesy of the artist and Mumbai Art Room.)