Despite India boasting rich architectural heritage and miraculous historic constructions, contemporary architecture in India has, by and large, looked westward for inspiration and direction, perhaps in search of “modernism”. In recent years architectural schools have of course begun to revisit ancient Indian structural sciences, and today more references are being made to the forgotten sciences and methods than ever before. In India, ‘modernism’ refers only to a small portion of the total construction process. The reality is that most construction work is undertaken without the involvement of architects by contractors, and local masons. Thus there are profound ironies in the subject of modernism in India. 


The European Paradigm

At the time of Independence, it seemed natural for policy-makers to work with a ‘national’ perspective and bring in large-scale transformation by following the European model of development. In modernizing societies such transformations have ended the earlier reflection of social life and local practices through architecture. These transformations and the resultant necessity to depend upon expert systems including the profession of modern architecture to deal with them, have completely changed how constructions are planned and executed. Architects from different social and cultural backgrounds and across the globe can practice in regions, for which they may have no local cultural affinity, the architect can assess construction styles and technology across what were locally-defined boundaries of local traditional methods in the past. This makes the architecture discipline more self-referential and less limited to local methods.

The Resistance

The quest for identity through historical referencing is a result of the process of developing architecture. The identity of a nation or society could be defined by the extent to which it was able to retain its cultural heritage while incorporating the scientific, technological, and political advancements of modern civilization. How is a civilization to become modern and still return to its sources; how can an old and dormant nation or society be revived and form part of the global civilization?

The Global Civilization

Not every society can resist the cultural shock of modernism. Looking back at India’s experience since Independence, it is clear that the social and political conditions in the country were such that they predisposed its people to forge alternate social and cultural re-vindications in the face of global civilization. Perhaps this is on account of what political experts define as ‘resistance’ of a society. They have ascribed two reasons to explain this phenomenon. First, the multilayered complexity of deep-rooted local Indian cultures and practices. The inertia that this engenders is not easily overpowered, and despite the seemingly immense and continuous efforts to bring about change through systematic developmental efforts, several parts of our society have resisted it while only some have been transformed. This is therefore why India remains a “backward” country in the eyes of several analysts, particularly in terms of the broad contours of modernism, even though it has achieved, according to statistics, remarkable progress. 

Such resisting societies are often viewed as an outcome of failures or inadequacies in developmental efforts, although in cultural aspects, it can also be viewed as a triumph of resistance. In architectural terms, we in India are beginning to realize the importance of the relationship between traditional methods and modernism. Moreover, emphasis on the style aspects of modernism in India is paramount because the process of construction and the building technology was not simultaneously modernized here. Modernism in Europe meant the transformation of both the form of a structure and the technology employed to erect it. The construction process in India, however, remained at the pre-Independence level of handiwork and primitive engineering. Innovation in architecture occurred only in the way the architecture of buildings was conceived, not in the way they were being executed. This led to the emergence of what can be described as hybrid modernism: sophisticated spaces built using conventional technology. In conclusion, it may be recalled that the Modern Movement of the West was largely concerned with the spirit of the times, termed as the Zeitgeist. India’s tryst with modernism is relatively recent but is significantly flawed because India’s Zeitgeist was defined by external agencies and forces. The Zeitgeist must necessarily account for traditional architectural practices and features, and by neglecting its importance, Indian contemporary architecture remains incomplete. So far architects have been content to merely visit the subjects of indigenous architectural and spatial sciences in search of identity. Although this to some degree results in resistance to the disorganized forces of modernism, this is a very limiting view of the heritage. The meaning of heritage should be extended to encompass the environment-friendly, sustainable aspects of traditional technology. This will add greater depth and meaning to the hybrid architectural methods being invented in India.


Sowmya is an architectural journalist and writer. In this column, Sowmya takes you through stories on eco-architecture, biophilic design, and green buildings from across the globe.

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