The power of association is a very compelling thing. It is often through association that things are branded good or bad. A bad memory links itself to certain places, people, or things -regardless of its role in the situation- directly or indirectly. The same goes for positive experiences. Our perception of architecture is also heavily guided by such a principle, yielding so many contrasting views to a single subject. It also means that a perfectly unbiased view is rare to find. The concepts of ‘Modernity’ and ‘Traditionalism’ are no different.
‘Modern Architecture’ is a very subjective term. It’s hard to hone in on a single definition, and well, the opinions on the matter are endless. Some see it as a sign of progress- the bigger, taller, smarter the buildings are, the better the city is. To some, an otherwise beautiful traditional home may be marred by people or things hurting their well-being, and a modern one becomes an escape for them. It holds opportunities for a new and improved future and perhaps provides a much-needed change of pace and environment. While some embrace it, others scoff at it, regarding it as yet another example of a concrete jungle filled with giant glass towers and hideously dull apartment buildings, holding within it all the hustle and bustle of the rat-race world.
So then how important and relevant is modern architecture to a world trying hard to understand and stay in tune with its culture and tradition? Is modern architecture a cold, faceless entity suppressing and killing culture and tradition? The fear that cities and developing towns are all morphing into cheap replicas of one another, hiding behind a single, indistinguishable face, is a real one given the current state of things. However, does modern architecture only bring with it, negative connotations? Is it incapable of peacefully co-existing with tradition?
Many modernist thinkers view traditions as a sort of sentimental, yet backward attachment to the past. This is far from true. Although both have their merits, when pitted against each other, neither one is superior to the other. Modernism vs Traditionalism has been a long-standing debate, one that has divided more than resolved. The meritocracy of modernism greatly depends on its context and doesn’t necessarily have to be at the expense of culture or tradition. Context is essential. Simply taking an attractive design and superimposing it anywhere, with no thought given to how it will behave in its new home, is one of the greatest pitfalls of the profession. No matter how beautiful, innovative, or efficient a structure may be in one place, there is no guarantee that the same would work elsewhere. There are too many examples of how such narrowly streamed, linear thinking has created more problems than it has solved.
Modernism in the western world followed quickly on the heels of the Industrial Revolution- an era characterized by mass production and cheaper, easy to assemble architecture. Its inherent minimalism and simplicity marked a departure from the heavily ornamented, extravagant architecture preceding it. At the time, the world was going through significant changes on various political, economic, and social fronts and Modernism provided a new face for architecture. It did not simply spring out of nowhere; but, like every other style and movement, arose from a need- a new set of guidelines and challenges. Though it was born in the Western confines of America and Europe, the guiding principle behind it also played a crucial role in several African and Asian countries- newly independent and looking to rebuild its image and identity. It was a means of moving forward; it was in no way suppressing or hiding the past or its culture, merely moving forward. For, “You cannot grow in the same soil that poisoned you”– change is inevitable.
The Haussmannization of Paris was one such instance of modernization of a city, a process that is still debated, to this day. This is one of Europe’s prime examples of how Modernist thinking changed the way people viewed an entire city. Strictly in terms of improvement of urban infrastructure, it was progressive. Over 17 years, Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann turned an overcrowded, disease-riddled Paris into one with reliable sanitation, clean water supply, and proper infrastructure. Wide, well-lit avenues were constructed, making it safer to roam the streets at night and an efficient road network was established. However, this came at the expense of the people -Paris’s poor- major roads cut through some of the city’s most densely populated slums.
Though the dingy houses were unable to maintain proper hygiene and were a hotbed of disease and poverty, Haussmann’s plan has been criticized for attempting to remove traces of the working class and economically unprivileged and hiding it behind pretty, ashlar clad facades. To 21st century tourists visiting Paris, it’s an argument that makes no sense- why should one complain about better sanitation, transport networking, wide, pedestrian-friendly avenues, and picturesque buildings? His critics argue that Haussmann had intended to gentrify the city by creating specific areas for the wealthy and wipe out all hints of the old medieval charm. While Paris is like a dream compared to many present-day cities across the world, back in those times Haussmann’s ‘modern city’ ideals were seen as a death of culture and tradition.
So, was Haussmann right or wrong? Will an appropriate, satisfactory conclusion to the matter ever be reached, laying the debate to rest?
The Indian city of Chandigarh is another example of a ‘modern city’ caught in the middle of a nation brimming with culture and tradition. Post-independence, India was in shambles, both politically and architecturally. A country whose defining feature was its diversity in culture and lifestyle had been brought down by those very things. In an attempt to rebuild and unite a newly freed nation, several architects, specializing in western modernism were brought in to give cities a major facelift. Chandigarh was one such city. Known for its organized urbanscapes and uniformity in its overall theme and style, it represents what a lot of people consider a utopia. New brutalist buildings arose and the city was divided into sectors, governed by a grid-iron plan. In stark contrast to the traditional styles India offers, Le-Corbusier brought in global styles and superimposed it into India’s architectural fabric. Yet, such an approach has been unable to avoid criticism from even his staunchest followers including, Pritzker Prize winner, B.V.Doshi. Doshi, who had trained under Le-Corbusier for several years before beginning his practice, regarded him as a mentor to the highest degree, incorporating several principles of his into his own work. He did, however, acknowledge that Corbusier’s urban planning strategies did not, in this case, organically arise from its local environment.
In comparing cities like Chandigarh and old Madurai, home to the famous Meenakshi temple, one can see just how different urban planning was. While Madurai followed a unique pattern for its streets, designed to function around the temple, its focal attraction, Chandigarh followed a strict, organized rectangular layout. Even contemporaries like Delhi or Mumbai bore very few similarities; gone were the busy little chowks, alleyways, and houses neatly packed together. It was new, different, and fit the brief. But while critics rail on about how such a layout was not suitable for the social, lifestyle, and climatic requirements of Indian citizens- creating a more impersonal, gentrified society—it was certainly not unprecedented.
It is interesting to note that while historians and architects find beauty in the ordered chaos of India’s cities, more rigid, organized concepts like the grid-iron planning system (like Corbusier’s) was not novel to the nation. Dating back to the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, such a planning system and urban hierarchy was one of ancient India’s best accomplishments but is often lost within the intricacies of the maze-like temple towns and that of Medieval India. Decades of changing urban styles have relegated the Indus Valley Civilization’s important achievements to the status of mere accolades- appreciated and lauded but not seen as a direct link to cities like Chandigarh. Although India’s streets and buildings are indeed unique in their organic growth, when first conceived it was done so deliberately. But if one is to believe that constant evolution is the key to the future, did Chandigarh just go back in time? Or was the Indus Valley Civilization, too ahead of its own?
The debate between modernism and traditionalism, especially in nations like India, where history and culture are extensively rich, is not only expected but also very sensitive. In some cases, modernism can be seen as anti-national, but such angles do nothing to improve the current infrastructure. Both tradition and modernity play a key role in a growing, modern world.
The real dangers lie in baseless imitation. Modern architecture may be different from a region’s traditional planning and architecture but the best way it can find relevance there is to incorporate and adapt. Modern architecture is in no way confined to jarring angles or extravagant curves or high-end technological advancements. Sometimes it’s just a matter of reinventing or upcycling.
Although neither of the two above mentioned examples can give a black and white answer as to whether modern architecture is a boon or a bane, it clearly shows that ‘modernity’ is a rapidly changing idea. Modernism is mostly just a misunderstood term. It’s not a blanket statement for everything new or non-traditional. What is considered modern today may not be considered modern tomorrow but become new traditions instead. Suspended between two styles that seem a direct contradiction to each other, one can only get comfortable, for neither is going away anytime soon.