Navigation – Plan du site
Comptes rendus de lectures

Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava, India

London Reaktion Books, 2016 (Modern Architectures in History)
Iain Jackson
Référence(s) :

Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava, India, London Reaktion Books, 2016 (Modern Architectures in History).

Texte intégral

1India, Modern Architectures in History by Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava is a deceptively small publication, but its petite frame belies the range and depth of coverage. The task of writing a history for such a vast geographical territory multiplied across a 150-year time frame represents a huge undertaking, one that the authors have spent over three decades bringing to fruition. I was concerned that this kind of book would be fraught with the temptation to glibly leap from epoch to epoch, and from state to state, coupled with all the dangers and monotony that a chronological survey entails. But I need not have worried.

2The introduction begins with Chandigarh. This in many ways sets the tone of the book, using the infamous modernist city as a fulcrum about which the colonial and post-colonial eras can be measured and contemplated. Chandigarh is frequently portrayed as the very moment modernity came to India, a kind of metaphorical manifestation of a new beginning. This premise is firmly challenged, and not unsurprisingly in light of Scriver’s previous work, the book treats the formal establishment of the Public Works Department (PWD) in 1855 as the means through which the vectors of modernity were slowly established. We are given a rundown of the major projects including irrigation installations, railway networks, hospitals, prisons, and early housing schemes, illustrated by some wonderful drawings. The architectural ambition was certainly functional, and as Scriver and Srivastava note, barely considered until the twentieth century. Instead the works took on a utilitarian, if not dour and monotonous approach to health transport and law and order projects. Moving into the twentieth century, Edwin Lutyen’s New Delhi plan is quickly discussed (almost as if the authors wanted to get it out of the way), and it provides the backdrop for a detailed study of Rabindranath Tagore’s Surendranath and Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram. It is a tactic readily deployed throughout the publication, that of using familiar and well-documented projects as the counter points for schemes that have been overlooked previously.

3There is a fervour in conveying not so much a different story of Indian architecture, but rather a parallel interwoven narrative to what has gone before, one that both challenges and nourishes it. The pace of Chapter 2 (covering 19011947) is at full pelt, a densely packed romp smashing through the “Stones of the Raj before picking up on the many overlooked contributions made by Indian architects, such as Sohrabji Bhedwar and G. B. Mhatre, where the formal qualities of Bombay’s exquisite Art Deco works are indulged.

4The complexity of the narrative is embraced, and covers the architectural education system alongside the continued presence of foreign architects working in India. There is a wonderful extended discussion on the Delhi Improvement Trust and on two of the leading PWD architects, G. B Deolalikar and Habib Rahman. The authors use these characters as a bridge between the colonial period and the post-colonial era that followed Independence in 1947. There was, of course, a certain continuity that persisted from one period to the next, and despite the monumental potential for change it was somewhat mediated by the inertia of convention. It was the likes of Rahman who was able to overcome this apathy; his prolific output ranged from the Gandhi Ghat at Bankipore through to the monumental New Secretariat in Calcutta, a building that in many ways was more significant than Chandigarh’s Sector-1 buildings that overshadowed it, both in the architectural press and subsequent histories.

5Perhaps unavoidably, the polarized positions of Nehru and Gandhi are presented, and politics features heavily throughout the second half of the book, almost to the point that the architectural output is background. The political context is important if one is to understand the changes in India, but I wonder if this was overplayed, as well as being too centralist and not picking up on the regional, often extreme, politics. Furthermore, the notion of limiting architectural history within national boundaries remained unquestionedsurely the discussions in this book venture beyond the thresholds of India, even if this does upset the publisher’s ambitions for a neat series arranged around nation states.

6Yet putting this to one side, the debate around national style, modernity and regionalism is carefully construed. Again this is spread over two chapters to heighten the sense of flux. Here there is a fresh discussion of Charles Correa’s early work, and of the transformation of Ahmedabad into a locus for a distinctive and carefully crafted modernism in brick, as well as, in situ concrete as found at Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Institute of Indology, by B. V. Doshi. Moving back to Delhi other remarkable brutalist works by J. K. Chowdhury, S. Prasad and Rajinder Kumar are considered as part of the debate around imported Western modernism and the nationalist quest for an Indian architecture. There was a complex tension surrounding these works with the architects adopting a straight Corbusian-Chandigarh lexicon; demonstrating mastery through mimicry (i.e. doing Corbusier better than Corbusier); or searching for a new formal syntax and breaking free from all such associations. Others such as foreigners Laurie Baker, and Joseph Stein with his reinterpretation of jali screens and climatic sensitivities, pursued a more “contextual path. Shared through the newly established Indian print media these factors were absorbed into the fertile setting of Ahmedabad which continued to be a place of outstanding commissions (many related to education, such as the CEPT University). The book’s pace is maintained, with each page densely packed with anecdotes, obscure archival sources, field work discoveries and photographs. The level of detail is astonishing, and it is a good read, despite the long sentences and excessive use of so-called placed before nouns that the authors’ don’t happen to like.

7The 1960s1970s included some truly wonderful buildings in India, not least Correa’s Kanchanjunga apartments and Doshi’s Premabhai Hall. Perhaps these two projects best sum up the architectural quests of that timenamely how to tackle housing across the entire social spectrum (from site and services through to high-rise luxury) and how to develop an architecture that is capable of offering a culturally appropriate response to identity and nationhood. There is the inevitable pandering to the affected city of Auroville, but of far more interest is Raj Rewal’s stacked State Trading Corporation and the ruin-like housing at Malviya Nagar by Kuldip Singh. It is a joy to see these and so many other projects being discussed and carefully positioned within the broader cultural and political landscapes.

8As one moves closer to the present the task becomes more difficult; which buildings to include, and what is considered noteworthy? The authors’ were aware of this, treading carefully amongst the plethora of projects that are calling out for attention and discerning the gloss from those that really had something to say.

9I expected this book to have failedthe task was too big, the existing survey work by the likes of Sarbjit and Surinder Bahga, Miki and Madhavi Desai and Jon Lang had surely covered this material, and city-specific works by theoretical heavyweights Swatti Chattopadhyay and Vikram Prakash had picked up the regional highlightsI’m pleased to say I was wrong. The book validates the decision to take a broad historical overview whilst also piercing to great depths at particular points. It also reminds us that architecture is more than a farcical progression or importation of “style” and is far more indebted to the economic-political scenario than we would care to admit. As we take on the task of teaching a so-called global history of architecture, we urgently need more books of this caliber for the architecture of the global south.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Iain Jackson, « Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava, India », ABE Journal [En ligne], 11 | 2017, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2017, consulté le 22 octobre 2017. URL : http://abe.revues.org/3590

Haut de page

Auteur

Iain Jackson

Professor, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo INHA
  • Logo CNRS – Institut des sciences humaines et sociales
  • Logo In Visu
  • Revues.org