Looking for Answers: Modern Indian Architecture


A discussion on what course Modern Indian Architecture must possibly take. Because Tradition and Modernity might not even be rivals at all.

Modernity has meant differently to different architects throughout history. For Sullivan, it was marked by a definitive jump in height and material alone. When it came to Corbusier, it had to do with five points that revolutionized the idea of simplicity. For Johnson, it was the notion of transparency, nothing to hide, that spelled modernity.

That these architects were reforming modernism in a land that was vastly different from the Indian subcontinent is known. India has been called the cradle of civilization. It has been the birthplace of three most widely followed religions. In itself, it is an epitome of diversity, and rightfully so to this very day.

Modern Indian Architecture: Why to leave anything behind?

Considering each of these religions, cultures, languages, geographical and climatic disparities are still relevant today, there remains no room for doubting the continuing relevance of traditional architectural elements.

In short, modern Indian architecture can probably not be defined perfectly without a continued tryst with timelessness. So, is there no place for modernity in India? There is.

Modernity must be perceived in the Indian as well as global context under three broad heads, if not more. These are technological innovations, governance and socioeconomics. Countries that redefined their architecture in terms of ‘modernity’ did it in the face of such major changes. The same holds for India. Culture, and architecture under it, merely engulfs all the above and also their repercussions on society. 

Understanding the ‘Modern’ in India

India is home to some of the world’s leading institutions, most talented individuals and upcoming enterprises. The architectural language of such a tradition certainly has to match up to global standards of modernity. 

Architect Rahul Mehrotra, in his book Architecture in India Since 1990, has talked about four ways of interpreting India’s modern architecture prevalent among architects today. The first category he talks about is that of absorption of global practices in the Indian mainstream. A visit to any Indian metropolis speaks of the saga of large glazed campuses of steel or concrete. 

Architecture in India Since 1990, by Rahul Mehrotra

Yes, some kinds of construction are more suited in terms of functional efficiency and costs for certain building typologies. Yet, one cannot deny the lack of identity such chunks of steel and concrete bear. One in Mumbai and another in Delhi, bearing no major differences other than the address plate. This only signifies the lack of context these buildings carry. 

A Walk Down the Lane

Peeping back into the past again, one finds brilliant examples of local architecture. These were born out of the amalgamation of climate, culture and context. The Baolis of Delhi and the Dochala roof of Bengal bear striking dissimilarities. Yet, they had been constructed simultaneously by a similar class – rulers. Centuries hence, India has seen a manifold increase in complexity of division of labour. Yet, the three Cs – climate, culture, context – hold as much significance. 

The Pearl Academy of Fashion in Jaipur by Morphogenesis Architects, speaks the language of modernity as we call it. Yet, it does so without losing the timeless touch of traditionalist elements. Using features responsive to the local climate and history, it offers aesthetic continuity. IIM Ahmedabad, by Louis I Kahn is a world-class institute imparting education at par with global universities. Yet , it remains rooted deeply in Indian materials, shapes and spaces. India Habitat Centre, an organization that steers towards a challenge the entire world is facing today – that of environment and habitat – is an oasis that speaks of serene, modern Indian-ness in Stein’s vocabulary. 

Where do we Stand?

The entire world, including India, faces multiple challenges today. This encompasses environmental concerns, cultural clashes, professional upheavals and political agendas alike. Whether the world sees it or not, architecture is and has always been impacted by these challenges. 

Architecture is not merely about buildings and materials and technology.

Seated deep within, and probably much more important, is the expression of architecture which matters. This expression, as we have seen from examples of the past and present earlier, is a composite product of everything that is happening around us. It is an expression of MODERNITY and not modernity in itself. 

The moment we understand this indirect relationship between tradition/modernity and architecture, things become clearer. Why one and not the other is not the right approach to architecture, especially Indian, speaks out loud. Yes, traditions have evolved and they will continue to. However, at the same point in time, both tradition and modernity exist together, in evolved, advanced forms. 

Shoulder to Shoulder, Hand in Hand

It is this point in time that modern Indian architecture must address. Some might prefer to pick a point in the future to address their building’s expression, some might prefer the past. 

A museum might want you to step back in time, a space station in the future. This poses an architectural challenge for sure, but architects have excelled at it over time. It is the balance of tradition and modernity that matters. Embracing one does not mean having to do away with the other. 

Modern Indian Architecture
Modern Indian Architecture: Expression or Impression?

Final Words

‘Learning from the past’ is a piece of advice that we have heard quite often. Architectural schools impart education on the history of architecture over an expansive stretch of multiple semesters. The purpose is not just that of awareness or absorbing stories, but also to assess Indian traditions concerning the three Cs highlighted above. Culture breeds tradition, and traditions change. Modernity is also a tradition which is sure to evolve over the next few years into something entirely different from how we perceive it today. 

The responsibility of an Indian architect today is to bridge the gap that exists in the perception between tradition and modernity and create spaces that are sustainable, responsible and composite. 

Sakshi Singh
Sakshi Singh

Sakshi is an Architect and Content Consultant, working towards bridging the gap between the AEC Industry and their need for strategic Digital Communications. She offers Content & Communications services for Architects, Designers and others in the Construction Industry as a freelancer.


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