All the pillars of the
Parthenon are identical, while no two facets of the Indian temple are
the same; every convolution of every scroll is different. No two canopies
in the whole building are alike and every part exhibits a joyous exuberance
of fancy, scorning every mechanical restraint. All that is wild in human
faith and warm in human feeling is found portrayed on these walls, but
of pure intellect, there is little.
(J.Fergusson, A History
of Indian and Eastern Architecture, 1897)
would not be wrong to say that the craft of stone sculpting and masonry
occupies in Indian civilization, roughly the same centrality calligraphy
and painting occupies in the Chinese civilization, especially the Middle
Kingdom of the north. Our history and mythology is sprinkled with a
fair number of popular architects, sculptors and masons. Jakanacharya
the legendary architect of the Hoysala Empire in South India was a builder
of palaces and temples. So was the celestial Vishwakarma the builder
of the wax palace that the Pandavas were almost burnt in. Acharya, shilpi,
sthapathi, thatchan, kothanar are the various names that architect crafts
persons were referred to in India till as late as this century. I am
not aware of any systematic study that has looked into the demise of
this ancient and unbroken tradition. They were rapidly replaced first
by the "Department of Public Works" and then by the tradition
of Lutyens and Le Corbusier, both town planners and architects who have
left behind the two modern soulless cities of New Delhi and Chandigarh
for us. What are the essential differences between the meaning of architecture
for a sthapathi and for a Charles Correa today?
I pose this question polemically
in order to imply that the differences between these two traditions
is more important than continuities like vatsu, the new found fad of
our urban elite, or the theories of technology transfer with regard
to say, roofing systems or pre- fabricated building materials. Continuities
like these serve to obscure the worldview of the stapathi, and often
reduce it to a primitive and "ethnic" version of modern architecture.
There is an economy-mediated relationship between these two traditions,
which again does not interest me here. Titled variously as "housing
the poor ", "cost effective technology", and "alternative
architecture ", such nomenclatures and perspectives too write off
the worldview of the stapathi as anachronistic or defeated. In a country
like ours, where the idea of an architect as a service professional
is confined to a handful of cities and particularly in the commercial
and government sectors, it is important to ponder the social existence
of architectural traditions. I discuss below three aspects of this difference
between the two architectural traditions and conclude with a discussion
on the notion of waste. Waste in the 20th century has profound cultural
and psychosocial dimensions which most debates on environment, technology
and ecology miss. Waste management is to post industrial societies what
alchemy was to medieval Europe. The elusive alchemical search for gold
parallels the equally elusive search for perfect waste disposal. Our
notions of waste define our ways of life and our ways of life produce
our notions of waste.
The first thing that comes
to mind is the idea of scale. Rashtrapathi Bhavan, the residence of
the President of the modern Indian Republic, is unmatched in its scale
and vastness when compared with any palace or temple of ancient and
medieval India. Even the Viceroy of the Empire, who ruled over India,
Pakistan, Bangla Desh, Burma, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, did not occupy
the kind of building the President of a Third World Republic like India
occupies today. In the Contemporary scheme of things, the Viceroy's
former residence is thought to be adequate only to house the office
of a mere Vice Chancellor of an University. The World's biggest building,
the office of the Pentagon, has corridor spaces alone, which run close
to a 30 kilometers. This single building is the place of work for about
than 30000 people. It is this preponderance of such scale, which prompted
Lewis Mumford to coin the phrase " Human Scale". The Scale
of modern architecture is completely non-human or inhuman. Why is this
so? I think it is because the fundamental axiom of modern architecture
is the management of space. And in the Industrial world space is a function
of "real estate". And Real estate is by definition scarce.
It is not farm land, it is not a forest, it is not a valley, it is land
connected to electric power, piped drinking water and a system of under
ground sewage disposal. A land defined not by its location in nature
but in the economy. It is the land of the city. It represents a model
of life removed from the basic life sustaining activities of agriculture
and craft. It is the management, distribution, utilization of this space
that modern architecture is preoccupied with. Under these conditions
wealth and power acquire a meaning only by defying scarcity, a display
of wealth is simultaneously defiance. What Veblen called conspicuous
consumption is an act of negative agency. Scarcity makes its appearance
in Europe as a permanent feature of social life, begging to be theorized
upon, in the 18th century at the same time that mimetic desire is exalted
by economists like Adam Smith as the essence of human desire and the
source of a Nation's wealth (see Nicholas Xenos ). It was Adam Smith
who argued that envy is an engine of growth, so to speak. Marx and his
followers too haven't anywhere seriously disputed this formulation.
This vast and stupendous disparity between rich and poor, which singularly
marks modernity, is rather coyly described by Marxist economist Samir
Amin as the "degree of polarization" between classes. I suspect
what such disparity really means is that the conceptual and perceptual
limits to scale which existed in "pre scarcity" societies
in the form of anthropomorphism disappears in post scarcity societies.
Scale loses its human reference point, its location in the natural world
and becomes purely a function of technology. Along with this, scales
tends towards the spectacular with an objective of formal impression
(awe inspiring) and in one paradigmatic case at least, I mean Jeremy
Bentham's Panopticon here, scale tends towards the banality of surveillance.
In this sense the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal are of a human scale. Their
inspiration is neither the banality of mimetic desire nor of instrumental
technique. They were not built for presidents or kings. They were built
for the non-humans-- the dead. They are the affirmation of memory against
forgetting. They are monuments of memory, not of residence.
The second thing that comes
to mind is the idea of craft. Weaving, carving, calligraphy, sculpting,
farming, pottery and many other such human practices are age-old activities,
which we understand as craft. The industrial revolution wiped out these
life-giving activities completely. We have to just look at the association
of the word "crafty" in the English language to understand
this phenomenon. Life giving activities since the 18th century acquire
overtones of criminal and dishonest behavior. How were the crafts destroyed?
Two examples that Ivan Illich makes are illustrative. Contrary to common
belief that necessity is the mother of invention, invention demanded,
harnessed and engineered human nature and social practices to fit its
own needs with the help of the nation state. The "Factory Police"
of 18th century Germany would round up the new destitute displaced from
rural Germany and train them in the monotony of factory work by enforcing
repeated and monotonous actions of operating machines. The theory went
that the spirit and the body of these destitute had to be first broken
and then remolded to make a pliant and efficient labour force. In Lancashire
when the first cotton mills were established, the mill owners did not
have enough laborers to fill their factories with! The State and the
mill owners would round up potential workers by knocking on their homes
every day and even waking them up! People would go to sleep with a piece
of string tied to their toes and the end of the string would be left
hanging outside the window. The police and the mill owners would go
around tugging at this string in order to wake the man up! Craft unlike
industrial labour never had to be managed or engineered in this way.
Crafts are human activities whose utilitarian and aesthetic dimensions
are not split into two separate domains by economic considerations.
Building is also a craft. A kothanar is a Tamil stone mason. He is versed
in the craft of sculpting, masonry, geometry, astronomy, weather science,
arithmetic and accounting. A thatchan is a malayalee carpenter, the
first person to be consulted when a home or temple has to be built.
He is proficient in the knowledge of timber, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy,
soil stability and so on. It is in this sense that building was also
a craft like activity. It had a scholarly tradition, an apprenticing
practice, a sacred worldview, a life sustaining professionalism and
a human scale. Like other crafts, teaching is through practice, by observing
the master and acquiring an intimate knowledge of the materials involved.
This wasn't a stagnant tradition. There was plenty of innovation, experimentation
and professional communication. Modern architecture is far removed from
this dimension of its predecessor. It separates the knowledge of architecture
from the practice of building crafts. The loss of the craft nature of
architecture is most prominent in the industrialization of its raw materials.
The return to the practice of using local skills and local/natural materials
urged by architects like Laurie Baker and Hassan Fathy is a search to
reconstitute architecture as a craft.
The third point that one can make is the idea of regeneration. Now this
word, regeneration, is a curious one. It implies the giving of life
post facto. It acquires significance when generation itself is dislocated
and in crisis. Regeneration makes sense only as a strategy to counter
this crisis. It is by definition a self-conscious act, very dissimilar
to generation (not production). Marianne Gronmeyer points out how "helping"
as a simple direct act of recognition, is transformed into a strategy
in modernity. This is the context of our social life today where poverty
is an "illness" to be "eradicated" through macro
economic policies, legislation and micro executive procedures. But in
the popular imagination poverty is still a matter of basic necessities
which no amount of planning commissions, scientific planning, and white
papers have been able to deal with. I am reminded of Indira Gandhi's
populist slogan of Garibi Hatao in the 1970's. Garibi hatao, the removal
of poverty, is linked to another homily, that of roti kappada aur makkan.
Food, clothing and shelter, the basis of life for humans. There is a
strange hubris in the way that these necessities are denied to the poor
in an age of over production and consumption. Industrial life first
removes the production of all these three things from the daily life
of people. Then reconstitutes them as commodities packaged and sold,
the doublespeak for which is "value addition". So it is a
familiar irony where farmers with cows sell all their milk to National
Dairies and are undernourished themselves, where weavers clothe the
urban elite, while they themselves are dressed in rags or nylon fibre.
It is this economic organisation itself which is unprecedented and the
fundamental marker of modern production and consumption. That is why
many economists and ecologists talk of concepts like food miles (the
distance traveled by a food commodity like say butter, to reach our
dining table) and the cost (and politics) involved in maintaining such
long distance production and consumption of the most basic things in
life. They argue that when industrial production removes most people
away from the food production process, it is expensive and ecologically
unsustainable if we include in their cost, the infrastructure such distance
production depends on, roads, power lines, trucks, fossil fuel and so
Such a system of long distance production dramatically alters the notion
and experience of waste. It transforms waste into something permanent,
immortal and therefore into something which links anomic individuated
urban communities. Like death complements life, waste always complements
production. This is fundamental to the notion of generation and regeneration.
A regenerative cycle of production, consumption and waste is mostly
a closed one, which is sustainable, and not waste accumulative. An excellent
example is the traditional Indian mud pot, which is used to drink tea
and then smashed on the ground, returning it back to where it came from.
The trendy word is of course "bio-degrading" and "recycling".
While food and cloth production has to some extent eluded such attempts
to be non regenerative, housing has tended towards precisely such non-regeneration.
Modern architecture strives to be "maintenance proof ". Reinforced
cement, steel, glass, ceramic ware, plastic, synthetic fibre, all these
basic elements of the modern home are not biodegradable. They leave
behind enormous quantities of waste in their production process and
themselves become absolete and undisposable waste. In this search for
permanence, modern architecture has lost the capacity to be regenerative
and therefore ecologically sensitive. By encoding a technological immortality
into its practice, architecture emphasizes death over life, form over
utility, and the defiant over the sublime. The point that India requires
ten times the value of its GDP if it has to build simple concrete houses
for its homeless populations has been made both by the National Campaign
for Housing Rights and by the National Commission on Urbanization.
Yet regeneration has returned in postindustrial societies in a strange
way. Bill Gates the world's richest man lives in a cyber house. Blinds
adjust to allow the right amount of light, Air conditioners adjust to
maintain the correct level of temperature, music is piped in to complement
the tastes, moods and feelings of Mr Gates, paintings on LCD screens
morph into his favorite for the week or day, so on and so forth. In
a regenerative house on the other hand, the New Year would mean a time
to clean and lime render, marriages would mean a time to extend and
alter, childbirth would mean rearranging the uses of its spaces and
the monsoon would mean a time to repair and change worn elements. Regeneration
and change are essential to humans. The maintenance proof architecture,
which finds human intervention and regeneration anathema found its finest
expression in Nazi Architecture. Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and the
germ free spic and span Berlin railway station when it was first built,
are its finest expositions. Closer home, we have the well-known example
of the Calcutta metro.
In the mid eighties, the
real estate and building boom caught up with Cairo and other parts of
the third world. The story here is depressingly similar like any other
"developing" country. Foreign Aid and expatriate funds get
funneled into Infrastructure development. The Government sanctifies
it by making appropriate noises on housing shortage and housing crisis.
As a result millions are poured into Five star Hotels, government offices,
offices of International Banks, financial institutions and multinationals.
This boom spills over to the housing sector and millions of apartment
units get built. In a short cycle of Five to ten years, the bubble bursts,
real estate prices collapse and from Beijing to Cairo, national Capitals
and other Metros are left with thousands of half built or unoccupied
buildings. While almost half a million units are unoccupied or half-built
inside Cairo City, the northern suburbs in the desert that separates
the city from its airport, is home to a large slum. Any visitor to Cairo
will be struck by this sprawling ghetto dotted by close to a million,
square 8' X 8', structures which are simple walled units. These are
tombs purchased by the new middle classes of Cairo for their own burial.
Having "advance booked " their tomb, these new middle classes
need them to be taken care off. The solution the urban middle classes
find is to rent these tombs as shanty homes for the poor who make up
the working class of the city and ensure that the tomb remains vacant
for its legal owner. One man's tomb becomes another man's home. There
would be something poetic and human about it if it weren't for the absolute
squalor that pervades these "advance booked" tombs. A squalor
which only industrial/urban poverty can produce. An Orwellian scenario
where the poor literally live in tombs while the rich and the powerful
entomb themselves in real estate.
Taken together, this view of architecture as human and intimate, craft
like and local, regenerative and impermanent provides the only long
term and sustainable paradigm for homelessness and a relevant aesthetic.
It is the only promise for a livable home. Compare the Taj Mahal with
the Washington memorial. The latter is first of all valuable real estate,
it is also pure symbolism, lacking any detail and craft, a single stone
monolith designed to communicate the formal impression of awe, I spoke
of earlier. The Taj Mahal on the other hand is an ode to love. Superb
in its craftsmanship and detail it speaks of a way of life which recalls
Ferguson's notion of "all that is wild in human faith ". It
is a monument for the struggle of memory against forgetting. It is an
oxymoron to call it a tomb. The Rashtrapathi Bhavan is a tomb and so
is the pentagon building. In the cities of the late 20th century, the
living work in tombs and the dead are remembered by getting entombed
as real estate.
This paper owes a lot to my colleagues at the Centre for Informal Education
and Developmental Studies, Bangalore, and I hope they recognise their
ideas when contextualised in a discussion on architecture. Apart from
them, Ashis Nandy and Shiv Vishwanathan at the Centre for the Study
of Developing Societies, New Delhi, have also contributed to my understanding
of lost worlds and defeated ideas in ways, I hope they recognise. It
is to T.G.Vaidyanathan that I owe the discovery of Fergusson's comparison
between the Parthenon and the Temples of Belur and Halebid
1. Ivan Illich,
Shadow Work, Marion Boyars, Boston, 1981.
2. Nicholas Xenos Modernity and Scarcity, Oxford University Press, New
3. Marianne Gronmeyer, Helping, in, Development Dictionary, A guide
to Knowledge as Power, Ed. Wolfgang Sachs, Orient Longman, New Delhi,
4. Samir Amin, For a Progressive and Democratic New World Order, Paper
presented at the International Conference on Colonialism and Globalisation:
Five Centuries after Vasco Da Gama, New Delhi, 1998.