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India - Critical Regionalism

21 Feb 2017

Kenneth Frampton coined the phrase Critical Regionalism in an essay in 1983. Very simply it attempted to place modernist architectural thinking in its context.  It is therefore critical of the International Style that sought to define a set of rules for architecture, rather than Modernism per se.

I was reminded of these thoughts recently as I spent some time in India visiting the cities of Delhi, Chandigarh, Agra, Jaipur and Ahmedabad. There is an abundance of traditional architecture in India that probably reached its pinnacle in the Mogul period with buildings such as the Amber Fort and the Taj Mahal. The British expanded Delhi to create the new Capital in the 1930s with a geometric and rather suburban masterplan developed by Lutyens. After the partition in 1947 India embraced international modernism with Le Corbusier at Chandigarh and Kahn at Ahmedabad. 

Whilst Le Corbusier and Kahn both responded to the context, understanding issues such as shading, passive ventilation, appropriate use of materials and landscape, it is perhaps the generation that followed them, and indeed often worked with them, that have finessed a modern regional architectural language. Architects such as B.V. Doshi, Bimal Patel and Rahul Mehrotra are well worth investigating.

Much contemporary Indian architecture has little to do with where it is and much to do with what it aspires to be. It adopts a global style, aiming to be sophisticated, and modern in a way that the west is beginning to reject. A reliance on technology to light and condition space, and cars to get to it, is creating unpleasant urban environments that seem to emphasise the disparity between the have-lots and the have-nothings in Indian society. 

I saw a lot of Twentieth Century architecture that respected the tenets of critical regionalism. Even Lutyens in New Delhi worked with orientation, shading, and natural cooling with his immense Viceroys House. Its gardens and processional quality draw inspiration from the Mughal architecture of the 17th century. He even developed a capital for his colonnades, The Delhi Order integrated temple bells into the form.

India - Critical Regionalism
Lutyen's Plan for New Delhi
India - Critical Regionalism
Chandigarh plan - Le Corbusier

New Delhi’s grand scale administrative plan with low rise houses for the civil servants and ministers is re-worked 30 years later in Chandigarh by Pierre Jeanneret and Le Corbusier. The set piece of administrative buildings around a huge public space is clearly modern in its thinking but like New Delhi it reinforces the hierarchical nature of the Indian State. With the exception of the museums and the Tower of Shadows, these are no longer open democratic buildings.

India - Critical Regionalism
Rajpath, Royal Avenue, New Delhi - Lutyens
India - Critical Regionalism
Chandigarh High Court, Le Corbusier

However Le Corbusier and Jeanneret had clearly understood the limitations of the local building industry and developed an architectural language that expressed the process with ‘beton brut’. The deeply modelled elevations provide shade and the roof forms manipulate the air to provide cooling.

India - Critical Regionalism
The Tower of the Shadows, Chandigarh - Le Corbusier
India - Critical Regionalism
Chandigarh High Court, Le Corbusier

Louis Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad is a campus of buildings that integrate landscape with a simple palette of brick and concrete and open covered walkways. To stroll between classrooms through the walkways and spaces in the shadow of the strong architectural forms is a delight.

The recent extension to the school by Bimal Patel uses the same scale and respects Kahn’s master plan, these buildings are built with fair faced concrete which feels a little soulless in comparison with the red brick of Kahn.

India - Critical Regionalism
Indian Institute of Managment
India - Critical Regionalism
Indian Institute of Managment
India - Critical Regionalism
Indian Institute of Managment

At CEPT (Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology) we see how Doshi has used his time working with Kahn to develop a campus of buildings that sit comfortably in their place and climate.  

India - Critical Regionalism
CEPT (Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology)

The red brick and concrete forms demonstrate that Kahn had created an architecture for Ahmedabad that could be continued by others, Rahul Mehrotra’s nearly completed Library on campus is another good example.

India - Critical Regionalism
CEPT(Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology) Library

This style is also explored in a low rise housing scheme by Bimal Patel called Rambaug, a colony of houses and shared facilities on the edge of the city that includes the architects remarkable own house.

India - Critical Regionalism
Bimel Patel's house

Ahmedabad was an important cotton and fabric centre and the mill owners became very wealthy off the back of this, so wealthy that they could commission their own building from Le Corbusier. Completed in 1953 it is a masterpiece, reworking all of the lessons learned from Chandigarh to produce what many consider to be one of his finest works.

India - Critical Regionalism
Mill Owners' Association Building - Le Corbusier
India - Critical Regionalism
Mill Owners' Association Building, interior - Le Corbusier

Frampton’s essay was written as post modernism was in vogue, today the debate between the classicists and modernists still smoulders on in the UK. It is refreshing to see how India has shown that good modern buildings that respond to the physical, historical and environmental aspects of context can produce a new and entirely appropriate architecture.

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