A couple of days back amidst some hulabo, the Hall of Nations was demolished. Of all things, it brought to the forefront some very bare facts – one of which is – Architects, you really don’t not matter. And, after you hand over your drawing – You or your intellectual contribution or your involvement in deciding the future of your creation – nothing matters. Infact, it’s even better if you are the meek, uninvolved, compliant and be willing to do it for free. Because at the end of the day, your “good” has been purchased for a bargained price and that by the way is your market-value. And before you think of even rebelling, hush – don’t question because that’s not good for your career ….
Let’s just see where the down-turn begun. If Civil Engineering is Adam, Architecture is Eve, quite literally born out of his (the gendered connotation is intended) ribs. (Okay, here`s one thing – don’t even go down the roads of shashtras and sutras and temple architecture and what not – most architects understand little of it beyond the Fletchers, Browns, Grover`s and may be a few others – save it. So going back to the story of Paradise …. ). As generally perceived in Indian sub-continent, the job quite literally was the beautification or drawing the designs of Civil Engineers. So basically, structure was the real thing while all that architects did was design and beautify. By mid 20th century CE, few lucky architects went off-shore and imported the industrial architecture of early 20th cent CE. The Fordist Flame hit India in its wake of freedom and lo behold, we had ‘modern architecture’ (what an oxymoron) and a seeming happy marriage of designers with technologists. By the way, the Hall of Nations is, oh sorry, was the genuine celebration of formation of a nation, a statement of Indian industrialization and in a way nationalistic sentiment – but then who cares, it’s inconvenient.
Okay back to architecture. Between mid 20th century till date, save a handful of structures (that too from architects who have either studied in foreign universities or are foreign practitioners), the bulk of projects for architects in India are housing (and more housing) and some office buildings. While many become backend working-hands, exceptionally few have the opportunity to struggle and break-even so much as to stand tall, command deserving fees and execute their designs (oh yes, you people take a bullet for all). You`d really need a super-dooper eagle eye to find them. Unfortunately, it is the former and not the latter who define the ‘image and worth’ of an architect in curating our living environment.
Yes quite literally curate because our physical environment is the context that determines human development and vice-versa. It is the frame of reference that shapes physical and mental self, its health, capacities and is the embodiment of collective value-system, priorities and quality of life of its bearers. The connection with the living environment runs even deeper than acknowledged. From brainwave to homoeostasis to health of vital parameters, consolidation and reconsolidation of memories, cognitive map, mental capital, ability to build association, communicate are but very few of the aspects that are affected by the properties (scale, colour, types of material, quality and quantity of green, pollution level, crowd, layout, illumination – you name it) of the immediate environment. The complexity and intricacy further deepens if one considers a quantum approach – i.e. every bit of our body and mind reacts with every particle that exists in our environment. In Edward Hall`s Hidden Dimensions, Jan Gehl`s Cities for People, works of Juhani Pallasma and other disciplines like neuropsychology, cognitive science, culture studies, evolutionary scientists etc show how human and their living environment continue to co-evolve. And if the work of Nishbett and others be considered, then it is critical to assess our impact on our cities because Asians are ‘bound’ to their context. .
So what does it have to do with the Hall of Nations and architect’s education or practice. To begin with, let’s understand that that andraegogy or any industry-dependent professional education needs recognition of the profession and its outputs. Without this validation, there is little motivation among professionals to invest oneself in improving skills to even continuing with one`s craft. Another fact is the ‘power of transference’ i.e. the tendency of people to follow distinguished ones to feel powerful (through ratification). For the growth and continuity of good quality architecture and professionals, it is indispensible for power (combination of society and governance) to validate its presence by appreciating its contribution.
The Hall of Nations which apart from its inherent symbolism, demonstrated an adapted International Style, the ability to combine and manipulate industrial materials and is also the work of a highly respected architect who has defined Indian architecture. Its demolition against a nationwide plea just meant that there is little worth that power sees in the works of distinguished Indian professionals. It also sent a clear message that development has no space for heritage (oh, by the way, heritage is not old, decrepit, ruinous and redundant. It is simply indicative of value(s) with ability to explain human history). Or efforts towards enabling co-existence of new and old are futile – so just euthanize the old. It also indicates that our understanding of investment is quite short-lived so its unthinkable to reuse and regenerative and do away with the fanatical renewal through redevelopment approach (yes, do a simple Cost-Benefit Analysis and compare the long term benefits of regeneration over renewal).
So apart from killing a million opportunities and potentials, to add insult to injury, there is a demand for branded ‘industry-ready’ professional (or whatever it means) for an industry of little recognition. So it leaves the students (who by the way a neat sum of money to fancy colleges for 5 years if not more.) – actually nowhere, because this profession is all about the continual existence of creations. So the demolition sent another message loud and clear – it’s a profession that no one values, it produces things that no one cares and its life is as short as the commitment of the land-owning authority.
And last but not the least, globally a red flag just got sent. On one hand, India had just started making some progress in inscribing modern heritage to the UNESCO`s World Heritage List (tourism, anyone?). After this, it will take some convincing to convey that the nation values all categories of heritage and will manage development to ensure its protection. Good luck with that!
There are two things that I refuse to indulge in – one, what if the new design is really good. Good or not, it could have been better to vet options and best to choose a design that innovatively integrated the Hall of Nations into the new design. Second, let’s not bore each other over political vendetta or conspiracy theories – because nothing stopped the new designers to incorporate the Hall of Nations in their design.
Author- Somi Chatterjee