Sunday, May 4, 2008


Under the stars vaulting the cooled Thar Desert I lay supine, just 100 kilometers from Pakistan and within spitting distance of my camel, losing my corporeality in the constellations above and remembering that it wasn’t my birthday anymore, not anywhere in the world and that one year had passed since the Rotch committee granted this opportunity for which I am infinitely grateful. The sky’s dome contained these thoughts and the calmness of the desert was broken only by the safari leader’s cell phone rattling digitized, trebly sitars over our camels’ low, slobbery air-filled mating calls.

The following day our crew of eight woke early, one by one, and with the benefit of a flat, expansive horizon, we watched the earth roll gently into the sun from atop our dune. A breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, toast and “mysterious nut butter” filled our stomachs, after which our camels staggered back into the heat and we returned to the city of Jaisalmer. Once an important stop along ancient camel trade routes connecting India with regions further west beyond the Arabian Sea, Jaisalmer is now an adventurous tourist destination for backpackers abroad. However, this business is both a blessing and a bane.

The city is camouflaged with desert sandstone hues, save for bright blue 50-gallon-drum-sized plumbing tanks floating above the majority of buildings. There is very little rainfall so residents siphon water from below and now the fort is sinking. That the fort will slowly merge with the landscape from a functioning piece of civilization to archaeological ruin seems an inevitable fate for Jaisalmer. Yet despite this, the outward appearance of the fort’s integrity remains convincing, particularly for enduring the desert sun and sandstorms for over 850 years. Thus, the Jaisalmer Fort combined with the surrounding havelis (heavily ornamented residences of former ministers or landlords) and an adventurous camel safari allows Jaisalmer the exotic tourist appeal associated with India. For me, it was just a quick stop on my three-week detour into the country.

Almost two weeks before the camel encounter, I first arrived Mumbai from Shanghai. At nine in the morning, my cab reeled through traffic in stifling air, from the airport to the neighborhood of Colaba at the southern tip of Mumbai’s islands. Mumbai’s black and yellow cabs buzz around the city like sixty thousand shiny worker bees among two-cycle autorickshaws (though not allowed downtown), delivery trucks, personal cars and bikes. Traffic laws are lax or non-existent and navigating through the city appears to be a free-for-all; take a look at the opening scene of Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited for an accurate portrayal of the frenzied autorickshaw (or taxi) journey through just about any town in India. Watch out for the sacred cow.

It’s estimated around 14 to 15 million people inhabit the city today, with well over half in poverty. Yet, like major South American cities visited, this aspect of the city is not always immediately apparent. The poorer neighborhoods hide primarily on the outskirts of the city, while the core retains the historical image of the city. Recounting the centuries of overlapping ruling parties of India and their influence on Mumbai is as much a dizzying effect as braving a cab. The country’s history spans from the Indus Valley Civilization, over the Mughal and British empires, and into the present day Republic of India, the global outsourcing hub. This complex historical fabric gives the culture a plurality, with each region, state and city possessing a completely unique identity.

At first glance there are two immediate architectural readings of central Mumbai: the buildings constructed before and during the British Raj, and those constructed through the chaotic intensity of contemporary development within the last couple of decades. The former is comprised of a wide variety of structures, especially in the Fort Area, from the Victorian Gothic Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station to the copious Art Deco theaters. Many of these buildings display a fusion of British imperial grandeur with Hindu and/or Indo-Islamic elements, resulting in architectural categorization of the Indo-Saracenic style. On the other hand, the latter vision of the city shares banalities with major developing South American cities visited – Mumbai too is a concrete jungle.

Yet while the Victorian aesthetic of Mumbai may serve as iconography for a formerly repressed India, its residual functionality is clearly an asset. The Oval Maidan, for example, offers a much-needed release from the city for cricket enthusiasts, local residents and tourists, despite its connection to the Raj. The northeastern edge is lined with clothing vendors and further south one can find the University of Mumbai as well as the High Court, both architecturally and culturally significant to India’s history. The highest concentration of art galleries in the country is nearby as are many Bollywood theaters. Recognizing the value of maintaining such a dynamic space, the Oval-Cooperage Residents Association (ORCA) took over the land in the mid 90s and is largely responsible for what might be the most popular public space in Mumbai. ORCA’s efforts were crucial in allowing the continued activation of this public space while simultaneously releasing it from a static and irrelevant symbol into an evolving resource – an important perceptual shift for any city.

However, Mumbai faces more issues with the preservation of not only public space in its physical state, but also as a shared concept between disparate portions of the population. As was similarly observed in South America, Mumbai appears to suffer from a continually increasing segregation of the population. And again with South America, neither architecture, nor urbanism is responsible such demographics, but neither are they employed to conduct experiments of overlapping programmatic conditions that could potentially lead to a cohesive, yet multifarious typology of public spaces. If these spaces do exist within the city – for example around various markets where cows, spices, electronics and all their consumers rub elbows – it is out of necessity or coincidence, not an attempt to maximize the benefits of complex public spaces.

Ten hours north of Mumbai, out of Maharashtra state and into Gujarat lies the sprawling, dusty city of Ahmedabad. Over five million people live and work here, but the overall scale is impossible to sense and you would never guess this is where Gandhi took the first steps toward the coast on his famous Salt March. It is a completely flat region and buildings are seldom beyond four or five stories tall which gives Ahmedabad a very different scale than Mumbai.

One deviation from the clamor of Ahmedabad’s cityscape is Louis Kahn’s India Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM), one of seven business schools under the same ownership and financing via the Government of India. Established in 1961, the university is recognized as one of the most important in India and today churns out MBAs for India’s well-known rapidly developing economy.

Escaping from the city into the campus, the noise, pollution and traffic of Ahmedabad are displaced by cathartic, firmly organized landscapes and meeting places between dormitories, administration and classrooms. These social spaces act as points of transition between interior and exterior, between the university’s different programmatic components. Kahn’s monumental geometries convey the austerity of the institution, but his applied sensitivity to scale, materiality and light return the experience to the individual. His intentions are further articulated in the execution of architectural details that form a broader logic recalling the underlying strategies of Islamic and Hindu architecture I observed during my time in other Indian cities.

It is specifically in the transition of structural elements that Indo-Islamic buildings, as with all Islamic architecture, find an element of their identity, with perhaps the foremost example being the squinch. As an architectural device for transitioning between the circular base of a dome, to polygon and concluding in orthagonal floor plan, the squinch is part of a system for connecting different architectural elements that define separate and/or overlapping spaces. Definition of space is thus influenced by a set of architectural rules, or logic and variations emerge depending on the lineage of craftsman and culture.

Employing variation within a minimal material palette, Kahn establishes his own basic architectural logic throughout the project for defining spatial and material transitions. Only a few brickwork patterns are utilized (Stretcher bonds, Flemish bonds and Header bonds) and concrete is used sparingly in the tension members at the base of arches and commonly for floor slabs. The construction and detailing between these materials evolve elements of historic Indian architecture, as is with the use of the many different arcades. These details, both the structural formations and material transitions, seem to embody an architectural language that provided Kahn his unique ability to shape space.

Though there is clearly a difference in appearance between Kahn’s modern resolutions of masonry construction at IIM and, for example, Sarkej Rosa, a collection of Islamic buildings outside the city (where I fractured my toe). However, a relationship between the two exists whereby both attempt to refine space through the logic of highly articulated geometries (though Islam indulging in more surface complexity) and deliberate expression of materiality. Perhaps then it is no surprise that I was told by a local professor in Ahmedabad that Sarkej Rosa was Kahn’s all-time favorite building.

Delhi, Agra & Chandigarh
Following Ahmedabad, I spent a single day in the indigo city of Jodhpur the Mehrangarh Fort that rises like a mushroom out of the desert. The same day I moved on to Jaisalmer and later ended up in Delhi. Around Delhi, I also visited the nearby cities of Agra and Chandigarh.

Agra possesses three major architectural relics: the legendary Taj Mahal, the once-impenetrable Agra Fort and the eclectic Fatehpur Sikri. Though the Taj is effectively the single most iconic building for India, all three are undoubtedly indispensable historical structures. Architecturally, the three building sites are actually composed of many separate buildings and together they project all of the qualities noted in the section about Ahmedabad, albeit through an array of functions, materials and construction. From the Taj’s white marble whose color reflects the passing of the day to the Fort’s overlapping Hindu and Islamic ornamentation, these buildings are an architectural account of the former Mughal Empire. All three still serve as inspiration for contemporary architects in the country.

Perhaps most interesting is the proximity of Agra to Delhi and Chandigarh despite their disparate representations of India. Sir Edwin Lutyen grafted the monumentality of the British Empire onto Delhi’s landscape in 1931. Yet, with much irony, the British left only 16 years later and the new Indian government occupied the same buildings. The British legacy halted immediately after independence, but was replaced, at least in one instance, with modernism’s vision of the future. After the division of India into what is today Pakistan and Bangladesh, also known as Partition, the state of Punjab necessitated a new capital city. Following American architect Albert Mayer’s proposal, Le Corbusier developed a new urban and architectural vision for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s post-Partition India. Chandigarh emerged as a supposed new progressive identity for the country. However, the urban and architectural vision of Chandigarh failed to take hold in other states.

Thus, India’s premier political chronology – Mughal Empire, British Empire and Republic of India – is accessible within a string of 450 kilometers. Missing is India’s advancement into the global network and subsequent adaptation of the ‘office park’ as the center of financial power. Though I never visited these new Indian cityscapes, the visions crafted by journalists such as Thomas Friedman as well as the stories provided to me by some foreigners living and working in India, I cannot imagine them dissimilar from their American counterparts. However, while critics remain cynical regarding the continual growth of such complexes in the United States, the perception of the banal steel-and-glass office box is still foreign, and stimulating. In search of a contemporary Indian architecture, one that addresses India's rich architectural history and simultaneously speaks of its new global position, one might remain lost. I'm reminded of a one-liner from Wes Anderson's script that might function as a sort of mantra in this context: “We haven’t located us yet”.

(for more photos of India, feel free to visit this link: