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The 'new' in Indian architecture

March 29, 2008 12:33 IST

Is there an architectural style that you can identify as 'contemporary Indian'? Jagan Shah, architect and historian, feels there is and picks on 20 mid-career architects -- he calls them the 'new moderns' -- for an exposition of the 'contemporary Indian' (Contemporary Indian Architecture, Roli).

So what is the 'contemporary Indian'? No, it's not an architectural style that merely tacks on 'Indian' motifs or symbols to the structure, or mimics vernacular architecture. No, in a globalised world, an architect can't simply get by on national identity.

What ties together the architects Shah picks on are 'multidisciplinary insights' and a widening of respective agendas to include concerns about climate, ecology and gender. It is through the description of structures by them that he comes to a definition of the 'contemporary Indian'.

Shah refers to two other vital issues which have had an impact on 'creative' expression -- the diminishing role of the state in commissioning public buildings, and the fact that with globalisation, architects are concentrating on delivery schedules, quality, detailing, engineering and programming skill.

Here's a look at some of the architects whose works he holds up:

Walls have eyes

Auroville-based Anupama Kundoo is first on the list and it is her own residence that Shah holds up as an example of the 'contemporary Indian', identifying it in her attention to three areas: "Eco-friendly building materials, alternative technology, and an architecture that is energy-efficient and climate-responsive".

Called "The Wall House", Kundoo's house is only 2.2 metres wide, made of exposed brick that's scaled down to the smaller proportions of the local achakal brick.

It's most distinctive feature is a two-storey-high vaulted verandah at the entrance, made of interlocking clay tubes, which is not just cheap, it is also great for insulation. Energy and costs have been further lowered by the use of solid stone and recycled wood.

Modern temples

Starkness of form ties in Kundoo with Bimal Patel. And Shah picks on three structures by the Ahmedabad-based architect, the most distinctive being the container terminals operations centre in Chennai.

A solid block oriented in east-west, the entire south facade of the building is a plain, blank wall, the north being entirely of glass, looking out over the containers stacked far into the distance.

This does not just reduce the energy consumption, the blank wall also provides a space for a mural by Water D'Souza -- a motif that fuses the industrial with the spires of south Indian temples.

See through

In this line-up of architects, Kapil Gupta and Christopher Lee are probably the most 'international'. Shah picks on three of their much-acclaimed structures, including the Jeweltech factory.

From the outside the building looks like a solid square monolith, encased in glass. Inside, it is like a panopticon with a glass 'canyon', a reworking of the traditional Indian courtyard, running through the entire height of the building. It serves as a surveillance devise and also divides the factory floor and administrative sections.

Local touches

Shah holds up Rahul Mehrotra's design for the TISS campus at Tuljapur as an example of how a structure can be traditional and native to a place and also incorporate modern needs.

The campus is an undulating, low structure made of local stone. Full of open spaces -- courtyards and terraces -- it fulfils the need for interactive spaces and also provides relief from the hot and humid climate.

Gargi Gupta in New Delhi
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