Voicing Architects

Book: ARCHITECTURAL VOICES OF INDIA: A Blend of Contemporary and Traditional Ethos – a collection of interviews by Ar. Apurva Bose Dutta.

Review by Professor Sathya Prakash Varanashi

During the recent times, there have been few books and many published articles that cover the design developments in the architecture of India. To that list, an addition with a different approach is “Architectural Voices of India” – possibly the first time ever collection of interviews of 19 architects from India representing different generations. Conducted and edited by Ar. Apurva Bose Dutta, this new publication offers a kaleidoscopic overview of post-independence architecture of India and a nearer view into the last three decades.

To present the idea of architecture in a country, there can be a compilation of projects and analysis by an author, which makes it direct for the reader. The tougher method can be to interview architects, collate their essential thoughts and supplement with few project photos, enabling the readers to interpret the ideas in their own way.

Interviews can also be direct, and you sense it in the following quotes of the architects. When Raj Rewal says, “I do try and base my designs on all climatic concerns. I have always believed that there are certain core values in architecture – space, structure and light”, we can actually experience them in his projects. Or when Hafeez Contractor admits, “Architecture for me is not only about making buildings – the primary endeavour may be to build, but the thing of foremost importance is to provide service and make a difference. I design buildings for my clients in accordance with their needs and conditions, and these are the factors that govern my timelines and budgets”. It is a statement that his buildings too, endorse!

9781443891400However, the statements of not all architects have been conveyed so simply and so directly. If Parul Zaveri and Nimish Patel believe that the strength of architecture of India was in its visionary thinking and holistic sustainability, it needs substantiation. They might have infused such strengths in their project of the Oberoi Udaivilas at Udaipur, yet both the statement and the project can have layered meanings to different architects. Sanjay Puri thinks the speed of thought comes from the exposure itself, which can be agreed upon, but his unique style is missing in the humble Courtyard House in Rajasthan which he shortlists as his turning point. Here again, the reader needs to make an effort to go beyond his words, and discover what has been left unsaid.

The possibility of such multiple readings is both the strength and weakness of the interview format. Typically, interviews are not easy to read, especially if transcribed verbatim, a danger Apurva has avoided. She has restructured the possibly loose dialogue in an easy-to-comprehend text, without diluting the intents of the interviewed; hence the book rises above the limitations of mere interviews.

The long interviews throw up range of positions, such as the philosophical ones, “Architecture is an elemental thread that unites all people everywhere” (Christopher Benninger) or Balkrishna Doshi’s perception of architecture, “as a part of us, like an extension of our body within which we live”. Then there are classical definitions too, such as, “Architecture is not about spectacular or glamorous work, this profession imbibes values of serenity and quality, that is virtuous and spiritual in nature” (Shiv Datt Sharma).

By saying that the “principles of architecture remain timeless”, Jasbir Sawhney also states a philosophy, wherein C.N. Raghavendran’s statement raises a desire as well as a question when he comments, “Architects can and must be the agents of change. But, does the profession get the trust, respect and recognition from the society?” His Anna Centenary Library in Chennai appears to have got it, though.

Selected projects compliment the text for each architect, so one can relate the Sai Spiritual Centre by Sanjay Mohe to his statement, “In our traditional buildings, a lot of importance is given to the main door, which marks the transition from outside to inside”. Few architects such as Kamal Malik have revealed the source of their design ideas saying that “every city, every site and every project speaks differently to him”. So have Sonali and Manit Rastogi, who opine “Morphogenesis sees itself as an institution in perpetuity – a thriving eco-system of data, information, knowledge, and wisdom”.

The book does not read like a compilation of short stories, where each can be different from the other, but has a common thread running through all the interviews, connecting them under the themes – inspirations; ideologies; architecture in India; global architecture; architecture education; architecture in changing times; building emotional ties; flash forward; my family and, finally, the project that redefined architecture for the interviewee.

This helps in identifying common ground among architects. Hence, when Ravindra Bhan identifies the crucial importance to understand the symbiotic relationship between the surroundings and the built form that is suitable and sustainable, he is echoing with Karan Grover who says, “I strongly believe that heritage and culture are the roots promoters of sustainable buildings because they validate how our older buildings have remained meaningful for the past 2000 years”.

Prem Nath who believes in ‘continuing to learn from our past, and, at the same time remain in sync with the new technology’, appears to agree with Sandeep Khosla, who says, “If glass is used appropriately, then it is a wonderful material. The basic values or issues in architecture remain the same, whether you are doing a hospital or a school”. Of course, these few quotes do not mean everyone agrees with each other, for there are many diverse voices, often countering each other.

Apurva had a reason to venture into this act of interviewing, as could be gleaned from her own introduction and conclusion. She writes, “Architecture as profession has undergone major transformation in India. These interviews reflect an honest appraisal of the state of Indian architecture today. With time, architecture as a profession has become so collaborative that it can imply two things – either the architect loses control over his own building, or he becomes the regulator of all the collaborators.”

Rightly so, Doshi is aware of this transformation and is very critical when he says there is very little architecture happening here in India that he can call path-breaking or unique. His statement, “This practise of building to satisfy the client who pays, is prevalent” could not have been stronger! Incidentally, there have been many path-breaking works by architects who specialise in experimental and alternate designs with mud, stone, clay, vaults, heritage elements, vernacular style and such others. Many such architects and many other lesser known names too who should have been in this volume could not be accommodated, which is understandable. Hopefully there would be a sequel to accommodate them.

Kamal Malik joins Doshi in voicing his views strongly on architecture education. He states, “Poor, miserable, and thoroughly inadequate is what comes to mind when I think of architectural education in India today”. Unfortunately, there are not many educationists in the list of architects interviewed who could have defended academics, if not fully, at least partly. Let us hope Christopher Benninger was not demeaning education when he said, “I learned more from travelling to historic cities than I did from studying at Harvard and MIT”, for it is a strong message for getting exposure, a mode of learning, mostly ignored both by the students and the faculty.

One would simply agree with Brinda Somaya, well-known for both new as well as restoration projects, when she feels that “architectural writing, by and large, is too adulatory”. By default, the book under review escapes that tag, for it only presents interviews as a matter of fact, without any value judgement of the architects. However, one is able to read between the lines of few architects to feel that some of their words and designs do not necessarily connect. As creative professionals, many of us escape from this accountability stating, “theory and practice cannot be same always!”

For those who need a gist of it all, there is a well written end piece by Apurva. She summarises few ideas well, one of them being, “The collective thoughts of the architects reveal a unanimous disapproval of the buildings copied from the West, need for streamlined architectural education in India, the need to correctly interpret terms such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ and provide standards for them”. There are many more like this, which becomes a fitting end to the collection, considering the fact that reading and absorbing interviews is not easy.

It is commendable that Apurva, who as a fresh graduate decided and devoted herself to architectural journalism, continues with her passion even after a decade-long career. Writing architecture is a less explored direction in India, while interviewing is even rarer. We can only wish for more writings and more writers like Apurva.

The book which should have been in a preferably hard bound format boasts of Cambridge Scholars Publication. Indian publishers should encourage these kinds of books important for the profession, and we do wish that the book comes with an Indian edition soon.

A must read for all students and young architects who are in need of direction for their own careers, this book can provide studied insights and critical thoughts.


Review published in Indian Architect & Builder, January 2018 issue.

About the reviewer: Prof. Sathya Prakash Varanashi is a Bangalore – based consulting architect with specialisations in Urban Design and Heritage Conservation. He is involved with academics, events, texts, eco-friendly designs and can be contacted at
varanashi@gmail.com.

For more information on ARCHITECTURAL VOICES OF INDIA: A Blend of Contemporary and Traditional Ethos, visit www.cambridgescholars.com/architectural-voices-of-india. The author of the book can be connected through www.apurvabose.com.

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