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Traditional Buildings of India.

By Ilay Cooper and Barry Dawson. London: Thames & Hudson. 1998. [pounds]26

These are four very different books yet, despite their varied aims, they have one significant thing in common all seek to establish an architectural identity for India. In fact the books dealing with Indian architecture in the twentieth century seek more than this. They try to show that the architecture of the sub-continent is not a mere shadow of Western architectural movements but has now - after 50 years of independence - come of age. It has absorbed Western influences and now Indian architecture is, at its best, a distinct regional architecture - a synthesis which marries the potential offered by new materials and methods of construction with indigenous design, structural and decorative traditions.

The most straightforward and attractive of the books is Traditional Buildings of India. The authors have travelled India recording how traditional buildings are designed, built and decorated. As the authors observe 'the Indian builder works according to ancient and sometimes religious practice, with whatever materials are at hand, to suit local traditions and extremes of climate'. Since India has a vast range of climates and building materials, and many different cultural and religious communities needing their own distinct buildings, the traditional buildings of India are - as this book reveals - breathtaking in the variety of their forms and types. The book tackles the subject geographically - after an introductory article on 'Materials and construction techniques' - with chapters dealing with such contrasting areas as the snow-bound Jammu and Himachal Pradesh to the 'Dravidian South' via the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujaret.

Needless to say the investigation excludes all colonial architecture - be it French, British or Danish - which the authors obviously consider either non-traditional, non-Indian, or both. This is a pretty simplistic view since, as the authors themselves admit, much of the architecture they regard as traditional and Indian has been enriched by ideas introduced by successive waves of foreign invaders. But the authors choose to regard these early influences as acceptable while those of the British were 'cataclysmic' in their effect on traditional architecture. The British ushered in the period of Eurocentric industrialization and mass production that, they argue, did great damage to the quirky individuality of Indian crafts and vernacular building. The authors' journey through India's kachha architecture (which in Hindi means unripe or incomplete as opposed to pukka which means ripe and proper) has revealed many wonders which are beautifully recorded by Barry Dawson's fine photographs. It is disappointing that no plans and few detailed drawings are included, but this book is aimed at the popular market and it is an unchallenged lore among publishers that the public can't read plans. It's a pity this assertion isn't challenged occasionally for a few plans would have greatly improved this otherwise excellent book.

Architecture and Independence is the work of three architectural academics - one in Australia and two in Ahmedabad. This book, claim the authors, 'examines Indian architecture in the context of the fight for and attainment of independence'. The book's structure is largely based on political rather than architectural events. For example the opening date of 1880 relates to the founding in that decade of the Indian National Congress. And the authors declare that they have set themselves the task of 'exploring the impact of political ideology on the built environment'. The fact that the book is subtitled a 'celebration of 50 years of Indian Independence' and the opening illustration is of a photograph of a triumphant military parade through New Delhi in 1996 reveals the nature, and hints at the conclusion, of this exploration. The text of the book is structured to relate to the 'four clashes' which are 'reflected in the character of the built environment in India' - the clashes 'between the aspirations of the Indian people and British colonial culture; between those aspirations and the international architectural community's values after independence; between architects' aspirations or efforts to express Indianness through design', and 'between the values of architects who attract national and international attention (and) the values of architects in the mainstream of practice and popular taste'.

This is an intriguing proposition and the authors have produced a dense, closely argued and weighty academic text in their quest for the origins and nature of Indian architecture. The book is not an elegant or easy read but it tackles all the key issues, architectural movements and personalities, in a highly informed and detailed manner. And as for contemporary architecture, the authors tell us that 'a truly Indian architecture now exists outside the mainstream of modern utilitarianism'. It has no single image but reflects the diversity of the country and undoubtedly India's own architectural history. Indian architecture may be 'haunted by the past', but it has achieved an independence of spirit while staying part of the global network.

New Indian Homes is a romp through 50 or so recently completed homes: a mixed bag with no overall direction or authors' preference being revealed. There is neo-vernacular, neomodern and much of it grim indeed. This book is no advertisement for contemporary Indian architecture but the authors don't quite see it that way. In their introductory chapter on the 'Metamorphosis of the Indian House' they explain that 'the procession of the Indian house has been like a ballad or a folk song ... metamorphosed at the hands of the succession of generations though the basic theme of this ballad - shelter - remains intact'. In this context the contemporary Indian house is - as far as the Bahgas are concerned and no doubt to the great dismay of the authors of Traditional Buildings in India a 'status symbol [of] individualism and consumerism' and a creation that owes as much to American Modernism as to Indian building and design traditions.

The Architecture of Independence is yet one more collection of essays about those old chestnuts of post-independence Indian architecture - Charles Correa, Balkrishna Doshi and Achyut Kanvinde - who are, collectively, credited with having evolved a distinct Indian architecture through a fusion of Western Modernism and indigenous design traditions. Muzharul Islam, the fourth architect featured in the book, works in Bangladesh and is more of an unreconstructed Modernist. Islam trained in Calcutta and at Yale (where he was taught by Paul Rudolph) and in 1953 had the rather alarming distinction of being the only formally trained architect working in Dharka after the independence of Pakistan. The book, in fact a catalogue to a recent New York exhibition, offers little beyond illustrations and descriptions of generally familiar projects. The authors are both architects - one American, one Bangladeshi and their comments are sound if conventional. Frampton, in a long introduction, emphasizes the importance that the three Indian architects have made to the creation of a powerful contemporary Indian architecture in which 'the past and present' are juxtaposed. And, not surprisingly, Frampton discovers that 'Modernism is a vital part of India's contemporary character' and that 'its energies are not exhausted, its rigour and ability to cross borders continues to be relevant'.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Cruickshank, Dan
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1999
Words:1160
Previous Article:Architecture and Independence: The Search for Identity - India, 1880 to 1980.
Next Article:New Indian Homes: An Architectural Renaissance.
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