working narrative on how the practice of Indian architecture died, #MwcDeath

Isaac Mathew
11 min readAug 24, 2021

The essay is developed from the prompt “Tell us about a death you’ve experienced, for better or worse, and how you marked the loss — whether it was with mourning or celebration” a part of The Medium Writers Challenge. This text has been modified since its submission to act as a synopsis to research on architectural imagination and knowledge construction. Contemporary Indian architecture is divided into three phases 1985–1999, 2000–2016, and 2017–2021/ date. This timeline proposed is derived from a survey of Indian architectural design book publishing spanning the time stated. The project concentrates on changes that came about starting from 2000. It is a perspective of addressing architectural imagination from the knowledge produced of it and my time in academia, and practice. The project is conceptualised partly to collect my notes, as essays written between 2012 to 2021. A necessity to define a writing practice led to collating what I already had published here on Medium or previously on Svbtle. For now, it is planned as three Kindle publications. The Old Landscape 2000–2016, The New Landscape 2017–2021, and An Indian Architectural Imagination 1985–2021, are the proposed working project titles of three essays compilations. Most of the writings on Indian Architecture are limited to the period 1985–1999, extending to the early 2000’s. The work tries to bridge the gap in the making of imagination of the idea of regional architecture. Define an architectural design research writing practice and locate a theory on how domain knowledge is constructed within a geography. Death as a construct is used to indicate how a transformation of ideas have evolved over time and now exists as an alternate mutated form dictated by aspirations and anxieties of the present.


“the bitterness of one generation is often the banality of another” Daniel Bell


It was late afternoon when I got called into the office of Charles Correa and Associates on Matthew Rd, Marine Lines. A publisher had compiled a Spanish translation of his essays and owing to its success, they wanted its English edition published. Since I was over-seeing publishing at UDRI at that time, I had to facilitate the necessary copyright clearances institutionally for the texts to be republished for an anthology. Correa and his entourage who worked with him were easily approachable therefore most of the stories about practice and his writings were common local lore. The work of Correa was also taught to us in college during undergrad. A result of all those influences Correa for me presents one of the clearest interpretations of defining a regional architecture for India. In addition, very few Indian architects wrote at that time. Owing to the scarcity of local material a way to critically observe building in the country was through his writings. Since he was accessible meeting him and hearing his speel seemed quite inconsequential at that time. After these past 10years, I find this book of essays A Place in the Shade still a benchmark to measure varying imaginations of Indian spatial practices. Though compiled in 2010, Correa’s writings were written at time with a political mandate to define building practices for the country. Governing power structures has changed since then making ideas of a time only as an instrument of reflection. Publishing and availability of material to publish is much easier but the work produced have lost its teachability quotient and are instruments of self-promotion. Masters become showmen/ women. My discourse details how architects have systematically over the span of approximately 40years lost out their position to have a voice in defining a culture of practice. Rather than take ideas forward every generation has imagined a version of architectural practice based on the patronage they garnered.


To briefly introduce here Indian architecture, Architecture for India as a model of spatial practice was defined in The Year of India exhibition organised by the French Government in 1985. It was a political construct to recognise the role the bi-lateral relationship between France and India through the export of the services of Le Corbusier in building the newly independent nation. Architectural projects of the time were instruments by the government to give a newer image for its building practices. Public, institutional building commissions are given to emerging Indian architectural practices who learning from the context and the world masters, outlined a strategy for architecture in the country. A brief of what were the concerns and possible variables of solutions. Correa and others of the generation showed the way from what they had learnt to construct an architectural imagination to pass onto the next. Global building practices they showed how it is translated into this newly formed landscape. Indian Architecture was seen through the lens of nation building. Of note is, master builders came from traditions of craft, and a model of learning for the profession was to carry forward the learnings. Based on who you asked it was considered important to either be a true disciple of a school of making or reject it completely to produce something a- new. Building theory in academia and craft learnt in practice is extended or critically reinterpreted. New knowledge in the domain is developed in the field and because of patronage. The need of an architecture and therefore architects came from a societal mandate for innovation in spatial solutions. Education and the practice of architecture is a continuous ongoing activity or that was the format the first Indian master architects promoted as a trajectory. Even though this construct of the architect as a professional in the country was vague, it was a draft a sketch for the generation coming after to build on and take the profession forward. Nation building was the brief handed over to think out futures for the new landscape.

Architectural practices were independent and private pursuits. Those who had resources were able to publish their manifestoes and exhibited their work. This is one way of looking at it. Architecture then was very much an extension of art and therefore an intellectual culture formulated an architectural discourse. Early professional knowledge communes accumulated around the Delhi, Ahmedabad, and Mumbai belt who theorised production of regional architecture. This act also pushed Indian Architecture through the lens of Critical Regionalism onto the international stage. Till now you have the international masters as generation 0, the Indian masters as the first of the country’s practitioners and then those who came after. The second-generation practitioners. They didn’t have the larger institutional projects, but you could say forced to the deal with the blundering stock of both colonial and princely properties of a past. The landscape that was seemingly new started looking old. Heritage needed conservation and thus begins the re-imagination of the narrative of the telling of Indian Architecture. The Pan-Indian collection of buildings remains the same, but the plots shift in the retelling. Discourses of art history start giving way to anxieties of capital, sustainability calls, and traditional reinterpretations. Statistics rather than ideas begin the transformation of the imagination of the previous generation. Projects are now accessible at the city scale instead of a national arena. It is good to note at this juncture that architecture or that which was understood as such was all produced in or as part of practice. Education of architects has always been bad in the country. Practice was the redemption in the creation of good architecture. Cities as sites of employment and lack of enough architects on field to leave a significant impact as a profession are the broader concerns in addition to a running of private practice. It is safe to say that since there wasn’t an established collective, intellectual foundation to the building of the profession is not framed, or even if it was in some capacity, it didn’t have the necessary resources to implement the postulates.

Creating urban architectural colleges was the solution to the problem according to those who came after the Indian masters and so started the production of third and fourth generation of architects in the country. In addition to the survey of Indian architectural design publishing, I look at models of communities of practice and social forecasting by Bell 1973, Anderson 1983, Appadurai 1996, Kotkin 2014, to guide the critique. The methodology of organising a collected dataset is in part structured as an extension to these positions. My view is a survey of a body and system of knowledge construction from a vantage. That said the third generation are the ones who were taught in part by the second and are in advanced stages of their practice. The fourth are those who are in the early stages of practice building. Contemporary architectural knowledge construction is only 35years old therefore there is no extensive legacy the profession can profess to have. Any event of significance are all memories with an accessible timeline. It is a verifiable nostalgia of the present. Generation 3 are broadly those who could afford to set up practices of their own and those who couldn’t. Increasing the number of architectural institutes also ensured jobs for those who couldn’t find building work. The knowledge society around the profession even though was established around the same time the first architectural college was instituted as an extension of the Sir. J.J. College of Art, professionally there is no direction or the direction of what is around is still in various isolated pockets. The grand professional narrative can be argued is first located with an aim in unifying the profession, but it falls apart as its early proponents and their disciples loose interest. Indian Architecture as a construct also defined knowledge and its creation for the profession but the ideology in a form doesn’t hold ground because it wasn’t developed further either theoretically or in practice. Language plays a significant part of the problem of who could and had the resources to keep the discourse active. Late 90’s and early 2000’s was when assessable internet also started questioning critical regionalism too as lens to interact with domain knowledge. What architectural knowledge was or could be is controlled by available published content and how it was interpreted by a generation.

When the New Landscape is written in ’84–85 it is plausible to state, Correa was one of the few who had resources or the necessary agency to publish a practice manifesto. He was also almost 27years into his work therefore articulate enough to have a robust position about spatial strategies applicable within a geography. Today anyone with an internet connection can publish work anywhere and in any language. The validation of their work is decided not by their professional peers but by the friends who follow and promote their posts, irrespective of the nature of its quality. Higher the number of likes better the work is considered. Social media has created a shared problem across domains where it is not possible to agree on a single version of truth. Since we are all validated by our followers, who like share and subscribe our opinions, which may or may not be informed or even outright false. During the pre-internet era few got to be right, today there are no such checks and balances. In our pursuit of the truth, we silo ourselves in information bubbles. It is also not possible to be critical of the bubble you are part of. Statistical validation is now a form of truth. In this therefore it is worthwhile to ask the question what is architecture? What do we know of a domain which was once considered as art? Who gets to say what is good architecture? All of this is happening on the watch of the generation 2’s and 3’s who are manning more institutions than there are established architecture offices in practice. The foundation on which the profession was proposed to assemble in the new landscape didn’t settle before American capitalist advertising dismantled it and imposed a new plane for discourse. From around 70 in 2000 there are now 500 architecture colleges in the country where every student has comparable publishing resources and audience than Correa had in his later years.

If we are to trace the available knowledge landscape of Indian Architecture it is accessible as print magazines and journals, books, content in various forms published online and reflections of practice by various stakeholders on site. Knowledge considered here is physical, and transmittable. Products transferred or built on. A survey of published magazines was conducted in 2015-’16 at the NGMA by RMA Architects. Here I look at books and digital content tagged under architecture, in addition to found extended digital work by architects. The project spans, if everything goes on plan, five publications. Two others are a reworking of the masters’ thesis notes and fellowship research. These are in addition to the ones mentioned earlier. Traditional publications as it did in the time of Correa real extended time spans and there was lack of content and technology, we are for Indian architecture in the post-information society. Architects do not build buildings but make drawings as guides for others to do the necessary. It is accurate to position architecture is a virtual profession where the architect as a co-ordinating professional brings a collective of stakeholders to assemble spatial solutions were required. What we understand as architecture are spatial strategies that we are trained to recognise as such. As a profession its knowledge is derivative and imagined. For the Indian masters it was urgent to articulate a conceptual position, today there is so much built work published as #architecture to work with that it is necessary to question the need to build just to add to the content sludge. Publishing and award of unbuilt projects is one such example. Contribution to architectural knowledge too has changed from the reflective practitioner to the research-based practice to now content curators.




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Isaac Mathew

i think #architecture #art #planning #design #engineering