Takshila Lecture on Architecture and Society

To mark the opening of the 2018-19 cycle of The Merit List, The First Takshila lecture on Architecture and Society was delivered by Prof Neelkanth Chhaya on August 14, 2018. The lecture was followed by a dialogue with Bijoy Ramachandran and an interaction with the audience.

Transcript of the Lecture

When I was asked to give this lecture, I could not find many contemporary authors or critics who would make sense and I must add that I am going to talk about Architecture in India and Architectural Practice in India. It could apply to other places, but I am focusing on India since that is my experience. Really not very much was found in recent literature, and so I had to go back almost to 1950’s to Jacques Ellul’s book, The Technological Society and Propaganda: Formation of Men’s Attitudes which became so useful to set in a train of thoughts as to what is happening to architecture today-which I will come to in due time. But the other thing that arose in my mind was that why has the architect rarely been a culture hero in our culture? There is Vishwakarma of course who was a god, so we need not consider him but we had King Mayadunne (of Sitawaka) who built a palace that led to a war. Is this what an architect does?

So the closest I could find was the architect of Jaipur city, Vidyadhar Bhattacharya who became a culture hero to such an extent that there are ragas, and bandishes in which his name is mentioned. More recently I could think of only two or three names who came close to being considered as those who did something for society, and therefore could be considered culture heroes. All others were of more limited applications. One could think of Laurie Baker, or Charles Correa, or B.V. Doshi but other than that there are very few who could be considered having an impact on the society as a whole. And this I thought was a very telling fact which we should as architects think about, why is it so? I thought it would be useful to do quick review of what we have been doing since the 1950s- the first phase post-independence (1950-1980) which I would call as ‘Youthful Confidence’.

There is this bunch of young people who start practices all over India- whether in the government or private practices who confidently, adapt and come up with new ideas. They adapt the principles of modernism, look at the context of India, and confidently without any doubt whatsoever, they make some of the finest buildings that we have today. And even the lesser architecture of that time has a kind of confidence which is rare in subsequent times. A confidence that says this is the way a city should be built (Bhubaneswar for instance), this is the way a neighbourhood should be or a house should be. The projects are mostly small or medium, the techniques are mostly engineering techniques and they do not depend much on crafts or artists but on engineering. The budgets are frugal and I think this is a very important thing that the challenge of building with such budgets led to this.

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