Marking the swing of London’s centre of gravity eastwards the ArcelorMittal Orbit, London’s new Olympic tower, represents too the tilting balance of global influence far, further east, and south. Funded by a non-resident Indian and built with steel from his factories, conceptualised by a British sculptor of Indian birth and engineered by a Sri-Lankan born British engineer, it is more than the symbol of an iconic global event or post-colonial revenge. This provocative object raises serious questions about patronage, globalisation and the reversal of colonialism; cultural form and legacy; and the complex relationship between India and Britain, that are difficult to answer now with the histories that we were brought up with.
Rahul Mehrotra’s examination of contemporary Indian architecture engages with all these issues, and provides an easy-access starting point for approaching recent cultural history from a point-of-view tempered by what Salman Rushdie calls ‘the migrant’s double vision.’ While not strictly a migrant – Mehrotra runs an architectural practice in Mumbai while teaching at Harvard – he manages, exploits and brings to some fruition the differences between these two worlds and the people that inhabit them. In India he is a trustee of the Urban Design Research Institute, and Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research, where his work is about the dissemination of solutions. As are many of the protagonists in his book, he is privileged, academic and situated at the centre of cultural production. This is not a view from the edge, but a globally relevant commentary for an international audience that was simultaneously published in India and Germany.
The book begins by pointing out the diverse nature of contemporary India, liberated in the 1990s from the centralising control of a socialist state and into the world of multiple opportunity afforded by laissez-faire capitalism and regional politics. Following a Preface that explains Mehrotra’s personal approach to the subject, he introduces the historical context for his main arguments and ideas with a long essay called Landscape of Pluralism. This is separated in a chronological sequence of five parts, and illustrated by some fascinating and some little-known examples, with images from The Jeypore Portfolio of Architectural Details, 1890, for example, and scenes of the international Vistara exhibition curated by Charles Correa, 1983-6. Mehrotra presents a new and interesting approach to the outcomes and reactions to early twentieth century colonialism, modernism, and a transforming social, political and economic system, with the post-war influence of the Soviet Union an intriguing omission, except in its implicit role in defining pre-1990s state patronage.
The core of the book is formed of four chapters that present forty-one buildings constructed in India during the period 1990 – 2010. Each has a short text, and is illustrated by 6 – 10 photographs, only a couple have drawings. These chapters each have their own essay with a historical component to the argument, sometimes repetitious, but which bring more buildings to attention – two favourites are Indian artist Satish Gurjal’s Belgian Embassy in New Delhi (1983), and Vijay Arya’s Mewar Complex, Rajsamand (2008). Most interesting, perhaps because it’s the most difficult to write about in an even-handed way, is Global Practice: Expressions of (Impatient) Capitalism. This brings us contemporary building types such as IT parks and global suburbs developed through what Mehrotra calls the New Urbanist Paradigm, as wells as characters like the prolific architect Hafeez Contractor, and rising stars, like Morphogenesis and Serie Architects. A certain amount of formal and conceptual overlap occurs between the buildings in this chapter (linked by their potentially iconic status) and those in Regional Manifestation: Local Assertions and Alternate Practice: Towards Sustainability, two chapters covering more well-trodden ground with their culturally acceptable appeal. In the final chapter, Counter Modernism: Resurfacing of the Ancient, the restoring and building of new religious buildings suggests how the skills and wisdom of traditional craftsmen and the narratives of ancient imagery can be translated in the present. This is an important question for Indian architects and academics, amongst whom documentary projects abound.
The book’s a little crude, with more words than is elegant and variable photography, but this is an opportunity for the western eye to reflect anew upon the architectural production of this part of the 21st century world that has been reticent to reveal itself. For the Indian architecture scene it contributes a way of classifying contemporary architecture in the evolving debate arising in still scant but characterful arenas of exposition, such as online journals Spade and India by Design, CEPT Ahmedabad’s 12 on 12 series, or Pune Architects Facebook page.