Modernism, like English, belongs to everyone. As an architectural language, it has been hammered into dialects, hybridized almost beyond recognition, and enriched by those who have scant use for purity. On the Indian subcontinent, it was the idiom of the colonial powers but also a crucial tool for cobbling together large polyglot nations. It became pervasive enough that it could be taken for granted, its parochial origins and world-conquering history obscured by the simple fact that it was there. And just as the English novel seeded fresh literary traditions on several continents, the Euro-American apartment block, factory, and office building, transplanted to South Asia, yielded a whole new architectural ecosystem.
MoMA ranges over those habitats in an ambitious and nutritious new show, “The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985.” There’s a lot going on in that mouthful, some of it tendentious. The fundamental argument, which text panels outline and the catalogue colors in, is that the region’s architecture can’t be pried from its political history — that cobbling new nations out of the wreckage of the British Raj required not just blood and guns and trade deals and constitutions but designers, too. An introductory wall text makes the case more specifically: “Modern architecture became an active agent in asserting participation in progressive global politics, forging a common regional identity, and breaking with the colonial past.” The show itself only half supports that claim. Architects expressed the grand if inconsistent aspirations of the powerful and, like those politicians, groped their way into a postcolonial future using whatever tools they had. Young nations ordered up new strategies for low-cost housing, university campuses, rational urban grids, office buildings, and railway stations. Architects thrilled to the challenges of working in a daunting range of climates, economic conditions, and religious sensitivities, and responded with a rich variety of solutions. That’s what architects do, mostly on behalf of those with money. Does that add up to decolonization?
Once upon a time, the museum might have presented South Asian modernism as a distant aftershock from an aesthetic earthquake centered somewhere between Paris and Weimar. Instead, the curatorial team, led by Martino Stierli, presents Balkrishna Doshi, Charles Correa, Minnette de Silva, and their immensely talented cohort as protagonists of South Asia’s own story, scooping up influences from abroad and evolving along with their nations’ tangle of challenges and ambitions. They took a style that swept the globe from Siberia to Patagonia and manipulated it into an expression of local pride.
The show opens with a film of a preindustrial construction site. Throngs of laborers in shorts and saris form a bucket brigade. Men stir wet concrete and scoop it into pans, which the women carry up ladders on their heads. There’s not a cement mixer in view, no cranes or pumps or steam shovels, just sinew and sweat. The product of all this toil is Le Corbusier’s concrete capital at Chandigarh, the apotheosis of modernism at the scale of an entire city. It represented a vision conceived in Europe, incubated around the world, and realized in the tropical plains of Uttar Pradesh. That irony — a machine-age aesthetic executed without machines — runs through the show, not just as a curious paradox but as a fundamental fact of architecture in South Asia after independence. There are other unresolvable tensions, too: Architects educated in Europe and the U.S. tried to forge an urban, industrial future for countries that were overwhelmingly rural. Perhaps inevitably, the champions of postcolonial design came to be seen as accommodationists, their buildings abandoned to rot and demolition. MoMA’s exhibition reads partly as a plea to protect the subcontinent’s fragile collection of handcrafted would-be utopias.
Despite its nationalistic undercurrents, architecture in South Asia was a cosmopolitan affair. Antonin Raymond, for instance, was born in what’s now the Czech Republic, worked for Cass Gilbert in New York and Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin, and wound up doing his most important work in Japan. In between, he and the American furniture designer George Nakashima collaborated on the Golconde guesthouse at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, a landmark of subtle simplicity. From the outside, the building looks like a long concrete block — a parking structure, you might guess — but it’s a contemplative retreat, and the magic lies behind a high wall, beyond a soothing garden, through sliding teakwood doors, and down long, cooling corridors, in rooms with high ceilings and large windows filled with louvers rather than glass. Now that the benefits of good ventilation have become obvious again, it’s time to reappreciate designs like this that manage indoor temperature with cross breezes, shading, plantings, and chimney effects instead of polluting machines.
Some highlights are flamboyantly astonishing, like Correa’s circular stadium in Ahmedabad with its great row of angled concrete fangs and thin, curving roof balanced over the upper seats like a plate twirling on a finger. The stadium still stands, but many of the visionary projects featured at MoMA are slowly transforming into ruins, only without the romance. Some have already vanished. Raj Rewal and the virtuoso engineer Mahendra Raj designed the Hall of Nations and its companion Hall of Industries in New Delhi as slender lattices of triangular frames assembled into tetrahedrons that in turn accumulate into colossal structures. In Europe, the components would have been made of steel; in India, where imported materials were scarce but labor was virtually unlimited, it was more practical to cast them in concrete. In the end, these twin temples of the techno-industrial state that India hoped to become wound up standing in the way of progress. It took two days in 2017 to raze them. The Kamalapur Railway Station in Dhaka, Bangladesh, may be next. With its canopy of thin, tuliplike concrete petals providing shade and echoing the arcaded Islamic mosque, the station was designed by two Americans, Daniel Dunham and Robert Boughey, and completed in 1968. Now it stands in the way of a metro-line expansion, which makes it a candidate to become Dhaka’s Penn Station: the doomed beauty that nobody could save.
Nostalgia doesn’t square very well with the process of decolonization, but there’s no dodging loss. In the exhibition catalogue, the scholar Mrinalini Rajagopalan tells the story of a 19th-century colonial lady with a taste for India’s architectural glories. “Enraptured, she exclaimed that the Taj Mahal ought ‘to have a glass case made for it. What a pity that it should be exposed to decay!’” That impulse, to safeguard monuments by taking them out of circulation, doesn’t help much in preserving postindependence landmarks old enough to have grown shabby but not ancient enough to be timeless. “Decolonizing preservation would require a radical departure from the consumptive tourist’s gaze,” Rajagopalan writes. That word, decolonizing, seems shoehorned in again since, as she points out, it’s today’s builders, with their stainless-steel dreams, who lust for the demolition of buildings they consider passé. Besides, neglect of modern architecture from the 1960s and ’70s is a global phenomenon. Brutalist behemoths all over the New York metro area are suffering from the same lethal disdain as in Bangladesh.
Eventually, the elegiac tone starts to overwhelm the show. And yet, sniffing through the wistfulness, you can detect traces of a tenacious optimism that still has something fresh to teach. De Silva, the Sri Lankan whose spare and ravishingly humane houses have largely crumbled and now exist mostly in a book of photographs, believed the West had impoverished itself by wiping out so many of its artisanal traditions. “For us it is much easier,” she wrote. “We have our crafts with us, still valid in our modern society. We must bring them back into an architecture which must be designed to suit our contemporary living.” Oh yes, please do.
“The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985” is at the Museum of Modern Art through July 2.