Understanding Modernism with India


Modernism is an attitude. An attitude of breaking away from the mainstream or challenging the old and traditional attitudes. Modernity has many different meanings, one of which is the new in opposition to the old. Modernity, Octavio Paz says is an exclusively western concept that has no equivalent in any other civilizations. Modernity is a concept that gives present a quality that makes it different from the past. Modernity is a constant conflict with the traditional. It is an idea that cannot have fixed attributes or values. In the 19th century there was modernity in the economic, political fields with great development in the industries and also urbanization. With this modernity became more than an intellectual concept. The term modernization is used to describe the process of social development and is the main feature of urbanization, industrialization, democratization and increase in world trade market. The process of modernization is continuous and the idea of modernity changes every time there are changes in the technology.

Along with modernism many different ideas came into picture. These ideas changed the world and its art and architecture. The idea of modernity changed after these terms were introduced. Some of these were, cubism, the idea of cubism was to depict objects from multiple view points and creating abstract art works using broken forms. Futurism was a movement that emphasized the dynamism, speed, energy and power of machine in the modern life. The idea of constructivism was introduced in Russia, it was influenced by cubism and futurism. In constructivism abstract geometric forms were being made by the use of plastic, steel and glass.  Impressionism was an idea the painters used to paint visual reality using colors and effect of light. The movement of symbolism emphasized on individual emotional experience through the stubble use of symbolized language. Expressionism was about depicting emotions and not the objective reality. De stjil was a movement that included art and architectural forms using straight lines, rectangular forms and also use of primary colors and use of black, white and grey. The Bauhaus movement was also an important one as it was the first one to challenge all the defined terms related to modernity before. The Bauhaus inspired many architects and artists of the world and gave a new perspective to look at architecture and buildings.

In India modernism came with the colonial rule. Initially the idea of modernism was not known as there were many traditional, orthodox practices in the country which did not allow the entry of any foreign culture. In the modern movement of India Raja Ravi Varma was one of the first painters who took inspirations from the other world cultures like impressionism, symbolism and also influenced by the paintings of renaissance he drew the god and gave god an image. Relating the idea of the modern to the architectural development in India it was influenced by the art deco movement. It was also influenced by the regional motifs. Buildings in Calcutta and Mumbai of the art deco style were of great importance at that time. The buildings were very simple with chajjas, balconies etc. Even the neo classical was considered at modern until the 1960’s.

Modernism in India was more like an approach to life. It meant designing the world in a positive manner.  Improving the standard of living of the people and being progressive and inventive. The great minds behind creating a modern India were Nehru, Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Gandhi emphasized on urgent need of social change and personal ethical transformation, Nehru saw hope in the technological advancement and taking India to the next level in all the fields, Tagore championed a deep relation with the nature with the idea of creating a more humane society. Looking at the development of the infrastructure post-independence many of the Indian architects returned from abroad. The two important were Charles Correa who was trained in USA and Achyut Kanvinde who was trained from MIT, and also had worked with Walter Gropius the make of the Bauhaus. Also Nehru invited Le Corbusier to India to contribute to the developing architecture of the nation. Along with Corbusier came B.V. Doshi, another important architect in the making of modern India. Other architects that contributed were Louis Kahn, Buckminster Fuller and F.L.Wright. In the course of the development of the modern India not only buildings but cities got designed on the hieroglyphics of Corbusier’s Chandigarh. Vidyadharnagar city plan by Doshi imbibed the essence of interspersed pedestrian pathways, hierarchical road structure, diagonal greens and so on. Louis Kahn created poetry in brick at the campus of Indian Institute of Management. Brick masonry- considered to be the local material found very different dimensions through three dimensional structural arches. City learnt a new way of building in brick and also upgraded its quality of construction having trained through rigorous and stricter construction norms and practices of Kahn. It also gave legitimacy to bare aesthetics of exposed (unplastered) brick construction – alien to place and people then. However, institutes and residences since half a century then continue to admire and emulate this modern aesthetics and outlook.

The modern was questioned again by the architects. The architects used local materials in a different way which also responded to the climate of the region. Thus bringing in the use of traditional techniques to build buildings with modern ideas.

“Doshi has entrusted us through his writings and his architectures, an idea of modernity as an infrastructure, as a principle, a plot on which life can take root and not the cage in which to enclose it and the palimpsest on which various sediments can input. An idea of modernity where a conscious freedom of expression is the result of mediation and not the impulse of a moment in which reality can be grasped in its complexity. Modernity then, is not made up of shapes, nor of easily recognizable stylistic features but of principles which can activate interactive and co-existence processes with the sole aim to improve our lives, principles which can keep the authentic modern promise to  make us moving together through participation.”[i]

The same philosophy is being used to make his own office SANGATH, which is an experience of his own life and also the outputs of his learnings from his life.

Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi grew up in a large traditional bound joint family. After finishing his architecture at jj college, he went to Britain and from there he went to work with Le Corbusier. Doshi had a lot of values and he went to the deepest aspect of understanding architecture. Doshi was one of the architects who was under the influence of both modern and traditional. He also returned to India when there was a movement of modernization. Initially he supervised sites for le Corbusier but then started his own practice in Ahmedabad. In those days Ahmedabad was considered to be a city which was at the forefront in making a new nation. At the beginning of his practice Doshi had a question of “what is architecture?” rather than “what is modern architecture?” or “what is Indian architecture?” Doshi’s four pillars and inspirations were gokuldas narayandas, le Corbusier, Rabindranath Tagore and M.K. Gandhi.

In his initial projects which were his own house and the houses of both is daughters, tejal and manisha. He has questioned the idea of dwelling. Dwelling are the most primary form of architecture. They are designed for specific individuals and families. Doshi creates an enclosed space sort of a mandapam in the kamala house. This is an ancient architectural theme, an archetype that informs Kerala nallukettu. The plan is simple which a square centering four columns. It forms a grid. In tejal’s house at the first glance it is an asymmetric from with angular and curvilinear surfaces. In manisha’s house the four columns are used but they don’t form a mandapam instead with the columns there is a stepped platform and this recalls the traditional “otla” or entrance platform on the street.

Doshi’s office sangath, meaning moving together in participation, is a very different building from all his other works. It is the mixture of all his learnings since he started his journey in architecture. Doshi was always inspired by earth hugging structures and the way one approaches the Indian temple. The movement from the entrance forecourt to the meandering path then onto the water pool and amphitheater precedes arrival at the modest entry. At the beginning of that path is a mural of a tree that used to be there but as removed during the time of construction. The office building is treated like an institution here. Doshi considers sangath to be not only an office but a place of interaction and learning. Thus he makes the movement in the building free. Parallel wall systems is used and various levels have been created by using mezzanine floors like one in the drafting room. Similar system is being used in the institutes built by him like CEPT, Shreyash School and IIM, Bangalore. For Doshi institution is a place where all the spaces are like crossroads of the world where ideas are exchanged and new things are learnt. Also Doshi makes these open garden spaces which make meetings and gatherings possible. The amphitheater with grass steps merges the building with the ground. The inside outside sense is ambiguously manifested. Some of the elements in the building are inspired from the ear shaped pools of Corbusier, amphitheater, Gaudi’s broken china mosaic and a water feature from Kahn’s salk institute. The play of light in the building is interestingly articulated. The spaces receive light according to the requirement. And the light is diffused by making small openings on the sides of the vaults. There is use of china mosaic on the vaults which reflect the light back and the water channels are articulated in a way that the wind cools down before entering the space.


B.V. Doshi is an architect for whom the idea of modern merges with the idea of modern. Inspired from traditional buildings and early Indian architecture Doshi articulates and fits the learnings from them in his buildings as we have learnt. Doshi uses very sensitive and powering concepts, difficult to explain in buildings and makes a modern building using local materials and thus merging the traditional and modern.


other refrences: books- harnessing the intangible

architecture and modernity a critique by hilde heynen

yatin pandya’s article on modern architecture of india