In India you will find buildings of a sort to transfix and transport your sensibilities to the highest planes and also to drag them to the saddest and most desperately sorry depths. And often they are near neighbours.
From polished white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones to gut-wrenching hovels held together with twine, plastic and hope. One builds what one can afford to build and for many that is barely enough to keep out the wind and rain, rats and flys, heat and stench.
You will see almost every type of construction technique here from wattle and daub to concrete and glass high rise. But it is inbetween these two extremes that one form of building has become the dominant form. Reinforced concrete with brick infill has been proliferating for decades and its march across the landscape seems unstoppable. In its best manifestation it is well made, finished to a good standard and painted in vibrant colours such as pink and yellow or purple and green. At its worst it resembles a building site battleground. Reinforcing bars stick out of roofs for future extensions. Walls are not rendered so one sees the concrete skeleton and crude brickwork in all its crudeness. If any paint has been applied it appears to have been thrown on without much care as to where it landed and is almost inevitably stained by rains and organic growths. Plumbing and electrical systems are haphazard in the extreme and snake and twist all over the exterior. Aesthetics don’t come in to the picture, along with health and safety and regard to urban planning considerations.
As a quick aside: urban planning is pitifully short -term and out of step with the exploding population growth. To say that buildings in urban areas are jam-packed is to barely hint at how condensed and claustrophobic the situation is. The glorious garden townships of British design have largely disappeared. There is often no open space save for the occasional small square with a large shade tree. Buildings sprout in all directions in a tortuous labyrinth, clinging limpet-like to each other. A concrete jungle in every sense.
To try and sum up today’s prevalent style is a bewildering prospect as in any 30-minute journey you will see any number of incarnations. To have a stab at putting a label on it I’d venture the following: Post-modern Mughal with a dash of Art Deco, a twist of colonial, a hint of neo-classical, some Gothic Revival of the Indo-Saracenic variety and elements of Soviet-style utilitarian bunker. Throw in the above mentioned paintwork – where it happens at all – and you can imagine the effect.
On a more positive note the country that gave the world possibly its most beautiful building in the form of the Taj Mahal is still creating great works out of stone. Many rural villages still awaken to the clinking of steel on stone as craftsmen fashion new temples, luxury hotels or homes for the super rich (we witnessed a modern day ‘Marble Maharajah’ creating his own sandstone legacy on the outskirts of Udaipur in the form of a personal residence modelled on a Mughal fort – helicopter landing pad on one bastion of course!).
But there is more at stake here than just the sheer bulk of masonry. Architecture becomes an instrument to understand the identity of a culture, be it regional or international. So whilst the Taj Mahal can be viewed as representing love, romance and the aesthetic taste of 17th century Mughal culture it can also represent the desperate exploitation of labour, the appropriation of resources and the inequality prevalent in that culture. And at the other end of the scale is a slum a celebration of entrepreneurship as has been suggested or just urban decay in all its horrific inhumanity?
So, whilst on one hand it saddens me that Tamerlane’s descendants, the people who gave us the Taj Mahal, are now devotees of the aggregate gods of sand and cement amongst the twisted, jutting, rusty iron reinforcing bars I see some hope in the shape of Post-Modern Mughal. It can be a riotous confection of pure modern Indian exuberance as well as a proud backward nod of approval to their heritage.