Why Indian Architects Need More Opportunities to Build at Home

When we  think of our Indian architecture, visions of Chandigarh dance in my head. India has long been a country in which to build out dreams. But with a legacy of outsourcing design to the West, for too long it has been subject to the long-arm imposition of utopian ideas.

From Lutyens to Le Corbusier, rarely have these idealistic foreign interventions made adequate provision for the nation’s rapid urbanization and vast numbers of urban poor.

The masterplan for Delhi as a new capital city, inspired by England’s garden city movement and led by New York architect and planner Albert Mayer, was supposed to be free of slums and poverty – in fact half of the 18 million residents now live in informal settlements.

India’s incredible growth story over the past twenty years sees it vying with China to be the fastest growing major economy in the world. Proof that economic growth does not ensure prosperity for all: just 40 per cent of the country’s population has access to sanitation facilities, including pit latrines. The government of India has failed to invest in infrastructure and social housing, leaving private developers to do its work, and badly. The cities are choked, sprawling, besmirched with freshly grown orchards of mediocre constructions.

But amid the rampant building, the impulse to import architectural styles has persisted to detrimental effect. In this edition, Mumbai architect Sanjay Puri voices his outrage at cities falling victim to an international blandness that is undermining the diverse sense of place and sustainability. This impulse is not only harming the architectural fabric, but the profession itself. With 494 architecture schools, as A Srivathsan points out, the local profession is a thriving, globally networked community, but opportunities to create good buildings are not as lucrative and plentiful as they should be.

A further aggravating factor is the second-class treatment of local architects compared with international firms in India. The Guardian recently reported on revelations that international staff in the humanitarian and development sectors are paid nine times more than their colleagues for the same job in the same office. The study went on to describe the effect socio-economic lines so fiercely drawn can have. It has been suggested by Srivathsan that this vast disparity in pay may also be true in architecture. I must echo Srivathsan’s call for fairer relations – India has more to offer than call centers and back-of-house.

From a London vantage point, our idea of an Indian architecture is permeated with the Modernist language of Kahn and company. But the complex architectural roots of the projects featured in this edition are more nuanced and varied. At times there is the lingering specter of the International Style, but more often there is a break with this dubious lineage in favor of regional traditions blended with a fresh outlook.

In this time of rapid growth and urban poverty, local talent must be fostered and nourished with commissions, and empowered to develop solutions to the many pressing issues, not least housing and infrastructure. To create longevity and a thriving culture beyond the boom, the government must invest in its cities – and its architects too.


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