Himanshu Burte

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over one year

Architect Himanshu Burte’s proposed study seeks to examine how traditions of critical architectural practice built up since independence have developed in the period of privatisation, liberalisation and globalisation. It also aims to understand the new practices that might have emerged during this period of flux. It proposes to do so by simultaneously inquiring into the wider culture of building that has emerged during this period. The author acknowledges that this is generally not the standard approach involved in understanding architectural production. However, he deems it important to understand the link between creative practice and the larger cultural value system of society. This, he feels, is reflected in the wider culture of building, beyond critical practices alone. The study arises from the awareness that post-independence architecture in India has not been critically investigated to an adequate extent.

The emergence of critical practice in architecture can be traced from the 1950s, when practitioners like Charles Correa, Bal Krishna Doshi, and Raj Rewal, trained in modernist canons, adopted an approach which was based on diverse local considerations. This approach included the development of a unique architectural identity for a new nation with old traditions. The Nehruvian socialist project, with its privileging of centralised state action over individual agency in various spheres, was significantly modified in the early 80s, moving towards a more overtly consumerist and globally integrated society. It is during this period that Hafeez Contractor, arguably India’s most influential player fashioning the ‘visuality’ of the urban built environment, started his independent architectural practice. The changed business climate has resulted in an explosion of new building types. Over the last two decades, the minor explosion in the niche field of design-related media and publication has also played an important role in fostering and sustaining the new culture of building and critical practice. Himanshu Burte points to the lack of critical discourse that might have informed the high-quality images circulated by the architectural press.

This period also saw a significant shift in the orientation of the critical and reflective core of the profession. The challenge of developing an appropriate regional paradigm of architecture appears to have suddenly ceased to be at the forefront. Politics, too, had suddenly slipped out of the broader critical framework. The significance of these developments had an impact on the social connectedness of architectural practice in India, and this impact needs to be examined. However, to understand what a critical practice truly implies, it is important to consider the inspirations, critiques and visions of the city (and the future) that characterise critical practices today.

The investigation is fundamentally centred on a set of values that underlie architectural production, whether critical or not. On the one hand are the values that are largely internal to the realm of craft. These values largely pertain to visions of what built form ought to be like, and how it embraces aesthetics. At another level, there are linkages between these values and broader social goals. An early task for this study would be to decide upon a few specific cities as sites of inquiry into the culture of building. The metros would be selected for this purpose. An appropriate mix of small towns and cities will also be chosen to examine how the new context has affected the culture of building in small-town India. The insights emerging from the various research activities would be developed into a set of thematic essays that would address the fields of enquiry delineated above.