The Role of Architecture in Nation Building - Is it Cast in Stone?
This article was written in 2020 as an entry for the COA Essay Writing Competition.
Across the course of civilization, Architecture has stood as a testament and reflection of society, its political beliefs, successes, and eventual downfalls. A nation’s architectural history renders an intimate map of the lives and traditions of people from all classes.
It is dependent on their existence and circumstances. This interdependence between the roles of the creator and the creation subliminally influences both. Stone is considered a timeless material. Carved dictates and treaties uncovered from the past have lasted centuries. As a conservative art, architecture comes a close second.
The very essence of architecture lies in its inception which revolves around the “human component” of its being. Without this being, architecture ceases to exist, just like without an inscription, a stone is just a mineral.
Over the years, cities have formed a fabric of continuum with a culture that enables communities to hold on to traditions and live with dignity. If mental maps define the image of a city, architecture defines the image of a nation. The construction of the Tokyo Tower and the demolition of American tenements define and redefine the ever-changing face of this métier, which has played a key role in both nation-building and recognition.
Time may preserve, but it certainly does not conserve. India has seen its share of dynamic empires leaving behind an amalgamation of ingenuous philosophies from various religions and rulers. Furthermore, European occupation resulted in the levying and consequent acceptance of newer and adventive architectural styles. Designed spaces have seen a paradigm shift at the very core principles guiding the creator. It has evolved from a tool of reflection to an instrument of expression, to a weapon for manipulation.
Following the 14th century Bubonic Plague, the rebuilding of Western Europe heralded artistic liberties and the recognition of planning deficiencies. The new awakening - Renaissance was marked by the formulation of laws governing city planning and sanitation systems. Thus, while architecture expounds a nation, the same architecture itself has been influenced by wars, invasions, famines, plagues, and nostalgia. Haussmann’s Renovation project in Paris shred the squatter settlements and built a new city, widely regarded for its baroque influences.
Did Haussmann then not believe in the purpose of architecture in rebranding a nation?
The Paris of the yonder is lost and the traces remain only in the dust, while the 18th-century makeover defines the city even today. Parallels can be drawn when any power changes hands. India, however, has been more generous in accepting its scarred history.
The European colonization transposed the earlier prudent planning for a far more exhibitionist strategy that focused on the insignia of power, egotism, and subservience. The colonists sought to build a nation that regaled on Indian soil, with European emblems warped by the agitation of Indian hands. Here is architecture, employed for a role it is neither equipped nor prepared for. Here is architecture, fabricating a “nation” it cannot serve.
At the other end of the spectrum resides the Black Town, Madras. Even in 1855 - the settlements at the fringes belonging to weavers and dyers - were defined as the pinnacle of tenement living with narrow streets, and little ventilation or sanitation. Receding into the distance behind the Gothic, Neoclassical, and Art Deco buildings, these settlements excogitate the actual condition of India. After all, a nation is only as rich as its poorest citizen. And this paucity is but a precedent for the lives and aspirations living within the neighborhood.
At the very core of these buildings, we see the search for truth. The Black Town tenements do not purport, they do not delude. It is stripped to the soul of its inhabitants and laid bare for the observers to examine.
The then feudal and dictatorial structure prompted the springing up of monastic and metaphysical institutions like Shantiniketan. With the non-violence movement extolling the rise of the spirit, institutions like the Satyagraha Ashram gained an intangible status as a political symbol. This miasma of sensuality and probity hinders the search for ‘truth’. Without utilizing monumentalism and symbolism, the structure inspires.
Before the observer might stand a cottage, but the nuances soar higher than its roots.
This was the spirit of India then - defined by restlessness, extreme wealth disparity, and vengeful hope clinging to the vestiges of respect. One looks at such a place and reads between the lines and within these lines lie the men who believed, preached, and died in its throes. Post-Independence, Nehru turned to create a New India. He enlisted Le Corbusier, in hopes that perhaps this magic lies within the hands of the urban creator. Chandigarh was brought forth as the city of Nehruvian ideals and modernities. But can an economy sustain itself, what is just an illusion? History repeated itself, as the project was marred by the inadequacy of funds.
Fifty years of technological and economical advancement later, the modern era was flanked by machine-like towers. Demands had to be met, and promises were to be fulfilled. Architecture rose to meet the occasion and a furrow of deterministic frameworks dotted the horizon. Straightaway, the anti-thesis took ground, and sustainable cities like Auroville, bungalow apartments like Kanchenjunga, and mid-rise, high-density planning like the Asiad Village overturned the principle.
They proved that the lack of diversity stems from the power of patronage. One may argue that modernist, recurrent apartments still signify the changing times - it is a reflection of capitalism, falling job opportunities, and the changing lives of people that feel the need to be grounded in space - an outreach into the minds of the flailing Millenials looking for job security and the elusive ecstasy of ownership.
Proponents might state that an ideal nation must place the needs before the wants. But a totalitarian state would still find ways to endorse its power.
So, this begs the question: how does nationalism affect architecture?
WWII led North Korea to employ architecture as a facade. For a city whose urban planning was defined by rigorous schedules and financial quota adherence, it is little surprise that the capital Pyongyang was razed, and rose again as a brutalist fiend where conformity abounded. Even then, North Korea relented as the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel stood for years as a symbol of the State presenting a veneer it could not sustain.
The early 20th century saw the rise of Fascism in Western Europe. Hitler’s plan to mold Berlin into a totalitarian state involved the total revamping of the existing architecture. At the same time, the modernist-nationalist regime in Iran aimed to celebrate its artistic and architectural heritage. The state propagated absorption of the past and rendered the future with optimism and sanguinity.
Architecture can question. The silent demolition of Pragati Maidan, a structure ahead of its time, in 2017 cast a shadow on our authenticity. Buildings emerging as a nation struggles with its constitutional footing employ nostalgia to endear themselves to the masses. But, are we quick enough to recognize the role of architecture in nation-building at times of peace? Do we have laws to preserve the same?
Architecture can remind. As calamity struck on the night of 2nd December 1984, the seeds of a museum named the Remember Bhopal Museum came into being. This is where the building gained sentience, the body came after. A nation is built on triumphs, tragedies, and remembrances of the same, lest we forget our humility. These spaces in history are reported in newspapers and recorded in journals, but what is the medium that lasts generations?
“What is the half-life of information? Does its rate of decay correlate with the medium that conveys it? Pixels need power. Paper is unstable in fire and flood. Letters carved in stone are more durable, although not so easily distributed.”
- Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
Architecture is the stone that forms and propagates the history of a nation. On it, rests the valuation of its industries, people, and ministries. It is necessary that we coherently recognize the art of creation and gauge its value outside of the political and market forces that drive it. Media as propaganda machinery has convinced a diverse mass to desire conformity. An era of overpopulation marked by a frantic working of the authorities to place a flimsy guise over larger concerns has extracted the spirit from the process. The noumenal world is now made of towering spines and glass fronts.
That a paradoxical existence is not only possible but palpable is evidenced in the works of Charles Correa. As architecture today becomes increasingly diverse and incommensurate with the seepage of gender inequalities, patronage demands, and preferences of the masses, we must remember that it is, but an emulation of current values and has always been affected by the outside forces. It has been employed as a force for building a nation’s identity, a weapon for manipulating the masses, and a shrine for the future generations to come - and will continue to be wielded as such.