Was modernism a South Asian invention? MoMA Exhibit Reveals Astonishing Architectural Inventiveness in Mid-Century India and Pakistan

When India broke free from British colonial rule in 1947, the people faced many important decisions regarding their collective future. One of the most significant was the choice between brick and concrete.

The brick was representative of the preferences of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, who believed that independence would be fostered through the use of traditional craftsmanship and building techniques. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, countered that modernism was the answer. Concrete was synonymous with reinvention, instantiating his belief that dams and other large-scale infrastructure were “temples of a new era”.

A fascinating exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art explores the ways in which these conflicting worldviews found common ground and how related dilemmas were resolved in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Document the architectural dimensions of decolonization in South Asia between 1947 and 1985, The Independence Project provides an incisive re-examination of common assumptions about modernism. The accompanying book promises to become a reference not only for architectural historians but also for future planners in changing societies.

Modernism was initially the dominant force shaping the postcolonial Indian landscape, a manifestation of Nehru’s political influence, amplified by the architectural influence of Le Corbusier. In 1950 Corb was recruited to develop a master plan for Chandigarh, the new capital of Punjab. As one of the founders of modernism in Europe, the Franco-Swiss architect brought considerable prestige to the region, enabling him to pursue his vision of the ideal metropolis on an unprecedented scale.

Concrete was the predominant building material. Favored for its symbolic associations with progress, the material conveniently met the practical need to quickly build housing to accommodate large numbers of refugees displaced by the 1947 partition. But practical considerations led to notable differences in how the cement was prepared and the uses to which it was put, a distinction seen in concrete architecture throughout South Asia.

One of the main challenges was transportation, which made off-site mass production impossible in many cases. But what India lacked in machinery, the country had in manual labor. As a result, much of the construction was done by hand on site, a practice of the past. Industry has been transformed into craftsmanship. Unlike the brutalist architecture of Europe, much of the architecture in South Asia had a lovingly human touch.

As the MoMA exhibition and book illustrate, it would be wrong to say that South Asia has been a passive receptacle of modernism, colonized by European architectural standards. Le Corbusier was not the main protagonist. The infrastructure of India and Pakistan was not derivative, much less poor execution of European principles. Necessity gave modernism an urgency in South Asia, bringing out a latent potential that Europeans never found. To a remarkable extent, these decolonized countries made modern modernism inseparable from form and function, even as the West abandoned modernist values ​​in favor of the superficial aesthetics of the International Style.

Attendance is part of the story, but not everything. Even as South Asian engineers pushed concrete to new structural extremes for lack of materials such as steel, and builders redefined mass production as production by the masses, architects found new ways to combine new materials with traditional brick.

In many concrete buildings, masonry provided inexpensive infill, resulting in beguiling hybrids of old and new that creatively bridged the gap between Gandhi and Nehru. The masonry also invited the reintroduction of regionally appropriate designs developed over countless generations, such as perforations in the walls to facilitate air circulation. In this new setting, the ancient structures look surprisingly modern: form and function were integrated from the start, only to be temporarily separated by the pretensions of the Raj.

Although it may be an exaggeration to describe indigenous South Asian architecture as modernism before the letter, there are important lessons for would-be decolonizers of architecture elsewhere. The distinction between tradition and progress belongs to the rhetoric of colonization. The future is reclaimed through the process of reintegrating past and present.