The Shift in Design Sensibilities

The growing economy and population has led to enormous housing needs, driving the extent of architectural work and creating massive opportunities in the country. It is also one of the reasons why the number of foreign architectural firms working in India has increased. In the aftermath of cities burdened by the lack of infrastructure, the opportunity to design and make a difference in India has become immense. This has also led to the increasing number of Indian architects, who, after receiving their architectural education overseas, have returned to India to practice and be a part of the shift the country is going through.

An influence from the West, glass and designer-shaped buildings began as design statements some years back, but are now shunned by responsible architects for their out-of-context implementation. Indian architecture is seeing many explorations. Though globalization is widely influencing the architecture being built in India today, the need and anxiety to localize is also fiercely felt by many.

Glass, steel and aluminium might remain as ‘fashionable’ materials, but there has been a shift in sensibilities with the revival of Indian crafts

Glass, steel and aluminium might remain as ‘fashionable’ materials, but there has been a shift in sensibilities with the revival of Indian crafts and the use of natural and alternative materials such as brick, mud, clay, bamboo, wood, stone, etc. Significantly, many architects such as Krishnarao Jaisim, Neelam Manjunath, Sathya Prakash Varanashi, Chitra Vishwanath, Anupama Kundoo, Yatin Pandya, Dean D’Cruz and Samira Rathod are innovatively bringing forward these materials to create statements. India can also take pride in its legends like Didi Contractor, an 88-year old woman, whose training in architecture has not been formal but come from Didi’s empirical knowledge attributed to her wide reading and exposure to the field. Even at this age today, her work with mud and clay have revealed how we all should turn to nature for our answers.

The concepts of sustainability and ‘going green’ have become commonplace though some architects and real estate builders use these terms more so as marketing gimmicks rather than as a mandate for responsible design. Discussions around the two have taken center stage at architectural forums, conveying the urgency felt by architects and planners in India to correctly interpret and use them.

The importance of context, sustainability, nature, and creating an architecture that is true to our culture and cultivates an ‘Indian identity’ has gained much credence. The works of legends such as Charles Correa, BV Doshi, Raj Rewal, Laurie Baker, CN Raghavendran, Shiv Datt Sharma, among others, have long represented Indian architecture on international platforms. Today, a lot of younger contemporary practices in India have joined them, such as Sanjay Puri Architects, Mathew & Ghosh Architects and Morphogenesis who are making waves overseas for their futuristic thinking that rests on a traditional ethos and the core tenets of a contextual, responsible and resourceful architecture. Apart from globally positioning themselves at expos, biennials and award competitions, Indian architects are doing a fair amount of work overseas too.

The adaptation to technology has also been appreciable with advancements being successfully integrated in design aspects. India’s emerging architects have exemplified a lot of fresh work that could be grouped under ‘contemporary Indian sensibility’—a sensibility that takes the roots and ethos of Indian architecture and integrates them into contemporary vocabulary. The step towards bold and experimental architecture has already been taken, for example, in the work done by Malik Architects and Planet 3 Studios. Many are involved in a critical reinterpretation of how buildings and spaces should be.

For many architects in the country, architecture is not merely about the ‘aesthetics,’ it is about functionality

The re-conceptualisation of spaces has been a revelation too. There are several architects such as Sanjay Mohe and Sandeep Khosla who have focused on the spatial experiences of the built environment. For them, as for many others, it’s about designing buildings as spaces, and not merely ‘objects.’ Even once forgotten spaces like kitchens and bathrooms are now seeing makeovers as they become spaces of immense significance. For many architects in the country, architecture is not merely about the ‘aesthetics,’ it is about functionality, about a ‘way of living’, about how the profession can affect us.

Changing lifestyles have transformed the meaning of architecture for many. The perils of technological exploitation, excessive virtual networking leading to failures in proper communication, the dependence on patrons and well-travelled clients, and the diminishing importance given to culture and heritage are the challenges facing architecture in India today. There is lots of information available, but is it being converted into knowledge? While changing lifestyles have impacted architecture, it is important for the profession to ruminate on how it can in turn make a lasting impact on transforming lifestyles.

The profession’s woes also have a lot to do with architectural education in India, which has been deteriorating over the decades and could use an overhaul. Though the field has a lot of well-acclaimed academics in India, the unexpected proliferation of architecture schools and the easy path to licensure have been huge sources of consternation in India, as has the curriculum and faculty. So much so that a small number of firms have even taken upon themselves to hold smaller academic programs, and train students themselves.

The role of Indian media in architecture and design, has also remained very limited. There are very few people in the country who have taken it upon themselves to make a difference to architecture and cities through writing. Though the subject of writing on architecture has seen much growth in the past few years with people expressing their interest towards it, one would like to see the Indian media getting into more participatory roles and becoming an analytical weapon in making everyone realize how architecture and planning can affect cities.

To conclude, Indian architecture is in a state of flux where we have everything—explorations, opportunities, experiments and evolved sensibilities—and a step in the right direction could yield great results and maybe help in re-discovering what we have lost. The need of the hour is to not be carried away with what is happening around us, but to understand our needs, our expectations, our roots and work towards an architecture that adapts to changing lifestyles but stays true to its values and identity; that communicates to people and shapes our society; that helps in building memories and gives us buildings and spaces that can sustain till posterity.