Modernities Unlimited: Architecture and Ambivalence

Geschrieben am 13.10.2010 von ngo
Kategorie(n): Urban Age Mumbai
By Jyoti Hosagrahar //

By all accounts, India is racing ahead on a path to modernization and development. And the cities, as the engines of development, are at the forefront of modernity and globalization. Has Indian architecture and urbanism arrived at the state of being ‘modern’ or is it as yet becoming? Such a question assumes a universal understanding of what is ‘modern’ and its precise and identifiable features. There can be no discussion of modernity or modern architecture in India without reference to the experiences and interpretations of modernity in Western Europe and North America: therein lies the rub.

Some see the glass and steel skyscrapers of the financial centers, the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) for multinational corporations, exuberant shopping malls, and vast gated communities, as signs of a global modernity. Outside these forms that conjure up images of particular modernisms of Europe and North America, is an array of ‘transitional’ spaces that are as yet ‘modernizing.’ An urbanism rife with problems and emblematic of poverty: haphazard growth, inadequate infrastructure, and squalid squatter settlements. From another perspective, Indian cityscapes with their lively bazaars, traditional neighbourhoods, historic cities, and living heritage, are the quintessentially exotic ‘non-West.’ Seemingly isolated from the global flows of technology and information, they are celebrated as symbols of place, culture, and locality even as many complain of their being sullied by ‘modern’ influences.

Architecture and urbanism in India unsettles the calmness of accepted categorization of architecture (and societies) into ‘modern’ and ‘traditional,’ ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western.’ How does one make sense of the fragmented and paradoxical built environment? How do we understand its ambivalent modernity? Is the fragmentation a sign of the ‘failure’ of modernity or the disintegration of tradition? Incomplete and partial in all its aspects, are these vestiges of community and custom, place and tradition, history and spontaneity as yet transitional, on their way to becoming fully modern or are they the failures of modernity and bastardizations of traditions? Taking the ‘failures’ of Indian architecture and urbanism as a starting point: ‘failure’ to become ‘modern’ in European terms and its ‘failure’ to remain true to its inherited forms, I look into some of the ways that history, place, and locality have engaged with modernity and globalization. This raises the question of what defines ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ in the built environment and who arbitrates their identity.

Enlightenment thinkers in Western Europe brought into focus what Jürgen Habermas has called, the ‘project of modernity.’ Cornerstones of the modernist enterprise included the scientific domination of nature, rational modes of thinking, and the organization of society and space that together were to serve as vehicles for achieving liberation from myth, superstition, and religion. Fundamental to the emergence of modernity as a global project was Western Europe’s colonization of Asia and Africa. European rulers assumed the prerogative to be ‘modern’: to define its meaning and assert its forms. The definition was based on difference: to be ‘modern’ was to be ‘not traditional.’ In this binary scheme of being ‘modern’ and ‘traditional,’ those that were not entirely one or the other were declared to be ‘modernizing’ towards a pre-determined end. Once those in power had declared themselves the only legitimate moderns, those ‘others’ they labelled ‘traditional’ could only aspire, seek, adopt, or mimic modern forms in the dominant mould. However, they never complete the transition to become ‘modern’ like the original.

I use the term indigenous modernities to denote the paradoxical features of modernities rooted in their particular conditions and located outside the dominant discourse of a universal paradigm centered on an imagined ideal of the ‘West.’ As a seemingly coherent ‘traditional’ built environment ruptures, indigenous modernities are expressed in the irregular, the uneven, and the unexpected. In the actualization of universal agendas in a particular place, indigenous modernities negotiate the uniqueness of a region and its history with the ‘universals’ of science, reason, and liberation. In using the term ‘indigenous’ the emphasis is on context and locality, the regional interpretations and forms of modernity. Against the rigid opposition and monolithic identities of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern,’ ‘West’ and ‘non-West,’ the concept of indigenous modernities celebrates their simultaneity and engagement. Rather, the categories infiltrate each other so that neither form is completely one or the other. Acknowledging simultaneity allows an examination of their interaction rather than expecting a simplistic and complete replacement of one well-defined form by another. The spatial experiences of indigenous modernities are marked by the presence of formal contradictions and the absence of coherence where both ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ lack completeness.

Two Vignettes

Gurgaon In the last decade, Gurgaon, a mega-corporate park, and home to DLF City, one of Asia’s largest private townships, has emerged as a significant center of global transaction. A world of glittering malls, vast, gated enclosures of multistory blocks of luxury apartments, and glossy corporate offices, Gurgaon epitomizes, for many observers, symbols of modernity in India. The spaces, for these observers, are largely designed, supported, and inhabited by those identifying with the forms modernity adopted and promoted by corporate powers in Europe and North America to resemble particular modernities in the distant metropoles.

Gurgaon’s apartment complexes, office parks, shopping malls, schools, hospitals, and golf courses are all bounded and secured, and distinct from its locality. Filling the interstices, between such worlds are the fluid, flexible, and spontaneous landscapes of the villagers who surround Gurgaon. Urban villages with entirely different land use and ownership patterns are hemmed in by new developments that have taken over their agricultural lands. Vegetable sellers and vendors of motley items (stuffed toys, mosquito repellant devices, magazines and such like) congregate at bus stops and intersections, providing a “public realm”, albeit one that reflects a different modernity than the shopping malls.

Images of Gurgaon render irrelevant locality and tradition. However an historical perspective on the development of DLF City reveals a complex engagement with Gurgaon’s particular institutional and social structures in the making of the global ‘modern’ landscape. The passing of the Delhi Development Act in 1957, for instance, made development of land in Delhi a state monopoly and served to inhibit land speculation and private development. K. P. Singh of Delhi Land and Finance (DLF), a real estate company, forced out of business in Delhi, began to buy land in Gurgaon in Haryana State at a time when it was still largely agricultural.

Land ownership and titles were complicated by the traditional patriarchal patterns of family and inheritance so that farms of even a few acres had multiple owners who needed to reach consensus before sale. Similarly, the absence of ‘modern’ fiscal instruments to provide loans for real estate development, Singh had to rely on the customary mechanisms of goodwill and social capital had to obtain personal loans. In the end, DLF and other private developers took up large scale construction with few guidelines and controls for development leaving much of the planning to market-forces.


Srirangapatna is a small town, between Bangalore and Mysore over 1000 years old, continuously inhabited, and rich with layers of history. Established as a temple town in the 9th century, over the centuries it became a fortified sovereign capital and then a garrison town for the British in the nineteenth century. In the dramatic cultural upheaval under the British in the nineteenth century, Srirangapatna became a center neither for trade, nor industry, nor for administration, but instead, fell into oblivion.

Today, the winding roads, closely lined with houses, many over a hundred years old, give the impression of a place that modernity forgot. The spatial organization of the city by religion and caste is still evident in some places with the oldest neighbourhoods of Brahmin priests around the main temple. Stone paved and dirt streets with single and double storied houses; white washed adobe walls, roofs made of hand-made terracotta tiles, carved wooden pillars and brackets all add to the appearance of changeless tradition. For modernist observers seeking forms resembling European modernity, Srirangapatna epitomizes an exotic cultural landscape in contrast to the visions of global modernity of Gurgaon.

Yet, signs of cultural upheaval break out of the perfect picture: wireless towers, bridges, fl at-roofed concrete buildings, and mushrooming luxury resorts by the riverbanks. A municipality aspires to rationalize management and provides piped water supply. With the splintering of large joint families into nuclear ones, Krishna Prasad’s house ancestral home has been subdivided among the inheritors until all he owns is a two-roomed unit with a loft. Traditional occupations have been made irrelevant, agricultural work is supplemented by white-collar jobs in Mandya or Mysore or even Bangalore, and the traditional joint families have given way to nuclear families.

Purushottama’s family circumvented building restrictions to renovate their ancestral house. They chose concrete fl at roofs against tile because they thought it reflected higher status as did bright colours and carved embellishments. Resort hotels that have claimed the edges of the river to place a price on views of coconut groves and the sacred Kaveri, negotiate historic public ghats (steps and platforms going into the water) where people and visitors continue to bathe and worship.

Reading Ambivalent Modernities

Two landscapes, one seemingly global and ‘modern’ and the other changelessly traditional and local, neither are completely one or the other. The emergent built forms, their use and meanings, though not identical either to an idealized European model or imaginary, authentic Indian one, were both born out of a cultural condition of modernity. While one is a self-conscious effort to create identifiable images of a universal modernism located in the ‘West,’ in the other, customary spatial practices negotiated the cultural turmoil of modernity. In the altered context familiar forms acquire new uses and meanings and strange elements were incorporated into familiar arrangements.

As culturally constructed oppositions, ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ are not inherent features of a built form. From this perspective, all modernities are indigenous and all its expressions equally valid. Acknowledging ‘other’ modernities is also to observe the ways that dominant concepts from the metropole, proclaimed to be universal and liberating, translate into local spatial practices; and the ways that particular forms, places, and communities engage with a changing cultural milieu to adapt and also recreate themselves. Recognizing the plurality of modernities legitimizes its many interpretations. We would then cease to aspire for and lament over an imagined universalism or romanticize about a built environment imagined and fixed as ‘traditional.’ Unable to completely reject one or surrender fully to the other, they melded into internally divided indigenous modernities.

Evident also is the complex interplay between the deliberate reordering of space, and of social, political, and economic forms of organization (based on Western European forms and experiences), and modernity as the tumultuous cultural condition brought about by the rupture with history. Buildings and cities became the sites for both the disintegration of inherited traditions and for building anew: imagined and lived, planned and perceived as a theatre for the enactment of a modernity particular to its context.

What makes Indian architecture and urbanism ‘modern’ are not the global technologies of spatial planning and design; nor is the built form cast in myth and rigid traditions awaiting modernization. In contrast to such linear narratives, I propose that the anxieties of displacement and the fragmentation of experience in urban India, its ambivalent modernity, is a reflection of countless and unlimited interpretations of its indigenous modernities. If the course of modernity is a constant cycle of destruction and creation and tradition too, is subject to reason, adaptation, and change, then the historical route of the one is intimately linked to that of the other. The unsettling concept of indigenous modernity offers the possibility of recovering a past for a modernity from which we might better understand the trajectory of its development in a postcolonial future – and better direct it.

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