Books built around conversations must often balance the demands of breadth and spontaneity against those of depth and structure. Achieving the balance in the discussion is a greater challenge when the people involved come to the table from different disciplines. The book under review is a conversation between Ramin Jahanbegloo, a noted Iranian philosopher, and Raj Rewal, an Indian architect who has helped shape the formation of a distinctly Indian modern architecture since the 1970s. Rewal’s work is the focus of the conversation. Rewal’s personal voice does come through clearly, and we get useful glimpses into his thoughts about cities, architecture, sustainability, and culture. The initial conversation also offers a valuable glimpse into his childhood and education. As a kaleidoscope of Rewal’s ideas about a very wide range of issues, the book is a useful reference especially for those who know little about contemporary Indian architecture. But that is also its main weakness. It sacrifices depth in the pursuit of breadth and offers very little by way of a coherent or critical world view.
Rewal’s contribution makes him a worthy subject for an extended interview or conversation. Over the 1960s and 1970s, Indian architects like Rewal discovered the lessons that everyday traditional environments could offer to contemporary architects. These led to the establishment of an approach to design centred on broken-up forms gathering around small and sociable open spaces. Rewal, along with Balkrishna Doshi, Charles Correa and Achyut Kanvinde, firmly established this paradigm in the Indian architect’s imagination by producing workable, elegant and highly livable environments. This approach stood in contrast to the colder, less approachable legacy of European modernists like Le Corbusier, as seen in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad in the 1950s.
Architects like Rewal also broke from modernism’s anti-traditionalism by turning to the wisdom of the “vernacular” for inspiration about context-sensitive architecture. At one point in the book, he says: “Our generation has been trying to discover the common thread with which the fabric of Indian architecture has been woven in the past and its significance for our times” (p73). Rewal drew inspiration from the climatic and sociable logic of traditional housing design of the hot arid regions, especially Jaisalmer. He then transmuted this logic into design strategies that take account of contemporary needs. Thus, Rewal’s Asian Games village in New Delhi (built to house athletes participating in the 1982 Games), considered a classic of modern Indian architecture, has a shaded pedestrian system of pathways separate from the vehicular system. Apartment blocks cluster around shaded open courts through which people enter each block. The series of interlinked open spaces allow people to orient themselves as they walk, encounter others informally and even gather for a cultural function.
Interestingly, the research into humane form is complemented in Rewal’s work with ambition in the engineering dimension of architecture. Moreover, his discussion of the innovative combination of stone and steel in his recent Lisbon Ismaili Centre reveals his awareness of the way cultural messages may be coded into the structural system of a building. However, it is precisely at points like this when Rewal invokes big ideas like “the Islamic ideal of where one is a part of the whole” (p131), in relation to the structural system that one wishes Jehanbegloo would critically examine the architect’s conceptual universe. At the very least, this could help systematise the rich theoretical possibilities of this particular design. But this is not to be, since either Jahanbegloo shares most of Rewal’s basic assumptions or is simply not critically oriented. This is perhaps what also prevents him from querying Rewal’s confusion as when, in talking about the ethics of urban form and values, the latter says, “Democratic urban governance can imbibe the values of city states like Jaipur and Udaipur where the maharajas were able to dictate a sense of harmony in their cities” (p59). So, are we to assume that there is no difference between the form of a democratic city and a monarchical one?
The book reads like an amiable stroll through a landscape of issues and projects. Jahanbegloo takes Rewal through a bewildering variety of issues. Each issue is important, but also already much discussed. And Rewal’s answers often rehearse what he has already said in other places. Not surprisingly, the book thus fails to “produce challenging ideas and provocative suggestions on the role of an Indian architect in a global context” (p ix). Instead, it reinforces fairly cliched, even modernist, ways of viewing architecture, urban planning and even governance.
One such cliched line of approach is one that looks for spiritual content in the work of an Indian architect like Rewal largely because he is Indian without first ascertaining his spirituality or traditionalism. Jahanbegloo asks Rewal when he was imbued with religion and spirituality. Rewal answers with anecdotes that show he is more of a regular (Indian) guy than a dedicated spiritualist. And yet, Jahanbegloo pursues the spiritual theme in different ways getting nowhere interesting as Rewal constantly diverts intellectual traffic towards the sacredness that is inherent in the secular dimension of everyday life. Now, Rewal’s own work could be read as a rich elaboration of the idea that the sacred is to be “found” in the profane, and need not exist as a separate “higher” plane. Apparently staked on the latter assumption, Jahanbegloo repeatedly fails to hear this unspoken invitation to a more fruitful, philosophical discussion about the architecture of Raj Rewal, and about architecture in general.
Raj Rewal in conversation with Ramin Jahanbegloo
Oxford University Press
146 pages; Rs 995