A LAN­GUAGE SPO­KEN IN WHIS­PERS

Domus - - CONFETTI -

Among the key is­sues that the mak­ers of the Con­sti­tu­tion of In­dia had to deal with was In­dia’s feu­dal set-up, which had se­verely af­fected the coun­try’s so­cial fab­ric. The In­dian Govern­ment in­tro­duced many land re­forms, and among these, the Za­min­dari Abo­li­tion Act (1951) be­came the first ma­jor agrar­ian re­form.

In the open­ing sec­tion of Stretched Ter­rains, Ram Rah­man (co-cu­ra­tor) lays out, in cap­sules, a play­ground of pho­to­graphs, ar­chi­tec­tural mod­els, and en­gi­neer­ing draw­ings, as a dio­rama of won­ders, with an Fu­ture-of-the-World Expo-like feel. The ti­tle of his sec­tion is Delhi: Build­ing the Mod­ern, show­cas­ing key ar­chi­tects and their built works which de­fined Delhi’s mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture dur­ing the Nehru­vian years.

Gaz­ing at the minia­ture field of draw­ings, mod­els and pho­to­graphs, it felt like I was back in my ar­chi­tec­ture school. At the very be­gin­ning of the ex­hi­bi­tion, I found my­self face to face with a scale­model of ar­chi­tect Raj Re­wal’s The State Trad­ing Cor­po­ra­tion built of solid wood, a ma­te­rial that is no longer in use for pro­fes­sional model-mak­ing. This ‘mini-box’ of won­ders, with lift-off roof sec­tions gives you a peek into the in­te­rior labyrinthine spa­ces. Sur­round­ing it were an ar­ray in­for­ma­tion pan­els, trac­ing early Mod­ern Ar­chi­tec­ture in Delhi. Ram builds a con­cise in­tro­duc­tion with a hand­ful of projects from the 1950s to make vis­i­ble the be­gin­ning of the first gen­er­a­tion of ar­chi­tects of Mod­ern In­dia. Both Achyut Kan­vinde and Habib Rah­man, who were taught by Wal­ter Gropius, built projects that have the Bauhaus in­flu­ence with re­gional twists. I would also like to men­tion here that al­most all projects in this ex­hi­bi­tion are pub­lic build­ings and the en­tire ar­ray sug­gests that in this pe­riod of Delhi’s de­vel­op­ment, the govern­ment was the big­gest builder with a vi­sion.

Now look­ing at the place­ment of The State Trad­ing Cor­po­ra­tion scale-model (sit­ting in the cen­tre of the room) I was in­ter­ested in know­ing how its own grid had a con­nect with the larger grid of the na­tional imag­i­na­tion (sug­gested by this brief in­fo­graphic time­line). The project that im­me­di­ately caught my at­ten­tion was a short note on Nehru’s In­ter­na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion on Low-Cost Hous­ing (1954). Nehru wanted In­dia to free it­self from the im­pe­rial in­flu­ence and move to­wards the egal­i­tar­ian, and this was a ma­jor step for­ward for a coun­try with a residue of im­pe­rial build­ings and no hous­ing projects post in­de­pen­dence.

From the panel: “One of Habib Rah­man’s first re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at the Cen­tral Pub­lic Works Depart­ment (CPWD) af­ter mov­ing to Delhi was man­ag­ing this am­bi­tious ex­hi­bi­tion which brought in ar­chi­tects and engi­neers from across In­dia and other na­tions. This show­cased the im­por­tance of cheap util­i­tar­ian mass hous­ing which Nehru was de­ter­mined to project. The site next to Pu­rana Qila be­came the per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion grounds for trade and in­dus­try.”

The im­age of the In­ter­na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion on Low-Cost Hous­ing trig­gered a mem­ory (from my teenage years) — the very last frames of Raj Kapoor’s film Shree 420 (1955) where he and Nar­gis star as the lead­ing pair, with the sorry fate of so­ci­ety as the back­drop (cinephile mo­ment#1). Kapoor plays his Chaplin-es­que char­ac­ter of a young jobless man, who comes to the city with a Bach­e­lor’s de­gree and a pos­i­tive attitude, only to be cor­rupted by the greed of the wealthy and their Ponzi hous­ing scheme — Janta Ghar. In the last reels of the film, Kapoor de­liv­ers a mono­logue to his fel­low street dwellers, who had in­vested their sav­ings in or­der to have a roof over their heads.

“ab aap apne aap ko bhi dekh lee­jiye kyon ke­hta hai ki aap ga­reeb hein, bekaar aur beghar hein, aaj aap mein se har ek ke pass ek crore sat­ter lakh ru­pia hai wahi ru­pia jo maine aap ko janta ghar ka kwaab dikha ke jama kiya tha mein apko dhoka dena nahin chahta aap lo­gon ko ekkhta karna chahta hoon agar aap cha­hen to apna sau sau ru­pia wapis le sakte hein

ma­gar meri maniye toh apni daulat ko yoon lootaiye nahin apni taquat ko ghataiye nahin sau sau rupye mein kabhi kisi ka ghar nahin ban sakta ma­gar dedh crore rupye mein lakhon ghar ban sakte hein agar aap apni gov­er­ment se ja ke ye ka­hen ki yeh raha dedh crore ru­pia aur hum lakhon aadmi ki him­mat aur maz­doori hai hume za­meen do hum apne ghar khud ba­nayenge”

The clos­ing scene of the film has a low-cost pub­lic hous­ing in its back­ground as a prom­ise of the good times to come.

With that some­what happy mem­ory I move onto the most de­fined seg­ment in the ex­hi­bi­tion, and one must say the most strik­ing — the Hall of Na­tions (born in 1972; de­mol­ished in 2017).

“a vi­sion­ary con­cep­tual and tech­ni­cal mas­ter­work... lit­er­ally hand­crafted in re­in­forced con­crete by work­ers us­ing very sim­ple tools.”

Ram del­i­cately stitches to­gether Madan Ma­hatta’s pho­to­graphs, never-seen-be­fore en­gi­neer­ing draw­ings by Ma­hen­dra Raj and an ex­quis­ite space frame model of the now-de­mol­ished struc­ture by ar­chi­tect Raj Re­wal. Along with these vi­sion­ary draw­ings, Ma­hatta’s photo-doc­u­ments vary in both form and per­son­al­ity. Some show how the space-frame struc­ture was pro­duced in-situ and oth­ers sug­gest a more cin­e­matic emo­tion of a grand dream of imag­in­ing our own Mod­ern. Ma­hatta must have been com­mis­sioned by the ar­chi­tect’s of­fice to photo-doc­u­ment the en­tire con­struc­tion process of the largest in-situ space­frame in the world.

Ram col­lages some of these pic­tures with Ma­hen­dra Raj’s ex­quis­ite draw­ings that speak a lan­guage of tech­ni­cal mas­tery in both con­cep­tual and math­e­mat­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of struc­ture, as well as ar­chi­tec­tural drafts­man­ship. The lay­out of Ma­hen­dra Raj’s draw­ings and Madan Ma­hatta photo-doc­u­ments is very or­ganic. It was in­ter­est­ing to note that these doc­u­ments could speak about the build­ing in the ab­sence of ar­chi­tec­tural draw­ing(s).

While look­ing at the pho­to­graphs, the cli­max of Yash Cho­pra multi-star­rer Tr­ishul (1978), which was shot in the in­te­ri­ors of this struc­ture, im­me­di­ately comes to my mind (cinephile mo­ment#2). The night-time scene starts with some­what ex­pres­sion­ist light­ing, cast­ing omi­nous shad­ows, and moves into a full-blown ac­tion se­quence with cars driv­ing through en­trance glass pan­els, fist-fight­ing, and gun-sling­ing. And in this mise-en-scene, the deep dra­matic voices of Amitabh Bachchan and San­jeev Ku­mar make roar­ing echoes of two ri­val builders of New Delhi. Ar­chi­tec­tural pho­tog­ra­phy, in my view, is all about scalar and vol­u­met­ric emo­tions of both the build­ing and its site. When Ram lays out the project, he does so in a sto­ry­board for­mat. You see the wide shots along with the ma­jes­tic in­te­ri­ors of the Hall of Na­tions, which moves into sil­hou­ettes of the space-frame in progress with re­in­force­ments bars be­ing bent into po­si­tion all the way to a cast con­crete mod­ule, pos­si­bly pro­duced for struc­tural test­ing. These pho­to­graphs can no longer be viewed in the same con­text as op­posed to when they were first com­mis­sioned.

Ram also lay­ers his scenog­ra­phy by blow­ing up some of these pho­to­graphs to large-scale prints, strate­gi­cally plac­ing them so that they can speak of the grand vi­sions that they had once cap­tured, as well as be­come an ex­ten­sion to the ex­hi­bi­tion’s land­scape; cor­ners open up into the city grids. Fur­ther into the ex­hi­bi­tion, there is a photograph of Ar­chi­tect Joseph Allen Stein’s Es­corts Fac­tory (1964). It’s a mar­velous mo­ment. A per­fect frame

of a bright new fac­tory space with­out its work­force. A space so pris­tine that it some­how be­comes place-less. Had it not been for the cap­tion, I could have mis­taken it for a space from the glo­ri­ous days of in­dus­trial Detroit. Some­how this photograph re­minded me that Ar­chi­tec­ture is a lan­guage spo­ken in whis­pers.

My most fa­vorite photograph in the ex­hi­bi­tion of the In­dia In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre’s stair­well. Ma­hatta shoots top-down, with Ar­chi­tect J.A. Stein in mid-frame, as­cend­ing the con­crete folded steps and with the hint of the pho­tog­ra­pher’s shoes caught in the fore­ground. The pic­ture looks like it’s a shot straight out of a Hitch­cock film.

Nor­man Forster : I’m cu­ri­ous Zaha, I mean how do you view draw­ing as such, sketch­ing. Is that im­por­tant to you? Zaha Ha­did : I find that very im­por­tant. I do. Nor­man Forster : Are you crit­i­cal that newer gen­er­a­tions of ar­chi­tects are per­haps less de­pen­dent or more... Zaha Ha­did : They can’t do it any­more. in the same way that they can’t write (pause) a sen­tence. They can’t do it.

[From the panel dis­cus­sion Zaha Ha­did: Be­yond Bound­aries, Art and De­sign (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rtMRwj0DPI)]

In­ter­est­ingly, this ex­hi­bi­tion does not in­clude a sin­gle ar­chi­tec­tural draw­ing, and only brings to fo­cus through the pre­sen­ta­tion of en­gi­neer­ing draw­ing the coded lan­guage shared within a closed group of prac­ti­tion­ers. En­gi­neer­ing and struc­tural draw­ings are like X-rays of build­ings made be­fore they are built. They are math­e­mat­i­cal di­a­grams of how to make that which con­stantly

de­fies grav­ity. Most view­ers will look at these en­gi­neer­ing draw­ings as com­plex com­pu­ta­tional di­a­grams. You see, when ar­chi­tects draw lines, those lines have a very spe­cific code. They speak of ma­te­rial, depth, di­men­sion, and a shift in lev­els. They speak of a tex­tu­ral skin. The weight of a line has mean­ing and this mean­ing is only vis­i­ble to those eye that have stud­ied this lan­guage of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It’s a code that not ev­ery­one can de­ci­pher.

Ma­hen­dra Raj’s en­gi­neer­ing draw­ings con­tinue to ex­pand the im­agery of ever-evolv­ing ar­chi­tec­ture of ideas. These ex­quis­ite draw­ings hint at the con­structabil­ity of the un­build­able. They also gen­tly hint at the van­ish­ing tech­niques of drafts­man­ship and the mem­ory of places gone for­ever. While step­ping out, I thought to my­self ‘this really ex­ists and it has al­ready hap­pened’.

The ex­hi­bi­tion Delhi: Build­ing the Mod­ern held at the Ki­ran Nadar Mu­seum of Art, New Delhi, from Fe­bru­ary 3 - July 31, 2017 — cu­rated by artist and pho­tog­ra­pher Ram Rah­man — com­prised a rare col­lec­tion of orig­i­nal mod­els and en­gi­neer­ing draw­ings along with pho­to­graphs from the last five decades of the 20th cen­tury. Fea­tur­ing Habib Rah­man, Achyut Kan­vinde, Joseph Stein, Raj Re­wal, Kuldip Singh, JK Chowd­hury, and en­gi­neer Ma­hen­dra Raj, the ex­hibit also con­tex­tu­alised the mod­ern cul­tural mo­ment with a dis­play of orig­i­nal copies of De­sign mag­a­zine pub­lished by Pat­want Singh, and the pub­lic mu­rals on govern­ment build­ings done by MF Hu­sain and Satish Gu­jral. This con­nects to the ad­join­ing dis­play of a rare large col­lec­tion of works by Hu­sain from the 1950s.

Delhi: Build­ing the Mod­ern was a seg­ment within the ex­hi­bi­tion Stretched Ter­rains cu­rated by the Mu­seum’s Di­rec­tor Roobina Kar­ode.

This page, clock­wise from left: an ex­cerpt from the open­ing re­marks by Jawa­har­lal Nehru at the In­ter­na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion on Low-Cost Hous­ing, New Delhi (1954); screen grabs from the film Shree 420

(1955); an archival im­age of a model vil­lage at the In­ter­na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion on Low-Cost Hous­ing

Shree 420 (1955) Dir. Raj Kapoor/RK Films She­ma­roo En­ter­tain­ment LTD / https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPLr46wm5Jc

This page, top: Ho­tel for NDMC at Chanakya­puri (Ak­bar Ho­tel), Draw­ing no. 31.DH.18A: Fram­ing Plan at ele. +14’4”& +17’-4” (Tower por­tion),1967; bot­tom: Min­istry of For­eign Trade (Hall of Na­tions), Draw­ing no. 101.ITF.65: Re­inf. lay­out at lvl 7&8, 1971/1972 Op­po­site page, clock­wise from top: Ho­tel for NDMC at Chanakya­puri (Ak­bar Ho­tel), Draw­ing no. 31.DH.20: De­tails of elev +14’-4” & +17’4”, (Tower por­tion)

- 2, 1967; Images of the Hall of Na­tions — en­gi­neered by Ma­hen­dra Raj — while it was be­ing built; Min­istry of For­eign Trade (Hall of Na­tions), Draw­ing no. 101.ITF.193, Re­inf. de­tails, typ. 9 mem­ber joint, 1972

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