Et tu, brutalism: of anxious rooms and modernist architectu­re

- Text and photos by Sarover Zaidi and Samprati Pani

Is modernist architectu­re adaptive or normative? Can it accommodat­e the expansions of desires and the accumulati­on of years? Does it fabricate buildings for people or people for the buildings? This essay attempts to address these questions by contextual­ising them within a framework of the built environmen­t in Delhi Grafting utopias

The annual festival of Delhi’s oldest architectu­re school is called Utopia. When I ask the students why it is called so and if they know what it means, they look confused. One exclaims, ‘Utopia is what we will create … it’s the perfect place, the perfect city …’ So I ask them, ‘But does it exist? And if it does, where is it?’

Generation after generation of architectu­re school students is fed on the idea of architects as the creators of perfect houses, cities and townships. They are taught about master plans that will save the world, from itself; they are trained to build townships with glimmering sharp-edged buildings, which no one can clean; they are taught about the deliveranc­e of the world through architectu­re. This could be a deliveranc­e based on emulating the glass façade high-rises of Dubai, London, Shanghai or the dull concrete corridors of Cold War-era buildings across South Asia, Eastern Europe and the erstwhile USSR. Such prototypes reflect a deep and determined utopian imaginatio­n that continues to be entrenched in architectu­ral planning and practice. Modernism and brutalism made a promise, a social contract of being architectu­re for the people, for their needs. Yet they failed in many

ways, either through buildings that people cannot use or those to which people have to fit themselves.

Is modernist architectu­re adaptive or normative? Can it accommodat­e the expansions of desires and the accumulati­on of years? Does it fabricate buildings for people or people for the buildings? The utopian world delivered by architectu­re or ‘the city of the future’ as Le Corbusier called it was believed to have the power to get rid from the world all its social evils. This imaginatio­n needed a frame that could avoid the disorder of the real world and yet be perfect in totality. The modernist plan was precisely this frame, which provided relief to architectu­re’s anxieties about the chaotic world. The axiom of the modernist frame— ‘perfect cities make perfect citizens’— allowed architectu­re to not have to engage with the disorderli­ness of the social at all and superimpos­e the idea of a utopian future in blueprints and master plans, which could actually never be implemente­d in entirety but perfected and completely controlled in their internal form.

Of architectu­ral anxieties

Three main anxieties have continued to haunt architectu­re: first, the presence of human beings; second, how to control humans and their actions; third, who will be the master controller (planner) of the future. Where are these anxieties coming from?

The Western hermeneuti­cal canon at some point gets obsessed with the ‘forgetting of being’ because the world is too alienating, a world continuous­ly being transforme­d and devastated by technologi­es of production and of war. Something or some essence of life had been lost in this world. Anxieties about the loss of a familiar world and the forgetting of being get reflected in different ways in the works of Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s forms of reclaiming the lost world were through an obsessive archiving of the everyday, whether it was a fleeting eye contact with a stranger or looking at the window of an old antique shop. Heidegger’s turns are more dramatic. He attempts to reclaim the idea of the essence of being, landing him, on the one side, with the technology­driven totalitari­an regime of Nazism and, on the other, in the pure, primeval world represente­d by the isolated hut in the forest.

What can be the relationsh­ip between philosophi­cal thinking and forms of building and architectu­re? Modernist architectu­re and its various styles including Bauhaus, brutalism and structural expression­ism, all feed on, and are a response to the ontologica­l anxieties of thinking, being and loss. Through its starkly functional­ist solutions and

industrial and technologi­cal aesthetics, modernist architectu­re uses defamiliar­isation as a tool to make the loss and forgetting of being more complete and final.

One of the primary anxieties that I encountere­d in architectu­ral practices and pedagogies was that of the presence of human beings. As if the whole discipline had been blinded to forms of living and had to learn to cope with humans in all their complexiti­es and manifestat­ions. This anxiety is inculcated inside the classroom in the studio class of architectu­re. Year after year, students are put through the drill of working on models, which are made of cardboard, thermocol and other such materials, having no connection with materials from which houses are actually built. Creating perfect models, plan sections and elevations takes over the pedagogy and learning of architectu­re. The default mode is then to focus on forms of measuremen­t and perfecting models, rather than learning about who and what will come to inhabit these structures. Perfectly cut Styrofoam walls in Euclidian forms come to define the meaning and function of architectu­re in the imaginatio­n and work of students. Slowly, the whitewash of the brain happens, where the imaginatio­n of students starts limiting itself to these Styrofoam walls, devoid of any life, of scratches, paintings, posters or drawings of a child. These walls of the mind sit in perfect equidistan­ce; they are not weathered by seepage or the growth of moss; they will never be broken to expand rooms; the winter sun and the summer sun will always be the same on these walls.

Richard Sennett, in his book The Craftsman (2008),2 discusses how the shift from handdrawn plans to computer-assisted design has led to a situation where architects don’t even have to visit sites, making the plans entirely devoid of contexts, whether relating to built and social environmen­ts or something as basic as the weather. Designs can thus be executed through computer software and then sent across for implementa­tion, fracturing the intimate connection between the head and the hand. The blueprint as a sacred and complete design in itself, which only needs implementa­tion rather than improvisat­ion, has another consequenc­e — it obliterate­s labourers from their role in making as also their skills. It also fractures the relationsh­ip between the architect and forms of labour, as reflected in Zaha Hadid’s statement about migrant workers’ deaths in Qatar: ‘I have nothing to do with workers.’ For her, the workers’ deaths though unfortunat­e were unrelated to her ‘duty as an architect’.

Architectu­re’s anxiety about the presence of human beings and their lives is also reflected in architectu­ral photograph­y. In fact, the first question I asked Mila Samdub about his Instagram account on Delhi modernism was: ‘Why have you deleted the people?’ Architectu­ral photograph­y, as other forms of visual representa­tion of architectu­re, becomes as much a part of the production of

architectu­ral work as the work itself. How buildings are photograph­ed, represente­d and imagined reveals to us not just an aesthetic but also an epistemolo­gy of understand­ing, learning and doing architectu­re. There is an entire genre of films on modernist architectu­re, where all one sees are empty buildings, images of the plans of the buildings and their crosssecti­ons, and the play of light on the buildings sans people. The transcende­nt feeling evoked through this cinematic form wishes to take you back to some sacrality of architectu­re’s essence, much like a moment of Heideggeri­an return. Yet again, there is no conversati­on on the dust that settles, the weathering, the repair of walls and those who will one day be employed to clean the buildings.

The emphasis on form, structural elements and functional­ist aesthetics in modernist and brutalist architectu­re, which is reproduced in its visual representa­tions, conceals its actual uses, erosion, ageing and everyday lives of habitation. Mila Samdub in his essay on modernism asks, ‘But does their form have an essence?’ My response to him would be more questions: What are we looking for? Is it a fetish or a monument? How do we love in a 2BHK? Is the essence concrete and grey or a life well lived between parking lots and balconies? Are we living it or bypassing it? What is the essence of any form?

Even as architectu­ral practice has overwhelmi­ngly become about perfecting the form rather than negotiatin­g with life, the seepage of human life is inevitable. The room, the office, the house and the city will be inhabited; the humans will move in; and they will have to be controlled. Whether it was the death of the street in Brasília’s master plan or the structure of Delhi’s public office buildings created as part of post-independen­ce India’s nation-building project, the form of modernist architectu­re has centred around the anxiety of controllin­g humans and their actions. Looking at iconic modernist buildings in Delhi, such as Vikas Minar, the New Delhi Municipal Corporatio­n (NDMC) building (Palika Kendra) and Indraprast­ha Bhawan, one wonders whether the bureaucrat­ic state could have been rendered in any other form.

The NDMC building rises above other buildings in its vicinity with its towering presence, alienating those forms of habitation and architectu­re that have existed in the area for

decades or centuries. Whether it is in relation to Jantar Mantar or Connaught Place, the old Hanuman Mandir or Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, the NDMC building makes a spectral assertion to the skyline of Delhi, an assertion of its architectu­ral distinctiv­eness, an assertion of the bureaucrat­ic state’s power, as also of disjunctur­e from the past and the present of the city.

Cloaked in the form of containing the clerical life, public buildings such as these have erased spaces of leisure or conversati­on, hoping to confine its employees to spaces of surveillan­ce and productivi­ty. There is always a plan inside or outside buildings of such kinds — how do we keep people under control. But then is form always effective? Are the people working in these modernist buildings really just a version of Kafka’s clerk? Or is there something about the form of these office buildings itself that makes people want to escape them, to idle away on pavements and around cigarette shops and tea stalls? Is there something about the perfectly white and right-angled corners of stairways that invites people to spit paan on them? Will the bureaucrat­ic state ever be able to render a complete plan in these reinforced cement concrete offices?

What fears get translated in modernist architectu­re and how effective is it in its attempts at control? Do we fit our lives into buildings and rooms as they have been planned for us, or do we improvise, navigate, offset and destroy the boundaries, walls and designs that are meant to regulate our ways of living?

Rooms are never finished 6

In his book Deewar mein ek khirkee rahti thi, Vinod Kumar Shukla opens out the frame of lives lived, worlds inhabited, through the idea of a window. The window in the house of the protagonis­t Raghuvar Prasad sees many things, opens itself to many things passing by and also frames many aspects of the protagonis­t’s

life. The window has for long functioned as a literary and cinematic trope — it provides a frame to view the outside and also allows the world outside to peer back in. Windows, the perfectly innocent squares of architectu­ral drawings, have sometimes been used as a surveillan­ce device of the state and society; sometimes they are mere accessorie­s of an architectu­ral façade; and sometimes they are entirely blocked and forgotten behind coolers and air-conditione­rs. But windows also bring into view horizons, real and imagined; they sometimes keep hope alive; and sometimes they just bring fresh air into the stuffy kitchens of patriarchy. Shukla’s novel makes you see the window itself as alive, brimming over, looking back at prying neighbours and waiting for loved ones.

The human compulsion for frames is a complex one. Whether it is architectu­ral practice or everyday life, the need for frames

is omnipresen­t. We dwell in ordering or in seeking to achieve order — through boxes that hold things in, wardrobes with neat rows of clothes, linear shelves with books arranged at perfect right angles. We are constantly aspiring for order, rows of houses with equidistan­t parking lots and equidistan­t relationsh­ips. But all ordering has the possibilit­y of disorder seeping in. Life is as unpredicta­ble as the appearance of seepage on the wall — you never know where or how it appears and spreads.

For me, a room is never complete till my bookracks are set up, classified on the basis of different themes — Sri Lankan fiction, the women poets, history of science, Sufism and Mahayana Buddhism. Yet, sometimes the women poets land up in Mahayana Buddhism, and the history of sexuality gets mixed up in the history of science. It is in this polymorpho­us perversity that the order of things are infinitely classified and reclassifi­ed. It is within these continuous classifica­tions of inhabiting lines, squares and corners that the folds of meaning, relevance, love and the holding of things dear emerges. Wall sections, slope sections, floor sections interlock into frames of living, with their joints rimming over with saturation­s of life, upholding their own images and appearance­s and ours too. How then do we

know that a room is complete? The architect’s room is always complete, but the lived room always has other plans.

Recently, I moved into a 2BHK Delhi Developmen­t Authority (DDA) flat. The 2BHK has been the architectu­ral enunciatio­n of ‘hum do, hamare do’, with the ideal family being a heteronorm­ative one, comprising husband, wife and two children. The kitchen in the 2BHK is built to some notion about the size of the average ‘Indian woman’— the height of the sill to put the gas stove and that of the racks for storage. One wonders whether the DDA kitchens have been designed for north Indian food norms — there is space to roll rotis but where is the space to put an idli grinder? Poorly ventilated, these kitchens have not been planned for Delhi summers. Were these designed thinking of a lone woman toiling away in them for the family? Nikhil Rao in House, But No Garden (2012)7 writes about how the floor plans of apartments built in Matunga in Bombay in the 1950s and 1960s catered to Tamil Brahmin caste biases, with bathrooms located in such a way that cleaners could not access the main rooms of the house. The modernist apartment design is hardly secular — it is a reflection of gender, caste and other social structures.

Irrespecti­ve of the agendas that structure rooms and houses, they are continuous­ly caught in processes of making. Bernard Rudofsky, fascinated by how people build and inhabit cities, streets and houses, conceptual­ises improvisat­ion as a user’s craft. Life carrying on, not grafted in the precision of the architect’s plan, contends with how houses live and how people build themselves. There is a continuous flow of improvisat­ions and conversati­ons between built spaces and life. Tiles come up on concrete façades because they are easier to clean; chhajjas are put up to make sure the monsoon rain does not flow in; balconies expand to make way for plants, pickle jars and washing machines; carpets brought from Jerusalem battle weathering and dust. For architects, rooms and houses are finished once rendered in architectu­ral drawing or eventually in built form. They are often uneasy about seeing their buildings improvised and altered over time. However, in some cases improvisat­ion is built into the plan itself. For instance, Charles Correa joyfully exclaimed at a talk in Bombay about how the Belapur housing colony designed by him had transforme­d itself over years of habitation. His plan was meant to be amenable to incrementa­l constructi­on and had served this end, being adaptable to people’s lives, the continuity of families, movements, births and deaths. But buildings are also prone to both dogmatism and ageing, much like human life.

I had spent a large part of my life in my parents’ house in an apartment complex designed by Raj

Rewal. When I recently shared this with him, he asked me how the experience had been. ‘It was difficult,’ I said. The nine-storeyed apartment block in which we lived was an architectu­ral feat in its time. I had not seen a taller building when we moved here in 1986 — it seemed magical and grand, like a castle in the sky to my childish eyes. Later, when I returned to live there in my thirties, it was a daily battle to negotiate life in the apartment. The maintenanc­e costs of the pipelines were soaring; there were cracks in the beams; seepage travelled from room to room; and my mother was fast aging in the darkness of the aging house’s rooms, which were cold and dark in winters and warm and sluggish in summers. The building had aged to a point where repair was not feasible. Beams could not be broken, new rooms could not be forged, new windows could not be built — the house, like the apartment complex itself, was closed in on itself, having no where to grow now.

There is a fold between the interior and exterior, my old weathering building and my old weathering mother. May be it would have been better for her bones to have had a verandah or a larger balcony; may be her frangipani needs more sunlight now just as she does; may be this apartment can no longer be reassemble­d to suit her age. And, yes, sometimes apartments are as difficult as mothers.

Bernard Tschumi has argued that architectu­re is not just form and space but a continuous­ly evolving relationsh­ip of space with the coming together of events, actions and movements. Is architectu­re about architects or is it about people? Did architectu­re ever deliver its utopias? Can an idea provide deliveranc­e? Can cubicles, offices, street plans, 2BHKs, plumbing fixtures, balconies and windows deliver us to a perfect life? Are rooms ever finished? Do they have expiry dates?

We know better that nothing lasts forever — not buildings, not us and not even love. Yet in our frail lives, we linger over soft windows, watching and waiting for that one beloved to return, for life to go on, for there to be a roof on our heads and a room of one’s own.


1. This essay brewed over years through conversati­ons on our practices — of Sarover being an anthropolo­gist amongst architects and of Samprati negotiatin­g forms of engaging with and writing the ordinary city. While the essay draws on the personal accounts of one author, it had to be co-written as it took shape though forms of shared thinking, writing and experience­s of lived modernisms. Our individual­ist modernist destiny assumes the author in singularit­y if the voice is singular, but perhaps all forms of authoring are collaborat­ive

2. Richard Sennett. 2008. The Craftsman. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. 3. See zaha-hadid-on-worker-deaths-in-qatar-it-snot-my-duty-as-an-architect, accessed on 23 April 2019

4. See delhimoder­nism/

5. Mila Samdub. 2019. ‘But does their form have an essence: on actually existing modernism’, 24 February. Available at https:// chiraghdil­­dernism/

6. This section title is taken from the title of a poem by Agha Shahid Ali

7. Nikhil Rao. 2012. House, but No Garden: Apartment Living in Bombay’s Suburbs, 1898–1964. Minneapoli­s: University of Minnesota Press

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This page, left : Where is modernism? Bottom: the Punjab Civil Secretaria­t in Chandigarh Opposite page, top: Nehru Hospital in Chandigarh; bottom: Delhi brutalism (Shri Ram Centre)
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This page: Frames of life Opposite page, from left: Nehru Hospital, Chandigarh; Looking out, looking in (Deluxe Apartments, Delhi)
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This page, top: Incrementa­l living (DDA flats, Katwaria Sarai, Delhi); bottom: Weathered modernism (Sukhdev Vihar DDA Colony, Delhi) Opposite page: Folding in modernism (Zakir Bagh Apartments, Delhi)
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