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Landscape of pluralism

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MAXIMUM CITY: Slums right next to highrises in Mumbai.

One of the marks of a thinker is that he understands man's place in a larger social context. So, a great musician is not merely an artiste in isolation but one who sees the role of music in society's evolution;and an architect isn't just a design specialist working with a client's specifications but also an environmentalist, a humanitarian, a historian and an anthropologist. It is this expansive vision that has dominated the work of Rahul Mehrotra, architect, urban planner, conservationist, writer and, of late, Harvard professor. For him, the built environment is far more than a culmination of brick and mortar. This is reflected in his latest book Architecture in India since 1990 which maps the landscape of pluralism that makes India so visually unique.

The hefty book looks at architecture in India that has emerged post-liberalization - an India filled with contradictions, complexities and massive transformations which often manifest in what he calls "bizarre visual and physical adjacencies" all of which are equally valid and relevant. For example, an evocative photograph showing slums right next to highrises speaks of how this duality has come to characterise most Indian cities.

Mehrotra writes about how, on one hand, there is this desperate desire to fit into a perceived global paradigm - what he calls "expressions of impatient capital" - which has unleashed the generic glass and chrome on the urban landscape, but on the other there is also a growing local resistance by architects moving towards sustainable models and local craftsmen - a movement that had been pioneered by Nari Gandhi and Laurie Baker. For example, Cidade de Goa hotel in Goa, designed by Charles Correa, and the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad, by Balkrishna Doshi, demonstrated the potential for extremely localized architecture, sensitive to climate and culture.

While most architecture books either focus on design or on the gorgeous homes of the elite, Mehrotra uses architecture as a metaphor for India. Modernity coexists with tradition. Generic looks grapple with local sensibilities. Of late, in keeping with a neo-spiritual and religious revivalism, ancient designs and practices are being drawn back into modern spaces, the biggest example being the Vedic principles of Vaastu Shastra. He documents some of the interesting new religious monuments that have sprung up across India - from the Bahai Temple in Delhi to the Vipassana Pagoda in Mumbai.

The book walks you through modern Indian architecture, visually documenting and commenting on how architecture reflects India's struggle with identity. For the British colonisers, architecture had a symbolic function - an assertion of authority. Naturally, the immediate architectural response to Independence was a revivalist phase throughout India, writes Mehrotra. Le Corbusier was invited to design Chandigarh and his proposals became "the symbol for the modern, independent India of Nehru's imagination". Over the decades, the state played a lesser and lesser role and regional identities took precedence over any one singular national identity.

At the very end, Mehrotra makes a plea for pluralism, especially in the face of globalisation, applauding how "diverse aspirations express themselves in completely different ways architecturally" and this is what distinguishes India's architecture from that of, say, China or the Middle East.

If there is one flaw in the book, it is that the typeface is a bit minute. Then again, the indefatigable Mehrotra has so much to say, that perhaps that was the only way to get it all in and still ensure that the handsome publication fits on your coffee table.

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