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Nothing is Sacred: Threats to Modern Masterpieces in India – by William JR Curtis

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India’s boom economy is leaving its modern heritage to crumble in favour of generic glass towers and shopping malls.

India is experiencing the positive and negative effects of a hyper-inflated capitalist boom. A new middle class hungry for consumer goods of all kinds is clogging up the cities with flashy new cars but air pollution is at unprecedented levels. A third-rate Americanisation is evident at every turn in shabbily constructed glass towers and shopping malls.

The squalor of the poor is being replaced by the squalor of the rich but it is not certain if there is an appreciable trickle-down effect of wealth in real terms. In India, as elsewhere, the gap between rich and poor grows wider. Neoliberal policies invite in factories but ask for little taxation for the public purse. Land grabbing is on the rise and laissez-faire speculation is such that the sum paid for a centrally placed site has less and less to do with an existing building and more and more to do with the saleable price of the piece of land itself.

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Le Corbusier’s Mill Owners’ Association Building

This last point concerning ‘desirable and profitable building land’ poses a threat to the architectural heritage of India, especially the modern architectural heritage, which is scarcely protected by legislation or by national or international patrimony status. Take one of Le Corbusier’s absolute masterpieces, the Mill Owner’s Association Building, which sits on a prime site next to the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad.

Adjacent riverside embankments have been constructed which provide public walkways in places but also profitable real-estate opportunities for the construction of luxury towers. The old elite of educated mill owners who brought Le Corbusier and Kahn to the city has faded away and been replaced by a vulgar mercantile class which has little time for niceties such as universal masterpieces of modern architecture. With the price per square metre multiplying year by year how long will it be before the pressure is on to demolish the Mill Owner’s Building?

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Le Corbusier’s Shodhan House

The same is true of Le Corbusier’s Shodhan House nearby, while his City Museum is left to rot in a scandalous state of abandon which expresses perfectly the retreat from civic values. Only the Sarabhai House tucked away in the leafy estate at Shahibaug seems safe in the middle term. As for Louis Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad, there is a very real danger that it will be pulled down.

The structures suffered some damage in the earthquake of 2001 but the brickwork was never maintained properly by the owners and there is more than a rumour that entire sectors of Kahn’s work will be demolished to be replaced by flashier buildings in the image of an emerging management elite. If this happens it will be an act of vandalism that will reflect very badly on the reputation of IIM as a responsible international institution. Vikram Sarabhai who helped to set the whole thing up half a century ago must be turning in his grave.

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Louis Kahn’s Institute of Management in Ahmedabad is at risk of demolition

Ahmedabad is in fact one of the world’s leading museums of modern architecture with outstanding buildings such as Correa’s Gandhi Ashram Museum, Doshi’s CEPT School of Architecture and his studio Sangath. Hopefully the Gandhi Museum is inviolate but the CEPT campus is a prime site and in the current political atmosphere of Gujarat may well be vulnerable.

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Even Charles Correa’s Gandhi Ashram Museum, which carries so much meaning for all Indians, may not be beyond interference. The legal protection of modern architectural heritage is something India desperately needs

The Chief Minister of the State of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who is running for Prime Minister of India in the coming General Election, represents the BJP, a political constellation which combines aggressive business practices with elements of Hindu fundamentalism and which has not been above inter-community frictions (Modi has not been able to shake off the perception that he may have turned a blind eye to murderous rioting in Ahmedabad in 2002). All of this is miles away from the balanced secularism that supported Modernism in the early days of the Indian Republic.

foto 6 Le Corbusier, Assembly Building, Chandigarh, 1950-65, showing the hall of columns with unfortunate interventions such as light reflecting polished marble floors, wooden skirting around the base of the concrete columns, and smoked glass wood screens in carved wooden frames cutting across the space.

Photo by William JR Curtis.

So how is Chandigarh faring, Nehru’s showpiece of the ‘New India’? Economically it is flourishing and has become one of the most desirable cities in which to live in India, with its clean air, its leafy streets and parks, its cosmopolitan shops and restaurants, its lake, and its relative peace and quiet. But the Capitol (a foundation stone of modern secular India and a ‘cosmic and political landscape’) remains incomplete. Le Corbusier’s Assembly Building, surely one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century, is tragically divided between the States of Punjab and Haryana, and has been vulgarised with shiny marble floors and wooden skirting on the columns, interventions worthy of a two-star hotel.

The High Court is in better shape though now painted the wrong colours, while the Secretariat continues to take a bashing. With the current obsession with security, a wire fence now bisects the Capitol. Meanwhile the magical connection to the foothills of the Himalayas to the north is about to be ruined by voracious property dealers and corrupt politicians who intend to construct 30-storey towers.

In contemporary India nothing is sacred (even historical sites and museums are left to go to pot). In the age of greed and privatisation the public realm is wrecked and the idealism of the founding fathers is undermined. Historical and cultural memory matter less and less: today it is the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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