The Built Truths


How puzzling all these changes are! I'm never sure what I'm going to be, from one minute to another," exclaims Alice in Alice in Wonderland.

Design can never be tabula rasa or so we thought until Le Corbusier came along and gave us a parliament building in Chandigarh, that defied form and announced a new India. If we keep aside the modern India agenda, there is little in the post-Independence built landscape that merits mention. Form rarely breaks away from function, more often than not, form follows emulation. "Can freedom of form mean a freedom of an idea, of space, of purpose? Can there be freedom from playing safe?" asks architect Samira Rathod of Samira Rathod Design Associates. Take a minute to think of buildings today that awe and inspire, chances are you will draw a blank. Why is that?

There are very few structures that suggest derring-do. When Blue Frog and The Tote stamped their presence in Mumbai, Serie architects were applauded for their overarching undulations in the interiors. The Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon by M/s Prabhakar B Bhagwat exudes an energy and boldness that almost makes it sculptural. The Park Hotels deliberately stand out for their design sensibilities. These have been possible because the clients were willing to experiment, and turn typically run-of-the-mill offices, hospitality and recreation spaces into seductive works of art.

Is it about economics, then, where a deep-pocketed client can fulfil the angst of a design-barren landscape? Suparna Bhalla, director, Abaxial Architects says, "It's about having a discerning patron but in the 1960s, the state too was a patron. Today, design is not on the menu of a government diet. It's all about fulfilling basic needs, so when you have basic 'everything' what you're left with, is mediocrity. And that's why we lack dynamic spaces in our country." Between the unreasonable matrix of policy and bylaws, buildings in Delhi are mere boxes, she says. Positions of windows can't change, mixed-use buildings are not possible; design is governed by the larger need to provide safety. So then it's quite literally "be safe rather than surprise".

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