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Was Modernism A South Asian Invention? A MoMA Exhibit Uncovers The Astonishing Architectural Inventiveness Of Midcentury India And Pakistan

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When India broke free from British colonial rule in 1947, the people faced many important decisions about their collective future. One of the most significant was the choice between brick and concrete.

Brick was representative of the preferences of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, who believed that independence would be furthered by recourse to traditional crafts and building techniques. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, countered that Modernism was the answer. Concrete stood for reinvention, instantiating his belief that dams and other large-scale infrastructure were the “temples of a new age”.

A fascinating exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art explores the ways in which these conflicting worldviews found common ground, and how related dilemmas were resolved in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Documenting the architectural dimensions of decolonization in South Asia between 1947 and 1985, The Project of Independence provides a trenchant reexamination of common assumptions about Modernism. The accompanying book promises to become a standard reference not only for architectural historians but also for future urban planners in societies undergoing transformation.

Modernism was initially the dominant force shaping the post-colonial Indian landscape, a manifestation of Nehru’s political clout, amplified by the architectural influence of Le Corbusier. In 1950, Corb was recruited to develop a master plan for Chandigarh, the new capital city of Punjab. As one of the founders of Modernism in Europe, the French-Swiss architect brought considerable prestige to the region, which presented an opportunity for him to pursue his vision of the ideal metropolis at an unprecedented scale.

Concrete was the predominant building material. Favored for its symbolic associations with progress, the material conveniently served the practical need to build housing quickly to accommodate vast numbers of refugees displaced by the 1947 Partition. But practical considerations led to notable differences in the ways that cement was prepared and the uses to which it was put, a distinction visible in concrete architecture throughout South Asia.

One of the major challenges was transportation, which made off-site mass-production impractical in many cases. But what India lacked in machinery, the country had in manual labor. As a result, much of the construction was done by hand on site, a practice from the past. Industry was transmuted into craft. Unlike the Brutalist architecture of Europe, much of the architecture in South Asia had a tenderly human touch.

As the MoMA exhibition and book illustrate, it would be wrong to say that South Asia was a passive recipient of Modernism, colonized by European architectural standards. Le Corbusier was not the main protagonist. The infrastructure of India and Pakistan was not derivative, let alone a poor execution of European principles. Necessity gave Modernism urgency in South Asia, bringing out latent potential that Europeans never found. To a remarkable extent, these decolonized countries made Modernism modern, form inseparable from function, even as the West gave up Modernist values in favor of the superficial aesthetics of the International Style.

Industriousness is part of the story, but not the whole of it. Even as South Asian engineers pushed concrete to new structural extremes for want of materials such as steel, and as builders redefined mass-production as production by the masses, architects found novel ways to combine novel materials with traditional brick.

In numerous concrete buildings, brickwork provided inexpensive infill, resulting in beguiling hybrids of old and new that creatively bridged the divide between Gandhi and Nehru. Brickwork also invited reintroduction of regionally appropriate designs developed over countless generations such as perforations in walls to facilitate air circulation. Within this new framing, ancient structures look strikingly modern: Form and function were integrated from the beginning, only to be temporarily sundered by the pretenses of the Raj.

While it might be an exaggeration to describe indigenous South Asian architecture as Modernism avant-la-lettre, there are important lessons for would-be decolonizers of architecture elsewhere. The distinction between tradition and progress belongs to the rhetoric of colonization. The future is reclaimed through the process of reintegrating past and present.


When India broke free from British colonial rule in 1947, the people faced many important decisions about their collective future. One of the most significant was the choice between brick and concrete.

Brick was representative of the preferences of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, who believed that independence would be furthered by recourse to traditional crafts and building techniques. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, countered that Modernism was the answer. Concrete stood for reinvention, instantiating his belief that dams and other large-scale infrastructure were the “temples of a new age”.

A fascinating exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art explores the ways in which these conflicting worldviews found common ground, and how related dilemmas were resolved in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Documenting the architectural dimensions of decolonization in South Asia between 1947 and 1985, The Project of Independence provides a trenchant reexamination of common assumptions about Modernism. The accompanying book promises to become a standard reference not only for architectural historians but also for future urban planners in societies undergoing transformation.

Modernism was initially the dominant force shaping the post-colonial Indian landscape, a manifestation of Nehru’s political clout, amplified by the architectural influence of Le Corbusier. In 1950, Corb was recruited to develop a master plan for Chandigarh, the new capital city of Punjab. As one of the founders of Modernism in Europe, the French-Swiss architect brought considerable prestige to the region, which presented an opportunity for him to pursue his vision of the ideal metropolis at an unprecedented scale.

Concrete was the predominant building material. Favored for its symbolic associations with progress, the material conveniently served the practical need to build housing quickly to accommodate vast numbers of refugees displaced by the 1947 Partition. But practical considerations led to notable differences in the ways that cement was prepared and the uses to which it was put, a distinction visible in concrete architecture throughout South Asia.

One of the major challenges was transportation, which made off-site mass-production impractical in many cases. But what India lacked in machinery, the country had in manual labor. As a result, much of the construction was done by hand on site, a practice from the past. Industry was transmuted into craft. Unlike the Brutalist architecture of Europe, much of the architecture in South Asia had a tenderly human touch.

As the MoMA exhibition and book illustrate, it would be wrong to say that South Asia was a passive recipient of Modernism, colonized by European architectural standards. Le Corbusier was not the main protagonist. The infrastructure of India and Pakistan was not derivative, let alone a poor execution of European principles. Necessity gave Modernism urgency in South Asia, bringing out latent potential that Europeans never found. To a remarkable extent, these decolonized countries made Modernism modern, form inseparable from function, even as the West gave up Modernist values in favor of the superficial aesthetics of the International Style.

Industriousness is part of the story, but not the whole of it. Even as South Asian engineers pushed concrete to new structural extremes for want of materials such as steel, and as builders redefined mass-production as production by the masses, architects found novel ways to combine novel materials with traditional brick.

In numerous concrete buildings, brickwork provided inexpensive infill, resulting in beguiling hybrids of old and new that creatively bridged the divide between Gandhi and Nehru. Brickwork also invited reintroduction of regionally appropriate designs developed over countless generations such as perforations in walls to facilitate air circulation. Within this new framing, ancient structures look strikingly modern: Form and function were integrated from the beginning, only to be temporarily sundered by the pretenses of the Raj.

While it might be an exaggeration to describe indigenous South Asian architecture as Modernism avant-la-lettre, there are important lessons for would-be decolonizers of architecture elsewhere. The distinction between tradition and progress belongs to the rhetoric of colonization. The future is reclaimed through the process of reintegrating past and present.

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