Democratic designs

Democratic designs
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First Published: Sun, Nov 30 2008. 11 49 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Nov 30 2008. 11 49 PM IST
One irony of our democracy is that the President of India lives in the same house as the head of the British colonial government, the Viceroy, did. Moreover, South and North Blocks, which flank the ceremonial path towards it, and are the nerve centres of the political and bureaucratic web of governance, are also buildings designed to proclaim the power of an imperial government. And when you look around at the legislative assembly buildings built after independence across India, in Mumbai, Bangalore or Thiruvananthapuram, the relationship between democracy and its architecture starts becoming crucial.
How seriously should we take the effect of the imperial symbolism (explained well by historian Thomas Metcalf in his Imperial Visions) of Rashtrapati Bhavan and other such buildings on our lives today? After all, reusing grand edifices built by Indian labour and materials makes more sense than building new ones. Perhaps an elected government taking over the home of a colonial government also helps emphasize the victory of the Indian people and democracy.
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Rashtrapati Bhavan on its own might have been less of an issue today. However, many state capitals and assembly buildings built after independence show as great a commitment to bombast. The 1950s’-built Vidhan Soudha, Karnataka’s legislative assembly building in Bangalore, celebrates the culture of the state by using motifs from its heritage of temple architecture. Many of those temples are marked by beauty on a scale that’s not intimidating. The motifs at Vidhan Soudha, however, adorn a building that is deliberately out of human scale and stands on a high plinth, with lots of space around it. It is a distant and towering presence that dwarfs everyone who passes it, perhaps to make them bow to the majesty of the collective.
Modernism and democracy
Chandigarh, designed by French architect Le Corbusier, should have provided an answer. Its Capitol Complex (comprising the legislative assembly, high court and secretariat) is one of the showpieces of the modern movement internationally. This movement often espoused an egalitarian worldview. However, the architecture of the Capitol Complex is difficult to people in a way that allows its occupants to feel in control. While it avoids the excesses of decoration in the name of democratic austerity, it burdens the ordinary visitor with an environment that is difficult to occupy.
The large, bare, concrete-paved open space between the high court and the legislative assembly is impossibly hot (or cold, depending on the season) to dwell in at most times. Its emptiness and size only emphasize the remoteness of the buildings offering governance and justice to the citizen. The secretariat in the background, with its monotonous façade, meanwhile, speaks eloquently about the deadening power of bureaucracy. Though poles apart in its architectural conception and achievement from Bangalore’s Vidhan Soudha, it is in some ways all too similar.
Alternatives
So, can government buildings ever express the power of democracy while also making people feel good and empowered? Perhaps. Charles Correa’s design for the Vidhan Bhavan in Bhopal is a good attempt. Correa integrated the work of many contemporary Indian artists into the building, and himself freely reinterpreted many traditional motifs. While its eclecticism sometimes diffuses the power of the basic scheme, the design does attempt to alternate between different scales, being monumental in parts and more intimate in others. It explores one way of being humane while also communicating the majesty of the democratic state.
Profundity and whimsy
But perhaps the most remarkable example of a more humanely engaging approach is that of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, designed by Enric Miralles (of EMBT Architects), a Spanish architect who died young, before the building was completed.
The design is entirely whimsical in its conception of architectural form and space. It uses a large variety of materials (as many people do in their homes). The entrance has a wavy porch supported on tree-like columns. A strange but meaningful whirl of experiences through the building lead to an inspired assembly hall, where cut-outs on the wall stand for people (and not for bottles of Scotch whisky, as the guide informs with a smile).
The wit and profundity come together in the chambers of the MPs, each with a single window seat, recessed in a fussy profile. The design invites the MP to sit by the window and reflect on the big picture. Looking out from this democratic “throne”, he or she can see everyday life—perhaps as a reminder of the people out there that MPs were always meant to work for, but who they tend to forget too easily.
Empowering architecture
Those in power certainly seem aware of the role of architecture in sustaining power. According to historian Thomas Metcalf, when New Delhi was being designed, there were arguments among British commentators about which style was most appropriate—an Indianized one or a completely European one. The former would help build bridges with Indian people, one side argued. The other side believed in the forceful use of a European style to suggest that the sun would never set on the empire.
The final compromise, achieved by architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, absorbed Indian motifs into a broadly Italianate style that hoped to evoke the grandeur and longevity of the Roman empire.
The symbolic issues of this synthesis are complex but what is amply evident is that the scale of the Viceroy’s Palace, particularly, was meant to make the native dweller feel small. The contrast with 10, Downing Street is telling. For a long time, the home of the British Prime Minister in London has been only a house on a street. Internally, Great Britain was a democracy, after all.
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First Published: Sun, Nov 30 2008. 11 49 PM IST