views updated Jun 27 2018


URBANISM Soon after arriving in India in 1950 to build India's first planned capital city at Chandigarh, the architect Le Corbusier insightfully commented that "India hasn't yet created..architecture for modern civilization" (cited in Kalia, Chandigarh, p. 87). Even in the twenty-first century, nearly 70 percent of India's population still lives in over 500,000 villages, although about 300 million Indians currently live in cities, a number almost equal to the total population of the United States. Because of this urban-rural paradox, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, observed, "However well we may deal with the towns, the problem of the villages of India will remain for a long time" (cited in Kalia, Chandigarh, p. 30).

The Ancient Cities

The Indus Valley Civilization (c. 2600–1900 b.c.) had nevertheless achieved a measure of urban sophistication, best reflected in the twin capital cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, as well as several other cities. Displaying a remarkable uniformity in urban planning, covering a wide geographical spread that stretched from the Arabian Sea to the foothills of the Himalayas and from the eastern border of Iran to the Ganges Valley near Delhi, the more than 150 sites of the Indus Valley Civilization attest to the sophistication of building skills, the arts, and, possibly, a written language that has yet to be deciphered. Among the excavated cities, Mohenjo-Daro is the most pristine. Built on the gridiron system on the flat, hot floodplain of the Indus, some 300 miles (483 km) north of present-day Karachi in Pakistan, the city was planned with a broad north-south boulevard 30 feet (9 m) wide that was crossed at right angles every 200 yards (185 m) or so by smaller east-west streets that were studded with shops and food stalls, the blocks between them served by narrow curving lanes 5 to 10 feet (1.5–3 m) wide. Urban Indus houses presented blank walls to the main streets, much like today, the main entrances located behind the main streets on service lanes; interior courtyards provided light, air, and space for socialization; and windows were screened with grills of terra-cotta or alabaster. Many houses had a second story and a flat roof that served as a sleeping space in the hot summer months—a practice that continues today, although that is beginning to change with the emergence of multistoried apartment buildings in most high-density cities. India's fast-growing economy, which has been stimulated by the information technology revolution and buttressed by the expanding privatization of the public sector, has improved the urban infrastructure, including the supply of electrical power, allowing the use of air-conditioning and other electrical appliances for a modern urban lifestyle.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the ancient Indus cities, unrivaled until much later in Greek and Roman times, was the use of a sophisticated open sewer system along the sides of the streets, with catch-basins dug below sewer level to trap debris that might otherwise have clogged the drainage. These sewers were connected to the houses by an open gutter, also made of brick, into which emptied the house drains, which were often made of an enclosed system of clay pipes. Several of the houses had sit-down toilets that were connected to the sewers, and practically all houses had bathrooms with waterproof brick floors fitted with drains leading to the sewer pipes. The Indus cities displayed other architectural marvels and feats of civil engineering: a Great Bath with a sunken bathing pool approached by wooden steps set into asphalt (much like the bathing ghats at Varanasi), a granary, residences for high officials, and, of course, the citadel.

The next push toward urbanism in India was facilitated by the discovery of iron in modern Bihar around 1000 b.c., which accelerated the expansion of the Aryans by allowing them to clear the Gangetic forests, and facilitated their transition from a nomadic pastoral economy to a hybrid agricultural-pastoral one. A more enduring consequence of the Aryan expansion was that Brahmanical Hinduism was firmly implanted on Indian urban developments, the arts, and literature. Henceforth, all public works and architectural designs would be aimed at reinforcing the imperial authority of kings and celebrating gods and goddesses, invoking their blessings, depending on the royal religious preference. The Buddhist architects that preceded the Hindu architects provided historical continuity to temple architecture, which came to combine the best of traditions from the north and south. The resulting "free mixing" of ideas and cultures produced the miracle of temple architecture, which burst into a passionate and almost frantic activity, raising temple after temple in classical India. Thirteenth-century India experienced the last of the best expressions of Hindu art before the force of Islam under the mighty Mughals swept across the subcontinent.

Islamic Influence

To celebrate the triumph of monotheistic Islam, the Delhi sultans and later the Mughals created an impressive complex of buildings outside Delhi, including the multistoried Qutb Minar, from whose rooftop the call for prayer was issued every day. Whereas Hindu buildings reflected nature in both their shapes and decorations, iconoclastic Islam prohibited Muslim artists and architects from using natural images, even though floral decoration was sometimes allowed. Instead, Islamic art and architecture produced pure geometric designs, reflecting the abstract definition of Allah. The Mughals, informed in their taste by Persian culture, produced the most impressive buildings, as well as erecting new cities to serve Allah and Islam in predominantly Hindu India. Mughal architecture received a new impetus during the reign of Akbar (r. 1556–1605), whose tolerant religious spirit, mystical disposition, and artistic sense inspired a synthesis of Persian and Indian styles of architecture—thereby producing the Indo-Saracenic style that would later influence the British in their construction of New Delhi. From the 1500s, the Mughal emperors continued to build, not only in Delhi but also in their other capital of Agra, and in Punjab's Lahore, producing remarkable buildings, including Delhi's Jama Masjid and the two Red Forts at Delhi and Agra. To combat the intense heat of the subcontinent, the Mughals created magnificent gardens with terraces, stairways, running streams carrying cool water from the mountains to nearby lakes, and a complex system of fountains and cascades. At Delhi and Agra, special channels carried cooling water through the interiors of imperial buildings. In the 1600s, Shah Jahan built mosques and other buildings within his Red Forts. These buildings were made of imported Italian white marble, as was the magnificent Taj Mahal, the tomb that Shah Jahan had built for his wife Mumtaz, beside the river Jamuna at Agra.

The British Period

The British began their building efforts in India when Sir Thomas Roe, King James's ambassador, secured permission in 1619 for the East India Company to build its first factory (trading post) at Surat, a bustling city and principal port of the Mughal empire at the mouth of the Tapti River, the western gateway to India. From these humble beginnings, the British would ultimately culminate their imperial construction in the building of the British capital at New Delhi, when King George V declared, on the occasion of his coronation durbar at the Red Fort on 12 December 1911, that British India's capital was being shifted from Calcutta to a new site on Delhi's historic plain.

Among many myths surrounding the British Empire was the myth of imperial unity. Their search for an elusive imperial identity through the medium of architecture occupied the imagination of many a British administrator. Although this imperial impulse never became pervasive, it nevertheless achieved its most eloquent expressions in the building of the first British capital city at Calcutta and, even more so, in their second capital city at New Delhi. At the heart of this impulse was the British illusion that if imperial unity could be achieved in brick and stone in heterogeneous India, then perhaps such unity could be attained globally.

The British East India Company's Francis Day bought land in 1638 from the Hindu Vijayanagar kingdom, near the South Indian village of Mandaraz; in 1642 he built Fort St. George there, which came to be called Madras, British India's premier city and urban port on the Coromandal coast. The archipelago of Bombay, which had been given to King Charles II as part of Catherine of Braganza's dowry in 1661, was handed over to the East India Company in 1668 for a nominal £10 annual rent. This transfer changed Bombay from a cluster of seven sleepy fishing villages into British India's western headquarters, displacing Surat and, in time, becoming a sprawling modern financial metropolis and the capital of Maharashtra. Soon after securing permission from Mughal emperor Alamgir in 1690 to trade in eastern Bengal, the British erected a factory on the Hugli River, a tributary of the Ganges that flowed into the Bay of Bengal. The site, located near a village shrine to the Hindu goddess Kālī, and from which ghats (steps) descended to the river, was thus named Kalighat, later corrupted by the British to "Calcutta." The English merchant Job Charnock, a member of the Bengal Council, drew his urban plan for British India's first imperial capital there.

The creation of the British Company presidencies of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras marked the beginning of British experiments in urban planning in India. Many imposing structures still stand in these cities, enduring testimony to the power of the British Raj: in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), the Governor's Mansion, modeled by Viceroy Lord Curzon after his Kedleston Hall; its Gothic High Court; neoclassical Town Hall; and the Renaissance-inspired Victoria Memorial. In Bombay (present-day Mumbai), the Gateway to India, born of Anglo-Indian parenthood, commemorates the visit of King George V in 1911, while the Central Telegraph Office, High Court, General Post Office, and Victoria Terminus (present-day Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Railway Station) show Gothic features. In Madras (presentday Chennai), several civic and public buildings, including a banquet hall, a museum, and the legislative assembly, represent Western classicism. Thereafter, the British built hill stations, civil lines, and cantonments—all in their efforts to sanitize and segregate Europeans in India and to establish British authority in India. However, it is at New Delhi that the architectural experiments of British Raj in India find their resolution in a style of architecture that is neither Indian nor European, but a complete fusion of the two traditions. Architect Edwin Lutyens's New Delhi represents a mutated but monumental style born of European classicism and Indo-Saracenic influences, and the city itself offers a place where colonial life was sanitized in the spacious symphony of Garden City greenery (the influence of Ebenezer Howard) and imperial power was celebrated in the grouping of public buildings in a monumental center with radiating axial vistas, ending in areas of open space and imposing buildings. To Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, New Delhi was the worst example of British sensibility and imperial arrogance; to British poet Lord Byron it was the Rome of "Hindoostan."

Independent India

New Delhi remains the capital of independent India, and also the most ostentatious expression of the British Raj. Shortly after independence, Nehru censored New Delhi as "most un-Indian." Nehru's nationalist remark, made at the outset of India's experiments in European modernist architecture, was to set the terms of the national debate on the character of India's new cities and its post-colonial architectural style. Nehru felt that the average American or English urban planner could not understand the social background of India. Still, he realized that modern India could not be built without technology, and consequently he supported the creation of the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management (modeled after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Business School, respectively). But he insisted that Western technology must be fused with Indian cultural traditions, just as he had fused the political ideologies of communism and democracy to create democratic socialism as a means for leading India on the path of planned economic development.

To a degree, the British who planned New Delhi also were influenced by the ideas of Beaux Arts city planning, American style, which tended to group monumental public buildings in the urban center, leaving the rest of the city to green spaces. What Nehru objected to in New Delhi was not the "leafy capital" per se, for that represented village India, but the monumentality of its official buildings, decorated with classical motifs, attesting to the roots of the British Raj. It therefore followed that in postcolonial India, a new paradigm of planning and architectural style had to be invented. Prime Minister Nehru provided the imaginative shape to the new urban vision at Chandigarh, Punjab's new capital: "Let this be a new town symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past . . . an expression of the nation's faith in the future" (cited in Kalia, Chandigarh, p. 21)

Arguably, Nehru's greatest gift was his ability to bring to the surface, through his historical vision, images that fused traditional India with the modern world. He thus introduced a modernist discourse for the making of a nation state—a discourse that was to encourage his countrymen to develop a more encompassing sense of what constituted their world. Nehru said of Chandigarh: "It is the biggest example in India of experimental architecture. It hits you on the head, and makes you think" (cited in Kalia, Chandigarh, p. 29). The man who would deliver Nehru his urban dream was Le Corbusier, whose vision brought down old walls that had long imprisoned India, defying ancient prejudices. Le Corbusier opened the doors of modernism's golden age, which stretched from the 1920s through the 1960s, promising to make the world a better place through design. This was to be achieved, according to the menu of modernism, by providing plenty of unadorned open space, abundant natural light through large expanses of glass, and an intimate connection with the outdoors. In the 1960s, the experiment in modernism was expanded by American architect Louis Kahn in his seminal work on the Indian Institute of Management (1962–1974) at Ahmedabad. Modernism's technological innovation and aesthetic self-expression were seen as the twin forces of urban design that could solve housing and other social problems. The ability of modernism to meet a surging housing demand and to revitalize decaying cities in postwar Europe was not lost on India, which itself was burdened with refugees as a result of the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.

From the struggle over rival visions of independent India's future emerged a new understanding of the confluence of history and memory for India's intellectuals, architects, urban planners, and political leaders. Partitioned India demonstrated two versions of history and ideology: Mahatma Gandhi's vexed, sometimes mystical, attachment to villages as the source of ideals for building a new India competed with Nehru's inclination toward modern cities. Nehru spent much of his career as a public figure trying to confront traditional India, and his Western training placed him in an oppositional—and sometimes advantageous—position to comment on the struggle over memory in Indian society. In his writings and speeches, Nehru presented a historical vision for India in which urbanism flourished and modern industry thrived.

Fifty years after its inception, the Chandigarh plan remains India's inspiration in urban planning and renewal, repeated with mantralike regularity in its application, always with idiosyncratic variations to legitimize the enterprise as truly Indian. Through this process of repetition, the Chandigarh plan has been absorbed into the assimilative Indian tradition, first in Orissa's capital of Bhubaneswar, then in Gujarat's new capital of Gandhinagar, as well in the other new cities and in rebuilding of the old ones. However, after its first impact, the modern movement lost its way in India, resulting in idiosyncratic building designs. Still, the best Indian architecture, which represented the thoughtful synthesis of old and new, the fusing of regional and universal, and the blending of local craft with modern technology, would evolve after the masters of modernism had been consigned to history. Indian architects such as Charles Correa, B. V. Doshi, Raj Rewal, and others in their youth had fervently sought answers from the masters of modernism to build a new India; they now truly belong in a new nation that is building monuments for the future and rapidly forgetting the burden of colonial rule and the deep religious and communal roots of the partition.

Ravi Kalia

See alsoAgra ; Bhubaneswar ; Bombay ; Calcutta ; Chandigarh ; Gandhinagar ; New Delhi


Asher, Catherine B. Architecture of Mughal India. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Davies, Philip. Splendors of the Raj. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Forrest, G. W. Cities of India: Past and Present. 1903. Reprint, New Delhi: Metropolitan, 1977.

Irving, Robert. Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and ImperialDelhi. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.

Kalia, Ravi. Bhubaneswar: From a Temple Town to a CapitalCity. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994.

——. Chandigarh: The Making of an Indian City. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

——. Gandhinagar: Building National Identity in PostcolonialIndia. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Land, Jon, Madhavi Desai, and Miki Desai. Architecture andIndependence: The Search for Identity—India, 1880–1980. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Metcalf, Thomas. An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture andBritain's Raj. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Tadgell, Christopher. The History of Architecture: From theDawn of Civilization to the End of the Raj. London: Architecture Design and Technology Press, 1990.


views updated May 29 2018

1. Term much used in the 1980s, based on Le Corbusier's ideas concerning town-planning.

2. Urban way of life compared with life in the country.

3. Approach to urban design taking into account the need to respond with sensitivity to urban morphologies: the Kriers have been in the vanguard of the movement to respond to urban history and fabric in a more positive and less destructive way than was propounded by International Modernism, the Athens Charter, and CIAM. The Kriers and their colleagues argued that context was important where sites were being redeveloped, and that it was not just a question of one building, but streets, urban spaces, and, ultimately, whole towns that needed careful design to avoid the visual chaos imposed so destructively on so many cities since 1945: they argued in favour of a sensitivity to townscape that had been so thoroughly rejected by Modernists. Urbanism (3) also rejects the concept of zoning advocated by Le Corbusier (for the pleasures of urban life suggest a plurality of activities), and accepts the necessity of keeping the motor-car at bay. According to Jane Jacobs and others, people should live in cities, use them, and walk in them, not clutter and pollute them with cars and other vehicles. Urbanism implies recapturing quality, beauty, pleasure, and civilized living in cities. See New Urbanism; Sixteen Principles of Urbanism.


Architectural Design, lvi/9 (Sept. 1986);
Calthrope (1993);
Choay (1965);
Collins & and Collins (1986);
Glancey (1989);
Hertz & and Klein (1990);
J. Jacobs (1961);
Jencks (1988a);
R. Krier (1979);
Lavedan (1952–60, 1975);
LeGates & Stout (eds.) (1966);
Papadakis & Watson (eds.)(1990);
Jane Turner (1996);
Whittick (ed.) (1974a);


views updated Jun 08 2018

urbanism Urbanism refers to patterns of social life thought typical of urban populations. These include a highly specialized division of labour, growth of instrumentalism (see WORK, SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE OF) in social relationships, weakening of kin relationships, growth of voluntary associations, normative pluralism, secularization, increase in social conflict, and growing importance of the mass media. In a key paper published in 1938 (‘Urbanism as a Way of Life’, American journal of Sociology
) Louis Wirth sought to ground these patterns in three general characteristics of cities—size, density, and social heterogeneity. However, later research showed that attempts to link social and cultural characteristics deterministically with physical locations are misconceived. See also URBAN SOCIOLOGY.