It would be difficult not to be intrigued, and perturbed, by the word “independence” in the title of the exhibition The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. What did the idea of independence imply for newly decolonized countries in South Asia, in the violent wake of Partition in 1947? How did that complicated idea intersect with two other perennially indeterminate concepts, modernity and national identity? Against the politically charged backdrop of these historical questions, the MoMA exhibition seeks to examine how architecture and city planning served postcolonial development in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). Curated by Martino Stierli, Anoma Pieris, and Sean Anderson — and supported, in the early planning stages, by a curatorial advisory board that included this author — The Project of Independence examines post-Partition design culture through six broad themes: New Cities, Templates for Living, Industry and Infrastructure, Political Spaces, Landscapes of Education, and Institution Building.
Mid-century architecture in South Asia responded not only to the prompt of independence, but to the interlocking provocations of decolonization, modernity, and identity.
Each theme is instantiated by exemplary projects, which are represented through more than 200 drawings, models, photographs, and other media. Installed in a U-shaped hall, the exhibition is choreographed so as to blur boundaries between and among the themes, perhaps hinting at the fluidity of competing postcolonial identities and the challenging epistemological task of pinning them down. It’s a challenge that the show does not always meet. Yet, as a development frenzy grips the subcontinent and the specter of demolition threatens many midcentury buildings there, this exhibition is absolutely necessary to promote the cause of historic preservation. Furthermore, a comprehensive appraisal of post-Partition South Asian architecture — beyond the well-known contributions by Western architects — is long overdue.
Particularly instructive is the framing, under the New Cities theme, of political mandates for city building in post-Partition nations. Seeing a whirling urban form, alluding to some kind of cosmic spirituality, in the layout of Pondicherry’s experimental township Auroville (1964–2008), which was created by followers of guru Sri Aurobindo; or considering the rational organization of Islamabad (1958–67), the new capital of Pakistan, which was designed by Doxiadis Associates according to his theory of the Dynapolis, a city that fosters urban growth dynamically, the visitor is reminded that radically different philosophies of city building held sway in the region in this era. In Templates for Living, one is usefully compelled to reckon with “vernacularity” as expressed in residential works by the British-born Indian architect Laurie Baker (1917–2007) and the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa (1919–2003), as compared to the high-rise domesticity of the Indian architect Charles Correa (1930–2015).
Across the themes of Industry and Infrastructure, Landscapes of Education, and Institution Building, the functionalist modernism of India’s Achyut Kanvinde (1916–2002), the environmental sensitivity of Bangladesh’s Muzharul Islam (1923–2012), and the concrete poetics of India’s Balkrishna V. Doshi (b. 1927) appear as architectural embodiments of aspirations that purportedly characterized a pan-national spirit of independence. There is something breathtaking about the architectural novelty achieved in Kanvinde’s Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur (1959-66) and Dudhsagar Dairy in Mehsana (1970-73); in Islam’s Chittagong University (1965–71); and Doshi’s School of Architecture at the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad (1962–68), all well-represented in the exhibition. These projects pique a visitor’s interest in the diverse meanings of decolonization and national aspiration.
But, for related reasons, the theme of Political Spaces, in particular, is tricky. How could “Architectures of Decolonization” not be political? Two celebrated examples of Political Spaces — Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh in the Indian state of Punjab, and Louis Kahn’s Parliament complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh — remain, understandably, marginal to this exhibition, for they have been amply explored elsewhere. Instead, the politics of spatiality are poignantly manifested in works such as Baker’s polemical manifesto, Are Slums Inevitable?, and the Korangi Housing Project (1959), designed by Hassan Fathy and Constantinos Doxiadis on the fringes of Karachi, Pakistan. These projects allow glimpses into the challenges of refugee resettlement and, more broadly, the housing crises that newly independent countries had to confront. From government-directed attempts, in the immediate aftermath of Partition, to mass-produced prefabricated housing for refugees and low-income communities, to enterprises in the 1980s in which states, design communities, and occupants collaborated to meet ever-burgeoning demands, the exhibition tells compelling stories about the political economy of the region’s housing sector.
The theme of Political Spaces, in particular, is tricky. How could ‘Architectures of Decolonization’ not be political?
However, despite the vibrancy and emotive power captured in the six themes’ panoramic sweep, and the usefulness of the exhibition’s implied advocacy for historic preservation, The Project of Independence hesitates in pointing out a fundamental fact: There was no singular architectural meta-narrative in post-Partition South Asia. Partition and its bloody aftermath conveyed disparate meanings to the people of these four countries, including to their architects. How to negotiate the consequences of independence? How to imagine a national future? Some common visual elements — for instance, expressive use of concrete, spatial organization suitable for tropical environments, and synthesis of abstract forms with local motifs — do cut across the myriad built experiments that arose to meet such questions. At the same time, motivations for the use of these “common” elements diverged significantly.
One of the most poignant works on view at MoMA is not based in design at all. This is the celebrated black-and-white photograph Exodus, Pakistan, 1947 by the American Margaret Bourke-White, installed at the exhibition entrance. As the image hauntingly suggests, the splitting in two of British India to make Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan — along with the further carving up of Pakistan into two parts separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory — resulted in one of history’s largest mass migrations. 1 Overnight, people abandoned homes, property, and the tenor of coexistence that had defined lives for centuries on the Indian subcontinent. Millions of Hindus and Muslims sought refuge in opposite directions, in religiously aligned yet unfamiliar havens. In Delhi alone, approximately 329,000 Muslims departed while 495,000 Hindus and Sikhs entered from the Pakistani state of West Punjab, a demographic shift that would reorder the social fabric of the city. 2 What emerged in the aftermath — besides bigotry and murderous mayhem — was the curious predicament of having to define oneself according to invented boundaries, lines that had been drawn by Cyril Radcliffe, a British judge assigned by the imperial authority to remake the regional map. 3 Mahatma Gandhi described Partition as “the vivisection of India.”
The idea of independence was burdened, in each newly minted nation-state, by these tragedies and dilemmas of division, as well as by the complications of postcolonial liminality and uneven entanglements with notions of modernity. Grappling with such contradictions, architects, engineers, planners, and other shapers of the built environment in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka found themselves articulating emergent national narratives in the language of design and city planning. This became, unavoidably, a Janus-faced endeavor, subject to a demanding array of stimuli — cultural myths and political realities past, present, and future; the seductions of universal humanism and/vs. the appeal of native memories. Post-Partition architecture in South Asia thus evolved under a quadripartite pressure, responding not only to the prompt of independence, but to the interlocking provocations of decolonization, modernity, and identity.
The exhibition hesitates regarding a fundamental fact: There was no singular architectural meta-narrative in post-Partition South Asia.
These tensions are palpable in The Project of Independence. Yet how might the intellectual demands exerted on this design community have been represented more audaciously? An architectural exhibition is not the same kind of undertaking as a novel. Yet in imagining a more expansive meditation on post-Partition culture, a good thematic touchstone or analytic point of departure might be Salman Rushdie’s unforgettable character Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Midnight’s Children (1980). Saleem, the child of midnight, was born along with India’s independence on August 15, 1947; he lives, he says, “mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.” 4 Not only did Saleem take his first breath at the zero hour of independence, but he was switched with another infant at the hospital and given to the wrong parents. Negotiating the vagaries of an accidental identity, he mirrors the provisionality of postcolonial nationhood. Saleem’s proliferating personalities and inevitable cultural heterogeneity — resisting the neat dualities of West and East, Hindu and Muslim, precolonial and postcolonial — might be adopted to allegorize the competing modernities that architecture in decolonized South Asian countries had to confront. Post-Partition architecture in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka was also, in many ways, “handcuffed” to history.
This reality was complicated, to say the least. But it also yielded rich possibilities. When India’s first post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, referred to hydroelectric dams as “temples of the new age,” for instance, he deployed competing metaphors to present a national agenda for development. On one hand, he celebrated independence as a “new age” ushering in a triumphant future; on the other, that future could only be envisioned by invoking the historicity and religiosity of temples. The generative power of such contradictions — the power wielded by Rushdie’s character — is muted in the MoMA exhibition. The Project of Independence requires more intellectual messiness, more complex historiography. An exhibition that better illustrated profound contextual heterogeneity would more vividly reflect the heroism and ambivalence of post-Partition architecture, the uncertainties and ruptures it invoked.
Mainstream histories of South Asian architecture often trace its modern roots to Le Corbusier’s presence; indeed, MoMA’s own 1963 exhibition, Le Corbusier: Buildings in Europe and India, helped to establish a canon that tracked the global spread of modern practice through the achievements of putative heroes, prototypically Western and male. 5 Since the publication of Edward Said’s pathbreaking Orientalism (1978), postcolonial scholarship has challenged such views, explicating the dual assumptions of the “White man’s burden” and colonial “civilizing missions” that tinge such Eurocentric historiographies. The present exhibition rightly avoids well-documented projects such as the New City of Chandigarh — intended, in Nehru’s view, as “an expression of the nation’s faith in the future” — as well as Corbusier’s Headquarters of the Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owner’s Association and his private residences for wealthy industrialists in the same city, the largest in the Indian state of Gujarat. Instead, this time around, the museum focuses on “significant projects of the first generation of post-independence architects who either were born in the region or settled there permanently”; the exhibition is interested in architects who “trained in the West, and upon their return to the region adapted and interrogated their education in addressing the social, economic, cultural, and material conditions on-site, furthering the notion of a hybrid approach that speaks to both global and local frames of reference.” 6 Many of these practitioners struggled, in disparate ways, with the promises and perils of independence.
Consider the case of Muzharul Islam, Bangladesh’s first professionally trained architect, who came home in 1952 after receiving his Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Oregon. Like many secular-minded Bengalis, he was disillusioned by the imposition of a pan-Islamic polity, instrumentalized by officials to cement the idea of Pakistan. 7 The draconian attempt to impose Urdu — the language of the ruling elite in West Pakistan — as the national language hurt the pride of East Pakistanis like Islam, who spoke Bengali and felt marginalized by the economic and political asymmetries already taking hold between the two parts of the new country. East Pakistan’s agitation against West Pakistani military regimes eventually led to a secessionist war and, in 1971, to the creation of Bangladesh. Accordingly, unlike most Indians and Pakistanis, the majority of Bangladeshis enshrine 1971, rather than 1947, as the momentous year of their national history.
Even before this further transformation of the regional map, however, practitioners such as Islam were articulating a modernist visual language — for instance in the College of Arts and Crafts, now the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University (1953–56), represented at MoMA with a beautifully crafted model — that was intended to purge East Pakistani architecture of Islamist symbolism or Indo-Saracenic references, since these were likely to be seen as signifiers of political religiosity. 8 In his other works of the period, also on view in The Project of Independence — the University of Dhaka Library (1953-54) and Chittagong University (1965–71) — Islam deployed a modernist idiom to bridge Bengali culture’s syncretic approach to faith and embrace of universal humanism as championed by the great poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) into the cosmopolitan sensibilities of a global citizen. At the same time, in Islam’s placemaking, burnt bricks serve as a powerfully specific reference to Bengal’s riverine and deltaic geography, to its abundance of mud.
The materiality of buildings was deeply entwined with South Asian architects’ negotiations of cultural heterodoxy.
The materiality of buildings, more broadly, was deeply intertwined with South Asian architects’ negotiations of cultural heterodoxy — and this is legible, for example, in the uses of concrete in post-Partition design. The MoMA exhibition includes a considerable number of examples, deftly represented by scale models. The precedent of Corbusier’s Marseille behemoth Unité d’Habitation was not irrelevant as a harbinger of what would become béton brut or Brutalism, and Correa utilized exposed concrete to sculptural effect in Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Municipal Stadium in Ahmedabad (1959–66). Yet, more often in post-Partition South Asia, “imprecise” concrete construction with visible traces of formwork took on rhetorical meanings related to the struggle of nation-building, indicating simultaneously a wish to “catch up” with the West and a defiance of it. Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations (1970–72) and Kuldip Singh’s National Cooperative Development Corporation Office Building or NCDC (1978–80) — two iconic concrete structures in New Delhi — encapsulated progressive ideals, narrating a nationalistic coming-of-age. Both emerged from dynamic collaborations between their architects and the celebrated Indian structural engineer Mahendra Raj (1924–2022), who passed away this month. The NCDC’s soaring double concrete forms allude to the traditional palm-to-palm greeting, while its axial public access, modulation of light through terraced form, and constructional logic transcend the lure of easy “sartorial” Indianness. The Hall of Nation’s concrete latticework brought to the subcontinent a structural system that was novel at the time. The importance of such projects warrants a deeper study of the collaboration between these architects and Raj, whose career, spanning six decades, produced more than 180 concrete structures across India. How the disciplines of architecture and engineering fused in post-Partition South Asia, creating buildings whose beauty entwined with the project of nation-building, should be a subject of enduring research interest.
Organizing a museum exhibition on a subject as complicated and contentious as “decolonization” inevitably entails epistemological challenges. That task is relatively easier, one dares say, in the literary space of a novel such as Midnight’s Children. Rushdie uses Saleem Sinai to represent the peculiar ontology of being decolonized, to embody the range of indeterminacies that percolate through the postcolonial condition — and fiction can capture such hybridity so as to make the reader a willing coproducer of a contested narrative. In the physical space of a museum, in contrast, where the physical facts of real buildings must be represented, the deft and subtle exploration of decolonial experience becomes more daunting. By its very nature, a museum show must appeal to a broad audience with a clear and easily comprehended narrative. How does a curator simultaneously mediate disciplinary standards accreted over generations, and postcolonial criticisms that have been propounded precisely to challenge those standards? It’s an indissoluble dilemma, and despite the curators’ many insightful choices, The Project of Independence gives the impression of having sought an easy resolution.
The curious irony of being in a postcolonial condition — a condition in which, as Dipesh Chakrabarty would argue, one cannot appropriate the concept of modernity without facing both the temptations of the colonizer and the urge to repudiate them — could have made for a more complex narrative about the burdens of independence. 9 Like Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai, the lunatic Toba Tek Singh, antihero of a famous short story by the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, portrays the peculiar inscrutability in ideas of nationhood and collective belonging. Poised between territories, Manto’s protagonist simply lies down: “There, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.” 10 This is the ground built up by midcentury architecture in South Asia.
Few cultural producers felt these burdens more acutely than female architects, for whom the traumas of Partition were exacerbated by struggles against patriarchy.
Few cultural producers would have felt such burdens more acutely than female architects, for whom the traumas of Partition were exacerbated by their struggles against the patriarchal stranglehold on the profession. Sri Lanka’s first modernist architect, Minnette de Silva (1918–1998) — “The brilliant female architect forgotten by history,” as The Guardian has called her — is largely ignored in The Project of Independence. 11 Bawa’s work is abundantly covered, while de Silva’s minor inclusion seems to be validated not by her own achievements, but on the grounds of her having been “the first Asian woman to qualify as an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects” and “her decades-long correspondence with Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who called her work ‘courageous.’” 12 A photograph of her climbing a ladder while turning to look at the camera suggests an ironic Saleem Sinai-esque contestation of self-discovery; she is in fact inspecting a house under construction in Colombo, yet her position implies a confrontation with an elusive border.
Thankfully, de Silva wrote an autobiography, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect (1998), that serves as a testament to and an informal archive of her career. De Silva sought to fuse local craftsmanship and landscape features with an ethos of modernity to which she was exposed while studying at the Architectural Association in London during the 1940s. After Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, she returned from Europe and established her own practice, thriving professionally throughout the 1950s. Karunaratne House (1951), designed on a hilly site in Kandy, is a tour de force of site- and climate-conscious design, boldly conflating a modernist impulse with a deep sense of indigeneity to produce an effect of tropical genius loci. One wishes that this house had been represented in the exhibition with a scale model.
Another figure given unfortunately short shrift in the show is Gira Sarabhai (1923–2021), who trained under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in Wisconsin, and returned to India immediately after Partition, to begin an architectural practice that examined modernity in a post-Partition context while also championing Indian textiles on the world stage. Deeply committed to the new country’s design pedagogy, Gira and her brother Gautam Sarabhai founded and designed the influential National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in 1961. The careers of de Silva and Sarabhai were ironically similar: Their fame rested precariously on relationships to patriarchy rather than on the high quality of their design work. Each hobnobbed with a who’s who of modernists, including Corbusier, Kahn, Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Isamu Noguchi, Charles and Ray Eames, et al. Less explicitly dependent on connections to powerful Western men, Yasmeen Lari (b. 1941) trained in England at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University), and established her private practice in Pakistan in the mid-1960s. A generation younger than de Silva and Sarabhai, Lari landed important public commissions from the early 1970s, including the Anguri Bagh Housing (1972–75) in Lahore. This sprawling public housing complex, comprising 787 climate-responsive and interlocking apartments created especially for low-income residents, was a pioneering attempt to empower marginal communities to participate in the design process. Yet, despite this project’s inclusion at MoMA, Lari awaits more engaged and vigorous representation.
In sum, a glaring absence is the history of colonialism itself.
These cursory considerations of pivotal female practitioners demonstrate that, in addition to — and in synchrony with — its simplification of modernity and identity in post-Partition cultures, The Project of Independence is plagued by a pathology that remains entrenched across the profession. This is an understanding of the architect as a solo male hero, fighting all forms of injustice with sheer Howard Roarkian valor. 13 The ghost of Ayn Rand’s protagonist seems not only to permeate the exhibition’s portrayals of Baker, Bawa, Correa, and Kanvinde, but to flatten the idea of Partition itself, treating it as a trigger for heroic beginnings and downplaying it as a collective existential crisis. 14
MoMA misses the opportunity to address the professional invisibility that has haunted South Asian women architects like de Silva. Among those overlooked who deserved to be included are Perin Jamshetji Mistri (1913–1989), Pravina Mehta (1923–1992 or 1925–1988), Urmila Eulie Chowdhury (1923–1995), and Hema Sankalia (1934–2015). 15 The problem, of course, is global; in the U.S., Theodate Pope Riddle (1867–1946), Mary Colter (1869–1958), Julia Morgan (1872–1957), and Chloethiel Woodard Smith (1910–1992), among others, struggled in the male-dominated profession and have often been excluded from canonical narratives in the 20th century. But specifically in regard to South Asian women, important work has been published in the last decade or so, including Madhavi Desai’s Women Architects and Modernism in India: Narratives and Contemporary Practices (2016) and Mary N. Woods’s Women Architects in India: Histories of Practice in Mumbai and Delhi (2016). This scholarship deserves consideration in any survey seeking to reconfigure the disciplinary complexities of post-Partition architecture.
In sum, a glaring absence in The Project of Independence is the history of colonialism itself. The triumphalism and innocence of the “new age” allegedly promised by independence ironically obscures the ways in which histories of colonialism are complicit with those of modernity. For, while decolonization inspired a politics of the new, “the socio-cultural revolution of modern India had begun long before the political transition of 1947.” 16 The influence of the Indian reformer Raja Rammohun Roy (1772–1833) on the cultural movement known as Bengal Renaissance, for example, and the literary explorations of universal humanism undertaken by the polymathic artist Rabindranath Tagore complicate assumptions about “the native self”; the political reception of colonialism by Bengali intellectuals in 19th-century India was hardly monolithic. 17 In Europe Reconsidered: Perceptions of the West in Nineteenth Century Bengal (1988), Tapan Raychaudhuri refuted the false binary of the colonial subject’s “slavish admiration” or “xenophobic rejection” of the West, in favor of a more complex interpretation of the cultural chemical reactions occasioned by colonialism. 18 One wonders how a curatorial notion of tertium quid — a third category that, while indefinite, is inextricable from the oppositions that give rise to it — might illuminate the hybrid modernities expressed by Achyut Kanvinde, Balkrishna V. Doshi, Minette de Silva, Geoffrey Bawa, Muzharul Islam, and Yasmeen Lari?
Furthermore, how might a more expansive view of post-Partition experience pay more attention to that other hybrid category, South Asian citizens at large? The exhibition’s excellent models, crafted by Cooper Union students, are exuberantly lonely, removed from their urban contexts, and self-content in their Herculean majesty. So are Randhir Singh’s photographs of various buildings, rendered beautifully haunting in their solitude. With a few exceptions — including Kamalapur Railway Station in Dhaka, designed by Daniel C. Dunham and Robert G. Boughey in 1968, along with Doshi’s Premabhai Hall in Ahmedabad (1956–74), Islam’s Public Library in Dhaka (1953–54), and Baker’s Indian Coffee House in Trivandrum (c. 1980) — Singh’s photographs exclude the buildings’ primary protagonists, the people. Inadvertently, these choices downplay architecture’s complicated, necessary, and hybrid interface with society.
Despite its problems, the show could not have come at a better moment, in that MoMA’s attention might help to catalyze the preservation of cultural patrimony.
Despite its problematic great-man approach to post-Partition architecture in South Asia, and its limited exploration of geopolitical conditions leading up to the momentous events of Partition, the exhibition could not have come at a better moment, in that MoMA’s attention could help to catalyze the preservation of midcentury South Asian buildings. 9 Such catalysis is sorely needed. The prevailing culture, beholden as it is to swanky visions of “smart cities,” seems to view history as an aberration, and the demolition of cultural patrimony has been normalized as development. To encounter, in the gallery, nostalgic pencil drawings of Rewal’s Hall of Nations, which was torn down in 2017 despite widespread global protests, is to experience an architectural “banality of evil” moment. To look at photographs of Dunham and Boughey’s Kamalapur Railway Station is to recall that one of South Asia’s first examples of “tropical modernism” has reportedly also been slated for demolition. The exquisitely crafted model of the Ceylon Steel Corporation Office Building, designed by Bawa and Ulrik Plesner and completed in 1969, may lead a visitor to think that the building still exists in its splendid original condition. But, as the caption mournfully states: “The building has been in a state of disuse for several years, and its future is uncertain.” The Project of Independence serves as a powerful reminder that, without the ongoing presence of these projects “handcuffed” to histories of Partition, cities in South Asia would lose one of the most poignant chapters in their evolution.