Destabilizing the Canon

Eduard Kögel
9. February 2022
Kamalapur Railway Station, Dhaka, East Pakistan (Bangladesh). 1968. Louis Berger and Consulting Engineers (est. 1953). Daniel Dunham (1929–2000) and Robert Boughey (b. 1940). Exterior view. (Photo: Randhir Singh)

The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985 opens at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York on February 20, 2022. Eduard Kögel spoke with MoMA chief curator Martino Stierli ahead of the opening about the theme of the exhibition and what visitors can expect to see in the exhibition and its companion catalogue.


Eduard Kögel: You and your team are curating an exhibition on architecture and urban planning in the post-independence South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. How long did you work on it and why this focus?
Martino Stierli: I started to work on this project very soon after I first came to MoMA and traveled regularly to the region from early 2016 onwards. I had the idea of doing an exhibition on South Asia even before; this was one of the exhibitions I proposed during my interview process.  

I am interested in reassessing the canon of modern architectural history which has been written not at least by MoMA with its exhibitions from 1932 onwards. In many ways I see the upcoming exhibition as a continuation of the 2018 exhibition, Toward A Concrete Utopia, which investigated the architectural legacies of socialist Yugoslavia, a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

South Asia is significant within this larger undertaking of destabilizing the Western-centric canon of modern architectural history because the region in many ways served as a blueprint for decolonization across the Global South in the second half of twentieth century, given that the former British India reached independence right after the Second World War. To understand the contribution of modern architecture to the political project of decolonization, it is worth studying South Asia as it was in many ways on the forefront of this development.

How did the coronavirus pandemic affect preparation?
Fortunately, almost all of the research in the field was completed before the pandemic started. We did our last research trip, to Pakistan, in January 2020. But the exhibition was impacted for the photo commission. We hired a contemporary photographer, Randhir Singh, who is based in Delhi, to produce a photo portfolio that is featured prominently in the exhibition and the pertaining catalogue. His trips to several locations were delayed by many months, but in the end he was able to take almost all of the photos just in time. We were very lucky and can show the exhibition almost to the extent we had originally planned.

What is the situation in the countries regarding archives? Is there an awareness of the historical importance of this architecture and urban planning?
There definitely is an awareness, but one has to distinguish a bit between the official side on the one hand and many interest groups like architect’s communities on the other. There are also institutions such as the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi that have started to collect materials relating to modern architecture from the region and that have staged a number of small exhibitions on the topic of Delhi modernism. In terms of archives, architectural schools such as CEPT in Ahmedabad have considerable holdings. But many of the materials we sourced for the exhibition come from still existing offices, or from the families of architects. One of the objectives of the exhibition is to raise awareness for the historical and architectural significance of this body of work in these respective countries. It is important to keep in mind that this situation is not unique to South Asia; the lack of appreciation for the legacy of postwar modernism is almost a global issue. Postwar modernism has not yet risen to the appreciation that it deserves.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Municipal Stadium, Ahmedabad, India. 1959–1966. Architect: Charles Correa (1930–2015). Engineer: Mahendra Raj (b. 1924). Exterior view. (Photo: Randhir Singh)

All four countries were under British control for many years, leaving behind its architectural and planning concepts. Can it be said that each of the young independent states consciously sought local forms of expression that stood out from those of their neighbors? Or was there an orientation toward an international modernism that opposed colonial classicism?
In our exhibition, South Asia is considered as a shared cultural space, despite the obvious political differences between the respective countries. The exhibition showcases four newly established nation-states that were trying to reinvent themselves in opposition to colonial rule. They used modernism in their own respective ways to portray themselves as forward-looking, progressive, and self-determined societies. So the exhibition is more about this common moment of post-coloniality and how modern architecture was used or in fact was an agent to reimagine a new way of being in the world; a tool for political and cultural emancipation.

Even after independence, the region was characterized by complex political challenges. Let me start with Pakistan. Until 1971, the state consisted of West Pakistan and East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Both states are strongly influenced by Muslim culture and religion. Did this have an impact on architecture and urban planning?
For sure. For example, talking about typologies, the case of Islamabad, the newly established capital of Pakistan, is very interesting. There, the neighborhood units were organized according to shared civic needs, and that always included a mosque. The architect Anwar Said elaborated three different types which corresponded to varying sizes (the exhibition presents an example of the Type C mosque). This does not exist in India or Sri Lanka. Pakistan defined itself as a Muslim nation-state from the very beginning. At first, it was still a secular understanding of Islam, but as time went on, the religious aspects became more pronounced. In the early years, Islam was very much at the center of nation-building, which is an interesting complexity and ambiguity. 

The same is true for Bangladesh. The symbol of independence became Louis Kahn’s parliament building. Kahn had been invited to Bangladesh by Muzharul Islam, the father of Bangladeshi modernism, who had studied in the US and whose work is featured through a number of projects for institutional buildings. This is an interesting case where a Jewish Western architect designed this building with an incredible symbolic meaning that still holds true in Bangladesh today and that many Bangladeshi identify with. It becomes even more complex when you consider that the building was commissioned before Bangladesh became independent. It underwent a very interesting shift in meaning: at the center the proud assertion of self-determination, although it was designed by a western architect, it was very much appropriated and adopted by the local population. 

The British launched the Colombo Plan in 1950 to tie the countries of South and Southeast Asia to the West through development aid. The United States was also active with the same goal, for example with the Ford Foundation and the Asia Foundation. Is this a theme of the exhibition?
While development aid certainly was an important aspect of South Asia’s recent history, the exhibition does not foreground it so much, although it is addressed in the catalogue. As already mentioned, the exhibition focuses on self-determination rather than Western influences or Western precedent. The curatorial vision was to be looking at the first generation of local architects, many of whom were trained in the West or had experience working in offices of Western architects in the region, such as Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. The exhibition seeks to explore how modernism became part of an understanding of self-determination in South Asia, both in terms of architecture and politics.

Chittagong University, Chittagong, East Pakistan (Bangladesh). 1965–71. Vastukalabid (est. 1964). Muzharul Islam (1923–2021). Exterior view. (Photo: Randhir Singh)

In the 1950s and 1960s, many big names such as Le Corbusier and Louis I. Kahn, as well as lesser-known architects such as Gio Ponti, Konstantinos Doxiadis, Arne Jacobsen, Michel Écochard, Richard Döcker and many other foreign architects were active in these countries. Will their contributions be covered in the exhibition or in the catalogue?
That is not the focus of the exhibition either. Both Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn are present in the exhibition, because their contributions were so seminal and because their buildings attained such a high symbolic significance for the specific places they were built. In both instances, the curatorial team foregrounds the question of labor conditions and material and craft culture, and how these conditions transformed these projects into something uniquely South Asian. Doxiadis likewise is addressed through the lens of Islamabad, where he provided the master plan. We are not saying that there wasn’t an intense dialogue or conversation with Western architecture at the time. But that is not the focus of the exhibition, because the story of Chandigarh and of Louis Kahn in Dhaka has been told many times. The work of other prominent western architects is acknowledged as well, among them Charles and Ray Eames or Joseph Allen Stein, whose India International Centre is featured. 

Generally though, the curatorial vision was to emphasize the contribution of the first generation of post-Independence local architects, and how they appropriated modernism for the specific conditions on site. There are now very recognized figures of this generation: the Pritzker Prize winner Balkrishna Doshi, for example, or Charles Correa, to a lesser extent Yasmeen Lari, the first female architect from Pakistan, Minnette de Silva from Sri Lanka, and of course Geoffrey Bawa. One of the goals of the exhibition is to change the reception that South Asian modernism is just or primarily the result of some external “influence” — it is not. Instead, the contribution of this generation of architects should be considered as something on its own right, and on par with their western colleagues.

In fact, there are not that many women architects, but Minnette de Silva in Sri Lanka and Yasmeen Lari in Pakistan were formative figures. Can you say something about the conditions for women architects in the region? 
Minnette de Silva was the first licensed architect in what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and she is widely considered the first modern architect of her home country. She was associated with CIAM very early on and had a close relationship with Le Corbusier. She was also a co-founder of MARG in 1946, an important journal of art, architecture and culture that still exists today. Moreover, she was a seminal intellectual leader of modern architecture throughout the region. She built an impressive number of private houses, in her hometown of Kandy, as well as in Colombo and elsewhere. She also paved the way for figures such as Geoffrey Bawa and Valentine Gunasekara, both of whom are included in the exhibition as well. Sadly, her archives no longer exist, so her work is presented through publications, historical photographs and newly commissioned photography. 

Like de Silva, Yasmeen Lari was the first licensed woman architect in her home country of Pakistan, and like her, she exerted an outsize influence on the construction of a modern society. In the early years, Lari received many government commissions from the newly established government. It is interesting to consider that this career was possible in Pakistan at a time when only very few women architects in the West were able to achieve a comparable status.

Does the exhibition address the training of the first generation of architects after independence? Many of them were educated in the UK or in the US. When they were in the UK, they often attended the Architectural Association (AA), where Otto Koenigsberger taught on tropical architecture. Can you see this imprint from their education?
A chapter in the catalogue is devoted to the question of architectural education. Independence led to the establishment of a large number of new educational institutions, for example, the CEPT in Ahmedabad, or the Institute of Design in the same place. The question of institution building is one of the main themes of our exhibition, and there is a separate chapter that specifically addresses the establishment and construction of educational institutions.

Likewise, the legacy of the tropical architecture program at the AA is discussed critically in an essay in the catalogue, dealing with the question of how modern architecture in South Asia was rethought and adapted to specific climatic conditions. This was one of the key issues architects were facing at the time.

National Cooperative Development Corporation (NCDC) Office Building, New Delhi, India. 1978–80. Architect: Kuldip Singh (1934–2020). Engineer: Mahendra Raj (b. 1924). Exterior view. (Photo: Randhir Singh)

How did you structure the exhibition against the background of the complex postcolonial situation? And what are the focal points?
The exhibition is organized according to six distinct thematic sections, which means that it does not follow a strict chronological timeline. Moreover, we bring buildings from all four countries into productive conversation. The first section deals with city building. It also references the consequences of Partition, which resulted in a huge number of deaths and an even larger number of refugees, many of whom had to be resettled in newly constructed cities and neighborhoods. So there was an urgent need to create massive number of housing units and brand new urban infrastructure for millions of people. The next section is about housing specifically. It includes the work of figures such as Laurie Baker, who was heavily invested in climate-responsive and low-cost design for everyone. This is followed by a section on industry and infrastructure, specifically looking at the architectural expression of the economic and social changes that South Asia underwent in a short period of time, as well as the idea of (economic) self-determination. This included the development of industries that provided society with the goods it needed to be independent of imports from the former colonial rulers. This sector also includes tourism and the hotel industry (the growth of the service sector is also part of this story of industrialization), which was particularly important to Sri Lanka from the 1960s onward. The next section deals with political spaces, that is, the architecture that represents statehood — the Hall of Nations in Delhi, for example, built to mark the 25th anniversary of independence in 1972. In many ways this is one of the key projects in the exhibition, partly because the building was destroyed overnight a few years ago, pointing to the perilous situation that many modern buildings in the region find themselves in. Next is a section that deals with the educational landscape, from kindergarten to elementary schools to universities and schools of higher learning. The last section presents institution building in a broader sense, all kinds of civil and religious buildings, infrastructure such as stadiums, mosques and government buildings. 

Which media will be used to show the exhibition? You work with original models and plans of the architects or with reproductions?
In my view, architectural exhibitions are best presented in a mix of media. As a historian, I believe in the validity (not to say aura) of the original artifact. For this reason the curatorial team has brought together many original drawings and sketches, and to some extent some original architectural models, from Doshi’s office, for example, but also from Charles Correa’s archive at the RIBA in London. We also include a substantial number of archival photographs, often from the offices of the architects themselves or from important architectural photographers like Madan Mahatta, whose archive is kept in Delhi. A newly commissioned portfolio of contemporary photographs by Randhir Singh complements this, which will give visitors an opportunity to understand how the buildings were appropriated by the users and how they have changed over time. In addition, the exhibition includes moving images, assembled from newsreels, feature films, and other sources. We have found in many years of exhibiting architecture that moving images are a particularly successful way to introduce architectural ideas to a general audiences. Moreover, we commissioned new architectural models from students at Cooper Union in New York. I’m very impressed with their dedication and the quality of detailing. In this sense, the exhibition is also an example of how, as curators, to engage with academia and architectural education.

Are there other results or other mediation formats besides the exhibition, e.g. websites, publications, events?
The exhibition catalogue is a state-of-the-art research documentation with two long essays by the co-curators and nine shorter essays by leading experts in the field on specific topics and themes. It also includes a photo portfolio as well as a wealth of visual material. In this sense, the catalogue is much more than just a documentation of the exhibition; it is a contribution on its own right that presents new research on the subject matter. 

There will be a number of public programs for a variety of audiences, several of which planned in conjunction with partner institutions such as architectural schools in the region. 

Last question: What do you consider the most impressive discovery in this exhibition? Or can you recommend a key project for visitors?
This is a very difficult question for me. There are so many. One thing I want to mention is the work of Achyut Kanvinde from India, who is perhaps a little less known. He left an incredible architectural oeuvre. The quality of Kanvinde’s drawings and also the significance of many of the projects, industrial complexes but also many university campuses, is really breathtaking and I believe will be a real eye opener for many visitors. 

I hope that the exhibition can highlight not just a single person or a single building, but instead demonstrate that South Asia produced an incredible body of modern architecture post-Independence that really changes the way we look at this part of the world and also of how we think of architectural history in the 20th century more broadly.

New Secretariat Building, Calcutta (Kolkata), India. 1949–54. West Bengal Public Works Department. Habib Rahman (1915–1995). Exterior view. (Photo: Randhir Singh)

The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985 will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York from February 20 to July 2, 2022.
 
The exhibition is organized by Martino Stierli, The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA; Anoma Pieris, guest curator and professor, The University of Melbourne; and Sean Anderson, former associate curator at MoMA; with Evangelos Kotsioris, assistant curator in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design.
 
The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985, the 232-page companion catalogue to the exhibition, is edited by Martino Stierli, Anoma Pieris, and Sean Anderson, and published by the Museum of Modern Art. 
 
 
Martino Stierli is The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art, a role he assumed in March 2015. Mr. Stierli oversees the wide-ranging program of special exhibitions, installations, and acquisitions of the Department of Architecture and Design.
 
Eduard Kögel is project manager for the Chinese-Architects platform and lectures regularly at Berlin Institute of Technology and Bauhaus University Weimar. Together with colleagues, he developed the exhibition Contested Modernities. Postcolonial Architecture in Southeast Asia, shown in Berlin in 2021.

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