Fiction in Architecture,

or the Architecture of Fiction

Although we often imagine architecture as a solid, 3 dimensional concrete form, as opposed to an abstract thought, the world of fiction plays a powerful role in imagining architecture for the public. In this piece we argue that many architectural stereotypes are generated through reading of works of fiction, which in turn inform our imagination of what a work of architecture ‘should’ be like, thus precluding the many possibilities that would be generated if we left the creative process entirely up to an architect or the creative team.

In the sub-continental imagination, this process starts very early, with descriptions of the Pandava and Kaurava palaces in Indraprastha in the Mahabharata, for example the detailed description of the ‘house of wax’ that the Pandavas were supposed to be immolated in. Other descriptions abound – for example an early urban planning description in the visualization of Ravana’s city of Lanka in the Ramayana, and more scientific descriptions in the Mayamata and the Vastushastra.

However, leaving these earlier texts aside, we find modern fiction too playing a role in generating images of architecture. Munshi Premchand’s descriptions of an ideal Indian village go a long way toward constructing the ideal of a village as a place where purity of intention and honesty of labor are to be found. In later postcolonial literature the descriptions by Salman Rushdie of a Kashmiri house in Midnight’s Children too construct for us the stereotype of a typical Kashmiri house: closed in on itself, warm and cosy, and with gendered spaces, that is to say, different rooms for men and women. This description of a Kashmiri house goes beyond a simple visualization of space: what is at stake here is the visualization of Kashmiri society itself: an exotic locale which clings on to its traditions and whose microcosm can be found in the way the Kashmiris choose to live in their habitat.

Indeed, the ideal ‘Indian’ abode is stereotypically humble, with much emphasis being placed on simple living and a paucity of ‘material’ possessions, both within the home and without. Much attention was paid, for example, to the way a former president of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam, lived – with his virtues of simplicity and an absence of materiality in his dwelling being extolled. Here the media played a singular role in bringing this visualization of an ‘Indian’ dwelling to the fore.

But the way this piece really seeks to bring fictional visualization of architecture to attention is through extracts from a novel by Nayantara Sehgal, titled ‘Storm in Chandigarh’. Through her book, Ms. Sehgal not only seeks to bring alive a social, political and family drama set in Chandigarh, but also brings alive the spaces and quality of life in postcolonial Chandigarh.

Nayantara Sahgal’s novel makes references to a turbulent past, and opens with a political landscape that is chilling in its bleakness. A mid-rung federal officer is sent from Delhi to Chandigarh, a troubleshooter and go-between for central government and the recently partitioned (along linguistic lines) states of Punjab and Haryana. Arriving at Chandigarh, Dubey muses idly at the vacant, wide avenues, the strong winds and billowing dust, the occasional stray dog and milch animal, and the half-finished architecture that completes an urbanity of no-place.

Dubey’s job as a liason man, and the political turbulence that he finds himself in, means that his impressions of the new town are brief and in passing, and yet the power and tone of the landscape sets the stage and dictates the mood for a sombre time that is perfidious in its vacuity. At this time Sahgal’s Chandigarh is far from Le Corbusier's triumph of the Machine, or the perfection of his urban anthropomorphy, but is rather a testament to half-complete human endeavor and the uncertainty of a new-nation state seeking a desperate mythology to validate a tenuous independence. None of this appears in Dubey’s first impressions of the city, a new town rising like a straggling keekar out of the emptiness:

“It was noon when he arrived in Chandigarh. Huge treeless spaces fell away on either side of the road. The line of flowering trees down the middle of the wide dual carriageway looked decorative and fragile, struggling to make an impression against the sprawling emptiness. There seemed nothing in the way of public transport serving a city so spread out. He passed no vehicle on the road. He slowed down as he came onto the lake boulevard, beyond which a double row of hills rose in the sunshine. On the plain below them lay the complex of buildings he could identify from illustrations as the High Court, the Secretariat, and the Legislature. He wished these had been erected on the hillside itself to command a dramatic view of the lake and the plain. Instead the hills formed a backdrop to the city…Chandigarh, built on field and pasture land, had been more than a new capital. It had symbolized the journey to recovery. It was industry made to thrive and abundance to flow again, and a people made whole after the terrors and uprooting of the Partition”. [Sahgal (1960),32]

Sahgal herself – or her character Vishal Dubey – inscribes himself almost automatically into the instantaneous post-independence mythology that postcolonial India creates for itself. But unlike Barthes' theorization of mythology (or mythological symbology?) which is limited by its linear causality, Le Corbusier's architectural achievement contains within it the possibility of reversal, of semiotic surprises. There is in this sense a notion of privilege or hierarchy in the relationship between signifier and signified – one leads to another, one precedes the other, and there is no possibility of this vector being reversed, modified, or even diluted. The possibilities of this ‘signature’ being reversed is inherent, however, in Le Corbusier’s Capitol.

This powerful way in which Ms. Sahgal’s fiction generates images of a new city’s architecture are often not theorized, nor given enough credence for the way in which they inform the public’s view of architecture and what to build. But if architecture is a creative person’s imagining put in built form, then fiction too builds up this conceptual ‘storm’.


More by :  Ashish Nangia

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