Nationalism and Architecture (Pt. 1)

Dr. Albert Speer (left), Hitler's chief architect, presents his model of the German Pavilion, designed for the World's Fair in Paris in 1937 Date: 1937 Source: History Today

Note: This piece is an extract from an as-of-yet unpublished essay written for the COA competition held in May 2020. The essay is in 2 parts, the second of which is also available in this site. I am an architect. My point of view will be biased to my profession. The underlined text contain links to the sources/claims. Links open in a new tab.

Introduction

We find ourselves at a unique junction in the history of our times. There are disruptions to our way of life at scales we do not fully comprehend yet; in domains we had previously assumed to be inviolate. We, architects, are threatened by obsolescence and irrelevance in the age of BIM (Building Information Modelling) and AI (Artificial Intelligence) (Valentine, 2018) (Chattopadhyay, 2019). But, more importantly, we as humans are threatened by the same looming obsolescence and irrelevance (Soininvaara, 2019). Peter Drucker held that the greatest danger in times of turbulence was not the turbulence itself, but the tendency to steer with conventional logic (Drucker, 1980). And so it is that in our turbulent times, we are buffeted by the unreined storms of technological advance; but pinned by our unquestioning adherence to archaic laws, education, and livelihoods.

Strong indeed is the urge, to yield to nationalism and to calls for an ancient common culture; in an effort to make sense of a world that rushes forth before we have found our footing. We ought to explore through this essay, the understanding of our concept of a nation, of India – her past, present and future, and develop a firm grasp of the meaning of nation-building. This discussion would provide the foundation on which we can raise the edifice of our architectural services to our nation.

Nation, Nationalism and Nation Building

The Global Policy Forum considers a nation to be ‘an imagined community or a tribe at a grand scale’ (Global Policy Forum, 2009). This community usually belongs to a specific land and has self-identifying members with a shared culture. The philosopher Ernest Renan contended that the nation is the ‘daily plebiscite’ by its members, of a common will to live together (Renan, 1882). We must note how this is different from the validity and stability that a country enjoys – a geographically defined political entity (Definitions, 2008). A nation needs its members to actively and experientially engage in its existence; the country is a legally definite but experientially abstract entity for its citizens.

This distinction is important as our national identities are today increasingly chained to selected events of a past that are relayed to us by vested interests. Our identities are cooped into this collective identity to protect us from the threats of an unseen other or the unknown future. We have to remember that it is the active daily engagement in nation building that makes us its members; and not just our identification with a certain label. This daily ‘plebiscite’ should be defined not by who we were born to or where we were born but by our active contribution to the common good. A patriotic adaptation of the ideas of Adam Smith would ask us to ethically render our services (as architects or otherwise) to the nation to serve its best interests; instead of specific and overt exercises intended to build our nation (Smith, 1759).

A Contrarian View On History, Nationalism and Architecture

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed, ‘The most powerful men have always inspired the architects; the architect has always been influenced by power’ (Nietzsche, 1889). The Taj Mahal, the Qutub Minar, the Brihadeeswara temple, and even the city of Jaipur itself are familiar Indian examples of the relationship between powerful patrons and exemplary architecture. This relationship isn’t limited to our past. Our first Prime Minister Pt. Nehru once mentioned in a speech how we may not build a Taj Mahal today; as it would not fit in with the society of today (Nehru, 1959). Yet, Pt. Nehru was the powerful political patron who conceptualised Chandigarh as ‘the nation’s faith in the future’, and vested in this one city the symbolism of an India ‘unfettered by the traditions of the past’ (Khosla, 2015). William Danielson’s research details how a small cadre of industrialists and mill owners (who profoundly influenced the economy and the politics of Ahmedabad) sought to project the status of Ahmedabad as an important node worldwide by becoming patrons of ‘modern architecture’ (Williamson, 2016). The chosen international architects, such as Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, were part of the same global milieu that these businessmen sought to attract to their city (Williamson, 2016). Mehrotra et al’s analysis of the ‘regional’ in architecture, also found architecture to be ‘an excellent instrument to execute power’ (Gupte, Mehrotra, & Shetty, 2004).

This massive force that architectural symbolism conveys, has also been used in other countries to encourage a national identity, and influence their destiny. Architect Albert Speer produced the Reich Chancellery to showcase the might and splendour of the German Reich at Adolf Hitler’s directions (Fest, 2007); while the tallest building in the world – the Burj Dubai, was renamed the Burj Khalifa when its construction had to be financed by Sheikh Khalifa – the ruler of the United Arab Emirates (Sotoudehnia & Rose‐Redwood, 2019). History has rewarded us with architectural artefacts so powerful, that our dreams of a past era are aided in interpretations by the books which survived, and in experiences by the buildings which survived. Yet, it sometimes becomes difficult to separate the artefact from the ideology; especially when the ideology was prevalently known as nationalism in its time.

This intersection of nationalism, nation building, and architecture is especially important because the nation is made of the many; yet this architecture is the identity of the few. The writer Victor Hugo maintained that ‘The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius.’ (Hugo, 1831). This is a message to remember when we are impelled to create massive masterpieces signed by ‘starchitects’ or envisioned by leaders, that do not serve the social fabric in which they are embedded; and are only broadcasting a message or a concept.

References

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