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Modern Times

Project Type

Research Seminar, Fall 2016
School of Planning and Architecture

Research Guides

Dr. Ranjana Mittal
Rajiv Bhakat
Lena Gupta
Saptarshi Sanyal
Moulshri Joshi

Team Members

Gautam Vohra
Kabir Sahni
Protyasha Pandey
Prabhash Dhama
Radhika Ravindran

Project Role

Team Lead
Sarth Khare

“This is an investigation to show how even after a political independence, the city of Delhi continued to breathe under a form of architectural imperialism, under a regionalist modernism that continues to show its persistence even today.”

- Introduction, Modern Times

Modrn Times


Through “Modern Times”, my team and I went on a quest to uncover how the Modern Architecture movement in Delhi, as we see it, came to be, what generalized knowledge it carried and how it seeped into the culture of built-forms in Delhi. We discovered that the circulation of ideas that let to this event, ranged from independent India’s economic policies to the teaching of German architects in the United States and the visit of Charles and Ray Eames to city 600 miles away from Delhi.


Research Question

What are the factors, the influences and the reasons that shaped the architectural vocabulary of New Delhi as we experience it now?

Delhi in the time of 'Modernism'

In 1950s India saw itself recovering from the British rule and struggling to get a grip on its own administration. The life of the people of the country was either marred by the violent partition or the harsh economic condition. Only gradually did the situation change and there was an improvement in the economic stability of the country. This decade saw an emerging need of a change in the sense of identity in people and that reflected in not just architecture but in the lifestyle of people as well. On one side the father of the nation was preaching the use of khadi and supporting the local vernacular industries while there happened a shift to a new style which was a convergence of modernity and nationalism.

Drivers of 'Modernism' in Delhi

Post-Independence, influenced by the Soviet nations, the economic framework of India followed Sectoral models under 'state-intervention'.

Nehru’s chief economist Prof P C Mahalanobis developed a four sector model of the Indian economy with emphasis on Heavy Industries. The approach was based on a mechanical view of the world that disregarded the role of private enterprise.

Aspirations of Modernity

Modernism in 20th century India developed as a concept, was used within numerous stylistic developments. Ideas from the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, the subsequent Art Deco movement and even neoclassical architecture were all counted as modern. Modernism at the time was not limited to just architecture but was also an overall approach to life.

Modern Architecture in India

In the mid-20th Century, the infrastructure evolved to give the benefits of transport, communication and new techniques of building materials and technologies. The importance of looking at a building in the climatic context to also being socially acceptable, visually attractive, functionally sound and economically feasible; each building demanded a different design which could not have been reproduced by a formula.


There was a need for the establishment and development of design and architectural education through a system of institutions of optimum quality. This dire need to establish a centralised education system for design and architecture led to the invitation extended by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to Charles and Ray Eames who went on to establish a regionalist modern design education system.

Blind Spots

In the absence of resource allocation framework designed for architectural processes, the architecture of post-independence Delhi drew from the infrastructure sector. A similar pattern emerged, heavy investment into public buildings, the returns from which came slowly.


In contrast to what appears to be systematic disinvestment in building technologies, there were efforts to make resources available for infrastructural projects, and thus, the architecture seems to have come to rely on the sort of popular material, i.e reinforced concrete.

The standards of the PWD formulated in mid-19th century held their weight through major changes in the intentions of the British colonial government at the beginning of the 20th century. The British Raj by that time was more concerned with reinforcing their dominance through the built environment under the pretext of their presumed permanence in India. How else could you explain the use of vernacular/ancient materials on concrete structures? The Indian Engineer/employee who never held a high position during the raj was still functioning in the same bureaucratic structure, now employing himself, the standards formulated by the British.

As was the case with the British Indian PWD, the post-colonial PWD too, for the smooth functioning of its bureaucracy, sought to control building activity through ‘standardisation’ of materials. This becomes the third Norm (3N). The directive then becomes ‘control standards’ (3D). This process of control has directly resulted in the wide expanses of whitewashed public architecture, built by the PWD and DDA that we see even today

Utilitarian Modernism

In the capital and also in the nation, largely building activity was taken up by the government bodies like the PWD and the CPWD within the building codes and regulations taken from the British practice (Long A, 1997). But soon enough the architects realized the limitations that modernist practice included. These buildings hence transformed by adapting to the Indian context and taking the shape of the local factors

Within the constraint of material the style of modernism developed was called Utilitarian Modernism  (Bhatt and Scriver, 1990). A concept very indigenous to India, this was deep-rooted in seeing the built form as a product of its function but instead used the repertoire of available material and technology in India. There was a wide concern for climatic responsiveness in architecture and the buildings were made to be functional yet economical.

Utilitarian Modernism was the most prevalent architectural style against the others of pure rationalists, empiricist and the regional vernacular in India. The main reason for the choice was that the buildings built in this manner were economical and affordable by the government (Lang, 2002). The effortless formulae of column and beam construction with the in-fill walls and concrete slabs was a very productive and rapid method of construction. The years of rationalization of the building systems of the PWD made the system to be highly functional in terms of execution.

Education Circumscribed by Modernist Prescriptions

Design education lay unattended and undefined in the post political independent landscape of Delhi. The leaders of the independent nation turned to look for inspirations to accelerate the propelling of the inception of design and architectural education and looked to the west for ideas, ideals, case studies and plausible examples. But what occurred in the need for acceleration was the misinterpretation where modernism was misread as modernity and in this thirst for a modern and developing nation, modernism became a solution instead of being the inspiration. It ended up being a prescriptive source that defined disciplines, eligibility criteria,a progression of the curriculum.

What err was made in the 20th century; where inspiration turned prescription, turned proscription, is, unfortunately, persisting in the post-modern era. Those very shackles of modern education and nomenclatures of architectural curriculum stand today in present-day education. RIBA, Bauhaus, Eames Report, American architectural institutions, the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and all the modernist teachers and mentors became the prescription and eventually the proscription of the realm of architectural and design education in Delhi.


User Research
Impact of Economic Policies on Architecture
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Design Concepts

Learnings and Building a Hypothesis 

Modernism arrived in India when the country was newly born, vulnerable and somewhat, gullible. This vulnerability surrendered to the ideologies, expressions and structure of modernism and the country began to wear modernism and all its glory. The following fields were struck by modernism:

  • Architectural design

    • Spatial planning

    • Introduction of function like group housing, high rise, commercial centers, museums, transit hubs, educational institutions, political centers, embassies, etc.

    • Physical expression and iconography

  • City and urban planning

  • Materiality - steel, glass, concrete, plastic, plywood, etc

  • Education

    • The pedagogy

    • The institutional structuring

    • The hierarchy and qualification of students and faculty

    • The degree of national importance and governmental affiliation

    • The variety of fields and subject matter

  • Building stipulations

    • Building codes

    • Specifications

    • Sanctioning of projects

    • Bye-laws

  • Lifestyle

  • Art, media and print

  • Production of goods and services and economies of scale

  • The rendition of an urban sphere and city dwelling


The modernism of Delhi is defined as much by its vast stock of primarily institutional buildings, as it is by the curious absence of corporate modernism. In their vocabulary, material and method, the modernism embodied by Delhi’s repertory is derived from a state-controlled industry of construction/architecture, which stands in contrast to the futurism, and post-war decadence of modernists elsewhere.

Concentration on the build-up of heavy industries base by the Mahalanobis strategy caused relative retardation in investment in building technologies over the period. Utilitarian Modernism had its own set of limitations and the structural system failed quite often in the construction. These led the architects to look for different ways of construction. What emerged as a reaction from the limitations of directive led Utilitarian Modernism was a new style of architecture.


The city of Delhi stood politically independent after the exeunt of the British Raj but what the city did not realise was the persistence of a being under an imperialist state. This imperialist was modernism and its regional flavour seeping into the nooks and crannies of architectural design, education, policy-making and building regulations. This is an investigation to show how even after political independence, the city of Delhi continued to breathe under a form of architectural imperialism, under regionalist modernism that continues to show its persistence even today. A false equivalence was developed between modernism and modernity where the former went onto prescribing and proscribing the architectural functioning of the city of Delhi.

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