Conservation in a Shifting Landscape: The Future of Modern Architecture in South Asia
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The period of 1950 to 1980 saw exemplary examples of architecture in the South Asian region, some of which are being celebrated this year in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York’s first transnational show focused on the region, titled “The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985.” While these projects were an integral part of the nation-building agenda and the construction of national identity at the time, more recently, these buildings have begun to come under threat with political and social shifts in the region.
With the passage of time, the importance of these buildings is becoming more evident, albeit among a small group of academics and practitioners in the South Asian region. Recently, The Hall of Nations—Raj Rewal and Mahendra Raj’s critically acclaimed, postcolonial project known for being the world’s first and largest space-frame structure built in concrete—was demolished overnight. This act invited much outrage and triggered an entire debate on what the architectural and cultural significance of such projects, which many might call “works of art of national importance,” is in contemporary times. Ever since, Louis Kahn’s IIM Ahmedabad dormitories and Charles Correa’s Kala Academy, among several other buildings, have similarly come under threat.
At this critical juncture, an urgent question has emerged: How might we redefine what constitutes architectural history and “heritage,” given that the current categorization of “heritage” sets a minimum time horizon of 100 years? Why does an act like demolition or proposed destruction of ‘modern’ buildings not spark more of a public outcry? How can modern buildings be rethought not only as historical remnants but active backdrops for contemporary life? What might qualify as “works of art of national importance” today?
More importantly, what narratives might we develop to anchor the importance of such buildings in the public awareness once again, so that transitionary political agendas and bureaucratic constraints are not left to determine their fate? What strategies and interpretations must the practice of conservation devise to include to help cope with an increasingly contested and transitionary landscape that characterizes the region now?
“Conservation in a Time of Transition/ Shifting Landscape” is an event that aims to convene leading scholars working on architecture in South Asia to discuss this very question. This event hopes to begin the process of reconceptualizing conservation practice in the face of such threats and current attitudes. It also aims to celebrate and build upon MoMA’s current exhibition focused on the architectural history of the region between 1947 and 1985, which throws light on these endangered projects, illustrating their importance not just in the region’s history, but also their contributions to the fields of architecture and the culture of building in South Asia and beyond.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, Hitesh Hathi and Sunil Khilnani are unable to participate in this event.
John T. Dunlop Professor in Housing and Urbanization, Harvard GSD
The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art
Art History and Cultural Policy, University College Dublin
Moderated by Eve Blau
Adjunct Professor of the History and Theory of Urban Form and Design, Director of Research, Harvard GSD
Eve Blau teaches the History and Theory of Urban Form and Design at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where she is Director of Research and Co-Director of the Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative. She has published widely on modern architecture, urbanism, and the productive intersection of urbanism and media. Her books include Baku: Oil and Urbanism (2018); The Architecture of Red Vienna, 1919-1934 / Rotes Wien: Architektur 1919-1934. Stadt-Raum-Politik (2014/1999); Project Zagreb: Transition as Condition, Strategy, Practice (2007); Shaping the Great City: Modern Architecture in Central Europe (2000); Architecture and Cubism (2001/1997); Architecture and Its Image: Four Centuries of Architectural Representation (1989).Her books have received numerous awards including the 2019 DAM Architectural Book Award, 2015 Victor Adler Prize, 2001 Alice Davis Hitchcock Book Award, 2000 Spiro Kostof Book Award, 2000 Austrian Cultural Institute Book Prize. In 2015 Blau was awarded the Victor Adler State Prize by the Republic of Austria for her contributions to the history of social movements; in 2018 she was named a Fellow of the Society of Architectural Historians.
Kathleen James-Chakraborty is professor of art history at University College Dublin. She is currently also an Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art. Her books include Architecture since 1400 (Minnesota, 2014) and Modernism as Memory: Building Identity in the Federal Republic of Germany (Minnesota, 2016) as well as the edited collections Bauhaus Culture from Weimar to the Cold War (Minnesota, 2006) and India in Art in Ireland (Routledge, 2016). In 2021 she was been awarded a European Research Council Advanced Grant for a project entitled Expanding Agency: Women, Race, and the Global Dissemination of Modern Architecture.
Rahul Mehrotra is Professor of Urban Design and Planning and the John T. Dunlop Professor in Housing and Urbanization at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. He is the founder principal of RMA Architects which has studios in Mumbai and Boston. In 2018 RMA Architects were awarded the Venice Biennale juror’s ‘Special Mention’ for ‘three projects that address issues of Intimacy and empathy, gently diffusing social boundaries and hierarchies’. In 2012-2015, he led a Harvard University-wide research project with Professor Diana Eck, called The Kumbh Mela: Mapping the Ephemeral Mega City. This work was published as a book in 2014 and the research extended in 2017 in the form of a book titled Does Permanence Matter? Mehrotra’s also co – authored a book is titled Taj Mahal : Multiple Narratives which was published in Dec 2017. Mehrotra’s most recent books are titled Working in Mumbai (2020) and The Kinetic City and other essays ( 2021). The former a reflection on his practice evolved through its association with the city of Bombay/Mumbai. The second book presents Mehrotra’s writings over the last thirty years and illustrates his long-term engagement with and analysis of urbanism in India. This work has given rise to a new conceptualization of the city which Mehrotra calls the Kinetic City.
Martino Stierli is The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, a role he assumed in March 2015. Stierli oversees the wide-ranging program of special exhibitions, installations, and acquisitions of the Department of Architecture and Design. He is the author of Montage and the Metropolis: Architecture, Modernity and the Representation of Space (Yale University Press, 2018) and Las Vegas in the Rearview Mirror: The City in Theory, Photography, and Film (Getty Research Institute, 2013). He has organized and co-curated exhibitions on a variety of topics, including the international traveling exhibition Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and The Architecture of Hedonism: Three Villas in the Island of Capri, which was included in the 14th Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2014. At MoMA, he has curated the exhibitions Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980 (with Vladimir Kulić), Renew, Reuse, Recycle: Recent Architecture from China (with Evangelos Kotsioris), and The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947-1985 (with Anoma Pieris and Sean Anderson). Stierli also oversaw the installation of the new Architecture and Design collection galleries in the expanded MoMA, which opened in October 2019, and curated numerous collection installations.
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