Snehanshu Mukherjee is an architect by training, and was connected to the world of Indian Theatre from late 1960s to early 1990s through his illustrious father Sitansu Mukherjea. These pages comprise of his drawings, talks and writings on architecture, urbanism and memories of his early days in New Delhi and Calcutta.

Mr Stein

I got to know Mr Stein’s architecture before I got to know him, or for that matter I had even envisaged joining an architecture college. The year was 1975; I was still in high school when my family moved to Babar Road, to a house situated very close to Triveni Kala Sangam. Even as a school boy, the building and the spaces it created drew me to it almost every evening. I would visit the place to see art exhibitions and watch the Manipuri dancers practice on the amphitheatre stage, even Charandas Chor by Habib Tanvir was performed there in those days. Triveni built in 1957 has remained ageless, and even after so many years remains one of my favourite buildings, much later, I was most gratified to hear from Mr Stein himself that it was also his favourite building!

I never knew who had designed Triveni till in 1977 when I joined SPA as a student of architecture. After completing the course in 1982 I joined Stein Doshi Bhalla as a trainee and met Mr Stein for the first time. I worked in his design studio till 1985 – a very short time, but I know that I learnt more about architecture and the art of construction in that office, than in my five years at SPA. A learning that has stood me in good stead in my own architectural practice over the last 31 years.

To me Triveni shows all the attributes of Mr Stein’s personality, his interests and concerns. Like many of his other projects, Triveni is simultaneously “simple” and sophisticated by design – an elegant building, which addresses an apparently contradictory programme – of private teaching spaces and public areas – on a demanding site effortlessly. Mr. Steins’ design is not just elegant, efficient and economical; it is also very much a response to the geographical and cultural context of the place. The building remains “true” right down to the tapered skirting detail where the floor meets the wall. Though distinctly “modern”, when compared to the nearby Sapru House, the building could nevertheless be described as “classical” in its appearance, in the proportion of its façade, the various spaces that the building holds within and without – the understated composition of hues and textures of the different materials used,  set in perfect harmony.

At another level Triveni reflects the thoughtful decisions that Mr Stein took on the method of construction that would ensure that it was built economically and would also be easy to maintain over the years of use. The proof is there for all of us to see, even after 59 years most people would find it difficult to put a date as to when it was constructed, a testimony to the creative genius of Mr Stein. The last thing I wish to stress, especially in today’s context is that though Mr Stein was born in USA, none of his work here can be thought of as un-Indian. In my opinion he single handedly defined, through his work, what post 1947 architecture in India could have become – rooted in the ethos of the reality of independent India. Unfortunately this cannot be said for the works of many who build in India today and definitely not for the many non-Indian or foreign architects who have built and are building in the country today – many of whom belong to the elite Western group of architects often branded as “starchitects”.

 

 

Shimla, 2015

3 sketches in Shimla; one from the bay window of the Malhan’s house in Chhota Shimla, one of the bay window itself. The wider sketch is of the oldest building on the IIAS Shimla estate – now a guest house where we (Anisha and Treya were there too) stayed during the National seminar on Urban Spaces in Modern India during the month of June 2015

Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, 1977

These are the shots off the first roll of 35mm film that I had shot using a Yashica Minister III rangefinder camera, gifted by my father on joining SPA as a First Year student of Architecture in 1977. These pictures of Fatehpur Sikri and Agra were taken during our first class study trip with the faculty members Prof. C S H Jhabvala, Narendra Dengle and Yogesh Kumar. Needless to say that the shot of the Taj from Agra Fort will probably no longer look like this, for that matter nor would my classmates, some of whom had posed for the camera at Fatehpur Sikri!

First Year Design Studio Lecture

This was a design studio lecture that I gave to First Year B. Arch. students at SPA New Delhi in their second semester. The lecture was recorded by Mili Jain, one the few students who were actually in class. I decided to start the lecture and not wait for the whole class to assemble from their tea break. The lecture was my attempt to take forward the learnings from the previous activity by the students – studying and making measured drawings of the Hauz Khas Madarassa – to the start of the design process of a house located across the lake on the other side of the Madarassa. This was a lecture to demonstrate to the students how the study of ancient buildings is not an end in itself and actually helps us understand how to build for now. I had to use some sarcasm to get the late comer students to pay attention to the lecture, which has been left unedited for some comic relief!

Uses of Nostalgia

Introduction
I had started writing this piece ruminating over the strange shaped buildings that in recent times have come up across the world. In sheer numbers they have probably been built the most in this part of the hemisphere between Dubai and Shanghai. India falls en-route, so we too have our share of “iconic” buildings in every major city, some more iconic than others. The trend setters are no doubt the “starchitects” from the western frontiers. They are much sought after by both the private and public builders; since one such “iconic” building can drive the economy of the city upwards (at least that was the case earlier, till the global recession). However do these twisted, turned buildings – however amazing they may appear – constitute “good” architecture? Good architecture as we knew it from the “past”? These therefore become the two operative words in this piece – “good” and “past”, words that has been debated time and again by “for” and “against” camps that have fought hard to establish their own positions. I would like to take this debate into non-architectural settings, into the world of Hindi cinema to be able to see our own professional condition from a distance. Why cinema? Well that’s another debate, but cinema, I believe, has similar concerns as architecture. The film director has to conceive, build and present a story the same as an architect does, except that architecture is worse off than cinema since one is stuck with a bad building till such time when it falls down or is demolished.

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Forced Evictions

We all know that the British “ruled” India as colonizers and not as Indians. The Islamic rule before the advent of the British was a little different, since the Muslim rulers who invaded India eventually settled down to make the country their own. This is common knowledge today. However we rarely realize that the post colonial period of self governance that we experience today has been built on an underpinning of the same British Colonial mindset that has been perpetuated over the last 60 years by our elected politicians and the highly trained executives. The colonial attitude of “Do not trust the natives” – because he is “wily” and up to no good or “do not trust the natives” – because he is incapable of doing anything right, continues to rule democratic India.

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Mindless Consumption

The oft repeated buzzword “sustainability” is also a product of the “age of consumerism” – even if it is used as a reaction to capitalist market economy. Country after country has subscribed to this global economic system by joining the WTO and accepting structural readjustment policies advocated by organizations such as the World Bank and the IMF. The mindless consumption promoted by this economy of constant growth rather than one of stability or equilibrium has been the main driving engine for industrial ‘over production’. The fact that such an economy treats this earth as an infinite natural resource is in itself a flawed assumption. We are all aware of the problems that accompany such an assumption and these are now becoming increasingly visible especially in the country that aims to become “the factory of the world”. A recent article in the national press[1] reports growing, and now violent, unrest in China “that have seen thousands pouring out on streets to protest without any fear of government reprisal” against “potentially polluting industrial projects”. The need for sustainability is no longer a discussion in the preserve of experts. It is now an issue discussed in mainstream newspapers. The HT Next edition of 27th July 2012 has an in-depth essay by CSE entitled “How Green Was My Building?” The article, to my mind, was comprehensive and had no inconsistencies in the manner the case was argued in favour of true sustainable architecture.

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