A record of over one and a half centuries of architectural history, the RIBA’s Periodicals Collection holds news from a century ago warning that the British authorities were undermining traditional Indian craftsmanship…
On the 20th June 1913 in Building News (1), Ernest Binfield Havell was quoted at length from his book Indian Architecture. The selected passages made clear his condemnation for the way Indian craftsmen were being ignored and how the Anglo-Indian authorities, refusing to support the traditions and skills native to India, were employing western architects who were simply applying inappropriate European ‘styles’ and copying ornament seen in pattern books. Havell points out that: “In India, it seems, there are still master-builders and craftsmen with an unbroken tradition of more than 2,000 years”. On the other hand, the modern architect sits in an office, in isolation and “detached from materials, craftsmen, and site.”
A few months before in a different article for Building News, published 25th October 1912 (2), Havell wrote – in relation to the building of the new imperial capital, New Delhi – that by refusing to take advantage of “the fact that India still has a living building tradition” and imposing foreign architecture, the British government was not fostering harmonious relations between Britain and her Indian subjects. If built with Indian skills and knowledge, and using the pre-existing architecture of India as models, then New Delhi, according to Havell, “would be a more worthy capital of the Empire than any British one-man show” – a reference to the appointment of architect Edwin Lutyens to design the new city.
Exactly a hundred years later, the RIBA is celebrating the architecture of India, both ancient and modern. The RIBA’s current major exhibition celebrates the work of Indian architect Charles Correa whose contemporary work is linked to the culture and artistic traditions of the subcontinent. Alongside, in the British Architectural Library, is A Visual Journey Through the Indian Subcontinent, an exhibition of 19th and 20th-century images from the RIBA’s own collections, giving a historical context to Correa’s modern work.
In taking an overview of India’s architecture, Havell’s book uses many of the same beautiful subjects as the exhibition in the Library, including the Taj Mahal, Qutb Minar, Moti Masjid, Tomb of Humayun and buildings in Sikandra, Fatehpur Sikri and Bijapur. This and many of the other books he wrote about India are available in the Library. Fortunately, today in Britain, the art and culture of India is appreciated as source of inspiration.
The exhibitions of the Charles Correa and Out of India Season run from 14 May until 4 September 2013 at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London. Entry is free. More images of India can be seen online via RIBApix.
- Building News, 20 June 1913, vol.104, pp.845-7
- Building News, 25 October 1912, vol.103, pp.567-70