Utopian Places And Spaces: The Urban Ideal In 20th Century India

By Evelina Kuvykovaite (MA student)

On the 19th of January 2016 Professor Deborah Swallow delivered a first lecture in the series Utopia: Constructed, which commemorates 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. By training Swallow is a social antropologist who for many years specialised in Indian art, museology and textiles and worked in institutions such as Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Victoria  & Albert Museum. Since 2004 she has lead the Courtauld Institute of Art as its Märit Rausing Director.

Vastu Purusha (or the Cosmic Man)

Vastu Purusha (or the Cosmic Man)

Professor Swallow began her lecture by considering the architecture of the 20th century. The period’s architecture was meant to convey a sense of a ‘new beginning’ in the world devastated after the two world wars and years of suppression. Modern materials such as iron and steel became key elements of the avant-garde and cutting-edge buildings, which rapidly replaced the old ones and occupied previously untouched landscapes. Architects of ‘tomorrow’ relied heavily on their utopian theories about the ideal city; yet few of them understood how to realise them in practise and how to work with these new materials. The best example of this is today’s many crumbling concrete buildings all around the world.

The lecture then proceeded unto the discussion about the utopian places and spaces in India. Professor Swallow began by exploring various concepts of the ideal city in the classical textual sources. She stressed that in India the spiritual concepts were always intrinsic to its architecture. For example, the concept of Vastu Purusha (or the Cosmic Man) is the rationale behind the architecture of the traditional Hindu temples.

Temple as the body of the deity

Temple as the body of the deity

She then proceeded to explore the post-independent cities of the mid-20th century, which she extensively studied and got a chance to live in for an extended period of time. It is around 1950s when cities, such as Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar and the township of Auroville were either created, or reimagined. Due to the lack of locally trained architects foreigners were employed to design these cities. Their architectural design had to convey the essence of Indian culture. It had to merge the spiritual aspects with India’s historic past, independent present and aspirations for its future. Also, the architecture had to foster contemporary political and social ideas of the independent state. For example, Le Corbusier’s giant concrete buildings in Chandigarh continue to dominate the city and proclaim these days no longer so ‘new’ dawn. Similarly, the Open Han Monument became Chandigarh’s symbol representing ‘peace and reconciliation’. It tells a story about the partition and independence of India and at the same time projects a vision for a brighter independent India’s tomorrow.

Matrimandir in the township of Auroville

Matrimandir in the township of Auroville

Auroville demonstrates a slightly different case of utopian architecture. It was founded as an experimental township by Mirra Alfassa (known as ‘The Mother’). It was originally calculated to populate 50.000 people by 2014. However, today it is home for around 2.500 citizens, who come from around 50 countries. Auroville operates under the unusual economic and political structures and its architecture does not fall under the label of traditional. It was designed by Alfassa and an architect by Roger Anger, who wanted to build an ideal society living in ideal architecture. In the middle of the town the giant golden metallic sphere called Matrimandir is located. It is a spiritual object, which attracts believers from all religions. Similarly, other buildings in the town are futuristic. Their style reflects the beliefs of the town’s founders about the progress and development, which Auroville was intended to bring to the world.

I would like to briefly conclude by saying that although the talk was titled Utopian Places And Spaces these cities and their architecture are ‘real’. It continues to make an impact on its people and act as an example for a new generation of architects. It is a functioning example of the 20th century modernity in India and around the world.