History of architecture questioning the premise of reading a building

In an interview, M N Ashish Ganju talks about the sense of social purpose, finding one’s ancestry, and the museum of architecture

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: December 7, 2017 9:50 am
MN Ashish Ganju MN Ashish Ganju

Architecture can be seen as a medium to understand society, within the realities of everyday. The International Conference on the History of Architecture (ICHA) in Delhi, focuses on these encounters and imaginations. Brought together by Delhi-based Greha and helmed by architect MN Ashish Ganju, the conference, from December 7 to 9 at Bikaner House, will have speakers from India and abroad presenting ideas on philosophy, interconnected histories, and the value of architecture against the gradient of time. In an interview, Ganju talks about the sense of social purpose, finding one’s ancestry, and the museum of architecture:

How did the idea for the conference emerge?

I had returned to India in the late ’60s from England. But the places I was familiar with, didn’t read right. I brought layers of understanding from my education, but it didn’t fit; something was wrong. I realised one had to find a new grammar because what I was trained in, didn’t fit. Then during one of our conversations, between architect Narendra Dengle and me, we felt we should research on where and why we don’t match our skills with what the society needs. From this, came an essay on the ‘Discovery of Architecture’ in 2014. This became our history project, which we presented in various architecture schools across the country. We also roped in eight scholars in India, including academicians, anthropologists and conservationists. We felt we will never be able to build a theoretical matrix unless we look at history. Then ICCR asked us to host an international conference. The primary aim is to give the architectural profession a sense of social purpose, a platform, a sense of dignity of what the profession is capable of. Architecture precedes philosophy. In Greece, the first architect was making models of the cosmos. In our case, the vedi, the altar, is what gives rise to architecture. We are busy making glass buildings and putting in air cons, and then we say we can’t assert ourselves in society.

What are our references for an Indian history of architecture?

Architecture in India is often seen in the light of monuments, they are objects that people enshrine in their memory. Architecture is a lot about how people live. That is a point of view that most historians don’t address. They catalogue buildings, like a book of butterflies, you give them nice names. An institutional or public building is like a mask, it represents the collective image of a company or a brand. So if you
catalogue that, you won’t see the real picture of life or architecture. In schools, the textbooks are all western.

Does that mean there is an Indian way to read a building?

The paper that I’m presenting at the conference is about this. I’ve selected examples of classical values, which are universally acceptable — Sanchi Stupa, Taj Mahal, High Court in Chandigarh and the Gandhi Museum in Ahmedabad — to get an understanding of the ancient, medieval and modern aesthetics. I then apply these attributes to three spaces in Mehrauli — Bhool Bhulaiya; the chowk in front of the police station, which is the public square; and the unorganised residential plots that overlook the park. You see, the classical examples find a place in history books, but Mehrauli, with its dynamic morphology, belongs to cinema. Can classical boundaries of history provide any scope for the marginalised, is what we want to understand.

What can we expect from the other speakers?

There are different points of view. I think ultimately, it’s an attempt to find your place or your ancestry in the scheme of things. In India, we also have regional history, so while Mumbai-based Aneerudha Paul talks about Majuli in Assam, Neelkanth Chayya from Ahmedabad presents architectural and settlement forms in Kutch. Each of these papers will be published later as a volume. Then, we have Nicholas Ray from the UK, who will talk about the loss of shared cultural references and the need for alternative philosophical standpoints. There’s Giorgio Gianighian from Venice who will discuss the importance of why a building is not just design but also bricks, stones, beams, nails, and water, and why these components are important to the history of architecture. The conference is a medium to promote the museum of architecture. It is not a building, but a network of inspirational sites that are places of learning.

You are also presenting an exhibition.

Through projections, we present four aspects of what Greha has done in two decades, in the areas of health, learning, building and regeneration. There’s also a film on the museum of architecture. Ultimately, it’s about inspiring ourselves that we can do a lot to benefit our environment.

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