The proposal for a National Museum of Architecture in India has been on the anvil for a while now. Greha, a four-decade-old group that centres its expertise on habitat design, environmental development and architecture, prepared a report in 2015 in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA), the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the Council of Architecture (COA). In that context, an event in Delhi today, titled “Imagining the National Museum of Architecture”, will put forth readings and conversations around architecture. We speak to architect and environment planner MN Ashish Ganju, President, Greha, on the idea of the museum, its scope and relevance. Excerpts:
One of the policy objectives of the museum is to bridge the gap between society and the profession. Why do you feel the need?
There are two aspects to this. Firstly, there are two professional associations that are interlocutors for the profession — IIA and COA. But neither of them have made any attempt to reach out to civil society, so the public is unaware how architects are useful to society. Secondly, the architecture profession in India is an accident of history. During colonial times, it was managed by engineers. British engineers built public buildings, so the profession of architecture grew out of the need for engineers to make drawings. The JJ School in Bombay was started to train civil draftsmen, and that legacy the profession hasn’t been able to shake off.
Even today, most architectural courses that are mandated by COA have the same approach. Architects know how to put people inside buildings, it’s not just about structure and construction. We make the construction that can receive people properly. Society too doesn’t understand why architects are useful, and this is where the museum will fill the gap. A museum is the home of the Muses, the daughters of Zeus, who inspired the arts and sciences. Our idea is that the museum, too, will be a place of inspiration, where people can go and learn about themselves; architecture is about daily life ultimately.
You have often spoken about how the Indian civilisation had a cultural coherence and its unifying spirit lay in its built diversity. How will the museum fulfil this ambition?
We don’t see the museum space as one building; it will be a network of inspiration sites. We are the only country in the world which has the unique distinction of having seven environmental conditions, within the passage of one night’s journey, from the high mountains, with arctic deserts like Ladakh, to the huge river basins of Indus and Ganges. Then there’s the Thar Desert with its own architectural language. There’s the central highlands and plateau, of which Hampi is world renowned. We have our coastline that lends itself to a different built environment, and the islands. Unfortunately, all of this is being covered by PWD-style construction. So our idea is to have the museum in different locations in the country.
But you will have a central space?
Of course, in Delhi, we will have a coordination centre, for which there is land allotted in Lado Sarai. We are also in discussion with architects in Hyderabad and Chennai. Each of these centres will have models, drawings, photos, videos and publications. They can hold symposiums of conversations, in any which way to engage with the public. It’ll be different from conventional museums, which are contained spaces. In India, we have the opportunity to have several different countries, and so our organisational design as a museum will be carefully thought out.
How do we use the knowledge of the past and make it relevant to the urban context?
It’s a large question, and many are working on it. It has to do with confronting our consumerist society. In a recent interview, Noam Chomsky said, ‘In a couple of generations, organised human society may not survive.’ It’s not that architects can do much, it’s a civilisation issue. How will we find a cohesive social arrangement, I don’t know. People who have lived in the forests and mountains have always known that if life for you is only a sense phenomenon, you can never be satisfied. So they went beyond the senses. Unless we see that it’s all a myth and you’re being taken for a ride, there’s no civilised exchange that can take place. Today, we are drowning in a sea of flawed relationships, and we have lost touch with nature, outside and within. We can’t relate to ourselves, how will we relate to what’s around us?
The event at Bikaner House, Delhi, is from 6 pm to 9 pm on March 28