Incorporating Heritage

Neel has a blogpost which talks about IIT-D designed board games that incorporate elements from traditional Indian stories into their design. He also laments that most Indian design and architecture does very little to showcase heritage, and picks on malls, airports and railways stations as being the worst offenders. I had some scattered thoughts about this which were too long for a comment, so here they are:

  1. One of the big problems with incorporating heritage into any venture these days is that you put yourself at grave risk of Rajan Zed issuing press releases that you are offending Hindu sentiments. In fact going by past experience it could be not just Rajan Zed but Rajput associations, Jain associations, Sikh associations, ad nauseum.
  2. Railway stations – depends on what you’re defining as heritage. When the British were building stations, they they built gorgeous facades which mixed up Mughal design elements (arches and domes), continental European decoration (the gargoyles at the station formerly known as Victoria Terminus), pre-Mughal construction (red sandstone), and some stuff which was entirely fresh from the architects’ perspective. I think that railway stations in princely states may also incorporate local architecture. It’s probably construction in post-independence India that gave us the horrible concrete blocks with no aesthetic appeal – the same applies to most of the airports.
  3. Airports – we seem to have moved from a situation where there was one single design of ugly concrete blocks being used for every airport to a situation where one single design of curved beams and glass walls is being used. Personally, I find the new one more attractive; but Neel’s point about it not having many Indian elements is valid. Delhi’s airport has made an effort with interior decoration for Terminal 1D, but this The Delhi Walla blogpost seems to suggest that it’s half-hearted.
  4. Malls – yes, these are the most egregrious offenders when it comes to cookie-cutter design and absolute lack of architectural imagination. I think that this is because somewhere there is a design handbook for malls which lays down points on laying out a mall to maximise retail sales which is being followed religiously without either any attempt to run local experiments to see what works better or imagination by architects on how to make it look cooler. [rant done] But even if architects did want to come up with cooler designs, would builders and tenants pay for them? Hm.

Another thing about heritage is that it’s desirable, but so are many other things (whether on pure functionality or for the wow-it’s-so-cool factor). So some of these are:

  1. Is it functional, innovative, valuable? Neel cribs about airports, but the fact that Delhi’s new airport has inline baggage scanning delights me so much that I hardly notice the lack of heritage design elements.
  2. Is it aesthetically pleasing? Everyone’s taste on what looks good will be different, so this is difficult to measure. But as an example, look at Jet Airways’ long-haul business and first class. Not much in the way of Indian design, but incredibly innovative and good-looking.
  3. Is it unique? This ties in with the crib about all malls and airports looking like each other. On the one hand, using a standard design brings down costs and I think China has built dozens of new airports just by reusing the same design over and over. Delhi’s new airport terminal might be standard curved beams and glass, but that standard design allows it to function on natural light throughout the day and not turn on electric lights until night – which has its own functional and aesthetic appeal. Of course, poor construction of that design is probably what led to the same terminal being flooded during the rains.
  4. Is it designed by Indians or an Indian company or even for Indian consumers? Even if it doesn’t reference existing heritage, if it’s iconic enough it could eventually become Indian heritage – like the Bombay Gothic buildings (good) or the Ambassador (bad). I know that Jagadguru has said that nationalism is the superset of religious fundamentalism which is itself the superset of terrorism, but I still think it is awesome if my national heritage is added to.

Another thing is that heritage doesn’t automatically provide quality. Air India paints Rajsthani chabutras on its aircraft windows but sucks as an airline. There have been so many animated movies about Krishna (Cartoon Network is running five this Janamashtami), but the dialogue and storytelling is usually terrible. 

So heritage is awesome, but only when the companies using it already have the capability to create great products; and also when designers and developers have the space to use their imagination.

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