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Mahishmati, Amaravati, Culture and Cult: Symbols are important in Architecture

March 10, 2017

In the whole hue and cry about the design for new capital city of Andhra Pradesh, Amaravati, no one has asked this question: Why should the client not want to relate to the design?

Symbols are important for everyone. Common people use common objects as symbols, aesthetes use more evolved and more aesthetic objects, and architects who are forced to use trashy common objects use gray colored generic contemporary forms as symbols – that’s all.

The two aspects of design – First: Architectural Aesthetic and the Second: Associations/ Aspirations of decision makers and end users, are not always in sync. Architects often get esoteric, basing their decisions on their experience and interpretation of what is good. Something that is often not grasped by the other party. Or, they propose haute couture designs in terms that only other architects will understand.

In the case of design Amaravati, proposed capital city of Andhra Pradesh/ Seemandhra, there have been all manner of opinions. Half the people, even well informed ones, don’t know that a whole new city is being designed. That says something about how much a layperson knows and is informed about design. It is a reflection on our media’s depth of understanding too.

Of the bunch that knows and cares about what’s going on, many people- both architects and non-architects, have been at pains to stress that they don’t like any of the designs. In the aftermath of selection and award of the project, there are two major factions… One point of view is, that the designs are not suitable enough. That is client perspective. The other perspective is that client has acted callously and probably out of altruistic motives. That is the original winner’s position. More on that another time.

The truth, of why the decision has gone and will go on in this wayward manner, is somewhere in between. The constraints in front of client are huge. They have to do something no one in their knowledge or in India’s recent memory has done. They have to do it via democratic route, where every act is open to public scrutiny, and every step is open to questioning. They have tried their best to involve leading architecture firms, and to convey to architects the aspirations and expectations of people.

Let us remember that they have to do it at half the capacity – the primate city has gone to the other state during the splitting between Talangana and Andhra – Whatever social justice or political mileage there may have been, the bureaucratic machinery and all finances are also divided. And what was common, is now with the rival, or being rivaled. Oh, the burden of setting and becoming an example in full public glare. And they need an identity, quickly.

So when the Chief Minister roped in Bahubali’s director to help with the design, all hell broke loose in elite architects’ world. It horrified many that a film director was asked to imagine a city, and a Chief Minister could be so clueless as to not understand that a city is much more than an image. How filmy, many said. Just like Telugu people, some said. Even the guy in question, Rajamouli said that he knows only cinema and nothing about making of cities.

It is evident that in architectural community, this is interpreted as something reflecting poor taste. But let me ask: Why should the client not want to relate to the design? Ask if any of the firms gave a damn about Telugu culture or history of Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra.

Why is it so wrong to aspire to have a connection with local culture? Ultimately, the people who judge this are the masses, and their associations have to matter. And this is from the guy who brought some of the most progressive concepts to fruition, not someone stuck in a twisted nostalgia about past.

Foundation Ceremony of Amaravati_yvapwwohhy.jpg

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister beside a model of proposed New City Amaravati

And why not the big colorful models and the dramatic presentations? Chandigarh had one too, with all the class and touch of the Swiss-French Modern Master, and the elite audience like the then Prime Minister who could appreciate houte culture.

‘Baahubali’ director to help design Andhra Pradesh’s new capital


“To its credit, Foster has designed iconic structures like the 50 UN Plaza, Singapore Supreme Court, Imperial War Museum (UK), Century Tower (Japan), the Ireo City (Gurugram), Cyber Port (China), Bloomberg headquarters (UK), The Index (UAE), International Airport (Kuwait), to name a few.

“The Chief Minister insisted that Foster first go and meet Rajamouli. Foster’s architects met Rajamouli in Hyderabad the other day and shared their thoughts,” a senior official of AP Capital Region Development Authority (CDRA) said.

Municipal Administration Minister P Narayana, CRDA Commissioner C Sreedhar and other officials, too, had a “session” with the film director in Hyderabad last week wherein the latter gave them a talk on the “history” of Andhra Pradesh and the “Dravidian architecture”.”

And the guy was upfront about it: “Designing a set for a film is different and I have no expertise”

Even when a good number of architects design sets and animated cities (Even cities-in dreams-in movies), the person with not having a qualification is sneered upon by the elitist community that has not bothered to serve the very masses the city is going to be filled with – Class three and four workers, petty officials, vendors, shopkeepers – Basically, people with no class, and no money, to hire architects.

I also wonder if this is much ado about nothing because at personal level, I don’t think any of the three designs aimed to be contextual in terms of culture. Only Vastu Shilpa Foundation, led by Rajeev Kathpalia, have demonstrated their ability to respond to context in a way that lay persons can recognise the connection. And the client’s desire to hire an international firm was evident from their scouting, the structure of the competition and their selections. But this response to Andhra Culture? Neither it was part of the brief, nor highlighted in early stages. And now it has become the deal breaker. Much has been written and explained, but nothing has changed the decision, and I am not even sure anyone other than architects have even deliberated it.

In my humble opinion, the architects have missed an opportunity somewhere, because the sudden need to have appropriateness hits the client only when a design is featureless in a way that it can’t be distinguished by lay people, and can’t therefore become a symbol.

Aesthetic, taste, sustainability, design excellence, cost, all matter. But symbols are important. Identity that binds the masses is still much in evidence in everyday objects people choose, and the pride in an ancient culture is one important part of Dravidian identity. So objectifying an image of Andhra was and will be a design mandate. The more designers believe that only beauty of form and function can satisfy the deep rooted desire to connect to what you own, the more they are risking their own profession. And the less a person can relate to designs objectively, the more they will base their decisions on imagery and other subjective parameters.

Good luck Seemandhra!

Note: This is a rough cut, I hope I can come soon and update this. Thank you for reading.

Additional reference article:

An architect explains why turning new Andhra capital into ‘Bahubali’ sets is a ridiculous idea


“A cursory glance at the many appointments of planners and architects that submitted their plans and designs for Amaravati does little to articulate any central vision for a new city.” and “…look at the designs of the main government buildings in the capitol complex, for which the government held limited competition between Tokyo-based Fumihiko Maki and associates, UK-based Roger Stirk Harbour and associates, and Ahmedabad’s Vastu Shilpa Foundation led by Balkrishna Doshi.”

“We do not know many details about these entries, but relying on the few images posted on the official website, one can say that they fail to inspire (my emphasis).”

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