It is said that Italy is home to 50% of worlds most treasured antiquities. Take it with a pinch of Trapani salt if you must, but there are enough wonders in the country to suggest that this could plausibly be true. One can look around a random corner in Italy and be confronted wide-eyed with what could well be a defining monument in most countries. The experience of daily lives spent in the intimate company of marvels of art, sculpture, and architecture could well explain the legendary Italian facility with design & arts.
There are other nations, notably Scandinavian countries & Japan who excel in design and exemplify a design aesthetic that is unique to their cultures. Swedish or Danish design is so cohesive in its vocabulary that it would be hard to mistake the Nordic idiom for any other. It could be argued that this design cohesiveness owes its existence to an underlying cultural uniformity that is only possible in small, monocultural, tight-knit societies. The fabled Japanese minimalism, for example, owes its origins to the influence of Zen Buddhism with its emphasis on sparse, simple living. The Scandinavian design, on the other hand, is a response to the shared experience of the harsh winters of the region. The idiom shuns dark finishes, favoring light colors in fabrics, walls, and floorings to “maximize light at every turn”.
So where does this leave multicultural societies like India with its almost unmanageable melange of languages, cultures, religions, and races? Is it possible at all, for India to find a design language that is uniquely Indian? A pan Indian Identity? Probably not, but it should certainly be possible for distinctive regional typologies to appear which draw on their own roots.
Ahmadabad, for instance, has lead the development of a very distinctive style of architecture that traces its roots to Le-Corbusier's work in the fifties. Although Corbusier created just four building in Ahmadabad (versus the whole city of Chandigarh itself), Ahmadabad succeeded where Chandigarh failed because it found an extraordinary torchbearer for Corbusier in the form of BV Doshi, who worked and practiced in the city for nearly fifty years and created a lasting legacy. Doshi’s work with Louis Kahn in development of IIM Ahmedabad was but a precursor to a body of works that eventually earned him the Pritzker honor in 2018.
Yet, it is important to note that the Ahmedabad style is truly indigenous and is distinctive only in the sense of being differentiated from typologies prevalent in the rest of the country. Although there are erudite commentators who suggest otherwise, for example, this terrific blog on India Critical Regionalism, it hard to imagine a worldwide following along the lines of Nordic design for the Ahmedabad school, simply because it is not unique enough to be truly differentiated. The challenge for Indian design is to find its own roots that are close to the shared experiences of the people, for it to develop into a design idiom that is not alien or alienating.
This is the only design system that can transcend superficial trends of the season and become a movement that is authentic and unique. It calls for designers to be context-cognizant and for non-designers to be design-conscious for a society to be Design Aware.
Design may seem a non-priority for a country like India at this stage of its development, but hey, if good design can fix a perennially leaking faucet in a water-starved metro in India, it just might make sense for us to develop some Design Awareness.
(Le Corbusier’s Mill Owner’s Association Building Image by Sanyam Bahga)