The Role Of Architecture In Nation Building Of The Contemporary India


To ‘build’ is defined as a process in which one carefully put n number of pieces or parts together in cohesion to obtain the desired result. The term 'Nation Building' thus refers to the act of building or creation of a nation. This very process of ‘Nation Building’ is an everlasting gradual process which never ceases, for the nation never ceases to grow. It is a continuum, a community, a society which is inhibiting a specific country or a territory united by a common language, ethnicity and history. It is a psychological make-up materialised in a common culture. As the members of a nation can never continuously engage in face-to-face contact, the only awareness of the existence of a nation as one unified entity results from the ‘image’ they collectively have of it. The ‘image’ in question is disseminated by a very strong and persuasive feeling of the political power and a potent feeling of shared nostalgia. An extensive body of literature has emerged in the last two or three decades showing how the manipulation of the built environment was crucial to the process of nation-building, especially in third world countries in the postcolonial period (Raedt), reinforcing the fact that architecture by its very nature can be established as a fundamental tool in the process of nation-building. But how relevant is this statement in today's context, especially in the case of post-colonial, contemporary India? A country filled with an incessant plurality of ideas about nation-building among other things and diverse ways of life? Diligent efforts have been made to analyse the fragile complexities of this multifaceted relationship between architecture and nation-building and to scrutinize the trajectory of this association throughout history. All this is done to answer the rudimentary question of what else does architecture as a field has to offer in the abiding process of nation-building?

The synergy of society and architecture

'Life is architecture and architecture is the very mirror of life.' Famous words said by the renowned architect I.M. Pei perfectly explains the relationship shared by architecture and life. Any piece of architecture created at any given moment of the history is the direct reflection of the socio-economic, cultural, physical, and even political sentiments of those times. It's an everlasting cyclic process, in which one shapes the other and this concomitant learning process is accountable for their respective betterment in the future. Since the inception of time, architecture has always enriched the life experiences of those who occupy it. It is often themed on culture and necessities anticipated in even the smallest of details, the layout, the textures and materials used, their usage, the vernacular character, even wayfinding, etc. From the earliest human settlements in the recorded world history, like the Indus valley civilization which speaks for its marvellously planned cities and stupendous sanitation systems, to the magnificent pyramids of Egypt which emphasize the prestige and power of the Egyptian pharaohs while also giving a glimpse of their love for the finer materialistic things, and even the high value given to one’s afterlife. From the sophisticated sacred geometry and optical tricks used in the scale defying temple structures of Greek gods to the desire of creating a novice architecture typology that breaks from the past standards, traditions, and styles altogether characteristic of contemporary architecture. Every era, throughout the entire history of mankind, speaks to us in a distinct architectural vocabulary. This vocabulary is developed over a prolonged period and with each passing day, this vocabulary is getting more rectified and polished than ever before. English architect Sir Norman Foster explains this as, “Architecture is an expression of values — the way we build is a reflection of the way we live. This is why vernacular tradition and the historical layers of a city are so fascinating, as every era produces its own vocabulary.” In this perpetual war of existence, architecture as a profound reflection of society, let the mortal humans leave immortal echoes, not to reminiscent it later, but to justify the very being of self.

Nation-building and architecture of Europe

The foremost instances of the execution of nation-building policies come into existence in the latter half of the 18th century which then continues in 19th and early 20th centuries too. These were the times of great political turmoil concurrent with repetitive periods of tremendous unrest.

In 1792, the French revolution became a truly defining moment, not only in French history but in the history of entire Europe. Though the Independence was still a century away (even more than that) for many countries, it established a fact that democracy or electoralization of politics was inevitable. (Alesina and Reich). The quandary of the European aristocracy escalated alarmingly when they realized that now politics will have the participation of the common masses. Hobsbawm wrote of this period as 'it became obvious, at least from the 1880s, that wherever the common man was given even the most nominal participation in politics as a citizen...he could no longer be relied on to give automatic loyalty and support to his betters or the state.' Thus, it was thought that a sense of belonging, a sense of oneness to the ‘Nation’ is to be instilled in the people, for if they felt ever alienated from the elites, they will have the power, and the cause to bring them down. This marked a need for some degree of homogenization. People were made to get used to the new government regime, which marked the shift from little to no intrusion to the full-time application of large scale policies:

  • Obligatory schooling for all the children by making new free schools in cities and villages,
  • Mandatory service to the army for young men by the induction of necessary physical infrastructure and facilities
  • Forceful introduction of ‘French’ as the national language which in many cases, it was still foreign to some or most of the masses who were supposed to use it officially.

Architecture and the related fields played a significant role in the formation of an underpinning framework for the better implementations of policies. This statement can be understood by a simple example of the construction of roads. In any country, the regional languages may vary as we move further away from the capital and other prominent cities. So the distance between the capital and the countryside can be reduced by the construction of a nexus of roads. This will not only make the city resources and services accessible to all the people, even in the neighbouring countryside, but this reduced distance can also increase the possibility of teaching them a common language, for further, they are from the capital, more their language may differ, thus literally reducing the difference between the languages. This reduced distance can also let children attend common schools among other things and thus open a channel for exchange of ideas, thus avoiding minorities from isolation and avoid disenfranchised, contributing to the nation-building. Both conceptual entities like symbols, slogans and concepts, and concrete elements such as holidays, a flag, street names, monuments, buildings, landscapes and other ‘places of memory’ have made France what it is today, and are being used to keep the national collective memory alive for ensuing generations to facilitate the internalization of the values it represents. 

In Italy, nation-building policies also included large scale funding and development of railways and roads, not just to strengthen physical infrastructure, but also as a diplomatic metaphor to unify the North with its southern counterpart which was fairly underdeveloped. The Ministry of public works played a significant role in making Italy, the nation-state it is today.

Furthermore, this process of vehement nation-building did not stop in the 19th century but carried on well until the 20th century. Spain under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the Soviet Union under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, and even Germany under the Nazi rule are the exemplar of such vigorous nation-building. The investment in the physical infrastructure of the state, ensured for these territorial elites to maintain a higher degree of control even when democracy or electoral politics comes into play. It also helps them to make up for the economic and political alleviation, they suffered during the transitional phase.

History of Nation-building in India

After a substantial struggle, spanning across 90 years, India broke loose all the shackles from the 200-year rule of the British Raj and finally on 15th August 1947 she attained independence. But conceivably it was a very difficult situation for independent India because this newfound freedom came with a hefty price, the partition of the country and thus the year 1947, was filled with unprecedented brutality and excruciating trauma of the large scale displacement of millions of people. Amidst all the chaos and turmoil accompanying the freedom, the newly formed government was also focused on all the objectives and goals that were to be achieved. But the initial years following the independence were full of challenges of varying magnitude and nature. 

Predominantly there were these challenges:

  • How the diversity amongst the various strata of society (their languages, culture, traditions, and religious beliefs) can be accommodated into a nation that shall stand united? The integration of all the princely states into united India was of uttermost importance.
  • Another challenge was the establishment of democratic practices following the constitution and how to make the national politics work in a comprehensive democratic framework?
  • The development of a society that will cater to the wellbeing of all including the socially disadvantaged marginal groups and not only selected sections of the society, in a just and transparent manner.
  • One of the most prominent challenges was to evolve strategies for the eradication of poverty from the country and to bring ineffective policies for the economic development of the country.

In its totality, the Partition saw the displacement of 10-12 million people from their respective homelands to the newfound lands. This created a very overwhelming situation for the newly constituted dominions, engulfing them with a substantial refugee catastrophe. This entire mayhem was wrapped with unparalleled violence of all kinds with an estimated loss of life varying anywhere between two hundred thousand to two million people. The newly formed governments on both sides were largely ill-equipped for this two-way migration of such a gigantic scale since there was no previous conception that such large scale population displacement will be necessary. Displaced people (which comprises majorly of Hindus and Sikhs) coming from Pakistan, acquired the homes left behind, by their Muslim counterparts. Most of then settled in modern-day Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Gujrat, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

Delhi saw the biggest outpour of refugees in a single city. Its population grew almost twice its size in just a few years following partition. The central core of the city, called 'Lutyens Delhi' (named after the famous English architect, Edwin Lutyens) was designed to cater to a small, gradually growing population of the elite British gentry. So, it comprised of big colonial-style bungalows for the officers with sprawling lawns, wide roads. But the influx of these new refugee residents was uncontrollable for the government. So they were initially housed in the historical locations like Purana Quila, Red Fort, and military barracks in Kingsway camps which became the largest refugee camp in Northern India with appropriately 35000 people living in makeshift camps at any moment. Gradually, from 1948 onwards, considering the urgency of the matter, the government converted these campsites into permanent settlements by funding sizeable housing projects aimed at reconceptualising the personal and community identities. A substantial number of housing colonies in the present-day Delhi sprung out around the same time, for example, Rajendra Nagar, Lajpat Nagar, Punjabi bagh, Jungpura, etc.

There were new townships in many parts of the country, namely, ‘Ulhasnagar’ in Thane, Maharashtra for the Sindhi- Hindu refugees, ‘Guru Tegbahadur Nagar’ in Mumbai for the Sikh- Hindu refugees and the Indian city unlike any other, the city beautiful, Chandigarh, capital of Punjab and Haryana. A visible shift in the social paradigm came into play around this time, for it was the first time expenditure was done on public facilities and urban community services and not just to facilitate the export of Indian goods to Britain. The first prime minister of India, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru was a true modernist. His vision of an Independent India comprises of a liberal, progressive industrialized country. Though the colonial architecture, in parts, was based on Indo Saracenic style, he wanted the architecture of new India to be free from its colonial subjugation.

So, Le Corbusier, a Swiss-French master planner was hired for planning Chandigarh. The new capital for the state of Punjab (and now of Haryana too) in place of the previous one, Lahore which was snatched in Partition. A city built from scratch, which will symbolize India’s rise as an economic and political power on the world stage. Its orderly grid system appears almost utopian for a country whose urban centres are synonymous with chaos. Each sector is designed as a self-sufficient small scale neighbourhood with all the necessary urban infrastructure. With parks and tree-lined avenues to soften the effect of its large concrete, block-like buildings, it is an Indian city unlike any other. (Crabtree) The first generation of architects returned to their homeland after studying architecture in the west. But the architecture of west and colonial styles started to be considered as foreign b some. The architecture style that followed had traces of dichotomy, the dilemma of going all Avant-Garde or revival of the rich history and going back to the roots. This is visible in early works of Louis Kahn, and B.V. Doshi amongst others. Architects like Charles Correa broke the tension between these contrasting schools of thoughts by digging deeper into the pages of the rich history of the Golden era of India while focusing more on the functionality and the search of a purpose for his creations. He developed the concept of low-cost housing with open to sky plans and also worked with material and techniques that were vernacular to the place. This inspired a new generation of architects to work on multifaceted designs amalgamating modern and traditional ways, which is visible in works such as the Supreme Court of India.

Architecture as a harbinger of nation-building

On the outlines, architecture is just the simple process of designing the built form around its occupants to use, but on a deeper analysis, it becomes an amalgamation of a plethora of other fields ranging from psychology, economy, sociology, sciences, even history etc. Its only purpose is not to construct but to engage with the society at large, even affecting its overall zeitgeist. This gives architecture a new dimension to manifest itself as a physical expression of those themes running in the society at any given time. History is filled with examples of chronicles of architecture walking hand in hand with design and art movements, freedom struggles, ongoing societal changes, the materialization of political and economic ambitions, even just to portray power, or just an expression to embrace diversity. Architecture has an undecipherable, somewhat utopian potential to affect any individual in a very earnest way, something which cannot be quantified scientifically.

In the current scenario around the world, with the advancements in technology and the onset of globalization, architecture has been established as a major driving force by the governing elites to portray national ambitions and to nurture a strong identity for their corresponding countries at the world stage thus making architecture a strong catalyst in the process of nation-building. Architecture not only plays a pivotal role in dealing with the country's past but also has a transformational power to reflect the changes in society. But as a by-product of prolific urbanization, a much visible paradigm shift has occurred. The autochthonous architectural elements and forms which were once used in identity-defining projects in any country are not replaced by a more globally acceptable architectural vocabulary. Although many have examined economic imperatives and the impact of flagship architectural projects, social scientists have just begun to explore the linkage between architectural megaprojects and nation-building practices in global or globalizing cities. 


In this ever-growing world, the relationship between politics, nation-building and architecture is very powerful and complex, which becomes even more fragile in case of a vast country like India with its diversity and increasing population. In words of Findley, 'The responsibility lies with architecture to manifest renewed cultural agency by making it spatial, material, present and, in that sense, undeniable'. While architecture does not play an active role here, it still possesses the power to prelude a social change by its ability to construct the physical infrastructure for it. Furthermore, in responsibly doing so, architects are also upholding the dynamic relationship amongst all the people who may have different ideas for future India. A future, which can be only accomplished by addressing the pressing issues, such as population increase, which is a crucial factor the design process of current times along with the alarmingly increasing levels of pollution, resultant from the ill practices of construction. India's quest for modernisation is relatively new but has grown exponentially over the last few decades. But for the country to stand tall, as a developed nation amongst its counterparts and to scale new heights, it needs to further strengthen the discipline of architecture, to make it a national expression, so it can bring people together and enhance democracy.

List of References:

  • Alesina, Alberto and Bryony Reich. 'Nation Building.' Department of Economics, Harvard University (2015).
  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983.
  • Brass, R, Paul. The politics in India since Independence. New Delhi: Cambridge University press (by Foundation books, in India), 1994.
  • Crabtree, James. Financial Times. 3 July 2015. 25 May 2020.
  • Findley, Lisa. Building change. Architecture, Politics and Cultural Agency. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Guha, Ramchandran. Gandhi Before India. Penguins Books, 2013.
  • Hobsbawm, E.J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Kumar, Vishal. Zingy Homes. 27 July 2015. 26 May 2020.
  • Raedt, Kim De. “Arts and Architecture.” Afrika Focus (2012): 7-27.
  • Ren, Xuefi. 'Architecture and nation-building in the age of globalization: Construction of National Stadium for Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.' Journal of Urban Affairs (2008): 175-190.
16 December 2021
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