Sem 03 | Culture and Builtform - 01

The third semester History course at SEA takes further the question of architectural genealogies and applies it to understand the evolution of built form within the Asian, south Asian and south-east Asian region. A more focused approach to the distinct building types in the region is initiated within a post-colonial framework. Essentialist tendencies of oriental approaches of historiography are brought into interrogation and focus is laid on understanding the meaning of spatial organization of built form rather than studying them in stylistic categories.

This semester, students focused on gathering a deeper understanding around four areas: Rock cut architecture across the Asian region from the Middle East to East Asia, domestic architecture, palace complexes and temple complexes within South Asia. In most architectural history books on India, the category of rock-cut architecture is almost geographically insularised overlooking experiments in the middle east, or even the south Asian countries. While many of these examples from regions other than India are studied and compiled into coffee table books, they haven’t been brought to compare with each other. Rock cut architecture in Srilanka, China, Afghanistan, Jordan – when seen together open up new associations and methods employed in ancient building practices. Domestic architecture has been relegated today into the vernacular or sustainable building industry and seldom taught as a part of mainstream history courses. Exhibitions like ‘Architecture Without Architects’ curated by Bernard Rudofsky at MoMA, New York in 1965 or ‘Vistara – The Architecture of India’ curated by Charles Correa in 1986, attempted to turn focus towards domestic architecture built by people across the world. Yet these examples have not found due place for academic study within architectural history classrooms.
Medieval building practices in South Asia (much like the other geographical counterparts) demonstrate a complicated interweaving of everyday life with the institutional and political forms. The resultant built fabric is what we call a “complex” – to suggest the complex integration of various programs and practices that structure the very organization of urbanity. Temple complexes in South Asia are not just functions of worship, but include a range of other programs like administration, teaching, preaching, meditation, urban management, community kitchens, markets and so on. These grow in a semi-organic manner with respect to several forces at once, giving rise to unique architectural settings. In contrast to the public facilities, palace complexes demonstrate similar endeavours within the then private realm. The spaces in places were often organised around the ideas of pleasure and political safeguarding, pushing the boundaries of spatial experience. Further, their forms change drastically in response to climatic context and political organization of the respective societies across the region.

In bringing together examples under the four typological categories, efforts were made to think of the south Asian and overall Asian region as a cultural continuum that has shaped itself through constant borrowing and exchange of ideas that lay embedded within the built fabric. The course thus opened up typological experiments within South Asia while simultaneously triggering a reimagination of the South Asian region.