The Project of Independence
On ViewThe Museum of Modern Art
Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947-1985
February 20 – July 2, 2022
A black-and-white image of the 1955 exhibition Textiles and Ornamental Arts of India at the Museum of Modern Art appears in the catalogue for MoMA’s current survey of the subcontinent, The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985. Depicting what looks like an anthropological display of saree-clad mannequins operating handlooms, this 1955 photo is a far cry from the models, sketches, plans, and photographs in The Project of Independence that chronicle the modern architecture projects that sprang up in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka in the post-liberation period.
The picture only features in Saloni Mathur’s short catalog contribution “Tryst with Design,” and I wish it made an appearance in the exhibition itself. The history of how the region has been portrayed at MoMA explains why and how The Project of Independence looks the way it does: transnational, organized by both in-house curators and external experts, and featuring a mix of national and individual imaginings of post-independence design. Each of these seems like a decision by MoMA leadership to create a foil to the museum’s orientalist past.
Exodus, Pakistan (1947) by Margaret Bourke-White opens the show. Originally printed in the pages of LIFE Magazine, the image provides context for American viewers of the partition of formerly British India into India and Pakistan and Bangladesh. Still, for many, the staggering death toll (over 1 million) that resulted from it is new information. Partition acts as the historical catalyst that kicks off The Project of Independence, which takes as its focus how modernist building projects attempted to fulfill the aspirations of these new nations. The partition’s impact is cited in all of the exhibition’s six sections, which divide the architectural endeavors into the formation and planning of new cities, affordable housing, industrial infrastructure, political spaces, educational institutes, and so-called “institution-building,” which acts as a catch-all for other municipal projects, including the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad, India (1959–1966), designed by Charles Correa, and the Ahle Hadith Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan (1985) designed by Anwar Said.
The exhibition has been organized by MoMA curator Martino Stierli and University of Melbourne Professor Anoma Pieris, each of whom addresses this history differently. Stierli’s catalogue essay focuses on the impact of exposed concrete, and how designers harnessed that modern matter to stand for the burgeoning ideologies of nationhood. Central to his essay is the Hall of Nations in New Delhi, built for the Asia 72 international trade fair. A large panoramic photograph and scale model of this are also the prominent visuals in the exhibition and, even in miniature, the latticework of exposed concrete beams forming the exterior is spectacular to see. Stierli writes how the architect, Raj Rewal, and engineer, Mahendra Raj, diverged from the pre-fab concrete construction process lauded by Western modernists in favor of having components cast on site; a decision made as a consequence of limited access to capital and technology but made up for by an abundant labor force. Construction was miraculously short: less than two years. Rewal and Raj formed, in Stierli’s words, a hybrid of modern architecture and existing South Asian material culture that “proudly asserted what India could do on its own terms.”
Pieris’s essay looks at this same period through the planning and construction of schools and universities. She notes the influence of such figures as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius in educating many of the architects she profiles. The visual matter in the exhibition displays how they translated that tutelage into their plans for schools and universities on the subcontinent. Images of St. Bridget’s Montessori School in Colombo (1963) depict how architects Geoffrey Bawa and Ulrik Plesner combined the so-called “wattle and daub” high-pitched roofs found in Sri Lankan villages with the school’s brutalist curved walls, which invited sunlight and student art. Plans for the residential campus of the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (1960–1967), designed by Achyut Kanvinde in the Uttar Pradesh region of India, envision a composite of walkways and plazas, with clusters of linear buildings bearing exposed pilotis that allow for both air and students to easily flow between structures. Kanvinde intended this campus, which he likened to an amorphous skeleton, as encouraging interaction between and a breakdown of hierarchical rank in student/faculty life.
With men as the main characters in The Project of Independence, it was not lost on Stierli and Pieris that exclusion along the lines of gender and class or caste is also part of this story. A wall is dedicated to photographs and plans of the work of Kandy-based (Sri Lanka) architect Minnette de Silva, who designed several homes and public projects in both Kandy and Colombo that combined vernacular styles with modernist sensibilities. There is also a small vitrine with postcards between her and Le Corbusier, with whom she corresponded until the early 1960s. It is a curatorial gesture that feels exceedingly necessary considering the dearth of other women in the show, and that makes me wish de Silva had the opportunity to design a building of the scale of her male counterparts whose projects received intricate scale models.
A vitrine of archival photographs of the National Institute of Design (NID), founded by Charles and Ray Eames in Ahmedabad in 1961, also feels like a moment that could have been expanded upon, namely about MoMA’s direct role in this history. NID’s collection of 400,000 “teaching objects” came from the MoMA-organized traveling exhibition Design Today in America and Europe, which traveled to nine Indian cities between 1959–60. It is only mentioned in Mathur’s catalog essay and feels like a lost opportunity for MoMA to historicize itself, through materials from its archive, as an equally important force in the internationalism of mid-century modernism.