Non-Aesthetic Modernity: Metaphysics of Modern Architecture

Non-Aesthetic Modernity: Metaphysics of Modern Architecture

Prof. Jaimini Mehta shares a preview of his upcoming book, Non-Aesthetic Modernity: Metaphysics of Modern Architecture.
Non-Aesthetic Modernity: Metaphysics of Modern Architecture

The Question of Modernity

Conventional architectural scholarship locates the birth of the concept of modernity in the eighteenth century. Architectural historian Joseph Rykwert has termed the architects of the eighteenth century ‘The First Moderns[1] implying that an awareness of the idea of “modernity”, at least in architecture, seems to have originated in the eighteenth century. However, the French architect and theorist Claude Perrault’s 1688 publication ‘Parallèle des anciens et des modernes’ indicates that not only did the idea existed much earlier but also that it was used in the temporal context in comparison with the ancient era. In fact, the term ‘modern’ seems to appear in Europe every time a sense of something new formed itself and needed to be defined through a renewed relationship with the ancients. In that sense it was less of a self-conscious assertion of the new era completely alienated from the past. Past was a necessary condition for it to exist and define itself against it.

For want of a better term, we may refer to this as ‘organic modernity’ where the word ‘modern’ was more an adjective to describe something other than a noun -modernity, a phenomenon in its own right.

By ‘organic modernity’ I refer to the organic process of modernization which every society undergoes in the normal course of evolution in which the new information, a new view of the world or an alternative vision of history is organically, and ever so gradually incorporated into the existing social and cultural paradigm. The altered state of being and the new condition of social existence so arrived at are never violently opposed to the past; in fact, in this process, the validities of every past practice are tested against the new and, at the same time, the significance of the new is scrutinized against the established faith in the traditions which is never given up easily. It is this pulsating rhythm of history, wherein the old and the new interrogate each other, which characterizes all civilizations. This equilibrium between the past and the present and between the traditions and modernity was fundamentally altered by the birth of rationality and the age of Enlightenment. It was in the exercise of this newfound rationality that Claude Perrault had published another book, ‘Ordonnance’ in 1683, five years before the one mentioned above. This has far greater significance in this etymology. In this book Perrault demystified classical Greco-Roman architecture and liberated the profession from its constraining practices which had already begun to lose their contemporary validities. In the eighteenth century, this gave rise to several public buildings in France

This theory advanced by Claude Perrault, that the cultural customs determined the appropriateness of architectural choices and not any immutable laws of classical architecture, was the basis for the 1980 publication of Joseph Rykwert, ‘The First Moderns’. Rykwert has argued that this gave architects in the eighteenth century a sense of authorship of their work and a rationale for the break from the past. It was a self-conscious assertion of a new era. The idea of modernity, thus, became intricately connected with European avant-garde art and architecture and heralded the emergence of architecture as an independent profession.

 Soon, though, the term ‘modernity’ was appropriated to connote a fixed point in time, a specific stage of being of an individual or a society, to be arrived at and recognized by qualitative markers such as rationalism, individualism, universalism, progressivism and anti-historicity. It was in this radical self-consciousness that modernity defined itself not only free of all historical ties but also in abstract opposition between all traditions and the present. In addition to being connected with the European avant-garde art, this “project of modernity”[1] was, in reality, a far more ambitious and consequential enterprise to bring about an all-encompassing cultural condition in radical opposition to the past. This opposition was expressed primarily by rejecting the aesthetic canons of the ancien regime. Jürgen Habermas has termed this Aesthetic Modernity.[2]

Thus we have two distinct ideas of modernity; one, the organic modernity, which is a continuously ongoing process of modernization of staying up-to-date with the contemporary intellectual and technological milieu and which has built civilizations throughout history. The state of modernity in this case is relative to the intellectual and technological developments of any society and has no date for its beginning or end. The second idea of modernity, as we saw above, is an exclusively European notion of a conscious break from a past. In that sense Perrault’s demystification of the revered classical orders is similar to Galileo’s invention of the telescope; in both cases, past beliefs and traditions were revealed to be obstacles to new rational knowledge systems and had to be removed for the new era to come about. This new era was named modern in radical opposition to the past which came to be regarded as traditional. These developments were epochal enough for Joseph Rykwert to declare architects of the eighteenth century the first moderns. But the modernity he was referring to was the self-conscious modernity engendered by the Enlightenment and not the organic modernity. While this has led to exponential growth in all knowledge spheres, what is rarely noticed though is that this assignation of substantive knowledge in the hands of specialized experts not only severed its ties with the life experiences of ordinary people but also the organic relationships of each of these spheres with the others. Cultures cannot be compartmentalized nor can they be alienated from the memories of the past, that is, traditions that are bound to survive in lives of the ordinary people. Thus paradoxically, the self-conscious cultural modernity was predicated on denial not only of traditions but also culture itself. Culture became inextricably tied to traditions and therefore had to be held suspect.      

Modernity was soon appropriated as an effective tool in the global politics of culture for classifying all global cultures and civilizations on a linear scale from savage (traditional) to modern and implying antinomy between tradition and modernity; that, to reach modernity one has to discard traditions. Defining ‘self’ and the ‘other’ is essential for all political discourse and in this case, Europe not only relegated all non-European traditional societies to a lower rung of cultural hierarchy but also defined its own selfhood as the one society that has already arrived at this juncture and thereby claimed exclusive ownership of modernity.   

The temporal/political dimension raises important questions; is it the only way to understand the relationship between tradition and modernity as historically exclusive? Is there another way which can also meet the vision of modernity without discarding culture and traditions? Should a form of modernity, born of the life experiences of a single culture (Europe), however dominant it may be, be assumed to have universal validity? Can this be used as a yardstick to qualify other civilizations either as relatively modern, traditional, primitive or even savage?

Modernity and Authorship

It has become conventional wisdom to assume that this radical consciousness of modernity, beginning in the Enlightenment in Europe is universal. But this assumption requires scrutiny. The defining markers of this movement can be listed as 1) rationalism, 2) secularization of culture, 3) autonomous individual, 4) universalization, 5) linear historicism and the rejection of traditions and 6) the objectivity of the external world, including space and time, as an extension of the human mind. Any work of art, architecture, literature, music or dance to be authentically modern will have to embody these attributes. But this is predicated on two assumptions; one, modernity is exclusive of tradition and can have no trace of tradition in a modern work, and two, this is a universal phenomenon even though it was founded primarily on European experiences. I intend to show that both these assumptions should be seen against the backdrop of nineteenth-century ‘orientalism’ and the resultant politics of culture. The consciousness of modernity always existed in all societies and emerged outside of Europe before the seventeenth century. It may have happened organically through gradual change or prophets may have come along insisting upon a vision of things greater than they are. Authorship then is another important marker of modernity. For a work to be attributed to an individual as its author, two important conditions have to be fulfilled. One, the individual must step outside, or alienate himself, from the domain of the prevailing conventions about the right ways of doing things, i, e, the prevailing traditions, the whole package that comes with habitual thinking. Only from such a position can s/he objectively view what the traditions offer as inadequate or unsuitable for what needs to be done; a complete departure from the traditions, and not an improvisation. This is a conscious, deliberate and willful act of an intellect overcoming habit and marks the emergence of an autonomous individual. And two, what follows has to be a rational process of application of mind to arrive at a new and innovative solution which is not only most appropriate for the task at hand but also receives a nod of approval and agreement by the society at large. Both these conditions, when fulfilled, indicate a process of decision making that moves from precedent to innovation.

It is, after all, not that difficult to find instances in history of architecture which makes us wonder, what traditional examples have guided these architects to arrive at expressions that do not seem to have any obvious precedents. The work seems neither an expression of the prevalent general will of the people nor an improvisation and improvement of the prevailing practices. Such works derive their authenticity not from the authority of the revered past but because they are authentically modern at the time of their birth. These are innovations whose origin can be attributed to a visionary individual. The arrival of such an autonomous individual is an unmistakable marker of modernity.

Instances of change from precedents to innovations are noticeable from the 15th century onwards, a century before Enlightenment. We know, for example, of Alberti (1404-1472) not only as an architect of fine buildings but also as a thinker and an author of treatises on many subjects. Arguably, he may have been the first to have been designated as the architect of a major public building; Sant’ Andrea at Mantua [fig. 01].

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Basilica of Sant’Andrea, Mantua, Italy, by Leon Batista Leon Battista Alberti. 15th-century, Source: Author

Similarly, the Basilica of St. Peter’s is authored by Bramante, Sangallo, Giocondo and Raphael (at various times over almost a hundred years) while earlier cathedrals of Milan and Chartres were attributed to their respective bishops only. This suggests that rational innovations initiated by autonomous individual minds heralding the modernity in Europe happened a century prior to what we conventionally believe it to be.

But a more relevant point is that this phenomenon is not limited to Europe only. Sinan Aga (1490-1588) emerged with a large body of work attributed to his authorship in the Ottoman Empire. And Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar (1542-1605), the third Mughal emperor of India, was a versatile individual who built the royal citadel of the city of Fatehpur Sikri, 35 kilometers west of Agra. Though in the case of both Sinan and Akbar the relationship between the precedent and innovation had to be negotiated very differently than in the case of their European counterparts, the experimentation they both brought to their architecture betrays a similar modernist sensibility that goes far beyond stylistic or formal concerns. Sinan of course had to contend with the powerful precedent of Hagia Sophia, originally built in the Roman era as a basilica. In Suleymaniye mosque, where he intended to challenge and surpass this precedent, he pushed the boundaries of structure, space and light by transforming Hagia Sophia’s long nave into a gigantic baldachin like centralized square domed space full of natural light.

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Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, by Sinan Aga. 15th-century. Source: Author

This is done by skillfully reinterpreting the aisles, apse and the narthex of the Hagia Sophia as a continuous layer surrounding the central domed space of the Suleymaniye Mosque. These decisions are deliberate departures from the prevalent practices and not mere variations on the theme of Hagia Sophia[4].

If Sinan was the catalyzer of the general will, Akbar was capable of shaping that will: he, after all, was the emperor. The architectural and urban order of Fatehpur Sikri is enigmatic, to say the least. Even though it has not been specifically mentioned anywhere, it is fair to assume that Akbar was more than just the benevolent patron for Fatehpur Sikri: he was directly involved in the design and construction of the city.

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Akbar inspecting construction of Fatehpur Sikri. Miniature in Akbarnama. Source: Victoria and Albert Museum.

Could it then be that these decisions were intuitively arrived at by Akbar but not articulated enough for them to be recorded? Akbar was known to be illiterate; he did not read or write and dictated his orders and reports to his official chroniclers. Can Fatehpur Sikri, and the Suleymaniye Mosque, then, be the threshold between architectural wisdom evolved over centuries and perfected unconsciously by cultural traditions on one hand and the rational and wilful act of a man conscious of his own intentions on the other? Can these buildings be the tell-tale signs of the beginning of the “Age of Reason” in India and Turkey? Could this be the tentative beginning of the emergence of the architect as the “author”?


The Industrial Revolution which began in the 18th century in Europe turned out to be one of the most consequential events not only for Europe but for the whole of humanity. Though its immediate impact was on the economic arrangement of societies, in the long term it altered the way societies are organized and governed. The urbanization, which accompanied Industrial Revolution, altered the community-centric structure of settlements to a more egalitarian structure of cities where individuals belonging to different communities, with different religions, languages, occupations and economic statuses, found themselves in proximity. The security and the certainty that one felt assured of within the community were no more obtainable. Though the process was gradual, this resulted in an individual-centric social organization and governance we now know as democracy in which, at least ideally, each individual, irrespective of diverse community identities, is accepted as a unique agency capable of initiatives.

Equally consequential was the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, arguably, one of the most transformational events that fused the world of man and that of nature. Like Galileo’s telescope of 1610 and Perrault’s ‘Ordonnance’ of 1683, Darwin’s book presented empirical evidence to challenge the church held creation myth that species were unchanging parts of a divinely ordained hierarchy and that humans were unique, unrelated to other animals. It introduced the scientific theory that life evolves throughout generations through a process of natural selection. But more importantly, by placing humans on the same biological plane as that of all the other species, Darwin also reinforced the views simultaneously being expressed by his contemporary thinkers that it is the human will, reason and initiative that distinguish humans not only from other species but also from each other: each individual specimen of the human species is distinctly different from others. The term individualism, and its associated term non-conformity, date from the nineteenth century.

Individualism, rooted in the notion of the sovereignty of the individual, was embedded in the very Declaration of Independence of America. We can see here a paradoxical parallel between the ancient Greeks and the 19th century Americans. If the Greeks expressed the newly realized self-consciousness of humankind by pitting humans against nature or fate, as in the Greek dramas, and by identifying the human world through abstract geometry as in their urbanism and architecture, the Americans sought to express their self-reliance by similarly pitting the individual against the normalizing society: society replaced nature in this worldview. It was the man against the society now and not mankind against nature. We see this in American literature; Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman are examples of this phenomenon. It is this worldview that is embodied in the architecture of the American architect Frank Furness (1839-1912). It is unconventional, eccentric and individualistic to a fault[5]. Many of his buildings do not conform to the classical notions of aesthetics with their categories of proportion, scale, harmony, etc. His choices of materials, elements and dimensions are seemingly subjective. The columns seem compressed under the weight of the heavy stone and brick masonry elements they carry. There is nothing delicate or elegant about this architecture.

Centennial National Bank, Philadelphis, by Frank Furness. 1876. Source: Author
Centennial National Bank, Philadelphis, by Frank Furness. 1876. Source: Author

In 1931, critic Lewis Mumford wrote that Frank Furness “was the designer of a bold, unabashed, ugly, and yet somehow healthily pregnant architecture.”[6]

Frank Furness’s architecture thus demonstrates an important point; it was meaningful, appropriate and rooted in the time and the place of its making – the 19th century America. It embodied the spirit of individualism of its time. And this very individualism was nurtured and nourished by the American society for being unconventional. But this unconventionality was not aimed at the immediate social milieu of the North-Eastern United States. It was aimed at the European bourgeoisie, which was until now always seen as the source of ideas about upward mobility for the middle-class American society but which was now challenged to catch up. Societies on the two opposite shores of the Atlantic Ocean were not in tune with each other and the certitude about what constitutes all-encompassing modernity, as we know it today, had not yet been obtained. I am referring to the period we have come to know as the modern era and for a relatively brief period between the end of the 19th and the mid-twentieth century there existed a recognizable stylistic consistency. I have argued elsewhere[7] that modern design in general, and architecture in particular, arrived at its stylistic peak and consistency in the turn-of-the-century Vienna. The Wienner Moderne movement, also known as the Vienna Secessionist movement between 1890 and 1918, was propelled by the growing awareness, not unlike in America, that the then prevailing forms of expressions in art, architecture, music and also urbanism, still directed by the academic traditions, no longer corresponded with the emerging patterns of social life and needed to change. Also, as in America, it was individualism which was seen as the key to unlocking this change to modernity.[8]

However, the Vienna Secessionist Movement differed from the developments in America in two very important ways. One, if the American individualism was expressed by isolated individuals like Frank Furness, in Europe it happened through an unusual congruence of ideas and arts in Vienna, made possible by the simultaneous presence of minds like Sigmund Freud in psychoanalysis, Ludwig Wittgenstein in philosophy, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg in music, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt in painting, Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos in architecture, and many others. And two, it was far from eccentric. This intellectual hyperactivity was aimed at fulfilling the promises contained in the original idea of modernity; rational organization of the day-to-day life of the society and its expression in visual arts, architecture and music. In other words, its objective was not only to oppose, and depart away from, the prevailing social and cultural norms – as hinted at by its being called the ‘Secessionist Movement’ – but also to present an alternative through the medium of design, dance and ideas about the autonomous individual with both his internal (psychic) and external (public) realities. It aimed to co-populate in a design object the rational, emotional, spiritual and sensuous aspects of life and express the totality of the human condition.

Taking a much broader, and historical, view the noted psychoanalyst Erich Fromm has linked individualism (he refers to this as ‘individuation’) with the concept of freedom. An individual’s sense of self and its autonomy, Fromm argues[9], stems from his sense of freedom. The freedom which we refer to as emancipation from social restrictions and customs is the negative freedom, ‘freedom from…’. Striving for this freedom sets humans against society as it is the social conventions placed on individuals, that are restrictive. But such freedom, by itself, can also cause insecurity and fear of alienation leading men to irrational social hierarchy and mass obedience to a strong leader. On the other hand, it can also lead to unconventionality without offering a credible alternative for a better society, as in the case of Frank Furness. This can be avoided only, according to Erich Fromm, when the ‘freedom from.’ is conjoined with the exercise of the positive freedom, ‘freedom to…’, when an individual also feels free to employ the totality of his/her creative being in a new initiative, an act of self-realization, through art, architecture, literature, music, dance, design etc. These acts point towards new ways to connect with the world and fellow humans as they embody the spirit of the new. At first, these creative acts appear ‘alienating’ from the prevailing reality as they are aligned with the reality that is not yet. But here we also realize the dual function of arts: initially, arts appeal to our senses and satisfy our sensuous needs and at the same time, they also perform a cognitive role by sublimating a reality that lies somewhere else and is ‘constructed’ only in the imagination of the artist. We are presented with images of that which is not yet. Thus they appeal to our rationality too.

Thus, to be satisfied only with the freedom from the external authority is not only not enough but can also be counterproductive; it does not guarantee individuality. “The right to express our thoughts, however, means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own; Freedom from external authority is a lasting gain only if the inner psychological conditions are such that we are able to establish our own individuality.”[10] In the architecture of Frank Furness we see traces of the rebellious individuality but without a well thought out rational articulation, and embodiment, of what the new architecture may look like, notwithstanding the expectations of Lewis Mumford. The comprehensive and all-encompassing freedom happened in Vienna through the architecture of Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffman [fig. 05] and Joseph Maria Olbrich, and simultaneously through projects like the Cité Industrielle of Tony Garnier in France and Bauhaus in Germany.

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Fig 05 – The Stoclet Palace, Brussels by Josef Hoffmann. 1911. Source: Author

The Narrative of Modernism

There are three significant points to note about the Secessionist Movement of Vienna. One is that this movement while celebrating the autonomy of the individual also recognized that an individual human is not only a rational being but is simultaneously an emotional, sensuous and spiritual being in equal parts. For a short period of fewer than three decades, it was able to situate all walks of life on the single datum informed by the new idea of the autonomous individual and the new social order it gave rise to. And two, the term ‘modern’ was not meant to refer to an aesthetic style; a visual language with a specific grammar, vocabulary and syntax. Instead, the idea of Modernity, so constructed, was a broad concept that described ideas and attitudes about architecture, city planning, art, music, literature, film, dance, politics, and perhaps most importantly, lifestyle, which were all contemporaneous with the time – late nineteenth-century Europe. This modernity represented a fresh way of looking at things brought about by new information. Innovations and landmark achievements in every artistic field helped to define modernism in the 1920s. It was an organic modernity. And lastly, the Vienna movement was able to not only free itself from the prevailing social norms and customs but also offered credible new alternatives with which to build the new modern social order. It exercised both the freedom from and the freedom to; to show what shape the incoming modern life would take. 

Unfortunately, this very creative movement was disrupted by the onset of the First World War in 1914. After the end of the war, Bauhaus in Germany picked up the baton but in the area of art, architecture and design in general, it soon became a style: modernism, as opposed to modernity. Modernity is an idea encompassing a state of being, thinking and doing things rationally. This is what the Vienna movement was aiming for. Modernism, on the other hand, is the prescription for attaining modernity; as are all isms, a plan of action and a revolutionary language. After World War II, following the migration of many artists and architects to America, modernism too arrived in America. However, in America, it acquired another name – The International Style. The western world, in general, and America in particular, had just won the war and had emerged as the dominant power not only militarily but political and economic power. It assumed cultural superiority also and projected that the entire global humanity should, and will, embrace this visual language. This was the context for the Museum of Modern Art to mount an extensive exhibition in 1932 titled ‘The International Style; Architecture Since 1922’.

The date 1922 is significant; its gaze begins after the end of the First World War in 1918 and, in doing so, completely ignores the Vienna movement (1897-1914). But on closer examination, it is apparent that such exclusion was inevitable; the Vienna movement was fundamentally incompatible with the International Style on one count; their respective sense of Man, the humankind. The Vienna Secessionist movement conceived the modern man not only as a rational being but also one enriched by his cultural and civilizational memories preserved, joyful in his sensuality and with heightened spirituality. This predates the more recent and universalizing concept of modern humans as rational beings which we now have accepted as a global standard. But such a conception emanates from the universalism inherent in the Western culture’s obsession with ‘essences’; that which is a quality of everything and everywhere and thus makes a specific somewhere or some ‘place’ irrelevant: it does not admit cultural variations. International Style, thus, can only be conceived by reducing the man to the only one human attribute which is universal – Rationality. The language of the International Style in visual arts, then, will have to express abstraction and machine aesthetics. Unfortunately, Vienna presented a contradiction and had to be ignored.

Simultaneously and parallel with the growth of modernism, a theoretical/historical narrative has been constructed which has provided a conceptual framework, a language and vocabulary, with which modern architecture has come to be validated; a body of ideas that informed architecture for the last two centuries. This narrative had a great deal to do with determining the discourse in architecture; in determining what to include and what to be kept out of the stylistic definition of modern architecture. There are four core elements of this narrative: Measurability of reality, the universality of reason, false rejection of traditions, and space as an objective entity. With the ascendency of the Cartesian/Kantian worldview, it has become received wisdom that the reality is measurable. Anything that cannot be measured or cannot be described in measurable terms is not real. With this, all knowledge had to be subjected to strict scrutiny for its verifiability against reason. Science and technology, which embody this measurable reality, are the guiding beacons of this age. Architecture too should be aligned with science and technology in this age of reason and industrialization. The proposition of Vitruvius that architecture is ensured when a building has stability, utility and beauty, is to be reformulated since beauty cannot be defined or explained in measurable terms. Thus the formula, architecture = stability, utility and beauty was restated as architectural beauty = stability and utility. A new aesthetic language was invented prioritizing abstraction and geometry over free organic forms. Machines as well as the operational processes of machines became the metaphors for inventing this new aesthetics to make architecture relevant for this new age. A house is, thus, a machine to live in.

The universality of the human faculty of reason implied that this aesthetic language will appeal to all humanity irrespective of geographical or cultural variations. All a-rational, emotional and traditional vocabulary should be purged from the architectural lexicon. Flattening out the peaks and valleys of rich and differentiated architectural styles globally, this assumed that the new modern architecture represents the whole of humanity and is truly the international language of architecture.  

Time too, as per this narrative, came to be regarded as an objective phenomenon with linear progression from a primordial beginning to a utopian end. The adjective ‘modern’ in modern architecture came to mean not just contemporary but an ‘avant-garde’ movement close to the utopia. Bauhaus rejected the teaching of history from its curriculum on the grounds that memories of the past are likely to inhibit the young architects from embracing the glorious future which resides with science, technology and the ‘beautiful’ machines. Past, now, is the enemy of the future and must be rejected.

And finally, space is an objective entity described by the x, y, and z coordinates of the Euclidian geometry. It, and not the traditional iconography, is the primary element of architecture. Beginning with its origin in the Greco-Egyptian civilizations, it has evolved logically as the universal concept of space, so declared Siegfried Gideon.

A comprehensive program indeed. Except for two major infirmities; one, it resembled rather too closely the standard, traditional, positivist-influenced philosophy of science and the way it develops incrementally incorporating new theories and information. The tensions created within the classical order by the twin revolutions – one, of ideas led by Descartes, Kant, Newton et all., and two, the industrial revolution – were sought to be resolved through a cumulative process of ‘puzzle-solving’, to borrow a metaphor from Thomas Kuhn. Thus, the International Style, with its machine inspired visual language, became the new paradigm around which, like a new scientific theory, a new and singular global consensus was presumed. This imputes onto architecture fundamental characteristics of science, that of being paradigm-scarce, which architecture – and all arts in general – do not possess. It assumes architecture to be more like science but at a much lower level of criticality.

None of what we discussed earlier can undermine the fact that modernity in general and modern architecture, in particular, has been an epochal movement in history no less significant than Renaissance. Prior to its onset, the existing forms were already beginning to show signs of their inadequacy in the task of containing the new rhythm of life, new technology, new aspirations and an altered worldview brought about by the twin revolutions: The Cartesian revolution first and then followed by the industrial revolution. One cannot but acknowledge that the one hundred years beginning with the mid-nineteenth century have seen a fundamental reorganization of the underlying thought structure of architecture with its spatial anatomy turned upside down by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, as Gustav Klimt, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Kandinsky and Paul Klee have done for painting. W.B. Yeats and James Joyce revolutionized Literature and Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg did the same in music. It was indeed an all-encompassing movement and touched all walks of life.

If this epochal movement is showing signs of inadequacy on account of its inability to address issues of urbanism, and its inability to be relevant outside the mainstream Western world of Europe and North America, it will still be a serious error to proclaim the end of the era as the ‘post-modernists’ seemed to imply. The alternative they had offered consisted of shallow historicism and aestheticism with disembodied forms, arbitrarily selected from the past, and applied here and there. This can scarcely be taken as a genuine and creditable critique of the underlying ideas that have informed this movement as we have seen above. But in a much deeper and qualitative sense too, the architecture this critique produced was not very different from what it aimed to displace and it fizzled out after enjoying a substantial discursive presence for a few decades.

Modernity Outside the Imperium.

The trajectory of Modernity in the Indian subcontinent has been complex. It also expresses itself in myriad forms wherein it is extremely difficult to separate modernity in cultural productions such as art and architecture from that in social organizations and the politics of culture. The Indian subcontinent has a history of demographic and cultural diffusion going back to the pre-Christian era. Such diffusion has generally been organic and culturally enriching. Until the arrival of the Europeans, all previous migrations have been absorbed into the multi-colored cultural spectrum making diversity an essential element of the Indian civilizational identity. Only the Europeans have never severed ties with their cultural origins to call India their home. Significantly, it was after the emergence of consciousness of modernity in Europe, that colonization has led to cultural wars to proclaim dominance of one culture over the other rather than diffusion. Used as an instrument of cultural wars, modernity at one point meant superiority of the colonizing powers claiming a right to rule over the colonized. It is not that universal reason did not have a place in Indian thinking. But as Ashish Nandi has pointed out, “In spite of recent attempts to show the rationality of the savage mind a la Levi-Strauss, the savage mind itself has remained on the whole unconcerned about its own rationality”.[11] It is these essential differences in thought systems and the centrality given (or not given) to reason in constructing our worldviews that make this story so complex.

Enlightenment modernity has never found a comfortable perch in India. Not because it has resisted modernity which foregrounded rationality and scientific temper, but because at the time of its encounter with this modernity India was already well on its way to develop a form of modernity founded on the experiences of its own people. This was a society that confronted the alien modernity with equanimity but, at the same time, refused to surrender before it and responded to history with its own mythologies and memories. To many observers it seemed like a civilization in decay with absence of assertive will; it can also be seen as resilience. What many have failed to notice are the crucial differences at the core of both these civilizations. The Europe of the Enlightenment modernity cherishes uniformity, codified laws and certitudes in means of communications and operations. On the other hand, a large population in India, especially in its villages, displays life which is an almost antithesis of this ideal. It is a civilization that avoids finality, prefers the unfinished, ambivalent and cherishes the contingent and the contextual.

Truth Vs Reason: Gandhian Modernity

Gandhi’s concept of man, emerging from his various writings, offers a clear alternative to that of the Enlightenment, the metaphysical foundation of which is attributed to the sixteenth century Cartesian concept of humankind. Rene Descartes, and later Emanuel Kant, grounded the essence of humanity in its universal faculty of reason (Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am) which became the foundational terrain for the nineteenth century articulation of modernity as we know it today. But reason itself is not enough; it is an instrument, a vehicle, for arriving at true knowledge about the world and ourselves, i.e. the reality. Gandhi too is looking to comprehend this reality but chooses to reach enlightenment through the path of Truth rather than reason.

Reason is also extra-moral and intrinsically devoid of any ethical or spiritual content. A disengaged self is amoral and unethical. This points to a crucial paradox in Enlightenment modernity: if the rise of the individual as an autonomous agency is one of the central premises of modernity, this autonomous individual must be capable of engaging in a dialogue not only with others but also with the inner self in search of Truth. The absence of such self-awareness leads to a consciousness isolated not only from the surroundings but also from feelings and ethics resulting in confrontation (possibly violent) with others and not authentic dialogue. Thus, rationalism has an in-built infirmity that prevents the emergence of the truly autonomous and free individual. This is Gandhi’s most important critique of Enlightenment modernity and is the fount of his concepts of freedom, satyagraha and non-violence. Freedom, for Gandhi, meant not only freedom from external bondage, essentially negative freedom but also the positive freedom to employ the totality of his/her creative being in a new initiative, an act of self-realization, of one’s own truth which constitutes true liberation[12]. Only under such conditions that an individual can engage in a dialogue with others as this automatically implies recognizing and accepting similar autonomy of others too. Thus we have two clearly defined and articulated thought systems and both have looked at the essence of humanity in knowledge; How do I know that I know? What is really real? One, the Cartesian/Kantian Enlightenment system, has sought to eliminate doubt altogether and has relied upon reason as the true and singular source and validation of knowledge. The singularity stems from the fact that reason is assumed to be the sole instrument of verification and it entertains no doubt: either it is true or it is false. On the other hand, Gandhi has approached the question of transcendence but in a ‘secular’ way. Grounding his concept of man, and reality, in Truth, this concept of truth itself is also rooted in his religiosity and the notion of divinity. In a clever and somewhat childlike mischievousness, he is supposed to have said that one can deny the existence of God, but none, not even an atheist, could deny the existence of Truth. Thus, by equating Truth with God, Gandhi has located God beyond any controversy and at the same time provided the terrain on which the essence of mankind is grounded. Truth transcends, and at once enfolds reason within itself. And as such it provides a clear alternative ground to the Cartesian-Kantian rationalism for us to build a different edifice of modernity on.

But how do we grasp truth? The conventional meaning, we ascribe to ‘truth’ is that it connotes a verifiable statement of fact. But in a deeper and philosophical context, it refers to values and norms that transcend specificity and are accepted as worthy of universal pursuit. Thus, the essence of being, universal equilibrium and the idea of the fundamental dignity and equality of all humans, transcending the specificities of race, status, caste, or gender, are aspects of truth irrespective of, and beyond, the commonality of reason and are, rooted in the evolution of human consciousness itself. Truth, then, resides in the individual conscience; what seems right, rationally, morally and ethically, to me here and now.

To locate the essence of humanity in the faculty of reason alone, as Enlightenment has done, is to deny the cultural variations and diversity that characterize humanity and which reason alone cannot account for. They spring from spirituality, sensuality and emotions which are also essential markers of humanity. It is these that have prevented universal civilization and have given rise to the different civilizational ethos which lends us a context within which we actualize ourselves. In other words, we need to locate ourselves within a civilizational context for our cultural productions such as art, architecture, literature, music etc. to mean anything. The architecture of Kerala would be different from that of Himachal Pradesh and in turn, both from that of California.

Gandhi established two Ashrams after moving back to India, one in Ahmedabad, a more urban setting from where he conducted and guided the initial stages of India’s freedom movement, and the second at Sewagram near Wardha in central India. These two Ashrams are of great interest to us as he was far more involved in their architecture and construction and brought to bear his sense of modernity and tradition. Though never explicitly expressed in any of his writings or comments, it is possible to decipher Gandhi’s synthesis of the traditional and the modern while still remaining deeply rooted in traditions. Gandhi viewed history not as a diachronic and linear reading of the past but as the synchronic relationship of myths as represented in the public consciousness. His own house within the Ahmedabad ashram, known as Hriday Kunj (abode of the heart), [fig.06] was not only a place of residence but also an institution and a concrete demonstration of his experiments with truth and the synchronic relationship with tradition as represented in the public consciousness.

Non-Aesthetic Modernity: Metaphysics of Modern Architecture 10
Fig.06 – Hriday Kunj, Ahmedabad, M.K. Gandhi. 1917. Source: Author

The newness of Hriday Kunj, it’s modernity, is contained in its conception and not in its appearance. It is in the plan, the spatial form, that the past is conceptualized as a possible means of reaffirming or altering the present [fig. 07]. The traditional linear organization, in which the gradation of the public to private spaces is determined by the proximity of the space to the street, is replaced by a “U” shape plan offering a radically different interpretation of the public/private binary. The first indication comes from a clear distinction between the public and private domains signified by the introduction of the only wall along the entire width of the house [fig. 08]. In addition to playing its usual role in defining spaces, the wall also indicates a spatial hierarchy. On the front, (NE) side of the wall are placed the much enlarged ‘Otlo’ and Gandhi’s own room, which would normally be called ‘Khadki’ or ‘Kacheri’ (office), a place for public interactions. Gandhi had placed his entire life in the public domain for the service of humanity. Thus, this reinterpretation of ‘Kacheri’ with his own room on this side of the ‘wall’ is both purposeful and also symbolic: it makes eminent sense.

Non-Aesthetic Modernity: Metaphysics of Modern Architecture 12
Fig. 07 Plan of Hriday Kunj. Source: Author
Fig. 08	Hriday Kunj, Articulation of public and private realms. Source: Author
Hriday Kunj, Articulation of public and private realms. Source: Author

For Gandhi, critiquing the traditions was integral to critiquing the modern and the other way round too. What Hriday Kunj shows is the aesthetic experience not framed around an expert’s (architect’s) disengaged and self-consciously evolved critical judgment of what is ‘beautiful’ in a contemporary sense, but still has its significance altered in that direction. Modernity here is not in the way the building looks but in the way it was conceived. And this conception is expressed not in the materiality of its body but through the non-material relationships between its parts and their symbolic meanings. Hriday Kunj, then, is the expression of Gandhi’s idea of relative truth in the sense that each of the decisions is grounded in what is the right thing to do here and now when the past and the present interrogate each other to realize a form of non-aesthetic modernity.

Throughout this book I have sought to rediscover the meanings of modernity and tradition which existed before the 19th century. Every society and every civilization has continuously grappled with these concepts as a consciousness of the new and a gradual transition from the old to the new. However, the ties with history were never severed in this process. Only during the 19th century, a romantic and radical consciousness of modernity emerged which defined modernity by severing itself from all historical ties. This modernity, which first appeared in the early 19th century and still continues as our contemporary notion of the avant-garde modernism with its abstract opposition between past and present, is in reality a kind of aesthetic modernity as its reference was more the appearances of the object and not the ideas and beliefs that it embodied.

 If the term post-modern was meant to proclaim the demise of modernity I refuse to accept it. That it was anti-modern, is not in doubt. But the fact that it too has withered away and has lost its claim to offer a viable alternative narrative to modernism suggests that what it offered was only a superfluous change in the vocabulary of the aesthetic language.  In place of a vocabulary whose innermost origin lay in the appearance of machines, it offered one harvested from the classical past.

Architecture of Resistance

In his 1982 book, Kenneth Frampton advances Regionalism as “architecture of resistance”. Explaining this, he writes; “The term regional is not intended to denote the vernacular, as this was once spontaneously produced by the combined interaction of climate, culture and craft, but rather to identify those regional ‘schools’ whose aim has been to represent and serve particular constituencies… The main-spring of Regionalism is an anti-centrist sentiment – a discernable aspiration for some kind of cultural, economic and political independence” (italics mine). On a closer look, though, it is problematic on many counts.

The negative reference to vernacular betrays Frampton’s yearning for a universal expression which was always the core of modernism. Resistance connotes opposition to, and an adversarial relationship with, modernism. It also implies a center/periphery structure of the discourse retaining the centrality of modernism. The seemingly centrifugal nature of Regionalism placed it outside the mainstream modernism requiring a special nomenclature, distinct from vernacular. This not only perpetuates the ownership of the modernity project with the Western Enlightenment but also betrays a desire to protect its assumed purity from being polluted by the new movement. It betrays Frampton’s discomfort with organic modernity and in accepting the natural modernizing impulses of all cultures and civilizations. This deprives the new architecture outside the Eurocentric modernism of its rightful place within the normal and organic processes of organic modernization in multiple different cultures.

Jorn Utzon’s Bagsvaerd Church, the Prayer Hall at Dacca by Kahn, Giurgola’s cathedral at Paramatta and the A.I.A. Headquarter building in Washington and buildings by Doshi, Geoffrey Bawa, Minnette de Silva and Tadao Ando, all point to the fact that a conception of modernity as a complement to traditions, not it’s antinomy, is already amongst us and sensed by several architects spread around different parts of the globe. These building represent parallel modernity and not resistance to the mainstream modernism. Their respective choices of materials and technology speak of a fine balance between being universal and yet contextual. This contextuality transcends the immediate geographical regions and embraces the universal aspirations of place making. The religious buildings of Utzon, Kahn, Giurgola and Ando effectively demonstrate how to represent spirituality in the secular age but at the same time, as Giurgola’s A.I.A. headquarters building in Washington shows, even secular architecture too can infuse a place with spirituality without being religious. Modernity, then, is also a relative idea contingent upon the context of the thought-worlds and culture which engender it.

In conclusion, two points stand out; One, modernity cannot be seen, debated and explained as a standalone concept. Tradition and modernity are not just polar opposite antinomies; they constitute a binary wherein each must be seen always in the context of the other. A society may embrace modernity by a conscious and deliberate rejection of its traditions but such modernity must then be viewed as a consequence of that condition. And two, embracing modernity is a universal phenomenon but, it manifests in multiple forms in different civilizations depending upon their respective relationship with traditions which constitute the ethico-mythical nucleus of that culture. Only under such conditions, and by letting each civilization affirm and communicate with others with what is best in them that we may be able to avoid false syncretism. We must embrace multifaceted modernity or multiple modernities. Each will present itself with its own cultural productions which will be beautiful without being judged by a universal aesthetic measure.

  1. Joseph Rykwert, The First Moderns: The Architects of the Eighteenth Century, MIT Press, 1983.
  2. Jürgen Habermas, Modernity-An Incomplete Project, in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, (Ed.) Hal Foster, Bay Press, Port Townsend, Washington, 1983,
  3. Hebermas, Op. Cit
  4. Gulru Necipoglu, The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire, Reaktion Books, London, 2005, pp. 206-215.
  5. Many of his buildings were later demolished as they were found to be too offensive to the upwardly mobile American society, which had by the 20th century, again began to look at Europe for cultural leadership and modernity.
  6. Lewis Mumford, The Brown Decades: A Study of Arts in America 1865-1895 (New York: 1931), p. 144.
  7. Jaimini Mehta, The Vienna Spring, in Critiquing the Modern in Architecture, Routledge, N.Y. & London 2017.
  8. Christian Witt-Dorring, The Encouragement of Individuality as a Key to Modernity, in Vienna, Art & Design, National Gallery of Victoria, Aus, 2011.
  9. Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, Farrar & Reinhart, New York, 1941. Avon Books, 1965.
  10. Erich Fromm, Op. Cit. p. 266
  11. Ashish Nandi, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and recovery of Self under Colonialism, Oxford University Press, new Delhi, 2009, p. 59
  12. It is worth noting that Gandhi stridently opposed India’s deep-rooted cast system, and especially untouchability, as these prevented full realization of individual potential and self-realization. While Gandhian modernity was born and nurtured by the Indian thought system, certain fossilized traditions had to be discarded to arrive at it. Individual autonomy was equally important to Gandhian modernity but he gave it a distinctly Indian form.

This essay is a condensed version of the book of the same title by the author. The book is published by CEPT University Press, Ahmedabad and is scheduled to be released in mid-October, 2023. Inquiries for the book may be addressed to [email protected]

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