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Colonial Indian Architecture reveals the progressive involvement of the British in India spanning about 400 years. Military engineers provided the first secure compounds for the East India Company’s trading posts in Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta . As colonial influence spread so did their architecture.

Early buildings in fortified encampments were simple and functional; decoratively crenellations adorned parapets like battlements. As colonial aspirations changed from purely trading to empire, prominent buildings expressed power. This came not just from the British dominance but from their stylistic choice of Neo-Classicism to represent their cultural authority. Porticos and Doric columns were repeatedly used for 300 years. Palladian refinement reflected social aspirations for the English elite in India. More numerous were the modest cottages and bungalows, for the many of the middle classes, that borrowed stylistically from Bengali ‘bangla’ village huts. Church architecture differed by following the prevailing English trend - from the clean lines of Christopher Wren’s English Renaissance churches to the verticality of Pugin’s Victorian Neo-Gothic piles –they represented pure Christian values in a pagan land.

Unlike French or Portuguese Colonialists, whose architecture was accustomed to Mediterranean needs, British designs rapidly altered adding arcades and deep verandahs to deal with the needs to shelter from sun and monsoon. Italianate designs often better suited the climatic needs, compared to pattern book English designs. Neo-Gothic variety often the choice of Venetian Gothic for in civic buildings in preference to High Gothic.

Against the dominant style of the Aesthetic Imperialists (represented by the Public Works Department who commissioned and regulated colonial architectural design) there were the Native Revivalists. They thought that civic architecture should represent the people, something with a connection to the land and the past, which in later Victorian times was mirrored by William Morris’ Arts and Craft’s view - of returning to an architecture using craftsmanship and traditional methods. Bombay was more liberal, so many of the later universities and law courts opted for Indo-Saracenic architecture (a mixture of Hindu, Islamic and Western elements applied to Western buildings). James Fergusson a Morris supporter, argued that copying Indian styles to be a crime, and backed the expressive use of Indian forms in architectural expression. The issue was that it was not a fusion of east and west design. Architects working in the Princely States managed this. Indigenous methods prevailed in hill stations where informal residential designs used the best of both traditions. .

Most of the designers throughout the Raj were British Army Engineers instructed in military engineering; architectural design was self learnt from practical experience, aided by architectural reference books and copy book designs. By 1870 regional differences were obvious with Bombay Public Works employing professional officers trained in architecture, while Calcutta continued to use amateur military engineers. Later, consultant architects invited from Europe included Lutyens in New Delhi, and Modernist Le Corbusier in post-colonial Chandrigarh

The quality of local craftsmen and raw material made a difference. Bombay’s stone carvers were able to work with better grade stone than others– naturally their work was more detailed. The continued prevalence in other areas of the more simply decorated Neo-classical buildings demanded less intricate carving than was needed for the richly decorated Gothic style.

The rise of the Indian Middle Classes with their patronage of the Arts and Architecture encouraged the marriage of indigenous and European designs. Their architectural commissions represented their affluence, civic pride, and Indian heritage. In contrast, English industrial progress evidenced with widespread use of imported corrugated iron (from the 1840's) offered construction simplification, but tended to dumb down architectural advances.

Frequently colonial buildings were criticized about not responding to local conditions, or not being built using traditional, and proven local methods. The "London look" was achieved by stucco render over brick, and sadly many Raj buildings are falling into disrepair as the stucco peels away.

Arguably, Engineers on colonial service adversely influenced the training of Indian technicians, and this continued when Indian Universities, captivated with Modernism, offered Architecture in the run up to Independence. Several generations of Indians had not studied India’s rich architectural history. But the JJ School of Art Bombay accepted this and looked forward, visioning the more inclusive use of concrete, a new material that would house India’s masses. But again the stucco surfaces of early Modernist buildings is failing away from disrepair, just it is on the earlier Neo-Classical buildings .

Bombay: birthplace of modern Indian Architecture

  • 1865 Bombay Builder magazine first published

JJ School of Art, Bombay: courses

  • 1896 2 yr draughtsman’s course
  • 1908 4 yr architectural course
  • 1917 Indian Institute of Architects
  • 1922 5 yr architectural course
  • 1925 Bombay Architectural Association – with affiliation to the RIBA
  • 1930 RIBA exams held in Bombay
  • 1937 Ideal Home Exhibition introduces Modernism to India, and the more popular and the less restrained alternative - Art Deco.


Other external links

Historical books online

The various parts of Jeypore Portfolio: I. Copings and plinths.--II. Pillars--Caps and bases.--III. Carved doors.--IV. Brackets.--V. Arches.--VI. Balustrades.--VII. String and band patterns.--VIII. Wall and surface decorations.--IX. Dados: with a note on the process of fresco paintings in Jeypore.--X. Parapets.--XI. Chatris and domed roofs.--XII. Jharokas or balcony windows.
  • India. Photographs and Drawings Of Historical Buildings :100 Plates; From the Collection in the late Office of Curator of Ancient Monuments in India. London, 1896. Catalogue details Digital file With thumbnails, so illustrations are easily found. Download available. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (SLUB) Dresden