Architecture and the majesty of a democratic state

I had never believed that the legitimacy of our governments in fact stems from the symbols of the state, that is, the actual buildings which house the powers-that-be till I read this interesting article. Is it possible to imagine the power of our Supreme Court without unconsciously associating it with the building which stands at Tilak Marg? No wonder, the Supreme Court is reluctant to concede the demand to set up another Bench of the Court elsewhere in the country, even though the Constitution provides for it under Article 130, and the Government is in its favour.

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  • i am no expert on architecture, but at least the thought that goes behind the architecture matters, i think. the article talks about the scottish parliament. two other examples i have witnessed personally. the south african constitutional court, housed in an erstwhile prison (which hosted both gandhi and mandela apparently) and in fact preserves various bits of the old prison architecture. the entire court building is fantastically democratic – one has to cross the constitutional bridge to get there (i think). it has an art gallery with amazing paintings (one which quotes the famous words of Neruda – come and look at the blood on the streets). there are several other symbolic aspects which signify rule of law, the african idea of ubuntu, constitutionalism, democracy and atrocities of the past (lest we forget).

    the second, earlier, example is from mexico, where in the earlier 20th century, an inspired government minister apparently decided to throw open public buildings to public art in an attempt to make them more accessible. the massive murals are fascinating in their populism and radicalism. the movie ‘Frida’, based on the life of Frida Kahlo whose husband was one of the famous communist painters of this time, captures certain aspects of this movement.

    (i may have got minor details wrong, but i think the broad point remains true

    our indian buildings lack even a popular democratic imagination. we mostly have the splendours of bygone eras, mughal and british. independent india built very little, and what it did build was ugly and sad (like shashtri bhavan in delhi) or an attempt to copy the old styles rather than develop contemporary tastes (like the vidhan soudha in bangalore). architecture says a lot, and if built by power, it says a lot about power. so, venkatesan, thanks very much for this very important post.

  • The indian experience with respect to impact of architecture on the political process is disheartening.

    The Parliament building is sufficiently aesthetic to accomodate democratic principles in its functioning (in my humble opinion). But the quality of governmental activities that takes place there does not meet even the minimum standards of democracy. The “house” of the people and the states chairs several criminals and rogues. It is attacked by terrorists. It witnesses horse trading and mud slinging on a daily basis.

    Thus, even if legitimacy is attributed to it, it does not deserve it.

    I am of the opinion that it is the processes that determine the charisma of an institution and not the glory of its architecture. The institutions which come to my mind are IIM – ahmedabad (which i have seen only on telivision) and NLSIU Bangalore. Both have very simple designs but the amount of intellectual activity that takes place is amazing.

    My vision of an Ideal Indian Parliament would be a large banyan tree, with roots that spread over a large area and creates smaller tree-like structures around it, signifying the unity-in-diversity , strength and solidarity of what we are.