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[ID:3800] Contribution of Civic Buildings in Intellectual Evolution of Society
“Space is a social product” - Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
The idea of a community is formed by the association of people with each other, people with their spaces and spaces with their surroundings. An architect seeks to integrate spaces and people; a planner seeks to integrate spaces with their surroundings. This essay is a collaborative effort of a student of Architecture and a student of Planning.
“The good things we build end up building us”. The essence of architecture lies in people’s experiences of values, as manifested through its physical presence. Through civic infrastructure, every society creates its own spaces that lend it a unique identity. It is here that the amalgamation of cultural, socio-political and intellectual domains of the society takes place, resonating its values, beliefs, rituals, norms and practices.
As societies evolve beyond seeking and sustaining survival, they seek intellectual fulfilment. This is very well evident in the evolution of Bhopal from the times of it being a princely state under the British rule in central India to its evolution as the capital of one of the largest states in India.
Bhopal‘s history dates back to 11th century when it was founded by Raja Bhoj, a king from the Parmar dynasty, giving the city its earliest name of Bhojpal. Although an old city, much of the architectural marvels and monuments which dot the old city were built during the 19th century and some in the early 20th century when it was ruled by a succession of Begums (Muslim Queens) who were also progressive in their outlook. Bhopal has a sub-tropical climate and an undulating topography. The most prominent feature of the city’s landscape is the scenic Bhopal Taal or the Upper Lake among its other lakes. The city cannot be imagined without the Bhopal Taal which has been part of the city lore from a very long time.
The civic infrastructure of Bhopal catering to intellectual curiosity and fulfillment has kept pace and provided continuity of purpose for well over a century of its existence.
Sultan Jahan Begum (1858-1930), the fourth woman ruler of the princely state of Bhopal within a hundred years, held high the lamp of enlightenment for her people. Among her most notable achievements were the opening of several schools, colleges and hospitals. By 1920, Bhopal presented a stable, contented society under the benign leadership of an exceptionally able ruler. The Begum’s success lay in her deliberate emphasis on education and intellectual well-being of the state. Her accomplishments in the cultural and education fields had placed Bhopal at the pinnacle of enlightened, well-governed and forward-looking princely states in India.
In 1908, the Begum commissioned Sir Seventer Jacob, a European architect, to build the King Edward Museum to house the customary presents received by the ruler. No suitable site was available in the walled city to accommodate a grand building with its sprawling European style lawns. A site was chosen just outside the dense residential area in the walled city connected by one of its important gates. The museum was a showcase of Bhopal’s state and cultural riches. Various artisans of the region were invited as part of social inclusion initiative to demonstrate their skills to the visitors through the concept of a ‘living museum’. Sadly, lack of state-funding for a period of time resulted in shutdown of the building.
In 1955, when Bhopal was declared the capital of Madhya Pradesh, there was an urgent need for administrative buildings. The Hamidia state library, built by the Begum, was hence converted to the Lokayukt Bhawan and used by the General Administration department. Its rich collection of about 60,000 books including some rare manuscripts in Hastlikhit, Sundarlekhan , Lekhani scripts was shifted to the Museum, in an effort to revive the building’s significance as provocateur of intellectual activity. The artefacts were given to the state Archaeological Department and the Museum was renamed Maulana Azad Central Library.
The red sandstone structure built in the Islamic style stands quietly amidst the chaos of the old city. A white ‘crown’ on the north facade of the building lends a royal charm. Intricate floral ornamentation in sandstone dominates the arches and parapets. However, it is inside that one experiences the truest sense of grandeur and purpose that the building stood for. The atrium, which dominates the central space, now serves as the main reading area. Arched balconies above were once occupied by women under purdah (veil) to view the exhibits. Harem jaali with intricate geometric perforations let cool breeze into the atrium, while ensuring privacy to the women. The galleries of the museum have seamlessly transformed into various sections of the library on either side of the atrium. The domical skylight that still sits high above the reading hall allows plenty of light through the better part of the day. High ceilings, arches with perforated screens and stone construction keep the building’s ambient temperature sufficiently cool and reduce its dependence on modern means. The musty smell of older books in tall, heavily carved sheesham almirahs, the quaint lights and peeling plaster add to the historic charm of the building. This, blended with human element, elicits the universal comment ‘sukoon’, the Urdu word for ‘inner peace’ by almost three generations of people, who proudly associate themselves with this living slice of history.
Abdul chacha (uncle), a ninety-year old patron visits the library every day to read the Urdu daily. His special connection with the library is heart-warming- dating back to his days as a gatekeeper when the library was still a museum. Akila Mehmood, 62, an old resident of Bhopal recalls how she used to visit the library for an hour every day before her classes on way to college while pursuing graduate studies in History. She recalls the separate entrances and reading areas for men and women, multitude of frangipani trees and the invitingly well-maintained lawns which lent a special character to the complex.
The library has only gotten more popular with time as it has kept pace with the evolving expectations of its patrons. A committed staff, admittedly at home in its workplace, proudly points out the various accolades won by the library in modern times. It now caters to around 700 people every day. Rachit Malviya, 28, a research scholar who recounts the contribution of library’s resources in his dissertation, points to the large number of students who prefer the calm and conducive environment of the library to prepare for public examinations over the online comfort of computers elsewhere. Old patrons of Urdu and Farsi literature continue to visit regularly. Passers-by who come to read newspapers spend hours under the trees or the red-sandstone arches of the front porch. Students are often seen sitting outside under the trees soaking in the winter sun. Regular lectures by litterateurs, seminars and social awareness campaigns contribute greatly to holistic intellectual growth of the people. As an extension, the Barkatullah Hall was opened around 2008 to house a new collection of books for the blind. Since the last few months, an NGO sponsors food for students who stay late to study. The building is also used as a polling booth during elections.
Over a period of time, the grandeur of the exterior has given in to utilitarian while adapting to the changing demands of society. The building’s main entry is now from the entrance which was earlier reserved for state guests and important officials. Abandoned steps that marked a separate entrance for women from the rear are rendered useless. The green lawns have given way to venue for exhibitions, political rallies and even a community fair. At other times, they function as a cricket ground for the locals. A shackled and deteriorating wrought iron gate bearing the seal of the province of Bhopal which once admitted the masses to the lawns, lies lost in the hustle of the Itwara road. Likewise, a canopied bandstand had clearly seen better days.
Just across the Bhopal Taal that divides the old city from the new, is another iconic building - Charles Correa’s Bharat Bhawan. Under the prime ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru, a newly independent India carried the vision of a cultural revival. Several institutions were conceptualized to bring indigenous arts and crafts in the urban limelight. The intent was to integrate both people and artisans alike, and to engage in contemporary expression through the verbal, visual and performing arts. Hence, an ‘India House’ or ‘Bharat Bhavan’ was conceived to be setup in every state. Although the initiative eventually lost steam, one successful project emerged – in Bhopal.
Founded in 1982, this Multi-Arts Centre sits inconspicuously at the edge of the Upper Lake and blends effortlessly with the gently sloping Shyamala Hill, the historic seat of administration and civic service departments since before independence. The most pristine views of the lake could be enjoyed from here. The site’s proximity to the then developing New Bhopal, easy accessibility from the major roads and a quiet retreat made it favourable as the proposed site for a centre of creative expression.
In the Charles Correa’s words, ‘The building more or less designed itself’.
The uniqueness of design lies in the utilization of natural contours to create a series of terraced gardens and sunken courts that cascade down to the lake in an elegant composition. Upon entering the complex, one finds oneself on the same level as the access road, directly in sight of the gleaming waters of the Upper Lake and the humble skyline of the old city. The illusion of close proximity of the lake creates a sense of interest while the sudden appearance of wide set of stairs leading to a court below presents an element of surprise. At every subsequent turn at a corner, the visitor is pleasantly greeted with a change in spatial volume- a careful balance of large open spaces with just enough built form around to make the user feel like he is inside the building. Wide, airy openings proportioned to human scale cleverly frame views at eye level, delightfully providing spaces for the eye to wander and the mind to meditate. Stepped seating in sandstone, at times under shade, and a lone tree in every court contributes to the solitude. The use of roughly cut and abundantly available local stone in the retaining walls adds a familiar and timeless appeal to the structure.
The cultural facilities that include a Museum for Tribal Art, an artist-in-residence studio, galleries for Contemporary Art and workshops for sculpture and lithography are arranged around three primary courts. In addition are provided, for the performing arts, the Antarang (Indoor auditorium) and the Bahirang (Open air theatre) overlooking the lake. A library houses a vast collection of books on history, art and culture of Bhopal in vernacular languages like Hindi, Urdu and Bangla among others.
A prominent part of Correa’s design language, open-to-sky spaces, manifests itself in the sunken courts of the complex. Experiential changes in the quality of ambient light and air establish that the sky profoundly affects our relationship with the built-form. In addition, diffused day-lighting in the art galleries is provided by skylights in truncated concrete shells, decorated in multi-coloured mosaic. This recurrent use of verandas, terraced roofs and pergolas similarly finds expression in the State Assembly building in Bhopal, also designed by Correa.
From the road across the lake from Bharat Bhawan, one can hardly spot Bharat Bhawan at first glance. A closer observation reveals hints of the bright shells in the greenery of the hill in the distance. Old timers of new Bhopal fondly recall the regular evening strolls to Bharat Bhawan with their families to enjoy the views of the lake even if no event was being held. By preserving the inherent character of Bhopal’s topography, integrity of the lake and its relevance as a social integrator, Charles Correa’s design intervention does not rob the people of what is truly their own – the purity of environment that had always been, and now, still is. Indeed, Bharat Bhawan comes as a breath of fresh air in the times when, thanks to modern means, many buildings today are designed with form and function over-ruling landscape and climate and in many cases even compromising the interests of the local population.
Every evening, residents can be seen taking casual strolls in the terrace gardens enjoying the unobtrusive flow of cool breeze from the Taal or enjoying the sunset at the lake from the open-air theatre. It is a great spot for spending lazy winter afternoons, perhaps reading. The unobtrusiveness of the setting, amidst old trees evermore lively with flocking birds and the gentle, almost silent rippling lake below, provides a calm atmosphere that encourages one’s creative pursuits such as photography and sketching or perhaps, just deep contemplation. It is a rare space that gives the visitor an opportunity to carve his own space amidst the chaos that has become today. Hence, the masterpiece indeed lives up to being ‘a no building’.
Bharat Bhawan is a busy venue for theatre, dance, music and discourses. Besides regular programs and multi-art festivals, World Poetry Festival, International Print Biennial, Biennial of Contemporary Indian Art, Commonwealth Countries’ Theatre workshop, Jaipur Gharana Music Festival, seminars on Literary Journalism, symposiums on literature, aesthetics and thought, Arts and Film Appreciation workshops etc. are some of the major events organized in the past few years. The recently concluded Bhopal Literature and Art Festival, an annual feature, saw Bharat Bhawan brim with life as students, tourists, artists, performers, politicians, internationally acclaimed litterateurs and journalists engaged in discussions, debates and exchanges. Every year sees rising participation and increased collaborations. The universal ambience appeals to young and old alike. Further, the incentive of free entry every Friday contributes to the success of the project.
Both the buildings, over half a century apart, are a study in contrasts yet parallels in purpose. The success of the buildings lies in the way they add to the experience of users.
Central Library speaks of grandeur and the legacy of its royal past. This is abundantly reflected in its architecture. Bharat Bhawan on the other hand, thanks to its minimalistic and unobtrusive design, does not attempt to be noticed. It was designed as an ode to the common citizen of India and Bhopal, now free to expand his cultural and intellectual horizon after India’s independence. The users’ experience of the Central Library is more intellectual and academic while that of Bharat Bhawan is more experiential and participative. Yet both buildings are immensely owned and prided in by the people of Bhopal and fully engaged by the locals for decades now.
The Library building has successfully undergone a change of function and through the times, people have experienced it in several different ways, making it still relevant. Unless a civic building has a very dedicated function like a Hospital or a Fire Station, it may undergo a change of role in its lifetime. Hence, it will help if the designer bears this in mind and incorporates an element of flexibility or a wider purpose for the building. This will extend the usefulness of the building for society.
The study leads one to believe that if a building exploits the desirable natural elements like the topography and climate through appropriate design and construction as well as caters to the social elements like the people it serves, it can provide timelessness and sustainability to the building while ensuring its engagement by the local population.
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Municipal Map of Bhopal (1918.) National Archives Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.
New York Times book review by Pete Buttigieg of the book, “Palaces for the People” by Eric Klinenberg.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 2017-2019 Cycle
“What Makes a Great Public Place?” – Article by Project for Public Spaces
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