If homeowners in Delhi take great interest in the exterior of their homes, it is only because they wish to exhibit their idea of architectural style to the street. And not merely to give the public an opportunity to laugh, scoff, or admire, as one might think.
The interior of their home is of course another matter. Local taste, personal prejudices and fears of visual deprivation make them do things that could make for innumerable interesting psychological studies on behaviour.
That a flat screen television is placed prominently on the main wall of the living room has less to do with the quality of programmes aired, than the need to display the diagonal width of the screen. Ten years ago, no one in the city could have imagined a chair so unsuited to the human posture as the Shekhawati chair. Now everyone knows. Just because the neighbours have installed a large poster of Niagara Falls in their dining room is reason enough to paste an equally large picture of a New England autumn in yours. It matters little that your home is opposite the Shakur Basti Bus Terminal and is approached through a public urinal. The basic requirements of a home were not of much importance to Louis XIV, why then should they be to yours? All that matters is style.
One of the more persistent legacies of modernism is the instilling of a fear amongst the general public that the architect they employ may not have a style of his own. Before any contract is signed, “What is your style?” is an inquiry that comes with shrill demand.
I often wonder how best to answer such a query. With honesty, or with the flippancy it deserves. If the question comes from a farmer turned garment exporter, I generally say, “Why Punjabi Baroque of course,” and in a tone that suggests, could there be anything better. If, however, it is a well-travelled executive with a laptop and several foreign postings, the reply is usually centered on the need to be traditional with a modern perspective. “We respect history,” I say, and follow it up with, “but we work with straight lines”.
The fear that India — with an 8.2 GDP index — might lag behind in the style market has most of the affluent — whatever their background — scrambling the scales of international design. Every discussion that centres on an architectural desire — a Spanish farmhouse, a palace renovation, a corporate interior — brings out the foreign journal, and an understated request to keep the imitation close to the original. No need to be inventive when innovation has already been achieved; no need to be perfect when perfection is staring you on a glossy double spread. Just copy.
The commission to copy and not ask questions had come some time back when a Punjabi businessman with whom I shared the same last name, had approached me for a duplication of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house, on his plot in DLF Qutub Enclave. He had pushed the journal displaying the building into my face and said, “I want it ditto”. I couldn’t quite comprehend the seriousness of the intent. After all, there he was, a grown man sitting in the office beseeching us to build for him an archaic product out of a foreign magazine. Was he serious? Since he was even willing to pay professional fees for a simple act of plagiarism, it hardly seemed right to point out the ridiculousness of his vision.
But I did, tentatively of course. And to no effect. Our conversations followed a common course.
— I want Monticello, he would say.
— But we have a 2,000-year-old tradition in architecture, I would say.
— I don’t want a Mughal tomb.
— Jefferson’s was a 300-acre plantation, yours in a 500 square yard plot.
— Is that a problem?
— Monticello is a plantation house. It is built on agricultural land.
— You don’t have to tell me about agriculture.
— Good architecture comes from innovation.
— Good architecture comes from good imitation.
If you copy a bad building, your architecture will be poor.
Bhatia’s hankering for a visibly different architecture grew paradoxically with this attachment to an already realised image far away. Any building from a remote corner of Virginia was likely to be an original in Gurgaon. And yet, his vision of displacement, of transplanting architecture wholesale across continents was neither heroic nor original. American millionaire George Vanderbilt had a French chateau copied stone for stone on his estate in North Carolina a century earlier. Vanderbilt’s quest for social respectability forced him into a European seduction to restore his status as aesthete, as easily as Bhatia’s copy of another piece of American history for precisely the same reason. In the fluid world of professional ethics where design copyright has little meaning, the client can rest assured that his will will always be original. If not his architect, he will always have his style.