In the winter of January 1954, an exhibition on low-cost housing opened in New Delhi—the capital of a country that had been independent from colonial rule for less than six years. Sprawling in the shadow of a sixteenth-century Mughal monument and organized by the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Indian government, the exhibition was planned in spirit and form by the South African–born British town planner Jaqueline Tyrwhitt. American architect Joseph Stein designed a model home for the exhibition: a spartan low-cost dwelling constructed with rammed earth and featuring bamboo blinds. While discussion of that exhibition makes up only one part of Farhan Karim's clever new book, it accurately captures the dizzying cast of global actors, disparate architectural methods and ideologies, and various experiments in housing design that aimed to alleviate poverty in independent India. Karim synthesizes evidence from an impressive range of sources (including newspapers, government reports, construction industry trade journals, architectural drawings, and photographs) to forward a compelling history showing how housing India's poor became a preoccupation both for the country's leaders and architects and for the United States and international humanitarian organizations. In doing so, he makes a significant intervention in modern architectural history and a major contribution to housing studies.
During the mid-twentieth century, a global nexus of bureaucrats, politicians, and professionals came to see ideal and affordable homes for India's poor as many things: a human right, the locus of moral growth, a bulwark against communism, an engine for rural development, and a site for harnessing the scarce resources of the nation-state and the labor of individuals to generate greater prosperity. Karim's investigation toggles back and forth between various scales: the laboring bodies of the poor, the ideal home, the crafting of a new citizenry, the bucolic village, the nation-state, and the international geopolitical order that encouraged development for its own sake. As the book's title indicates, austerity (the voluntary choice of modest dwellings and a frugal lifestyle) became a key motif in these architectural and planning interventions. Austerity would provide dignity to India's trajectory of modernization, one that had been badly damaged by two centuries of colonization. It would also serve as the spiritual compass for India's development, keeping control over “consumerist and libidinal desire” (148), which was anathema to the country's socialist agenda. Equally, India's austerity would be the spiritual balm for a “soulless” Western modernity that was just beginning to rebuild itself after World War II. Like modernity's other bold albeit ill-fated experiments with habitus, these housing experiments sought earnestly and strenuously to find solutions for the poor, but the answers almost never came from the poor. As Karim shows us, India's poor remained little more than anonymous bodies whose inclinations and identities were marked solely by indigence.
The book's five chapters are arranged around important exhibitions of housing and design that were staged in India from 1918 to 1961. As such, this may be the first monograph to show the intimate connection between the modern exhibitionary complex and architectural innovation in India. The first chapter provides the colonial context for the housing experiments of the later years. Colonial desires to create a more efficient, productive, and docile workforce spawned a range of housing designs for industrial laborers. Equally important was the architectural impulse to contain diseased bodies via salutary housing schemes following the 1896 outbreak of bubonic plague in Bombay. What contemporary readers might in hindsight recognize as the biopolitics of state control was a moral mission for colonial architects, surveyors, and engineers, who saw their designs as alleviating the suffering of the poor.
Chapter 2 illustrates how narrow concerns of colonial administrators regarding profit and the maximization of labor were folded into independent India's nation-building agenda. “Self-help housing” was seen, both by India and by international actors such as the UN and USAID, as the instrument for eradicating poverty and tamping down the threat of communism. Karim deftly shows how exhibitions disseminated messages of progress by encouraging “native populations to desire development” (99). This chapter also presents a sustained analysis of the role that specific construction materials such as reinforced cement concrete and rammed earth played in the aesthetics of austerity.
Chapter 3 offers a valuable investigation of urban thinkers and town planners Patrick Geddes and Tyrwhitt and their efforts to reconcile modernist design with the environmental, cultural, and political exigencies of the Indian subcontinent. Tyrwhitt (a near contemporary of Jane Jacobs and Catherine Bauer Wurster) was profoundly moved by the social and formal arrangement of the traditional Indian village and attempted to translate its lessons for the modern nation-state and the West. In Karim's words: “The village center in particular was not exclusively a prescription for India. Tyrwhitt approached it as an introspective moment for Western designers—a moment of self-reflection—to investigate the possibility of a new model for modernity incarnated in low-cost, nonaffluent housing in the developing world” (124). Designing the ideal Indian village became something of a cause célèbre for contemporary Indian planners (Sris Chandra Chatterjee's incorporation of Hindu aesthetics into utopian planning schemes is particularly illuminating) and for trade organizations such as the Associated Cement Companies, which advertised their technologies as helping to build a robust new nation-state.
Chapter 4 extends the discussion of Indian villages and their influence on planning schemes by examining the collaborations between U.S. aid and funding bodies and the Indian government. A central figure in this chapter is Albert Mayer, who had a close connection with Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister and a champion of state-led development. Mayer was a strong supporter of the neighborhood unit and bottom-up development, which he believed would “modernize the national economy” and “cultivate new subjects of Indian democracy” (169). While development experts such as Mayer sought to nurture grassroots democracy by planning ideal residential environments, they ignored caste-based divisions and the interests of landowning elites, who often profited from the poverty and desperation of Indian villagers. The myopia of modern expertise and the impotence of technocracies is once again evident here.
The book's final chapter makes an unexpected yet valuable pivot from the broader scale of village and community planning by focusing on the material culture of Indian domesticity. Here Karim shows how Indian decor (furniture, textiles, decorative objects) came to be of interest to European and American designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Pierre Jeanneret and to institutions such as New York's Museum of Modern Art. Indeed, the book's poignant title quotes Jeanneret: “Poverty can sometimes give an impression of greater dignity than riches” (221). Western modernists found spiritual succor and aesthetic elegance in traditional Indian manufacture. Equally, the rhetoric of austerity proliferated through the efforts of Indian intellectuals such as Pupul Jayakar and Gira Sarabhai, who called for a new institute of design to be established in their country. Minimalism and austerity were lauded as the hallmarks of Indian domestic spaces and recast as aspirational norms for global modernisms.
Mohandas Gandhi's specter looms throughout this book. His personal asceticism, which became a public spectacle; his ardent belief that India's villages were the spiritual foundations for the modern nation-state; his intense distaste for urban living and bourgeois society; his voluntary adoption and glorification of poverty—these tenets were folded into many of the design schemes developed for the poor in independent India. The results of the impact of Gandhi's charismatic persona on architectural innovation are uncomfortably reminiscent of other architectural modernisms spawned by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Indeed, recent revisionist histories of Gandhi have shown that his utopian visions of sovereignty belied his discriminatory stances on race, gender, and caste.1 While Karim does not unpack how Gandhian austerity calcified caste-based and gendered inequities in the built environment (this is arguably outside the scope of his project), he urges the reader to consider how India's poor were constantly and variously utilized by a range of actors, from architects and planners to national leaders to international bureaucrats.
Karim ends his book on a compelling, if cautionary, note. He points out that self-help architecture, frugal design, and participatory planning are once again gaining traction across the world. The cases of recent Pritzker Prize winners Shigeru Ban (2014), Alejandro Aravena (2016), and Balkrishna Doshi (2018) provide evidence of the current celebration of socially engaged architecture. Yet, as Karim reminds us in the final sentences of his compelling monograph, the discourse of austerity was about the poor, not with the poor, “whose desires for breaking away from poverty were usurped by elites who stripped them of agency in an idealized quest to emancipate them” (268). Such is the triumph of this fine book: it offers at once a global history of India's architectural past and a set of timely lessons for this interconnected architectural present.
See Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2016); Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and The Annihilation of Caste (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017); Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914–1948 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018).