The death of respected architect Didi Contractor in early July, followed by the destruction caused by flash floods in her beloved Kangra Valley just a few days later, prompts a somber reflection on the state of our constructed landscape and a perfect example of what modern mountain architecture can cause.
It was a stroke of luck that my one and only conversation with the architect was reported (strangely, exactly a year before her death on July 5). As a non-architect with a strong interest in built environments, I was ecstatic to hear Didi (as she was affectionately known) share her experiences in the realms of design and construction of modern mountain architecture. As a self-taught practitioner, translated her vast understanding into lovingly crafted earthly edifices. Hers was an energizing creativity that is frequently associated with larger-than-life individuals, despite the fact that her vision was firmly based in the time-honored rhythms of Himalayan culture.
Forms, Both New And Old
It is a modern-day paradox that the architecture our forefathers recognized as inherent to their landscape has become so strange to us. As a result, when we encounter indigenously created aesthetics today, we are struck by their otherworldly, even “foreign” resonances. This is true in Himachal Pradesh as well as elsewhere. I grew up in the midst of a fast urbanizing trend that quickly blanketed the architectural designs of yesteryear with a sheen of drabness and unsustainablenes.
As I saw the unending growth of unplanned development in the mountains, I was reminded of the words of the great Indian modernist and writer Mulk Raj Anand, who advised the new generation of Indian builders in 1947 against the “tendency of patriotic glorification.” Anand recognized that merely building something “contemporary” without regard for the past would result in a “vulgar show” of “sheer bombast,” and you only had to glance around to see how his advice was swiftly discarded.
Keeping And Letting Go Of The Past
It is not that current Himachali practitioners have forgotten how to work with such forms. Along with Didi’s work, people came across a number of inspiring efforts and minds who are dedicated to the study, preservation, and enjoyment of traditional Himalayan architecture. These include architect-academic Saumya Sharma’s meticulous research on Shimla’s heritage conservation and restoration, Dhruv Chandra Sud’s Spidergrass Collective studio in Shimla, Rahul Bhushan’s “North” center for Himalayan craftsmanship in Naggar (near Manali), and Madhavi Sanghamitra Bhatia’s Sunnymeade homestay.
As the most generally available form of art, architecture necessitates a sensibility that must – and can – be instilled early in life. And, in a harsh, fragile environment like the Himalayas, cultivating sensitive perspectives is even more important.