Are we losing control over our architecture, technology and sense of identity? Or are we developing ourselves to be masters of a postmodern global culture? Are we slowly succumbing to the pressures of an economic and cultural globalization or are we developing skills to inflect the global juggernaut to our ends?
This essay is an attempt to evaluate the current scenario of trends and changes taking place in architecture and construction industry and technology in India largely as a result of the on-going globalization of its economy. The hypothesis here is that technological changes are never neutral and is prompted not so much by economic compulsions alone, but more by external influences and cultural incursions of a global phenomenon. This I believe is first manifested in developing taste cultures and style in the name of superiority of a mythical ‘world class’ and creation of a sign system and myth supposed to be denoting world class and progress. It will be argued that by its very nature, the process, at least in the short run – I think, a fairly long short run even if that be so, will heighten the dichotomies with in the industry and social consumption of architecture as the cost of construction will be rising without commensurate increase in the affordability of large proportion of people. As a cultural phenomenon, if this will create a postmodern society, a la USA, or will it create social tensions in India is something which requires investigation and debate. For the purposes of this paper, we will restrict the arguments only to the building industry.
Globalization means increasing movement of capital, ideas, technology men, products, services across the globe not deterred by the boundaries. It is being legitimized as a phenomenon offering greatest common goods and is being promoted as to have no alternative. Of course no proof is offered. It is like myths; it is a myth; which have its own rational; a modern myth at that.
Globalisation’s legitimization is like that of modernism. Modernism developed challenging the growth of global capitalism, legitimizing itself on the brave new world of science and rational thinking. Capitalism absorbed it and modernism lost its legitimizing power. The failure of modernism is largely due to its failure of its promises; the unlimited progress which will finally eliminate poverty. It did not happen. The globalisation has a similar professed aim, but has been more practical as not to claim any possibility of economic equality or even a reducing inequality. However, it tries to level cultural differences in consumption preferences as much as possible. That perhaps is not an intention but inevitable part of the process.
There may be many routes and agents of globalization, Bretton woods institutions, IMF, World Bank, WTO etc. The goal of the process is same. Triumph of the global capital. Integration of all markets. Finally hegemonic control by transnational corporations, beyond the control of governments and countries. And even political processes. Attempting to level cultural differences and pluralism, much the same way as attempted unsuccessfully by modernism and international style in architecture.
The building industry in India has been a curious mixture having characteristics of agriculture, manufacturing and service sectors. It had been largely informal, and partly formal, offering easy entry for small entrepreneurs and high absorption of unskilled labour. It has high urban and metropolitan concentration .It has also been slow to change, clumsy, partially advanced, having most shrewd and enterprising people, very competitive and even speculative. It is also one of forerunner signs of economic growth – perhaps dubiously so. Its multiplier effect on the economy is among the highest, perhaps. In India govt. spending has been a prime mover of construction in its formal sector. That is changing drastically though.
Building industry as we know has three realms or segments.
1. Sustenance / organic construction – primitive/ traditional/ informally produced/ user involved/ construction as a process largely in rural areas and small towns and also lower sections of metros and cities. Slums. Low income housing. Basically need based.
2. Quasi professional- / professional / Hybrid This segment includes small time builders and contractors operating in small towns and unorganized small project segment of metropolitan cities. At the moment , it is by far the largest segment. There is relative autonomy in this segment today.
3. Professional / Formal/ organized/ industry. This segment is basically profit motivated builder financier related. This segment picks up changes fast. Partly trying to be world class/ global. Capitalist
This segment has developers/ builders, contractors/bui;ders, professionals, semi organized labour, skilled or unskilled.
Building Industry represents a wide spectrum ; land and real estate development. urban development; Infrastructure, roads, rail, airports etc. housing, house building, commercial development,. We are concerned here more with building sector which constitute architecture.
It represents among other things the cultural adaptation of building technology for social and personal space programming. Architecture is cultural expression and expresses social values and ethos. It is a way of putting spaces together and building according to means. It is also a representation of social symbols of status and vanity and power. Architecture have never been dissociated from elite and powerful and the rich. But as cultural text, and as a symbol of status and also because the buildings are needed for human activities, architecture has high influence on the development of our attitudes towards built environment and also as to how cities and towns evolve. Though it is never a one-way influence.
Cultural symbolism of architecture is unfortunately connected to materials, size and myths of the society. It is influenced today more by values for foreign goods and ideas, for fashions and trends, consumerism and the market. Far from satisfying a need for shelter, as built environment, architecture is becoming more of a commodity for conspicuous consumption announcing social class. Different classes have different built environments; houses, markets, hospitals, shops, schools, etc. Objects of consumption have been always objects for conspicuous consumption.
Indian economy has been evolving from a spread out agrarian to an urban and metropolitan centered one. This process has been throwing up challenging pattern of excessively concentrated urbanization. With advent of service sector domination as a result of global influence and IT, this process has further strengthened. IT could have been footloose and need not be tied by physical spatial ties for movement of goods, but it has concentrated more and more in metro centers. It is not the compulsions of the industry or even the lack of basic infrastructure like roads, and power that made IT sector to be concentrated on metro regions, but the social compulsions of the human capital manning the industry to be in places of consumer excitement and perhaps the need for higher social infrastructure, technological interface and connectivity that made it so. One can certainly expect this process to continue with more vigour with the globalization and more integration of the economies globally. More so with higher proportions of transnationals arriving here.
Impact on technology and architecture
This process of globalization, and the resulting service sector centred urbanization which evolves unabatedly is leading to a systemic changes in the industry and architecture as part of the evolving conundrum of social and cultural hiatus. Architecture and technology plays a significant role.
The process of commodification of culture and heritage is the forerunner. No heritage or cultural artefact will be preserved or continue to evolve unless they fit in the global economics or can be globally sold. That itself pre-empts any lasting preservation of a local tradition or heritage, except as a curious museum piece. Cultural artefacts, which include architecture, have meaning per se only in a place context. If projected on a global scale it can survive only as a commodity. That is what is happening to architecture. It is becoming a commodity at local individual building level and at the global cultural artefact level as well. At the local level it is connected with the creation and consumption of spaces for individuals and groups and status symbols for classes and at the global level creating cultural values and therefore economic values as well for certain materials and styles of dubious global class.
Defining an obfuscating “World Class” of architecture and building ( what is it?) as being done today is difficult task. Yet it is being talked about as a goal. World class in manufacturing goods actually means fitting industrial processes and products into global standards set by developed countries especially the EU and US. Its professed purpose is to create competence to sell at global markets. Similar conditions could apply to service sectors as well. But what it means to architecture and environment? The question has muddled answer because built environment is always meant for local consumption and not for exports. Therefore it s consumption is [predetermined by local taste culture. World class in architecture and building in practical terms is a projection of manufacturing and service norms to a cultural practice. It could mean precision of joints, low tolerance, and finer finishes and therefore lesser dependence on human skill, more and more mechanization and automation. This is opposed to the aesthetic value for the handcrafted products which has a different levels and value system for finishes and geometry. Creation of an aesthetic value for the” world class”, which has been slowly developing over a century or more, is a precondition. The process leads to less and less dependence on labour and time-consuming construction techniques. Technology evolved for labour scarce economies/ capital-intensive construction similar to making of a product and to be marketed.. This suits the formal segment of industry which has higher capitalist mode of production What values inform the aesthetics of “global architecture” . in India except the acceptance of superiority of mass production by machine or the implied superiority of the cultural context of a developed country where from architectural and technological values today originate?
The process is exacerbated by few other things that happens simultaneously. From process to product: Impersonalisation of the process and product is the one. Changing the value of architecture and buildings is influenced more and more by extraneous factors and not intrinsic factors. This is already so. But will heighten further. For example: Value of construction especially of buildings, like other products are not always determined by the cost of production. It is invariably linked to the site and place because the products of construction industry are tied to a place or site. Use value of a constructed building would be more or less same everywhere but the exchange value depends largely on other factors. The place land value, the control systems of the industry, the mythical values of vanity, fear, concerns of status and safety etc. and land values determine the FAR and later the FAR determines the land value in a vicious cycle. All this controlled by real estate market forces and advertisements and marketing promotions, which promise and inflate values on certain aspects of status and vanity.
More and more global capital would move into the building industry. Construction then would be more professionally managed introducing international controls like ISO and other agencies so as to safeguard and institutionalize corporate and professional interests. With 100 % FDI participation in real estate work hungry firms from abroad are sure to get in in a large scale. This would also require smaller construction and design firms getting eliminated from certain segments. Construction projects are becoming bigger and bigger and with global competition possible with GATS the level playing field gets eliminated for a large number of intermediate and smaller firms and companies. They have to become subsidiaries or ancillaries and will have to be subservient to the international capital. Arrival of the global capital brings its own preferences and tastes in architecture brought in by international consultants and accepted by the supporters of ‘mythical world class’.
Higher professionalization in more and more specializations tends to make construction cost increasing with management and service cost spiralling in formal sectors. The free movement of materials, ideas and persons also makes cost attaining global levels slowly and surely. This will make economic and social sense only if the income levels of the majority will match that. That is doubtful as all pundits agree that it will take a long time for growth to disseminate. Initially it may exacerbate the existing hiatus.
However the economy of India cannot be changing in short run to make this scenario possible through out the political and economic space. At least three levels are possible to coexist for a long time.
1. Global tech level:
This level will dominate large projects which are on the increase and metropolitan real estate. The major players will be the MNCs and large Indian companies in the formal sector and also by local companies, and firms aspiring to compete in the global market or the local space of the global market adapt the technological and material preferences. This segment has to be part of a global system of patronage, network and therefore adapt what is perceived and promoted as good internationally without looking into the repercussions on the local society or economy and more so the cultural traits and the architecture.
Creation of a new elite class of individuals, firms with the impact of glitz and glitter changes the technological and architectural programs and representations. First in the builder commercial industrial segment and later in housing segments as well through real estate marketing.
Promotion of a universal building culture opposed to the evolution of plural and culturally different practices. Design development and architecture of this will continue to be controlled from global centers which will produce cultural artifacts for dissemination worldwide through media and pulp and sop. This happens through the metropolitan centers. The myths and icons of new brave world scrounging the elite surface. Aestheticisation without connection to deep structure of culture, like the language we use, will be of surface twists or outright aping.
2. intermediate level
Alternatively, the localized labour intensive informal market will continue in segments which cannot afford to be part of the international or organized formal segment. This segment with its innovativeness and improvisation drastically changing the expected industry standards and blatant violations of property rights and legal and safety standards will thrive on the gullies besides highways of globalization. As it already does. Cheap improvisations of structural glazing and aluminium cladding are already in place. This segment will spatially coexist with the first one patronized by smaller and intermediate size projects. But as already seen its architecture is also influenced by the high tech level.
3. The Folk level:
At the lower level, the traditional folk techniques that will have to continue to exist for the marginalized majority. The totally informal sector which is not going to vanish. This will still continue in rural areas, smaller towns or in housing segments of the lower and middle classes in the metropolitan suburbia as well.
On can lament about this loss of traditional building practices and skills and impersonlising architecture and commodification or one can just shrug the shoulders about the inevitable. One can try to resist and chose to operate in the bare foot economy at level 3 . Or one can resist the juggernaut by trying to inflect it to local conditions at level one. A kind of making the global forces mend ways for local issues. The loss of identities is beginning to kindle nostalgia and therefore the clamour for heritage and conservation. But heritage conservation efforts are also today based on economics; the idea of commerce and profits. It is also ironically a product of international tourism. Heritage is USP. Replicating form without regard for the process or inherent quality of material used. Kolapuri Chappals in plastics.
Organizationally for the profession of design, globalization and higher international integration is likely to change at various levels. As the trend is projects are getting bigger and bigger and the design is no more a personalized single person dominated affair. It is going to be more of teamwork across related professions. The kind of design structure we have been used are changing. If one opts out of this design corporate approach, one has to be content with smaller works at the second or third level of architectural scenarios.
The question is whether it will be possible to integrate all the levels or will they work on different wavelengths.
We are arriving at post modern condition in parts with out even fully going through a developed modern condition. Dichotomous condition has been with us. The hiatus further gets manifested in the architectural and building scene. Shoulkd we be bothered about it? Should we not?