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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When and where do great feats of architecture come about?

by Ajay Shah.
Why do some places achieve great feats of architecture, while others routinely opt for merely functional structures? The economist in me is instinctively unsatisfied at a claim that America lacks great architecture because they have poor taste. Taste-based explanations are a cop-out. Instead, how about the following five angles:
To go beyond merely functional structures requires resources to spare. At low levels of income, people are likely to merely try to get some land and brick and stone together. In these things, we have nonlinear Engel curves. Pratapgarh looks picayune because Shivaji lacked surplus.
The desire to make a statement and to impress
Ozymandius wanted to make a point: He wanted ye Mighty to look at his works and despair. I have often felt this was one of the motivations for the structures on Raisina Hill or the Taj Mahal.
Arms races
There may also be an element of an arms race in these things. Perhaps the chaps who built the Qutub Minar (1193-1368) in Delhi set off an arms race, where each new potentate who came along was keen to outdo the achievement of the predecessor. I used to think that the Taj Mahal (1632-1648) was so perfect, that it could not be matched, and thus it put an end to this arms race. But then I saw the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore (1671-1673), and I had to revise my opinion. We are used to thinking of Aurangzeb as a bit of an ayatollah, but in the Badshahi Mosque, there is genuine beauty, and more than a hint of rivalry with the Taj Mahal. And that same arms race may have mattered all the way into the 20th century: perhaps if Delhi/Agra/Lahore had not been strewn with majestic structures, the British would have approached Raisina Hill (1912-1931) differently. In similar fashion, perhaps the great cathedral building of the European continent had an element of an arms race, where each team was keen to outdo all that had come before. As in biology, it is hard to predict where an arms race will erupt, but one can argue that if and when some quantum fluctuations set off an arms race, then it can lead to great flourishes of architecture.
You only need to impress someone when there is asymmetric information, where that someone does not know how great you are. Shah Jahan needed to build big because the targets of his attention did not know the GDP of his dominion and his tax/GDP ratio. In this age of Forbes league tables, Mukesh Ambani does not need to build a fabulous structure for you to know he's the richest guy in India. A merely functional house suffices; a great feat of architecture is not undertaken.
The incremental expense of going from a merely functional structure to a great feat of architecture is generally hard to justify. Hence, one might expect to see more interesting architecture from autocratic places+periods, where decision makers wield discretionary power with weak checks and balances. As an example, I think that Britain had the greatest empire, but the architecture of the European continent is superior: this may have to do with the early flowering of democracy in the UK.
From this point of view, let's think about architecture in India and China and the outlook for this in the coming decade. China is undertaking great feats of architecture today. What explains this, and how might things shape up?
China's GDP has grown fabulously and has generated this surplus. Perhaps India's new buildings will match up to China's within 10-15 years, when India's GDP matches the present Chinese GDP. But the other four elements of the reasoning go against such a prognosis.
The desire to make a statement and to impress.
The lack of legitimacy of the Chinese State implies that there is a greater desire to impress.
Arms races.
Has there been a competitive element in China's construction, where each person running a project is out to prove he's better than those that came before? And in India, perhaps one or more powerful people could set off an arms race. Gujarat's GIFT project could represent a first salvo of that.
The greater transparency in India reduces the urge for architecture.
The greater accountability in India reduces the outlook for great feats.


  1. Of course, a NREGA kind of motive could not have been there to kick start consumption?

  2. Ofcourse I can check if its true or not, but it doesn't look like better transparency and accountability stopped skyscrapers from coming up in Chicago/New York. Why is that an issue in India? And, perhaps inter-country rivalry can overcome that?

  3. I would strongly argue for peace, as the founding stone of such endeavors.

    Only when peace reigns in one's rule, he is inclined to encourage and patronise fine arts. Key to this, is the fine architectural "ideas" South Indian temples are, primarily as a show off- arms race ,but they also thrived because they didnt have Huns to worry about. For that matter, Hampi.


  4. I would think that even the autocrats and monarchs of time past similar to today's mai-baaps of political hues had to worry about keeping the populace sated to a basic degree. What better way to create jobs (and quell discontent) and redistribute a few morsels than to create structures in your own glory - a trick still evident in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia has problems developing working sewer systems but spends millions on its King Abdullah University).

    While early monarchs such as the Pharos and the Persians resorted to divinity for legitamizing their rule, later rulers had to resort to plain vanilla nobility. Creating grand structures along with patronizing the arts were thus not only useful in providing for jobs but also to maintain an aura and legitimize the rule.

    That this adventure in job creation resulted in a virtuous cycle and increased the GDP was known is unlikely till Keynes had his epiphany.

    @Anon - most of America's grandest architecture was created when the coutry was coming out of a period of rapid growth. Accountability and transparency were also less back then (remember the robber barons).

  5. Anonymous, maybe I'm tone-deaf, but I don't see much architectural variation in skyscrapers. There it's a simple matter of going up vertically when land prices go up. It's mere economics.

    Monika, Yes, it is quite possible that the Taj Mahal was a workfare program. But if that was the sole motivation, why would Shah Jahan go beyond the kind of assets that are being produced under NREG?

  6. But there is (was) a desire to impress (bragging rights for tallest building, make a statement, etc). Skyscrapers themselves are deemed to be an American invention and are "great" examples of architecture. So, that itself is a pretty significant variation right there (even if one were to acknowledge that skyscrapers might all seem like the same and have the concrete jungle effect).

    On the topic of more traditional architectural styles, Washington DC (Capitol and other buildings) would compare favorably with Raisina Hill. Although, the architects were imported from Europe (same as Raisina which is why perhaps they are somewhat similar).

    Then there are lots of grand churches, university buildings, etc, etc as well in the US.

    I haven't been to China and China is undoubtedly pushing the architecture envelope in this period. But, I don't quite agree that the US lacks great architecture. It perhaps lacks enough examples of old/traditional architecture due to its short history - although even there I wouldn't agree 100%.

  7. Mukesh Ambani does not need to but he has indeed built a humongous home (Though from what I've seen of it, it is a stretch to call that hideous building architecture)

    That apart, why do you say China does not have legitimacy? Is it your case then that countries secure in their sense of legitimacy will not undertake such ventures?

  8. Ajay, I did not know about the Badshahi Mosque till I read about it today in your article. Saw pics using Google. Amazing piece of architecture! Thanks.

  9. Ajay

    To add a nuance to your list of reasons - strategically positioned large temples / fortresses can be used to strike fear amongst subordinates/ minorities/ colonial subjects - thereby increasing IRRs of investment by reducing future costs of war?

    - eg abu simbel near aswan by ramses pretty much shut out thoughts of revolt and takeover by nubian subjects and Fulk Nerra's (Anjous, c1000) strategy of castle building...


  10. Is it your case then that countries secure in their sense of legitimacy will not undertake such ventures?

    Yes, I think that when a regime is illegitimate, it is more likely to go after showy displays of power.

  11. Inevitable quote from the movie "The Third Man":
    Harry Lime: Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

  12. @DSDan: Well, Le Corbusier, arguably the most influencial architect of the last century, was Swiss-born.

  13. There is one glaring omission from this discussion...Mayawati's grand structures in Lucknow! I liked this article as it does help throw some light on the motivations behind her undertaking a building project not witnessed in Awadh history since the Nawabs in 17th-18th century. A desire to make a statement and impress; lack of transparency &lack of accountability seem to be apt enough explanation for Behenji’s fetish for grand structures.
    @Monika: Imambara in Lucknow ( is a great example of a food for work scheme. @Ajay: it also shows that both the quality & aesthetics of assets can be better than what are currently being produced under NREG.

  14. One regime built Shastri Bhavan, another built the central vista.


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