The matriarch of American architecture, Julia Morgan, is known to have said, “Architecture is a visual art, and the buildings speak for themselves.” Is it any wonder then that elements of architecture readily and frequently find their way into the work of visual artists? Who can forget artist and activist Vivan Sundaram’s imposing cityscape repurposed from garbage highlighting the responsibility of the architect as a city planner? Or the high rises of Chicago reflected in Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, and the avant-garde lines of artist-architect Vikram Goyal’s sculptural pieces? While some plan their works around architectural elements, others find it creeping into their work subconsciously. But what is it about architecture that so fascinates the artist?
“We look at architecture as being passive, but buildings actively affect our minds and bodies in many ways,” says artist Ayesha Singh. Her latest collection of largescale sculptures titled Monumental Turns currently on display at Nature Morte gallery, is testament to this. As a child, Singh remembers vociferously drawing across the walls of her Delhi home. These scrawls later led to the creation of her most recognisable works—Hybrid Drawings, that are razor-thin “linear sculptural works” in the amalgamated shapes of well-known structures or buildings— giving birth to her experimental sculptural practice in the process.
This exhibition has its own set of ‘hybrid drawings’ capturing the domes and lines of the architecture of Delhi’s past, yet they are distinctive from her usual works. Each of these converges at a vanishing point till they become seamless vertical lines expertly hiding the complexity of their structures at zero point. Another work titled Skewed Histories shows a number of large sculptures at play with each other either directly or indirectly.
There are arches inspired by those dating back to the reign of Alauddin Khalji, such as the one on the southern gateway of the Qutub Minar complex known as the Alai Darwaza. These inverted doorways are decorated with spear-like protrusions, meant to signify lotuses prevalent in the design of the original structures. The second door-like structure is modelled on a darwaza from an old Delhi home built in the Indo-Saracenic style, and the third structure, hanging inverted off the wall is built in the Shahjahani style, mimicking the architecture of Gurdwaras.
Singh draws attention to the fact that one of these is a monument open to the public and traversed by few people, the second denotes a home, which is a private space and sees little footfall, and the third belongs to a religious space where numerous people visit every day. “That’s how they come together and interact with each other. The idea was to look at history through architecture and seek out the malleability of history in the present. The ways in which these different periods of history intersect with one another through architecture are what interest me,” she says.
The exhibition rounds off with a selection of graphite drawings titled Hybrid Amalgamations (histo-futuristic), which draw from multiple influences to imagine dwellings of the future. The last of the works in this exhibit titled Frayed Continuum, is a performance piece. Every Sunday, a machine placed within a decrepit scaffolding-laden room, dips into liquid cement a strange object created by fusing together nine ancient carved wooden fragments sourced from salvage stores around Delhi.
At first glance, these four works may seem disparate, yet each one is bound together by an astute play of light and shadow and most importantly, by the intention of the artist—to preserve histories present in the archaeology that defines the past iterations of Delhi, Singh’s beloved city. She asks, “Can architecture carry histories that even books cannot erase?”
Using architectural structures to make a statement is also the foundation of the work of Rajat Sodhi and Christoph Klemmt of Orproject, an architecture and design practice with offices in London, Beijing and Delhi. Apart from the largescale architectural exhibits this firm is known for, Sodhi and Klemmt have partnered on several sculptural works focused on an ecologic agenda. For an exhibition titled Khôral held earlier this year at Delhi’s Pulp Society, they created a trio of paper sculptures inspired by bleached coral reefs, to highlight the urgency of their disappearance and the inevitable destruction of the ecosystem. LED lights and artful designs gave the illusion of the sculpture being alive, much like its real-life inspiration.
The use of natural elements in the design furthers their eco-narrative. Yet, there are more layers to unpack as well. As avid coders, they create computational designs on which to base their architectural sculptures. Though created by technology, these algorithms are based on the duo’s observations of nature. “We encode this chaos and seemingly random behaviours [of nature’s many forms] into algorithms to computationally bio-mimic and grow similar forms, structures and spaces,” Sodhi explains. As these works were envisioned during the lockdown, this algorithm was inspired by the six-feet equidistance safety rules being enforced at that time for Covid prevention.
The three waist-high paper sculptures were painstakingly assembled using adjoining flat laser-cut strips bent into peculiar shapes and fastened with each other through adhesive flap joints, held in place with paper clips. It was the architecture of nature brought to life through art blending with technology.
“Our architectural practice also focusses on a similar principle. We have built similar sculptures on a much larger scale with different materials to create pavilions that house other exhibits. Our experience of designing those larger exhibits informed our design for these. The urban planning design of a city can be inspired by coral reefs organising mass material and movement. There are many things that can be interconnected, and they all come together,” says Sodhi.
An artist who was led towards her craft by the desire to make sense of the place she inhabited, is Baaraan Ijlal. Hence, ever since her childhood years spent in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, architecture has made an impact. “I see the architecture of the old city as a witness to the evolving site, as a witness to resistance as well as erasures,” she says. This became most evident in her show Hostile Witness, (2021), at Shrine Empire in partnership with her artist-historian brother Moonis Ijlal.
The show consisted of intricately detailed paintings showing a wealth of characters, haunting structures and deep-set narratives based in places that have held significance for Ijlal. The locations played a key role and were carefully chosen by her. As she explains, “These locations face erasure just like the many species that quietly went extinct, like many women go without telling their story.” Each site shown in Hostile Witness is submerged in water to signify the sea of unheard, unacknowledged stories that will certainly wash away with water. “Look where we are as a species, we are living in an extraordinary moment when the planet’s architecture is reconfiguring. The site is evolving. Where will our unarchived bodies and their unacknowledged stories go? Hence there is an urgency to witness them,” says the artist.
In her paintings, prominent structures like the Iqbal Maidan in Bhopal, the Diwan-e-Aam in Delhi, Chowringhee in Kolkata, and Esplanade Mansion formerly known as Watson’s Hotel in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai are foregrounded by hundreds of active figures. “Once I started visiting more of these sites, I learnt so many stories. Take the example of the former Watson’s Hotel. People shared their narratives of erasures, people who lived there but felt they weren’t accepted. These narratives of everyday erasures don’t make it to the city archives.”
As a child of the 1980s, Ijlal bore close witness to many tumultuous events in her home city, including surviving the Bhopal gas disaster and communal unrest. “What stayed with me over the years was how the city witnessed these events and how I, as a part of the city, witnessed these events. Maybe sometimes we forget, but places never forget,” she says. Other abstractions that informed her process included looking at violence and how it seeps into the ground, such that when you start digging, layers and layers of erasure of violence come forth.
“The idea was to look at history through architecture and seek out the malleability of history in the present. The ways in which these different periods of history intersect with one another through architecture are what interest me,” says Ayesha Singh, artist
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“Is violence inherent in the plan of a city?” is the question Ijlal seeks to ask through Hostile Witness. Answering it in the same breath, she says, “Who makes the plan of the city, who is included, who is kept out of it, how far can the human species go as colonisers in pushing every other being out of the plan of this city? The locations of these sites are of great relevance in the telling of these narratives. When you dig deep, the fragile structures, the people who live around these sites narrate the stories of loss, of everyday conflicts, of desires under wraps, of violent endings, of the conflict that comes with social licence. This too is an aspect of a site,” she says.
It was the attempt to capture the loss of space that led artist and sculptor Jahangir Asgar Jani to work on his series of watercolour paintings titled Pareidolia: Songs of (Dis)Belief displayed at gallery Latitude 28 last year. Having lived in spacious bungalows during his childhood in Bombay and Khandala, Jani became accustomed to large spaces. Over time, and owing to constrained economic conditions, he moved to a single-room tenement. This narrowing of space strengthened his longing for larger spaces.
“I had a sort of nostalgia for the larger space. In Mumbai’s chawls, entire families exist in single rooms, and the outdoors are part of your house. There is no boundary that allows you to define what you call home, as opposed to someone who lives in a palatial home where the boundary is concretised,” he explains.
This desire to capture the largeness of a dwelling shows through his whimsical paintings where Arabic calligraphy doubles up as the sharp lines of a structure, set in defined architectural grids. Jani was first drawn to architecture while in a relationship with an architect, for whom he would draw. Having developed a skill for drafting along the way, he began to understand the principles of architecture and the considerations of it. Hence, even if he attempts to consciously avoid bringing in the architectural elements, they are deeply rooted in his subconscious.
“I see the architecture of the old city as a witness to the evolving site, as a witness to resistance as well as erasures,” says Baaraan Ijlal, artist
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“I never knew my exposure to architecture would manifest itself in this way. When I was painting figurative works, there were situations where the interiors of rooms, flying buttresses, arches, etc., would enter my work on their own. It is my karmic makeup to always be a seeker, and perhaps this search for the architectural form in my work continues subconsciously,” he says.
Whatever the reason for the presence of architecture may be in the works of these and other artists, there is no denying the associative connotations held by structures and their influence on creativity. Singh elaborates, “We don’t notice how our interactions change in the presence of built structures. We react to them subconsciously and don’t give them much importance, yet every building, every structure has been planned and executed with a clear intention and guides us in our interaction with it.” The same can undoubtedly be said of art.