Thursday, December 9, 2010

"Symbols of State" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

Published in Architecture Plus Design January 2009

Symbols convey messages through visual images, verifying the old adage that one image says more than a thousand words! The Ashokan pillars, placed strategically within the Ashoka’s empire carried his axioms of law, and heralded his state. The wheel of life, “Asoka Chakra,” the lions and the lotus are emblematic of the modern day Indian state. Gandhi overlapped it with his symbolic spinning wheel, implying self-reliance and the Chakra all in one. So much did it symbolize the essence of the Indian state that the Republic of India draws on its strength even until this date!

In Lutyens’ construction of a meaning system in the form of New Delhi, he drew on this powerful imagery vide the gift of the Maharaja of Jaipur, of the famous Jaipur Column. As the center piece of the national capitol complex, it gathers within it the mimicked meaning system of the ancient Ashokan pillars.

An image becomes a symbol when that image merges with “a meaning system” indelibly in the public mind. This flows into the Indian national flag where, again the Chakra (wheel) is centre place, and on to the basic denomination of currency where the column appears again, and so forth. Thus, an architectonic emblem has come to represent the very concept of the Indian nation state.

Media tsars would call this process of blending a meaning system into a symbol of a “product” as a branding experience, and would carefully articulate the embedding of the symbolic logo intrinsically through the brands’ knowledge system. Here an explicit attempt is made to merger a logo, icon or symbol, along with its implicit meanings, into the public’s mass psychic and national culture.
Time is an essential component of this process, as state symbols gain legitimacy through references to ancient values, monuments and historical moments of national glory, “piggy backing” ideas, one upon the other, seamlessly making the present an unquestionable outcome of a manifest national destiny. Historical reference, real or purloined (as in the case of the fascist “lifting” of the Swastika and re-inventing it as the symbol of Aryan purity and national socialist unity) is an essential element of a legitimate symbol of state. The longevity of a nation state cannot be dependent on so fragile a concept as a government, which may rise and fall, wither and reappear, through the avatars of political parties and charismatic leaders. The state gives systemic structure to a system of ever-changing governance, protecting cherished values and due processes of law, while facilitating seamless changes between ruling groups of people. Thus, symbols of state gift permanency and strength over time to a system that is inherently fraught with divisiveness, intrigue and self-destruction, pulling the idea of nation with timeless unity thorough the vagarities of time itself.

It is therefore important to articulate the distinction between a “state” and a “government!” The former is an implicit concept of essential modalities of ruling, which may be inscribed in a constitution (or not as in the case of the United Kingdom). The latter is the temporal, and always changing, explicit manifestation of ruling, controlling and administrating.

Unlike companies and their products, states are invested with a need for permanency, complexity and size, and thus the state’s “branding exercise” requires humongous, highly complex and permanent icons to sustain them. National capital cities are created, restructured and expanded in order to perform as symbols of state, as well as to function as legislative and executive centers of power. This, along with the creation of capitol complexes, within those symbolic capital cities, is the major investment in the enterprise of state making.

Historically, the Forbidden City in Beijing, along with the capitol complex core, composed of symbols within symbols, including the Great Hall and Tiemien Square, stands out as such an historical example, as does the Red Fort of the Moguls and all of the various “cities of Delhi” which appeared and vanished and integrated into the present day metropolis. The attempt at Fatehpur Sikri to crate a new capital city is yet another example that failed.

Sensing its loss of grip on the Indian Empire the British Government set out on the task of creating an imperial symbol of state in the form of New Delhi, and in the creation of the Capitol Complex itself at Raisina Hill. The choice of the Indo-Saracenic style was meant to legitimize the Raj’s “state experience” within the logic of a cultural milieu and continuous historical pale of rule. This suited leaders of the nationalist movement who shared the image of India with the British, as opposed to the reality of Bharat, composed of hundreds of un-governable mini-states. This super-state required a super icon as its leading symbol of state, and the British were creating that, more or less in tandem with, but not in conjunction with, the success of the Independence Movement. Ideals like democracy and socialism that were seeded on British soil were to bloom in the subcontinent as integral to the new meaning system that would become the modern Republic of India.

There is a historical parallel in George Washington’s quest for a new capital of democratic America, named after him, and the creation of New Delhi. Washington realized that a mercantile entrapot such as New York City would corrupt the processes of government and dwarf the iconic statement of the new republic. He also imported an architect, L’ Enfant from France, to layout the diagonal system of boulevards that converge on the Mall, much in the same manner that the Raj Path collects Lutyens’ diagonal boulevards. Paris was, after all, historically an Imperial city of rulers, and not as London and New York, a mere business city of traders. Baker and Lutyens, along with all the others who participated in the plan formation, drew heavily on the French model of boulevards, visual corridors, and monuments creating alignments upon symbols of state and axial terminuses upon historical references that were laced with grand parks, squares and arcades. The plan for the District of Columbia in America was a clear reference.

The fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, prepared the rise of Auto Turk, who was driven to create a modern, regionally balanced nation, with a new capital, Ankara, in its center, and away from the corrupting influence of Istanbul. Australia selected its new capital site and began work at Canberra.

The post colonial era was truly a season for capital city building, as the enterprise of state making became a global one. The branding experience of a capital city was by mid-Twentieth Century a time tested strategy to thrust the meaning system and grandeur of the state upon the public iconography, sub-consciousness and working values. Nehru employed it at the regional levels in Bubaneshwar, where Otto Koeningsberger prepared the plan, and in Chandigarh where Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry implemented the capital plan, brining in Le Corbusier to design the capitol complex. Gandhinagar followed in Gujarat as part of the partition plan of the erstwhile Bombay State.

Pakistan, Nigeria and a host of other emerging nations set out to create symbols of state in the form of capital cities. Oscar Niemeyer’s plan for Brasilia and his exuberant capital complex geometry captured the national imagination.

Equally important was the emphasis given to the actual capitol complexes, formed of symbolically conceived layouts. The Assembly at Dacca by Louis Kahn, Jeffery Bawa’s island complex and more recently the new capital of Malaysia at Patra Jaya caught the worlds, as well as their respective nation’s’, imaginations, acting as a kind of stamp of legitimacy.

In Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom the size of Switzerland, the Wangchuck dynasty embarked on a nation building exercise beginning in the 1950s, when the seat of governance was shifted to the Thimphu Valley, where the vast fortress-monastery Trashi Chhoe Dzong was rebuilt to house the royal government. Soon the requirements for space forced the secretariat to spill out into a village of cottages in front of this national icon. The valley sprinkled with villages morphed into a small town. By the year 2000 Thimphu had a population of 47,000 people concentrated in traditional villages and spread along the Wang Chhu River. The need to restructure the emerging city, paving the way for modern infrastructure and amenities, resulted in the inviting of expressions of interest from international consulting groups. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kamsacs in Denmark and Christopher Charles Benninger Architects (CCBA) in India, were short-listed, and in June 2001 CCBA set up a studio in Thimphu.

After our selection, I reviewed my own plans for towns in Sri Lanka and India. I looked at the work of my teachers Sert, Gropius, Kevin Lynch and Jane Drew. I revisited the Charter of Team Ten, the CIAM guidelines for urban planning and lessons culled from Sert’s writings. From this I wrote the Principles of Intelligent Urbanism that became a charter of concerns and required actions that would guide our work. The plan that resulted focused on main themes. It sought balance with nature; balance with tradition, regional balance, efficiency, the creation of an opportunity system, the making of open spaces and emplacing of rational transport patterns. It focused on the iconic Trashi Chhoe Dzong and structured urban villages along the river, connected by an Urban Corridor. Large bio-diversity reserves in the form of river front set-backs, forests, open spaces and parks were protected. River-front paths, cycle lanes, parks and gardens were a main theme. Instead of western restrictive zones, the plan was based of facilitative precincts, ranging from sacred precincts to urban villages, to the traditional town core.

As this was the Structure Plan of an existing habitat, patterns had to be discovered from the context and built upon. We found that ancient monasteries, temples, dzongs, chortens and other sacred places were perched on hill tops, or aligned within valleys, in a manner that they were all visually connected. In addition, the sub-valleys of the Thimphu Valley created visual bowls from which vast “barrowed landscapes” could be employed. The geometry of the river-valley, with its tertiary streams and micro-watersheds provided a systemic structure, over-laid by the pattern of visually inter-linked sacred precincts. More than fifty percent of the land is conserved in environmental, river front, recreational and open spaces, making it a unique GREEN CITY focused on the emerging capital complex.

A new capitol complex lies at the apex of the organic meandering river plan. It is composed of the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, with the new Tshechu Cultural Plaza attached to it’s north facade; the Supreme Court further north; the National Council Hall to the east; the National Secretariat composed of ten ministries to the west; and a Monk’s Dharamshala, all inter-linked by gardens, paths and the Wang Chhu river.
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