First published: 20/11/2015
It was really all a question of scale. The Bombay-based architect Charles Correa’s design for the British Council offices and library in New Delhi, which opened last October, is an elegant, five-story cuboid structure with an open facade, behind which are a varied series of verandahs. For me there were two main problems to solve. The first was that the building can be seen from the street obliquely in two directions (north and south), while frontally the facade changes radically as you approach it from the entrance gate. So whatever the nature of my design – which was intended to cover all the surfaces of the stepped back facade – it would have to take into account these multiple points of view and accommodate features such as windows and doors (one of which is the entrance to the library on the first floor, reached by a staircase hidden behind the outermost facade). The other problem was iconographic. It was initially suggested to me that I make a design – “in polychrome ceramics, perhaps?” – of the British flag exploding and reassembling as the Indian flag, to which my reply was a simple “No.”
The technical questions of what materials to use really solved themselves. Given the extremes of the New Delhi climate, a painted mural on an external site was clearly out of the question. Correa’s decision to clad the outermost planes of the facade in pale pink sandstone reminded me of the colored-stone decoration on the exteriors of seventeenth century Mughal buildings, particularly the entrance gateway to Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra and Itimad-ud-daula’s tomb at Agra. I wasted much time with beautiful samples of colored stones until it became obvious that small areas of colour would be meaningless on this building. Perhaps I was influenced by a faint memory of overhearing an articulate dealer in antique Wedgwood who was trying to sell a vase to a client from the east and said, “Black-and-white is so cooling, so refreshing in the heat.”
Perhaps also it was the formalized black-and-white herringbone pattern in marble used as a metaphor for water in the lining of the channels that fed the internal pools and fountains of Mughal palaces. Once this decision was made – however arbitrarily – an enormous tree seemed the only possible subject. Black and white suggest shade and light, which in turn evoke foliage. So I decided on an ecumenical tree of no particular species and no specific symbolism. I am not a symbolic artist. But the building is part of a library, and the tree of knowledge means something to everyone – scholars sit under a tree reading, and people hug the shade to talk, wherever the sun is hot enough.
I then made the design in collage on a model of the building, and it was executed magnificently by local craftsmen, in small rectangular tiles of black Katappa stone and white Makrana marble. When, during the installation, the contractors were asked by passersby what these enormous shapes were, they said, “They are the shadows cast by a giant banyan tree waving in the wind.” Of course they are not, but people got the idea. Because of the receding internal facades the complete design cannot be seen from any one angle; as one walks or drives past it, the shapes appear to move. Without the enormous moral generosity of Charles Correa, none of this would have happened. I cannot imagine any other architect giving so much to a fellow artist.