After colonialism, they wanted a new world. Architects built it.

“Woman carrying cement at the Capitol Complex, Chandigarh, India, in front of the Secretariat (1951-58) designed by Le Corbusier” (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, 1887-1965). 1956. MUST CREDIT: Ernst Scheidegger

NEW YORK – Images of construction are among the most arresting details in the Museum of Modern Art’s deep look at modernist architecture in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. “The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947-1985” has a heavy-duty title that suggests an esoteric subject. But this exhibition makes an important argument about architecture and national identity that has immediate and profound implications. It is as relevant today as the war in Ukraine, the agony of Afghanistan and the cultural politics of America.

First, though, look again at how some of the most striking modern buildings in these countries, which were once subsumed into the British Empire, were built. Women carry baskets of mud, concrete or other raw materials. Men squat on the ground, working by hand. Complex structures emerge from within what looks like bamboo scaffolding.

The labor is intense, manual and seemingly at odds with the aesthetic of what is being built, which belongs to the age of machines, jet travel, modern democracy and rapid urbanization. One of the most striking images is a 1969 photocollage of the construction of Louis Kahn’s National Parliament House in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The emerging building seems lost in a jungle of wood or bamboo supports in a fan-shaped collage of overlapping images, as if a single camera or photograph were inadequate to capture the ambition of what is being built. The image embodies the tension between the messy process of construction and the grand aspiration of the building itself, which would eventually house Bangladesh’s national parliament after the country’s 1971 war of independence with Pakistan.

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But it’s also easy to get lost in these images of construction and misread them. Although the exhibition touches on Kahn’s designs for Dhaka, and Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s plans for Chandigarh (one of several planned cities created after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947), the main focus is not on the legendary star architects of the 20th century, but on the designers and engineers from the region. And the larger goal of the show is to invite visitors to unlearn much of what they think they know about modernism as defined in the West, which so often condescends to the global south, Asia and other places it considers “undeveloped.”

So, it’s tempting to read the images of manual labor as a curious glitch in the making of buildings, a local oddity in a process that should be mechanized. A related bad habit is to look at images of modern buildings in the midst of urban bustle – a train station in Dhaka, a flower market in Chennai, India – and regret or resent the seeming clutter or confusion of city life. Modern buildings should be photographed as if in pure silence, isolated and abstract, like sculpture in an art gallery. Both of these tendencies of thought are rooted, in part, in the bias to think that modernism is a rigorous, Western idea imperfectly applied to parts of the world where things like construction seem “messy.”

But, as curator Martino Stierli points out in his provocative catalogue essay, the abundance of cheap labor in South Asia became integral to how modernism developed there, including how buildings were structured by engineers and how they looked after the concrete was poured and dried. And although local architects were in conversation with Western ideas of modernism, and sometimes studied at Western architecture schools, they developed their ideas in parallel with other kinds of modernism – not as imitation or appropriation, but independently, and with their own integrity.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Municipal Stadium in Ahmedabad, India was built from 1959 to 1966. Architect: Charles Correa (1930-2015). Engineer: Mahendra Raj (b. 1924). MUST CREDIT: Randhir Singh

Like all sensible architecture, buildings were designed in response to local conditions. If labor was widely available, and transportation networks inadequate, then it made little sense to use prefabricated parts and ship them to a building site. In other parts of the world, this might have seemed inefficient, but it made sense there and then.

Architecture wasn’t just defined by the local conditions and availability of materials, it was also influenced by the legacy of colonialism. Architects were channeling a larger desire to birth new nations independent of the intellectual, political and cultural domination of the old empire. Perhaps it seems odd that they turned to modernism at all, given how deeply its legacy was embroiled with the history of colonial domination. Civil rights activist and writer Audre Lorde’s famous phrase – “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” – might seem apt.

But while there is a subtle truth in Lorde’s idea, its literal opposite also is true. The best tool for taking apart something is the tool that built it. For a few decades after the end of British rule, modernism seemed the best way to project an idea of cosmopolitanism and independence and, for some, a progressive, secular vision of nationhood.

The stakes were high. The partition of 1947 led to massive displacement and horrifying violence and destruction, with about 500,000 deaths and some 13 million people uprooted from their homes. The need for housing was urgent, as well as new kinds of social cohesion. New cities, new government buildings, new universities, new stadiums, new infrastructure were urgently wanted and rapidly built. The architectural projects in the exhibition range from individual houses to entirely new urban conglomerations.

It’s impossible to look at the utopian impulses in many of these projects and not wonder about places like Ukraine, where massive rebuilding will be necessary after the war, or Afghanistan, where the architectural remnants of previous attempts at nation-building haunt the urban landscape. Modernity seemed so robust when expressed in raw concrete, and so frail in retrospect in the many places where it failed.

Anguri Bagh Housing in Lahore, Pakistan, was built from 1972 to 1973 and designed by Yasmeen Lari. MUST CREDIT: Jacques Bétant/Aga Khan Trust for Culture

The main thrust of the MoMA exhibition ends in 1985, as modernism was fading as the first and obvious architectural response to national ambition. More regional and vernacular ideas were taking hold, along with postmodernism.

More sinister ideas of nationalism also were taking root, and the exhibition includes a dispiriting acknowledgment of how those feelings are playing out today. In the spring of 2017, one of the most important buildings in the exhibition, the Hall of Nations Complex in New Delhi, was demolished by the Indian Trade Promotion Organization. Curator Stierli argues that this wasn’t just architectural vandalism, but a deliberate attack on the “vision of a progressive, cosmopolitan India” that threatens the Hindu nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. More architectural losses are certain, given the prevailing political winds, which are cynical.

But South Asia wasn’t the only place where people dreamed big in the 20th century. Our own infrastructure is decaying, and our democracy is failing to meet the most basic challenges. Nationalism corrupts politics, education and even health care. The last president even attempted to institute a historicist neoclassical style for new government buildings, as part of a quixotic and misguided attack on modernism in public architecture.

Now look at those images of people building Chandigarh. What matters is not how they were building it, but that they were building it at all.

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“The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947-1985”

Through July 2 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. moma.org.

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