Travel, as I have often said to my colleagues, is an excellent means to explore and understand architecture, especially if that has to do with regional values. Last year, after having missed many earlier opportunities to do so, I finally visited the sites of great architectural works of the Mughal Dynasty in India. For most people, the Taj Mahal is a household word. For me it had always been the fore-runner of an argument that mosques and mausoleums are not the same and hence their formal structures cannot share in the semiology employed by modern day designers of religious buildings in the light of Bob Venturi’s “decorated shed” paradigm.
However, beyond buildings like the Taj which sits in it’s pristine glory on a stage-like platform whose monumentality is enhanced by the deliberate masking of scale giving elements at the fore, the stairways, behind blank walls are other sites like Fatehpur Sikri, a hilltop Citadel that was abandoned due to the lack of water supply and Agra’s massive Red Fort where the patron of the Taj, the Emperor Shah Jehan spent his last days imprisoned. There’s more to my visit like the tomb of the Emperor Humayun in Old Delhi, set among axially planned approaches within the Persian “Char Bagh” (four gardens) concept of site planning, and the Qutub Minar complex, also in Delhi, a blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles by the Mamluk Turks that preceded the Persians in India. From there we proceeded to see the pink city of Jaipur and it’s fortresses and museums, and the Jantar Mantar Observatory, an architectural curio, besides it’s typically Indian bazaar with the hustle and bustle of the street being used as a social space full of life.
This article will dwell only on Fatehpur Sikri as an example of the multifarious ways in which architecture may be perceived and experienced. Though the subject is quite vast as to suffer injustice in a short article such as this post, it is nevertheless a reminder to us designers, especially in the West that function alone cannot be the progenitor of form; that climate, site, terrain, vistas to and from, as well as the episodic components of circulation within a domain all come together to form an architectural ensemble. Here, in California, I’ve heard planners and architects reject the idea of building atop a hill. While it is difficult to find a sectional drawing to show the siting of Fatehpur’s buildings atop the hill, it is my contention that this article will help engage local architects in a dialogue that opens up their frame of reference and helps to see that building on top need not be detrimental at all. Sikri is one of the few monumental examples from India that proves so; there are others too many to discuss here.
In it’s purest form, architecture is at best “Composition.” Form is but poetry in space within which the dweller dwells. The sky is also a ceiling while the roof is a facade to it. Neither is mutually exclusive. So is the landscape that surrounds a built form. We as humans are both home bound and horizon bound. Our emotions and activity oscillate between these two extremes. Architectural built form must therefore provide us the tools to engage these extremes and reconcile them meaningfully in corporal ways. Inside and outside may occasionally be stark and occasionally ambivalent, but formal structure that binds these together must be inclusive so that each step from one domain to another is experienced as a place in itself. A door may also be a window while an exit may also be an entrance to another space.
All of these abstract components take form and shape at Sikri bringing together different buildings and elements into a single unified yet diverse form of citadel that lends poetic meaning to the hill it sits on. Fatehpur, the City of Victory, was built by the Mughal Emperor J. M. Akbar who was instrumental in uniting Indians of varying religious connotations, particularly Hindus and Muslims within a single empire, which the British Raj eventually divided and conquered some 200 years after his legacy. He had intermarried with a Hindu Princess called Jodhabai (Mariam-uz Zamani being her Persian title) who bore him a son after much tribulation. The Saint Salim Chisti who Akbar revered resided near Sikri and it is said that when Akbar conquered Gujarat, he built Fatehpur as a citadel to mark his victory and chose the hilly site as reverence to the saint. This citadel includes a Victory Gate, a Mosque, the Saint’s tomb – the only building in white marble, royal residences/quarters, the Emperor’s Personal retreats (Diwan e Khas, Panch Mahal), Jodhabai’s palace, the public justice Court (Diwan e Am), the royal stables, an astrologer’s seat, and a host of galleria that connect the pieces of the ensemble like pearls on a string. It is a classic example of the amalgamation of Islamic and Hindu architectural elements that Akbar, as a great patron of architecture, helped imbibe.
The drama of movement to and within the complex is heightened by shifting axes, both major and minor, coupled with the courtyard planning principles of the Persians and local Hindus. These amalgamate very well in response to both climate, privacy, and multiple vistas. As one circulates within the ensemble and it’s cleverly designed level changes, one realizes that each building within is different yet somehow extremely well connected to the rest. The ever so subtle yet powerful changes in level that separate forecourt or hind court from building or elevated plinths (that just slightly raise each building above its apron) provide boundaries of definition in a vast continuum of spatial interweave and spatial locks, allowing the onlooker to take in vistas from various vantage points. The dynamics of space within is aided by shifting axes that in some respects provide practical adjustments to the contoured terrain for each piece of the ensemble while gesturing the eye to move on to another potential vista or vantage point. Studies have revealed that the entire complex is planned with proportion based on the Golden Rectangle ratio. This aspect is too complex to discuss here.
The whole complex utilizes only two materials: Red sandstone (local) for walls, floors and roofs, and white marble for accented areas. Unity of form and diversity of detail along with the use of hardscape for dramatic scale against a lush countryside resonate along every route a visitor takes inside the citadel. It is the manifestation of Aldo Van Eyck’s words “Man, after all, breathes both in and out; when will architecture do the same?”.
All Photo Credits : Author – for full size and gallery view, click on images