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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 21, Dated May 31, 2008
CULTURE & SOCIETY  

FUTURE SYSTEMS

A building by ‘starchitect’ Swiss duo Herzog & de Meuron is coming to Kolkata. LAKSHMI INDRASIMHAN reports

Herzog & de Mauron National Stadium, Beijing

AMONG THE sundry things to keep in mind when planning a world class museum is the fineness of the ‘container’. The shell of glass and metal and concrete needs to transcend its materials to be as stirringly iconic as any work it shields. And if your intention is to create something to rival the Tate Modern, the most popular museum in Europe, what makes simple, stunning sense is to hire the same team of architects. The Pritzker Prize-winning duo of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have just received the commission to build the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art (KMOMA). Labelled, somewhat exaggeratedly, as India’s first piece of modern architecture since Le Corbusier designed Chandigarh in the 1950s, KMOMA hopes to be among the most striking buildings in Asia when it opens in 2013.

The work of Herzog & de Meuron rank among the most striking architectural monuments of the current century. The bird’s nest inspired National Stadium in Beijing. The Prada store in Tokyo. The Tate Modern, their first large scale project and considered among their most accomplished works, opened in 2000, rose from the ruins of the dilapidated Bankside Power Station to see over 5 million visitors a year. They are known as much for transforming existing structures with outer “skins” as for designing buildings that for all their expressiveness retain a particular geometric hauteur. Rakhi Sarkar, Managing Trustee of KMOMA, hopes this new building will make India an important stop for enthusiasts of modern design. Just as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao turned a sleepy, crime-ridden Spanish town into a necessary stop on the cultural map, so Kolkata too hopes to experience a cultural rejuvenation with a museum of such visible stature. Not to mention what is inside.

The two year long selection process saw the board looking for a team with global experience, particularly in Asia, and with world class museums in their repertoire. Those on the short list included “starchitects” like Renzo Piano (the Centre Pompidou) and Gehry. “We intended to create an architectural monument that would be one of the finest containers in Asia; that would be important for India, and also put a new focus on architecture here,” says Sarkar. With an infrastructure budget of Rs 200 crores, (and a total budget of 550 crores) this ambitious project is unique in India. With galleries for Indian, Far Eastern and Western art, as well as an academic section, the board intends to recruit internationally and to pay salaries commensurate with similar institutions around the world. The building’s design will be developed over the next six months.

Interestingly, there has also been considerable support from the West Bengal government. (They raised Rs 137 crores and have representatives on the board.) “Along with industrialisation, cultural projects are also vital for a city’s rejuvenation, and they’re willing to invest to improve cultural tourism. It’s difficult for the government to manage such a project at the microlevel, so they are happy to get into a private partnership,” says Sarkar.

In recent years, China has become the site of the newest, most experimental architecture in the world. While Indians have shown nowhere near the avant garde taste or appetite for risk-taking as the Chinese, the wholesale creation of such a museum in India points to a new mood. “It is possible that the kind of deconstructivist work for which Herzog & de Meuron are known may push up the register of what we can expect from our own architects,” says Jagan Shah, architect and author. “The arrival of one of their buildings here will shake our sense of what makes a building, what a building looks like. There are barely any Indians working in this minimalist, and for lack of a better word, high tech aesthetic. But I’ll wait to get excited till after I see the building.” •

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 21, Dated May 31, 2008

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