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An architectural link between masala dosas and war

The unlikely potentials of Otto Koenigsberger’s shrinking heritage
Rachel Lee

Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

architecture coloniale, patrimoine

Index by keyword :

colonial architecture, heritage

Indice de palabras clave :

arquitectura colonial, patrimonio

Schlagwortindex :

Kolonialarchitektur, Erbe

Index géographique :

Inde, Bombay, Bangalore

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle, Seconde Guerre mondiale

Personnes citées :

Koenigsberger Otto (1908-1999)
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Texte intégral

1In my experience, the process of conducting architectural historical research is not smooth. It cannot be accurately planned in advanced, or broken down into a precise schedule of hours to be spent in archives and libraries. It is a messy undertaking, an ungainly stumbling from one potential source of information to another, whereby unlikely connections are unearthed and dirty data are harvested. Cleaned up, cross-checked and organized into a narrative form, the ensuing collage is less the result of the rigorous proving of an objective hypothesis than an attempt to understand the significance of a portion of interwoven past realities that have been pasted together subjectively. As well as addressing the foibles of historical research, this work-in-progress paper attempts to address the consequences of some of the paradoxes such research can uncover.

2My research on Otto Koenigsberger’s architectural and planning work in India began with a trip to London, where I hoped to find an archive. According to the University College London website, material pertaining to Koenigsberger was kept at an address in Hampstead–300 West End Lane. Expecting a branch of the UCL library, I was very surprised to discover what appeared to be a private residence. I was even more startled when an elderly woman with a shock of unruly white hair and a sceptical look in her eye opened the door. After a flustered introduction on my part, and having convinced her that no, I was not looking for a job, she beckoned me inside.

3Hung prominently on an elegant pale grey wall between bookcases and patio doors, in what looked very much like a living room, was a striking photographic portrait of Nehru, erstwhile Prime Minister of India. “That’s Nehru,” I spluttered, pointing in his general direction. “Well, yes,” she replied, as if it went without saying. It was then that I slowly began to realise that the custodian of the archive was not a librarian, but Otto Koenigsberger’s widow, Renate Koenigsberger.

Figure 1: The portrait of Nehru by RR Bharadwaj. Nehru gave it to Koenigsberger in 1953.

Figure 1: The portrait of Nehru by RR Bharadwaj. Nehru gave it to Koenigsberger in 1953.

Source: Rachel Lee.

Figure 2: Renate Koenigsberger in her study.

Figure 2: Renate Koenigsberger in her study.

Source: Rachel Lee.

4As the scepticism waned and a trust between us grew, over the next few years Renate gradually revealed Otto Koenigsberger’s archive to me, allowing me to photograph the contents and 'appropriate' them for myself. Renate’s organisational system was not particularly methodical. There were ancient portfolios stuffed behind filing cabinets, boxes of old snapshots and box-files of papers and yellowing correspondence distributed around her home. A box containing material relating to what Koenigsberger perceived as his biggest professional failure was hidden at the back of her wardrobe. Few drawings had survived, and there was no catalogue of works.

  • 1 Over the past century, Bangalore’s population has grown from 720,000 in 1901 to around 8.5 million (...)

5Because of the incomplete nature of the archival material, an important part of my evolving research methodology has been to find, visit and document as many of Koenigsberger’s buildings as possible, the majority of which he built between 1939 and 1948 in Bangalore, south India. Due to the lack of historical maps, limited local knowledge and impenetrable (for me at least) local archives, as well as the tremendous growth the city has experienced1 and constraints in time and budget, fulfilling this objective has not been easy, but it has been highly enjoyable. The sense of gratification to be had, for example, in finally marching up a hill towards a Koenigsberger-designed Tuberculosis Sanatorium, having scanned and studied out-of-focus black and white negatives, consulted books and articles, talked with local architects and retired doctors, scrutinized google maps, battled through rush hour traffic in an auto rickshaw and successfully convinced the driver to drop me off in a far flung corner of the sprawling grounds of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, is perhaps not one that can be shared, but is unparalleled, nonetheless. Much as I would have liked to, my intrepidness did not extend to inspecting the interior of the sanatorium, which still functions as a treatment centre for TB - there are limits.

Figure 3: The TB Sanatorium, which was completed in 1948.

Figure 3: The TB Sanatorium, which was completed in 1948.

Source: Otto Koenigsberger’s Private Archive.

Figure 4: The TB Sanatorium in 2012.

Figure 4: The TB Sanatorium in 2012.

Source: Clara Berger.

6While most of my forays into the endangered realm of Bangalore’s architectural heritage resulted in the discovery of buildings by Koenigsberger in various states of obliteration, renovation, modification and reincarnation, I was generally intrigued and surprised by what I found. In many cases I was glad to see that Koenigsberger’s work continued to serve a purpose, albeit in a changed form to what he had originally intended. The transformation of one building, however, shocked me. The uncovering of its story, the process of which underscores the haphazard character of architectural historical research, provoked me to consider the reuse of buildings and whether there is such a thing as inappropriate appropriation.

Masala Dosa with Hydrogen on the Side

7On my first visit to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), India’s first post-graduate research university, which was established in 1909 due largely to the generosity and dogged determination of the Tata family, I was eager to find Koenigsberger’s Aeronautics Department (particularly the closed circuit wind tunnel, which was the first to be built in India) and the Dining Hall/Auditorium, wholly unaware that Koenigsberger had designed a number of other buildings on the extensive and leafy campus. However, hot, tired, hungry and disoriented from the long auto rickshaw ride, before getting down to some serious research, I decided to revive my spirits in a lively cafeteria I had spotted close to the entrance gates. At the counter I chose a masala dosa and sat down at a shady table.

Figure 5: A masala dosa.

Figure 5: A masala dosa.

Source: Rachel Lee.

8After devouring the crispy pancake and spicy vegetables, I walked into the cafeteria building, looking for a place to wash my hands. The blue painted walls of the dimly lit central corridor contrasted gloomily with the dappled sunshine of the cafeteria’s terrace. Heading towards the light at the opposite end of the building, I walked past a room full of sewing machines, the low ceilinged offices of the pensioners’ association, a travel agency and a bookshop. In the bookshop I enquired about the bathrooms. The owner pointed back down to the gloom at the other end of the corridor. Reaching for a packet of tissues, I thought, “thank goodness Koenigsberger did not design this strange building,” and stepped out into the sunshine.

Figure 6: The gloomy central corridor and the sewing machine room inside the peculiar building.

Figure 6: The gloomy central corridor and the sewing machine room inside the peculiar building.

Source: Rachel Lee.

9Last summer, I returned to the IISc hoping to find the Metallurgy building and visit the newly established university archive. As I walked past the cafeteria, I made a mental note to later have lunch there. And then I stopped in my tracks. The proportions of the tower above the whale-tail entrance canopy looked almost identical to those on an uncaptioned photo I had found in Koenigsberger’s archive. Venturing around the back, I recognized a rather ominous facade I had seen on another loose snapshot.

Figure 7: The entrance area circa 1968 (left) and in 2012 (right).

Figure 7: The entrance area circa 1968 (left) and in 2012 (right).

Source: Otto Koenigsberger’s Private Archive and the author.

Figure 8: The ominous facade photographed in the 1940s (left) and in 2012 (right).

Figure 8: The ominous facade photographed in the 1940s (left) and in 2012 (right).

Source: Otto Koenigsberger’s Private Archive and the author.

10But what on earth was it? Why the dingy central corridor (a very atypical feature for Koenigsberger)? Why the small windows? Why the dominant chajjas? Why the entrance tower? Koenigsberger was a functionalist, so why was the original function not legible from the built form? Could it have been part of the elusive Chemical Engineering Department? Or the Foreign Language Section, which was also built in the 1940s? Neither the archivist, nor the Public Relations Officer, nor the bookstore owner could help me.

11The original use of the incongruous building remained a mystery until I returned to Berlin and examined the old photographs with the help of Photoshop’s shadow correction tool. Piled in the grass in front of the building were long cylinders, the type of cylinders used for storing gas. Gas? Slowly it dawned on me. The building must be the 'hydrogen plant' listed on Koenigsberger’s CV. But what was a hydrogen plant? And why was it at the IISc? At this point in my research, I turned to BV Subbarayappa’s privately circulated book In Pursuit of Excellence: A History of the Indian Institute of Science that I had been given by Nirmala Das of the IISc’s archive and publications cell.

Figure 9: The Hydrogen Plant in the 1940s, with hydrogen cylinders stacked up outside. This end of the building now houses the cafeteria.

Figure 9: The Hydrogen Plant in the 1940s, with hydrogen cylinders stacked up outside. This end of the building now houses the cafeteria.

Source: Otto Koenigsberger’s Private Archive.

  • 2 B. V. Subbarayappa, In Pursuit of Excellence: A History of the Indian Institute of Science, New Del (...)

12According to Subbarayappa, the British Government of India commissioned the Hydrogen Plant at the IISc during the Second World War. While the IISc was involved in the war effort in various ways—e.g. processing the “gland products” of 200,000 animals, manufacturing large quantities of carbon-composition resistors and helping Mysore State meet the army’s demand for malt2—the Hydrogen Plant seems to be the only building constructed at the IISc campus explicitly for military purposes.

  • 3 Ibid., p. 174.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 174.

13At the 'request' of the Air Headquarters of the Royal Air Force, the Hydrogen Plant was built to enable the large-scale production of hydrogen, and, once it was fully operational, the plant was capable of producing 20,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas per month.3 What exactly this hydrogen was used for is not known, but it may have been added to petrol to improve its octane content, making it suitable for use as aeroplane fuel. Interestingly, the Hydrogen Plant was designed so that it could be converted into a laboratory for applied physical chemistry after the war.4 But a cafeteria? Although very prescient, this was taking molecular gastronomy too far!

Figure 10: Prakruthi Vegetarian Restaurant, 2012

Figure 10: Prakruthi Vegetarian Restaurant, 2012

Source: Rachel Lee.

14Prakruthi Vegetarian Restaurant is located at the eastern end of the building. The cafeteria’s servery, where wadas, sambar and coconut chutney are piled onto plates, is marked by a large opening through which the military hydrogen was probably loaded onto trucks for transportation to the nearby aeroplane factory. If I had discovered this when I was enjoying the masala dosa, I suspect it would have stuck in my throat. However, the metamorphosis from Hydrogen Plant to cafeteria is convincing and complete – much more so than the appropriations by sewing machines, travel agencies and the pensioners’ association in the rest of the building – and probably due to flexibility induced by spatial redundancy rather than an immanent polyvalence in Koenigsberger’s plan. Observing the building from the terrace of the cafeteria, there is not a strong impression of parallax. The cafeteria could always have been a cafeteria.

15It is fascinating to see the buildings Koenigsberger designed be evolved, appropriated and reincarnated by their users. Indeed rather than argue for their careful restoration and preservation, I would tend to align myself with Roland Barthes in Death of the Author:

  • 5 Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, Stephen Heath (ed.), London: Fontana press, 1977, p. 148

a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.5

  • 6 Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?,” [1rst published in French: Qu'est-ce qu'un auteur ?, Bull (...)
  • 7 Slavoj Žižek, “The Architectural Parallax,” in Nadir Lahiji (ed.), The Political Unconscious of Arc (...)

16Transposing this idea from literature to architecture implies that the architect/client (author) is not seminal in understanding or experiencing the architecture produced. It is the user that supplies the meaning. Michel Foucault also argued that an author is not a source of infinite meaning, but in fact a way to constrain the proliferation of meaning.6 And Michel De Certeau contested that places only become spaces through the activities their inhabitants practice within them – something that Henri Lefebvre saw as the only means of tackling functionalist domination and fragmentation. More recently Slavoj Žižek applied the concept of “ex-aptation,”7 to architecture, whereby pioneering users exploit 'in-between,' interstitial, leftover spaces, unlocking previously unrecognised potentials of the built environment. Although this concept may be useful in explaining and supporting the Hydrogen Plant’s transformation to a cafeteria, it does nothing to address the building’s historical meaning(s).

17Should the patrons of the cafeteria be made aware—possibly by way of a commemorative plaque welded to one of the old hydrogen cylinders, if any have survived—that the building, which is now home to lunchtime gossip, exam preparation and flirtations, once accommodated part of Britain’s World War II infrastructure? Does the fact that the building contributed to a war in which 87,000 Indian troops who fought for the colonial power were killed make a difference? Should the diners know that, by means of the built structure surrounding them, the masala dosas they are consuming are tenuously linked to the tragic deaths of up to 2,500,000 Indian civilians that were directly caused by imperial Britain’s wartime policy during the Bengal famine?

18In cases such as that of the Hydrogen Plant, while the current cafeteria function is clearly viable and even desirable, to remain ignorant of the reasons behind the building’s construction and the contentious purposes it originally served, is to deny the depth and narrative potential of the seventy year-old structure. At the most, walls can mumble. An aim of architectural historical research, however messy, should be to make them speak.

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Notes

1 Over the past century, Bangalore’s population has grown from 720,000 in 1901 to around 8.5 million at present. Behind Mumbai and Delhi, Bangalore is currently the third largest city in India.

2 B. V. Subbarayappa, In Pursuit of Excellence: A History of the Indian Institute of Science, New Delhi: Tata McGraw-Hill, 1992, p. 173-5

3 Ibid., p. 174.

4 Ibid., p. 174.

5 Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, Stephen Heath (ed.), London: Fontana press, 1977, p. 148

6 Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?,” [1rst published in French: Qu'est-ce qu'un auteur ?, Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, vol. 74, n° 22, juil.-sept. 1969, p. 73-104] in Dana Arnol (ed.), Reading Architectural History, London: Routledge, 2002, p. 81.

7 Slavoj Žižek, “The Architectural Parallax,” in Nadir Lahiji (ed.), The Political Unconscious of Architecture: Re-Opening Jameson's Narrative, Farnham (Surrey, U.K.); Burlington (Vt.): Ashgate, 2011 (Ashgate studies in architecture series), p. 293.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: The portrait of Nehru by RR Bharadwaj. Nehru gave it to Koenigsberger in 1953.
Crédits Source: Rachel Lee.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/395/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 16k
Titre Figure 2: Renate Koenigsberger in her study.
Crédits Source: Rachel Lee.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/395/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k
Titre Figure 3: The TB Sanatorium, which was completed in 1948.
Crédits Source: Otto Koenigsberger’s Private Archive.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/395/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k
Titre Figure 4: The TB Sanatorium in 2012.
Crédits Source: Clara Berger.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/395/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 24k
Titre Figure 5: A masala dosa.
Crédits Source: Rachel Lee.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/395/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
Titre Figure 6: The gloomy central corridor and the sewing machine room inside the peculiar building.
Crédits Source: Rachel Lee.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/395/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k
Titre Figure 7: The entrance area circa 1968 (left) and in 2012 (right).
Crédits Source: Otto Koenigsberger’s Private Archive and the author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/395/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k
Titre Figure 8: The ominous facade photographed in the 1940s (left) and in 2012 (right).
Crédits Source: Otto Koenigsberger’s Private Archive and the author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/395/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k
Titre Figure 9: The Hydrogen Plant in the 1940s, with hydrogen cylinders stacked up outside. This end of the building now houses the cafeteria.
Crédits Source: Otto Koenigsberger’s Private Archive.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/395/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Titre Figure 10: Prakruthi Vegetarian Restaurant, 2012
Crédits Source: Rachel Lee.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/395/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 21k
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Référence électronique

Rachel Lee, « An architectural link between masala dosas and war », ABE Journal [En ligne], 3 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2013, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/abe/395 ; DOI : 10.4000/abe.395

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Auteur

Rachel Lee

PhD Candidate, Habitat Unit, Technischen Universität, Berlin, Germany

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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