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Building Calcutta: Construction Trends in the Making of the Capital of British India, 1880‒1911

PhD thesis in Architectural History, under the supervision of Dr Alex Bremner and Dr Dimitris Theodossopoulos, The University of Edinburgh, 2017
Nilina Deb Lal
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Nilina Deb Lal, Building Calcutta: Construction Trends in the Making of the Capital of British India, 1880‒1911, PhD thesis in Architectural History, under the supervision of Dr Alex Bremner and Dr Dimitris Theodossopoulos, The University of Edinburgh, 2017

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1Calcutta of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century enjoyed global stature and connections as a consequence of its position within the British empire. This was the period of mature globalisation. The linkage of economies and growth of trade networks was given unprecedented impetus by accelerating technological advancements. Developments such as the opening up of the Suez Canal and the advent of the telegraph, railways and steamships resulted in an ever-increasing flow of capital and goods, knowledge and personnel. This dissertation by Nilina Deb Lal, Building Calcutta: Construction Trends in the Making of the Capital of British India, 1880‒1911, seeks to comprehend the architectural legacy of the period from within the discipline of construction history—identifying trends and situating the findings within a wider geographic as well as sociological context. The proposed thesis underlying the research is that Calcutta’s built environment bore witness to the intense traffic of ideas, people and goods characteristic of the era.

2Analysis of the title of the dissertation provides a preliminary insight into the scope and aims of the research effort. The first part of the title, Building Calcutta, is intended to convey the breadth versus the particularity of the dissertation. Positioned at the crossroads of architectural, engineering, social and economic histories, the dissertation seeks to take a macro generic view of the making of the built fabric of Calcutta rather than examining the objects themselves. Again, the date range in the title is intended to be indicative rather than prescriptive in denoting the period of building activity comprising the focus of this dissertation. The year 1880 in itself not being of any particular significance it was the decade of the 1880s which witnessed expansion of the municipal limits of Calcutta, growing density of population, accelerating construction activity necessitated by proliferating governmental, societal and demographic needs, and implementation of the first set of Building Regulations looking beyond the combustibility of roofs and walls—all of which significantly impacted the built fabric of the city. The year 1911 on the other hand represents a significant moment in Calcutta’s history, i.e. the year Calcutta ceased to be the capital of British India. However, at this end of the spectrum too, the intention is to connote the winding down of an epoch rather than any abrupt severance or alteration in the rhythm of building activity. Moreover, trends being necessarily evolutionary and transformational, the content of the research has frequently ranged outside these delimiting boundaries especially into the years preceding the 1880s to facilitate a more effective and nuanced understanding of the findings within the focus period of the study.

3The research effort has trained its attention on two key aspects of construction history—human resource and material resource. The former is manifested in investigations into the training and work contexts of the professionals engaged in construction activity, i.e. the engineers and architects. The latter takes the form of research into the building systems in use and the source and application of commonly used construction materials. The methodology employed in the study encompasses a range of disciplines and related sources, especially drawing on architectural, urban, social and economic histories. Addressing the proposed thesis has necessitated directing attention towards situating developments in Calcutta in the context of transformations outwith the city, with special reference to the metropolitan milieu. Embracing the metropolitan, Indian and local context, at the same time investigating anthropological as well as material concerns, this dissertation can be considered to adopt a “broad-brush” approach to a relatively untouched zone of enquiry in the world we inhabit.

4The work is arranged in two volumes separately focusing on the two key areas of research referred to above, namely: the agents of construction, primarily the engineers and architects operational in the time and place of this study; and the material resources in evidence. Chapters 1 and 15, serve as Introduction and Conclusion respectively. The research content of Volume 1 spans Chapters 2 to 9 and is broadly divisible into four constituent parts. It commences with an attempt to capture the essence of the geographic, governmental and technological changes taking place in Calcutta’s urban environment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Chapter 2). Following on from the context is an elucidation of the traditional construction environment and the change in circumstances necessitating the recruitment of western trained operatives (Chapter 3). The ensuing block of information opens with the phenomenon of the rise of the professions in Britain with particular reference to the engineering and architectural professions, and moves on to elaborating the concurrently emerging opportunities for education, training and recruitment for those engineers and architects who were to be found operating in Calcutta in the period of this study (Chapters 4 to 6).

5Context, evolving market forces creating a demand for western trained operatives, rise of the professions and burgeoning education opportunities culminate in the fourth constituent part of Volume 1, an investigation into work domains from within which the agents of construction produced or influenced the buildings or building activity in the period of this study (Chapters 7 to 9). Separated into official and non-official work domains, the dissertation further examines the employment status of such operatives, and expectations and conflicts concomitant with the evolving scenario.

6Volume 2 of the dissertation, as already mentioned above, turns its attention to the materials of construction. The market for building products in Calcutta in the time period of this study would have encompassed a range presumably as varied as any to be encountered in other urban centres of comparable size and significance. Available goods ranged from those which reached the market in near raw condition to those which were the output of highly complex industrial processes. The origin or source of the building materials was equally varied, embracing the local carpenter fashioning timber doors and windows, to the highly mechanised factories as far flung as China in the east to the United States in the west producing steel, cement, electrical goods etc.

7Commencing with Chapter 10, the second volume undertakes first to set out the industrial context for the material as well as geographic range referred to above. The varied source of the building products available to the engineer, architect, contractor and patron was determined by a host of market forces, not least of which was the technological, industrial and economic climate of the place and time. The context thus established, juxtaposed against the content and findings of volume 1, the ensuing chapters then proceed to elaborate on the materials of construction in use in the time and place of this enquiry. The format adopted for this analysis derives from the building systems approach, and is separated into three broad categories relating to the sequence of actions in the process of construction, further divided into eleven sub-components. The first to be examined is the building shell comprising the foundation and superstructure, and the units of construction essential to erecting the shell—brick, lime, cement, iron and steel (Chapters 11 and 12). Chapter 13 investigates the systems which contribute functionality to building spaces—broadly divisible into three groupings. Water supply systems, sanitation and discharge are considered together as the necessities of daily living. Doors and windows, passive instruments of allowing access and introducing light and ventilation into built spaces are examined next. And electricity along with mechanical contrivances comprise the last section. The last of the building systems to be addressed may be referred to as the building skin, and comprises decoration and finishes (Chapter 14).

8The treatment of the subject matter of the dissertation is characterized by the dual constituencies it seeks to address—that of professional concerns of the heritage conservation sector, juxtaposed against the realm of autonomous knowledge. Growing awareness of heritage conservation issues has exposed the severe lack of appropriate usable knowledge in the public domain. It is from this perceived lacuna that the dissertation derives its impetus, and hence seeks to address the professional and doctrinal concerns of operatives in the heritage conservation sector. Concurrently, the investigations strive to embrace the social conditions, technology and economics associated with the building world of Calcutta of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, thereby seeking to augment knowledge of human civilization.

9The significance of the research endeavour is two-fold. It enjoys the distinction of being the first attempt to undertake a wide-ranging investigation into the construction history of a city in the Indian subcontinent, and indeed possibly anywhere in the world. Concurrently, the study endeavours to suggest a methodological approach for similar forthcoming studies in India and elsewhere, especially considering that the discipline of construction history is as yet at a nascent stage and such studies are only expected to multiply in number and scope in the coming years.

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Nilina Deb Lal, « Building Calcutta: Construction Trends in the Making of the Capital of British India, 1880‒1911 »ABE Journal [En ligne], 12 | 2017, mis en ligne le 26 janvier 2018, consulté le 16 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Nilina Deb Lal

PhD in Architectural History, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom

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