Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Paradise of an Early Cubist

Penelope Chetwode was the first wife of 1930s Architectural Review assistant editor and later poet laureate John Betjeman. She occasionally contributed to the AR and one such contribution was an eye opening piece in February 1935 on the Observatory at Delhi built by the Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur in 1724.

Located in Newest Delhi “in the heart of the modern capital”, the observatory was built to improve on the accuracy of brass instruments due to the smallness of their size. So a human scale observatory was conceived “of stone and lime of perfect stability, so that the inaccuracies from the shaking of the circles and the wearing of the axes and displacement of their centres and the inequality of the minutes be corrected.” The result is nothing less than the heavens manifest on earth in a salmon pink cubist skateboard park.

The amazing thing is that the photographs do not seem out of place, where on the accompanying pages new modern, functional forms create abstract black-and-white space beautifully composed and stylised to sell the new architecture being introduced to Britain. Although constructed from plastered rubble, the stairs look as though they are early experiments in shaping new forms from new materials like concrete and as Chetwode points out, they are nothing but pure function. There is clearly a reason that this early 18th century construction is included among the new modernist forms and it is surely this: how appropriate and beautiful pure function can be for a modern age of architecture.
The revised astronomical tables based on these instruments turned out to be not as accurate as hoped, but the results still exist and can be enjoyed today, albeit now surrounded by less sculptural and meaningful contemporary blocks of flats and offices.

Source : The Sesquipedalist, 2008