Friday, November 7, 2014

Halls of Kings, Pavilions of the Gods

With but a day to spend in Berlin on a recent trip to Germany I decided to take in the Neue Nationalgalerie (Neue Galerie), one of the Berlin museums that I had not had the opportunity to visit on an earlier trip years earlier. The Neue Galerie is dedicated to exhibiting the art from the twentieth century.

However, my trip to the Neue Galerie was not only about the art. Rather it was also motivated by the building itself. Designed by the famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Neue Galerie was one of his last buildings and continued, on a much vaster scale, his passion for using steel and glass to create clear open spaces defined by  linear structural forms and simultaneously open to the outside. The Neue Galerie, I had read, was divided into two parts, the upper pavilion space, and a lower exhibition space. It was really the upper space, marked by about eight metre high glass walls whose roof was supported by eight columns placed along the length of each side rather than the corners, which excited my imagination. 

Having heard that the building was going to be shut from 2015 for substantial repair and renovation, I scurried off to pay homage to Mies that rainy Berlin morning.

I was not disappointed. For those who love the idea of dramatic monuments, and pavilions set in parks, the Neue Gallerie is a veritable temple. The large steel roof seems to float over the glass walls that define the fa├žade of the building. One ascends to the pavilion via a series of steps, crosses the space around the pavilion and enters through the glass doors into that hallowed ground. 

When I walked in though, I realised that I wasn’t going to encounter Mies’ column-less pavilion, for the entire hall, covering some 2,683 square meters was filled with columns. The space, which Mies himself had envisioned as a gallery space for special exhibitions, was now playing host to an installation by David Chipperfield, the architect who will oversee the renovation of the museum.

Titled ‘Sticks and Stones’, Chipperfield’s installation involved placing one hundred and forty four trunks of spruce trees inside the hall as if they were holding up the roof. Laid out in row upon row, the effect of these roughly barked white trunks, was spectacular.

It was while contemplating the sight in this form that I realised that the hall’s current avatar appealed to me so much because it brought to mind a number of references to the courts of the kings of pre-colonial South Asia.

The first reference was to a suggestion presented by the architectural historian Ebba Koch. Discussing the Diwan-e Aam that Shahjehan built in three locations across his empire, Koch suggests that he wasn’t simply building a hall of public audience. She argues that he was constructing a chihil sutun, a hall of a thousand pillars whose origins lay in the hall constructed for the Achaemenid emperors in the city of Persepolis, now in contemporary Iran. She suggests that even though that city had been destroyed by Alexander, Persepolis remained a symbolic space that later kings sought to imitate when seeking to raise their stature. All at once, I began to see the hall as if a Mughal darbar, with row upon row of Mughal grandees and mansabdars standing dwarfed between the columns in silent attendance on an emperor located on an elevated position at one end of the hall. 

Other scholars also suggest that Persepolis had an influence on the subcontinent, arguing that the animal figures of Ashokan pillars, drew from those that graced the chihil sutun in Persepolis. This leads one to wonder whether the construction of halls of a thousand pillars that one sees in temples across South India was not inspired from this most powerful of ancient empires. This possibility would push back the influence of Persia on the subcontinent by at least thousand years, from the time of the medieval Turko-Afghans to the time of the Mauryan empire around 300 A.D.

But there was another reference I could draw on in that hall. In the middle of this forest of columns Chipperfield had left a 200-square-meter space empty of any columns to enable a performance space. Imperial histories of the subcontinent surged in my mind once again, this time round via the work of Ronald Inden who suggested that the spatial arrangement of royal courts of the ancient kings of India was modelled around that of mandalas. The mandala is a geometric pattern whose form can be said to emanate from a central point. Following the logic of the mandala, the king sat like a deity in the centre of an arrangement that had his ministers and captains and feudatories sit around him. This knowledge allowed me to see the empty space in the forest of pillared columns as one that would have been ideal for the court of a subcontinental chakravartin.

It was with these thoughts, of seeing Mies’ Sticks and Stones sharing in the imperial legacy of polities thousands of kilometres away that I walked away from the pavilion.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 8 Nov 2014)